“Go ahead and do it.”
His voice was calm and direct. So it felt natural, the lifting of the gun. His weapon in her hand… an extension of her raised arm. The man, standing on the taller side with nearly black hair and clear steel blue eyes, kept watch while she sighted him. The woman aimed for the moment between that direct stare. Everything was steady, even time, as her finger began its slow pressure against the trigger. She breathed, but didn’t blink.
She didn’t blink.
Her eyes were gritty.
And still, she didn’t blink.
Something was wrong, finally. Of course, there was something wrong. Her hand held a gun, and a sickly snigger tried to sneak past her lips. Instead, her lashes lowered, and she blinked.
“You’ve grown quick.”
His voice was still calm and direct, the way she liked it. Lowering the gun, she made sure the safety was still on, and prepared to hand it over.
“Not quick enough. My eyes are dry.”
“On a good day, quick enough to keep alive a while longer.”
“As you say, Sigur.”
Her mentor didn’t comment further. Reaching out, he took the weapon from her grip and did something he had never done before. He took hold of her wrist with his other hand. She froze, concern battling with the innate fear that only the stupid relinquished. He was ever the monster, even though he’d long ago promised never to harm her. Nearly a decade saw her finally believing him… most of the time.
Holstering his Kimber, Sigur traced the length of the largest vein on the back of her hand—watching the press of his thumb lightly cut off blood flow.
Without much inflection, as if she’d asked the time of day, he answered, “Many things, of course.”
Looking down at their hands and then up into his eyes, trying to decipher his mood, she was afraid to tell him that she grew annoyed, despite the cold wash of fear creeping into her fingertips.
“Are you mad at me, Sigur?”
He tried to hide it, but his anger was there.
“When am I not?” This wasn’t a question he truly wanted answered, so the woman waited.
“Why do you doubt me? Even now, I can feel the fear in your pulse.”
Her cheeks reddened, and her ears grew warm. She didn’t want to answer. Instead, she pulled her hand away slowly, testing to see if he’d let her go. He didn’t.
“I said you’ve grown quick enough to survive. Why do you think I lie?”
“To be kind.”
Despite all of her attention and practice during every single one of his lessons, she knew others would never wait long enough to let her break their hold. Sigur was kind. Three seconds would get her killed, and she didn’t have it in herself to shave anymore off that time.
“You are calling me a liar?”
She was, but she couldn’t bring herself to be so blatant or disrespectful. She’d been as honest as she was going to be, but her eyes wouldn’t obey her directive for silence. They communicated of their own accord, and so Sigur did something he used to do all the time. He carefully placed his hand atop her head and held it there.
“You live, Ramora, and will continue to do so.” Letting her go, he turned towards the door as she made to leave for her room. “I’ll be back before long. Place the deadbolts behind me, please.”
Wiping her eyes, Ramora did as he asked. The tears made her feel weak. She had cried a great deal as a child, but the trails down her face where unfamiliar now, replaced by a dry and hollow certainty. She couldn’t run or hide from the sanguinarians forever. Perhaps, she only prolonged her time by training with Sigur… or it was exactly as she had suspected for some time. She was alive only because he wanted her so.
In her room, devoid of any sentiment except for the weapons there, she did what she tended to do most nights–disassemble and clean the guns the man had given her and sharpen their shared blades. The ritual of it kept her mind in a focused, meditative state and her hands busy. Of late, Sigur had been making Ramora use his Kimber to aim and handed her his personal blades whenever they practiced breaking his hold on her. It used to unsettle her concentration at first, but not any longer. His armaments were as nearly familiar to her hands now as her own.
There was no need to ask questions when he’d first placed them in her hold a few months earlier. Ramora hefted their weight, knowing that after becoming used to them, Sigur would bring unfamiliar weapons to practice thereafter—interspersing their familiar arsenal with pieces from that stash. No combat scenario would go as planned, and she would never willingly plan an altercation with another sanguinarian. Being able to break their hold and do so without any hesitation, familiar weapon or not, could only help her chances of survival, as Sigur was fond of stating… however slim they may be.
Thinking back on the first of her escalated lessons, she decided Sigur needed reminding to rotate her practice weapons. It was his favorite in her hands today and the three days prior. It was no longer a shock to her system, and complacency couldn’t be his goal. It certainly wasn’t hers. Later, though, when she voiced her concern, his answer unnerved her.
“I don’t think…”
He cut her off with more vehemence than he’d shown for some time.
“You think entirely, completely, but you do not feel as you should.”
Gritting her teeth, she continued to keep silent as he pushed forward.
“You take my weapon in hand, but never grip it immediately.” Ignoring her shaking head, he admonished, “Such as you are, Ramora, you would not know it yourself.”
She could only hang her head low. References to their differences, to her weaknesses, were never welcomed.
“Then I will practice more as you recommend.”
There was no arguing. She survived by doing what he said. It had always been so, even from the first, and her mind went back to that often remembered moment.
A child of twelve, she did as he told. Her parents were behind her, willfully being drained. Her mother had let go of her hand, but she stood there in fear. Then he arrived—one of them—but different. There had been no compulsion on his part. Sigur held out his hand, and she had no one else’s to hold. So she reached shaking fingers to his own, and he took her away. The other men let her walk—a scrawny thing, not much of a meal, anyway.
Snapping out of the momentary lapse, she heard him say, “I must amend my strategy.”
Her brows came down in question, and she waited for him to elaborate. It took him many quiet seconds, but he did continue.
“Ramora, have I ever given you cause to doubt me?”
There were times when she nearly wished to disobey but in truth, he had never steered her wrong—not yet.
Even still, her answer was a cautious, “No.”
“Then listen carefully. My weapon is no different than yours or any others I bring to our lessons. If you hesitate any longer, I will bind you to my word. I must.”
She could feel her heartrate quicken. Years. They had spent years training so that she could resist his compulsion and, in turn, resist her enemies’. The only time he had ever told her to not resist was during the months immediately following her parents’ deaths. Her nights were plagued by nightmares, and Sigur had ended their severity with his words. It had been so easy, and therein lay the long-term threat. Every successive compulsion made it easier to control a mind, damaging it, until there was nothing left of rational thought. He didn’t insist lightly.
Ramora simply nodded. She couldn’t feel her hesitation anymore while they practiced. It wasn’t a conscious decision on her part. Arguing against his ultimatum would only lead to the question he didn’t like to hear: Would that split second truly matter? That evening, she went to sleep thinking about why his gun should make her waver. It wasn’t until the dark hours of the earliest morning, though, she could admit: her hands would only hold his primary weapon in combat if his hands could no longer hold it.
In the morning, she left her room, ate from the rations she traded for the week before and asked Sigur if she could hold his Kimber in preparation for the day’s training. Maybe, its constant presence would make her hand steadier. Without word, he un-holstered and passed it along. Looking up, perhaps with a bit of defiance, she closed her fingers around its grip and met his stare.
“Even still, but don’t despair.”
His comment did not bolster her confidence, and it didn’t lessen the frustration flooding her nerve-endings at the end of training. The emotion only grew over the next two days.
With a deep-seated headache and a stomach hurting from acid, Ramora squatted to the ground—holding the offending gun up for her teacher’s repossession.
“I am. I am trying, but I don’t know how to try any harder.”
Sigur knelt in front of her, and asked, “Do you wish to live?”
“Of course! What kind of question…”
All her indignation collapsed on the surge of remorse that flooded her chest, the back of her throat, her eyes. No tears fell, though. She was weak enough without them, realizing she couldn’t bring herself to answer in the affirmative while fighting them back. A stronger woman would lie.
“Ramora, look at me.” She did. “It is time. Do you agree?”
Of course, she had to agree. Still unable to shave off any more time, if Sigur said it was because of hesitation in her gun grip, than it was so. As repulsed as Ramora was concerning compulsion, she wouldn’t fight his unless he directed her to push against it.
“Are you going to make me believe your gun is mine?”
“No. I am going to make your strength the same as mine.”
She looked at him hard, waiting for him to continue. What did he think to imbue her with… the belief of quicker reflexes? He only looked back with equal hardness, and the dregs of fear began to stir in her gut.
“Sigur? What are you asking me to let you do?”
Putting his hand atop her head like he used to do when she was young, he answered, “Only what must be. You’ve known it would come to this.”