“So you’ve told her then?” Nessa asked me.
I stood behind the huge worktable in the center of the room, glaring at Nessa and breathing hard, trying to control my anger and my body. After sennights of trying, I had managed to convince Viveka to roll with me and barely had we begun than we were interrupted by Nessa. Silently, I swore every single oath I could think of and then some.
Several sennights past, I had fallen down the rapids of Thyerin’s Run, a river nearby, and Viveka, a doll-maker, had found me and brought me to her home, which she shared with Nessa, the village herbalist. They had nursed me back to health but believed I had forgotten who I was because of my head wound.
“Told me what?” Viveka asked, turning to face me across the table. She was a beautiful woman and I wanted her with a passion that rocked me to my toes. Unfortunately for me, while Viveka was innocent, her friend Nessa was not, and Nessa had managed to confound every effort of mine to get Viveka alone.
Nessa bent, picked up the soldier doll that lay carelessly on the ground and put it away on the shelf. Momentarily I wondered how it had gotten to the ground, then turned my attention to Viveka when she said insistently, “Told me what, Yellow? Have you remembered?”
“He never forgot,” Nessa said, a dry note in her voice. She started to gather things to make the inevitable pot of porridge. “What do you think you were doing?” She took a deep breath to calm herself and I remembered anew how protective she was of Viveka.
“I love you,” I said to Viveka, a little perplexed to hear the sincerity in my voice. I was not a good actor, and I wondered whether I meant it, never having said it to anyone before. It was surprisingly easy to say, so I said it again, “I love her, Nessa.”
“Oh! Is that right? Tell her then. Tell her the truth,” Nessa said, as she tore up pieces of bread and dropped them into a pot.
I knew that Nessa wanted me to tell Viveka that I was a bandit, but really I was more than just a thief. Long before my time with the bandits, I had learned to steal something better than other people’s gold; and that particular talent seemed inextricably bound up with my former master, Mon-Haddar, a mage who had taken me along on one of his trips and abandoned me.
It seemed as good a place as any to start. “My former master, Mon-Haddar taught me many things: how to use a knife, how to kill slowly, quickly, in many different ways.”
“He hurt you.” Viveka’s response was a breath of gentleness in the suddenly taut atmosphere of the room.
“Mmm.” I sighed and went to help Nessa who was dropping the last few pieces of dried bread crust into the pot. I lifted it, hung it on the hearth and bent to light the fire. “He hurt me in order to teach me how to hurt and how not to hurt. He wanted me to know how it felt.” I remembered the lessons with a clarity that burned me every time I thought about them.
“What about your robber friends?” Nessa said, and I inhaled sharply.
“Not friends,” I denied. The other members of my little band were no more my friends than anyone else belonging to the so-called robber brotherhood. We had robbed and pillaged together, but friends we most definitely were not.
“Continue.” Viveka’s command was uttered in a tone I had never before heard from her.
“Tell us,” Nessa urged and I was conscious of the difference in the tones of the two women. I could feel Viveka slipping away from me, and paradoxically, Nessa drawing towards me at the same time. “What happened?” she asked.
Nessa had become my friend and confidant. I trusted her. That startled me, for trust is not something a thief gives easily. I looked into her eyes and knew it was time for the truth. “I fell down into the river,” I said abruptly.
Silence settled on the room, broken only by the twittering of birds, and the sound of a rat as it scrambled past the open doorway. Nessa said nothing, but simply waited for me to continue. It was more than past time I shared with both women the secrets of my past. I knew that, yet I hesitated. The time I had spent at this cottage was precious, and I didn’t want anything to change.
The last time Nessa and I had talked about my situation she had asked me something. “Are you an honorable man, or are you a knave?” Her question had haunted me for the past sennight. I had no claim to honor, but to face the depths to which I’d sunk terrified me almost as much as the thought of Viveka’s reaction to the real me. Yet the questions in their eyes forced me to continue.
“A small group of robbers took me in after Mon-Haddar left me. We would lie in wait for wagon trains travelling down the main highway leading away from Dargon. Some of the merchant caravans had a lot of booty in ‘em.” With a distinct lack of pleasure I began to recount the events that had transpired the previous month. “We’d had a bad winter because one of our group, Piet, stole from us. We never found him or the gold, only lost a whole lot of our winter supplies on account of chasing after him.
“Anyway, the four of us — Nuru, Draage, Kamin and myself — robbed a wagon on the Kenna highway back in Vibril. I think the wagoner and Nuru died. There was a merchant and his daughter in the wagon. Draage was angry with me because I killed the girl and denied him his pleasure.” I rose from the table and walked to the window, unable to sit still, the force of my memories coming out in staccato sentences. “We fought; I killed Draage and then I fell into the river. I thought I was going to drown in Thyerin’s Run, but I didn’t.”
“You are a part of the robber brotherhood?” Viveka accused, her face pale. I stared at her, seeing the death of something I had not realized was precious to me. Slowly, unable to meet Viveka’s eyes, I turned away and found myself looking at the two dolls that Nessa had placed on the shelf earlier: a woman and a soldier.
“He *was* a part of it,” Nessa replied, her hand stilling.
I stared at the two dolls, marvelling at the care with which Viveka had carved every distinct feature. Was it my imagination or did the soldier’s face resemble mine? His hair was a brilliant yellow, brighter than my own, but the female doll’s hair was dark, a sort of blue-black. I wondered if that was an omen, for although Viveka’s hair was dark, it was brown, while Nessa’s hair was black.
“Words — don’t play with words, Nessa,” Viveka snapped.
I remembered myself saying much the same thing to Nessa. I had been bitter then and Viveka was bitter now, and maybe rightly so. In her book I had behaved more than dishonorably; I had lied and I had killed. Was that wrong? Perhaps. I regretted my past only because it was proving to be an obstacle to getting Viveka. If there was more, I didn’t know it.
Viveka turned to me and said, “In spite of what you were, we helped you. And what did you do? You betrayed me in every way possible. How I could have … Oh, Thyerin!” Her voice broke.
I turned away from the dolls and moved toward her. “Viveka, all of that is in the past,” I said, trying to think of what would convince her. “I was young, and heedless. I didn’t –”
She turned on me like a cheetar. “*You* were young; *you* were heedless. Do, for once in your wretched life, think of someone else, Yellow. How do you think that girl felt when her father was killed? And when you killed her?”
“I saved her,” I said, remembering the anger I had felt when Draage tried to rape her. “I did a good thing, Viveka. I stopped Draage from raping her. She would have lived with the nightmares forever. I saved her sanity.”
Viveka laughed, and it was not a pleasant sound. I stared at her as if I were seeing her for the first time. I knew Nessa was looking at me with compassion, and it galled me to admit that Viveka was not the perfect person I had thought she was.
“You saved her sanity?” Her voice was incredulous. “You killed her! You killed her father in front of her! You killed –”
I interrupted her. “I didn’t kill her father; Draage did. Viveka, try to understand. We were robbers. That’s what we did.”
“And does that make it right? Does it? Does knowing that you murdered alongside the rest of your friends make you sleep better at night?”
Nessa spoke. “Viveka, listen to me. Yellow is not the same person now as he was then.”
“I can’t believe you don’t understand,” Viveka snapped at her.
I knew Nessa understood what Viveka did not, but I had also thought Nessa disapproved of my relationship with Viveka. I was puzzled about the reason she was now willing to speak in my defense.
Viveka said in my direction, “I think you should leave now, Yellow.”
“Viveka!” I couldn’t believe she was just sending me away. “You can’t do that. What about the time we spent together? Did that mean nothing to you?”
“You killed — you are a murderer. You were a highway robber. And you lied and betrayed me. What I felt for you is irrelevant now,” she said coldly.
She had said ‘felt’. Anger filled me, and perhaps because of that I said things I shouldn’t have said. Viveka was old-fashioned and a lady. I forgot that. “What you felt for me? Does that mean you no longer feel anything for me?” I remembered intimate moments, and my rage spun out of control. “You’re in love with me, Viveka, and you wanted to roll with me. That counts for nothing?”
She covered her ears, shaking her head. “Enough! You have no right to — to even mention it. How dare you?” Her voice quivered with indignation.
Yet I found no compassion within me. “So, I’m not good enough for you now, is that it?”
“Yes, yes, yes, that’s it exactly. You’re not good enough for me,” Viveka’s voice rose. She sniffed and dashed her knuckles against her eyes, rubbing away tears. Then she turned toward me, her face expressionless, her voice soft. If it trembled at all, it was only in my imagination. “You will leave. Now.”
“Please go, Yellow,” Nessa added.
That was it for me. I had been carried into this cottage with nothing but the torn clothes I had worn. Now I walked out wearing my mended clothes and the memories of two women who had become important to me in ways I did not understand.
I walked toward the river, Thyerin’s Run, and to the temple that graced the river bank, with only one question resounding in my head. Was I an honorable man or a knave? When I reached the temple, I knelt and spoke to the god.
“Why? What happened to me? Why did you take me from my old life and show me … this? Now I have to go back to Kamin; Viveka doesn’t want me. What am I to do?” A stray tear ran out of one eye and I dashed at it angrily. “It’s all your fault, mighty Thyerin. And how am I ever going to answer Nessa’s question?”
There was a sudden rattle behind me and instantly, I rolled and came up in a defensive posture. My life as a member of a thieving band had left its mark and I had responded as if to a threat. There was nothing in any direction. I sighed and turned, but something caught my eye, something that gleamed brightly in the mid-morning sunlight. I gasped. It was the soldier doll that I had left in the cottage. Now it lay there on the floor, separated from its other half, no longer a part of the whole. I didn’t know how it had gotten there, but I wasn’t about to touch it. I backed away from it and retreated, away from the temple and away from the lives of the two women who had taught me things I had yet to comprehend.
From my vantage point on a nearby tree branch I watched the highway from Dargon to Kenna, waiting for the next merchant wagon to arrive. Sitting there in the tree I was forcibly reminded of the last time I had sat thus, a few months past, waiting to ambush a wagon with my then compatriots, Nuru, Draage and Kamin. At that time, it had been cold and windy, with slush from the melted snow covering the road. Now, it was a balmy afternoon, the sun shining brightly in a cloudless blue sky, birds chirping, lizards chittering and tree-rats scurrying. It was a beautiful spring day.
It had been six sennights since I had left Viveka and Nessa. When I had shown up at my band’s hold, Kamin had been surprised. He thought that all of us had died that night: Nuru, Draage and myself. During my absence, Piet had returned with more outlaws, a man and a woman had joined Kamin: Zivenig and Stai. Of the two, the woman frightened me, for I had discovered that she was like Kamin in one disturbing quality: she enjoyed watching pain and prolonging death.
Idly, I wondered why Kamin had not killed Piet upon his return, and it occurred to me that perhaps Kamin had a fondness for him after all, strange as the thought was. I remembered the way in which we had chased after Piet when he had stolen our supplies and disappeared, and wondered if it hadn’t been Piet’s betrayal that had caused our pursuit rather than the missing supplies. Kamin and Piet, friends. I was conscious of surprise, and knew for certain that this thought would not have occurred to me before my time with Viveka and Nessa, because at that time, I had lacked the capacity to understand the concepts of friendship and betrayal.
A tree-rat scurried on a branch near me, and brought my attention back to the present. In the distance I saw a wagon, and I whistled to let my cohorts know of its approach. This was going to be our first ambush since I had returned, and I found that I had fallen into our old patterns with ease; I had sharpened my knives, oiled my leatherskin sheath, fastened it with something approaching anticipation and, when we reached the ambush site, I had assumed the position of lookout. Yet I felt a strange sense of alienation even though everything was familiar.
Meanwhile, the wagon had come much closer, and I heard hoofbeats as my cohorts arrived. The wagoner looked up at the sound and watched with mouth agape as Piet slid off his horse and vaulted onto the carriage, landing expertly next to the wagon-driver, knife in hand. Zivenig rode to the back of the cart while I slithered down the side of the tree and approached cautiously.
“Hold your horses, or I will kill you,” I heard Piet say to the wagoner.
Ahead of me, Zivenig held open the curtain at the back of the wagon with his sword and snapped, “Out!”
Kamin and Stai, still mounted, nodded me to the back of the carriage, and I went to give Zivenig a hand he didn’t need. The passengers were stepping out of the wagon, two women and a man, who blustered, “This is absurd. How can this happen on the king’s highway? I shall complain, indeed I shall, the next time I go up there. Where are the –”
One of the women, whom I guessed to be his wife, interrupted sharply, “Be quiet, Robius.” She was beautiful and slender, dressed in a rich dress of dark red, black hair hanging in ringlets around a heart-shaped face. I had an instant vision of the woman doll that Viveka had made. The other woman traveller seemed younger and was dressed in a dull, gray tunic and breeches.
The man continued to talk despite the woman’s admonition, his voice high-pitched with anxiety. “How is a man supposed to travel with his family if there are bandits? Is there no value to hiring mer–” He abruptly crumpled to the ground, a red flower blossoming in his stomach, a glint of metal in the center.
I glanced at Kamin and saw him bring his arm down from a throw.
“Robius? No!” The woman’s voice cracked, and I thought I saw the glimmer of tears in her dark, gentle eyes, but I wasn’t sure. She knelt next to him, uncaring of the dirt on the ground, and raised his head onto her knees, one hand holding him around the waist.
He gasped, blood seeping out of his mouth, eyes widening as he recognized what was happening to him. “Gi-Git–” He exhaled.
The woman raised her bloody hand to his eyes and closed them. I was so close to her that I could see her hand tremble. A strange feeling enveloped me; it was as if something were clamping my heart so that it was hard to breathe. I watched the woman almost without blinking. Slow tears wandered down her face, but she did not so much as breathe loudly. Her silent grief filled me with resentment against Kamin; such a beautiful face was made for smiling, not weeping.
“Yellow, search for the money,” Kamin said from behind me. I started. I had been so engrossed in the emotions playing on the face of the woman in the red dress that I had paid scant attention to the events around me.
Before I entered the wagon, I spared a look around. Piet stood untying the horses from the wagon; I surmised that he had probably killed the wagoner. Stai had dismounted and was staring at the woman in the red dress with an expression close to joy on her face. The quiet sorrow on the widow’s face seemed to delight her. My stomach heaved and I hurriedly made my way inside the wagon. The interior was luxurious, soft cushions on soft sheets; the three had certainly travelled in style. A jewelry case lay in the far corner next to a small box full of dried fruits and three or four leatherskins which I guessed to be wine and water.
The jewelry case was made of a dark wood and it had been polished so that it gleamed even in the limited sunlight that filtered through the half-open curtain at the back of the wagon. I flipped open the lid and gasped. On top of the chains and other assorted jewelry in the box lay a doll: the same soldier doll that I’d left behind at the temple of Thyerin six sennights past. Gingerly I tilted the box so that the doll fell out. Fear gripped me, and I didn’t want to touch it. Viveka’s blunder in making the doll look like me had invited evil magic, I knew. I stepped backwards, hitting something, and fell awkwardly, cursing aloud.
“Yellow? You okay in there?” Zivenig thrust his head inside the carriage. “Look at those goodies,” he exclaimed. My leg had kicked the jewel case and its contents had spilled out, a small pile of glittering invitation.
“I’m fine; I’m coming,” I said, crawling toward the pile. I shoved everything haphazardly back into the case, when I heard loud yells from without. Dropping the jewelbox without another thought, I hurried outside to find my band under attack from three mercenaries. I guessed they were the guards the travellers had hired; I had been surprised at the lack of warriors, given how prosperous they were. I wondered why the warriors had not been with the wagon itself. My question was answered as my quick glance took in the sight of the mercenaries’ horses: there were only two. Two of them had probably doubled on one horse, and that had delayed them and would most likely cost their employers their lives; whether through ignorance or fate, they were not likely to be rewarded for this day’s work.
Kamin and Zivenig, both experienced swordsmen, were fighting two of the three men and both pairs of fighters seemed well-matched. Piet was occupied with the horses while the remaining mercenary and the two women travellers converged on Stai. The woman in the gray tunic was on the far side from me, and the merc and the woman in the red dress had their backs to me, fighting Stai side-by-side. I rushed out to help her, pulling out one of my knives and aiming for the merc as I approached. But both the mercenary and the woman in the red dress moved as I reached them, and to my dismay, the knife plunged into her back. It slid in sideways, easily, in a place where death would come, but slowly.
She gasped and fell into my arms. Unprepared for her weight, my knees buckled and I sank to the ground, turning her body so that I could look at her face.
“Breathe slowly, evenly,” I said to her softly. She was trying to raise her shoulders, and I put a restraining hand against her neck. “Don’t move; it will hurt more.” She began to gasp for breath and I said again, “Breathe slowly.”
There was a shout and both of us looked up, the wounded woman groaning as she did. The other woman traveller had closed with Stai and was barely holding her own.
Our band still had bouts of practice; Kamin was a stickler for those, and in consequence, I had come to know Stai’s strengths. In close fighting, Stai was very good. She had stamina and she was fast; moreover she had some moves that I had found alien enough to wonder if she had trained with a foreigner. Her only weakness was that she lacked power, but that was a disadvantage only when her antagonist was bigger than her, which was not the case now. Even though the woman in gray appeared trained, Stai was bigger and better.
The traveller was getting the worst of it and her nose, mouth and chin were red. The problem with nose-bleeds is that they always look worse than they really are.
The woman in my arms moaned at the sight. “Help her,” she said, gasping for breath. She met my eyes. “In the name of Thyerin, help her.”
I was already shaking my head in a negative motion, when she tried to lift herself up and exhaled sharply. I pressed her down, saying angrily, “Don’t move; I told you, it will only hurt more.”
“Help my sister. Don’t let her die, I beg of you. Help Niveda.” She gasped again and this time a thin line of blood trailed down the side of her lips. Her gaze acquired a glassy sheen, signalling death’s approach. “You’re a chosen of Thyerin, I know; I can see it. Please save my sister.”
Another exhale and then what I held in my arms was a thing, a corpse, a dead body, devoid of breath, of beauty, of life. The beauty had become a shell, a husk that mocked me. Her open eyes stared upwards, sight denied them because of my knife, because of me. I opened my mouth and nothing came out. I wanted to shout, to scream aloud. I felt the power inside me, the power that could kill, the power that had caused … this.
I stared down at her, the blood on the side of her mouth slowing to a stop almost as I watched, and I shuddered. Tremors rocked me and I shook with the force of my feelings. I could feel the emotions spiralling away, could hear Nessa’s voice in that question echoing across the clearing, and I melted into nothingness. My being was filled with the woman’s passing and I gagged with the scent of death in my nose, in my mouth. A cold wind blew through me, changing me to ice, melting me to water. The void inside me began to fill with life, with emotion. Slowly at first, and then quickly, more quickly, too fast for me to keep up. My breath came raggedly in short bursts so that I shook as if with palsy.
Someone shoved the body away from me, I didn’t know who. It fell awkwardly, coming to a stop just a short distance away. She was worthy of respect and her body deserved more than that. I screamed, in short bursts, as if I could hurl everything inside me at those who desecrated such beauty.
She had wanted me to save her sister. Dimly I heard Kamin and Zivenig talking, but my mind and my heart and my body were all in motion. I felt them try to stop me, but I brushed them away as if they were flies. I attacked Stai with a desperation that was not my own, with a ferocity that I never knew I had, with a viciousness I’d learned from the past, and with a vengeance that belonged to the beautiful woman who had died in my arms.
When I opened my eyes, it was night and the stars twinkled brightly above me. I felt odd, as if bereft of my body. Examining that thought brought me comfort, for I could feel each of my limbs; I was alive, breathing.
“You’re awake,” a soft voice exclaimed. A face came into view above me: Niveda.
“What?” I struggled to sit up. She moved away and waited while I gathered my recalcitrant limbs; it took me a while but I managed it. “Where is everybody?” I looked around. We were still at the clearing where my band had ambushed the wagon, but there was no one present save Niveda and myself.
She looked at me, and I could see the resemblance between the sisters. “You saved me,” she said quietly, in a matter-of-fact manner. “I’ve been trained in combat, but that woman was much better than I am.”
“Was?” I asked, trying vainly to remember what had happened.
“You killed her.”
“What?” The thought of killing someone, even Stai, filled me with abhorrence. I allowed myself to experience that feeling, knowing that it was new to me, knowing that it would never leave me now. “What happened to the others?”
“Well, you screamed and then you attacked that woman as if you were possessed. The robbers thought you had gone mad and they ran away with the horses.”
I stared at her curiously. “Do you think I’m mad? Aren’t you scared of me?”
She laughed at that. “No, why should I be scared of you when you helped me?”
I continued to look at her, trying to sort out the confusion inside my head. “You didn’t answer my question. Do you think I’m mad?”
“What do you think?”
I stared at her silently as images of dolls, and women in coronets of long black hair filled my head and the pieces of a puzzle slowly clicked into place.