Ask any man or woman in the militia and they’ll say I was the great hero.
Ask any man or woman in the cities and they’ll say I was the great betrayer.
Ask the thousands I killed and they’ll say nothing.
I say this is the truth and I don’t care for opinion either way.
I tell my story because a child asked me to.
She said the brand is engraved on your soul by the gods.
I never saw a grain of evidence the gods existed. If they did, they were cruel and unjust bastards, not worthy of worship by a dog, let alone men and women. I’ve seen temples overflowing with good people who begged for deliverance because priests convinced them help would come, if they prayed sincerely. All they received from the gods was silence and death.
I choose to begin my story here, in the time before I received my brand – it was during Progression my life was irrevocably changed. Three days away from the village, away from the Elders, away from anything and everything, while you consider your future, before Assessment decides your place for life. I’ve heard some choose to spend it in contemplation, or reading holy books, trying to be a perfect person, so the gods will give them what they most desire, as a reward. Stupidity compounded by ignorance – Elly and I headed for the Long Hills, simply to be alone together, doing whatever we wanted.
Even now, though the pictures have dimmed in the years that have passed, I remember thick black hair lying across her shoulders, with dark, flashing eyes to match, and high cheekbones that accentuated her mouth. She said her ears stuck out too much, but you couldn’t see them for the hair flowing over them, anyway. When she smiled, you had to. Back then, it made me feel as if I was standing on the beach, not knowing which way I’d stagger as the sea-rush pulled the sand from under my feet.
We’d stopped at the foot of the Long Hills for a rest when we found a stream, and I filled our waterskins. By following the stream up the slope, I hoped to find a small pool we could camp near. The hills were wooded as far as the eye could see, and we’d trekked half a day from Newstead Settlement to get here. Hunters were the only people we might encounter, but with game plentiful across the forests close to the village, I doubt they needed to. We were alone. I stood and handed Elly her waterskin, and she draped it over her shoulder.
“Four days to go,” she said, and her voice trembled.
“Don’t think about it.”
“I can’t help it,” she said. “The Assessors will be here soon. You remember the last time? I was terrified I’d say the wrong thing.”
“Elly, we were nine years old,” I reminded her “I’m sure they make allowances.”
“Mother says they listen as much to the children as the grown-ups, because they’re less likely to lie.”
“Nobody lies to the Assessors.”
She looked down for a moment, then back at me.
“I had a letter from Izzy,” she said, close to tears. “She hates the city. It’s been a year and they’re all horrid to her and—”
I pressed a finger to her lips. Tears spilled over her lashes and I gathered her into my arms, rocking her, as she cried on my shoulder.
“Izzy couldn’t be trained here,” I said gently. “She had to go to Spring City, you know that. Elder Fieldstone retires soon, and Izzy will be home, and never go away again.”
Elly pulled back and her face was stark.
“What about us?” she asked, and the fear in her voice made my legs weak.
“Elly, we have to trust the Balance,” I said. “Niall finishes his apprenticeship in a thirtyday – he wants to leave the village and see the ancient cities, and Leif will ask for me. The smithy’s getting busier and busier, he needs me.” She started to speak, and I overrode her. “How many times has Elder Goodman told you you’re the best student he’s ever had? I get sick of hearing it, to be honest.”
This made her smile.
“Look at the trouble he has, running two classes, and you’ve already shown how good you are with the little ones. We have to trust the Balance, Elly, it keeps us safe. If either of us has to go away to train, then so be it. My father was away two years, and look how happy they are now.”
“I don’t want us to be apart,” Elly said, and more tears came.
“I’d lie, if it kept you here,” she whispered. “Would you lie for me?”
How this moment would come back to haunt me. I looked into those dark eyes, and took her hand.
“I would lie ten times over and ten times again,” I said. Her eyes widened, and I lost myself in them for a moment. “I would stand for you, if they tried to take you away from me.”
She gasped. I was telling the truth – I would stand and defy the Balance, even if it meant we were both sent to the far north for the rest of our lives. I would link our fates, to stay with her, there was nothing else to it.
“You won’t need to lie for me, and I won’t need to lie for you, Ellyanna Fairstaff,” I said with emphasis. “We’ll tell the truth to the Assessors, and we shall be together. Besides,” I added with a smile, “I could never marry a liar.”
She swung the waterskin, hard. I ducked and grabbed both hands before she could try again. She stared at me for a moment, then rested her head against my chest, and I slipped my arms around her again.
“I’m so scared,” she whispered. “Granny Coldstone says the moon had a casting shadow two nights ago, and it harbours ill-will.”
“Did you see it?”
“I didn’t see it either, so it can’t harbour ill-will to us, can it?”
Granny Coldstone’s backside was thin and scrawny, but I wanted to kick it, anyway. I could be a bit lax in fixing her roof tiles, see how she’d like that. Maybe some summer rain coming through would be ill-will enough, for frightening Elly just before our Assessment. Interfering busybody. I hated seeing Elly like this, and hugged her again. I never believed in superstitions, but perhaps I should have.
“We’re on Progression, Elly. Just you and me, nobody around for leagues, and I can’t think of anything better than that, can you?”
She made a noise that could have been agreement, and I held her close for a few moments.
“Come on, let’s find a good place to camp,” I said.
“We don’t want to go too far,” Elly said, as I turned to go.
I smiled at her anxiety, and we climbed the Long Hills. It took strong leg-work and we were at least half way to the summit when we found the perfect place. I helped Elly take her pack off, and shrugged my own from my shoulders, windmilling my arms to get the blood flowing. She began unpacking, and laid everything out on the grass, to fashion our shelter.
The clearing we stood in was a natural plateau on the hillside. A large pool had formed in a deep depression, the hill stream following the line of least resistance, and a small waterfall trickled into it from the rocks above. A fallen oak tree stretched along one side of the clearing, making a perfect wind break. There was space around the pool, and the grass underfoot was thick and springy. Sunlight slanted, wide beams that gave enough light for small shrubs and flowers to grow. There were no paths, no tracks man had made, and the only sounds were birdsong and the sighing of the wind through the branches. It would be perfect for the first night of our Progression.
Small rounded pebbles carpeted the shallows of the pool, and reflected the sunlight that dappled through the trees. But the deeper water was shadowed, and as I stared into it someone walked over my grave and I shivered. For a moment I didn’t want to spend the night here, but the moment passed, and I concentrated on getting our camp ready.
I dug a latrine pit some distance from our camp, collected wood, and tried to coax the fire into life, but it was laggard in catching, no matter how I fanned it. Eventually, small flames licked at the kindling and I laid a few larger pieces on it. Elly fashioned our shelter at the end of the fallen tree, stretching the canvas of our packs to form a roof, and laid our sleeping rolls and spare clothes beneath it. I took off my boots and socks, and stepped into the pool to fill the copper kettle. As I trod on a pebble a shock ran through my foot and I hopped backwards, almost falling.
“What?” Elly asked.
“Damn pebble stung me,” I said, and she burst out laughing.
Feeling foolish, I edged back in, and cautiously touched the rim of a stone with my toes, quickly withdrawing my foot. Nothing. I did it again, longer this time, and still nothing. I pressed my foot onto it, and cursed my foolishness. I stepped further in, and bent and filled the kettle.
I wouldn’t ever say I was grateful I was the first into the pool, but in time I came to recognise I bore it better – what befell me – than Elly could possibly have done. But I give neither thanks to gods nor man that we happened upon the pool, and if I had my time over, I would ensure we never walked within ten leagues of it.
I set the kettle on the tripod and fanned the weak flames some more.
“I’m going for a swim,” Elly said, when she finished tidying our shelter.
She started to undo the drawstrings on her blouse.
“The water’s cold,” I warned her. “I’ll collect more firewood.”
“Aren’t you coming in?” she asked. “We’re on Progression, remember?
My heart almost stopped. Elly, who was nervous about being away from the village was replaced by another woman with a glint in her eye. The thought of us swimming together excited and frightened me in the same instant. Elly unfastened another tie, and I couldn’t move. She undid two more and her blouse fell open. She tugged the tails from her skirt, and all the time her eyes were locked on mine. She bent and pulled off her boots and socks, and I tried to look into her eyes as her shift fell forwards. I was mostly successful. My heart was hammering now, as if to make up for the thrill that had caused it to falter, but I still couldn’t move. Elly tipped her head to one side and smiled.
“Come on, idler,” she said. “There’s no one here but us.”
My shirt came over my head in an instant. I stepped on the heel of my boot, pulled my foot out, dragging the sock with it, and the other boot came off the same way. Elly slid the blouse from her shoulders and dropped it to the ground. I tried to clear my throat, but it came out as a squeak, as my fingers worked the top button of my breeches. I risked a look at her and saw such excitement there. Elly unbuttoned her skirt, hooked her thumbs into her waistband, paused for a moment, then eased it over her hips, dropping it onto the grass. Her shift hung from her shoulders to her knees – it was thin cotton, and with the sun behind her I could see every curve.
Holding onto my underthings with nerveless fingers, I pushed my breeches over my hips and they snagged but fell to the ground. Elly stared at me, then crossed her hands at her hips, grasped her shift and pulled it up over her head, dropping it to the ground after a moment’s hesitation. I could scarcely breathe, but pushed my underthings down, and stepped out of them. Elly took my hand, and we faced the pool, then raced into the water.
The shallows tripped us and we dived forwards, letting go our hands. The chill of the cold water on every inch of skin was exhilarating and shocking in the same instant. I glided through the water, and surfaced.
“It’s unbalanced freezing!” Elly cried, her hair slicked back, her eyes wild. She grabbed at me, and clasped both arms around my neck, her legs snaking around my waist and I kicked strongly to keep us afloat. I put one arm around her back and felt the warmth of her body against me, through the cold of the water. I kept us afloat, intoxicated by the feel of her skin against mine. The motion of our bodies inflamed me, and I held my breath as Elly stared at me, eyes wide.
Even on Progression, what we were doing was so wrong, it was frightening – so frightening, I couldn’t stop. Elly released her grip slightly and slid down my body, rubbing her groin against me. The wetness of her kiss sent a shiver down my spine that had nothing to do with the cold. She ground herself against me, and her tongue slipped into my mouth, entwining my own. I slid my hand down, cupping the curve of her bottom, and she moaned into my mouth, then abruptly let go, pushing against my chest, releasing her legs, swimming away from me.
“We shouldn’t… we mustn’t…” she said in a voice barely above a whisper, as we trod water, staring into each other’s eyes.
She smiled, tentatively at first, and it broadened into the one that always made me join in. She laughed, and I heard the relief and the regret, both.
“Come on,” I said. “We’ll catch the flux if we stay in here.”
I swam to the shallows and she followed me. I stood and held a hand out to help her up, and looked at her as she rose, the water sliding like quicksilver from her nakedness. I looked because I wanted to. Because I had to. Because her body entranced me. She stood upright, let go of my hand and stared back at me, coiling her hair around her shoulder and squeezing water from it, one knee slightly bent. Proud and unselfconscious. I gloried in her beauty, and she knew it. She stood a moment longer, and then shivered. Goose flesh shimmered across her skin, and she hugged herself.
“I’ll get the fire going,” I said, and tore my eyes away from her. The fire still wasn’t burning very well, and I cursed as I hurried to it, reaching out to fan it. A tingle ran down my arm and something leapt from me to the fire. With a noise like an enormous bellows pumping, a sheet of flame shot up, searingly hot on my face and died away an instant later. Overhanging branches danced upwards, as though trying to escape, scorched leaves caught fire, and I fell back, sprawling on the grass, scrambling up just as quickly. Elly stood staring, open-mouthed.
“What was that?” she asked. I put my arm around her, our nakedness forgotten for a moment.
“One of the logs must have had gases trapped inside it, from the decay,” I lied. “Like the marsh gas when we empty the sluice pits – remember how that burns?”
“Oh.” The tension fell from her shoulders as she accepted my explanation. “At least it’s burning well.”
It was true. All the logs burned fiercely and gave off strong heat, a great deal more than you’d expect. I’ve no idea why I lied to Elly, but you don’t invite fear to a feast unless you’re certain it can be consumed.