spear from the back of the cart. The Messenger drew back and threw with hardly a moment to aim, but his aim was true, severing the rope and collapsing poor Cholie onto Arlen. They both fell into the dirt.
Ragen was there in an instant, pulling the rope from Cholie’s throat. It didn’t seem to make much difference, the man still gagged and clawed at his throat. His eyes bulged so far it looked as if they would pop right out of his head, and his face was so red it looked purple. Arlen screamed as he gave a tremendous thrash, and then lay still.
Ragen beat Cholie’s chest and breathed huge gulps of air into him, but it had no effect. Eventually, the Messenger gave up, slumping in the dirt and cursing.
Arlen was no stranger to death. That specter was a frequent visitor to Tibbet’s Brook. But it was one thing to die from the corelings or from a chill. This was different.
“Why?” he asked Ragen. “Why would he fight so hard to survive last night, only to kill himself now?”
“Did he fight?” Ragen asked. “Did any of them really fight? Or did they run and hide?”
“I don’t …” Arlen began.
“Hiding isn’t always enough, Arlen,” Ragen said. “Sometimes, hiding kills something inside of you, so that even if you survive the demons, you don’t really.”
“What else could he have done?” Arlen asked. “You can’t fight a demon.”
“I’d sooner fight a bear in its own cave,” Ragen said, “but it can be done.”
“But you said the Krasians were dying because of it,” Arlen protested.
“They are,” Ragen said. “But they follow their hearts. I know it sounds like madness, Arlen, but deep down, men want to fight, like they did in tales of old. They want to protect their women and children as men should. But they can’t, because the great wards are lost, so they knot themselves like caged hares, hiding terrified through the night. But sometimes, especially when you see loved ones die, the tension breaks you and you just snap.”
He put a hand on Arlen’s shoulder. “I’m sorry you had to see this, boy,” he said. “I know it doesn’t make a lot of sense right now …”
“No,” Arlen said, “it does.”
And it was true, Arlen realized. He understood the need to fight. He had not expected to win when he attacked Cobie and his friends that day. If anything, he had expected to be beaten worse than ever. But in that instant when he grabbed the stick, he hadn’t cared. He only knew he was tired of just taking their abuse, and wanted it to end, one way or another.
It was comforting to know he wasn’t alone.
Arlen looked at his uncle, lying in the dirt, his eyes wide with fear. He knelt and reached out, brushing his eyes closed with his fingertips. Cholie had nothing to fear any longer.
“Have you ever killed a coreling?” he asked the Messenger.
“No,” Ragen said, shaking his head. “But I’ve fought a few. Got the scars to prove it. But I was always more interested in getting away, or keeping them away from someone else, than I was in killing any.”
Arlen thought about that as they wrapped Cholie in a tarp and put him in the back of the wagon, hurrying back to the Cluster. Jeph and Silvy had already packed the cart and were waiting impatiently to leave, but the sight of the body diffused their anger at Arlen’s late return.
Silvy wailed and threw herself on her brother, but there was no time to waste, if they were to make it back to the farm by nightfall. Jeph had to hold her back as Tender Harral painted a ward on the tarp and led a prayer as he tossed Cholie into the pyre.
The survivors who weren’t staying in Brine Cutter’s house were divided up and taken home with the others. Jeph and Silvy had offered succor to two women. Norine Cutter was over fifty summers old. Her husband had died some years back, and she had lost her daughter and grandson in the attack. Marea Bales was old, too; almost forty. Her husband had been left outside when the others drew
Flavia Company, Laura McGloughlin