“Ye be good to Murdoc and don’t give him too much grief, ye hear?” I said, staring down at Emmelyne from atop my mare. Her hands were knit together as she nodded, looking anywhere but my face. I knew all too well she was angry with me for leaving her. I turned my gaze to Murdoc and Ama. He gave me a reassuring nod.
“I’ll keep her safe, lad.” He promised. I’d had no choice in the matter; Agnar had returned, drunk with bloodlust, ready to take twenty untested boys on their first raid. He’d demanded I join, so I could teach them how to raid properly. I had tried any tactic possible to stay behind, but it was all folly in the end. When I’d first broke the news to Emmelyne, she’d crossed her arms and glared at me. Eventually, it came to a full-blown war between us two. She had a temper like no other when she was mad. To be honest, I loved her feisty side, and made note to provoke her more often. Our tent was still in shambles from the night before. I’d had to pin her to the ground, straddling her as she clawed at my face. I smiled at the memory.
I looked upon her once more, catching her staring at me. Perhaps it would be good to give her a chance to miss me, so she’d appreciate me a bit more. I leaned forward over the saddle, lowering my voice as I spoke to her.
“I promise to return to ye, alright?” I said earnestly, still seeking to be back in her good graces. She crossed her arms. I glared.
“Alright?” I pressed, a bit more forcefully. She puckered her lips, ready to spit her words at me, but she simmered down.
“Fine.” She growled like a spoiled child. She evoked within me a rage deeper than any man ever could. I found that I loved it, that it only made me want her that much more fiercely. I wanted to tame her wildness while giving her freedom at the same time. It was quite the paradox. I turned Ari wide, trotting away to the clearing without backwards glance.
I’d told Agnar I’d only go on one condition; that the two lads who’d attacked my woman were forced to go as well. He readily agreed to my terms. The town we sought to pillage was only a day’s ride to the east, meaning we should be back in less than four days. I knew it would feel like an eternity.
I sat near a small fire, staring into the leaping flames, pushing all other thoughts away—save for the task at hand. Night was falling, the peaceful town unaware of the demons lurking in the trees just beyond their eyesight. I felt more conflicted now than I ever had; there was no justification for what I was doing, knowing my sense of duty to Maeve was expired. I would always give to those who were in need, though.
A boy of around sixteen plopped next to me on the log, causing it to teeter. I barely turned to acknowledge him, glaring. He smiled wanly at me, adorned in fresh armor woven with accents of deep crimson. Something about him was familiar; he had cropped, deep brown hair, a long, squat nose, brown eyes, and a thousand freckles. I knew, then, who his father was. Or had been, for that matter. He’d died on a raid a year or so ago. His father had been decent, quiet, but an excellent swordsman. I hoped he’d taught his only son how to use his wits before his brawn.
He nodded to me, clearly seeking conversation. I could feel his nervousness. I snorted, putting my flask of whisky to my lips and turning back to the flames.
“Yer Killian, right?” He asked. I rolled my eyes, really wishing he’d leave me be so I could sulk and ponder my life’s choices. He didn’t grasp the hint of silence I gave in return.
“My name’s Puck.” He offered. I hid my laugh by taking another swig.
“How unfortunate.” I mumbled. He wasn’t deterred in the least by my surly attitude.
“This is my first raid.” He quipped, his voice trembling with nerves. I glanced at the lad again. He was barely old enough to even begin raiding.
“Yer an excellent swordsman, and grappler…and fighter, for that matter.” He said. I rested my arms across my thighs, leaning forward, hoping he’d go away.
“This is my first raid. Well, of course ye know that.” He said, leaning forward as well, mimicking my posture. I growled quietly.
“They say there’s none quite like ye, that even Agnar looks clumsy compared to how you fight. I suppose it’s because yer father, I remember seeing him fight, once, and he was excellent—”
“Puck!” I cut him off harshly, sitting up straight and staring him down. He wasn’t a tiny lad, by any means, but he still had the softness of a boy about him. He snapped his mouth shut, a dog with its tail tucked after being rebuked.
“I just…like to focus, before a raid.” I said, trying to diffuse the tension for his benefit. His demeanor brightened.
“Oh, aye, great idea,” he nodded quickly. I closed my eyes, feeling a headache approaching. I had no time to relax, though, as Agnar slapped me across the back.
“We leave in ten,” he growled, moving to the next clump of excited boys. I sighed deeply, finishing my whisky.
“Do…do ye have any tips for me?” Puck asked nervously. I could tell it took all his courage to ask, could see in his eyes the admiration and respect he held for me. My harsh exterior softened a bit, remembering how patient Murdoc had been with me as a lad, seeing that I had the potential to make this boy become a better man. In his eyes there was a sadness, one I knew was related to the loss of his father. I sighed loudly again, feeling the familiar sense of duty settle upon my shoulders.
“Just remember to put yerself in their place, in yer mind,” I said, nodding in the direction of the town. His thick brown brows furrowed.
“Feel their fright, learn to have compassion where there is room for it,” I stood, adjusting my sword. He followed, hanging onto every word I spoke.
“Above all,” I said, kicking dirt and snow over our fire, casting us into darkness. “Use yer brain before ye use this,” I said, reaching for his sword and unsheathing it, putting the hilt in his unsteady hand.
I chose the cottage furthest away from the melee. These boys were sloppy, excited, unable to listen to a word Agnar or the other, older men said to them. Their bloodlust was at its highest point. I kicked down the door to the cottage, giving fright to the small family within. It was a woman, nearing her sixties, wearing all black. A widow. She clutched her five children, only one of which was a girl. She was the perfect age to be claimed. I kicked the door shut behind me.
They cried as I crept closer, though I put my hands out to them, palms down. I focused on their matriarch.
“Is there a spot to hide yer daughter?” I asked, my voice urgent. Her eyes changed from fearful to confused to understanding in a flash. She nodded.
“Go,” she whispered, shoving her daughter to the back of the cottage. I moved to her, gripping her upper arm. Her blue eyes reminded me of Emmelyne.
“Stay hidden until the Brotherhood leaves, and don’t make a peep, understand?” I said. Eyes wide, mouth agape, she nodded as I let her go. I turned to the mother. She stood, her eyes blazing, a strength within her that was easy to distinguish.
“Do ye have any silver?” I asked breathlessly. She nodded, moving to the hearth, pulling a stone away and digging around until she found a small leather sack. She handed it to me as I pressed five or so gems into her hands.
“No,” she whispered, her eyes moving up to search my face. I curled her hand around the small fortune, pressing a finger to my lips.
“Killian?” A familiar voice spoke from the door. I whirled to the sound, my heart thumping erratically. Puck stood in the open doorway, revealing behind him the massacre that was ongoing outside. I reached across the small space, grabbing him by his collar and yanking him into the cottage, slamming the door shut and standing guard in front of it.
“What in the gods names—”
“Ye…ye…” he sputtered. The woman quickly tucked the gems into her skirt pocket, returning to her boys. I gave Puck my most menacing look, watching as he shrank back into the shadows. I took a threatening step forward.
“If ye so much as think about this in front o’ anyone, I’ll gut ye myself and feed ye yer intestines.” I growled. He began to tremble in fear.
“But…you…” he continued, flabbergasted.
“I’m warnin’ ye, boy,” I seethed, my hand jutting out and gripping his collar again, yanking him so our noses were nearly touching.
“Aye, yes aye, I didna’ see nothin’!” He squeaked, nodding profusely. I threw him aside, tossing him the bag of coins. He fumbled but caught it. I turned back to the woman, tears in her light blue eyes.
“Thank ye,” she whispered. I nodded once, gripping Puck’s shoulder and guiding us to the door. Once outside, the chaos seemed to engulf all other thoughts. Puck’s eyes widened as they bounced from one scene to the next. Women screeched and cried and pleaded, men burned to ashes, and the Brotherhood smiled. Still gripping his shoulder, I leaned in to whisper to him.
“Now ye see who they really are.”
I felt him shudder, could almost feel his brain working to change how he’d been raised to think.
We set up camp that night, near the cottage we’d raided, ensuring the safety of its inhabitants. Some boys celebrated, sharing their women and riches, others sat quietly and stared, realizing what their lives had become. Puck stared into the fire, quiet for once. He kept opening and closing his mouth, as if he wanted to ask a question but thought better of it. I rummaged around for my extra stash of whisky, tossing the flask to him. He stared at me, wide eyed.
“Drink up, yer a man now.” I said bitingly. He did as I instructed, though he coughed and sputtered, handing the flask back to me. I chuckled, grasping it and taking a long pull.
“Ye…always do that?” He asked quietly. I glared at him, though I knew if I explained myself, at least a bit, he’d understand and hopefully follow in my footsteps. I was doing for him what Murdoc had done for me.
“Yes,” I whispered, leaning forward.
“I hate this.” He answered honestly. I snorted.
“Don’t go tellin’ that to just anyone.” I warned. His face paled, going slack as he realized the words he’d spoken.
“Yer secret’s safe wi’ me.” I said. He relaxed visibly.
“Ye…ye came back with a woman, last time…” he said quietly. I turned my head sharply to glare at him. He wasn’t perturbed in the slightest.
“And?” I growled, daring him to challenge me.
“She’s…beautiful. She’s all anyone talks of.”
I felt pride swell in my chest, though it was mingled with rage.
“Aye, and she’s mine, no anyone else’s.”
He nodded quickly.
“It’s just…ye seem a good man…somethin’ I didna’ think was possible here…” he trailed off.
“What’s yer point, Puck?” I said, exasperated.
“I…I don’t want to claim a woman. I never really did to begin with, but now…I see how…terrible it is.” He whispered. My heart softened. I smirked, nodding.
“Yer a good lad,” I said, watching as his chest swelled with pride at my compliment. I was his childhood hero, it seemed.
“And ye don’t have to claim a woman if ye don’t wish.” I assured him.
“But you did.” He countered. I felt my mischievous grin work its way onto my lips.
“Like everythin’ I do here, I did it in my own way,” I said, watching his confusion. I had a feeling I could trust the lad. I also had a feeling he’d want to be my shadow from here on out.
“If it comes down to it, I’ll tell ye what ye need to know.” I winked, straightening and popping the joints in my lower back. Nearly Twenty-three years of a hardened life felt as though it were catching up to me. I wondered how Murdoc could handle it.
“I know what to do,” he flushed hotly, embarrassed. I laughed.
“Aye, I don’t doubt ye do, lad, but ye see the difference between right and wrong already, hmm?” I asked. He nodded.
“Then don’t become a vile man like the rest o’ them.” I whispered.