What did a half-wit make of death? Ohern looked out the broken window of the farmstead at the young man near its porch, scuffing in the dirt with his feet, frowning. Inside the farm house was painted from slaughter.
Ohern had seen death like this before, always too close. Faces staring, heads gathered then left but at least left, the pieces of child next to the pieces of mother, a tangle of stilled effort. How many children did Dane have, four, five? It was four. Had they all suffered? He was a fool for wanting to think they hadn’t. A fool for hoping their death had come quickly where no death should have come at all.
Deal would not come back into the house. A stone in my shoe. Ohern had said this once. Nothing ever registered in the boy that he could tell. Ohern looked out the window at him again, a man but for his mind with a scruff of colt’s hair on a face too young, a face never shaved and those eyes. What had his small mind seen in there?
The things Ohern knew about killing could not help the dead. He could feel his memories call to him and remind him as though the chair, the same curtains, the porch had waited these years for him to return but these things were shamed and chided by the other things Ohern could not remember, the things which were different. Those things did not welcome him, a stranger, and they held their foreignness up refuting him with a cool distance, their indifference forbidding him entry though there he stood now, as others had only a day before, unbidden. It was in those arms now that the family slept and Ohern could not remove them. Everywhere he felt unfamiliarity and a cold strong enough to compel him to shrug off this insistent but false dream of having known the dead.
A crude clay jug that they once drank well water from urged motionless and empty on a sill. He did not have to look to know it did not hold water any more. It was the smallness of these differences that wounded him more than their killing, reiterating his choice. A choice that was no choice at all only him discontinuing his visits until the home and the man and his wife and their children were a thing he avoided. And here he was now. Was it ok to talk, to say hello now? Could he tell them now that he did not know why? Would they have asked?
He moved back to the window to find Deal out side. His steps were careful and light as though the floor were brittle and heavy steps could break it. Deal was batting a sigweed. The dull blue petals were thick and balled, resilient to such meddling. He swatted it like a toy. It bowed its flexible stem then righted again. “Dop, dop,” he kept saying as it rose back up to his palm. He was smart enough not to hit it hard enough to break it. How long did it take him to learn that?
He could not find Dane’s head or body. The place had been sacked but the killing took place first, the dismemberment after the sacking. Blood spoke words, told stories, and he knew blood. Where you would or would not expect to find it, when it moved itself and when others moved it, things obvious now that were just blood to him before, years before all of this. There was blood on the wrong side of a table leg, dripping up, Urine over dry blood spots near his feet. What happened in here, but he knew what happened. He thought of the screaming that the silence now betrayed. The sweat of fear and the anger, the fatigue of helplessness, Help, but no one answered. The mess a woman dying makes, the mess of a child fighting a firmly held knife, this is what he saw, not the mess of a man trying to take a life and a man trying to keep it.
The blood had left them and rested like an unwatched child in a place where it would stay, unbecome the child it had been, dry, a different thing now and no longer the laughter, the hope, not the face now furrowed, a heavy flame of torn flesh, but brown as the sweetness leaving and soon it would not be there at all.
Find them and kill them. Peace in the Northern Province was this easy. Find and kill the ones responsible. No Scribe needed. I am the Laws, he thought. Knowing who was enough, but who?
He had worked their yard. It was years ago and there was distance between he
and Dane but it was not a dark distance. It was there still and something else, he was a stranger now. He turned to ask permission to be there, to explain himself, they were returning and would find him an intruder. They would be correct. He was not invited as those who had done this were not invited before him. He waited but words come slow from dead lips.
He took his hand off the pommel of his sword though the sword kept it from shaking. He rubbed the crease of the filigree from his palm then returned it. Attention is drawn to what is hid. This is a law of the world even without Her. The hidden cannot abide its state. That was the training of real warriors, in the south, in Kias where he was from. When you hear blood, you lose a part of yourself, the teachers told him. A warrior cannot remain only warrior. Where was his training now? Was this his helped looked for, a string of words soon undecipherable though once known. He knew fear was not a weakness, it was a choice, but this was not fear, there were memories here. He chilled. He repeated it to himself. A man’s strength is all he has.
But there are different kinds of strength Ohern, and only so many words find their use with warriors. Old as he was he was still this. He looked to see her in a window, a reflection of a dream of his mind but she was not there.
There was nothing but death in the house. There was nothing there at all.
Whoever had done this was gone. He pushed aside a sack with his foot and righted the bench that had not been broken on them. He pulled out the knives, the ones dulled then sheathed in their skin with indifference. He remembered Cay, Danes wife, her lunches when they put up that fence. You’ve got a three tree fence, he had said. How Cay had laughed. She was beautiful the way comely women are found beautiful my lonely men. He did not look away from comely women the way he looked away from beautiful ones. There was acceptance there that cannot be found elsewhere. Dane loved her good. Even when angry, and he could fly into a rage. Even when angry, he loved her. But that was years ago. He thought of putting her together again but couldn’t touch them with his hands, as though they screamed against it. So much of dying was the body without life, the trust of the dead, a warning to a place in him deeper than the Light gone out.
There was no way Dane could have done it but his body was not there. Was it strewn about some hundred feet towards the wood maybe, lost to whatever hoard accomplished this scene, or was it Dane after all?
He hated how his thoughts filled with evil probabilities, how his faith in an old friend, how his sense of knowing who someone was could disappear in their absence. Who had killed his family?
He tried to clear his head but needed to walk outside to do it. The herbs on the
porch were strong and mixed with the afternoon heat and the murder. Dane was no
murderer and that was it. There was nothing else here.
“Burn it” Ohern said as he stepped out of the house. Deal looked for the noise not the words but didn’t move.
“There’s nothing to clean or keep in there, burn it.” He moved out towards the stable where Dane’s horse was standing, Shimmer. He walked slow and breathed, getting himself back. He needed no tracker to tell him no one came through the yard, or the garden. Shimmer watched him cross the carrot patch. Watched him stop and pick several. They were small. Ten made a handful. She had not been fed by the little ones this morning, nor had she eaten all that day or been let out into the field by Dane. She remembered Ohern, they could see it in each others eyes. She watched him come over and breathed out her greeting.
“Hey beautiful” Ohern gave her the carrots and rubbed her neck, leading her out of the stall to the garden. She did not need permission to eat there now. She was hungry. Her lips pulled the lettuce heads and the soft green leaves of the vegetables into her mouth. Ohern brushed her while she ate. It seemed a waste to leave the tack but it felt like stealing again to take it. When she moved on to the corn he entered the barn and began un-stacking the dry grasses and setting them next to the walls of the small stable.
Deal was standing there with one of Ohern’s riding torches lit, hiding his face from the crazed, shuddering flame in mockery of his adopted father. Ohern took it from him and held it behind himself.
“This aint a home no more.” He walked inside the house and when he came back out it was aglow and smoke sluiced out of the grass roof. There was a stink in it not of death or burn but of some other filth being scoured out of the Gift by the flames.
“It’s empty now that’s all. Take Shimmer back to the Fort. I’ll be along after dark.” He always spoke simply to Deal, and the boy never replied. Ohern inherited the orphan through circumstance. There was no sparing over the fact that the boy was a burden on his nerves, orphans always were. It was Ohern who named him. Deal accused him with blankness.
“I’ll be along after I look to the coals.”
Deal Stood. His face wise for a moment, a mystery unexpressed, a caution. Then the lips pushed and that boy’s mouth smacked at him in dumb need.
“That horse is thirsty and could stand to eat more than a poke of carrots.” Ohern was angry. Deal walked the horse out of the small gate but then stopped again and turned to him. The gate was still leaning. He remembered how long it took them to get the lean out of that gate the first time, seven years ago? He could see Dane had worked the gate since then, several times. The nails chewed through the wood one last time in response.
“It’s all done here boy, get on.”
As the boy walked off to the south, Ohern turned to the fire but put up his arm to shield himself from the sight of the flames. Their raging spigot hissed and gushed twisted gouts of grey and black smoke into the sky, racing at their height off into the west and away from the sea.
Timbers were crying and falling inside the house now as he walked to the barn with the torch Deal had lit for him. The barn went up faster then the house and in his heart he believed he would never learn what happened there, but of course, he was wrong.