The Horseman fumbled to find another arrow, only to grasp at an empty quiver. Seeing this made up Carlin’s mind for him. He pulled his knife from the sheath on his leg and hurled it with near perfect precision at the horse’s legs. It clipped the front right one and the beast was brought to the ground, with inhuman and unholy cries of pain. The Horseman gasped out loud, and fell to his knees. Apparently their connection wasn’t just mental. They could feel each other’s pain.
Carlin chose not to rush for his discarded sword, but instead towards the Horseman. Carlin kneed the Venator in the face and he collapsed. Carlin placed his foot on the boy’s neck and pressed with all of his force. “Do you know what happens when you protest the slaughter of cattle?” He asked as the Horseman’s face turned blue.
Carlin didn’t wait for an answer. “You become like cattle, and you are slaughtered along with it. This has been educational, but it is over.”
The Horseman shook his head, even with the weight of Carlin’s boot on his neck. “Those who slaughter for the sake of slaughter starve in the winter.”
“You won’t see the winter, Venator.”
“Kill me and the Grand Master will come for you. I’ve already sent him a letter.”
Carlin’s face dropped and every trace of pleasure left his body. The Horseman was an annoying gnat compared to the hurricane that was the Grand Master Venator. The Horseman didn’t grin or gloat, but the truth was plastered all over Carlin’s face. He couldn’t take the Horseman’s life. Not if it would mean that the strongest Venator in the land would come for him. The Grand Master had never missed a single shot or any living target, and Carlin would not be the first. He stepped off of the Horseman’s neck. “You wish to live?” He asked. “So be it.”
He went to his sword and pulled it from the dirt. Before the Horseman could stop him, Carlin finished off the beautiful stallion. It made no noise. Carlin was an experienced butcher. The Horseman wailed in horror and pain in a way that Carlin hadn’t heard before. In his experience, grown men only wailed for their own lives. He approached the wailing boy and put the sword against his neck. “If you see another Imperial banner you will not show us trouble. You will show respect and you will yield.”
The Horseman nodded, ever so slightly, careful of the blade at his throat. “Flee, then.” Carlin said, unable to stop the grin from stretching his mutilated lips. “I won’t see you again.”
The Horseman glared at him, challenging him. He was desperate to say otherwise it seemed, but of course he didn’t. He stood, turned and trudged off into the woods, thoroughly bested. Carlin heaved in relief. He could show all the bravery in the world, but nothing could extinguish the spark of anxiety that burned inside of him during a fight. Especially when he went toe to toe with Lightborns. Steven Celerius and Anthony reached the top of the gorge just in time to see the Horseman vanishing into the shadow of the foliage. “Why is he walking away?” Steven asked. It was hard to read him. Was he about to beat Carlin senseless?
“He sent a letter to the grand master. Our lives depend on him keeping his.” Carlin said.
Anthony frowned. “Shame. I would have loved a second round.”
“You couldn’t handle a second round.” Carlin said.
Anthony scoffed at him. Before he could respond Steven stepped in. “This expedition is over, in case I actually have to say it out loud. We will leave tonight.”
Carlin touched his bloody lip. “I’m not sure if in the best stage to travel right away.”
“That’s fine.” Steven said. “Because you will not be joining us.”
Carlin gritted his teeth. “What?”
“You will help Paul take down the tents and prepare for the next hunt.” Steven said. His voice was unwavering.
Carlin was dizzy from blood loss and exhaustion but he didn’t budge. “This sounds like a demotion.”
“It’s not a formal one.” Steven said. “Not yet. I’ll confer with some advisors to discuss the possibility of that, though.”
“This is ridiculous.” Carlin growled.
“What do you think you deserve?”
“A promotion? I took on a Venator by myself and I won. I dealt with the threat.”
Steven shook his head at Carlin and it only served to make him angrier. He hated being patronized. “You dealt with him. That’s true. I’m just wondering why you hesitated. He had his bow pointed at Anthony’s heart, and it took you a little too long to react.”
Carlin couldn’t bear to look Anthony in the eyes. “Either you’re not as quick witted as I thought, or you’re not trustworthy.” Carlin wanted to defend himself, but Steven was building to something. An interruption would have made him angry. “I asked you if you were willing to deal with the consequences and you said that you were. Was that a lie?” Carlin was silent. “You brought this enemy upon us. You will not be rewarded or thanked for removing him. All you did was antagonize a Lightborn and put us all in danger.”
Steven and Anthony turned to leave and Carlin tried to follow them but his feet wouldn’t budge. Everything in his body was telling him to fight harder. “You know who my father is, General?” Carlin said. “You think he’ll stand for this? You think he’ll let me be demoted?”
Anthony opened his mouth to say something but Steven held his hand up and silenced his nephew. He turned back to face Carlin. “Honestly, Carlin. I don’t think it will make a difference to him. He hasn’t been a father to you yet. This won’t call him to action.”
Carlin felt like he’d been slapped. Blood rushed to his face, and not just to pour through his lips. He wanted to speak, but he didn’t have the will. He just stood there while the General and his nephew headed back to camp. Anthony at least gave him a look of pity before he left, which Carlin both wanted and hated.
He walked through the gorge like he had rocks in his shoes. He was sore, and in a trance. Once he got back to the camp he had his leg patched up and then he went to his tent to sulk in silence. The men packed up their essentials outside. Carlin could hear the clanging of swords being gathered and supplies being packed. All at once there was the sound of the convoy leaving, and then there was silence.
When Carlin exited his tent Paul was in the center of camp, drinking heavily from a bottle of wine.
“Hello.” Carlin said.
Paul squinted at him. “Hello.”
“I guess I’m part of your cleanup crew.”
“I guess so.”
Carlin surveyed the camp. He’d never been part of clean up, but he didn’t anticipate it being too difficult. It couldn’t be worse than fighting a Venator. Paul was swaying. It didn’t seem like he’d be a big help at this point. “Why don’t we wait until morning?” Carlin tried not to sound too judgmental.
Paul drained the remainder of the bottle. “Works for me.”
Before Paul could stumble all the way into his tent Carlin called after him. “What are you going to do with the bear?”
It was still in the center of camp, a bloody mess. “Maybe we’ll eat it. Maybe we’ll make a rug. I don’t care.”
Carlin heard him collapse in the tent, and the sound indicated that his superior hadn’t even reached his bed. He’d just collapsed on the ground. Carlin waited in the center of camp for a while until he was sure that Paul was unconscious. Then he summoned two privates by waving at them. They approached him wearily. He pointed to the bear and then to his tent, a mere fifteen feet away. They just stared at him, mouths agape. Carlin pointed again. His patience was wearing thin. Eventually they listened and helped him drag the bear. One deserted them, but the other stayed and helped him string it up by the three hooks.
When the privates left, Carlin faced the suspended bear and felt its tough fur with one hand. Eventually he struck it. Over and over again until its fur wore thin in certain places. Sweat poured down his forehead and blood down his lips. He continued to spar with his adversary even after he became lightheaded, even after his knuckles bled, and even after he didn’t remember the reason for doing it. At a certainly point it was simply there. In his way.
Eventually the hooks broke and the bear fell to the dirt floor. Carlin flopped onto the ground next to it. He was satisfied. Something still nagged at him from the back of his head though. The Celerius always taunted the common people for being slower than they were, and today he’d been just quick enough to make the decision to save Anthony’s life.
As he let the blood loss overcame him a final thought rested in his mind. The next time someone lined up a shot through a Celerius heart, he wouldn’t block it. Hell, maybe he’d line up the shot himself.