From the author: Sometimes the only way to make change, is to take it into our own hands.
I picked up the sword as it fell from my brother’s dying hands.
Tears burned in my eyes as I caught it, and it rose without my volition, swinging my arm back through the motion that had taken a king’s head from his shoulders. I saw blood unspurt. Light return to his eyes.
So much for the rebellion we’d fought.
Well, that William had fought. I’d just followed alongside, a healer’s oath binding my hands as I bound the wounds of rebels and kingsmen alike.
And yet, as I stepped backwards, I saw my brother’s wounds knit, too. Saw his struggles for breath ease, and I rejoiced. “We can fix this!” I called, but then we backed out of the throne room, away from the tyrant.
I fought the sword as we retraced steps I hadn’t taken—I’d never been its bearer before this moment. I was a healer. If we were walking backwards through time, how was the sword still in my hands, and not in William’s?
I struggled, and every foe I fought was born, reeling into new life. As a physician, this should’ve made me rejoice. But it wasn’t under my control, not the result of my skill or determination. It just happened, and I was as helpless to see them live, as I had been to see them die before.
Away from the palace I backed, watching blood and mud dissolve into grass and flowers, the craters from the cannon smoothing back into untouched lawns. I saw armies disassemble, returning to their homes, their wives, their children. And I went with them, parting ways with William. “Wait!” I called after him as he receded. “William! There has to be another way!”
He smiled, heedless, my words like the twittering of birds.
I fell into crimson sunrise as the sun marched backwards across the heavens. Red always behind me, the future violet at my feet, but I couldn’t move forward.
Then again, how many of us had been able to move forward when time tugged us that direction anyway? Had I always been lost in the past? In memories like . . . these?
I relived all the misery the king had caused—starving children in the street. The way I’d given them half my food each week. As if that could make up for the way I’d failed before. Their mothers had died of the plague. Exhausted from tending their sick families.
As our own mother had.
Her funeral, in the rain. Tossing lime over her form in the mass grave.
Then back in her house. The shock of suddenly hearing her breath, sucking and wet in her lungs. She’d been tending to me, when I’d been a fresh-vowed healer. It should have been my job to tend to her, but I’d been shaking from the fever in my bed. I hadn’t been able to save her.
Gods, the relief of it as her eyes opened. “Mother!” I cried, trying to embrace her.
But time was inexorable. And speeding up, it tore her from me once again.
Then Father, who’d brought the plague home from one of the king’s wars, fought against a foreign enemy to distract us all from hardships at home. Like so many others, he’d come home missing an arm, coughing, feverish. Our soldiers had been deliberately infected, it was whispered, by the king’s own men. So that they’d spread the disease among the enemy.
I remembered laughing at those rumors. Why do that? I’d asked, the sensible apprentice healer. Who would forge disease into a weapon, especially one that could recoil on our own?
Father got up from his deathbed, vanished back into his ship, and then returned from the war, his limbs knitted whole again.
I couldn’t stop staring at him, marveling to see so few frown lines, so little gray. Couldn’t stop drinking in the sight of him and Mother embracing as if they’d never let go of each other again.
And now, they wouldn’t, would they? Not until they didn’t know each other again.
I tried to release the sword. Surely, this was far enough. If I could speak to them all now, make them understand what the future held? Except . . . they wouldn’t believe me, would they? They hadn’t lived all the losses. Not yet.
And the sword clung to my hand, relentless. Or I clung to it. I knew I wasn’t ready. Not yet.
I watched young men and women dwindle into children. Everything became impermanent; everyone I’d ever known, I lost to birth.
The king was uncrowned, and his mother-regent ruled again. I’d been told her age was a golden era, but famine stalked the land in rotten harvests.
The blade drew me back to when there were no kings—just petty chiefs, each protecting a tiny scrap of land, defending those bound to them against other petty lords. And in the faces of those lords, I saw the same lineaments as our king’s. His ancestors. And ours.
And yet, in each generation, despite it all, people still found joy. Stood up from their deathbeds and went to work, kissed their families. Lived.
When I looked up again, I stood in the throne room as my brother lay on the floor, holding up a hand to fend off the killing blow. The king stood over him, demanding, “What good did you think you’d do?”
But the sword still hung from my hands.
Because it had always been mine. This rebellion wasn’t William’s alone. It was mine, too. And by my choices now, it would succeed or fail.
I stepped forward and cut the king’s head from his shoulders.
“Perhaps I cannot heal our land with surgery,” I said as every soldier stopped fighting, shocked. “His death will bring back none of those whom we loved. But we have a chance now. To make it right. That’s all we ever have. A chance to decide our future.”
And we moved forward into violet sunset.
This story originally appeared in Factor Four.