16 Jul 2015
A Shift in the Night
This month’s entry has been updated to contain the full length of my first proper fantasy short story (first draft, too). It’s ~5900 words, ~25 min. reading time. I hope you enjoy it!
A flicker of light from the distant campfire let Renn and Mikel know that they were on the right track in their journey. Renn considered how remarkably accurate Mikel’s sense of direction was. Or, perhaps it was just his great tracking skills. She wondered briefly if Mikel had any special gifts he had been withholding.
Throughout the past several months that they’d traveled together, Mikel had taught Renn many things, but told her little about himself. She didn’t mind; Mikel was the first adult person in her life that had respected her and taken her seriously from the moment they’d met, and that was enough for her. It made her feel grown up, which wandering the lands on her own had never quite managed to do.
The horses trod with a slow pace in the dark, fatigued from the long, hot and humid day spent crossing the Ologon Desert. All four living minds were grateful for the chill of night that had fallen upon them, as well as the gentle breeze relieving them of sweaty skin and heat-dulled senses.
As they drew nearer the camp, Mikel brought his horse closer in to Renn’s.
“Keep alert,” Mikel said to Renn. “People alone in the desert are not always the most welcoming to strangers.”
“Do you think it’ll be dangerous?” Renn asked.
“Not unless we become foolish,” Mikel said. Renn felt a pang of disappointment, then told herself off over that.
Mikel pulled his hood up over his graying hair. It was best not to let strangers know who you were before you knew who they were. That was one of Mikel’s rules of the wild, at least. He managed to survive long enough with it, so it must’ve had some validity.
Renn pulled her hood a little closer around her face, although her attempt to shroud it fully fell short. She bought the hood back in Abarran, with the help of Mikel to ensure she wasn’t getting played by the merchant for being young and naive. It was a highly suitable hood for protecting nose and mouth against desert sand storms. It worked less well for providing cover from prying eyes.
After fidgeting with the hood, Renn gingerly slid her fingers across her belt and pulled her dagger out slightly. Just in case, she thought to herself.
As the two rode in close to the campfire, they saw just one person sitting by the fire. The figure seemed to be male, based on size, build and posture, but Renn had a hard time discerning anything more than that. Their face was completely invisible, hidden in the shadow of a large hood pulled so far over the head that even the dancing flames of the campfire couldn’t reveal any features.
“May Jintu shine on you this eve, kind stranger,” Mikel greeted the figure as they halted by the edge of the light. With no return greeting, Mikel continued.
“Would it be possible for us to join you at your campfire for the night? We’ve come all the way from Abarran at the Sea, crossing the plains of Omoreci and the Ologon Desert. Our horses need rest. We have food and water aplenty, even enough to share some with you.”
The figure remained still and cross-legged on the ground. A short sword lay within quick reach next to them, and Renn eyed it with caution.
Several more moments passed, and the figure remained so motionless that Renn was starting to wonder if they were even alive at all. She clutched her dagger and prepared her mind, when…
“Ezaryu? Is that you?” Mikel asked, with uncharacteristic bluntness and a touch of surprise in his voice. He tilted his head calmly, but Renn noticed his hand was on his hilt.
The figure looked up, and for the first time Renn could identify a facial feature—a stubbled and chiseled chin, and a strong-looking jaw.
“It is you, isn’t it?!” Mikel sounded more enthusiastic than anything at this point, and he pulled back his hood and dismounted his horse.
“Mikel…” the man said, mulling the name of Renn’s friend and mentor over in his mouth like a strange and distant word.
“I am glad to see you still remember me, Ezaryu! How fortuitous to find you here.”
Mikel unloaded his bags from his horse, then walked it over to a nearby bush and kneeled to tie down the reins. He pulled out some hay from a saddle bag and threw it amidst the scant population of desert foliage. Ezaryu, meanwhile, sat still and kept looking ahead. Or possibly at Renn. It was hard to tell.
“Mikel,” Ezaryu began. Mikel looked up.
“Do you intend to let your companion here know that she can exhale? And sheathe her dagger?” Renn froze and clung harder to her dagger. She hadn’t even noticed that she’d been holding her breath ever since Mikel recognized the man.
“Or is it I who should be concerned?” Ezaryu asked.
Mikel sprung to his feet and held out his hands reassuringly.
“No, no, nothing of the sort. Ezaryu, this is my friend Renn,” Mikel said, emphasizing the word ‘friend’ just enough to make clear there was nothing more to it. “And Renn,” he paused, contemplating his next words carefully. “Ezaryu… is someone I knew quite well, a long time ago. Now we are old friends. We are all friends here, in fact, and so it is time for us all to relax together.”
Renn breathed out and slid her dagger back into its sheath. She couldn’t tell if this Ezaryu person had actually considered her as a potential threat or not, but something told her she was better off not knowing.
With the tension gone from the scene, Renn dismounted as well and unloaded her belongings. She kept her dagger on her belt; less so out of caution towards Ezaryu, she told herself, and more for the ever-present threats of the Ologon desert.
“So tell me, Ezaryu, what have you been up to all these years?” Mikel asked casually, ignoring the fact—or perhaps not being surprised by it—that Ezaryu had still not moved almost at all: hadn’t greeted them, hadn’t even looked up to face them.
It would’ve creeped Renn out had she not seen far, far more troubling things.
“Meditating,” Ezaryu answered curtly.
“You don’t strike me as the calm and peaceful type,” Renn joked. Mikel frowned at her, but she ignored it.
“So she does speak,” Ezaryu said. “I’d almost thought you’d gotten yourself a mute child, Mikel.”
“Hey!” Renn interjected. “I’ve seen 19 winters, I’m not a child.”
Ezaryu, for the first time, turned his head to face Renn, instead of the flames, although still no more than his jaw was visible from under the hood.
“And how many times did you blink for that effort?”
Renn opened her mouth to respond, but Mikel hastily interrupted. “Actually, Renn found me more than I found her, really.”
Ezaryu’s hooded head now turned towards Mikel.
“Oh? Have you finally grown old, Mikel, or did you just become so rusty you let a child of 17 catch you off guard?”
“Hey!” Renn repeated.
“It wasn’t anything like that,” Mikel began. “I had gotten myself into a bit of trouble on my own, and she came and helped me out. I returned the favor by taking her along on my travels.”
Ezaryu paused. He seemed to be considering the possible aspects of this scenario, though for what, Renn couldn’t tell.
“In that case,” Ezaryu turned back to Renn, “I should thank you for saving the life of my friend, little one. It’s quite a feat for someone barely 16 to help the great Mikel. You must’ve been lucky.“
“I’ve had enough of this,” Renn said abruptly, jumping to her feet. “If you think I’m such an incapable child, why don’t you try and take me on? I can show you just how capable I am.”
Ezaryu faced Mikel, who remained silent while staring intently at the other two. Whether it was because Mikel was trying to figure out how to de-escalate the situation, or simply concerned for his own well-being in what might unfold next, Renn couldn’t tell. But she didn’t have very long to think about it.
Ezaryu sighed audibly, then swung his arms wide, one tossing his cloak up into the air, the other throwing something at the campfire. A giant fireball suddenly flashed into existence over the fire, blinding Renn and Mikel who both shot back defensively. Mikel tripped and fell backwards. The horses, tied down and still eating, started shrieking in fear and attempting to run off, but were unsuccessful.
Renn composed herself. In the midst of the burst of fire she had reflexively pulled out her dagger, and was now holding it firmly, aiming it at… no one. Ezaryu was nowhere to be seen.
And then, in what seemed to be only the blink of an eye, Ezaryu had gone from nowhere to be found to standing right behind her, his short sword held steady a mere inch from her throat.
“Because it is unnecessary to kill innocent life,” Ezaryu answered into Renn’s ear. She remained still instead of responding, her mind focusing intently. Mikel, meanwhile, was slowly pulling himself back upright to see what was going on.
Renn focused her mind some more and phase-shifted to about two feet behind Ezaryu, whose grip did not anticipate the sudden disappearance of Renn and fumbled into empty air. She lunged forward, flung her arm around him and thrust her dagger against Ezaryu’s throat.
“So how innocent are you, then?” Renn said.
Ezaryu smiled, and started laughing; a fatalistic yet strangely satisfied laugh. Renn was taken aback but did not loosen her threatening hold, even though Ezaryu seemed completely unfazed by his suddenly precarious situation.
Mikel gathered himself, dusting dirt and grass off his garb before calming the horses down. “Are you both done jumping at each other’s throats yet? I was hoping we could make it through the night without bloodshed,” he said.
“So you picked yourself up a Shifter, huh?” Ezaryu said back to Mikel. “Is that how she helped you as well?” Renn strengthened her grip on his shoulder, but her dagger hand started to relax.
Mikel nodded and sat back down by the fire.
“I was cornered by a pack of spearwolves in the Galacan forest. It was my own fault, I was careless and took my chance crossing it after nightfall. The first three I managed to take on, but then the whole pack showed up at once. They had me surrounded.”
Renn decided to let Ezaryu go, though remained curious whether he had felt threatened at all. There was something about his incessantly calm and composed manner that made it feel as if, even when she held her knife to his throat, he was still completely in control of the situation.
She secretly wished for that gift, if it was one.
“I shouted out for help,” Mikel continued. “Wasn’t really expecting any, but there wasn’t much else for me to do, the wolves were drawing nearer and I had nowhere to go.”
Ezaryu and Renn both sat down, but as they did, she finally saw his face uncovered and properly lit, and it took her by surprise enough that she stumbled and fell the last few inches while sitting down. Ezaryu had two scars on his cheeks, one underneath each eye. Under his right eye was a small tear-shaped scar; under his left eye, a much larger one, the full shape of it scarred by what seemed like a thousand tiny, meticulous cuts, cris-crossed across the skin. Renn couldn’t imagine who or what had caused that, but it must’ve been hellish to endure, she thought to herself.
Mikel noticed Renn’s reaction to seeing Ezaryu’s scars, but ignored it.
“Renn heard my cries for help,” he continued, “and she shifted into the circle with me. This surprised the wolves, but did not scare them off. However, she then shifted around from wolf to wolf, killing several of them while they scrambled into increasing chaos. I managed to take out two on one side; Renn killed seven, –“
“Eight,” Renn said indifferently, just not enough.
“Eight,” Mikel said with a smile. “The remaining wolves took off after figuring out that what they had cornered was something a lot more dangerous than them.”
Ezaryu turned to face Renn. “What made you decide to help him?” he asked her. “Surely that situation was still incredibly dangerous, even for someone with your gift.”
“He didn’t deserve to die at the dirty claws of spearwolves,” Renn said, and shrugged. “Besides, I didn’t think it was particularly dangerous for me. They didn’t seem that hard to kill.” Renn postured; she knew spearwolves were tough as nails and some of the fiercest predators, but she was also not terrible with her dagger.
“I took her in after that; offered to teach her how to travel and survive in the wild. Plus it was pleasant having someone to talk to.” Mikel said.
They sat in silence for a moment, staring at the campfire.
“Now Ezaryu, if you’re done provoking Renn about being young and immature, and Renn, if you’re done proving him right, I will cook us all some dinner. And then, with his blessing, I will tell you about Ezaryu’s scars. You seem quite curious to know how he got them.”
Renn’s green eyes were staring into the embers as Mikel cooked, trying hard to avoid looking at Ezaryu, or more precisely, at his scars.
After the dust had settled from her and Ezaryu’s minor altercation she had put her hood down and let her red and black hair flow down her shoulders. She rested against one of the larger boulders around the fire, gazing at the few lingering flames and thinking about how they reflected the current atmosphere of the campsite. She was still unsure of how to feel about Ezaryu, but she at least respected his calm and confident demeanor.
“When Ezaryu was born, or so the stories go,” Mikel began telling as he stirred the pot, “he did not cry as a babe, but he was wide awake. His parents were understandably concerned, but were told that this happens sometimes and it’s nothing to worry about.”
“But as he grew up and lived to his first winter, he still never cried. He expressed all the emotions you might expect of an infant, all except the crying. He would be angry,” Mikel said, “but he wouldn’t cry. He would be sad, but he wouldn’t cry.”
Renn looked over at Ezaryu, who stared solemnly at the fire. His facial scars gave him a look so worn and ragged he seemed almost Mikel’s age, but Renn estimated him much more in the middle between herself and Mikel. Even with his hood and cloak off and his face clearly visible, it was hard to figure him out in any way.
“Again and again, Ezaryu’s parents would seek advice from a healer or midwife about his lack of crying. Was he sick? Did he have an obscure illness? His eyes worked fine, everything else about him seemed perfectly normal in fact.”
Mikel stirred the pot some more, decided it was as good as it was going to get, grabbed a couple of cups and poured them each some root, bean, and desert toad stew. As he passed Ezaryu and Renn their cups, he went on.
“Eventually, his parents accepted their son’s peculiar nature, and learned to live without worrying about it. Ezaryu never expressed unhappiness about it, and grew up a happy, healthy and energetic child.
“The tribe he was part of lived in the area of the Bakerri river headwaters, not far from the plains of Omoreci. That whole region was, back then, suffering from ongoing turmoil.”
Mikel paused to eat some, but his appetite for storytelling around a campfire proved greater, continuing enthusiastically after barely a single spoonful.
“It was during this time that a lot of tribal territories shifted and were merged, most often due to violent conflict. Ezaryu’s tribe was part of that, having killed competing tribes’ members and having lost some of their own.
“Then one day, one tribe decided to take revenge for the loss of some of their warriors. They snuck into the settlement of Ezaryu’s tribe at night, and quietly killed the tribe leader as well as several other members of the tribe. Among those killed were Ezaryu’s parents, who were part of the tribe’s council. The assassins then snuck out as quietly as they had snuck in, undetected.
“After the alarm was raised in the morning when the first body was found, people quickly learned of the severity of the attack. Most the entire tribe leadership had been murdered, and no one knew by who. Not at first, at least.
“Ezaryu, who was about twelve winters old at that time, was heartbroken and furious. Yet for the first time in his life, he was also angry at his body’s inability to cry, and in a fit of rage, he carved the small tear into his own cheek, and with the blood he swore to avenge his parents. But it would be years before he would have his way.”
Mikel slurped some of his stew, deliberately pausing to provide dramatic effect. Renn was so engrossed that it wasn’t until now that she realized she’d been holding her cup without eating any. She quickly had some before it cooled down, as Mikel continued.
“Pledging to himself that he would personally avenge his parents’ death, Ezaryu started practicing his swordmanship every day, all day long, skirting much of his old responsibilities. He grew cold and distant, participating less and less in what remained of the tribe’s activities. It took a number of years, but the tribe eventually accepted the loss of its leadership. Having failed to recover successfully while constantly under threat of other tribes, they disbanded.“
Renn looked at Ezaryu, whose face showed no emotion, no reaction to this recanting of any kind. Aside of the occasional sip from his stew, Ezaryu remained motionless. Mikel went on.
“Now mostly living on his own, Ezaryu continued practicing his deadly skills, his life increasingly fueled by his need for finding out who killed his parents and exacting revenge. If you ever get him to tell you about this himself, he will tell you he did not see it as revenge, but as enacting justice and restoring balance.“
Mikel paused, and contemplated this. “I guess you could see it that way. His tribe did disband, and all of what they had built as a community had effectively been killed alongside its leaders.”
“Either way,” Mikel continued, “Ezaryu was now on his own. He grew up in isolation, bittered by these events, and became resentful of anyone who attempted to ameliorate his life. He started to piece together which competing tribe had been responsible for the killings, but he wouldn’t let himself act unless he was absolutely sure.”
Renn decided to like Ezaryu just a little bit more.
“The key bit of information came when Ezaryu befriended a man from the tribe he suspected. This man, whose name Ezaryu will not tell anyone to this day, confirmed to him that what he suspected was true, that this was indeed the tribe responsible for the nightly assassinations. Ezaryu questioned him about it further, but after some probing the man asked why he was so intent on this topic. Ezaryu then told the man everything, from how his parents were among those killed, to the tribe disbanding in the aftermath of the deaths of its leaders. He even told the man of his plans to avenge the deaths by killing those responsible.”
Renn’s eyes grew wide with anticipation, the cup of stew in her hands completely forgotten. “How did he respond?” she asked Mikel.
“That was the unexpected part,” Mikel said. “Instead of being alarmed, the man agreed to help Ezaryu achieve his goals. He was, it turns out, a traitor.”
“This man had been wanting to leave the tribe, but its structure and rules forbid it, and he would have been hunted down if he had tried to run away. To him, Ezaryu was his chance to escape. To Ezaryu, the man was his path to redemption. They became good friends, and practiced their swordplay together almost every day.“
Renn looked at Ezaryu again, who had a faint, melancholic smile glinting in his eyes, but otherwise his expression had not changed. The intensity in his eyes betrayed the idea that he was meditating and not paying attention to Mikel’s story, but the rest of his posture and face remained frustratingly unrevealing.
“One day, Ezaryu decided that it was time to confront the tribe, but something had warmed in his heart. This man had stirred something loose inside of Ezaryu, for instead of going in quietly to kill all of the tribe’s warriors for their crimes, he approached the tribe’s settlement in broad daylight and requested that those involved in the killing of his parents and his tribe’s leaders, many years prior, stepped forward to reveal themselves to him. He wanted to fight them with honor and give them a chance, rather than kill them in the dishonest way that they had killed his parents. But before that, he wanted them to admit to their crimes.”
“So what happened?” Renn asked.
Mikel held up his hands. “Nothing happened right then and there. No men came forward, no one admitted to anything. No one exactly denied that the tribe had been responsible for those deaths, but they would not acknowledge responsibility. So, Ezaryu told them he would return the next day, and warned that if no one stepped forward then, he would hold them all accountable.”
“However, when he returned the next day, something was different. All of the women and children were nowhere to be seen anymore, and instead, what seemed to be all of the tribe’s men had come out and started forming a circle around Ezaryu.”
“The tribe leader, Toric, walked out among the crowd. He told Ezaryu to ‘leave and never come back, or he would regret it with more than his life.’”
“Ezaryu refused to leave, so Toric called forward the very man Ezaryu had befriended. And then, without pausing a beat, he thrust his sword through the man’s chest.”
A small tear welled up in Renn’s eye, and a quiet gasp escaped her. Mikel continued steadfastly.
“Ezaryu screamed out, but it was too late. His friend was without a doubt mortally wounded, perhaps dead before he even fell to the ground. That’s when Ezaryu’s rage, all the years of built-up anger, resentment and bitterness, all came out at once.“
“Ezaryu almost exploded all over the group, moving with such swiftness and precision that the men, despite their much greater numbers, did not stand a chance against him. As dangerous as they were, Ezaryu was, quite simply put, a serious degree more dangerous. His sword quickly glistened with the blood of his enemies as he cut hands, arms, chests and throats while maneuvering through the throng of foes. He was the lone man with a clear mission amidst the chaos, and often managed a swift kill before someone had even figured out where he was.“
Renn stared at Ezaryu, and listened to Mikel with rapt attention.
“The most they managed to harm him was a couple of cuts across his arms and chest, but none so deep as to seriously wound him. Before too long, only Toric was still standing opposite Ezaryu. His eyes were bewildered, but he attempted to make use of the few paces of distance between him and Ezaryu to perform a targeted attack. Something that all the others had not been able to do as it had all happened too fast.“
“It didn’t matter,” Mikel said solemnly. “Ezaryu killed Toric with a single strike, his sword piercing Toric’s chest in much the same way that Toric had killed Ezaryu’s friend.”
“When it was all over, Ezaryu rushed over to his friend’s body, but it was too late for final words. He sank to the ground, broken by loss and regret, and… still could not cry.
“Ezaryu took a knife from one of his enemies and carved the larger tear into his own cheek, filling it in with one cut for each of the men he had just brutally slain.“
Renn stared at Ezaryu’s face, but quickly abandoned her attempt to quantify the lines in his scar. There were far too many to count, perhaps even if seen up close.
“As he sat there, he heard the cries of a woman returning to the settlement and seeing the blood bath. Ezaryu rushed away, his face still bleeding, his heart filled with sorrow and regret.”
Renn wiped the small tear away, and finished her stew. It somehow tasted worse.
“And that is the story of how Ezaryu got his scars,” Mikel concluded, then sipped some more. His stew had gone cold, but he didn’t seem to care.
The three of them sat there in silence for a while, each staring at the fire as tiny flames slowly lost their strength.
Renn looked pensive for a bit, before breaking the silence.
“That abandoned settlement where we stopped… did that belong to Ezaryu’s old tribe?” she asked Mikel.
Mikel turned to Renn, his face a mixture of surprise and confusion.
“Hmm, I don’t… I don’t know,” Mikel said hesitantly.
Ezaryu’s face remained stoically fixated on the red-hot logs of the campfire.
For a while, the quiet was broken only by the sounds of slurping stew and the occasional fire crack.
“So how do you two know each other?” Renn asked.
Mikel threw a small glance at Ezaryu before he answered.
“It was much less eventful. I was traveling, like I usually am, and came across Ezaryu not long after these events. His larger tear was still scabbing and, unsurprisingly, had gotten infected.”
Ezaryu finished his stew and put his cup down.
“I offered to help him with it,“ Mikel said, “and eventually he accepted, as reluctantly as you might imagine. But after staying with him for a few days to ensure the wound would stay clean and heal, I had gotten Ezaryu to open up a little, and had found him quite fascinating. So I asked him if it was okay if I stayed a while longer, which he agreed to.”
“Eventually we started traveling around together for some time. Ezaryu helped me improve my swordplay, I helped him heal his wounds, both physical and emotional. To the best of my abilities, at least.“
“But our joint travel was never meant to last for very long. So one day, we went our own separate directions, and that was the last I saw of him. Until tonight, that is.”
Mikel finished his stew and got up.
“I will wash this up,” Renn said, getting up as well and gathering the cups before Mikel could object.
“Oh thank you, Renn,” Mikel said. “Then I will prepare the horses for the night. Ezaryu, my friend, would you mind helping me tie them to that tree over there?“
Ezaryu looked up, and in one fluid motion got up on his feet. “Gladly,” he said, and took Renn’s horse by the reins and walked it over to the tree behind the camp. Mikel gathered his horse and followed behind.
“I hope you don’t mind that I went into so much detail,” Mikel said to Ezaryu, who was tying reins to a tree branch. “I just wanted you to know.”
“Know what?” Ezaryu asked, but just as he turned around to face Mikel, a crossbow dart plowed into Ezaryu’s right shoulder and pinned him to the tree behind him. A second dart struck his lower right arm a moment later.
Renn, after hearing the loud snaps of a crossbow firing, looked up from washing the cups and saw Mikel, standing in front of Ezaryu and holding a crossbow aimed at him. She dropped the cups and ran over, pulling out her dagger.
“I wanted you to know how much I knew before you saw your end,” Mikel said, his cordial demeanor completely gone.
“What is this?” Renn asked as she drew near, staring at the two men whose eyes were affixed at one another.
“This man,” Mikel said gravely, “brutally murdered all of the men in a tribe, most of whom were innocent. Their wives all widowed, their children half-orphaned. He does not deserve to live.“
Renn clung fiercely to her dagger, anger rising inside of her. Ezaryu, despite bleeding and being pinned to a tree, stared quietly at Mikel, whose crossbow remained aimed at Ezaryu’s chest.
“Renn,” Mikel said, without taking his gaze off Ezaryu even for a moment. “You want to be recognized and respected? This is your chance. Ezaryu is known in these parts as dangerous and a menace. Kill him, and no one will ever cross or disrespect you again.”
“But he’s pinned down and can’t defend himself. That’s not much of a kill,” Renn said.
“Oh, he may be pinned down, but do not for a second think that he is any less dangerous. It’s just his main swordhand that he cannot use.”
Ezaryu said nothing, staring back at Mikel without even flinching from the pain. Renn stood there, shaking and hesitating.
“Renn, there’s something else you should know,” Mikel said. “I believe the tribe that Ezaryu killed is the one your father belonged to.”
Renn swallowed and fought back tears, accepting what she had already suspected, and started walking towards Ezaryu. Mikel lowered his crossbow.
As Renn walked up to Ezaryu her hand firmly clasped her dagger. She knew he would remain calm, no matter what, but she did not know whether or not he would have some kind of trick up his sleeve, a quick move out of nowhere to respond with. She remained cautious as she approached.
“You know, Ezaryu,” Renn said, as she stood right in front of him and readied her dagger. “You and I have something in common.” She raised her hand, slowly and carefully preparing her dagger to stab it down into Ezaryu’s chest for a swift and honorable death. Mikel smiled.
Ezaryu stayed quiet, but now stared Renn directly in her eyes. His expression remained calm, his eyes at peace; he showed no signs of fear or panic. Renn stared straight back into those calm eyes.
“We both consider it unnecessary to kill innocent life,” Renn said coldly. She then swung her arm down hard…
…and phase-shifted herself right behind Mikel, landing her dagger directly into Mikel’s back with the full force of her swing, piercing his heart and forcing him to drop to his knees. The crossbow clattered to the ground.
Mikel’s smile turned into shock and surprise, while Ezaryu’s face showed some emotion—for the first time, Renn realized. He had a faint grin on his face.
Renn walked over to help Ezaryu as Mikel fell to the ground, but Ezaryu waved her off and grabbed the darts with his free hand and, without flinching, pulled each one out. He tossed them to the ground while walking over to Mikel, who was gasping his last few breaths.
“His name was Arkan,” Ezaryu said to Mikel as he kicked him over to look him straight into his eyes, “He was not my friend, but my lover.“ Mikel’s eyes widened in surprise, but Ezaryu continued.
“And now I want you to know something,” he said, as Mikel’s eyes grew even wider. “I know you’re Toric’s father. And I’ve always known.”
With a final strain Mikel looked at Renn, the question burning in his eyes, hoping to understand before his dying breath. But Renn just stared back at him in silence, her face almost as emotionless as Ezaryu’s.
Ezaryu and Renn stood around Mikel’s lifeless body in silence for a few minutes. Eventually Renn kneeled down beside him and pulled her dagger out of his back, then wiped it clean with a cloth she pulled from one of Mikel’s pockets.
“Mikel said that I carved the larger tear out of remorse for killing so many people,” Ezaryu said calmly. “The truth is that I did it for the loss of Arkan. He had returned love into my life, and I will always be grateful for that. And always mourn him.”
Renn got up and started heading back to the camp site, but stopped in her tracks when Ezaryu spoke again.
“What made you decide to kill Mikel instead of me?” he asked her.
Renn paused before answering, still facing away from him. “Some people are less innocent than others,” she just said.
“Mikel never told me about you, but he led us directly here and pretended it was a coincidence. I trusted him because he was the first person in my life to be honest with me in a long, long time, but when it became clear he came here to kill you, hiding from me that you killed my father’s tribe… Well, his honesty proved to be a lie. Perhaps all of it had been all along.”
“Harsh punishment for betrayed trust,” Ezaryu said.
Renn picked up a branch that lay by her feet. “There was more to it,” she said.
Ezaryu stayed quiet.
“The man you befriended,” Renn said hesitantly. “Your lover. Did he… have a family with the tribe?” Renn looked up at the stars in the night sky, feeling Ezaryu’s gaze in her back.
“He may have,” Ezaryu said.
Renn sighed. “I’d like to think he did,” she said wistfully.
Ezaryu walked up to her and rested his hand on her shoulder.
“I think he did, as well.”
They walked back to the camp together and sat down. Renn used the stick to poke the glowing embers for some last bit of heat.
“If you decide to sleep at my camp, you do not have to fear any danger in the night. I will keep us safe,” Ezaryu said.
“Even with your wounded sword hand?”
Ezaryu smiled. A full, real smile this time. Renn liked the sight of it.
“Mikel thought I’d finally trusted him with everything, that he knew everything he needed to know about me.” Ezaryu said as he picked up his sword with his unharmed hand. “He didn’t know… I’m actually left-handed.”
Renn grinned, but the grin could not hide her despondent feeling as she stared solemnly at the last glowing ember. Ezaryu got up and sat down next to her, putting his sword on the other side.
“I’ll tell you something else I’ve never mentioned to anyone,” Ezaryu said, and Renn looked up at him. “The first time after Arkan and I shared our bed, he felt really bad. I asked him what was wrong, and he told me he felt bad because he had a family. I asked him to tell me about them, and he did. He told me all about his wife, and all about his little daughter.”
Renn’s body froze, and she started tearing up, overcome with emotion. She looked at Ezaryu, her eyes full of tears.
“His daughter named Renn, who he said had a gift. She would’ve been born, oh, somewhere around 19 winters ago,” Ezaryu said.
Renn smiled through her tears, nodded quietly, and sobbed her way into a long and comforting sleep.
~ FIN ~