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16: Blood in the Forest

Youth. The poets describe it as the first blush of adulthood, the delicious time when we discover love and honor. Perhaps that is true, but I have a simpler description: it is the time before we understand how the world truly is. Youth does not drift away on the tide of time, it is torn from us violently, cut away by a thousand sorrows and injustices until nothing is left; the open wounds left by its removal cauterized with hot iron and bitter sulfur.

Plague, war, marriage — eventually something will destroy Youth’s honest, naïve view of the world and introduce a person to the sorrow and endless compromise of being an adult.

Considering how long she had been in Mountain Hole, I was surprised that Elena still held any of her youthful idealism, but I was about to do what a lifetime of degradations in that town had not managed to accomplish. The soldiers who had befriended us would soon be dead, and so would the last remaining vestiges of her youth, all murdered by my steady hand.

She would not look on me the same way after tonight; she would be a girl no longer, and the woman who grew in her place would see me differently. More realistically. I would miss the girl, but that didn’t change what I had to do. And if it wasn’t this night I destroyed her youth, it would be the next. Being around me is like that.

The weight of her hand on my arm held me in place for a few moments. I looked up at the stars, hard and unblinking in the cold mountain air. “They’ll kill him,” I said, softly.

Elena whispered, “Mrkl? The blacksmith?”

I nodded in the darkness.

“You’d slice open all these soldiers, even after they gave us food, to protect him?”

I nodded again, after a short pause. “He’s my friend.”

“Maybe he can get away,” she said.

“Traveling with an anvil is slow.”

Silence for a few moments. “You’re in no fuckin’ shape to take on nine of them.”

“I have to try.”

“Please,” she said. “There has to be another way. What happens to me when they fucking kill you?”

If it was anyone besides Mrkl I might have listened. “They won’t kill me,” I said, and sat up to look around. “I won’t let them. And they like you.”

The camp lay in stillness. I could see seven forms wrapped in their bedrolls, leaving two others. A simple plan is the best kind. Find the two on watch, kill them silently, then cut seven throats. I inhaled to test my ribs. Adequate.

I almost cut myself when Elena screamed. “In the woods! In the woods! They’re out there!”

Well-trained men rose from their beds with weapons in hand. Elena continued to scream, her voice high and cracking with panic, which added to the confusion in the campsite. Their captain’s words finally cut through Elena’s piercing cries, and the camp was mustered and ready. My blades were back in their sheathes.

“Where?” asked Captain Baldwin.

“Out there,” Elena said, pointing into the darkness. “They’re coming!”

I put my arm around her, acting the way I imagined a father might. “It’s all right,” I said, and things like that, hoping my anger was not visible to the soldiers around us. I would have done the same thing in her shoes, I knew, but she was going to cost my friend his life.

As the soldiers deployed in the direction Elena indicated, three people stepped out of the forest.

“Oh,” Elena said. “Oh.” Her grip on my sleeve tightened.

I had not heard them approaching, and I hear everything. The red glow of the embers in the fire ring painted their white robes the color of blood. The one in front was an older man, his gray beard long and tangled. On his left a woman watched us with hard eyes, her mouth set in a permanent frown. Her hair was pulled back so tightly I thought it must hurt. On the old man’s right a younger man stood, clean-shaven and fair-haired, perhaps my age if years meant the same to them as they do to us. He, at least, seemed to find some humor in the situation.

“State your business,” Baldwin said. He stood with his feet apart, his hand on the pommel of his sword. His face was stern; if he knew who he was talking to he gave no sign.

The woman spoke. “We are here for the girl,” she said.

The soldiers shifted, tense and ready to defend their foul-mouthed little mascot. “She is under our protection,” the captain said.

The younger man chuckled while the woman said, “Recent events suggest the reverse is true.”

I stood, slowly, prying Elena’s fingers off my arm. “She is under my protection also,” I said.

The old man spoke for the first time. “She is in no need of protection.”

There was no answer for that. I stood before the Soul Thieves, a tiny piece of metal in each hand, aware that I was probably going to die for a promise I had made only hours before.

“Stand down, sir,” Baldwin said to me. His sword was in his hand now. “No one will take your girl while I have anything to say about it.” He stepped between us and the visitors, and his men fell in with him. “You are trespassing on the holdings of Lord Fairmont,” he announced. “Surrender yourselves and we will escort you to Mountain Hole. If you cooperate there will be no need for further proceedings.”

“I am afraid, then,” the old man said, “that there shall be further proceedings.” He stepped back as the other two stepped forward. The woman gestured, and with a cry that came from deep in her gut she sent a shock through the camp that slammed into my body with the force of a tornado. For a moment there was nothing but thunder — no sight, no smell, no touch of the ground through my boots, just a sound that filled me and broke me, and the taste of metal in my mouth. Then it was over and I was lying on my back, blood streaming from my nose, my ribs on fire once again. And I was angry. I stood, cleared my vision, remembered how to breathe, and looked at the Soul Thieves once more.

The old man was talking again, but my ears weren’t working. I discovered I still had my knives. The woman gestured again but I shouted right back, leaning into the shock until I was almost parallel with the ground, my feet dug in against the log that had once been my seat. The shock passed over me — through me — and I regained my feet. I stepped over the prone form of a soldier and was peripherally aware that the captain was moving, but only slowly.

I am, I like to believe, an even-tempered fellow, not ruled by my emotions. I have been in love two times and shall not be again. In my life, I have been angry four times. The first was when I was very young, before my mother trusted me with even the most mundane of blades, and resulted only in a small fire. The second time I was angry marked the end of my second love. That night, at the campfire, being pummeled by wizards who wanted to take my friend, was the third.

The fourth — well, if you haven’t heard the legends already you will just have to wait for me to get to it. The stories aren’t terribly accurate anyway. But now let us return to the night the Soul Thieves came for Elena. The third time I was angry.

As I staggered forward the shaft of an arrow appeared in the older man’s chest. He looked at it in surprise as another arrived from somewhere out in the darkness. Kat had found us as well, it seemed. He staggered, steadied himself, and knocked the third shaft away with a gesture, smiling with teeth stained red by his own blood.

Another shock slammed into me but I was having no more of that. I was having no more of any of this. I set my teeth and pushed forward, aware of pain but only as a curiosity. This is the power of the white rage that consumed me. I was not immortal, but I was the next best thing: my own mortality meant nothing to me. I smiled to answer the old man, and I saw him falter. As I lunged forward the younger wizard put himself between me and my prey and I put one blade in his gut and the other in his throat and wandered though his life with both. His blood splashed over me and it was glorious.

The woman said something in a language I didn’t know and light hit me, so bright it threatened to blind me through my closed eyelids. But anger ruled me and I didn’t care if I never saw again; I rose from my first kill and rushed toward the source of my pain, swinging my blades in front of me wildly, unconcerned with whose flesh they found as long as they cut someone. I heard a cry and darkness returned and I shouted in triumph. At that moment I was little more than a knife with a human body attached — sharp, unbreakable, eternal, a simple object created only to kill.

But force of will can only carry one so far. While my eyes were still nearly useless they hit me again, the impact doubling me over, and in my own tiny world I flung my blades about with a prayer to gods I knew didn’t exist that I might draw blood. They hit me again, from the inside, and I felt my guts getting mixed up and if I wasn’t helpless before I certainly was then. As vision returned I found myself on the forest floor, unable to close my eyes as mud packed into my left eye, while my right struggled to focus on a frond of moss clinging to a rock black with blood in the firelight. My whole world at that moment. The anger slipped away from me, back into the dark place where it lurked.

It seemed no one was trying to kill me anymore. I closed my eyes and resolved that tomorrow I would try extra-hard to not get myself beaten almost to death.

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