Marrus and Alanna made camp in the forest. They’d been able to agree that they wanted to be far from the escarpment where Marrus had killed the soldier and crater where they’d seen so much. Maybe the events of the day had left him feeling fatalistic, or maybe he just wasn’t thinking: Marrus lit a fire. In response to Alanna’s raised eyebrows, he said, “I need real food after what we just saw.”
Alanna didn’t say anything. She had gone quiet after the spirit touched her. She seemed constantly distracted and walked slowly, without moving her arms. Marrus finished building the fire and sat beside her for a few minutes while the flames grew. He kept turning his head to look at her, trying to think of something to say and wishing she would speak. Alanna’s head stayed still. She was staring into the flames.
“You saved my life today,” Marrus finally said.
Alanna twitched her head, adjusted her posture against the tree. “I don’t want to talk about any part of today,” she said. Then, “It was the least I could do.”
Pleased with her response, Marrus took the opportunity to glance over at her and saw a tear crawling from one bloodshot eye. “It’s fine if you don’t want to talk,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure you’re okay.”
“It was the least I could do,” Alanna said, speaking deliberately, “because one life wrongfully lost is enough for one day.”
Marrus’ entire body stiffened; he clenched his fists. “The boy was a scout. You’re aware of the function of scouts, in a military context? You understand what they’re for? He would have betrayed us, no matter what he said, and we would have died. It was our lives, or his.”
“He surrendered, Marrus. He asked for mercy. It wasn’t as simple as you make it seem!”
“No, Alanna, it was exactly that simple. We’re soldiers. We were given orders. You have to stop expanding every straightforward situation into complex moral questions. Sometimes our duty is unpleasant.”
“That’s all killing that boy was to you? Unpleasant?”
“I don’t know. What the hell am I supposed to say to that? Yes, I found it unpleasant. I found it awful. I always do.”
“You know what the sad thing is? I don’t even believe you.”
Marrus said nothing to this.
Alanna rose unsteadily to her feet and began to pace. “The problem with you,” she told him, “is that you don’t even allow yourself to feel compassion. It’s not that you lack the capacity. It’s that you don’t put forth the effort.
“We’re soldiers, Alanna. Our duty includes actions that are unpleasant. That require us to be dispassionate. I hope I’m not the first to tell you this.”
“But don’t you ever feel like you need to slow down? Sometimes you have to stop and think about whether you’re doing the right thing. Regardless of duty.”
Marrus pushed himself to his feet. “You know, if I were someone else, or if you were someone else, I’d report you to Darius for that kind of talk.”
“Go ahead,” Alanna said, looking at him with contempt. “Report me. I’m not scared of death, and I’m certainly not scared of Darius.”
“I’m done with this conversation. I’m going to go hunt.”
“Hunting! Of course! What better way to clear your conscience!”
“Go to hell.”
“Marrus,” Alanna said, and for some reason he paused, turned. “You have to learn to exercise compassion, or at least to try. You’ll end up alone otherwise.”
For some reason these words stung more than anything else she had said. “What’s compassion?” Marrus said, ignoring the civil responses that occurred to him. “Ask my brother and sister. Ask your parents. They won’t be able to tell you.”
And he left. As their camp receded behind him, Marrus looked over his shoulder at the fire and the wide flickering halo it cast into the trees. Alanna’s receding silhouette reposed in the center of that dome, and around her the trees were carved as if from orange rock, their needles glowing. For a moment it was as though all of it was truly ablaze, a massive bonfire crackling against the darkness, Alanna’s solitary figure placid and composed amid all that burning light.
The bad news came in the evening. Before he heard the hesitant male voices, before his mother’s scream, Braidon knew what had happened. He hadn’t dreamed it, but for some reason he had woken thinking about it.
Braidon walked to the door and put his arms around his mother, who had fallen onto her knees. For some reason he could not look at the two soldiers, but he caught a glimpse of them before he knelt. They were lanky and ill at ease.
“He was a good soldier and a good man, and he died a hero,” one of them was saying, with some careful pauses and inflections. “By the Avenger’s Right, the King awards your family fifty silver for Maren’s honorable efforts to—”
“He was my son,” Braidon’s mother sobbed, ignoring the small bag of coins the captain proffered. To his own surprise, Braidon found himself feeling pangs of sympathy for the two soldiers. In the house behind him, his infant sister began to squall.
“How did he die?” Braidon said, looking up at the soldiers for the first time and taking the bag of coins. They were younger than he expected, only a few years older than his brother. The one who handed over the coins had a small goatee and wore a captain’s ribbon on his bicep. He seemed grateful to be asked the question.
“He died bravely,” the captain said with conviction. “He was the first to charge against a host of marauding rebels. He slew many before an arrow struck his heart. His death was painless.”
Braidon’s mother let out a strangled sob. “You killed him yourselves, you fucking bastards. You killed him with your rotten promises.”
Braidon gently guided his mother back inside to her bed. He put hot water over the fire and made her the tea she liked best. He had expected the soldiers to be gone when he went back outside to move his brother’s body.
“Can I help you?” Braidon said.
“How old are you, friend?” the one wearing the captain’s ribbon said.
“You know, by the Avenger’s Right, if you choose it, we’re obliged to grant you a place in your brother’s unit. Your family would receive a payment of fifty silver, with an additional fifty following in the event that—”
“I know how the Avenger’s Right works,” Braidon said. “That’s why my brother joined. That’s why you gave us fifty silver just now.”
There was a brief silence. The other soldier said, “We’re very sorry.”
“If you do choose to exercise your right, come to your town hall and talk to the representative there,” the captain said. “He’ll direct you do us. What’s your name?”
“Go well, Braidon.” The two soldiers turned and retreated into the dusk, leaving him in the doorway of his small house, staring down at the cloth bag that contained his brother.
After a while spent staring after the soldiers, Braidon moved his brother’s body into their cellar and sat beside his mother on her bed. The tea was lukewarm and untouched on the floor of in front of her. “He was only a boy,” she kept saying, while Braidon held her and took large gulps of the bitter tea. “He was only a boy and now I’ll never see him again.”
After a few minutes of confusion Braidon realized his mother didn’t know Maren’s body had been returned. Much later that night, when her sobs had finally ceased and he was sure she was asleep, Braidon slipped out the back door to bury him. The body was heavy, but Braidon was strong for his age and was able to carry Maren slung over one shoulder, with a shovel and lantern hoisted in his left hand. He walked as quickly as he could through the narrow streets and identical thatched houses of his village, afraid of condolences. The guards at the gates let him through without a word. Finally, on an empty hill a half-mile away, he set his brother’s body on the ground, undid the cord, and looked at him.
In the lantern light he could see that the soldiers had been kind enough to lie. An arrow wound punctured Maren’s chest, but the shaft had missed his heart. He had been killed by a dagger blow to his temple. Braidon wondered if the rest of the story was true and supposed it wasn’t. His brother had never seemed particularly brave. Probably he was just caught unaware. Braidon was glad, at least, that Maren hadn’t been shot in the back.
After he dug the grave, Braidon took a few moments to look at his brother’s face. It was trickled over with little tendrils of blood and the left cheekbone was broken, but it was still easy to recognize. Braidon had never liked his brother much. Despite Maren’s soft voice and meek mannerisms he had often been cruel, bullying and harassing Braidon when they were younger and eventually just ignoring him. Braidon had felt only indifference and a slight trace of relief when their mother had compelled Maren to avenge their father’s death, but now he found himself actually sad. After he put Maren in the ground and covered him with dirt, Braidon sat on his knees and stared out at the land and cried in little uneven twitches and sobs, as if with an effort. The only other light came from someone’s campfire on a hill far away, no more than an orange dot, which flickered and wavered just as the flame in his lantern did.
Marrus plunged through the darkness with hard and angry steps, firing arrows. The moonlight was doing him little good. His arrows hissed away or impacted sharply against trees, and the innumerable deer that he could hear stalking the area went trotting away, their tentative hooves plucking lightly against the ground. He knew he was being stupid, that the mission he had named so important was becoming more difficult with every arrow he sent flying into the darkness, but Alanna had been right. He badly wanted to kill something.
He hated her sensitivity, her pity, her interminable moral considerations. Had she forgotten what these people had done? What they intended? Would she allow them to triumph so that her conscious could remain unsullied? And the worst part was how he knew she felt about him. Alanna, who had haunted his preadolescence with her bright giggles and wide blue eyes and the pale stripe of skin that sometimes emerged just over her hips: fuck! A part of her would always hate him. He knew this.
Hooves rustled through the undergrowth to his left and Marrus fired. He heard the unfriendly whack of the arrow striking bark and the infuriating rustling his prey made as it pranced away into the shadows. Marrus cursed and groped through the darkness to retrieve the shaft, but he couldn’t find it. Swearing loudly, he started walking faster, a familiar irrational rage stirring in his chest. The loss of the arrow, for the time being, became the seat of all his problems and frustrations. Where the hell had it gone? He started walking faster, skinning his hand over the trees he passed, until eventually he stepped over a ledge and fell.
Two airborne seconds passed in which Marrus allowed himself to believe that he would fall hundreds of feet to join those he had seen in the crater earlier that night. But he fell only about six feet, and landed on his side in a moist creek bed below. He must have lost consciousness, because when he woke the air felt different and his anger was gone. When he managed to push himself to his feet he felt dizzy, and was immediately seized by the certainty that everything—the obvious campsite, the bright fire, his enraged hunting trip—had been dangerously foolish. All of his other feelings, all of his previous frustrations, were subordinated by a sudden monstrous fear for Alanna’s life. As he plunged back through the trees his head began to throb, dizziness stole up on him, and his mind presented to him an unstoppable montage: Alanna raped, splayed naked on the forest floor; Alanna dead, a gaping hole sundering her skull. “No, no, no, no, no,” he chanted to himself as he jogged drunkenly through the trees. Moisture coated his cheeks, and Marrus realized that he was crying for the first time since his family died.
Trees swarmed around him in sets of three and campfires shifted and swam across the ground when Marrus plunged back into the flickering dome of light. There were also nine soldiers lying next to the campfires. When Marrus shot one of them in the neck, three of the soldiers crumpled with a single horrible scream, blood pouring from their throats. Then the world shook and resolved, and Marrus realized he faced only two remaining men. The second was on his feet when Marrus’s shaft took him through the chest. Amid the soldier’s dying groans, he fought the third man with his sword. Marrus was dizzy and nauseous and his vision was streaked with tears, but the young man he fought moved stiffly, his limbs trembling. Eventually the man stumbled, his sword dipping, and Marrus struck him through. The soldier fell.
“Where is she?” Marrus sobbed, shaking the dying soldier while the moans of his companion died away. “Where’s the girl? Please. You tell me. You tell me.” More tears swarmed out of his eyes. But the man only stared back, and stared longer.
The soldier died with that look of confusion still on his face, and in the hours that followed, as Marrus searched the area for any trace of Alanna, he had plenty of time to think. Slowly, his usual pragmatic conception of the world returned to him. He knew, long before he found her near-invisible trail leading away from the campsite, that Alanna had left before the soldiers stumbled upon their still-burning fire. That by the time Marrus had regained consciousness and pelted fear-stricken back towards their camp, she was long gone.
Marrus didn’t bother moving the bodies or extinguishing the fire, which by now had burned down to embers. He didn’t bother sleeping. He just sat on his knees, staring at the rustling coals and the bodies of the young men he’d killed, realizing that Alanna had been right. That he was completely alone.
Biography: Myles Buchanan grew up in Portland, Oregon and is currently studying English at Kenyon College. A lifelong fan of the fantasy genre, he is especially inspired by the work of J.R.R Tolkien, George R. R. Martin, and Christopher Paolini.