Thursday, October 6, 2016

Warrior's Legacy: The Ghosts Of Who We Were

It was my fault, the first time I saw my father kill someone. I was fifteen at the time, reassured by the blades at my side, secure in my father's training; and I was tired of the two of us being alone. My father took one look at the town and said we should pass by, but I wanted to be among people and I insisted that we stop.

It wasn't that I grew up in the wilderness, exactly. Whenever we could find a place, my father would take a room and survey the local fighting halls. If he could, he'd demonstrate his skills and take work assisting one of the local masters. He was always polite, always deferential, but if he'd chosen that sort of work it was because he respected the master, the style, and the training. We might stay for weeks, or months, or even a couple of years; and then suddenly I'd come back to our rooms and find that he'd packed our things, and we'd be out on the roads or out in the wilderness again. I loved my father, and it wasn't a bad life... but I got lonely.

This time I was very lonely.

So we slept in the trees and went into town at mid-morning, just another couple of travelers passing through. The place was so small that it didn't even have an inn, just a tavern that had a couple of rooms to rent. There were maybe three shops and a smithy, and there might have been a sawmill somewhere out beyond the edge of town. At least, we passed a wagon headed out of town with a load of evenly-cut boards, but maybe it was passing through the same way we were. The driver waved and smiled; I remember thinking that he thought I was pretty, and didn't mind the swords. I liked him for that.

I think I knew my father was right even before we got into the town. He usually was, when it came to violence and death. The people here looked... beaten. Weary, wary, and watchful, they looked at us with a hint of badly-concealed but carefully restrained anger. And then there were the soldiers.

They lounged on wooden porches or strolled down the street. There were only a dozen or so of them, all told; but that was enough. The town held no more than a dozen houses.

They saw my swords, of course: the long-handled battle saber, and the shorter indoor saber, both tucked into my sash opposite the knife. The arrangement itself probably told them something, since their swords hung in heavy leather sheaths from heavy leather belts. They watched us, but they didn't approach immediately... not until after we entered the tavern.

My father has never been good with people. He raised a hand to one of the servers in what he probably thought was a neutral gesture, but I saw her face tighten with irritation and then lower in surrender. So, when she approached, I made sure I spoke up first: "Sorry to trouble you," I told her, which was entirely true. "We're looking for a room for the night."

She looked at me, looked down at the blades, then looked up at my face again. She was probably three or four years older than I was, but she might have thought I was even younger than that. I'm pretty small, and even wearing swords isn't enough to make me look dangerous. "Why don't you have a seat?" she suggested. "Padru is still sleeping -- he's the keeper -- and won't be up for a while yet."

"Of course," I told her.

She motioned to a table, but my father ignored the suggestion and crossed to another table in the corner opposite the bar. I followed him, and found a way to sit that didn't disturb my blades. I could still be in trouble if I stood too quickly, but this way looked less aggressive than removing the sabers and setting them on the table. With all the soldiers around and the townspeople acting the way they were, I wasn't about to take the sabers out and lean them against the wall.

It didn't take long at all. One of the soldiers followed the server over and sent her away with a glance. He was tall and lean, and moved like a hunting cat. "You know how to use those swords?" he asked, without any sort of introduction or lead.

"Her training isn't finished," my father told him, looking up from where he sat.

I had just opened my mouth to answer, but I sat back and stayed quiet. I'd been in the cities enough to know that someone his age shouldn't be addressing someone my age directly, and especially not with my father sitting right there... and I was just old enough to understand why. Watching him, the way he stood, the way he moved, the way he turned to look at my father, only reinforced my awareness that my father had been right all along: we should not have come here.

"It's a pity," the soldier said. "You should bring her up to the top of the ridge. Lord Arilom is rebuilding the old fort, and she could finish her training there." He wasn't quite leering as he said it. He wasn't quite looking at me, either. "We could use some new blood."

My father tilted his head. He was small and wiry, dark-haired and dark-eyed, and dressed in a simple tunic and pants. He never carried weapons. "How much blood do you have there already?" he asked.

The soldier scowled, and his hand dropped to his sword. "If you were armed..."

My father stood up, slowly. He didn't look at me. He didn't have to. There had been two other soldiers in the tavern when we'd come in; now there were at least six. I was certain that my father knew exactly how many there were, and exactly where they were standing. "Yes?" he asked, and his voice had turned... empty, like his stance, like his expression. "If I were armed...?"

"Uppity--" I watched the soldier start to draw his sword, watched my father slam a hand down on his forearm and drive the blade back into its sheath, watched the blow that sent the soldier onto his back on the floor. Slowly, I stood up.

"Let it go," my father said. "We'll be gone, and nobody will hear of--"

Two of the other soldiers threw themselves at him. They hadn't drawn their weapons. I think they meant to beat him down.

It didn't happen that way. There was a brief tangle of limbs; then they both went flying, and my father was still standing there.

That was the moment when somebody grabbed me from behind. I should have seen it coming, but I'd been watching him fight instead. It was one of the soldiers, and he was puissant enough to pin my arms to my sides.

My father turned, and that was the moment when one of the soldiers pulled a knife and lunged at his back...

...And fell to the floor, dead.

My father didn't even glance at the body behind him. He just said, "I didn't intend that. I didn't intend any of this. You should all go... now." There was something horrible in his voice, a mixture of regret... and glee. There was a force to it, a command.

The arms around me let go, and then all the soldiers were backing out the door. "Tell this Lord Arilom to mind his dogs," my father rumbled, and his voice was like distant thunder. "We might be back."

They left in a rush, dragging anyone who didn't or couldn't move fast enough.

My father turned to look at me, and his face was stricken.

"I'm sorry," I told him.

"We'll find another town," he said. "We'll spend time with people again. Not here." Over his shoulder, I could see the server. Her face was blank, pale, shocked. When she recovered, she would be terrified. Everyone in the town would be afraid of us.

I hated that. For a brief moment, I hated him: my father, who had protected us and driven the soldiers away, who had made it necessary to leave again. Then I swallowed, and agreed: "Not here."

So we left. Just another pair of travelers passing through. We never went back... but later that night, and much further down the road, my father took a walk through the trees. He didn't return until nearly dawn. I didn't think much of it at the time, but maybe things changed while he was gone. Maybe Lord Arilom moved on as well. Or maybe he reigned in his soldiers, and they all settled in to help the community.

I like to think that was what happened to them.

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