I sat in the space between trees, waiting for him, my sword laying sheathed across my lap. I knew he would come; it was his own invitation that brought me here. In truth however, I was disappointed. I had no wish to kill this boy, and by the Gods own law he was owed his vengeance. I had visited a terrible wrong upon him many years ago, and though I’d once had hope to the contrary, I knew this day would come.
However, the Gods and I found little agreement on matters of life and death, and I held no intention of dying that day.
A breeze rustled through the leaves above me, and the sound of boots on weathered stone brought a sad smile to my lips.
“You’re early,” Darion said, accusatory.
A great deal of responses flowed through my mind. Some kind, some cruel, and others that were neither. But this was not a day for words, it was a day for action. I stood slowly, my white and black robes rippling lightly in the wind as I gripped my sword by the scabbard and turned to face the young man I would likely soon kill.
Though he was older now, Darion Laethric looked much the same as I remembered; sky-colored eyes filled with fury and resolve, and long brown hair he kept cleanly tied behind his head. I could see the strength of his father in his features, though their edges had been smoothed by the beauty of his mother. He had a fighter’s build as well, no doubt the result of the years of training he’d endured for this exact moment. My daughter would’ve almost certainly fawned over him, and I felt a small pang of regret that all the effort he’d put into his training would amount to nothing in the end.
“Walk away, boy,” I said at last. “I have no wish to do this with you.”
The air rang with the sound of drawn steel, and I regretted my words at once.
“No wish?!” Darion bellowed at me. “You murdered my father right before my eyes, and that’s all you have to say for yourself? That you have ‘no wish’ to fight me?”
Myriad responses again passed through my mind. Silence, cruelty, honesty and more presented themselves as possibilities, yet on their own, none of them satisfied me.
“I have no wish to kill you,” I explained, sharpening my tone for the sake of clarity and intimidation.
It worked. A flicker of doubt passed through Darion’s eyes and for just a moment, they fell from mine as his sword arm lowered. A miniscule glimmer of hope rose in my chest, but Darion’s eyes and blade seemingly rose back with it, and fury smoked through his voice.
“You’re not going to kill me,” he said.
It was an admirable attempt to shore up his own resolve, but I wasn’t going to let it stand.
“Oh yes I am,” I replied. “If you attack me, I will kill you. Because you are not my match, by any measure, and while the Gods may say you are owed your vengeance, I will not surrender my life to anyone. Least of all, you.”
My right hand twitched with the brief desire to draw my sword and be done with it, but that was an impulse born of irritation and impatience; two emotions that I would allow no sway over me. I took a breath to clear my mind of the heat rising within it, and gave Darion the courtesy of one more chance.
“So. I tell you again,” I said. “Walk away. I truly do not have any desire to kill you, but if you leave me no other choice, that is what I will do.”
With my warning given, I turned my back to him and knelt back down, sword once again in my lap. It was a risk, but one I’d calculated long in advance. Darion was young and full of rage. He would scream before he attacked me, and that would give me more than enough time to react in kind.
Sure enough, after only a heartbeat of further silence, Darion’s thunderous cry echoed through the grove.
I spun with my full speed, blocking Darion’s overhead strike with my still-sheathed sword. For a single moment, I allowed myself to enjoy the sight of horrified shock in Darion’s eyes. He’d underestimated me, just as I knew he would, and the proof of it was gratifying to witness. I then surged to my feet, shoving him backward as I at last drew my own sword and slashed down at his chest. I pulled the blade back as I swung, aiming to prove a point as the tip of it sliced through the fabric of his brown and green tunic instead of his flesh.
“As I’ve been saying, boy,” I began as he glanced wide-eyed down at his chest. “You do not want this fight. It will bring you only pain, misery, and death.”
He looked back at me, and I saw the fires of hate return to his eyes. He tried to make a move, to resume his attack, but I would not allow it. My scabbard still in hand, I threw it directly into his face and ran forward as he staggered back. I reversed my grip on my sword before he could recover, ducked down, and jabbed the pommel into his stomach. The impact stunned him into stillness, and I took the time to look up at him, eye-to-eye.
“That could’ve been the end of you, right there,” I said.
With a furious growl, Darion lifted his blade and tried to drive it down through my back, but I twisted away and flipped my sword around, bringing the edge of the blade right to his neck.
“As that could have been as well,” I added.
I held my sword there for perhaps a moment too long, as Darion recovered his nerve faster than I’d expected and knocked it away. With a ferocious cry, he pressed his attack in full. He struck at my neck, legs, chest, and head in rapid succession, and while I parried, blocked, and dodged them all with little effort, there was enough focus and skill behind his attacks that I could not immediately regain my advantage. However, as I continued to defend against the storm of steel he threw at me, I could see his frustration mounting.
Eventually, it got the better of him.
He paused too long preparing a thrust, likely intending to drive it through me with all the force he could possibly muster. As a result, I side-stepped the attack with ease and swung down, stopping my blade just before his neck and then lowering it further so he could feel the cold steel against his skin.
“Is this worth it, boy?” I growled. “Suffering through this kind of humiliation? All to avenge the monster that called itself your father?”
With a roar and speed that caught me off guard, Darion spun out from under my blade and swiped at my head. I ducked as quickly as I could, but still felt the rush of air over my scalp as his sword passed just above my hair. Before I could fully regain my stance, he then came back for a follow-up that I almost couldn’t block.
“You have no right to talk about my father that way!” he bellowed.
“I have every right to talk about your father that way.” I shouted back.
My outburst sent Darion recoiling from my presence and with anger of my own, I shoved his weapon aside and kicked him with all my strength. He fell flat on his back with a groan, sword falling from his grip, and I felt a brief but furious urge to rush forward and thrust my blade into his stomach. That fury was old and familiar to me however, and it did not rule my thoughts the way Darion’s did his. I pushed it aside, and then moved up to Darion’s now vulnerable form. Releasing just enough of my wrath for him to get the point, I pressed the tip of my sword into his chest hard enough to draw blood.
“Your father,” I snarled, “was a thief and a butcher. One who used your king’s war against my country as a cover for his own savagery.”
I felt my fury flicker into rage as the memories came back to me, and withdrew my sword at once. With a huff of breath I walked away, risking an exposed back for the sake of self-control. I heard his sword scrape against a rock as he surely picked it back up, and with a quiet sigh I turned to face him once again.
“That’s a lie,” Darion hissed.
I shook my head. “No it’s not.”
“Yes it is!”
With a wild shout, Darion charged me again, and this time I was done with the games. I blocked and deflected his first few attacks, sidestepped another over-extended thrust, and then bashed him in the face with my pommel. His nose broke with an audible crack, and he stumbled off his feet with a hearty cry of pain.
“No, it is not,” I repeated. “All that money you were raised with? Stolen from the towns and villages your father conquered before we finally managed to defeat him.”
A desperate, flailing swing at my gut was Darion’s only response as he held his now bleeding nose, and without effort I jumped back to dodge it. He next tried chopping down at my shoulder, and I snapped my guard up so that his blade glanced harmlessly off of mine. I then grabbed him by the collar and threw him back to the ground, face first into the dirt, and I pressed the point of my sword into his back to keep him there.
“Your father raped, and murdered, both my wife and my daughter while I was out trying to defend my country on the battlefield.”
Darion squirmed, but I twisted my sword to remind him of his place. He stopped, and I finally closed my eyes and took a breath to quell my rising fury. I reminded myself that Darion was not his father, and therefore I would not treat him as such.
“It was not,” I continued, “nor was it ever, my intention to kill him in front of you. And for that specifically, I am truly sorry. But I will never, ever, apologize for killing him. Just as you, I’m sure, would never apologize to my son for killing me.”
I lifted my blade then, and put a few steps between us once again. I did not turn my back to him, however. Whether Darion knew it or not, he was about to have his final chance with me, and I needed to see him either accept it or reject it. He was slow getting to his feet, doubtless because of the pain he was in, and I made no effort to hide the exasperated anger in my voice as he retrieved his sword and readied himself for another round.
“Boy,” I growled. “If you swing that sword even one more time, I swear by the Gods I will make it the last thing you ever do. This. Is. Over. And you can either live with that, or you can die with it! Because while I may sympathize with your quest for vengeance, my son has lost too much already, and I will not let him lose me too. Not like this, and certainly not to you!”
I waited for the attack to come, planned for the slash at my neck or the chop to my head and envisioned the final two or three moves I would make that would relieve Darion of his own. But to my surprise, that attack never came. I watched, in shock but also relief, as Darion’s stance faltered and his eyes began to water. Grief welled up behind the fire and the fury, and a few seconds later, Darion cried out in torment and hurled his sword into the forest behind him. He fell to his knees, then on to his hands as well, and I could see by the quivering in his shoulders that he’d started to cry.
Our fight was over, though it would taste a lie to say it had been won. There was no victory in destroying a son’s view of his father, and no honor in killing a man who so rightly deserved his vengeance. With a soft sigh, I relaxed my body and retrieved my scabbard. As I sheathed my sword and tied it back around my waist, I took some solace in the one good thing to come out of this mess: my son still had a father. The thought of returning home to him put the smallest of smiles upon my face, and restored my sense of peace as I began to leave the grove. Yet as I walked passed Darion, his voice made me pause.
“It was my mother.”
“What was?” I asked, turning enough to look at him.
“I could… there were nights…” he began, as if the words were choking him. “I could hear them. Hear her. Screaming… begging him to stop…”
I inhaled slowly, my hands clenching into fists while sick fury curled through my gut. I longed to reach for my sword again, longed to reach back through time and kill Baldric Laethric again, a thousand times over. For him to expose his son to such evil…
“I have no words for you, Darion,” I found myself saying. “I am… sorry is too common, too hollow a word for such things. Though you may not think I have one, my heart truly bleeds for you.”
Darion didn’t respond, and so I turned back around to leave. But the moment I took that first step away, something inside stopped me. A tug at the bottom of my heart, an unwanted cord of responsibility pulled me back towards him. As I looked down upon his knelt and shaking form, my eyes did not see a furious young man attempting to avenge his father. Instead they saw a boy, lost and alone in the darkness.
They saw the reason I’d had no desire to kill him.
“Darion,” I said. “Darion, listen to me.”
He looked up, and I met his raw and red eyes with my own.
“Stand up,” I instructed.
He did so without question, and I rewarded that by at last lowering my guard. I let the warrior fall back, and allowed the father to step forward. My right hand found Darion’s shoulder and my eyes stayed focused on his, though I kept my left hand on my sword as a precaution. I could see how high his emotions were, and with what I was about to say, I did not trust his passive demeanor to last.
“Darion,” I began, “your father was a monster. But he is gone now. There is nothing left of him in this world to hurt you, hurt me, or hurt anyone else.”
He opened his mouth to speak, but I shook my head. I already knew what he was going to say.
“No. Your blood? Your blood is merely water, red and flowing through your veins solely to keep you alive. The only parts of you that truly matter are your heart and your mind. If you keep those two clear and in tune, your life will be whatever you choose to make it. You understand?”
I gripped his shoulder a hair’s breadth tighter for emphasis, and after a moment, I felt it rise and fall as he took a slow, deep breath. He closed his eyes, and when he opened them again, he nodded.
“Good.” I took a breath of my own. “Be well, Darion.”
I released his shoulder, and then turned away to leave him with his thoughts. I made it half a dozen paces before I heard his voice again, a hint of his old anger flickering in his tone.
“Why do you care so much?” he called. “Why does… why does my life matter to you?”
I stopped, and briefly considered ignoring him before my conscience overtook that thought. There were many answers I could’ve given; some of them simple, some of them not. But in that moment, more than most, Darion deserved the truth.
“Because my father was a monster too.”
Those were the final words I could bring myself to say to him; the only words I could think of that most completely answered his question. If he could understand that, if he could understand all that those words meant, there would still be hope for him. Silence settled in around us and as I walked away, leaving both Darion and the dueling grove behind, I realized that that was all I could hope for as well.