Death was an old friend. It was the one friend she didn’t fear. Each day death offered her a rest from the pain. A cold hearth of silence. She need only take Death’s hand and cross his threshold. But honor required that she bring a gift. Many gifts if she could buy them, and so she waited.
Rain poured upon her. It rustled the leaves to an unending hiss before cascading over her head and face. She fought the urge to slick back her hair. It would do little good, and motion could reveal her location. So she remained motionless, hunched down at the base of a large tree.
The night was dark, making it difficult to see far. The month was nearly at full moon, though the rain and overcast left only a faint cast of gray. It reflected only off steel or white canvas, and it was barely enough to reveal the covered cart bogged on the muddy trail ten yards in front of her.
Seven men gathered round the cart. Or rather, five men and two boys. The men at each corner of the cart were marked by the glint of their swords and breastplates. They peered out to the dark. One stared directly at her, but shadows made her invisible.
There were two at the back of the cart. A tall man, and a boy in his early teens. They pushed and struggled to free the cart. Guiding the horses at the front was a boy of no more than nine. Or perhaps a girl in boy’s clothes. It hardly mattered at that age.
The thought of the child as a girl stirred harsh memories in her. The life of a boy had its benefits, but they only made a woman’s choices harder when the moon came. Hard enough to become Death’s friend.
Focus, she thought. The past doesn’t matter, only the now. And for now there was more man to see, and he remained in the cart.
Four guards was a problem. Two was a worthy risk. The first taken from silence, making an even match. With rain and shadow as allies, it was more than fair. But four was a different matter. If the remaining three were smart they would isolate themselves. Use motion to track her down. She could kill two, perhaps three with luck, but her only gifts for Death would be soldiers, and his collection of them is vast.
A better gift would be noble born. A gift that would ensure he would get greater, more rare gifts in time. Old men and women. Sages and witches, wrinkled but plump with a good harvest. Such a gift would surely atone.
So she waited.
Her best hope was that the guards would become distracted. Let them settle, let their thoughts drift, and she might take the two on her side of the cart before the others could rally.
The cart wasn’t going anywhere. Knowing the rain would come, she chose the spot carefully. A dip in the trail just as it rounded to take a shallow rise. She had worked the trail two days before, breaking the hard ground nearly a foot down, then smoothing and tamping the top layer. Barely noticeable when dry, but soft mud after today’s downpour. That the rain continued into the night was an added blessing. The site was so perfect that a few of the guards must have suspected. The guard captain certainly did. But he was on the far side. The side with more places to hide.
Never give them everything, her master had taught her. The harder choice makes the sweeter wine. She missed her master, but with luck they would meet again by morning.
Hours passed. The boys grew tired to the point that even their father couldn’t urge them on. The rain faded to a faint mist, and the thinnest hint of predawn sky touched the eastern horizon. She began to think that this chance was lost. That Death had let his hearth fade to coals. But then the door of the cart rattled. She could see the man stirring inside.
“My Lord,” the guard captain said. He hesitated as if to say more, but remained silent. The nobleman gave an angry grunt in reply.
“This side, my Lord,” the guard nearest her said. Without turning around he reached back and unlatched the door.
She struggled to still her breathing as the nobleman staggered out of the cart. Almost poured out. He stumbled toward the tree she huddled by, fumbling with the front of his trousers.
He was little more than a foot in front of her. She heard a sigh, and the smell of urine hit her nostrils. She was so shocked by her fortune that she held frozen until he had finished. His fumbling woke her from the trance, and she gripped the handle of the knife she held at her chest.
Her next motion was a flash. She lept hard, knife aimed just above his navel. She felt the death-scream echo from her throat, the warmth of blood on her hand. He tumbled to his back, and she lept again, her knife finding home in his neck.
For you, she thought to Death. Blood pounded in her ears, deafening. But she felt the footfalls of the guards as they rushed toward her. The heat of steel in her side was expected, as was the wrenching of her arm as a guard flung her off the nobleman and onto her back. She welcomed the second stab to her chest, It would be quick after all.
It was all better than she expected. Better than she could have hoped. She could feel the glow of Death’s hearth. The cold of his grasp upon her hands. But instead of Death’s face, she saw the face of a child. A curious face that looked in puzzlement at her cold infinite gaze.
As her vision blurred and her thoughts calmed, she was struck by an oddness of the child’s face. Something in the set of eyes and nose. The gap-toothed mouth. The child was a girl after all. The moon would visit her soon, and choices would need to be made.
And she had given the girl her first taste of death.