There was once a time, before the shadow rising, that I had a home and clan. I was but ten, and the world was small. Then the raiders came, murdered my parents, and stole my childhood from me.
“At least it is dry,” Marta said. She always did look to the bright side of things.
“For now,” I replied, “but rain is likely by evening. Particularly in the hill lands.”
“Mmm.” Marta nodded. She could tell my thoughts were elsewhere. My words were few and sharp. I knew it bothered her when I was in such a mood. She didn’t like it when I dwelt upon the past, and she sought to drive me out of it.
“Pleasant breeze,” she said.
“True,” I replied. I held my tongue against the fact that the breeze made tracking more difficult. The scent of prey did not linger, and one had to look for other signs: bent twigs or faint footprint.
If Marta could read my thoughts, she would have chastened me to call them prey. Raiders were human, she would say, same as us. But I didn’t see them that way. Humans didn’t kill for sport. They didn’t rape mothers or set dogs afire. Raiders were no humans, and Marta would never convince me otherwise.
“There,” Marta said, as we reached a rise in the road. Her eyes were always better than mine. I squinted at the far hill and noticed a shadow moving along the road. Raider man for sure. We hastened our steps.
With luck, the man didn’t yet notice us following. As we reached the low of the road, we left the road for a trail. The trail was steeper, and there were more brambles, but it would take a mile or two off our distance. Trails like these were scattered across the hills. Not good for a horse and wagon, but fine for those on foot.
At the top of the next hill, I could hear Marta breathing heavily. She was a right foot shorter than I and struggled to keep up. But she didn’t complain. She never complained. The brambles cleared a bit at the rise, and I looked for the raider again.
“No sight of him,” I said.
“He’s near,” Marta said between breaths. “Maybe two hundred yards.”
Halfway down the second hill, the high bramble trail cleared to the road once more. We paused at the edge of it, and I strained to hear the raider. I only heard the rustle of leaves, then the faint crunch of footsteps. They came from our left. The trail had brought us ahead of him. As I stepped out to the road, I saw him. He took a defensive pose, hand on his sword hilt as he saw me.
“Stand aside, boy,” he said. Then he saw Marta emerge from the brush. He took a step back, hands low, but spread wide.
“Hello, again,” Marta said. She stepped close to me, grasped my hand. The man took another step back.
“I ain’t the one that killed your mother,” he said fearfully.
“Aye,” Marta said, “But many mothers have you killed. Wisewomen of clan and cove. They call for your soul.”
The man drew his sword and prepared for a charge. “You murderous bitch!” he shouted. “You won’t take me.”
Marta squeezed my hand, hard. For a young girl, she had tremendous strength.
“Aye, we will,” Marta said. The man raised his sword and charged, raider’s cry loud at his throat. He was aflame before he took his second step. Within five steps, he stumbled to the ground. His battle cry rose to a pleaful scream, like the sound of slaughtered swine. I’m ashamed to say I smiled at the sound.
Then it hit. The pain and nausea. I stumbled to the ground, too weak to stand. Vomited, or tried to. My stomach was mostly empty, so I brought up little more than phlegm.
“Easy, little brother.” Marta said, “Just breathe.” She leaned over me with a gentle smile as I blacked out.
When I came to, I could smell a campfire and charred meat. My stomach churned.
“Just rabbit,” Marta said, allaying my fear. My stomach relaxed a bit.
“How much time?” I asked.
“Not much,” Marta said. “Just two years, five months.”
I did the math. That would make me a month past thirty-one. An aged man, I was, and Marta was still yet twelve. It didn’t seem fair, but I would have it no other way. I swore I would give my life to avenge my parents. The witches often grant wishes, but never in the way you expect. How many years did I have left? Would I live long enough to find the man who is owed justice?