running and dumped me onto the ground. His pock-scarred face was streaked with sweat, his shirt a patchy blue. His hands shook, either from exertion or fear, and he panted so loudly I was sure the Indians would hear us. He staggered ten feet to the river’s edge, where he crouched and plunged his hands into the water, splashing his face and body. My mouth was so dry my tongue felt swollen. I longed to taste the water, but could barely move my legs. I closed my eyes and breathed deeply, trying to ignore the thirst.
Then something in the air changed. My legs, my tongue, the water—nothing mattered. It all disappeared with the realisation that Wolf was there, waiting for me. I opened my eyes and saw him standing halfway between Blue Shirt and me, more lucent than solid in the sunlight. His hair was tied back into a tail, exposing his cheekbones and his mouth, which was set in a tight line. He tilted his head, motioning me closer. I hadn’t been able to stand before. Now rising to my feet felt effortless, and I felt no pain. He filled me with his strength, and my fear melted into relief.
I glanced toward the river’s edge, where Blue Shirt had collapsed onto his back, eyes closed, chest rising and falling in quick breaths. One of his hands dipped into the current, soaking one sleeve to the elbow. I could see the sweat on his cheeks, the lines of strain cutting across his forehead. Pale, almost invisible lashes rested on his cheeks.
I stepped toward Wolf, walking easily, as if he held my hand. In fact, his hand was open, gesturing toward a large boulder beside him. On its surface lay a broad hunting knife, long forgotten by an anonymous hunter. Time had whitened its handle, rust had dotted its blade, but it was still sharp. When the breeze stirred the leaves overhead, the knife’s edge glinted in the sun, winking with encouragement.
The knife offered both escape and vengeance. But at what price? I had never killed anyone—nothing beyond the small creatures we hunted for food. Could I do it? Could I kill this man whose band had ended the lives of both my mother and my sister? Who had left Adelaide and me forever scarred? I glanced toward Wolf, questions in my eyes, and he nodded. Yes, he thought I could. He pressed his lips tightly together, then gestured toward the knife again. I reached toward it and closed my fingers around the smooth wooden handle, staring at it with uncertainty. Wolf’s hands folded over mine, curling around my fingers, reassuring. I felt a sense of both losing myself and finding a strength I never knew existed.
I could tell Blue Shirt didn’t see or hear me approach. If he had, he would have leaped to his feet and grabbed me. But he still battled for breath, still closed his eyes to the sun. He never saw the knife. In one swift motion I drew the blade deep across his exposed neck, pressing hard, allowing no room for error. Blood arced from a severed artery, shooting two feet away, and Blue Shirt’s eyes flew open in disbelief. His hands jerked to his ruined neck, one arm springing from the river, trailing a sparkling curtain of droplets in its rush. The wound widened swiftly, filling with blood. His breaths bubbled through the chasm in his neck. The dark red blood overflowed, looking almost black as it soaked into the faded blue fibres of his shirt.
I backed a few feet away and squatted, watching him die, feeling a sort of detached fascination. Death didn’t take long. His hand splashed back into the water and began to ride the endless ripples, darkening the current with the liquid remains of his life.
I inhaled a combination of smells: the metallic tang of blood, the sweet, soothing breath of surrounding pines, and the lingering scent of his panic. I held my breath, stretching my lungs until the ground beneath me wobbled. Every one of my muscles began to tremble at the shock of having killed a man.
But while my body reacted, my mind felt nothing. No regret, no disgust, no horror. Nothing