You think you understand death.
Understand what it means for the life in someone's lungs to leave and never return. But you don't. Not until you've seen it. Really seen it. Not until it gets under your skin and lives inside you, controlling everything you do. From then on it owns you. Sometimes distantly, just faraway enough so that you at times come close to forgetting it’s there.
But it is.
Try as I might, the trembling of my right hand refused to cease. I worked through the old drills in my head over and over, just as the Master had taught me, but they did little good.
My nerves threatened my very life.
I wondered briefly what the old Master of Arms would say if he could see me now, but I quickly ended that thought. The rawness of his passing had yet to fade in even the slightest way. Working myself up would only guarantee that these next few moments would be my last.
The man and his friend closed in, blocking from me the view I had of the city I meant to be in. Less than a league away and I would have been clear, perhaps even welcome. But if I made the city tonight, it would not be without the blood of these two men on my hands.
I had heard the rumours just as everyone else had, that these roads were falling one by one. It didn't seem all long ago that I stood near this very place, wondering with the old encryption Master at a sect of priests as they passed our caravan. They seemed like memories of someone else's conscious. Still, I was surprised. Time had lost its precision for me, but I doubted it had been much more than a year.
It was amazing to me to see truly how little time it took for the ugly in desperate men to manifest. Had the day been two years ago, and someone tried telling me that bandits lay outside the city, I would have deemed them mad. But here I was, staring two of them down, wondering how many had fallen to their crude axes before me. The thought stirred an anger that replaced some of the shakes.
Was to kill a killer a murder?
I hoped not.
The smaller of the two stayed a few feet behind, holding his ax by its crescent moon. He spoke as if I were not there.
“You take this one, Gally. I’ve just about done my arm in.”
The larger man shrugged and advanced on me, his presence one far greater than mine. His weapon was most certainly not designed to kill, but the blunt triangle of a wood ax together with the force I'm sure his massive arms held, was no doubt enough to snub the life in me. If I was to survive this, it would be with speed and surprise, not brute strength. Perhaps the man would underestimate my childlike appearance.
“Sorry lad, I would let you go but we cant have you running off and scaring away business.”
He didn't strike me as being sorry.
His boots made a splash as they reached the same puddle I was standing in. I waited until he was just out of arms reach to pull out the Master's blade. He halted a hairsbreadth too far away to strike, eyes wide and fixed on the sword.
“Eh Jem, look at this!”
I watched the other man nod eagerly. “Aye, that’ll do nicely.”
The Gally man continued his advance, raising his coarse weapon above his head. There was a second before the frenzy of action took place where I pitied anyone having to meet their end under that foul a bludgeon.
His step was matched with my own, but as he lurched forward I feigned a jump to the right, instead ducking left to where the mans side would be exposed to me. I saw the surprise in his eyes, knowing that was the only move I’d get away with.
The thing about being underestimated, was that it only happened once.
Quickly, and with every ounce of power I had, I drew the sharp blade against his side just below the rib cage, knowing my adolescent arms didn't have the strength to stab him. I watched it cut through the cotton shirt like it was air, and bite viciously into the flesh underneath. He screamed as the gash opened, spitting his sides.
As I pulled away out of his axe's arc I knew that regardless of who won this fight, that man would die. But the wound wasn't enough to end him right there. He whipped around to where I stood a few feet to his side. The fury in his eyes enough to let me know he wasn't willing to walk away.
Slowed, but savagely resilient he marched to me as the cut bled, staining the side of his dirtied shirt a wine red. He paid it no mind.
When he was close enough again he swung the axe in another violent curve, my upper body standing quiet clearly in the middle of its aimed trajectory. I dove backwards in an awkward half fall and jump, wincing as something in my chest snapped loudly.
Knowing there was little time to worry of it, and even less to do anything, I scrambled quickly to my feet, trying to dodge the return backhand of the man’s strike.
I was close, but not fast enough.
The edge of the axe clipped my right cheek, cutting deeply a wound no longer than my little finger. I gasped at the searing pain that erupted in the right half of my face.
I pulled away then, staying several long strides outside the axes range. The vision in my right eye began to fade with what I hoped was just swelling, but it felt almost as if I were crying warm tears.
The man’s face had taken on a blanched look, and I saw in his eyes the panicked realization of how severe the injury was. The twisting motion he had made with his torso had doubled the amount of blood pouring from the agape gash in his side. He looked pleadingly to his friend, who stood back, staring wide eyed at the blood. The smaller man made no move to help.
Gally met his end as he looked away from his companion to where I had been standing. I had dashed forward though, at his moments distraction, levelling the sword in front of me as if it were more a lance than blade.
From a motionless point I had almost no chance of being able to stab the man effectively, but with a running speed behind me, I was able to ensure that the blade passed straight through him. It was a sensation so odd that later I couldn’t find the words to describe it.
I pressed the hilt of the weapon against my chest, holding it firm with both hands. Slamming into him wrought my own lungs of air, but after the initial shock I recovered enough to see that the sword was hilt deep in the mans lower stomach. My surprise though didn't come close to matching his, as he gazed down at the weapon draining the life from him. It was a horrific scene to look upon.
He didn't even attempt another swing at me.
When he began to fall backwards I pulled with all my might at the exposed hilt, just managing to dislodge it in time.
It slid free with a gruesome noise, coated thickly in red.
With a small thump the man hit the ground, convulsing in death as I stepped over him. With his presence no longer hiding the second man from sight, I advanced on the bandit named Jem, taking advantage of the state of shock he seemed to be in.
He was probably close to forty summers, but no bigger than I was at fifteen. The axe he held trembled in his grip, but he stayed firm, his eyes narrowing in what may have been anger. He waited for me to take the offensive, and unwilling to lose the sense of momentum I had, I did exactly that.
In what the Master had once called a poor man’s shuffle, I placed my right foot ahead of the other, angling my body so that only my side was vulnerable. It forced me to fight single handed, but I remembered feeling more at ease training this way than any other.
We circled each other a moment before I tested for any sort of defence he might have, jabbing quickly for points of weakness. I saw almost immediately the man had little, if any at all, actual training in one on one combat.
I faked an obvious opening in my own defence and the man took it, failing to see the trap. He swung his axe downwards and I easily side stepped, coming into his guard with a simple maneuver of footwork. There was no time for him to counterstrike, but he made a desperate attempt anyway.
Switching stances so I could use both hands I brought down the blade hard into his shoulder. With a sickening crunch it buried deep into his upper chest.
The man gave a scream of unmitigated pain and dropped his axe. Forgetting me, he fumbled and clawed at the sword stuck in his shoulder, his life’s blood emptying out around it.
After a minute he gave up trying to pull the weapon free and instead stumbled a few feet back, his scream morphing into a noise so much more haunting, and even though he was still alive, I couldn't bare watching any longer.
As he continued to wail, I fell to my knees and crawled to a nearby bush, violently throwing up the little I had in my stomach. A set of convulsions not unlike the death throws of the first man wrought my own frame as I tried hard to batter away the unconsciousness. My mind was fighting to pull me into the blackness, but as tempting as it was, I pushed back. I clung tightly to the throbbing pain of my face, and the sudden balloon like feeling in my chest. I let it keep me tethered to the wakeful world.
After perhaps another five minutes of doing my best to hide from the ghastly moans, they choked a moment, and ended all together.
It was another hour before I racked the courage to drag myself out from the small shrubbery and face what I had done.
The scene almost made me wish I had simply let them kill me. At least then I wouldn't have been forced to see the carnage I was staring at now.
The first man lay contorted where I had left him, his limbs tangled together with angles that set my teeth on edge. The second man had found his way to the forest line, finally succumbing to the buried blade a few feet from where I had first spotted them.
Neither moved any more.