The family doesn’t listen as they keep dragging Roger away. I catch a few words, piecing together that they’re berating him for behaving like he’s twelve. I frown but don’t raise my voice again, knowing that there’s little point in arguing over one kid now when I want all four.
As if on cue, the old temple guard advances forward, causing the two Hospitaliers to step closer to the front of the crowd. Both men are pretty young with the facial hair of those who haven’t fully grown up yet or learned how to properly shave.
“They had spears because they didn’t recognize you and went out to protect the village!” The Templar speaks up once he arrives at the half-way point between me and the villagers. “They were correct to since you attacked and still hold a weapon!”
I run my gaze over the crowd, noticing that quite a few throw looks of disdain to the old man. Slaughter him. Only if need be. Carlo… rather the kid whose name I don’t recall that didn’t have the guts to come out, is hiding behind the corner of a house and observing the situation with a nervous expression.
There is no sense in responding to the Templar, everyone here understands perfectly what the kids were trying to do after I’ve told them the state of my home.
That doesn’t mean they’ll help me, only that arguing is pointless. Besides, the old temple guard’s stature is crumbling from how obvious it is that I’m ignoring him, having already dismissed his role.
I’m pretty sure the Order’s statutes don’t require Templars to receive a request for arbitration for them to do their duty but this is a small village where people don’t like others butting into their business uninvited, even if they do spy from afar.
“What happened to our stables?” I ask in a cold tone, choosing to improve my hand before playing it. “And to our horses?”
“The insects killed them.” The Templar replies viciously.
“The Rykz started pillaging the area, your father agreed to dismantle the building to help build walls.” Martina speaks up.
I freeze at the sound of her voice, almost failing to catch my hunting knife as I was in the middle of switching to a standard grip. I try but don’t find the courage to look at her, the memory of her rejecting me, of my life crumbling, too fresh in spite of it having happened years ago.
“They didn’t own the building anyway, they defaulted on their debt to Bar… Buton!” The Templar exclaims, addressing the village as he glares at me.
The fact he corrects himself from using the title shows it was a slip of tongue. There’s quite the resentment over the old Baron fleeing by himself. The crowd’s hard expressions clearly indicates their position on the matter.
“You will hold your tongue.” I tell the Templar with a slight smile. “Or I may decide to take it.”
Gasps go through the crowd while the old temple guard blinks and takes a half-step back before drawing his sword with a certain delectable fright in his eyes. The Hospitaliers’ expressions grow serious.
They both raise their hands, making the crowd’s flow flare before receding. An effective show of power without escalating. I glance at the twin mountains to the south-east, taking a deep breath in nostalgia.
“We have already settled on a schedule to rebuild what we’ve taken down when the snows melt, Jessica.” Ms Conner speaks up. “Since your family’s need is most urgent, we will place you ahead in the list.”
“There is no more family, I’m alone now.” I respond, despising the anguish I hear in my voice. Brother may never return.
“I… I’m sorry to hear that.” Ms Conner says. “Your father was a good man.”
“I care not for condolences from any of you.” I tell her, repressing my sadness as it hinders my anger.
I hear movement behind me so I shift to ascertain my surroundings while keeping the Templar and the Hospitaliers within my range of sight. Ms Conner is walking over to Victor, having left her daughter Emily in the dirt even though she’s waking up.
“The four who have treated my home worse than they would a barn will return with me to fix what they’ve done.” I speak up loudly so all can hear. It’s satisfying to see the fourth kid jump and hide behind the corner, but not enough for me to forgive.
“You can’t prove ‘mah Victor did anything!” The father yells. “And you attacked him!” He adds like he forgot.
In fact, the man hasn’t even rushed to his kid, too busy maintaining his venomous glare. Probably thinks his child deserved the beating if he couldn’t beat a freak like me. I really hate that I agree on the first part even if not the second.
“My only need for proof would be if I cared to convince any of you.” I utter coldly.
“You cann…” The Templar starts but cuts himself off when I point the tip of my hunting knife towards him without even looking.
“My daughter will do all she can to make up for what she did.” Ms Conner speaks up.
“Roger will too.” The cousin speaks up. I hadn’t noticed he returned with the kid in question.
Roger’s face is bright red, clearly from having taken slaps. His nose was wiped of blood but it’s slightly crooked, meaning I broke it. I raise my upper lip, showing teeth in a parody of a smile. The kid pales, which draws out red hand-marks on his cheeks.
“Well, Victor won’t!” The father spouts out.
“My child wouldn’t do this!” A mother calls out, likely referring to the fourth kid.
A cacophony of dissenting voices arises from the crowd, the outrage sounds fake to me as they’re discussing a matter doesn’t concern them. It enrages me almost as much as those pretty much saying the Templar has a point about me behaving like I own the place.
“How about you lodge in the village and we can all take care of this in spring?” Ms Conner proposes, likely out of concern for me since she should be aware to a point about the damage and my empty pantry.
“There will be reparation today or there will be bodies.” I flatly affirm with simmering rage, cutting short every conversation like I threw a bucket of cold water over them.
I face the village, most of it has gathered by now, conscientious of my bloodthirsty look. While most freeze, the Hospitaliers move forward with aplomb and the old Templar regains his courage from that, advancing towards me but no further than they do.
“This isn’t how disputes are resolved, Ms Jessica.” The taller Hospitalier speaks up.
“There is no dispute here.” I rebuke. “Either they do what’s right, or I’ll make them and take down those who stand in my way. You’ve been warned.”
I flip around while paying very close attention to any silvery flicker that could appear and listening closely for any sounds. I make my way to Emily who tenses up, staring at my long hunting knife with wide open eyes.
Ms Conner, who is holding Victor by the waist to help him stay up, looks at me with an appraising look. She starts dragging Victor over to her daughter who is now shaking.
“Up.” I tell the girl who seems frozen and not just because her butt is buried in snow.
“M, Mom!” Emily stutters, crying out for help.
“Learn something while you’re there, Emily.” Ms Conner replies calmly. “Actions have consequences. Count yourself lucky, many would not even give you the opportunity to make up for your mistakes.”
The woman’s words convince me to stand by instead of forcing the girl to get up, especially since doing that would require me to sheathe my weapon. Ms Conner grabs her daughter with her free hand to firmly pull her up and take over for supporting a whimpering, grimacing, Victor.
The kid is still dazed, but I get a lot of satisfaction out of his tormented expression. I only seem to have cracked his ribs but I’ll just have to break them for good if he pisses me off.
I hear Roger scream so I throw him a glance, finding him struggling against his cousin who is firmly dragging him over. I catch a silver flicker behind my back. I take two steps to the side before pivoting to face the threat, weapon drawn back to slash out if needed.
Victor’s father stops dead in his tracks. He was trying to sneak by to get his son. I glare at him until he moves back, holding his hands up with a look of panic.
“See! This freak is a menace, she almost struck him!” The Templar exclaims.
“Don’t try to slither behind my back and you won’t run the risk of being struck down.” I growl.
He takes a step forward but flicks a look to the Hospitaliers and doesn’t dare any more when the two don’t follow his lead. In fact, the two put some distance to the old temple guard to exchange a few words between themselves.
“The proposed resolution that the culprits repair what they’ve damaged is fair.” The tall Hospitalier speaks up. “We strongly encourage those who have been pointed out to cooperate but if you estimate that you aren’t guilty, we will take upon ourselves to investigate and refer what we find for judgment in Meria.”
“With that said, we will not stand for violence of any kind.” The other one adds, clearly aiming the comment at me even though he’s also warning the old temple guard.
“There is no need. I knew something was up with my daughter and her friends, they are clearly responsible.” Ms Conner intervenes.
“I agree.” The cousin speaks up. “I’ve seen them lurk in that area when they should have been gathering firewood.”
“But…” Roger protests.
“Shut up.” His father yells out from the back.
“Bring a shovel.” I shout at where the fourth kid was hiding.
I resist the pull to provoke the Hospitaliers who split up to talk to Victor’s father and Carlo. Whatever annoyance I have with myself for submitting to Grace’s interrogation, it isn’t their fault and they’re helping even if I rather wish they do not.
I signal at Roger to tell him to go help Emily hold Victor. Ms Conner keeps her dark glare trained on all three, standing with her arms crossed. I almost smile as the view is nostalgic. I really need to forget all their names, they aren’t worth memorizing.
“The fourth better catch up with that shovel, I won’t be as nice next time.” I threaten any who are listening. “Now, get going.” I tell the three kids.
I wave my hunting knife to push them to move, making them scuttle back in fright with outraged cries coming from girl number one and boy number two while boy number one screams in pain from the small booboo to his ribs.
Their protests and calls for help quickly die out as they are met with cold looks from the villagers who seem to be shifting the blame for the violent situation on them. They’re too afraid to berate the woman with the drawn weapon.
I shake my head from the temptation to escalate and force a confrontation, focusing instead on our goal of burying Father and getting my house in order. I can feel that Elizabeth doesn’t like it but she isn’t about to contradict us, her and me.
The kids complain to each other as they walk ahead of me, I actually dismantle the sense-enhancing construct I applied to my ears in order not to hear their hypocritical reasoning about how this is all my fault.
Not only would it enrage me, but it would inevitably weight on my shoulders and that would require me to work through their bullshit to get it out of my head. I’ve done that too much for too long.
Still, I take a malignant pleasure in walking quickly even as it tires me just to make them panic and accelerate, not to mention boy number one’s occasional agonized and fearful shouts.
Boy number three catches up with a shovel as we engage on the hill leading home. I slash my hunting knife in the air to make my him sweat with the threatening swishing sound it produces.
“Pick it up!” I call out.
“That freak.” Boy number two grumbles, showing that the slaps didn’t do the work they were meant to.
I don’t respond, finding the insult repetitive and quite lacking when made at a monster. Besides, they’ll soon be too busy to think up better ways to curse me. I chuckle darkly. Their backs straighten in reaction, making me double down as I savor their fear.
The Hospitaliers end up showing up on the road as well behind us, following at slow walking pace. It bothers me but it’s not like they’re doing anything wrong so I let it go and vent my annoyance by making the kids accelerate.
When we arrive, I point them to the hole in my room’s wall and make them walk inside. I sheathe my weapon and steal the shovel from boy number three, if I can even call it that considering it’s no more than a square piece of metal screwed to a wooden shaft.
“Hey! Where are the brooms?!” Boy number two asks, looking around.
“Tool closet is empty.” I reply calmly in spite of the fury it inspires me that I’ve lost close to everything.
“There’s no way we can do this without even a shovel, then. Give it back, freak.” Boy three proclaims, suddenly acting all brave with his hand extended out.
“Ha, funny.” I chortle while taking a step back through the hole in the wall to cover my flanks.
Boy three takes a half-step forward with his chest extended out. I guess he feels that he has the numbers now. He might not have stayed behind out of cowardice earlier but to be on the lookout.
Girl one, boy one, and boy two don’t follow the kid’s example, they actually shift aside to put some distance between them and him. Boy three throws them baffled glances, apparently thinking that they should help him take me on.
I stick the shovel’s handle under my armpit and swing it at him. It smacks him right in the back of the head. Clonk. He cries out in pain and falls over, almost smacking his nose on the ground.
“Ouch! Are you crazy?!” He spouts out.
“I don’t care how you do it, use your hands and nails if you need to.” I tell the children. “But this won’t be over until the wall is fixed, and trust me, I’ll be on the lookout for sloppy work. If you have to spend all winter rebuilding this wall over and over again, that’ll be fine by me.”
“You don’t even have floorboards, what does it matter! You live like a pi…” Boy three has the good sense to cut himself off before losing his head to an unfortunate shovel accident.
I lower the tool and glare at them one by one until I get them all to lower their eyes to the ground. It takes them a good five minutes to realize that I’m waiting for them to get to work. Boy number one starts doing so in bad faith, using only two fingers to pick up one of my bed-frame’s shards.
“You’re going to get a lot more injured before this is over if you keep this up.” I tell them as I leave. Violence clearly won’t work to get them into a proper state of mind, which is good because I have a temper.
“You’re not helping?!” Girl one cries out.
I choose not to dignify the dumb comment with a response. I trail towards the arriving Hospitaliers. The two slow down as they see me headed their way, making awkward faces as I throw them a cold glance.
“You can stay on the road if you want.” I tell them. “But those are my lands and you’re not stepping on them.”
“Technically, they belong to the Republic of Izla Meria under King Cenwalh, Ms Jessica. If you want to buy the property title, there is an office to make the request to in Meria.” The tall one replies.
“Being polite is no excuse for being a smart-ass.” I respond, looking down on the man from below. “Let me ask you a question, do I look like someone who cares about the technicalities of who my land belongs to?”
“Clearly not.” The man acknowledges.
“Then don’t fucking bring it up.” I grunt. I start turning around but he stops me by raising his hand.
“We do need to ask you about the status of your pledge.” He tells me.
“What?” I blink.
“Baron Buton is dead, and his heirs have fled the Izla in fear of the Red Dwarf.” He explains. I’m not that small. “You could be unbound without your knowledge since no one currently holds the title.”
“And you want me to swear a flow oath to the Hospitaliers?” I ask, feeling a cold mass in my stomach.
“Or to any titled Noble you deem worthy, you are free to choose.” He replies.
“I’m going to go with no.” I utter flatly. “If I’m free to choose, I’m going with no one.”
“That’s not really…” He hesitates. “Is that forbidden?” He asks his companion.
“It is by the Kingdom and Duchy’s laws.” The other one whispers.
“You willing to die to enforce those?” I ask with a corner grin. I can’t really defeat them but it wouldn’t feel right to agree like a sheep.
“We are.” The two reply almost in sync, with conviction. “We have to in order for the Hospitaliers to be seen as legitimate.”
The shorter one can’t help but throw a dubious look at my left side. I assemble lion’s steps and relax my muscles to be ready to flee before giving my response because it’ll be as far as I go no matter what arguments they have. Besides, the fire is out so I need to hurry before the ground cools down.
“You’re both so cute in thinking you can take me that I’ll do you a favor.” I speak up. “I pledge my flow to Commander Leomi Lance.”
“That’s good enough, but you should know that you are surrendering control of your reserve by giving such a broad oath. The Hospitaliers have a procedure for a much more restrained pledge that will protect you from abuses as we can only make use of the energy when acting according to our rules.” The taller one explains.
“We do apologize for intruding like this.” The other says.
“If you’re sincere, don’t bother me.” I reply. “If you stick around, expect me to kick you back to the village by nightfall.”
I don’t wait for their answer, I turn around and make my way to the backyard. I would really rather be alone right now. Events don’t allow, we can only make due. I head to the smoking cinders over my mother’s grave.
I use the shovel to put out the last tongues of flame. I then stick the handle under my armpit to stabilize it as I jam it into the softer ground and press down on the head with my foot. It takes me a half-hour to learn how to dig like this but I manage without any flow.