Read chapter one of A Single Deed


When the blood runs hot, Mercy’s a stranger.
— Washavoki Proverb

 

Memories are fickle. Some grow faint, like blood spilt in a pond, while others become as piercing as the evening star, which shines brightest when darkness falls. So it is with me in my final winters. From fog and sharpness I’ve woven my tale to answer this question: can a single deed twist fate toward destruction?

The act of which I speak took place before my birth, a spark in a dry forest. For a long while it smoldered out of sight. But when it flared up and engulfed my life, I became convinced that only murder could undo it.

1

After my sixteenth winter, I forsook my kind and kindred. I possessed a woman’s body and a seasoned hunter’s deadly skills, but in many ways I was still a child. With youthful rashness I thought revenge would be quick work, although it meant journeying to a land where the ways and language were unknown to me.

I departed as a porter for some traders. Their only demands were that I lift and carry, and it took no more than a beast’s understanding to fulfill them. That changed when their goods were delivered. Then I was of no further use and forced to turn to whoever would have me. Only the rough men who’d served as guards were interested. Their leader’s invitation was a single word—one of the few I understood—“Come.” So I did, for the land I’d entered was far more vast and strange than I’d ever imagined, a place where ignorance could be fatal. Moreover, even if I’d wanted to go home, I couldn’t recall the way.

For five days I followed the men without knowing what they wanted. Although wary of them, I ate whatever they gave me, slept on the ground within their camp, and tried to be useful. They named me “Dog,” a word I thought was meaningless.

My fifth night was disastrous. Whenever I recall its events, I cringe at my stupidity. At the time, I scarcely grasped the idea of theft—much less its consequences—although I sensed it was perilous because the others smelled of fear. That scent grew stronger when darkness fell and the time to set out drew nigh. By then, the fear around me had proved infectious. My meager meal soured in my stomach as I struggled with my growing apprehension. The men seemed to know what they faced, while I had no idea. Nevertheless, I sensed that I had some part to play and it was the only reason I was there.

By the time we left camp, clouds hid the moon and stars, leaving my companions nearly blind. They moved clumsily, stumbling over things that seemed in plain sight. Each time one tripped, he’d mutter softly. I’d no idea what they said, but by the hard tone of their voices and the pungent scent of their anger I knew they were cursing.

After a long walk we halted, and the one called Steffen whispered my name. When I turned, he pointed to me and used two fingers to point to his eyes—his sign for “look.” “Man,” he said, which I knew meant a male of his kind. “Carry.” I also knew that word, having hauled burdens for nearly a moon. I supposed he wanted me to look for a man carrying something. After using his hands to convey a boxlike shape, Steffen said, “Dog see man carry. Dog”—he flapped the fingers of one hand to make his sign for speaking—“not loud.” Then he said, “Go,” and pointed where. I nodded, understanding everything except “not loud.” I wanted to ask what that meant, but didn’t know how.

While the band drew their weapons, I removed my sandals and advanced barefoot, feeling for twigs with my toes to avoid snapping them. When I reached a low rise overlooking a roadway, I settled into the undergrowth to blend with its shadowed leaves.

I need but a little light to see. To my eyes, the night is a dim version of the daylight world. It lacks color and the shadows are deeper, but those differences don’t prevent seeing. That wasn’t so for my companions, and I’d come to believe my nighttime vision was the reason for their leader’s invitation. Fearful it would be withdrawn if I didn’t prove useful, I was desperate to please.

The road was a lonely dirt track that wound through the woods. Trees hid much of it, but the portion I could see was empty. It seemed unlikely anyone would pass that way at night. Regardless, Steffen had told me to watch, so I did.

For a long while, I spied no movement and heard nothing other than the usual nighttime sounds and the occasional noises of my companions shifting in their hiding places. Nonetheless, my anxiety grew as time passed. The clouds thickened, so that even to my sight the scene turned gloomy. Finally, there was the sound of boots trudging on dirt. Turning in the direction of the noise, I eventually saw three men coming down the lane. Except for his boots, the one in front was dressed like me in coarse cloth pants and a long-sleeved tunic tied with a cord about the waist. He carried a box on his shoulder. It had iron straps and fittings, and although it wasn’t much larger than his head, the man walked as though the box was heavy. The other two men wore black, hooded robes that reached the ground. The hoods that hid most of their faces ended with a pair of points, which gave the impression that the men possessed long, drooping horns. The hooded men walked behind the burdened man. Other than their garb, I saw nothing special about them.

There seemed little point in alerting Steffen and the others until the men came closer. As they advanced, I pondered how to communicate their number. It was important information, but I didn’t know the word “three” and doubted my companions could see my fingers in the dark. My only idea was to say “Man” three times and hope that would convey how many approached.

I shouted—my first mistake—when the men where only a dozen paces away. Two things happened at once: The pair of hooded men stepped into the shadows, leaving the man with the box alone on the road. Meanwhile, the band rushed from hiding, stumbling and cursing as they ran. The lone man froze, which aided his seven assailants, who moved with such uncertainty I wondered if they could see their victim at all. Lacking a weapon, I stayed put and watched.

Eventually, my companions surrounded the lone man with sword points. Steffen and his captive spoke, but I didn’t try to understand them. I was more concerned about the two men hiding in the shadows. None of my companions seemed to have noticed them. When I called out, “Man! Man!” they only glanced my way in annoyance.

Then chaos erupted. The hooded ones silently darted from the shadows clutching something in their fists that was too small to see. They attacked the two nearest men like hornets, striking a single stabbing blow, and just as quickly retreating. Though I could see no apparent injuries, the two struck men shrieked in pain. The noise startled their comrades, who responded by skewering the man with the box. Pierced by five blades, his corpse stood briefly upright. Then it pitched forward, and the box tumbled into the undergrowth.

I was shocked by how readily the band killed their helpless captive. Other shocks followed. First, the two stricken men stopped shrieking so abruptly it seemed that someone had squeezed their throats shut. Then their legs buckled, and after the men struck the ground, their bodies began twisting into bizarre shapes. Limbs assumed the grotesque angles of gnarled branches and appeared equally as rigid. One man’s spine curved back so sharply I thought it would snap. Dark spittle foamed from their lips to bathe their chins, and even in the gloom, I could see their faces had taken on a deathly hue. I doubt their comrades noticed this, for the falling box had spurred the hooded ones into action.

A small horde of black-cloaked and hooded men noiselessly boiled from the shadows to surround the survivors, who responded with a vigorous defense. But their swinging blades did no damage, passing through the shadowy forms as if they were smoke. Just when I decided that the dark men were illusions, another hooded man darted forth. His form appeared more solid than the others. He quickly struck one of the defenders and just as quickly retreated. His victim screamed in agony, and the sound unnerved his companions.

As the screaming man dropped to the ground and became silent, panic set in. The band scattered like quail flushed by a fox, leaving three of their fellows lying on the road. As they hurried past me, the sharp scent of their fear betrayed the intensity of their terror. I also smelled anger and feared it was directed at me. I was the lookout who’d failed to warn them of danger. I’d tried, but doubted that mattered. They’d drop me to fend alone in a world I didn’t understand.