“Can one person change the world?” Cadwalader recognized Malach’s instructive tone as his steward looked up from the sword he was cleaning.
“No, of course not.”
The keening of women now replaced the howl of warriors as gloom settled over the meadow. Their lamentations clutched his soul.
Earlier today a battle raged here. Cadwalader kicked a small stone unfortunate enough to be near his foot. It tumbled haphazardly over the matted grass until it clunked against a bronze torque.
He snatched the neck collar and slipped it into the leather bag hanging from his shoulder. Clearing the meadow of implements overlooked while removing the bodies offered no distraction from his grief. They reminded him of the fallen, and especially of a lad his age slain nearer the village. He turned back to his companion.
Malach, seated upon a boulder, had pushed the hood of the cape he wore off his head. That was unusual, considering a few villagers still milled about. With hood up and gloves on, the pooka passed as human. Perhaps the growing darkness and thickening mist convinced him nobody would notice his slit pupils encompassed by swirling irises.
“Why do you even ask?” Cadwalader suspected an ulterior motive. This being, who had taken him in as a toddler a decade ago, did not engage in small talk.
Nor was he forthcoming with condolence….
“Your friend.” Malach focused on the stained rag he used to scrub the blade near the hilt. “He was young enough to take shelter, but chose to stand and fight.”
Cadwalader’s stomach churned. “That was my fault.”
“Did you place a sword in his hand? Did you push him into the fray?”
“He might have taken shelter if … if we had not filled his head with vanity.”
Malach glanced up. “We?”
Heat surged through his veins, dislodging some of the bleakness. Cadwalader clenched his fists and frowned.
“Yes, we.” Sharing the blame might offer some respite. “Llyr was intrigued by the techniques you taught me. He believed his skill was sufficient to secure his safety.”
Malach stopped scrubbing, and this time his gaze settled on Cadwalader’s face. “He was an excellent sparring partner for you.”
“He was my friend!” Numbness fled the advance of rage. “I have so few, with the way you haul me back and forth across different regions. Is that what you want? Do you try to keep me from developing bonds with my own kind?”
His attention shifted to Malach’s chin, thickly bearded but trimmed short. Gazing at those otherworldly eyes for too long proved disorienting.
“You know why we cannot settle too long in one place.” As usual his demeanor remained detached.
“Because of the other one like you?” Cadwalader swung one hand toward the desolate meadow. “The Other had nothing to do with this attack. This is the work of a rival tribe instead of the Romans.”
That was why the pooka bothered to participate in this conflict. Local raiders didn’t threaten the same predicament deployed soldiers did. His propensity to refrain from the affairs of men was, so he claimed, rooted in his unsavory past.
Malach’s attention returned to wiping the sword. “And that is why I allowed you to fight.”
Those words struck Cadwalader with the force of a club in the gut. Llyr had seen him grasp the sword and charge into battle to defend the village, which encouraged him to follow. His friend’s death was still mostly his fault.
But Malach wasn’t going to get off that easily….
“You could have done more.” Heat rose with his words. “Those raiders were no match for you. You could have slain most all of them.”
Malach stopped wiping, but didn’t look up. “There is already enough blood on my hands to fill a lake. Getting involved in men’s aspirations is the curse of my kind. The Other embraces it. I … seek a different path.”
“Then why me?” Cadwalader’s fists tightened. “You strike only when I am in danger. You never defend anybody else. I am no different from any of them, so why me?”
Malach’s gaze rose to his face. “Why did your friend join the battle?”
“Can you ever give a straight answer?”
“Why give you that which you already hold?”
He called the pooka something far less savory, dropped the leather satchel, and spun away. Yet even as he stomped along the line of boulders interspersed with trees, regret over using those words settled over him like the shade in the valley. Malach was a challenge to interact with, but he was also the only … father … he could truly remember….
Cadwalader halted after a few paces and grasped a low hanging branch of an oak. Its bark dug into his fingers from the force of his grip, and he gazed the huddle of huts across the meadow. He drew in a long, slow breath as a couple of inhabitants shuffled among the structures.
His memories of the family he used to have were so distant and murky, more like recalling snatches of a fleeting dream. Malach encouraged him to cherish all the images and sensations of them he could recall. That wasn’t always easy when those reflections ended with screams and fire and death.
That encouragement was one example of charity exhibited by an otherwise aloof being. There were others, such as how Cadwalader’s impudence was never corrected with blows and berating such as those he’d witnessed from some fathers.
Nor did Malach ever use the language Cadwalader just hurled at him. He knew those words only because he’d learned them from the men.
His steward admitted to being a creature of darkness, but there was no doubt about Malach’s struggle to comprehend the light. If the pooka had an ulterior motive, it wasn’t to blame Llyr or anybody else for the young man’s death. He always tried to guide Cadwalader … even though those efforts were often infuriating.
With another deep breath, Cadwalader released the branch and strode back to the boulder where the pooka continued stroking the blade with the tattered cloth. There probably wasn’t a speck of dirt or blood left on that sword.
“I … apologize.” He clasped his hands together as he stood before Malach. “I should not have called you that.”
“That is not the worst name I have been called.”
“I was angry because … you know Llyr thought he could help.”
“Indeed.” Malach’s attention remained on the weapon. “But why would he want to help when the village’s men were already there to defend?”
There was no use repeating himself, so he dug deeper for an explanation beyond the obvious. “He … believed one more person added to our strength.”
“Was he correct?”
Was he? Cadwalader’s gaze cast out again toward the trampled and bloodied meadow. The women’s choral mourning trembled through a breeze light enough to mimic the dying’s final breath. The shadow in the east eagerly followed on the heels of the retreating sun.
“We won the battle.” The words fell flat as they tumbled from his lips. “But we could have won … without his loss.”
“And yet you also joined the battle.”
His attention locked on Malach again. “You taught me to fight.”
“I also taught you to hide. But when the attack began, you took up the sword.” His companion sat up as he returned Cadwalader’s gaze. “Why?”
He stared at Malach’s beard. “I will never stand back when the welfare of others is at stake.”
“That is what your friend believed.” He glanced away to set the rag down and picked up the scabbard balanced beside him. “That is why you were friends. There was much you shared. And that is why I share in your grief.”
Cadwalader’s blood pounded in his ears. “Did you ever consider rendering your aid to him instead of me?”
Malach sheathed the sword. “You are the one the Other hunts.”
The Other? That statement rattled in his mind before dropping into his stomach where it lay like a stone. “What?”
His companion looked up again. “He does not trail you like a wolf pursuing a hare, but he knows that I, too, roam these lands. And he has learned I harbor a youth. You do not threaten him in the present, but if he ever found you, he would destroy you to protect his future.”
This sudden turn in the conversation sent prickles from his chest and through his arms to the tips of his fingers. Malach always avoided the Other, but Cadwalader thought it was because the two pookas would clash over a major disagreement.
“Why do you tell me this now?”
“Because one day you will have to face the Other, and if you hope to survive, you will need allies. Honor the memory of your friend, for he was a worthy ally. But never allow his loss to haunt you, because his will not be the last.”
So this was his ulterior motive. Did he believe the impact of this revelation would be softened by the despair that already resided within Cadwalader? He swallowed hard.
“Was this your scheme all along?”
“Scheme?” Malach regarded the scabbard as though contemplating if he should oil it. “When I plucked you from that razed village, I was unsure why I even rescued you. My kind believes we exist to goad humanity into destroying itself. It should be easy. The desires your hearts conceive are evil all the time. But you survive because of a promise.”
He placed the scabbard on his lap and looked at Cadwalader. “The Other is influencing the Roman outposts to indulge in their worst vices. When he has gathered enough soldiers to sweep through the land, he will release them upon your people. This I have learned over the last few years.”
“And … you expect me to stop them?” He gaped at his companion. “Wait, are you not meddling in the affairs of men?”
“This time I attempt to defend. I have come to believe it was not by accident I discovered you. You have always … stood your ground. Perhaps for the selfish purpose of seeking my own redemption, I can facilitate that quality within you.”
If this was what it meant for his usually reserved companion to become talkative, Cadwalader liked him better the other way.
“Why are you telling me this now?”
“Because deception is natural to me, and I am attempting to be … unnatural. Instead of concealing my speculations, I shall attempt to be honest. And that is why I must also tell you that the hardest thing you will ever have to do is stand back when others are at risk.”
Cadwalader stared at him, and even gazed at those unsettling eyes for a few seconds. The pooka did possess capabilities regarded as magic, but used them sparingly. Was he indulging in one that Cadwalader hadn’t known about before tonight?
“Can you also see the future?”
“I have lived enough centuries to determine what is truth for men.” Malach rose to his feet and began fastening the scabbard back to its belt. “It will soon be too dark to see. We should return to the village and turn over the artifacts we found.”
Cadwalader picked up the leather satchel near his feet, and fell into step with his companion as they skirted around the meadow.
There was no doubt this qualified as one of the worst days of his life, and yet this was the occasion Malach chose to inform him it was only going to get worse. He still wasn’t sure he appreciated his steward’s new openness. But if the pooka was going to be more candid now, maybe he would answer a question that had perplexed Cadwalader for years.
“Why did you turn from your previous path?”
Malach glanced toward him, and his lips curled down in that suppressed and familiar smirk.
“Can one person change the world?”
So here is my contribution this month to #BlogBattle, and the word this time is Gloom. You’ve got to expect all kinds of great stories from that one, so don’t miss out!