I recoiled from the sound, my ears aching. Everything had gone dark, and I tripped and fell over something invisible in the darkness, as I backed away from the torrent of anger that I could still hear.
My first memory… what was that now…?
The voice was my father's, and I knew he was angry at me. But why, I couldn't tell. He seemed to be angry so much these days…
I heard his loud footsteps booming as he stomped through our small house, audible even above his incessant ranting. Before long, I heard my mother's voice raised in anger too, although I couldn't make out who she was angry at, or why.
Suddenly, there was a harsh sound of flesh impacting against flesh, and my mother's voice could no longer be heard.
I sat on the floor, and cried. I must have cried myself to sleep, for I remember nothing further.
I remember… My parents… I never understood at the time, why my father was always angry… It seemed he would come home every day enraged, and would take it out on my mother or I…
I was sent away to school. My father parted with a sum of money, and sent me and my few belongings away on a coach across the countryside to the next town, where I was to be educated. My mother wished me luck when I left, but even she looked subdued. My father just glared at me and turned away.
My mother's name was… Luciana. My father… his name… my… father's name…
I was bullied mercilessly at school, by my peers and by my masters. I was repeatedly told that I did not have the intelligence to be at school – and the knowledge was daily beaten into me. Afterwards, I would be made fun of for my many cuts and bruises. When it came to a fight, as it often did, I had neither the will nor the strength left to defend myself. Many times, I was hit and kicked until I fell unconscious.
I… I hated that place. I'd rather have died…
Twice a year, I went back to see my parents for a month. Rather than welcoming me home, my father would often beat me within an inch of my life for my continuing failures at school. My mother, though… I hardly saw her any more. She hardly spoke to anyone, least of all my father or I, and kept herself hidden from sight virtually all the time. No longer did she try to intervene when my father beat me up.
It was a few years later that I decided. I decided I couldn't take it any longer.
Life at school and at home had been getting continually tougher, as I was growing older and still failing to meet the expectations of my masters or my father. I was sixteen years old, and my time at school was coming to an end. However… I couldn't face returning home. Everyone would know that I had failed at school, and I dreaded what my father might do to me.
One night, as the nearly-full moon shone through the windows of the dormitory and I lay awake in bed, nursing my many wounds, I decided that I would have to leave for good. I pretended to be fast asleep when the dorms were inspected at midnight – then, a few minutes later, I dressed in my daytime clothes, opened the window, and dropped lightly onto the grass outside. I closed the window quietly behind me, so that the cold would not wake anyone who might notice that I was missing. At school, we woke for breakfast at six in the morning – I had just less than six hours to get as far away as possible.
Rather than trying to climb the walls at the front of the school, I ran – keeping as close as possible to the buildings – down to the woods at the bottom of the school field.
I was fortunate that my father had been wealthy enough to send me to an out-of-town school rather than one of the dirty inner-city ones – but of course I wouldn't have seen it like that. Not then.
The dew was thick on this cold and clear March night, and by the time I had got far into the woods, my feet were numb. Just as well, for it meant that I noticed the stones cutting at the flesh of my feet less.
Despite the pain, the fear, and the ever-growing agony in my muscles and lungs, I kept on running. After all, there was nothing else to do, nothing else in my head, except for the need to get away. In the end, I ran for much longer than until dawn. Somehow, after I'd been fleeing for so long, it didn't seem a big deal just to carry on. My legs and feet were beyond the pain now, and I felt in my mind that nothing else mattered. I'd lost my grip on reality, and my head was blank. So I did all that I could do… I continued to run. Eventually, the forest gave way to grassy plains, and a whole valley lay out before me. But down the dark tunnel of my vision, I couldn't see it.
I lost track of how far I'd come, how long I'd fled from imaginary pursuers. Eventually, I just collapsed. The tiny part of my brain that was left thinking logical thoughts wondered if it was the end – wondered if I might die here, alone.
But I didn't… I couldn't. I'd got so far, and I couldn't give up and let all the pain I'd endured be for nothing.
I can't remember much of the time when I was running away, now… But when I woke up, I'll never forget how that felt.
I opened my eyes, then quickly screwed them shut, as the bright mid-day sun had just shone directly into them. My head lolled to one side, and I retched violently, but was unable to be sick. My throat burned like fire, my eyes streamed, and my stomach heaved inside me.
Gradually, I fully regained consciousness, and I sat up. Immediately I regretted it, as I turned and threw up – properly, this time – and then passed out again.
When I woke up for the second time, I felt much better. The air was cool, and the sky above me was dark. I could hear the crackle of a fire to my right, but as my eyes still felt sore I didn't feel like turning to look at it. As well as the splintering and popping sounds, I could hear the voices of three men, chatting about something. I listened in, and realised they were talking about me…
The man who found me lying unconscious near the road was named Zarjune. One of the mercenaries who sat around the fire with him, called himself “Darkshine” – I don't know why. Perhaps that was really his name. The other hired men… They told me their names, I'm sure… but for the life of me I can't remember them now.
Two days later, at dusk, the caravan was attacked. I'd had some pretty bad experiences in my life, but I'd never seen men die right in front of my eyes before. Nevertheless… I stayed emotionless. Why death failed to affect me emotionally, I don't know – but it didn't then, and it never has to this day.
The reason I recall Darkshine's name and not those of the other mercenaries that Zarjune hired is not due to it's oddness. Rather, he – along with Zarjune and myself – were the only ones who survived the attack that day. The bandits were repelled, of course – but at the loss of the majority of the travelling party.
We kept a low profile on the roads for the next week or so, and eventually we made it to our destination.
It seemed like Zarjune expected me to leave, to go somewhere – back to my home, perhaps. He'd never really been the talkative sort, and in all the time I'd been part of their convoy he'd never asked me about my past. I guess that's one of the things I liked about him, really – he seemed to take everything and everyone at face value.
In the end, I don't know why I chose to stay with Zarjune's trade caravan. Maybe… I guess that was it… There was a debt I owed to him, and I had to find a way to pay it back. With hindsight, I don't know why he allowed me to travel with him in the end – it's not as if I had any of the skills of a trader or a mercenary.
But over the years, I did develop some skill in the latter, and I think I developed myself as well. I found something to believe in, even if it was just one group of people, plying one of the world's many trade routes. And although I seemed useless at first, over time I learned to fight. I wasn't very good, but I persevered – because after all, I had a debt to pay back, and this was my way of doing it.
In the end, though, I never did get to pay back what I owed Zarjune.
I guess some of Zarjune's easy-going attitude had rubbed off on me in the years I had travelled with him. Just as, at first, he never sought to enquire into my past, I was asking Zarjune less and less about what we were doing and why. I was driven by thoughts of the debt I thought I owed him, so nothing else really mattered.
This time, of course, I should have asked. I should have asked where we were going, and why. And I should have asked what the cargo was.
But it was too late now. Zarjune was dead. The other men we travelled with were dead. I stood amidst the burning remains of the convoy wagons, my clothes torn and splattered with the same blood that ran in rivers down the shaft of the spear I held. Standing in a circle around me were soldiers, dozens of them. Only the impression that the number of corpses that lay around me inspired was stopping them rushing me right now. It wouldn't be long, though. They must have sent an entire regiment out after us. There had been so many soldiers… so many. And yet… most of them had died. I'd… killed… so many soldiers.
Why? Why did I do it? Anger, I suppose. Zarjune and the caravan had been more of a parent and a home than I'd ever had before. And in the ambush, they'd both been destroyed before my eyes. When that happened… my mind… went blank. There was nothing, any more – nothing, except for blood, and steel, and fire – nothing, except for me, and the enemy. I was beyond logical thought, beyond considering why I was fighting soldiers.
As the remaining men who encircled me began to move inwards, my blood-red tunnel vision narrowed, narrowed, and narrowed more, and the world became inseparable from the blood.
What does this mean…? Am I… dead? Why can't I remember? Why!? WHY!?