The Executioner’s Journal

I decided on New Year’s Day to write a book, one page a day, for the entirety of 2016. It was spur of the moment, from a meme I saw shared by friends and family on Facebook:

365

When I saw that, it just clicked. Later in the day I saw a post that gave me the idea for the book, the idea of reading the daily journal of an executioner. Everything flowed from those two ideas.

The Executioner's Journal (1)

For your perusal, the Executioner’s Journal. I will be posting it here as well.

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Day One

It is very rare for me to say this, but once in a while, it is true. I miss my family. The long road of this assignation has been one of the most grueling. I am used to leaving our warm home in the Eglantine district, but it has always been a place of sanctuary during these cold winter months. Now, with the longest night behind us, and the promise of lengthening days, here on the road north I crave it.

            Not just the warmth, mind you, I have that, sitting here before the fire in the last moments of the sunset. I miss my wife’s arms about me when I return home. The way she lays her head on my chest. The scent of her hair. I miss our children, now old enough to scurry through home like goats bent upon gnawing anything they can find to shreds and pieces, attaching themselves to my legs. I even miss my wife’s father, the old, blind curmudgeon, sitting before the fire, waiting for me to bring him a pull of my flask.

            Here, out on the roads, where the snow has fallen deep enough to reach my waist, I miss them wholly. Some would say that I chose this life when I was but a boy. Apprenticed to my father and eventually married off to his competitor. They would say that in merging the two greatest houses in our work, I became the embodiment of it. They would not understand, nor sympathize with my words here in the snow. Mine has never been a task that others have, or will understand.

            I can come to terms with that. Not many have the understanding of death that I have, nor the men who have gone before me. They see the end as something to fear, something to run and hide from, and those are normally the most difficult to complete. They will do everything they can to cheat my lady from her just desserts. They become angry, they deny their crimes, their sins. When they are shown the overwhelming avalanche that seeks to bury them, they attempt to bargain with me, my lady’s right hand. They become sad, regretful, fraught with remorse for their deeds and finally, when there is nowhere else left to hide. Where there are no lies to shield them, no offers of recompense for their freedom. They accept the fact of their death. As my lady’s faithful servant, with the tools of my trade, the axe, the rope, the sword or others, I deliver unto them the final respite: their death.

            I have never set words to page as I have today. It was my wife, Camille’s, suggestion. In the yuletide gifts before the fire, decorated with boughs of evergreen, she gave me this leather-bound journal. Her words when I questioned it were simple and plain.

            “Use it how you will my heart. Perhaps to keep yourself company on those long nights away from us. Perhaps to write that which you cannot say.”

            At first I thought it foolish, but now, here before the fire as the sunlight fails, and the long shadows stretch out across my small camp. I think it may do some good.

 

Chapter One

            He never cared much for the snow. It got into everything on the road. Down boots, inside pockets of his coat, caked in the wheels of his wagon, and in the hooves of Rebecca, his horse. One time, he had forgotten to lock the door to the wagon, and that evening and found it half-filled with wind-blow, fine, white powder. He lit a fire beneath it that night, and let it melt out. It left everything damp.

During the winter, snow was inevitable across Crathera. It swept in after the harvests and swallowed the land like a great beast seeking to devour them. But in the north, where the foot of the mountains touched the thick, tangled forests, it was different. Deeper. Colder. As if he had entered the belly of the beast, and chanced being digested into no more than icicles.

He stoked the fire again, forcing the flames higher and hotter against the wind that cut across him. Even the wagon was not enough cover against the elements here. Another day and he would arrive in Hearthholme. The flames danced and sparked, as if reflecting his desire to be there and be done. This was to be his last year as the King’s Executioner.

It was not a punishment, being removed of the title, it was an honor. Twenty-five years of honorable service to the crown. He had carried out his duties impartially and professionally. With the pension provided by the King’s steward, he and his family could afford to move south, purchase a farm near the sea and the only body parts he would spend the remainder of his days removing would be heads of lettuce, ears of corn and potato eyes.

Hard footfalls in the dark forest dragged him out of his own thoughts. The fire, while hot and bright, only extended so far. He waited, one hand on the haft of Gloaming, his massive great axe, as his entire body tensed in anticipation. The dark figure, darker than the shadows, coalesced before him, and an armful of fire wood clattered to the ground before the fire. The boy.

He had never taken an apprentice. He had never found one worthy of the training and experience that he would provide. However, as part of the retirement the King so graciously offered, he was required to take on one. Favel was the least stupid, the sharpest of the dull, the brightest of the dim, and the least of the unwantedly cruel lot that he had been given to choose his successor from.

“Think that will do it… Master?” Favel asked finding his own seat before the fire.

He nodded. It would be more than enough to create the coals they would need to survive the night in the wagon. The boy… though he should not call him that, being only two years older than he had been when he started his apprenticeship. Favel was still learning the relationship that they must have in order to learn his skills.

“Do not call me that.” He corrected, for the eleventh time.

“That’s wat an ‘pprentice calls his master. Master.” Favel replied.

He nodded. It was true. Every profession throughout the kingdom worked on the system, and the majority held rigorously to specific customs and etiquettes.

“Aye, they do. We are different.”

Favel sat up straighter at his words.

“How…?”

He stared into the flames. It was if he could see his mistress’ face within them.

There were many things that he must prepare the boy for. The most important being a respect for the process of dying. He reached back, into the fog of his own memories, to when his father had taught him the lesson of the hanged man.  It had been the first lesson that he had been taught. Before he even knew that he would be an apprentice to the Left Hand of the King, the Royal Executioner.

It was a cold day, just before the spring thaw. His father had allowed him to accompany him to the western reaches, to the small city of Avangion, where a man had been sentenced to death for murdering a shoppe keeper during a midnight robbery. They had arrived several days before the execution was scheduled. He could still remember the bite of the wind as his father led him by the hand, across the dirt square where their wagon had been parked, to the backside of the keep where the guilty sat in chains.

As they entered, the guard unlocking the doors for them so that they could enter, he could remember the disdain he felt for the man in the cell. He was dirty, disheveled, his clothes were rags and he smelled of urine and feces. Standing on the other side of the bars, holding his father’s hand in safety, he felt… superior to this wretched thing. He wanted to tell him so. He wanted to spit on him and remind this filthy creature why his father’s axe would sever his head from his shoulders.

The look must have been all too obvious to his father, because the man knelt down, outside the cage, with the man in chains watching, and spoke to him.

“What do you see, boy?” He asked.

“I see a criminal. Someone who deserves what you will give him. I see death.”

His father turned from him, staring at the man. He looked utterly defeated. His hair hung in tangled clumps before his face, and he did not move to defend himself by word or by deed. He simply sat on the wooden bench, chains hanging to the stone floor.

“I see a man who has accepted the fate that is before him.” His father replied, still staring at the man. “Tell me, are you an inquisitor? A judge? …the King?”

He could remember the words his father spoke cutting to the bone.

“No, father! I am not a traitor. I would never…”

His father held up a hand for him to be silent.

“Then remember, when you stand before this man, and you will time and time again, remember that you are but a conduit from this life unto the next. You are carrying out the grave responsibility of the law. Do not judge, do not condemn. Respect this man’s journey, for one day, it will be your own.”

That was the first lesson that he must impart to Favel. When the time was right.

“You will see in Hearthholme.” He replied to Favel’s question. “Now fill the warming pans. I want to sleep this wretched night away. We leave at first light.”

 

Day Four

            We reached Hearthholme after sundown. It was difficult to gain entry to the walls, but the Seal of the King’s Left Hand, its gold filigree glinting in the torch light, the axe balancing the scales, was enough to send a pale streak through the guard. He called for his captain, a man with a pinched face, that I could not tell if he came by naturally, or simply held it so because of the chill wind.

            The inn, the Crossroad’s Hearth, had shuttered its windows and doors for the night. So, with Favel holding the lantern, I guided Rebecca, who pulled the wagon, jerkily, through the snow and mud to a place off the town square, out of sight of the merchants who would open their shoppes and stalls in the morning.

            Favel has not spoken much in the last few days. I fear the cold, which eats its way under our skin and down into our bones, has sapped the small will that he possesses. It is my one fear in teaching him. That he will not have the mental fortitude to handle my lady’s will day in and day out. Some days, I do not know if I possess it.

            With the boy stoking a fire, coals for the warming pans, I walked the square to where this unknown man would come into the Lady’s embrace. It was smaller than I remembered, but the last time I stood there, it had been filled to overflowing with people. A man, lustful and filled with covetousness for a young maid, had taken her, despite her father’s denial of permission to woo. He had left her, bloodied, beaten and defiled in a stream that cut its way down the mountains to Hearthholme.

            When her father and brothers had discovered her, it had taken the local militia, and the governor to keep them from lynching the man. When he was finally tried and sentenced by a magistrate, called in from a neighboring city, I was assigned to perform the execution. I could still remember, standing there in the dark, how he had fought the Lady’s embrace to the bitter end.

            The final look on a man or woman’s face says a lot about their acceptance or lake thereof. This man, who had given in to his base desires and broken the covenant of his society, had left a death mask that held the grimace of anguish to the bitter end. I stood there in the snow and the cold, for hours. Thinking on what my newest assignation might have in store for me. It was always this twilight, before I met the condemned, that I dreaded. The not knowing. The lack of understanding. A void that clawed at my heart and soul.

            When I returned to the wagon, both Favel and Rebecca were fast asleep. I laid down in my bed, the last dregs of heat from the warming pan sinking up into the blankets and my skin. Sleep evaded me.

  

 Chapter One (cont.)

            He sat in center of the Inn’s common room. The hard, wooden chair creaking beneath his weight, as the floorboards did with every footfall upon them. He waited. Staring at the well-worn table. It was bare, save for the nicks, scrapes and gouges of long past brawls. If it were not for the recent stain, he would guess that it would be so much kindling very soon, but someone had put their time and love into the place.

From where he sat, he could see the Innkeeper speaking in hushed tones with the serving girl. He guessed that she was his daughter. Both with dirty blonde hair, green eyes like moss on the north side of a fallen tree, and hooked, hawkish noses with nostrils that flared at each breath. Their conversation was low, too low for him to hear. He did not need to. It was always the same. Every village, every burg, every hamlet and every city. There were those who, if not understood, remembered the old ways, and instructed the young in following them.

She curtsied, as he pointed one meaty hand, finger jutting out towards the table. She bustled about the kitchen. Pots, pans, spoons, knives and plates banged together as she searched for the items that he had requested. A copper plate, perfectly circular. A copper mug, filled with ice water drawn from a well, not a pipe. One thick piece of unleavened bread. A shaker of salt. A decanter of vinegar. One wooden fork. One iron knife.

Every inn, all across the land, still held these implements. Whether the owner, keepers, or servers remembered their significance or not. They were there. He waited for her to bring them to the table as he had instructed.

The door opened, and three people entered. They stomped the snow from their boots in the entryway, as to keep it from tracking inside. Two men, one as tall as Rebecca’s head, and the other small, or rather slouched over from age. A woman, as bent and as ancient as the second man. He could feel their eyes upon him, and he knew that they were the bereaved. It was the part of his job that he liked the least. Yet, each assignation, there he sat. Thick cut, unleavened bread slabbed across the copper plate. The salt dashed across it, signifying their tears. The vinegar, poured out over it, signifying the condemned’s sin.

The serving girl sat the plate before him. Despite having to search, upturning the entire kitchen for each requested item, she had found them. She had put them together as he instructed. Hesitant, unsure of herself, she curtsied to him and backed away, as the two men and the ancient woman approached.

He had performed this ritual more times than he can count. At times he felt it was more significant than the execution itself. While that held a finality, many people did not find the end of their grief at the end of one man or woman’s life. In the ritual sin-eating, he gave them an outlet for their remorse, their rage and their suffering. He did not look up as the three figures approached. He had seen them enter. He had gaged them from a distance, and like so many times before, he knew exactly how this would play out.

The tallest of them, a man with disheveled hair, an unkempt beard and the scar-worn hands of a farmer approached first. His hand hesitated as he reached across the table, passing inches away as he selected the salt shaker. He fumbled with it, turning it over. Seated there, the Executioner remained motionless. For this aspect of the ritual, he was a silent observer.

“He was my brudder. He was my flesh and bone, my kin.” The massive ox-of-a-man gasped in shoveled bouts of air, as if trying to hold back something in his stomach.

He shook the shaker furiously, and the Executioner watched as the salt cascaded down over the hard, thick crust of unleavened bread.

“Ye killed him! Ye murderin’, thievin’, brother-killin’ rutting hell-hated miscreant!”

The salt ended its snowing over the bread, as the man dropped it, staggering to the side, his face burying the grief in his hands.

Another figure stepped forward. The ancient, wizened man. Bent and stooped like the woman behind him. He stood for a long time before the table set in front of the Executioner. He stared at the implements, the plate, the cup, the bread, the salt, the water and the vinegar. The inn was silent as everyone waited, wondering what he would do.

The Executioner had seen in it in his eyes as the grizzled man trundled along beside his wife and son. His hand stretched out, first as if to pluck something from the table, but then his fingers splayed, baring his palm.

“I absolve you. Go, unto the heavens. Let the gods judge you.”

He turned and walked away.

The Executioner, before the haggard, broken and bent crone stepped forward, knew that she would be the hardest to stomach.

She snatched the tiny decanter of vinegar and held it aloft. As high as her tiny frame would allow. Her elbow poised somewhere near the Executioner’s shoulder. The thick, pungent and dark liquid splashed down over the bread, coating it, filling it, until there were only a black husk remaining.

“I pray ye go to hell. I pray that one day, so do I. I pray the devil lets me torture you for eternity.”

He had expected her anger, her ire and rage. He did not expect what came next.

There was a sharp intake of air, as if through an ancient, moss coated gave, and then the sound of a vomitus splattering. A splash, a glop and a green-yellow glob of ancient snot coated the top of the bread. The sobbing, mountain of a man wrapper her in his arm as she moved away. Before she did, he heard her rasping voice, ragged with emotion.

“Eat up, sin-eater.”

 

********

 

“You will forgive me if I do not stand on ceremony, hmmm?” The Governor asked.

It was a formality that he even do so. Most had given up the old ways, in favor of the reformations that the King had instituted over the last thirty-odd years. The eating of the sin, the confession of the condemned, and the walk to the gallows were bygone rituals. Dregs of a society that once was. The realization of this, the feeling, like ice and weight in his bones, made him weary.

“Please, be seated.” The Governor said, gesturing to a chair before the massive cockle wood desk. “I have the list of charges here; you will find them all in order.”

He took the offered sheet, his eyes, straining against the failing light, reading each in turn.

Criminal trespass. Assault. Failure to yield to an official caravan. Three counts of aggravated battery. Maimification of a sentry. Kidnapping. Arson. Criminal Theft. Resisting Arrest. Murder of a Royal Envoy. Anarchism.

He hovered over the final charge. The old guard, the last King, Reginald the Third of the Anarc’s, was considered a blight on the nation’s history. It had only been through an alliance of Scions of the Noble Houses, that he and eventually his wife, Queen Susannah, had been removed from power, and justice restored to the kingdom. His own father had been the Executioner to remove the Queen’s head from her shoulders. Anarcs.

He mulled it over. It was not a crime to believe in ideals. Only a crime to act upon treasonous ones. The preponderance of the crimes before it was enough to outweigh the addition of one… bias.

“As you can see, everything is above board. We here in Hearthholme will not stand for any questioning of unrighteousness or impropriety.” The Governor added at his hesitation.

He set the paper back on the desk. He wanted to assure the man that he was there only at the King’s assignation. To carry out the justice that had been proscribed. He was not allowed to. From behind the two men, the massive doors that cloistered them within the Governor’s office in the massive keep banged open. Guards fumbled to hold them back against the wind, keep them braced, so that a dark, lithe form could slip through, before slamming them shut with a frightful bang.

He stood, immediately, at her presence among them. He reached up, drawing the sign of the crescent, from his head to his heart, and bent knee, placing his elbow on his knee, pressing his fist to his forehead. Behind him, the Governor made an uneasy sound, as if he did not know how to react.

“You may rise, Lord Executioner.” A voice like honey washed over him.

He did as she bade him, standing. She was a small woman, the top of her headdress reaching the beginnings of his chin. However, her presence, as the High Lady of the Moon, was enough to make him feel like a small child.

If anyone understood the eroding of their national customs and traditions, it was this woman. Her robes were of the deepest midnight, edged with black silk that sparkled of stardust, and the vestments hanging across and over her shoulders were shot through with azure and silver runic symbols, true relics of a long, bygone era.

He rose to his feet, towering over her, and yet feeling like a boy caught by his mother. She smiled at him. Her dark eyes, like molten pools of steel, flecked with mercury appraised him.

“I had heard the Royal Executioner had come. I knew your father, child.” She said.

A shiver ran down his back. His father had died only two years after his own apprenticeship had begun, which was just over twenty years gone by. To have known him would make the High Lady of the Moon older than her appearance spoke to. She gave him a wink, which unsettled him, and brought him back to the conversation at hand.

“Yes, My Lady.” The Governor whined through his pinched tone. “He was assessing the charges against the…”

Before he could utter a word, the High Lady of the Moon finished for him, her eyes on the Executioner.

“…condemned.”

“Yes, as you say, My Lady.”

She turned to the Executioner, reaching out to lay a hand on his.

“You will come to the cathedral tonight? It was once the custom of our people for the Left Hand of Darkness to lie throughout the night, prior to an execution, with the High Lady.”

There was a sharp intake of air from the Governor at her words. The Executioner trembled. He had been told of such traditions by his father, and father-in-law. Customs that had long been banished, even by the treacherous King of the Anarcs.

A melodious sound, like tiny bells tinkling broke the tension of the room as she laughed.

“Of course, we could just share a cup of tea beneath the sky.”

He smiled, dipping his head in assent.

“Aye, My Lady. I would cherish that.”

When he looks up, she has already looked away, as fickle as the Goddess she serves. She is staring at the Governor, who stands behind his desk, as if it were a bulwark on a battlefield.

“My Lord. It has come to my attention that you intend to pursue the man’s compatriots out into the wilds. While it is your purview to utilize the men of your watch as you see fit, I would be remiss if I did not point out that enlisting the people of Hearthholme for such an endeavor, especially around the full moon would be… foolhardy, at best.”

He can feel a tide moving within the room. Unseen, yet the ebbs and flows of power, one martial, one spiritual, clashing against each other like waves on the beach during a violent storm. He wanted to excuse himself. To be about his business and speaking with the condemned, but to do so, he would risk violating their contest. He stood, rooted in place as they clashed.

“Ah, yes. What is it this month? The Wolf Moon?” The Governor asks with incredulity.

“You know precisely which, My Lord.” She responds.

The Wolf Moon. The depths of winter. When the snow falls the deepest, especially in the forests, where the Anarchists live. Out there, in the wilds, the wolves would be hunting for meat to sustain them through the long, winter nights. They would not care if it came from hares, deer, or man.

The High Lady of the Moon continues, “While your soldiers have the training, the stamina and the presence of mind to handle such conditions, the people… your people, farmers, merchants, innkeepers and serving girls, do not. Not to mention there is the Kerberos.”

The Executioner’s eyes stole glances between the two as they struggled for the upper hand in this power play. When the High Lady let slip that final name, one vaguely familiar to him, he could see that it paled in the Governor’s face. His jaw went slack, allowing his mouth to drop open. His pupils widened, a reaction he always saw in the condemned before his axe fell. There was the sound of something hard striking the wood floor, and then the shattering of glass. He realized that it was the man’s glass, dropped and shattered on the floor.

“I… as you say, My Lady.” Were the only words the Governor could bring himself to utter.

She smiled, flicking a glance at the Executioner, before curtsying low.

“Lords. My work here is complete.” She said, turning to leave.

At the door she stopped, glancing back, to the Executioner.

“Tonight. Before the Lady reaches her zenith.” She said. “Do not keep me waiting.”

 

Day Five

They say the Anarchists are ghosts. From personal experience I can attest that I have never executed one, until now. That is not to say that they cannot be killed. However, they are either killed in battle or they disappear back into the forests. For my knowledge, this is the first time since I have been the Royal Executioner, that an anarc has given himself up.

            It was the first thing I wanted to ask him. I was intrigued. Why would he allow himself to be taken alive? Was their cause watered down after so many decades? Was he just one to follow, half-heartedly, until something better came along? This dank prison, beneath the Governor’s keep, and the reality of my great axe were definitely not better options than living in the forest, stealing and murdering the King’s guard.

            I did not lead with these questions, though I wanted to. There were ancient traditions to carry forward, even though the nation wished to discard them. I unlocked the chains about his wrists and ankles, giving him a taste of freedom that he probably had not had in sometime. On the wooden table between us, I saw roughhewn cups, and the iron kettle that Favel had heated with tea. I poured us each a cup as he rubbed at the red irritations from his manacles.

            When each was filled, I lowered my head and gave thanks. Surprisingly, the anarc did the same.

            “May the blessing of the Light be upon this meeting. May we seek to find understanding, wisdom and acceptance…” I began, as my father had taught me.

            “…be it the Lady’s will.” The condemned finished.

            Here was a man who understood, and held close to the old ways, or at the very least, paid them lip service.

            We drank our tea in silence. We would have hours to talk, to discuss, for me to ensure that it was justice that was being carried out, and not revenge.

 

 Chapter 2

            Sorcha Anarc stood on the windswept cliff overlooking the valley where Hearthholme lay nestled between the ridges. The sun had set long ago, but still she remained, watching as the windows of the chalets lit up with candle, lantern and fire light. From her perch on the mountain side, she could see all the way to the Temple of the Moon. The Executioner would be meeting with the High Lady of the Moon.

A long, slow whistle, like that of a whip-or-whill, rang out across cliff, echoing and reverberating its way down to her. She pressed her thumb and her forefinger tips together, set them on her teeth, slipping her tongue over them, and returned with her own. Another hour. She wanted to think, without the rest of the Anarchists hounding her for word of when the true rebellion would begin.

Many of them had been waiting decades, since her father had been put to the sword, and her mother had been publically executed. She brushed back the long strands of fiery hair that the wind blew into her face. She pulled the hood closer around her, trying to hold back the icy chill, but this high up, it was of little use. They all looked to her, as if she was some great leader, the Princess, as many whispered, she had been but four years old when her mother had placed her in the hands of nurse and ordered her to head north.

Green eyes, like the southern waters on the coast, deep pools of intelligence and mirth. Fiery hair, blazing like the summer sun. These were the memories she held tight of her mother. The only memories she had. Her father was another matter. She had none of him. Only what others told her, and the lies spread throughout the nation by those who deposed him and usurped the throne.

She dropped to the snow-crusted ledge, drawing a goose feather-fletched arrow from her quiver, and swinging it through the air. She was constantly under the scrutiny of those within the camp. These moments of scouting, or when she hunted each day, those were treasured hours of solitude. She planned to milk this one for as long as she could.

Sorcha turned her gaze past the city of Hearthholme, past the thick, snow-capped forest, all the way to where the edges of Lake Aranel was frozen. She could see the Mother’s silver light reflecting off the water that stretched out to the dark horizon from its icy shores. She wanted to take her pack, her bow, quiver and just leave. Despite being, or having once been, a princess, she was not the brains of the rebellion.

“Who am I kidding, I’m not even the muscle. I’m a pretty face that gets paraded around, so the Anarchists can feel that they are making these sacrifices for… something.” She whispers to the wind.

She wanted to be free. Free to choose her path. Free to make her own decisions. To walk any trail. To hunt. To run. To fight. To love. The last gave her pause. For the last twenty-six years she been the poster girl for the rebellion. That meant keeping a certain look, a certain reputation. None of which left any room for love.

Of course that did not stop many of the younger men, and a few of the older from making the intentions known to her. In nearly all of them she could see herself as they saw her: a political chip, a stepping stone to fame, wealth and glory. Only one had proven to be anything more than a self-interested, narcissist. Harmen Kandor.

When he had first come to the camp, the leadership had him stripped of his weapons and imprisoned him. She was told that he was her father’s Penchydd, or Royal Huntsman. It had taken the council three weeks to deliberate, and finally give Kandor a chance to prove himself. During that time, the first winter that the Anarchists had spent in the wilds. Fruit, grains, game and tubers were almost non-existent. It was finally the threat of starvation that pushed the remaining holdouts on the council to accept Kandor. He had repaid their trust, but ensuring that every person in the camp ate a full meal every day of that long, deep winter.

He had taken Sorcha on as an apprentice hunter when she was twelve. He had taught her to select the best Ash tree. To shape and shorn her own bow from its boughs. To craft long, straight shafts that would fly true. To find and fletch her arrows with hawks’ feathers, and to make her own heads from bits of stone and metal scrap. He had also taught her to kiss when she was seventeen.

They had been away from the camp for over two weeks. High up in the mountains tracking elk. The rangers of Hearthholme had ventured out further than they had in previous years, and the game surrounding the northern-most city of the realm had been depleted. Harmen suggested that they track a gang of elk he had been watching over the harvest. The council agreed and the two of them had set out just after the harvest festival.

It had taken them a week of tracking, deep into the mountains, where they stalked the elk to a pasture, high above the realm, untouched by ice and snow. When the sun was highest in the sky, it was warm enough for them to remove the thick, fur-lined, woolen coats and bask in the sun. She had begged him to remain a few days. The elk were not going to leave, and the beauty of the meadow was far too breathtaking to ignore. It had taken all of an hour, but she had worn him down until he agreed.

Aside from a few stolen moments of hurried fumbling in the woods, and once when she was thirteen stealing a wine-fueled kiss from Sir Evandar, the winner of the May-Faire games, she had never been thoroughly kissed. She wished she could say that it happened somewhere romantic like the edge of crystal clear spring, as the sunset and the lightning bugs danced in the sky. Something she had read in Barrist Ammon’s meager library. It had happened in the depths of the night. The full dark, when the moon was still behind the horizon, hidden by the mountains, and they tried to sleep.

With the sun set, the temperature dropped severely. Sorcha and Kandor were forced to press their mats, skins and bodies together to keep from losing to much heat. As they lay, pressed together in the darkness of their shelter, she could feel the hard muscles of his body against her own. It was something that she had never experienced. It was something that awoke a desire deep within her.

Kandor’s hand had slipped through the skins, resting on her hip. She could feel her entire body flush with heat, and her breath was short, staggered and sharp. She all at once wanted him to stop, and not to. It was a terrifyingly confusing place to be. She turned to face him. Wanting to ask a myriad of questions. None of them fell from her lips as his met her own. Hers soft, pliable and full. His surprisingly soft, crisscrossed with scars that she could feel but not see, and a hunger, as if he had not drunk and was dying of thirst.

When he finally pulled away from her, Sorcha’s head was swimming with a myriad of questions, feelings and thoughts. Before she could voice one of them, Harmen stood up, pulling his massive coat over his shoulders and muttering something as he stumbled out into the darkness. She fell back into the skins, her warm breath delivering plumes of steam into the air above her.

The rest of their hunting trip played out as if that kiss had never happened. She wanted, daily, to ask him about it. To question him, his desires, his silence, everything. She even plucked up the courage one afternoon as they lay in the thick grass, waiting for a few of the elk to separate themselves from the gang. She opened her mouth, a short breath escaping as she struggled with the words so that she would not sound like a child to him. In that moment of hesitancy, he must of sensed her intent. He sat up on his knees, the arrow nocked on the bowstring. He drew, let out a breath and released.  She had no choice but to follow suit.

The rest of their evening was spent field dressing and skinning each of their raghorns, then dragging them back to camp so that they could store them before the trek back down the mountain. The rest of the journey she could not find the courage to question him.

Somewhere below the cliff she sat on, something moved in the forest. Her rear had gone numb from the cold, and her body protested as she leaned forward, staring hundreds of feet down into the snow-kissed trees, watching and listening. At first she could only hear her heartbeat, like a drum, pounding in her ears. She closed her eyes. Focused on the nothing behind them, and breathed, as Harmen had taught her when she was learning the bow. Slowly, all of the sounds leveled, and she could separate them again.

The creaking of the trees in the fluttering wind, the cooing of birds, sleeping in their nests, stones jarred loose by the scouts who had accompanied her. Then she heard it. Two sounds. A short, panting breath, like a wolf, stalking through the woods in search of water, and the steady crunch, crunch of its paws in the snow. She smiled, her worry fading. She turned her head to climb up from the cliff when her blood turned to ice, and her stomach turned. There in the moonlight casting rays through the forest she saw it.

            She thought the light and the distance played havoc with her eyes, but when it reached one of the old stone markers, she could see that it stood as tall as a man. It turned its muzzle, spittle dripping from its razor-sharp teeth, and stared up at her. Sorcha flung herself back, scrambling until she slammed herself into the mountain. The Kerberos had seen her.

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