LRF Contest 2019 | A Simple Task

The air was crisp and clean, with a certain sharpness she hadn't found anywhere else. She didn’t know if she liked it or not. Cold mountain air, Katarina mused to herself as she crept between crude animal-hide tents. Snow dusted the grass beneath her boots. She took care not to disturb it much more than the horses had already. It would make her retreat easier. The world was grey as the midnight sky stretched around her; her surroundings were dark, aside from the pale glow of dying campfires and the torches of weary guards. They had been easy to avoid. The crunch of footsteps froze her in the shadows. She had to act quickly. It would do no good if she was discovered here, before even finding her mark. She slowed her breathing, covering her mouth with pale, gloved hands as a patrol crossed her path. She didn’t let out her breath again until she could no longer hear them. She closed her eyes a moment in relief and then looked skywards, sighing slightly. The stars were brighter out here, too. Perhaps, once her job was done, she would come back here to relax. Katarina pushed the thought aside. She focussed her mind. She was here for one reason—to finally put a stop to the display of force that had been sweeping, unchecked and uncontested, across her family’s kingdom. - In silence she cleaned her blades on the grass and crept around her quarry’s tent, slipping inside when the footsteps of another patrol dimmed. Light streaming into the tent from an outside torch dazzled her for a moment. Her skin was immediately clammy with sweat. Her heart was racing with a kind of panic. How was it so warm in here when, only a foot or so outside, the chill made her teeth ache? Confused, she wiped droplets of sweat from her forehead. It was dark, at least, even with the light from outside—too dark for her to see. That would only make her job easier. If she couldn’t see very well, neither could her target. Right? She stilled her own breathing. It took Katarina a few moments to figure out exactly what she was hearing. There was one other person in the tent. Perfect. _Easy_. As silent as a ghost, she crept closer, keeping her breathing low to better judge the distance between her and her target. Her hands ached with the cold; her fingers itched for the feel of her blades. The hilts were in her palms instantly. She twirled them absentmindedly. A low murmur in the dark stopped her in her tracks. If her target woke, she would have to act quickly. She judged she was only a few feet away from him. She crouched, listened, and her heartbeat almost deafened her. She could hear her target’s heavy breathing, but there was something else she had caught, for just a moment. Katarina was silent, kneeling on thick furs in the dark, hoping to hear it again. She measured each breath as it happened. Inhale, pause, exhale. Inhale, pause— _There_. A second breath. Her target wasn’t alone. - She could hear the footsteps. They had woken her and now she lay in the dark, her heart beating steady in her chest. It was a calming thing, she thought, having an advantage like this. The steps were quiet, almost inaudible, but she was _different_. She could feel the cold creeping up her fingertips. She knew what it meant. It was time—or it would be, soon. Slowly, quietly, as the assassin neared, she reached behind her. First, she found a hollowed pouch made of animal hide, long and thin, then— Her fingers brushed jade. It responded to her touch; course fur rippled beneath her fingertips for a moment. Her weapon. Her _bow_. She closed her eyes and curled her fingers around it. - She cursed inwardly. A second body was going to make things difficult. When she chose her mark, Katarina had never even considered the idea that there would be two people to deal with. Now she had to weigh her options—leave, and come back another day, or put an end to it now and move on. The guards outside would be found soon. She thought quickly. Was it male? Was it female? Did it matter? No, but if it was a fighter— “Now or never,” she hissed quietly to herself, twirling her blades. Katarina found her mark quickly and quietly in the light of the outside torch. She sheathed her second blade, unused, and then she straightened— The furs shifted. She noticed a second too late. She caught a flash of white hair across from her, an abundance of cloth, and then closer, more importantly, the shine from a well-kept warrior’s blade—a curved sword from legend, from stories she vaguely remembered, large enough to cleave her in two. There was a sudden sharp pain across her side; she could smell blood in the air—hers? She didn’t have the strength to fight her adversary now even if she wanted to. She was clearly outmatched; her element of surprise was long gone. Her second blade was swatted aside even as she moved to strike with it. Pain blinded her. When she came to, she was being held up high, one-handed, by the one person she thought she had finally stopped. She couldn’t breathe properly. Her vision flickered. Katarina couldn’t feel the ground beneath her. Her heart was racing. She thought she had been tall, and she _was_ tall, but this was something different. She was being lifted by a man who was basically a _monster_. Her vision cleared momentarily and she could see both of her foes. Her target—huge and imposing, even in bedclothes, _unkillable_ as her generals had told her long ago, before she had chosen this life—and a woman she didn’t recognise, tall and thin like a pale tree. It had been too easy. Of course. She thought the stories about Tryndamere were just stories. No one was truly unkillable—but here he was, standing in front of her, alive and furious. She could almost see fire in his eyes. A thought crossed her mind: maybe he really was the god of war like people thought. Katarina felt like a child, weak and small. Her remaining knife was still there, where she left it. It was taunting her, in a way—a beacon for her failure. She struggled feebly; sweat plastered her hair and her clothes to her skin. She knew where the tent’s warmth was coming from—the heat from Tryndamere’s cauterised wound, the heat that leaked into her blade, was almost enough to burn _her_. How was that even possible? His voice was a growl, a threat without the words being particularly intimidating. His breath was like a furnace; she could almost smell smoke. “You can’t kill me.” Almost as an afterthought, he tossed her aside. She hit the ground hard. She could feel herself shaking. She could taste rust. Katarina’s fingers curled into the snow beneath her. How had she failed? She had the advantage—she had darkness and surprise, the tools of an assassin. But if a thousand trained warriors couldn’t put him down, what chance did she think she had on her own? Why was she still alive? An arrow, pale green like a stick of jade, hit the snow inches from her head. She flinched away, heard movement behind her, and rolled just as Tryndamere’s blade cleaved the earth where her head had been. Her hair, long and dark and caught beneath the sword, was a stark contrast to the snow. She took a risk and snatched the jade arrow from the snow, her fingers aching with its sudden chill, pushed herself to her feet, and stumbled away. Every breath, every movement, was painful. She glanced back once; one moment was all she needed. Katarina saw the glow of eyes and the spot where her blade rested; she knew she was being hunted. The beauty and darkness of night was no use to her now. She could feel the eyes of Tryndamere’s soldiers on her as she limped through the camp the way she had come. One moved out of the shadows, a hand on the blade at her hip, but backed into the dark after glancing behind the assassin. Pain crippled Katarina, but she was determined to survive. Her people, those few who would let her back into her own court, had to know what they were up against. She had tried, and failed, to kill a man who may or may not be the incarnation of a god. She didn’t have proof of that exactly, but she had proof of his allegiances, assuming the cold jade arrow meant anything at all. It was the only chance she had. As she limped through the camp, her adversary followed lazily, dragging that monstrous blade in the snow behind him.
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