The village was called Fash.
They arrived just as dusk was falling, far later than Ged and Merti would have preferred. A wheel had gotten stuck in a patch of icy mud, and it had taken Atanar and Ged the better part of the afternoon to free both Pepper and the wagon. As it was, they were all muddy, tired, and more than ready to stop for the day.
“We did so well last week in Whitewater City,” Merti was saying as the wagon rolled toward the gates. “Why not treat ourselves to a nice room, a bath, and a hot meal?”
“What makes you think they’ll even let us in?” Ged asked, pointing at the setting sun.
“It’s not dark, yet,” Merti replied brightly.
Ged grunted. “So you think we’ve coin to toss away, like a bunch of third tier frips from Greenhill?”
“You said yourself you couldn’t remember the last time you slept in proper bed,” Merti pointed out. “And the both of you stink about as much as Pepper.”
“Cruel woman,” Ged replied, clutching at his chest in mock horror. “Atanar, do you hear how she abuses us?”
Atanar grinned as he tugged Pepper along the muddy road. “She speaks truly. You stink.”
“You’re no bundle of jessamin, yourself, son.”
“Now, now,” Merti broke in. “You both smell equally bad. Oh, Ged, there’s that little inn we stayed at that summer of the flood – do you remember? The innkeeper was so kind, and she made the most delicious bread.”
Atanar’s stomach snarled at the mere mention of food, causing everyone—including himself—to laugh aloud, and Ged gave an exaggerated sigh. “Well, it’s two against one – three, if Atanar’s gut gets a vote. I suppose that means we’ll act like civilized folk tonight, and get a good sleep before the market opens in the morning.”
So they reached Fash’s gates in good, if somewhat soggy, spirits. The gate guard, for there was only one in a small town like this, straightened and rested his hands on his sword in a manner that Atanar had long since grown familiar with. He’d been in Aredia nearly two months; most of the people here greeted him in such a manner: combative, but not threatening. Not yet. This man, like so many others, wanted to appear ready for a fight.
Of course, Atanar bore no sword any longer, but he would not be cowed by this guard – nor by anyone. He was a part of this country and these people now, whether any of them liked it or not. So he straightened his own shoulders and strode with a bit more purpose toward the guard, who watched the newcomers’ approach with wariness. The guard was not heavily armored; his thick, cured leather gear gleamed as if recently polished, and much the same could be said about his sword scabbard. He stood with all the confidence of one who had never faced death, and although he was large and sturdy for an Aredian, he was not as tall or as broad as a Canderi.
Atanar could have snapped him in half with one hand.
But it was a fleeting thought as he held Pepper still while Ged and Merti dismounted the wagon. The three of them walked up together, though the couple’s movements were slower and stiffer than they’d been. Atanar matched his pace to theirs and the three approached the gate guard slowly.
“Good day, serla,” Ged said with a short bow that was not returned. “Or, good evening, I suppose.”
The guard nodded, but the twist of his mouth exposed by his helmet made it clear he disliked doing even that much. Ged swept his hand back in a gesture meant to encompass Merti, the wagon, Pepper, and Atanar. “I know it’s late, but we were hoping to stay in Fash tonight and attend the market tomorrow. As you can see, we’ve had a bit of trouble on the road, and–”
“Mark?” the guard interrupted.
Ged offered his wrist, but the guard only gave a brief glance before shaking his head. “No entry for dregs after dusk. Come back when the sun rises.”
“There’s still light in the sky,” Ged said, spreading his hands. “Please, serla. It’s late, and we’ve had a long stretch of days. Surely, this one time, you can–”
“You know the laws,” the guard replied, then spat on the ground beside him as if to emphasize. “Leave now, and take them,” he pointed to Atanar and Merti, “away from here. We’ve had enough trouble with their kind lately.”
Merti flinched and ducked her head, and something within Atanar, something he wanted to blame on vorunn, bared its teeth at the guard. Atanar’s hand tightened upon the staff. He took a step forward–
“No, tigu,” Merti whispered, her hand warm on his arm. “I’m not worth it. We should just leave.”
Vorunn snarled; Atanar felt an answering rumble the back of his own throat. He tamped the feeling down, reminding himself of his conviction only moments ago. If you are to live here, you must follow their rules.
But he could not quell his anger. “This is foolish.”
“She’s right, son,” Ged added, turning away from the guard. How did he look so much older in the fading light? “We know the laws. Getting in this late was always a long-shot, anyway.”
Long-shot. Atanar did not know the phrase, but reckoned it to be an Aredian idiom. There were many, most of them foolish to his ears. Both Merti and Ged began to usher Atanar away from the gates. “We’ll make camp in that meadow we passed before,” Ged was saying. “It’s not too cold yet.”
“Aye,” Merti agreed, nodding. “And I’ve still some of those apple tarts we found in Whitewater. We’ll have a nice meal, anyway.”
But Atanar barely heard them through the blood pounding in his ears. “What did you do to deserve such treatment? How is it right that you are cast into the cold and darkness, all for a bit of ink on your skin, placed there by some slip of a girl who doesn’t know her ass from a hole in the ground?”
He ignored Ged and paused about five paces from the Fashian gates and their guard, and glanced over his shoulder. “Wrong. This One god of yours is wrong, to allow such treatment.”
The guard had drawn his sword, silent. Atanar met his eyes and was startled to see them illuminated by a faint light he could not see; the guard’s eyes were pale blue, like a fledgling fire. While the guard had been smirking, when Atanar met his gaze, he sucked in his breath and took a step backward, holding up his sword like a torch.
“Get that…creature out of here,” the guard said. “All of you; leave!”
The ironwood staff was heavy and strong in Atanar’s grip. Vorunn whispered, Kill it. Any protests that Atanar’s better sense begged died before becoming true thoughts. Atanar shook out of Ged and Merti’s grips and took a step forward. “Do you have no mercy in your heart?” he asked as he stalked the guard. “Or are you as empty as you are ugly?”
“Lad, it’s not worth it!”
“Tigu, please, come back!”
The guard’s sword trembled though he barked his reply. “Keep back! I know your kind. I know what you do. Monster!”
There it was again, that thrum of wild energy summoned by vorunn. Ancestors help him, for Atanar relished the sudden swell of anger and strength. For months now, he’d held it back, denying the fervor lashing his heart as he tried to live as an Aredian. But despite the mark on his wrist, he wasn’t an Aredian and he never would be. But nor was he a Canderi.
Maybe he really was a monster.
He stopped an arm’s length away from the guard and raised his staff. His voice was a growl he’d never heard. “I’ll remain outside the walls, but you will allow them entry.”
The guard stared at him, face lit as if Atanar held a lantern, and it gave Atanar a small measure of satisfaction that the sod had to look up to meet his eyes.
A wet daub of spittle struck Atanar’s cheek. The guard raised his trembling sword. “Go fuck yourself, vile creature.”
Atanar vanished, leaving only vorunn.
It happened so fast. Again.
The first time he’d ridden Ruuk, he’d not been able to control the massive snow lion, and had only been able to hang on as the great creature plummeted across the tundra. Then, the wind had howled in his ears and his heart had raced with terror and with exhilaration, because there was nothing, nothing like this moment of freedom, of wild joy, of being present with a creature so powerful. Atanar knew that he struck the guard with his staff, for his arms moved and his legs bent to add force to the blow, which reverberated through his body like a drumbeat.
The crack of wood against bone filled the air; the scent of blood followed. The smell jolted something within him, some memory he could not quite grasp, but he could not regain control of his body. He was dimly aware of a woman shrieking and a man calling out, Lad, lad, stop this, oh, please, stop! But Atanar was helpless.
Finally, something hard and heavy slammed into the back of his head. There was no pain, but the sudden impact was enough to pull him from vorunn’s thrall. When his eyes opened, he looked into Ged’s wide eyes and tear-streaked face.
“Oh, lad,” Ged whispered as he dropped a broken bottle. “What have you done?”
Shards of glass clinked softly as they cascaded down Atanar’s back to land around his feet. Blinking, he shook his head to clear it; as he did, both Ged and Merti shrank away from him as if any moment he’d burst into flames.
Memory trudged back to mind. The guard. Atanar looked toward the gate but only saw a corpse. The ironwood staff still in his own grip gleamed with blood. His mouth opened, but no sound came out. It was that night, all over again. Nel. What have I done?
Atanar turned away from Ged and Merti, and retched into the grass. But he could never expel vorunn, never be rid of that strange impulsion. Ruuk was dead. Tikaani and Kiluan were dead. His brother was dead. His hands would always bear crimson stains, no matter how much he washed them. It was so quiet here. No one else had come to Fash’s gates to find entry for the night. No one else had seen him…
Vorunn had not abandoned him, but he forced himself to think through the driving fury that pierced his heart. Ged and Merti. They had to flee before someone else came. They could not be tainted with his curse any longer. He’d been a fool to hope otherwise.
“Leave,” he managed. “Leave now.”
Tears streamed down Merti’s weathered cheeks; her pale hair glowed in the darkness. “Oh, Colin–”
“I told you it was a bad idea,” Ged said, his voice heavy with regret. “He’s not our Colin, Merti. He never was.”
“I know,” she sobbed. “But he will return. Won’t he?”
Ged took her hand, urging her away from Atanar, as they should have done months ago. They should never have gotten so close. Atanar should never have allowed such a thing. He was too dangerous to live. They hurried back to the wagon and Pepper, and within a few minutes were away, down the road. Gone.
Atanar was alone with the man he’d killed. It was for the best. So he told himself as he bent to collect his staff. A choice lay before him. He could remain here and accept what punishment the Aredians thought to set upon him: imprisonment, at least, but probably death. The honorable option would be to wait and accept his fate with a bowed head and a repentant heart. He’d searched for death before; now it would come for him swiftly.
But would vorunn take him over again when the Aredians came for him? How many men could he kill before they took him down for good. Despite the mark on his wrist, he was a Canderi, after all, a warrior born. In the best of times, he was dangerous. Now, he had only his life to lose, and that wasn’t saying much.
Like any predator it would pursue only in part. It would track Atanar’s steps and wait for a moment of weakness, when the Canderi man would surrender to the crippling weight of sorrow and shame, when he would fall to his knees. Then it would strike.
There was no point in running from the monster any longer; his only aim now was to put as much distance between himself and anyone else before vorunn swallowed him whole.
Even so, before he fled into the night, Atanar checked the guard’s pockets and took his purse, filled with coins. Easy hunting.
Thank you for coming along with me on this journey. Atanar’s story continues in SURRENDER (CATALYST MOON, BOOK 4)
Many thanks to my beta-readers, Imke, Isabella, and magicscreenman, whose input and advice breathed life into Atanar’s story. 🙂
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Thanks again for reading, and stay safe. 💜