The heat of a gun barrel pressed against the back of my neck was alarming. The gentle quiver of the hand which held it even more so. A hot gun barrel to the back indicates someone for whom the firing of the pistol is no longer in question. There must have been a test fire moments ago. Something my aging ears missed; muffled perhaps by the morning mist rising from the lake. The shaking hand, though... That was a problem. Adrenaline and inexperience could end my life if my assailant got jumpy. I left my hands on the cold stone of the crenelated wall, frozen in position. Focused on breathing steadily. Kept things nice and calm.
The barrel shifted to my back, just on my spine between my lungs. A firm push. “Move,” said a raspy voice. Indistinct, non-gendered. A tall woman or a short man from the positioning. Other hand on the shoulder to steer me. Gloved. My mind raced to calculate angles, find information. What had I missed? Latch on to any port in the oncoming storm.
I opened my mouth, prepared to question. “No talking,” said the voice. “One word and you’re a body in the lake.” The voice was more distinct as we slowly walked along the wall. Female. Choked with tears and strained with the task at hand. Something I did to a woman. Something I did to her family. Worse than I thought. No reasoning with this kind of vengeance. “You turn your head and you’re dead.”
We passed the spot where my lieutenant and best friend Alan had died years and years ago. Died defending us when the ghul army attacked. Creatures from legends who summoned magic as easily as we pull a trigger. You can still see the scorch marks where he had been standing.
We emerged from behind the main keep and continued along the top of the wall over the children’s courtyard. The mist was starting to thin and I could see a few of the youth already out playing with a ball. Children young enough to have never known the war. No adults in sight.
“Don’t try anything,” came the whisper.
I wouldn’t have. I’m no fool. A hundred desperate battles and a thousand scars had made me tough - made me strong. Taught me to wait for the right moment. But would there be a right moment?
We descended into the cobbled alleys between ancient stone structures. Nobody but fishermen really came out this early. But where could she be taking me? If she wanted me dead I’d have been dead, wouldn’t I? Or was there a ritual - some path of vengeance she was determined to make me walk? Something she wanted me to see before killing me? I knew far too well that desire - the desperate want to prove to the guilty how badly and how deeply they’d harmed.
We skirted the decaying black stones in the tight area between structures where we’d killed the gug - the nightmare creature. It had taken the lives of two dozen defenders before I had finally been able to finish it off. Used our last grenade. Killed 4 good men in the process, but it was either those 4 or the 180 terrified souls in the castle behind us. It hadn’t been a hard choice, but it had made the following months and years vastly more empty for me.
Another lane, another building, more memories. The house where we tortured a witch we had discovered hiding among us. The street where the ghul ambassador had decided to molt. The dryad tree we had each fed with a little of our own blood. The shed where we cached our ammunition - now mostly gone. Death and blood and monsters and hope. Leading my men to triumph and to death. Years of defending and attacking until they stopped trying to fight us.
Finally we passed through the outer wall and to the dock. Waves lapped against the pier and I saw that our fishermen had already left for the morning. A sole fishing boat from the shore communities was waiting there. Grim men toiled over nets and line, looked up at me, then back to their work.
“Get on the boat, Edward,” the voice said softly.
I stepped onto the boat and it cast off. After a few seconds I turned around at last to see the anguish and the tear stains on her cheeks, the strength in her frame.
“Don’t come back,” she said.
Alan’s daughter. Lost a father to a war, lost a husband to a nightmare and a grenade. I was lucky to be alive at all. I thought about the other fifty or sixty men I’d led to their deaths. I nodded and took another step back onto the deck. “Don’t worry,” I said, “I was leaving anyway.” I knew it was the truth.
The sun emerged at last and the island fortress was revealed in ruinous splendor - one of the last safe places on the earth. Seeing it like that... for the first time I wondered if it was worth the cumilative cost we paid to make it safe. The compromises. The deals. The lives. Let them blame me, I thought. I think I may be strong enough now.
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