War reeked. As Malach surveyed the broken bodies, the scattered implements, and the ruined huts still smoldering from the attack waged earlier that day, the stench of their remains assaulted his nostrils.
It was an odor that once stirred his blood, but now only gave him pause for contemplation. There was no mistaking the earmarks of abject evil. Whatever transgression this village had committed, it was unlikely there had been any real need to slaughter men, women, and children alike, leaving no one to tend to the dead.
And then he heard a moan on the wind.
A mere human ear could have missed it. But his acute senses caught the small, still voice that trembled from an unknown depth. The enemy had overlooked one of their quarry. Malach tilted his head, straining the catch the whimper again and track where it seeped from.
Only the odious breeze remained. As he listened, he debated why he should even bother seeking the survivor. He was only travelling through this region and encountered this soiled battlefield by chance. The injured person was probably reaching the throes of death anyway. And since death awaited everybody, why should he attempt to delay its claim on another possession?
No, that was his old way of thinking….
He tilted his head in the other direction and concentrated on his memory of the whine. It must have come from upwind. Keeping the breeze in his face, he stepped, slowly and quietly, deeper into the morass of destruction.
He hesitated at the edge of one of the smoldering huts and listened more keenly. Yes, there it was, something other than the feeble hiss of steam that resulted from heat overcoming moisture. In a corner of the collapsed, blackened debris, a couple of charred poles crossed over a rumpled hump. Toward one end, a broken spear jutted out at a steep angle.
Malach hesitated. The leather gloves he wore offered protection from the charred ruins, and he’d sworn to refrain from resorting to his craft as a convenience. But making contact with the corruption before him proved loathsome.
This wasn’t just convenience, it was an act of kindness … wasn’t it?
He concentrated on the heap of debris, squinting even though he didn’t need to. The poles shifted away from the lump and toward him. He sensed fragmented coverings, perhaps blankets, over the heap. With a thought, he ripped the pieces to one side.
The corpse was no surprise, although it was badly burned, and the spear in its lower midriff demanded a dram more resolution to roll it to its side. Only then could he identify it as a woman.
Two small bodies, one larger than the other, dribbled out from underneath her chest.
Both were filthy, but the larger child, maybe three years old, gasped and coughed and twitched. The other, an infant, made no more movement whatsoever.
Malach stared at the toddler. Now what? He’d rescued it from being smothered like its sibling, although it seemed miraculous the smoke hadn’t snuffed its life.
He was rarely involved in miracles. Over the centuries he’d been their detractor, using his power to overturn them in his defiance of providence. And what sense was there to them, anyway? Why should this one small waif be the only survivor in a demolished village? What made this child’s life more precious than anybody else’s?
Why was he the one to discover it…?
The urchin released a raspy squeal when it finally noticed him. It appeared to be a boy, and scrambled toward the mother’s remains, clasping the limp infant on the way. With eyes wide and glazed and mouth agape, he squatted near the parental shell and awkwardly clutched the sibling.
Malach studied him for a few seconds. There was no denying the child’s terror, and yet … there was something defiant in his attitude, in the way he grasped the lost baby as though he could still save it….
This boy possessed a different kind of fight.
Malach kneeled to make himself less imposing. He pulled back the hood of his cloak so the toddler could see his face. It was his experience children could be less intimidated than adults upon discovering a creature of myth like him. Sometimes they were even entranced by his slit pupils and how his brown irises appeared to swirl.
“Do not fear.” Malach spoke in Cymraeg, the prevailing language of this land. “I have not come to harm you.”
The boy’s gaze remained locked on his face, and an odd squeak lurched from him.
Malach reached beneath his cloak and grasped a bota of water, shrugging off its strap from his shoulders. He leaned forward as he stretched his arm over the charred debris to offer the water skin.
“Have a drink.”
The boy’s gaze darted back and forth between his face and the bota. The care he took letting go of the infant contrasted with the clumsy way he clutched it earlier. But then he snatched the water skin with near ferocity. In like fashion he unplugged it and chugged the contents, causing the leather sides to cave in.
What might he be getting himself into? Until relatively recently in his long past, Malach wouldn’t have found himself pondering what to do about this urchin. He would have left it to its ultimate fate, or perhaps torment it briefly as a means of amusement.
The boy gagged and choked, spilling a trickle of water as he raised the bota. After a short fit of coughing, he latched back on the skin, but this time wasn’t so frantic in drinking.
Malach scanned the devastation again. He knew that others like him had already journeyed to this land. And men were eagerly corrupted. A mere nudge encouraged them to embrace their darkest fantasies.
One of his own kith had encouraged some men to desolate this village.
The plan had once seemed flawless to him: Get humanity to destroy itself. Yet over the millennia, despite hordes reveling in abusing their own, individuals joined together to thwart the destruction his kind sought. It was as though there was a plan greater than what creatures like him could concoct….
Accepting that truth set him on unfamiliar ground in more ways than one.
Malach’s attention returned to the mother, to the woman who died with the hope her children would live. Unlike all the other mothers who perished with that same hope, one of her offspring did survive….
….the son who, like her, tried to protect when all seemed lost.
Maybe this boy’s life was more precious. Maybe he was part of a greater plan.
But why should this child wind up stuck with the likes of Malach? Perhaps he should try to locate someone more qualified to teach this boy how to capitalize on that trait.
The toddler lowered the bota, coughing and sputtering a bit as he did. His gaze, this time with slightly squinted eyes, locked on Malach’s face again.
“Who you?” His voice creaked like a limb on a massive tree standing against a gale.
Malach decided to use the name he assumed upon entering these lands, a native nomenclature that would help him blend in. “I am Myrddin. And what is your name?”
The child stared for several seconds before finally squeaking out, “Cadwalader.”
Malach nodded. “We should leave this place, Cadwalader.”
The boy’s eyes widened again. Clutching the bota near his chest, he studied the body of his sibling lying beside him. He glanced back at his mother. When his attention returned to Malach, his lips trembled and his voice cracked.
Malach had no answer for all the dimensions that question could address, at least not here and not now. If time allowed, the boy could explore them more fully when he was older. He had survived fire, he had survived water … odds were he could survive everything in between.
Malach reached out again and clasped both the bota and Cadwalader’s hand. The child cringed, but made no effort to pull away. He gave the only answer he could offer for the present.
“We have a journey to undertake.”
So here is my contribution for this month’s #BlogBattle, and the prompt word this round was Myth. Don’t miss out on how the other stories tackle a rich word like that!