The Wild Night
Aaron C. Brown
Dahva could not make his hands stop shaking. He rubbed his throbbing knuckles and glanced around the table to see if his friends noticed. Jondin watched the door of the inn while leaning on the table and bouncing one leg. Hoff rested his head against the wall, listening to the minstrel on a small stage. Faer, one leg thrown over the arm of his chair, looked from Dahva's hands to Dahva's eyes. A smile tugged at his lips.
"We shouldn't have done that," Dahva said.
Faer tugged at the lace spilling from his cuffs. "We did the right thing."
Then why does my guilt threaten to overwhelm me? Dahva thought.
Faer leaned forward. "I think you will long remember this night, Dahva."
"How could I forget? How did I let you talk me into this?" Acids bubbled in his stomach. "How could I have done such a thing?"
Faer shrugged. "I don't know what you're so worried about. She's just a Wildling girl."
"Keep your voice down," Jondin said, shooting a dark look around the inn. "Just act normal."
A modest crowd filled the common room of the Emperor's Best. Laughter and shouting rose above the low rumble of voices that floated on the smoky air. Meat and fresh baked bread tantalized patrons with their scents every time a serving girl pushed open the kitchen door. No one seemed to have heard Faer's careless remark.
"She didn't deserve that," Dahva said.
"Of course she did," said Faer. "They're perversions, witches and shamans who come across the Stone Wall and infest our kingdom like lice on a peasant child's head. They live in our cities, breed with our families. It's sick." He snorted. "I don't know why they bother to cross the Wall. It isn't as though they can work their charms over here. My father says we should pack them all up and execute them, the filthy beasts. Maybe then they'll stay where they belong."
Dahva only half-listened. He'd heard it before and once even agreed with most of it, despite his Wildling ancestry. That was a secret he guarded with his life. He didn't want to think about what would happen to him if Faer found out. Being looked on with pity, disgust and revulsion did not suit him. Normalcy and friendship filled his life, and he liked it just fine. Dahva and his family hid their lineage and did what they could to assimilate into Ten Kingdoms society. But this was too much. Even for Faer, whose propensity for cruelty was higher than most.
At least, after tonight, the facade of his Ten Kingdoms descent would not be questioned. But the price had been steep.
Faer spoke again. "Have you heard the latest reports from the Wall? We sent a peace envoy to the Wildlands, and the bodies were returned headless, with charms and beads and all manner of primitive sigils attached to their clothing. Savages."
"We could have killed her," said Hoff.
"And if we had?" Faer's eyes shone in the firelight. "Who would miss her? Not I. One less degenerate creature to soil our kingdom. And anyway, she isn't just some random Wildling girl I found in the street. Her family has lived in Emperor's Crossing for more than two generations. The father disguises himself as a fur trader to travel to the Wildlands and helps more of them cross over."
A needle of cold stabbed Dahva's gut. Something wasn't right.
"And if that isn't bad enough," Faer continued, "he gives them money and sets them up with places to live right here in Emperor's Crossing. They poison our bloodlines, and how are we to know? They look just like us."
Jondin shook his head. "That's disgusting."
Dahva scowled. Why couldn't they understand that Wildlings were human beings just like them?
Faer looked at him strangely. "Who do you love most in this world?"
"Anya," Dahva said. But you know that. You practically smother her with your attention.
His sister's rejection of Faer's many advances were legendary in their corner of the city.
Faer nodded. "Yes, of course, your strong-willed sister. And what does Anya plan to do with her life?"
Dahva narrowed his eyes. "She is my father's apprentice. She will take over his mercantile business. You know this."
Faer held up one finger. "I do, but I have a point. What if dear Anya cannot become a merchant because Wildlings have taken all the good trade routes and stolen the customers? What if they become so numerous they begin to trade in the Wildlands? If enough of them cross, the barriers will not hold and they will be able to cast their magic over here. There will be no stopping them, my friends. Mark my words, the Ten Kingdoms will be laid to waste."
"It is time I left, gentlemen," Hoff said.
Faer waved his hand. "Yes, run along. I'm sure the guards have given up on looking for the culprits, if they even put much effort into it. You will be safe. My father will guarantee it."
Hoff tossed a few coins on the table and left without another word. Jondin followed, throwing glances over his shoulder.
"I should go, too," Dahva said. "My father will be waiting." A lame excuse, but something nagged at him that he should get home, just to check on things.
Dahva stepped into the street, pausing to let the cool night air envelop him. Darkness prompted memories of a slim body suffering blow after blow by four pairs of fists, grunting and muffled screams, mixed scents of sweat and fear and sex.
Only Faer had seen her face. The nobleman captured her earlier in the evening and wrapped her head tightly in thin linen, painting on it a grotesque caricature of barbarian ferocity. After they beat her and- Dahva tried not to think of it. He failed. After they raped her, they pushed her into the street in a Wilding neighborhood as blood ran down her legs. She delivered their message with her broken body.
Dahva's chest tightened and he grimaced. He was the worst kind of thing: a traitor to his people, his blood. But he had lived his entire life hiding who he was. From a small boy lying about where he was from to now, resorting to crime to hide his shameful heritage. He was born a coward.
He examined his busted knuckles and the hands that finally started to settle. He wanted to cut them off.
Sighing, he began the walk home. Only a few people roamed the streets at this hour, drunks and miscreants. Every pair of eyes bored into him, bringing to light his maleficent atrocities. With hunched shoulders he waited for the cry of damnation that would surely rise from the depths of his murky surroundings and denounce him for what he was. Traitor. Rapist. Unkind and unclean.
Dahva clenched his jaw to hold the sobs at bay, but could not stop the flow of tears. What had he done? Evil. Oh, such an evil, hateful thing. It was not his way. Faer's words had incited a burning hostility in Dahva he didn't know existed. He felt as though if he didn't act, he was betraying his country. But by his actions he betrayed himself.
Dahva resolved never to speak to Faer again. The man was a menace, an anathema to every value Dahva held dear. Anya would be pleased.
He quickened his pace, wanting nothing so badly as to get home to her. She would comfort him, though he would never tell her of his actions tonight. If he needed to cry, his older sister would lend her shoulder.
Inside his home, lamps cast the common room in a muted yellow glow, illuminating the plush red carpet and glinting off the silver goblets on the mantle. Paintings of forests and seascapes adorned the walls.
Dahva's mother and father sat in chairs of pale blue upholstery beneath a wispy stream of smoke wafting from a burning stick of incense that spiced the air. His mother bowed her head and cried.
"Son," his father said with a voice heavy with emotion, "I'm glad you're home. Come. Sit. We must talk."
Dahva paused in the doorway. "What happened?"
"Please." His father waved him inside. "Please sit, son."
Dahva lowered himself into a chair and waited for the hammer to come smashing down on his spirit. Deep within, he knew what was coming.
"Dahva," his father began. He covered his mouth and stared at the floor as his eyes welled with tears. One slid down the crags of his face, following curves, snagging on wrinkles, and let go of his jaw to fall, sparkling with refracted candlelight, and splashed onto the floor where the carpet absorbed it and the sorrow it carried, creating a permanent stain of misery.
"Please," Dahva said. "What's going on?"
His father gripped one of Dahva's hands, unaware or indifferent to the scrapes on his knuckles.
No, Dahva thought. Please God no. Don't say it.
Something withered inside him, a thing once green and vibrant recoiling from the light and shrinking into a black umbilical cord of anguish. An essential part of him once alive with bright-eyed inquisitiveness now lay dead and shriveled, creating a blank spot of emptiness in his soul.
"No," he said. He shook his head and repeated the denial in a dead voice. "You're wrong."
I didn't do it. It wasn't me. It wasn't me.
His father looked up. "She was m-" He tried again. "She was m-"
Dahva muttered, "Murdered."
"Yes!" A cry of pain broke the word in two, separating a whisper and a shout. The old man's agony ripped the air into shreds, leaving tatters of invisible despair to float around them.
Dahva snatched his hand away. "Where is she?"
His mother spoke. "Upstairs. In your room. She died in your bed. She thought to see you before . . ." She trailed off and looked away.
"She was attacked," his father said.
His mother gave voice to her grief, her sobs filling the room, a tangible, oppressive substance that settled on Dahva's shoulders and pressed down on him as if pushing him to hell.
"They beat her," his father continued. "R-they, they rrr-they left her in the street . . ."
Dahva stood. A cold certainty rose in him. Somewhere in the back of his mind, darkness gathered. He pushed it away. "I must see her."
His father shook his head. "Wait. Not just yet, please." He reached for Dahva's hand but Dahva stepped away, afraid that some sort of taint would transfer to his father through the bond of touch.
"I must see her!"
He bounded up the stairs two at a time, flung open his bedroom door and stopped. Anya lay on the bed, covers drawn to her chest; swollen face black and blue, arms outside the covers, one of them bent where there was no joint.
Dahva's mouth worked but no sounds came out. He stumbled to her side, collapsed to his knees, and took one of her cool, lifeless hands in his.
I killed her.
Convulsions wracked his stomach, and he vomited. The room spun. His head refused to work. He forgot where he was. Darkness reached for him, but he pushed it away lest he be engulfed in oblivion. The world trembled.
His eyes found her and he screamed. Pain and rage attacked him, invading his veins and coursing through his blood, spreading to the tips of his fingers and tingling along his scalp. Memories raced through his mind, flashes in the dark. Clothes ripping, tearing. Muffled screams as a virgin was raped. A figure yanked to her feet and thrust into a faceless crowd, terrified, crying, in agony, bouncing off walls as she stumbled down the street, slipping in her own blood.
How could he not have known? His ruptured knuckles burned to life as if to emphasize his treachery. Face buried in the sheets, he knelt by her side for a long time.
His father's voice startled him. "Dahva."
"What?" He did not turn.
"We must flee," his father said. "It is not safe for us here anymore. We'll take her with us, give her a proper burial, but we cannot stay here."
Dahva nodded again. Then, unbidden, a memory returned to him. Faer, leaning forward and saying: I think you will long remember this night, Dahva.
Everything snapped into place. Faer knew. Of course he knew. Faer and his family loathed Wildlings. Faer could not understand why Anya rejected him. Any common girl should be overjoyed by the attentions of a noble. It must have raised suspicion. He would have had her followed. Checked on her. Investigated her past. When Faer discovered Anya was a Wildling it probably came close to destroying him. Being rejected by a filthy Wildling because, of all reasons, he was not good enough for her? It must have driven him mad.
Madness or no, Dahva vowed revenge. Faer would pay. After that, Dahva would dispose of himself, the only just punishment for an act so vile.
"Where are you going?" his father asked.
Dahva did not answer but strode to the door.
"Where are you going?"
Dahva's vision blurred and a quivering surrounded him. He blinked, and it went away.
"I know who did this. I'm going to avenge her."
Eyes wide, his father said, "Who?"
Dahva left without answering. Down the stairs, out the door, into the street, buildings blurring by in his peripheral, legs pumping, breath heaving, to the palace wall that surrounded the royal families.
Saffron's Gate was the closest palace gate to Dahva's home. Two guards stood watch, helms and spear tips glinting in the torchlight. Dahva stalked forth.
"I demand entry," he said.
The guards looked at each other, then at Dahva.
"On whose authority?" asked one.
"There is no need," came a voice. "I am who this man seeks."
Dahva whirled. Faer stood twenty paces away. The nobleman spread his hands at his waist and smiled.
"Well, Wildling," he said. "How fares your sweet sister?"
Dahva's heart pounded, slamming blood into his extremities, and the darkness that had been gathering in his mind crowded the edges of his vision, nearly overtaking him. The world around him shook like an orange leaf clinging with desperate hope to a thin branch.
How could they not see it?
"Faer," he whispered. "You set this whole thing up you traitorous bastard! You made me kill her!"
"A Wildling!" Spittle flew from Faer's twisted lips. "Just like you! Just like your whole family! I trusted you, Dahva! I loved you like a brother! And you lied to me, betrayed me, made a fool of me!"
The darkness forced Dahva to take a step forward but he stopped. Faer looked incredulous.
"Are you going to kill me now, Wildling? I am not a bound and gagged girl. You don't have three friends to help you."
Dahva clenched his teeth shut, but a groan escaped. His hands opened and closed, aching to rip away the lace at Faer's collar and wrap around his throat.
"You sicken me," Faer continued. "Why must you come into my kingdom and take my land, my women, my life?"
Tendrils of black tentacled around Faer, groping and searching like blind snakes scenting food. Writhing ebony lines, thin wisps of thick smoke, curled around buildings, lampposts, eddied along pavestones and byways like a dark and sinister fog. It moved toward Dahva and began to coalesce around him. He pushed it back and the world trembled like a frightened child.
Dahva took another halting step, pushed by the darkness, the wild, living night.
Faer drew his sword. "You, guards!" he shouted. "I am Faer Navinhill, and I command you to stand aside. Do not interfere with me."
The guards looked at each other again. One of them disappeared through the gate.
"Come, Dahva," Faer said. "Come kill me."
Dahva dropped all his mental defenses and let the night flow into him, joining to his spirit, clicking into place like two pieces of a puzzle. It surged, filling his body as the world quaked. Mighty ocean waves broke against jagged cliffs. Boulders rumbled down a mountainside.
He almost laughed.
Dahva saw his father running toward them. The old man skidded to a halt several paces behind Faer.
"Release it, Dahva!" his father shouted. "Release it now!"
Release it? This? Why? What possible reason could he have to do that? Never.
Faer glanced over his shoulder. "Ah, treacherous smuggler." He looked back at Dahva, eyes narrow. "Release what?"
"He killed her, Father!" Dahva cried, pointing. The night pulsed and breathed around his outstretched arm.
"You are not innocent!" Faer shouted. "Just because you did not cast the first blow does not mean you are without fault!"
"You have broken the barrier, son!" His father pleaded. "You have no idea what you've done! Let it go before you destroy us all!"
With an anguished cry Dahva charged Faer. The nobleman was ready and his sword slid easily into Dahva's chest, but the breathing darkness would not be stopped. Dahva forced his way down the blade, reveling in the screaming pain that pierced him like the white hot fire of God's wrath, ignoring Faer's wide-eyed expression of horror, knowing that he only need touch him, just one touch, and Dahva would have his vengeance.
He gripped Faer's shoulders and poured living night into him. Faer stiffened, his back arched, mouth wide open as he looked to the sky. His skin blackened and cracked, curling at the edges like sun-baked earth. Steam hissed from the fissures. One of his arms snapped off, fell to the ground and crumbled to dust. Somewhere, someone was screaming, or perhaps many people, a vague scratching at Dahva's awareness. He ignored it as the world shook around him.
Faer's body collapsed into pieces at Dahva's feet.
Dahva looked down at the hilt protruding from his chest. He fell. Darkness claimed him.
When he opened his eyes, the sun stung them. He tried to lift a hand to block the glare but his arm would not obey him. Something rocked him gently as he lay on his back. Sounds converged. Horse hooves clopping on packed dirt. Rickety wood creaking. He realized he was in a moving wagon.
"Where am I?"
A shadow passed over him. He looked up into his father's face. The man gazed down on him with cold eyes.
"We are fleeing Imperial pursuit. We're on the road to the Wildlands, though we probably won't make it."
He turned away.
Dahva tried to remember what happened. Anya. Faer. The darkness. Ah, the night. Such power. Unimaginable force. Unstoppable.
"What have I become, Father?"
"Do not call me that. You murdered my daughter, and for that I hate you. You are not my son. You are a Wildling to the very core of your being, and I am getting rid of you. Everything I have worked for over the past forty years you have destroyed in a single night. Once we reach the Wildlands I care not what you do, but do not look at me and do not talk to me. I never want to see you again."
He contemplated his father's words with a calmness that surprised him. They were right to be afraid. All of them, every soul in the Ten Kingdoms, should flutter in fear of the power he commanded.
A slow smile spread over his mouth. The wild night had changed him. They would tremble with the world for taking his beloved sister away. They would learn fear.
I will teach them.