Grimdark Story Battle Royale 5, Match 7: To Cry Wolf vs. Atonement

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To Cry Wolf

“Where there are sheep, the wolves are never very far away” -Plautus

The wolf was dead.

It lay there, stiff from death and the morning frost on the snow-flake dotted earth. Two arrows protruded from its fur, black as night, the blood camouflaged, only visible where the wetness had matted the fur. The white flakes spotted the black corpse, reminding Hugh of the starry sky he saw two nights before, watching the northern flock from his spot along the hill, overlooking the meadow where they’d baa’d’ and grazed in peace.

Hugh stared at the wolf with fascination. Unconsciously he caught himself rubbing his hands. Damn it was cold. But when the huntsman brought in a wolf of this size, who’d killed as many sheep as this one had, most of the villagers would venture out from their homes, their fields, and other duties to come and see such a bloodthirsty creature. And so it was this morning. More than half of Burning Tree stood around rubbing their bare skin warm or clutching cloaks and furs close to their bodies, all staring with the same fascination as Hugh at what had been the burden to their flocks, to their livelihood.         

The huntsman stood proud, his forearms crossed, balancing them on the tip of his bow. “A wolf eats a sheep, the hunter kills it; happens all across this world and yet it’s always an honor to practice something which could be considered an ancient custom of all cultures.” He spoke like an educated noble, but Hugh was no fool, the huntsman had been born and raised in Burning Tree. To say the least, there were more wolves in the area than there were books. He’d probably heard such phrases and words spoken by the lord Karlott, lord of Burning Tree, or one of his kin.

“It was almost a shame to kill her,” the huntsman theatrically added.

“Almost!” the Drunken Goose’s owner and operator Turner, said. He handed the huntsman a clay cup brimming with wine.

“My thanks”, he said cheerfully, and toasted the man, and then the wolf for its strength and endurance.

Piss and fire, thought Hugh. Utter pig shit. Folk would be buying the huntsman drinks and requesting a retelling of the hunt for moons to come, or until the next kill. Hugh couldn’t stand a braggart, and though, he’d happily trade places with the boastful bastard.

“How many of the poor creatures perished before you good people came to me yester-eve?” But he knew the answer. Gods the man really did want his ass licked clean.

The sole investor of the eastern flock, Tom, was a robust man, but with a face serious enough to crack stone, given a strong glance.

“Six,” he said stoically. “Could’ve been a lot worse.” And Tom looked to Hugh and to the other young shepards who’d gathered together. “See this lads? This is what happens—” he looked at his own son who’d been the one watching the night of the killings, “when you FALL…ASLEEP!” The quivering runt of a child, young-Tom, trying to hide behind his ragged hair, trembled with such fear Hugh would have only been half surprised if the boy took off running. His face had turned so red it held more blood than the wolf’s fur.

“Let this be a lesson to ye all,” his voice thick with the accent of Irtway, a neighboring kingdom to that of Patraea. “When you see my son walking through the village, hunched from the whelps he’ll receive, remember what he did to deserve them!” Taking the wood switch sticking through his belt he grabbed young-Tom by the scruff of his neck, and commenced to beat him in front of the crowd. Some stayed and watched gleefully, meanwhile, the huntsman knocked out the wolf’s teeth with a knife and handed them out like little candies. “A wolf will think twice of molesting your flocks if you show him his bretheren’s own fangs!” he said to the shepherds still in attendance.

Hugh looked to his friend Askal, and Askal looked pale-faced back. Young-Tom was their friend. They walked off from the crowd going their separate ways, unable to watch their friend be punished any longer. His cries stung their ears until they’d gone far enough to make the screams muffle themself into the wind. By then it sounded like a lamb bellowing, and somehow that was worse.

Hugh’s father had never beaten him, though he’d been careful in his mischief, he’d also never been troubled by a wolf in his seven years of tending the northern flock. Neither had the three others and Askal who tended the flock at different stints throughout the week. Although, according to Askal, he swore he saw what had appeared to be a pack stalking the flock from the woods, until he had heroically ran to the foot of the wood’s edge waving his staff and yelling like a madman. Hugh doubted the legendary antics of his friend, and obviously so. Askal always had a way of shaping a story to mythic proportions. More like it was a family of hares or squirrels making a ruckus. Hugh smiled at the memory.

Since the death of his mother some years ago, who’d been their rock, and the law and order a boy and husband was in need of, Hugh had divided his time to tending the sheep, training with a partially broken practice sword with Askal, and helping his father home from the tavern each night, saving him from the dirt floors that Turner had promised the citizens of Burning Tree a hundred times over he’d convert to oak, or maple; something other than the same soil the same few dozen drunkards had pissed on at some point or another. But to be fair, Turner had added hay, an inclusion which Hugh’s father had noted when his son helped him up a few moons back, with hay stuck in his hair, on his clothes, and even some in his mouth. “Turner is makin’ the Drunken Goose into a ballroom!” he said, stumbling into the tavern floor, allowing the pieces of hay to fall from his mouth like baby-dribble. Hugh was in no mood. After hearing word of The Tribe raiding from the Barrens once again, all he wanted was to be shut in their own house, defenseless as it was. To that fact, no tavern dweller wished to hear such things as they prepared to wander to their homes in the darkness, as fires guttered low and travelers shared their eerie tales of the creatures even a green saurian feared. Hugh had seen several green saurians, and browns–human in stature but just as akin to a reptile–coming through Burning Tree looking to trade various trinkets and strange herbs and pelts for what humans would consider basic necessities; bread, blankets, wine, and the such.

But a pale-one, a white, was quite rare to see the past few decades. Their marauding and savagery earned them enemies from humans and saurian alike. Even the other race’s of saurians, namely the greens, fought the pale-ones in countless wars and encounters through the centuries, just as the humans had against all saurians throughout the annals of time. The thought of sighting a pale-one invigorated Hugh with an intrigue only a child had. Oh how the wonder, the danger, and fear of witnessing a human-like predator, whose sole purpose was to bring mayhem and death to the world in order to appease their blood-thirsty gods, oh how it lured Hugh so. So when he curled up in bed that afternoon before the start of his watch, he dreamt of dark things; creatures with white and yellow teeth, gleaming ever so bright, red oozing from their tips, always hungry, always hungry for more. Whether it were wolves or the whites the snarling shadows kept their shapes to themselves. And when he woke, he prayed to the gods he’d neglected for so long, for forgiveness, but mostly for courage; to face the demons he so desired to meet. Grabbing a wool skin draped over his mother’s old chair, he shut the door of the unkempt shack behind him, and for the first time in a while…he felt as though the gods had answered.      

***

The night was pitch dark, minus a few scattered off stars. Clouds hid the moon away from the world. Hugh watched the sheep below by the white of their fleece, illuminated only by thin rays of starlight. Far off from where he sat, on his tiny spot on the hill, back against an old oak tree overlooking the meadow, Hugh caught the glimpse of the watchman’s fire near Burning Tree. The smell of smoke was strong enough to be carried along with a soft breeze. Right now, he was wishing he was next to it. He’d thought the morning had been cold, but this was down right bone-numbing. He clasped his wool skin tighter around his body as the smokey air chilled his flesh.

Hugh looked hard past the flock and to the edge of the wood. As he focussed, there came a barrage of bleating, effectively making every branch and shadow through the weak light a stalking wolf. A boy’s imagination could run wild in the darkness. He scanned the meadow for intrusion. His breaths came slow and calm: No running sheep, no death screams, no tearing of flesh, not even a howl in the distance, save for the wind.

Then, the boy stood up straight, and shrugged off his wool skin, letting it fall to the dirt. He tried not to laugh as the word left his mouth. “Wolf!” he cried into the gusts of cold. “Wolf! Wolf Wolf! Wooolf!” Hugh cracked a smile as the outline of the watchman stood abruptly. The man’s yell carried across the night sky, to Hugh’s fancy, and most likely alarming the village into a frenzy. He imagined the huntsman moving like lightning to let loose his hounds, Turner, his drunken father, Tom, and the other men of the village rubbing sleep from their eyes as they lashed out for their bows in the darkness, pulling on trouser pants-legs one at a time, some of them falling falling in the process. The mayhem that he could only imagine too clearly made him laugh until he cried.

A few minutes later the huntsman came to him lacking breath. “Where?” was all he could manage.

A small group of village men, his father not among them, came upon them. Some went out into the field to measure the losses.

“Where…is…the wolf!?” the huntsman exclaimed through red cheeks; apparently a fellow who did not like asking things twice.

Hugh was about to answer when hooves shook the ground. Riding in front of a small contingent of light armoured men was the lord Karlot himself, laden in full plated armor, save for a helm.

“To arms!” he yelled at the confused villagers. “To arms!”

Hugh’s stomach began to feel sick. What if they found no wolf–as there would be none found–and his folly was found out? Would he be whipped like young-Tom had been? He wanted to cry then and there, but the lord of Burning Tree’s next words rang bells of liberation, fascination, and trepidation.

“Canyon’s farm! White ones! On the warpath!” eyes panicked around the gathered men. “To arms, to arms!” Lord Karlot repeated, and he rode forth, westward into the black with his handful of men galloping close behind. The huntsman followed, and the rest of the villagers behind him, running with torches and pitchforks as swift as their tired legs could carry them. The dogs ran, yelping and gasping with excited breath, and at that moment Hugh wished he were one of them.

The following evening, Hugh found himself overlooking the meadow once again, having missed the excitement. Had he been some years older, he might have been on a heavy warhorse, armored head to foot, waving his greatsword in a glorious rage, as pale, scaled bastards from the deserts attacked from all around. Oh, but he’d make short work of them, that’s to be sure. His practice with Askal and the other village boys would go noticed by the keep’s master-at-arms, and he’d be elevated to a household knight in only a few years, gods he was sure of it. He might even be given a small keep, or a tower-house of his own, with land, and men to lead. The possibilities were endless. But he needed to at least see the enemy that he would become so known for ending if he was to fight them. “Know your enemy is to know one’s self”, he’d heard mentioned a time or two, probably from some Patraean military strategist of old that some villager who’d seen perhaps one skirmish was fond of repeating to any young lad with the hopes of wielding a sword in battle. Wise words for a peasant to echo, Hugh decided.

Lambs ran restlessly until nightfall, and the occasional ewe or ram grazed silently as their brethren slept. To the south, the arrow slits, balcony, and battlements of the castle glowed with torchlight over the village. Casting its giant shadow over the thatched roofs it acted as guardian in view and purpose. As protector, the lord Karlot was seen as feeble. When it was time to negotiate taxes with his liege lord, he uttered no counter offer, and gave what was due through the blood, sweat, and tears of his people. And when plague and taxes were not a constant burden, bandits were. Now saurians ran afoul.

Hugh had learned from Askal that morning, as he had not bothered with sleep, that the Canyon’s had been massacred on their farm with no bodies found; a family of seven. Lord Karlot and his men tracked the whites to a farm belonging to an old cripple, Tegan, who at one point had served lord Karlot’s father as master-at-arms. His body had been found, along with that of a white, Tegan’s short sword ran through its hard chest. Until he bled out, Tegan had defended his small farm bravely, with naught but a short bow, and an empty quiver found lying nearby in the wake of things. Askal told him Karlot had given him a warrior’s burial then and there, a custom which he would have been afforded to anyhow due to his past service. More beast than man, Hugh was hellbent on seeing his enemy in the flesh, even if it meant losing a lamb or two. But the wolf was dead, he well remembered. And the night is young.

“Askal!” Hugh whispered from the open window. “Askal!”

Sleepily, his friend revealed a bird’s nest of sandy blonde hair. “Are you not supposed to be watching the mutton?” Askal asked groggily.

“The wolf is dead,” Hugh reminded him. “If there is a night to avoid certain duties then it is this one.”

Askal couldn’t argue with that, as his own want for mischief had been boiling for a time. Askal began to pull on the straps of his boots. “What lies ahead?”

“A white one.” Hugh said it like a secret, his words escaping soft as thoughts. Hugh began to explain, “If the old man was buried, then the white one would be with him; to serve him in the afterlife as his slave. He killed the thing in battle, to the death. Every priest would agree.”

“Karlot is no priest.”

“No, but it would be an insult to the gods and to Tegan if the thing was left only for the wolves. Why would they deprive the old cripple of a slave?”

A fair point, thought Askal. He nodded a second later and grinned a set of wide, yellow teeth. “We shall find out together.”

“Good,” said Hugh. “And bring a shovel.”

The boys traveled by cheap starlight, only making a detour to avoid the watchtower. Hugh would have liked to check on the flock a final time, but it was out of the question. They talked along the way and it helped to quelch their underlying fears in the dark of night in the countryside; consisting of mostly rolling green hills and valleys, here and there large tracts of forest, everything blackened against the night. The forests slackened their pace, both lads refusing to enter the eerie places at night. No, they would go around each group of trees until they found the main road once again. Of course, to each other they reasoned they would not go through as they did not wish to “dirty their trousers”, a timely lie.

After a few miles Askal, who had ventured out to old Tegan’s farm on his father’s errands, said quietly, “Over this hill is the farmhouse. Mostly a pig farm.”

“Mmm,” Hugh agreed. “Smells like it.”

Carefully and quietly they crept down the hill until they made their way behind the pigpen, free of pigs by the lack of sound. The boys, Hugh in front, walked from behind the structure. For a sty, Hugh thought, Teagan really hadn’t put much effort into it, despite the bad leg. Boards hung loose, signs of rot apparent as they used their hands to guide them, coming in contact with dry, spongey timber, so decayed Hugh imagined it might crumble into dust with the slightest gust of wind. The roof gave the impression of being in the same state.

Before creeping along, Hugh stopped long enough to gaze into the yard a second, just to check their surroundings. Enveloped by hills, the pig farm was hidden from the road entirely. To the right stood the farmhouse–more of a ramshackle hut–half burnt, its entire left side a charred crisp, still smoking lightly enough Hugh could smell it through the pig shit. Out in the yard, in between the house and sty, a well was situated, its rocky frame leaning to one side. Satisfied that all appeared safe and sound, Hugh faced back to the pigpen. Inside the pigpen was a grave; each could tell by the soil and the new smell that entered their nostrils. Something in between the scent of death and pig shit.

“The shovel.” said Hugh, reaching out his hand.

For the first time that night Askal seemed hesitant. “It’s desecration int’it?

“Gods Askal, they’ll still be dead come the morning. And we’ll put them back. Back under as soon as we’ve gotten a look at it. And we’re already here. Every second dallying is a second I’m not watching the flock, or have you forgotten?”

Flaring his nostrils, Askal accepted the situation with the new sense of remaining vigilant. “Fine, but I’ll not be touchin’m, neither of’em!”

They took turns digging. It was hard in the darkness of night and of the pigpen to see much, as the roof covered what little light radiated through. But it was enough to do what they’d come there to do. The boys began their digging by coming straight from the top, and when they’d gone some five feet began removing the loose soil by hand.

It was Askal who jumped back out of the hole first when his hand brushed against something solid.

“What?” asked an excited Hugh.

“Dead man. Tegan.” he pointed with one hand and another pinching his nose, but the smell would not be suppressed so easily. Askal rushed to the water trough, desperate to remove the dead-man soil. He scrubbed madly.

“Aye, and he’s on top. Means the white must be underneath.”

“Pox that Hugh! It’s not there. I’ve sullied my trousers and hands with dead man’s dirt for nothin’!” and he scrubbed harder, this time digging behind fingernails.

“C’mon, I’ll need help movin’m.” Hugh whined. “He’s heavy. A dead man means dead man’s weight.”

“You’ll figure it out Hugh. It won’t be me whose the one coming out of graves cursed for all time!”

Hugh, with a dramatic weakness, nudged Tegan’s shoulder, but to no avail. “Please, friend Askal, I need your strength.”

Reluctantly, Askal slid back into the hole, and the two boys succeeded in pulling the old warrior out of the grave, dragging him with care to the side.

The white hand was the first thing Hugh could make out. Black fingernails, small claws to be exact, but too humanlike to fill them with terror. Hugh shoveled dirt around the corpse of the saurian until its body lay bare, save for a thin coat of dirt. They looked on in wonder, until, to Askals astonishment, Hugh began feeling the thing’s face; stroking its skin with curiosity.

Hugh seemed undeterred. “Hmm, its hide isn’t as tough as I thought.” In fact, it was much like his own skin in a way, that is, if his entire body felt like one unimpressive calice. Its tail though, Hugh would allow it to remain free from his curiosity; something about the tail seemed too monstrous to feel anything but disdain for the odd attachment.

“Wonder why they left one of their own behind.” said Askal. But Hugh wasn’t listening. He parted the white’s blue lips with his fingertips and leaned in close. “What in the hells you doin’? Askal asked rather alarmingly.

“Look,” Hugh said. “They do have fangs.”

“Great, grand, now get your look and let’s get out of here. They smell like shit and this place isn’t safe.” A bird chirp threatened the silence of the world, and Askal whirled his head about. He crouched by the entrance of the pigpen and looked out into the yard. “I think we should go,” he urged. But when Askal looked back he saw Hugh had procured a rock from some place, holding it tight with his right hand. Hugh’s hand shot up. “What are you–” and it came down with a sickening crunch.

“A keepsake.” said Hugh, and he brought down the rock again, already its rough edges stained glassy with blood shoned by the small amounts of starlight coming through the wooden cracks of the pigpen.

The bird chirped in the distance, and then another bird, and then the one that had before. Askal was fuming. “Shut the fuck up!” he said through gritted teeth.

Hugh climbed out of the hole and opened up a palm for Askal to see. “Half of these are yours.” Hugh was grinning like an idiot. Half a dozen sharp teeth, white as the stars were in his hand. He held it out for Askal to take some.

“Somethins’ out there.” Askal motioned his head to the yard and hills surrounding the farm.

Pocketing the teeth, Hugh looked, saw nothing, and heard a bird chirp. “A bird.”

“At night? This hour?” asked Askal, and could tell by his face his friend truly was worried. It made Hugh feel a sense of danger he hadn’t felt, a freezing sort of fear, where legs refused to work and words remained in one’s mouth. Then, the sound of feet, several, crunching against half-frozen grass.

Some words escaped out of pure luck, a mumble more than anything, “The pigs maybe.” Returning in the dead of night? Not likely so. Shit. He crouched down next to Askal who was on his hands and knees looking out into the yard.

“Sshhh,” whispered Askal. Silence for a moment, then the hissing came.

Their eyes grew wide from the serpent sounds, and suddenly they were damning what light there was this night. Hugh saw them through cracks of wood coming from another hill, making their way down into the yard, towards them.

Back for their comrade, he surmised. Hugh looked to Askal, moving his head slowly so as not to attract the creatures. He gestured backwards where a part of the wood holding the pen together provided a small, but possibly just enough room to crawl underneath. He mouthed to a trembling Askal, “Follow.”

They were coming closer. Their voices came clear with every inch forward they came; humans talking as snakes, hissing into each syllable of the strange tongue.

The two boys crept backwards, slowly, allowing their feet, hands, and knees to guide them safely backwards, lest they fall into the grave with the devil they’d come so eagerly to see. Askal went first, taking the shovel with as steady a grip he could muster, avoiding the metal from hitting wood, or scraping the ground too hard. He slid it with gentle hands and followed suit, inching his chest against the filthy soil where swine had most likely defiled a thousand times. Then came Hugh. Footsteps crunched ever closer still, and he prayed to all the gods to see him through this one moment. Hugh made it clear of the pigpen, and he crawled up the hill they came, surpassing Askal as he did so. He dared not look back, in the worry that some set of yellow eyes would meet his, and there would go his young life.

He put such worries behind and waited for Askal. Once atop the hill, he lay on the flat of his stomach, Askal appearing worriedly doing so, baffled as to why Hugh would stop now.

Hugh stared down on the kingdom’s intruders. Same raiding party from the previous night if they had made it back to this place. Brown loin cloths covered where Hugh guessed their genitals might be. They were human like enough by the way they stood, or from a distance, but they were near enough to see the abnormalities. Their eyes shone yellow as creeping wolves in the dark, their eyes spread further apart than any green or brown Hugh had witnessed. The skin, like the one in the grave, pale as death itself. Some had bows–the strings strapped across their chests–all carried spears. One though, taller than the rest, and wide of shoulders, carried the only short sword among them, sheathed in cracked leather. To Hugh’s terror, it had a single eye, his left non-existent, only a deep chasm matted with scar tissue remained.

Askal had crawled up behind Hugh. “They’re going to smell us!”, he said hotly against an ear, his words coming off as a panicked murmur. “Knows we were there! The rock! The teeth!”

Hugh knew he was right as the things hissed louder, furious melodies escaping their forked tongues. He saw two of the whites dash out furiously, one with the bloody stone in his right hand. It thrusted it close to their leader’s nostrils; just two black slits where a nose should be. One-eye brought his head backwards as he breathed deep, its tongue slithering outward. It screamed something terrible, and suddenly all seven of the creatures were in a frenzy. They searched the yard, and the hilltops that surrounded them, and Hugh knew they were doomed.

Frantic cries came from the hill opposite them as an eighth member of the raiding party made himself known. It pointed with a spear thrust at them, screaming at its companions down below. Hugh pulled Askal and shouted something at him, he couldn’t remember what, but anything would have got him moving at that point. The spear came high over head, but the whirl was enough for them to stay ducked low as the boys made it to their feet. Arrows streamed past them, one striking the metal of the shovel creating a metallic clang, making Askal cry out in fear. Askal dropped the shovel, and ran for dear life.

Then they were coming down the hill, dust flying from their feet as the decline downward gave them a burst of speed. Another spear flew above, striking the earth just in front of Hugh as he ran. Hugh had to hurl over it with some athleticism to avoid a disastrous fall, and he kept going, kept going, kept going, never looking back. They ran as if demons from each rung of hell were following close behind. At that moment it felt like that was true enough.

They ran through clusters of trees, over creek beds full and dry, over a half mile before Hugh called out for them to halt.

“They’ve stopped,” Hugh said through agonizing breaths. The cold was already throbbing his esophagus and he knew he’d wake with a cough. “Don’t know if they were ever following. You see?”

Askal only shook his head as he threw up what little dinner he’d had. Hugh couldn’t blame him, the adrenaline mixed with terror and excitement was enough for any bodily fluid to escape them. Askal wiped the spital from his lips and sobbed out what words he could like a blubbering babe. “How…ho…how d’ya know it? That they ain’t still comin’?” he wiped his eyes with shame as he gathered himself.

“They only came back there for the dead one. What harm would it have been if we saw’em and left? They’d be far gone by now, back to the shit-hole desert they call home.”

Askal spat at Hugh’s feet, much to Hugh’s surprises. “Damn you. Why’d you have to go make pulp of that thing’s face? What if they take offense?”

Now this made Hugh break into a real smile. “They’re naught but savage beasts Askal. They eat, shit, and make babies. Even the browns and greens haven’t much culture. The whites wouldn’t have the concept of taking offense.” But he had his doubts.

Askal, tired and aggravated looked Hugh in the eyes. “We never speak of this Hugh. Ever. We’d be exiled for this, or whipped until your back looked like that thing’s face.”

Dramatically, Hugh scoured his face, as if Askal had hurt his intelligence. “I’m no dullard, Askal. And I have a field to return to. You go home before light comes.”

And so they walked the rest of the way without speaking a word more of what had occured, or of anything else for that matter. When it came for time to separate they parted in silence, and Hugh did not think he wished to talk to Askal again for some time.

Hugh kept to the crest of any ridgeline, still cautious to go unseen. All he needed now was to be discovered without the company of the flock. He was sure young-Tom would be thrilled to no longer be the only shepherd not in the village’s good graces. But Hugh thought young-Tom an imbecile. He doesn’t even know his letters. Hugh had read four books in their entirety, read for his father when needed, and most important; he didn’t fall asleep while tending the flock.

No, he thought, I only dug up the resting place of a warrior and his slave, then chased by demons from the Barrens. No harm done. There was a joke in there somewhere for a hypocrite such as Hugh. But aren’t we all?

With sore feet, cold clothes matted from sweat, and cold skin trembling from the elements, Hugh made his way back to the oak tree, his spot overlooking the flock. He actually found himself relieved to see the cretinous souls. The occasional bleet and empty silence of what had been before a hectic night soothed his nerves. Their white fleeces gleamed in the light of the high moon, which had finally made itself known after a night in the clouds. Hugh’s mind sent a lightning flash of what could’ve been, and he saw their fleeces wet and stained red. It could’ve happened, he told himself. A wolf, the white saurians, even bandits. They could have decimated the flock while I was away.

Then the guilt flooded through him, and nothing he could think or do could change the foolishness he’d caused. What would mother have thought?  His eyes grew wet at the thought, and he dried them with a soggy sleeve. No, he agreed, “No more,” he muttered. Hugh decided then and there…he would be the son a father was proud of, a friend to be counted on, and a worker who idled not in his duties, but who took pride in it, and all else that he did.

Red and yellow painted the far away horizon as dawn sparked a new day, and with it, a new man, Hugh promised himself. And in that moment life seemed as promising as it had been when his mother had read to him, when his father spent his nights at home and not on the tavern floor, when Askal, young-Tom, and the other village children had enjoyed being his friend.

With his back against his favorite oak, Hugh smiled on at two lambs frolicking along the morning dew, and he let himself shut his eyes. A nap was in order after all of that running, all of that fear. A short rest would do no harm.

But his eyelids darkened. Was he dreaming already? Just a cloud covering the coming sunrise, he guessed, but he opened them all the same, and Hugh would have screamed had he thought to do so.

Before him was One-eye, blocking his view from the flock. It peered down on him blankly and sniffed like a hound would at a hare close in sight. In the meadow several of the things chased after lambs, like wolves. Like wolves. Rabid, and hungry. One had a lamb cradled in one arm, and it twisted the poor thing’s neck and held it up high, allowing fresh blood to splash down its throat, dribbling down its pale skin. One-eye tossed a familiar bloody rock at Hugh’s feet. It fixed a wry smile on dry, thin lips as Hugh saw the blood on the rock.

Hugh scrambled backwards with a cry and flailed his legs and feet around with what little strength he had left, but One-eye moved as a serpent, darting forward he caught Hugh by his hair. The butt of the short sword pounded the top of Hugh’s skull once, twice, thrice. The saurian smashed the cheap metal into the boy’s head a few more times for good measure, throwing his body away like a ragdoll when he was through.

Then darkness came, right as his body hit the oak tree with a violent thud.

Hugh awoke. It was dark, but if it was the next night, the same, or early in the morning hidden by a blanket of dark clouds, there was no way of telling just then. All Hugh currently knew was that his throbbing head was a mass of pain. He covered the wound with both hands. It felt as if part of his skull were dented, but he was alive. Down on the ground, a fang lay, and found that the rest of the white’s teeth were missing from his pockets. Hugh wobbled to his feet, using the oak tree to gain his balance back. His first thoughts went to the flock, and in the meadow lay several bodies, red, wet, and limp, their bodies distorted. Seven lambs he counted. Not so bad when considering the size of the flock. The families who invested their livelihood in the flock would not starve come the winter, he and his father included. Life would go on, and he would have one hell of a yarn to spin, truly.

Walking to the edge of the hill Hugh felt dizzy. He’d lost quite a bit of blood, and he knew that was a bad sign. But the village wasn’t far to the south, and there were at least two healers who also had their money invested in the flock who would gladly heal one of their young shepards, who had faced the lizard-men of the Barrens and lived to tell the tale. Already, even in his current state, Hugh could vision himself old and grey, sitting in the Drunken Goose, full of folk he knew and travelers he didn’t, telling them how brave a young lad he’d been even back in those days.

Hugh, bright eyed, alive, and with a forehead stained red, looked south towards the future. Then his mouth gaped, and his eyes bulged, and now there was a large part of him that wished he hadn’t woken. Sinking to his knees, Hugh breathed aloud with tight fists full of wet grass and dirt. Off in the distance, Burning Tree was alive with flame, black smoke rising high, fouling the god’s home above. Or were there any gods? Hugh wasn’t so sure anymore.

Looking up, eyes full of tears, Burning Tree burned wild against the evening sun, and in the boy’s mind…it always would be.

Atonement

Fire momentarily staved off the cold. Snow melted around the stones and Dolion leaned into the meager heat that was quickly devoured by the winds. Hunched over on the stump of a long dead tree, he listened to the wind howl, foretelling that tonight would be his last in the battered flesh and his soul would finally be released. Hard white flake landed in his hair and flecked on his frozen cheeks. If he had tears left, they’d seal his eyelids shut in ice. As it was snot nearly formed icicles under his nose. By morning, he would be a frozen corpse.

I deserve no worse.

Smoke flickered as the wind cut through it and when it settled, a figure emerged from the darkness. He didn’t hear the stranger approach, Dolion wasn’t surprised in the least. He kept his hands in front, palms rubbing together, and well way from his sword hilt. His fingers were too numb to properly grip the hilt. He’d fumble it into the snow, proving not only was he frightened, but a fool. Best to let the one show and the other be discovered later.

“May I share your fire’s warmth?” the stranger asked, standing at the edge of the smoke. The flames themselves forked around him. Orange light reflected on his pale skin and long black hair hardly moved in the wind. Dolion knew the face, expected to see it again.

“It ain’t much, but you’re welcome to it.”

“God’s blesses those for little mercies,” the stranger said and moved closer. The fire hissed the way it does when water landed on hot rock, and turned away at his approach. He wore black-banded armor, the kind that attracted the cold, cold enough your tongue would stick to it, and a broad sword strapped to his back. He crouched on his haunches opposite of Dolion. Long white hair motionless in the wind and the braids, three of them hanging over a sharp nose, marking his high rank. Icy blue eyes sunk in a pale face stared at the flames. They sat in silence, the wind, smoke, and fire between them. So much more behind them. All the dark, all the evils the world could conjure was suspended in that silence. Like the moment of consideration before plunging the knife into your lovers back.

A wise man would run. Again, Dolion marked he wouldn’t be in this situation if he had an ounce of wisdom.

“I would break bread with you,” Dolion said. “But, I’m fresh out.”

“There are no rules for hospitality out here,” the stranger said. “None we need to follow.”

“I guess you know why I am out here freezing my ass off, and I can guess the reason you are out ghosting in the wild,” Dolion said, in a matter-of-fact conversational way he used for business. “Is there any need for precedence or waving our cocks around to see whose is bigger? Or should we just get on with the final event and spare me dying of boredom from the ceremony?”

“Nothing is ever written until the ink dries.”

“Feels pretty dry to me.” Dolion spat and the wind swept it away.

“I offer you a chance at redemption.”

A piece of him sparked at the word, an ember that grasps at any tiny piece of tinder to keep the flame alive and consuming. Hope was the word that would be best used. No! There was no hope, no reprieve from the hangman’s noose. No redemption or even forgiveness.

“This is how it goes? Offer a man dying of thirst some salt water?” The cold had settled into his joints and his knuckles ached when he clenched his fists. “Might as well piss on my corpse and call us even.”

The stranger sighed.

“Strange how I offer you cup of blessing and you rather drink the vinegar.”

“Maybe they are one in the same.” He tried to spit, but found his mouth too dry. “What you offer has to hold more horrors to atone for my actions. You don’t do what I did and get off easy.”

The stranger’s icy blue eyes settled on Dolion. The weight of judgement was nearly too much to bear. Dolion’s heart pounded and his chest hurt, like someone was squeezing his heart and at the same instance stabbing it with a hundred needles prickling down to his groin. Groaning, Dolion shoved the furs aside to grasp the flesh over his heart, like he could hold it in, keep it from bursting.

“Is this what you want?” The stranger bared his teeth, a predator threatening its prey. “The pain doesn’t end when your flesh rots. It goes on for eternity without reprieve. This is your one and only chance for redemption. I will ask one more time. Deny it and this becomes your reality forever more. Do you want redemption?”

Dolion gasped. Words refused to form on his lips. He was a fish drowning in air. In a final desperation, Dolion forced air from his lungs.

“Yes.”

The pain went away in that instant. It didn’t fade, though the memory of it lingered and he continued caressing his chest. Dolion coughed and spittle flew from his mouth to sizzle in the fire. The stranger rubbed his hands together and stood up. Again, the wind seemed to whip around him

“Go west for about a league. Stay at the Leaking Bucket for three nights. On the third, a messenger will bring you instructions on what you need to do next.”

“What about you?” Dolion tugged furs closed against the cold.

“My part is done, for now.” The stranger frowned. “Should you choose not to act, I will come back for you, Dolion. Fratricide is the greatest sins and, like you said, you don’t get off that easy. It requires a great deed to atone for it. Now go and wait for further instructions. Or the pain you felt will be no more than a tickle compared to what awaits you.”

The stranger walked off into the darkness. There were no boot prints left behind in the snow. No sign the stranger was ever there. Exactly what one should expect from a visit with Death.   

*

Dolion found the inn on the outskirts of a small village. His could hardly feel his toes in his boots and snot froze to his upper lip when he saw the sign with a bucket carved in wood and what he took for were water drops dripping from the bottom. It wasn’t the sort of place he would hole up in considering the snow on the roof, but smoke curled from the chimney and it was a better sight than the deathwatch fire he sat beside not long ago. Warm air flushed his cold cheeks and he blinked against the smokey haze. The Leaking Bucket had a familiar aroma of old sweat, bitter hops, and a distinct undertone of urine.

A half-dozen grungy, dark-eyed, and scraggly-bearded men occupied several tables. Greasy remains of what could have been meat or mushrooms coated many plates along with heels of hard bread. Everyone had a mug of ale or something darker than mud water. A few suspicious eyes turned to Dolion and not so few hands reached for blades inside their furs and stained leather jerkins.

“Shut the fucking door! You’re letting all the heat out!” A large man standing at the bar pointed a wooden cudgel at him. Dolion shuffled in and closed the door. The fresh air had cleared away some of the stuffiness, but it returned almost as soon as the door sealed them in. “Fucking Snow Creepers. Born in a barn and wallowing in mud.”

Snow Creeper! Ha! They’d be so lucky if they knew my real identity. I wouldn’t receive such a warm welcoming.

Dolion approached the bar.

“I won’t have no troubles from the likes of you,” the Barkeeper said, a statement rather a question. Dolion was all too familiar with ultimatums. Had made a few himself and followed through on every single one of them. The rounded indentations in the cudgel spoke of how the bar keep remained true to his word.

“I bring no trouble,” Dolion said and took a pouch of coins from his belt. They thudded on the bar. “I need a room for three nights.”

The bar keeper lowered his cudgel. Greed exchanged the disgust on his face. He snatched up the pouch and peered inside. He nodded, the purse slipping inside his yellow-stained tunic to form a bulge on his left side.

“Girl! Hey girl, hurry your skinny arse out here!”

“Aye, da?” A pretty girl pushed through the kitchen door. Dirt streaked her face and strands of hair stuck out from a hastily wrapped hair in a faded blue cloth. She wore a simple brown smock and apron. Her head was lowered like she expected a beating.

“Get this gentleman a key to the west rooms.” The Barkeeper continued his scrutiny.

Probably wondering who I mugged to get the coin.

“And a hot bath,” Dolion said, moving his cloak aside to display the hilt of his sword.

The Barkeeper was about to protest, then smiled, rotting teeth lining black in his mouth. He clapped the girl on the behind and she jumped, but made no sound.

“You, heard the gentleman. Now hurry afore I take a paddle to you.” The girl hustled back to the kitchen. “The bar keeper chuckled and shrugged. “Children, they’re slower than sap unless you put a fire to them.”

“Wouldn’t know,” Dolion said. “Don’t have any of my own.”

“Good. Spare yerself a bag full of coin and a head full of disappointment.”

Dolion turned away from the dull conversation and studied the room. Someone there might be the messenger he had to wait for. He wondered what the message might be. Part of him dreaded it. Fratricide is the greatest sin. What would the great deed he’d have to do to atone for it? The room buzzed with talked and Dolion felt tired. A bath and some sleep would do him well. Then the waiting would begin.

A tugging on his sleeve drew him back. The girl, shorter than him by a head and a half stood at his side. Beneath the dirt and grim, he could she was very pretty. Out of this ugliness, he guessed, some beauty must spring, like a sun flower from the mud and dung.

“Follow me, please” she said, holding her head down in meek servitude.

They went up the stairs. Oil lamps flickered, spreading out dark shadows and Dolion thought he spotted a figure standing in the far corner. The girl turned him the opposite direction. Behind the first door, he heard a man grunting and a woman squeal. The sound faded as she stopped at far side, the west room Dolion thought, though the door gave no sign of being any different than the rest of the rooms. She rattled a key in the lock. It opened and a blast of cold air struck them. The window was open, snow fluttering in and a small mound piled on the windowsill.

The girl gasped.

“I’m so sorry,” she said and hurried to shut the window, but it was stuck and she couldn’t budge it. “Someone must’ve left it open. I will tell Da to get you a new room.”

Dolion swiped some snow outside and leaned on the window. It fell into place, cutting off the cold. Other than the unexpected snow, the room felt fine to him. Slightly larger than he expected with a bed big enough for two. There was even a tin tub in the back corner.

“This is acceptable,” he said. “Bring up an oil lamp and the hot water.”

Her eyes widened and she nodded. “Right away, sir,”

“Wait,” he said. “What is your name?”

“Zeresh,” she said, head tilted and brow furrowed as though no one has ever asked her for her name. “Zer for short.”

“Thank you, Zer,” Dolion said and pressed a silver mark into her hand. “I reward those who do for me. There’s plenty more for you at the end of three nights.”

Her face paled in the moonlight and she cringed away, dropping the mark on the floor.

“I don’t mean in the carnal kind,” Dolion said, retrieving the mark and holding it out to her. “Best you be on your way, though.”

Zeresh nodded and left.

Dolion went to the window, the snow pile was already melting and pattering on the floor. The Leaking Bucket had sprung another leak. Snow continued to drift outside. Another night of the blizzard and no one would be able to move freely.

We’ll be trapped and what will happen if no messenger shows in those three days? He grabbed his chest where the memory of pain lingered. Maybe this was part of the atonement—the anticipation of what comes next. Dolion went to the bed and waited. There would be plenty of time and he planned on spending it alone.

*

The tub filled up fast and steam drifted in the room. Zeresh and another girl, an older version who matched her father more in looks and girth, carried buckets of water, filling the metal tub faster than it cooled. They left him a chunk of lye and an oil lamp to drive away the dark.

“Would you like some soup and bread, sir?”

“That would be lovely,” Dolion said, removing his boots and rubbing his feet. The skin tingled with warmth, but there was no sign of frost-bite. Losing a toe or two would make any task difficult to complete, unless he could do it on his back.

Dolion stripped and slipped into the tub, his skin blushing red at the heat. It felt good, like he had been cold his entire life up to this point. He grabbed the lye and began to wash away the sweat and stink accumulated in the furs. There was a knock on his door.

“Come in.”

The older girl entered carrying fire wood. She hurried past with hardly a glance at him. She set it in the empty fireplace and began constructing a decent fire. Dolion watched her plump bottom swinging beneath her dirty smock, also brown to match what he presumed was her sister.

“You have some skill with creating a flame,” Dolion said.

“Thank you.” The girl blushed. “We do most of the work, splitting the logs and tending the flames. Otherwise, he has a heavy hand if it were not done right. Oh, do you need someone to scrub your back? I can do it while I’m here, if it please you.”

“By all means,” Dolion said, leaning forward. She had a light touch for having calloused hands. “You’re Zer’s sister?”

“Cousin,” the girl corrected him. “I’m called Arima. My father died last winter. He was drunk and wandered away in the snow. We found his body frozen stiff not far from our home. Zeresh’s parents took me, to help with the inn and tutor the girl.”

“That’s nice of them,” Dolion said.

“Not as nice as they let on. They collect coin from men who use me.” Her scrubbing became more severe and Dolion winced. “Sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt you. You don’t require any other attentions?” Her touch turned into caresses.

“Like I told your cousin, I’m not here for a woman.” At least I don’t think I am. “I’m waiting for someone.”

“Life’s funny that way.” She dropped the scrubber in the water. “We are always waiting for something or someone. Then one day, the waiting ends and we don’t always get who or what we expect. There’s a towel on the chair. Zeresh will be up with food before the next bell. Be kind to her, she startles easy.”

Dolion sat in the water, cooling now, and listened to the fire crackle. He hadn’t been this clean in a very long time. Not since he scrubbed his brother’s blood from under his finger nails, scoured it from the folds in his knuckles until his own skin cracked and bleed. It wasn’t just Arjun’s blood, but another’s who completed the trifecta of damnation. Dolion climbed out of the water and froze. A figure stood in the corner of the room, cloaked in shadow. The faintest outline shown in the lamplight.

Naked and dripping on the floor, Dolion stared at the figure. It was the same one he saw at the opposite end of the hallway, he was certain.

“Aren’t you a little early?” He grabbed the towel and began to rub himself dry. “It hasn’t been a full night, yet here you are. Have I fucked up some part of our bargain? Are you here to take me back?”

The light flickered. He caught a flash of blue and then it was gone. Shadows settled over the room. Dolion was alone. He was dressed when there came a light knock on the door. Zeresh entered, holding a tray containing a large bowl, bread, and a mug of dark yellow liquid. She set it on a wobbly bedside table, and was about to leave.

“Sit,” Dolion said, and when she nearly jumped, he softened his tone. “Please.”

She smoothed her skirts and sat on the chair where the towel hands under her smock, folding then in her lap. There was a bruise on her cheek under her right eye that looked a few days old, he’d mistaken it for dirt at a quick glance.

“Did he do that to you?”

Zeresh turned her head, trying to hide the mark in the shadows.

“My brother used to hit me.” He tore off a large chunk off the hard bread and dipped it into the soup to soften it. “Our father was dead before I was three and mother knew as much about raising boys as I know how to stop the snow. We were a force, turning her into knots daily until she just gave up and left us to fend for ourselves. That’s when he turned mean. Feral, almost.”

He chewed the soup softened bread. It was flavorless, which wasn’t as bad as some he’d eaten which tasted like excrement warmed over. It filled his belly, which was his sole purpose. Exist for the next three nights and worry about what comes after. He followed up the bread with a sip of ale. That wasn’t half-bad.

“What was your brother’s name?” Zeresh asked.

“I won’t name him at night. Call on the devil and he will appear.” He wasn’t sure why he was even telling the girl any of these. Although it felt like a confession.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“No need to be sorry,” Dolion said, taking her hand before she scampered away. It was soft, small and he looked at it remembering the one he used to hold. Warm and comforting. He released her and she sat back down. “You didn’t know the rules. It’s not your fault.”

“Rules?”

“Rules, an agreement on what we can and cannot talk about,” he said. “Like I won’t mention your bruises as long as you don’t force me to name names better left silent.” In the end, everything must come out. Like pulling a scab to let the pus leak the infection out of the skin.

“What other rules are there?” Zeresh asked.

“Just that, oh, and one other,” Dolion said. He chewed on the crust for a moment, considering if he was ready to slip into that part of his nightmare. “If I say anything about a girl. Don’t ask about her. I will say what I must about her and that is all.”

“Agreed,” Zeresh stuck her hand out and Dolion stared at it. So many memories locked in a touch. He wiped his hand on his jerkin and took hers. They shook briefly and he released her, but she held it tightly. “I have one other, too. Don’t tell Arima about any of this.”

Dolion pressed his lips sealed and motioned a turning a key in the lock.

Zeresh laughed.

The sound was cut off as deep male voice shouted from below.

“Girl, where are you? Get your skinny arse moving before I beat it! Child so help me!”

Zeresh gasped and ran from the room. Dolion followed her, holding his mug of beer. She skipped around the corner of the stairs and put her head down as her father swatted the wrap from off it. She squealed, apologizing furiously. Dolion watched, wanting to smash the mug over the man’s head, but knew he’d be tossed out into the freezing night. The Barkeeper looked up, snarling at Dolion.

The look said enough. Dolion glared at him until the Barkeeper grabbed Zeresh by the collar and dragged her away to the kitchen.

The door nearest the stairs opened and a half-naked man peered out.

“What the hell is all that noise?”

Dolion didn’t bother acknowledging him. He returned to his room and locked the door. He finished off the rest of the bread and soup, drowning it in ale. Rules. He wouldn’t ask her what happened tomorrow. He was certain he’d see her again; it was all part of his atonement. He felt in his bones like a deep chill. He didn’t like it, not that he had any choice. He gave up all choices when he cut his brother’s throat.

*

Dawn came and he was still alive. Waking up in the bed was the first realization it wasn’t a dream. The congealed soup in the bowl and empty mug reminded him of last night’s conversations. That he was still alive and the bar keeper didn’t try to have him killed off was a good sign, though he expected Zeresh got the worst end of the anger.

Don’t think of her. Stick to the rules.

Two more nights.

Snow continued to fall, though the sun fought through the clouds. Tree tops were visible, which was a good start. Dolion dressed, strapped his sword on his hip, and took up the tray full of crumbs and empties. There was a buzz of conversation in the common room. The same scruffy fellows occupied the tables. They lacked the same curiosity, bent over plates full of runny eggs and lighter-colored ale— which was probably the watered-down version of last night’s slog.

The bar keeper narrowed his eyes at Dolion, setting up rows of clean mugs.

“I’ll take whatever is good at that table over there.” Dolion set the tray on the bar and went and sat at an empty table. Zeresh wasn’t anywhere to seen, but her cousin Arima was bustling about, clearing away the tables and bringing more refills of ale. When snowed-in, there was nothing better to do than drink.

Arima brought Dolion his food.

“Told you to be kind,” she said, clipping the ends of her words.

“I was,” Dolion replied, picking up the bread, much softer and there was a partly melted dab of butter on it. Zeresh must be in the kitchens, because the food had more flavor. “We talked for a moment.”

“Talked?”

“I did most of the talking, about my brother,” Dolion said.

“Well don’t. She’s not meant for your kind.”

Dolion shrugged.

“I am here for two more nights, then I’m gone. What happens between now and then is not in my control,” Dolion set his utensils down and bared his teeth. “My kind is shaped by destiny that swallows up others whether I want it or not. Best not stand too close.”

 Arima’s lip twitched and she took a step back.

“God punishes those who harm the innocent.”

“You are preaching to the demons, sister.” Dolion grabbed his ale and drained it in a few swallows. “Please get me more. Even the damned get a reprieve every now and then.” It intensifies the painful longing for what was lost, his brother would say after leaving Dolion alone for days. Then the fists would fall, leaving Dolion cursing those pain-free days.

Arima grabbed the mug and stalked away. When she didn’t return, Dolion found he didn’t have a thirst anyway, and he put his hood up, stepping out into calf-deep snow. The shit house was located on the opposite side of the road and was almost half-buried. It wasn’t apparent if anyone had taken the time to cross over, since most of the foot holes led to the backside of the inn. Less drifts and easier to walk. The last thing Dolion wanted was to spend a moment more with his ass frozen.

Yellow patches marked the snow and a whiff of frozen urine told him he wasn’t the first to take the path most travelled. The air was crisp and hurried his stream. The back door of the inn opened and a gust of warm air hit him. Zeresh came out holding a small pot and froze.

“Oh, I didn’t know—” Zeresh glanced down at his shrunken member and blushed.

Dolion turned his back to her and quickly tied his breeches.

“Zer, the cold, it ugh, makes everything want to hide away,” he said. He got a good look at her face. A fresh bruise marred her left eye, matching the faded one under her right, and her lip had a partially healed cut. “He did this.”

Zeresh’s damning silence confirmed her father’s abuse. He saw it in his eyes last night when the girl reached the bottom of the stairs. The same sadistic, possessive glare Dolion’s brother used to give when another man so much as glanced at his girlfriend. Guilt curdled in his gut. Arima had warned him, but he ignored her and kept the girl longer than he should.

“I’m sorry,” he said. The words seemed to sting her worse than if he had slapped her.

“Nothing to do with you,” Zeresh said. “My own fault. I got careless and I know he’s jealous.”

The last word stirred something deep and primordial inside Dolion.

“He doesn’t touch you like you’re his woman, does he?”

“No,” Zeresh said, “but he don’t want no other to touch me neither.”

“Why did you stay?”

“I was curious,” she said, then hesitated like she had more to say, but didn’t know how to say it. “I…I want to hear more of your story.”

“Won’t your father get jealous and lay into you, again?”

She pursed her lips together like she wanted to spit. Instead, she shrugged her shoulders.

“What he don’t know can’t hurt me.” She sounded bolder, raising her chin up.

Girl has some metal in her after all. Metal bent under enough pressure. What he don’t know can’t hurt her, well, the sentiment rang true for Dolion, at least until his brother found out and then the pain became all too real.

“Come to my room tonight. Knock three times, nice and slow, so I know it’s you,” Dolion said. Not that he had anything better to do than wait. “We can exchange more of our stories, if you like.”

“That would be nice,” Zeresh said. “Three times. Slow.”

“Don’t get caught, and oh, if you’re looking to fill that pot with snow for boiling, watch out for all the yellow spots,” Dolion said

Zeresh smiled, a pretty smile, and gave a stifled giggle.

Dolion left her behind the inn. Better to stop chattering now before she got into more trouble. A sharp wind struck him as he turned the corner. The moment of warmth was over. The rest of the world seemed blotted out by snow. There wasn’t a single home or business close to the Leaking Bucket. It was the lone sanctuary out here in the dead wilderness. A waystation in the frozen hell. Dolion couldn’t remember what it was like to see green grass or leaves on a tree. It was as though time stood still out here and he had nothing better to do than wait for the messenger.

On the opposite side of the road stood a lone figure. White hair motionless and three braids hanging over his face. Dolion said nothing and neither did the figure. A chill ran down his spine and not from the cold, either. The front door opened and a large, leather-faced man beard and black hair tangled in a wild bunch nearly ran him over.

“Watch the fuck out,” the man grumbled.

Dolion stepped out of the way, seeking no trouble. He could slight the big bastard’s throat, but he had a job to complete. When he looked back across the street, the figure was gone.

*

The day crept along slowly. Slower than any other he had since he was a child trapped inside the house with an enraged brother, threatening to knockout every single one of his damn teeth. He sat in the corner booth, closest to the fire, nursing a mug of ale and ignoring the glares he got from Arima as she passed him to put logs in the hearth. Some men hunched over wooden boards moving stained wood coins around in an effort to make it so the opponent no longer had a spot to place his marker. Dolion hated games like that, hated the idea of being trapped with nowhere to go. He caught sight of Zeresh behind the bar, her father yelling at her like she was some disobedient dog and swatted her a few times when she didn’t move fast enough.

Dolion tried not to look directly at her, but he imagined all sorts of terrible and satisfying ways he could hurt the man. Killing him was out of the question, but, after he completed his act of contrition, he would start his new life by doing a service for Zeresh.

The midday meal came— a stringy beef in watery vegetable broth, steaming to his tongue and lacking any flavor, served with more bitter ale— and Dolion gave Arima a silver piece. She swiped it up without a word. Men ate, men talked, men grumbled about the cold, complained how the snow was a sign of the gods displeasure in the world, and then moved on. Dolion watched each one, seeking a sign that they were the messenger. No one paid hi any attention. He spotted Zeresh carry a tray of food up the stairs and she came down again, disappearing back into the kitchens. The fire lagged, and Arima placed more logs on it, again, doing her best to ignore him.

Then night came and Dolion ate his evening meal of hard bread and oily stew. He wasn’t hungry, but after knowing the pinch of an empty stomach, he ate, not truly knowing when he might eat again. After supper, he went to his room. He passed Zeresh as she came down the stairs holding an empty tray. She kept her head down, but her hand brushed his. Dolion wondered if it was accident, when he heard her knock her knuckles against the wooden bannister three times before she reached the bottom step, a reminder that she would come to his rooms later.

Dolion lay on his bed, eyes open, listening to the wind howl outside and rattle the glass. The night when his life went to shit was warm, calm, the stars shone bright and the moon was an orange harvest, large enough to crush them if it fell from the sky. The kind of night bad for killing since all your sins would be bathed in red and there would be no hiding them. He wished he could return back to that night, stop himself from going to the barn, from hearing the high-pitched cries, the begging, the sound of flesh smacking flesh. The sweat stinging his eyes and manure deep in the back of his nose.

A knock interrupted the memory like waving a hand through smoke. A second followed the first after a few heartbeats, but then there was a long, drawn out pause. Long enough to consider she had changed her mind and crept back to her room—self-preservation winning out over curiosity. Dolion closed his eyes. Wise girl. Then the third knock came, hard as a final nail pounded into a coffin.

He rolled out of bed and unlocked the door. Zeresh stood in a white slip, feet bare and her long brown hair trailing over her shoulders. Her eyes, ringed in various bruise colors shone bright, eager in the way a madman’s eyes shone when he wanted to tell you about his experience with the devil.

Dolion stepped aside and she entered, standing beside the bed, arms crossed and she shivered.

“You’re cold,” he said. “Go on and get under the covers.” He sat in the wooden chair she had occupied the previous night.

Zeresh pulled back the wool coverlet and lay on the mattress, tucking her legs under. She looked so young, a child waiting for a bed time story. Dolion laughed at the thought, because in a way, it was exactly a bed time story, but not one meant for children.

“You and I are alike,” Zeresh said.

“No, child, we are nothing alike.” Dolion stared at his hands.

“I’m not a child,” she said. “I’m sixteen.”

Dolion nodded. “Excuse my ignorance.”

“What are the rules tonight?”

“The same,” Dolion said. “Rules never change.”

“Unless they do,” Zeresh said and propped her head up on her arm. “We can remake the rules.”

“You can always try, but you lose more often than win,” Dolion said. “Don’t ask question and you’ll learn more by listening. Are you sure you want to hear this tale?”

“Don’t ask questions, especially if you know the answer” she replied.

“Fair enough,” Dolion said. “Giving you a way out.”

Zeresh smiled and raised her eyebrows, signaling for him to go on with his story. Dolion studied her. She understood the bruises life can handout. He wasn’t going to spoil her innocence. Someone had already done it to her.

Dolion took a breath, like before a plunge into the icy waters. There would be pain, but there might be a cleansing. All a part of the process.

“Confession is good for one’s soul,” he muttered. “Fine. I’ll tell you a story. Some of it may be true and some of it, well, it’ll be embellished. Don’t ask which is which, you’ll be able figure it on your own, if you’re not a half-wit.”

Zeresh nodded, agreeing to the new rule.

“There were these two brothers who lived on a farm. They were as different as Summer and Winter,” he began. “Summer was always hot-tempered, ready to burn anything who got in his way and no one could stop him, not even the cold chill of Winter. He’d do his best to make Winter cry, laughing when his eyes melted and puddles formed around his knees.”

“Summer doesn’t sound like a nice brother,” Zeresh said.

“No, but they were all had. Winter still loved Summer, and wanted to be so much like his brother. He’d give anything for spot of warm light, a kind word, weathering the punishing blows for those precious moments. They grew up together and Winter fell deep in love with a young girl, Spring. She was just as precious to him as Summer. Now Summer had his own woman, Autumn, and was very possessive of her, but he also held a secret burning lust for whatever Winter had, Summer must take, which was part of his nature. Winter knew this and tried to keep Spring a secret. He was a fool. There was no secret Summer couldn’t find out from his little brother, nothing Winter could hide that wouldn’t be revealed all too soon.”

Dolion felt the sting in the back of his throat and swallowed hard, tightening his fingers together until his knuckles hurt. Arjun was furious when he found out about the girl. “When were you going to tell me, little brother?” Dolion hung his head and refused to respond. “What, don’t you trust me? All this time I’ve helped you, kept you feed and clothed and dry, under a roof. This is what you think of me? Like I’m a no-good thief going to steal your last taste of grain, is that what you think of me. You selfish son-of-a-bitch. Well, fuck you.” Arjun took a step back, rubbing a large hand over the stubble on his mouth “Fuck you, you ain’t my kin.” Then he balled the same hand into a fist and struck Dolion hard enough his vision went white. Later, when Dolion came back to his senses, he understood there was only one way he could protect himself and escape the heavy cage that his brother kept around him. Wiping blood from his chin, he took up his sword and went out to hunt him.

The bloody harvest moon was bright overhead and he heard noise in the barn. Dolion figured it was Arjun fucking his woman, like he often did after dolling out punishment to his brother. Dolion crept to the barn door, listening to the cries and moans, his brother’s grunts. The dirty smell of moldy hay and dung clung to the air and he peered in, watching Arjun’s nude ass clench and unclench between the pale legs of his woman. Dolion slid the door open as gentle as he could, making as little sound as water dripping down the side of an icicle, and slipped inside. There was a dark red stain on the hay around his ankles. Dolion noticed it and how odd it looked, knowing he was going to add more to it.

Arjun was focused on the girl that he either didn’t hear or care if his brother was behind him. Dolion had the point of his sword ready to stick his brother in the back, but his arm froze. The face of the woman beneath Arjun’s sweaty, thrusting body wasn’t his woman, but the girl, Cate. Air rushed from Dolion like he had been gut punched and his heart became a heavy block of ice. Hot rage chilled into cold murder. Cate screamed and Arjun turned, staring Dolion directly in the eyes, a triumphant grin on his face. “What’s yours is always mine, little brother,” Arjun said.

No words came, his throat had locked up, but his body reacted where his mind failed. Arm snaked forward. Cold metal punctured hot flesh below Arjun’s chin. The grin melted, turned into choking and hands grabbed at the blade. Dolion twisted, a spurt of blood escaped Arjun’s lips and he slipped sideways off Cate. The girl tried to scoot away, her eyes wide in the bruises where Arjun had hit her, but her bare feet slipped in the blood, sticking old straw to her skin. “Please,” she begged. Only Dolion couldn’t hear anything except the rush of blood in his ears.

“What did Winter do?” Zeresh asked, sitting up in bed at this moment in the story.

“What Winter always does to everything he cares about,” Dolion said, tears slipping from his face. “He killed Spring.”

Zeresh climbed out of the bed and hugged Dolion, holding his head under her breasts and cradling it there. “It wasn’t you fault,” she whispered. After a moment, she stepped back and bent down to kiss him. Dolion shoved her away and she sat down hard on the bed.

“Don’t,” he said. “This was a mistake.”

“Why?”

“Get out,” Dolion said. When Zeresh didn’t move, Dolion jumped up and raised a balled fist to her. “I said, get out!”

Zeresh stumbled and went down on one knee before gathering her feet. For an instance she looked so much like Cate, but she wasn’t. Cate’s dead! I killed her! Zeresh gave him hurt look, the porcelain doll cracked, and disappeared from his room.

Dolion grabbed the chair and smashed it down on the floor, breaking its back and leg. He collapsed on his bed, still warm from where Zeresh lay moments ago. He shivered, rubbing hands through his head.

Everything I care about, I kill.

*

Dolion didn’t bother to get out of bed until much later in the day. The third night was only hours away. He opened the window, thick white flakes blowing in, and he grabbed a handful piled up on the window’s edge, scrubbing the cold snow over his hot face. He had no idea why he let Zeresh come to him last night. No idea why he told her his story. Confession was what he thought he was doing, but it seemed more like he wanted someone to share in his pain, to shoulder the load of his misery. No one could. He was alone. He had created the situation, killing the only people who’d helped him endure this horrific life. Even if Arjun was an abusive fuck, he was the devil Dolion knew.

The passionate moaning continued behind the door at the top of the stairs. The sound put him in a darker mood. He sat at a table, alone, and staring at his pale fingers. They had been covered in more than his brother’s blood. Cate stained him as well. The worst part, he wasn’t entirely certain if she was guilty or innocent. He’d burned it all down and fled.  

After eating a late breakfast, he sat in the common room. It was colder. Arima didn’t pile the logs in the hearth. The wood pile was significantly diminished. The Barkeep served him a meager plate that was cold and congealed.

“Last night,” he said and grinned, a smile that didn’t go past his chapped, chewed lips.

“Yeah, last night,” Dolion said. He resisted plunging the fork into the smug bastard’s eye. At least not yet. The Barkeep must’ve seen something he didn’t like in Dolion’s eyes. He spat on the floor and went away.

For a last meal, Dolion had eaten worse. He scrapped the plate clean and left it on the table. The moaning continued as he walked past the door. He wanted to pound on it, tell them to shut the fuck up and get a room, but they had one and every right to take what pleasures the world offered. I’m a miserable fuck! There was no one left alive who could argue against this.

The chair remained in its broken pile, so he slid the bed closer to the window and sat on the edge, watching the snow pile up. The blessing of winter was that daylight died quicker than the hot evenings where the sun seemed to hang over his head, taking forever to slip away into night. The sun wasn’t even visible. In a blink it went from a cloudy, diffused light into pitch black. As soon as the light passed, the door to his room opened. The hinges squealed and there was a cold draft. Dolion kept his watch on the dark night, long sword bared in his lap.

“It’s time,” the stranger said.

When Dolion turned, he wasn’t surprised to see Arima standing at the door.  She held a small candle in her hand, but the blue eyes were unmistakable. Dolion lifted his sword and followed her into the hall. His breathing was even and his heart rate a little quick. There was no use in asking what he had to do for atonement. His was not ask why, but to do and hope not die.

The entire Leaking Bucket was dark except for the candle. Dolion wished he could see Zeresh one last time, to apologize for his outburst. She was a sweet, innocent girl and deserved better. Wish in one hand and shit in the other, that’s how it all worked.

Arima stopped at the door at the head of the stairs.

“You know what to do,” she said. “You always knew what you needed to do to escape.”

“I…I don’t understand,” Dolion said. Part of him did and his heartbeat quickened and the smell of moldy straw and feces filled his nose, choked in his gullet. The harvest moon, the bloody moon, reduced to a candle flame and time became a pinprick that leaked out life’s blood. The door swung open and he was transported again, to the barn, to Arjun’s pale, pumping ass thrusting between the legs of some girl. Blood staining straw beneath them. Anger boiled in him.

“What the fuck is this?” Dolion pointed the blade at the stranger.

“Go in and find out,” the stranger said, tugging at Arima’s smock. The mask shifted and the white hair hung and three braids dangled over the harsh face. “Go answer the question that has burned in your thoughts, and act.”

“What if I refuse?”

The pain returned in his chest and Dolion pissed himself.

“Fine.” He gasped. “I’ll play this shitty game.”

The moaning turned into sharp, animalistic grunts and crying. Dolion approached silent as a ghost haunting the dreams of the damned. Arjun grunted, thrust and his legs spasmed. The girl gave a whimper. Dolion stood over Arjun laying naked over the girl. 

“What’s yours is always mine, little brother,” Arjun said and laughed. His shoulders shook with the hilarity of humiliating his brother.

Cold anger flooded Dolion. He set the sword’s edge against his brother’s throat, not wanting to look, knowing beneath him would be Cate. Cate with horrified, bruised eyes staring up at Dolion in shame.

The metal split flesh, blood splattering the girl and when Arjun, his smug grin opened and red spewed from his lips, bathing Dolion, baptizing him in old blood. His body thudded off the bed and there came an ear-splitting scream.  Dolion wiped the blood from his eyes, though it might be best to recreate the scene blind. He knew where her heart was and where to drive the blade home, to silence her without even a glance. Oh, but he had to, had to look her in the eye to decide if she was entirely innocent.

When he did look, his heart froze, icy spikes piercing his chest and his knees weakened.

“Please,” the soft voice plead.

Zeresh lay on the blood-soaked bed, arms outstretched, and beckoning him. The same hands that had tried to cradle him, hold his pain, defiled by Arjun. At that instant if he could kill his brother twice, he would have. Instead, the blade stuck Zeresh under her left breast, slipping between her ribs and piercing her heart. The blood that sprayed him was warm, hot. It burned and he let out an agonizing scream.

“I… I only wanted…” Her words cut off and the light faded from her eyes.

Dolion yanked his sword from her body and turned to attack Arima.

“You made me do this!”

“I didn’t compel you to act beyond anything that wasn’t already in your nature,” the stranger said and then he was gone, leaving a frightened young woman staring at him in horror.  

Dolion screamed again, sword rising and falling. He didn’t know how many bodies he left behind in the Leaking Bucket, but the inn was set ablaze by the time he walked away into the dark. 

*

The cold winter wind blew, sending shivers through Dolion. Leaning over the fire, Dolion tried to ignore the stranger sitting on his haunches across from him. He was tired, but he spoke his lines anyway.

“I guess you know why I am out here freezing my ass off, and I can guess the reason you are out ghosting in the wild,” Dolion said, in a matter-of-fact conversational way he used for business. “Is there any need for precedence or waving our cocks around to see whose is bigger? Or should we just get on with the final event and spare me dying of boredom from the ceremony?”

“Nothing is ever written until the ink dries.”

“Feels pretty dry to me.” Dolion spat and the wind swept it away.

“I offer you a chance at redemption.”

Dolion shivered again, knowing he couldn’t refuse.

Some rules could never be broken.

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