(Zarya, the Rookery, 20 Redleaf, 1020)


            Dashtru was limp, nearly deadweight, hanging from the hands of the two Raven warriors who dragged him unceremoniously out of the gate.  His brown eyes were wide, staring at nothing, and he was making a faint, continuous whimpering sound.  The warriors might have been lugging a sack of garbage for all the attention they paid him, following in the wake of the slender girl who stalked straight-backed down the street.

            Though the streets were fairly busy, a path opened quickly in front of them, the nearest people falling silent as they shied away.  Jurnia’s stormy expression and determined gait might have been enough to open the way, but those around them could sense the taint clinging to Dashtru.  He was a spiritual void, no longer connected to the rest of the Kaykolom or indeed humanity itself, and those around him could feel it.  Without being told, they knew that he had committed some crime so beyond redemption that the spirits themselves rejected him.  In days to come, they would mourn Chaiya when they learned of her death, but there would be no more thought given to her murderer, no real anger directed toward the cause of her death—just as if she had been killed by a wild animal.  Dashtru had proven himself to be an animal by his actions.

            After the small group had passed, shocked whispers followed them as the people recognized Dashtru.  He still did not seem aware of the world around him, shocked into passivity by the severing of his clan bond.  Several people made gestures to ward off evil and bad luck even as they watched the warriors drag him away.

Well outside the city walls, Jurnia finally came to a halt and turned.  The warriors released Dashtru, letting him fall to the ground; he gave a small, pained grunt as he crashed to the grass.  The garnet-haired girl stared down at him coldly as the warriors withdrew to stand about ten feet away.

“Get up,” she said in an icy tone.  Dashtru stared at her, uncomprehending; she kicked him in the side.  “I told you to get up!”

Wincing, the young man finally pulled himself up to his knees.  “Wh-what . . .”

“In the eyes of everyone from the village idiot up through the spirits themselves, you are no one and nothing.  Right now, I’m the only person in the entire world who views you as anything other than a breathing sack of meat, and I happen to view you as the reason why my mother’s dead.”  The weapon she drew from her sash wasn’t made of wood.  The steel hissed softly as she pulled the sword free of its sheath.  “Get up and draw your sword.”

He slowly rose to his feet, staring at her.  “But you’re a Herald!”

“My mother was a Herald,” Jurnia answered.  “That didn’t seem to stop you from drawing on her.  Right now, though, I’m not a Herald, nor am I a Raven.  I’m Jurnia, the daughter of Chaiya, and either you draw your sword and defend yourself or I’m going to cut you into ribbons.”  Her eyes narrowed, her tone almost taunting.  “Or can’t you bear the thought of fighting a woman?  I suppose it’s a bit more challenging than murdering one in cold blood.”

Dashtru flushed a dull red.  “She dishonored the clan by her behavior toward that . . . that Fox.  She went against Chief Iryasitru’s decree.”

“His Grace chose not to complete what began years ago.  You’re the one who defied his will by seeking out the Silver Fox.”

“It’s all on her head!  Chaiya deliberately—”

“You will not speak my mother’s name again,” Jurnia interrupted.  Her green eyes, which had been compared to emeralds, malachite, and jade by various hopeful young amateur poets, resembled deep glacial ice at the moment as she stared at Dashtru.  “Now draw your sword, unless you want to sell your life for no more than it’s worth.”  The last few words came out harshly as she lunged for him, the sword whistling through the air.

Dashtru sprang back out of the path of the slice, his warrior’s training guiding his hand to automatically pull his weapon even as he winced with the sudden movement.  There was still a dull, stabbing pain in his groin where she had driven the oak sword up between his shanks, and the ache helped to spur him into a sudden, wild anger.  He was clan-dead because of this little monster’s mother.  He had nothing to live for, but killing Jurnia suddenly seemed like a worthwhile immediate goal.  Steel rang on steel as he blocked her next blow.

Under the eyes of the silent Raven guards, they dueled back and forth in an imaginary circle, the air filled with the clash and hiss of blades.  Dashtru was older, taller, heavier, with a longer reach, but hampered by injuries both physical and spiritual; Jurnia was faster, more agile, fueled by rage at her mother’s killer.  Violet light began to flicker and spark in the air as the two circled and lunged and blocked, the heat of combat raising the Avatar power in both of them.

Jurnia had come out here with no more noble intention than to see Chaiya’s murderer lying in his blood on the grass.  But as she fought him, a different idea was taking root in her mind.  The dead are beyond suffering; whatever punishment might fall upon him after he drew his final breath would never be known, would never satisfy her.  To cripple him severely might draw sympathy, despite the revulsion that most would feel upon sensing the mark of the clan-dead on him.  Yet to leave him alive might still permit him to do more evil acts—banditry, perhaps, or simple theft.  He was good with a sword and fleet of foot, and some desperate men might still accept him as an accomplice.

Dashtru sensed the slight change in her resolve, the alteration of her determination to kill him.  Pressing that tiny advantage, he drove her backward, unleashing a hurricane of blows.  One of them, surely, would get past her defenses, and he had a sudden hunger to see her bleed.  Concentrating on his offensive strikes, he missed the surge in the Avatar energy that cloaked her—until she snatched one hand off the grip of her sword and flung it up, palm forward.

The brilliant flare of violet-white light felt like knives stabbing through his eyesockets and deep into his brain.  He bit off a shriek and recoiled, pulling his weapon closer to his body in an attempt to set up a defense against the attack he expected.  That suited Jurnia’s purposes well enough; she plowed into him, blade edge sparking off blade edge, another surge of Avatar power turning what might have been a futile assault into a nigh-unstoppable ram.  Dashtru half-spun as he went backward, hurled off his feet by the impact, his sword arm flung wide in a desperate slash that caught nothing but a few wisps of Jurnia’s hair.  The hard landing on his stomach knocked the wind out of him, but he pulled his arms in toward his chest to lever himself up.

He screamed when she stepped on his wrist, grinding her heel down until bone grated in the joint.  His hand spasmed open, dropping the sword, and she picked it up with her free hand before dropping her knees onto the back of his shoulders.  Under most circumstances, she wouldn’t have been able to pin him with her weight—but her aura pounded against his like a hammer on an eggshell, eating away at his strength.  Dashtru felt as though a mountain lay on his back, pressing him into the dirt, and he was unable to resist as she grabbed his wrist and pulled his hand up.

White pain shot up his arm and he screamed again, clawing at the dirt with his other hand until she seized that one as well.  When she stood, he rolled to his back and clutched his hands to his chest, feeling blood hot and wet on his skin.  The pain and weakness rolled over him, and he hardly felt her pulling his boots off—though he certainly felt it when she did to his feet much as she had to his hands.  His screams bounced off the nearby city wall, where a number of the townsfolk watched in utter silence.

His vision finally cleared, and he raised his hands enough to see what she had done.  The four wet little thumps on his chest only confirmed it as she dropped his severed fingers and toes, and he stared in absolute horror at the bloody bits of meat.

“The smallest finger on either hand,” she said in a voice devoid of emotion, “so that you can never use a sword effectively again.  The largest toe on either foot, so that you cannot run.”  She drove his own sword—wet with his blood—into the dirt beside his head.  “You don’t deserve a clean death in combat.  You won’t be a very good bandit, crippled as you are.  I’m going to wake up every morning and go to sleep every night with the knowledge that you’re somewhere out there, begging for scraps and digging in the dirt like the animal you are.”  Picking up her weapon from where she had dropped it, she slipped it back into the scabbard and turned her back.  “Let’s go,” she said shortly to the two guards, who were staring at her as if they had never seen her before.