Content Advisory: Mild Violence

I ease my cloak back with my hand, allowing me to reach the quiver of arrows strapped to my waist belt. The frigid wind swirls around me, making my cloak flutter. I don’t try to readjust my cloak, despite the cold. I can’t risk losing my shot. My layers of animal furs and leather coat will suffice for warmth. I glance along the length of the street one more time to ensure that I’m well away from any dim yellow light of the street lanterns mounted on their poles. I’m standing on the roof of the Standing Elk, the inn and tavern I checked in to a night ago. Just hours after Trolan did.

He should be back soon. It’s well past dark, and flurries of snow accompany the wind. It’s the beginning of a mean storm. This far north, in the city of Silantgrisp, anyone caught out after dark—in winter, no less—is as good as dead. Further assurance that he’s coming back: the innkeeper said that Trolan was planning on spending at least one more night.

I scan the mostly-deserted street. A few pedestrians keep their cloaks tight about them as they hurry back to their homes, but there is still no sign of Trolan. I readjust my grip on my reflex bow. My fingers are cold, but the wind can’t quite numb them through the leather gloves. I nock an arrow, sliding the groove onto the bowstring. I don’t draw it back yet; Trolan hasn’t shown himself, and I can only count on getting off one shot.

I check my arrow to be sure it’s firmly situated. Nothing left to do, I wait. And with nothing left to distract myself with, the memories quickly resurface.

*     *     *

I was eight years old. I remember waking up in my three-room cottage and walking into the main room.

“Happy birthday, Londaen!” my mother said, smiling down at me. My father grinned as he displayed a long, curved piece of wood. Just what I’d always dreamed of having! My very own bow!

“Thanks, dad!” I shouted, throwing my arms around his neck. I felt my neck press against his thin brown beard; I felt his strong, reassuring arms around me.

I spent the entire day practicing with my bow. My father spent the day with me, instructing me, helping me aim.

“Remember to draw all the way back to your cheek, son!” he would instruct me, playful authority in his voice. “Even if it makes your arm sore the next day.”

I was a terrible shot, but by the end of the day, I had finally hit the tree I had been aiming at. The arrow didn’t stick in, falling pathetically to the ground instead. I kept training. After five months, I could hit a notch on any tree from a hundred feet while riding on a rickety wagon. I never missed.

And then Trolan came. It was a year later; I was barely nine. It was a crisp autumn morning. I was out slopping the pigs. My father was in the barn piling hay, and my mother was feeding the chickens.

Two soldiers cantered up to our farm on their lightly armored mounts. The horses trotted with an air of authority, but the soldiers themselves were even more impressive than the steeds. They wore sparkling chain mail jerkins and steel gauntlets, boots, and helmets. Over the chain mail, they wore yellow tunics with white trim and the King’s crest emblazoned over the left breast.

My father came out to talk to them, sweat glistening on his bare chest as he leaned nonthreateningly on his pitchfork. I pretended not to pay attention as I continued slopping the pigs, but I could hear every word.

“Hello, sirs,” my father greeted, bowing. “What business brings the King’s soldiers all the way out here?”

“Unfortunate business,” one of the soldiers responded.

He had a deep voice, which seemed strange to me, as he was clean-shaven. I had always associated deep voices with thick black beards. “We captured a regional criminal three days ago, but he escaped. We have tracked him this far, but haven’t recovered him yet.”

I wasn’t watching, but by his tone I could imagine my father frowning, his brow furrowed. “What is his name?”

“Trolan,” the soldier said. “Trolan Ryen. He’s average height, well-built, muscled. He has facial scruff, blue eyes, blonde hair down almost to his shoulders, and a deep scar on his forehead. A hard look in his face.”

“Do you need anything of us?” my father asked, his voice calm and indifferent.

“If you haven’t seen anything, then no,” the soldier said. “We just wanted to warn the locals to be cautious for a few days.”

“Thank you for the warning,” my father said.

“Of course,” the soldier replied brusquely. He continued, “take precautions; he is dangerous. An enemy of the King. Another patrol will come this way tomorrow morning. Let them know if you see him.”

“It will be done,” my father answered. “If I may, what was his crime?”

“Trespasses against the King. Theft. Murder.”

The soldier clicked his tongue at his horse and the two men rode away, his response hanging in the air.

That night, as the sunset merged with twilight, my mother had just finished setting the table. She went to the barn as my father washed his face.

A minute later her scream pierced the calm of the evening. She screamed again, a strangled scream that was cut short. My father slammed through the door, his bare feet pounding toward the barn. I ran after him, wailing. My father burst into the barn. I heard him shout once in anger, once in pain.

The man the soldier had described dashed out of the barn, holding a bloody hatchet.

I tried to fight him. He simply pushed me to the ground and ran away. I blacked out as my head struck the hard-packed earth.

*     *     *

I’m twenty-one now. It’s been a long, cold thirteen years. But now I will finally make Trolan pay for his wrongs. My parents will be avenged.

Finally, I see him. He’s walking with his head down, his cloak around him and his hood over his head. Despite his hood, I am confident that it’s him. He steps into the light of the street lamps and I catch a glimpse of his face. I draw my bow back. I can hear the wood creak as it bends under my pressure.

I made the bow a few years ago. It’s not the one my father made me. I broke that one as I grew older. I grew too strong for it, and it snapped. But I’ve kept a splinter from it. I wear it on a piece of twine around my neck. Mainly to comfort me; it’s the only thing from my parents that I still have.

I raise the bow, compensating for the wind by aiming a little too far to the right. At this trajectory, the arrow will fly straight into his heart.

A gust of wind makes my cloak flap again, tugging at my necklace. I feel the splinter of wood as it brushes my chest.

I hesitate. I’m not afraid to kill him. I’ve been attacked before. I have even killed people before, in self-defense. But I’ve never murdered someone in cold blood. I am not a murderer.

But Trolan killed my parents. He deserves to die.

Will that really change anything? Killing him won’t bring my parents back. I can almost hear my father’s voice, speaking in a scornful, angry tone I’ve never heard him use before: “good job, son. You are a murderer. I’m so proud!”

I shake the thoughts away. Revenge out of the picture, Trolan is still a murderer. He’s still dangerous and needs to be stopped. Aren’t I doing the kingdom a service? I think the soldiers would say so.

Suddenly a young child runs up to Trolan. I can hear him laughing as he reaches down to embrace her. When he bends down, his hood comes off. Any hesitation or uncertainty I might have had is gone. It’s Trolan, beyond the shadow of a doubt.

His laugh is the joy of a father. My own father sounded the same way when he laughed with me.

A woman walks out, holding her woolen cloak tight around her. Trolan stands up from hugging the child and kisses the woman. They start to walk together toward the inn.

I still have a chance. He is completely exposed. He’s a murderer. Of many others besides just my parents. He’s dangerous.

Choose. Now.

I have maybe two seconds left before I won’t have a clean shot anymore. And who knows if I’ll ever get this chance again?

I close my eyes for a fraction of a second, seeing my parents’ lifeless faces.

I open my eyes, seeing Trolan arm-in-arm with that woman, and holding the hand of the little girl.

I let out my breath and lower my bow.