The Curse of Guilt

She added a charm to her bracelet for every life she took. Even the ones she didn't remember. There were 15 charms that jingled a faint melody at her right wrist. It reminded her that she was death, and that her affection was poison. It reminded her that to love someone was their doom, and it reminded her of what she should never forget: that she'd been a killer long before she could talk.

Aralynn Rehna knew she was pretty. She'd been told so many times. She'd used those looks during jobs that required it, but found them to be more of a hindrance than a help. Few people took her seriously because of how she looked. Having to prove her worth was almost more hassle than she was willing to endure, but a woman needed to make a living somehow. Mercenary work was as good an option as any, and far more palatable than some work expected of orphans. She'd always had a talent for killing.

If she allowed herself such emotions, Aralynn would say she liked her current employer. He'd hired her as a personal bodyguard and, in the months since she'd started, Haron had proven to be different from any other employer she'd ever had. For one, he had yet to try and convince her into his bed.

"Well?" Haron asked, turning to face her.

She stood just behind him at all his meetings, turning cool blue eyes at every attendee. Then, once they left, he turned to her, asking her thoughts. Most assumed that her gender, and her profession meant she was stupid. She wasn't.

"He's plotting," Aralynn answered, her eyes on the door that had just closed behind Lord Dastan, one of those older nobles who had to answer to Haron.

"That's obvious," he laughed. "He's not as subtle as he thinks he is. That's not what I meant, Aralynn."

Her eyes turned back to Haron, though no emotion warmed her expression. She'd learned some time ago how to suppress her emotions. If she couldn't feel, she couldn't care. If she couldn't care, people wouldn't die without her putting her sword through them.

"I know what you meant."

Haron waited in silence, letting it drag on as Aralynn gathered her thoughts.

"He's exceedingly displeased with your actions," she said, finally.

"That's usually why someone plots."

"He means to kill you," she told him. "Not personally, he'd rather keep his hands clean but he'll hire someone."

Haron nodded. "That's what I feared.

"You're rather calm about this," Aralynn noted. Most people, when told they were going to die, panicked, or worried about the how and when.

"Why should I worry?" he asked. "You won't let me die."

She arched an eyebrow. "Overconfidence has been the downfall of many before you."

"You have a reputation, Aralynn. Whether my enemies choose to believe it or not, you are exceptional at your job. It's not overconfidence, it's faith."

Aralynn gave a soft, short, laugh. "Faith has often been the cause of overconfidence, Lord Haron."

Haron rose with a laugh. "You're right, of course." He crossed to the other side of the room to the bookshelf next to the tall window. The sun was still high, making the unlit candelabra to either side decorative rather than necessary. The lord, young for the position at 24 years, looked out the window.

"My hope," he said, after a long moment of silence, "Is that they'll underestimate you."

"You're hoping we'll see them coming."

Haron nodded. "I am."

"Don't count on it," Aralynn warned. "If you're looking for the obvious, you'll miss the true assassin."

Haron sighed. "You're right, again. Well, I can be sure of one thing, at least."

"What's that?"

"That no lovely lady will be sent to seduce you to distraction."

Aralynn allowed a small smile on her lips. "I suppose if a male attempts it, we'll know it's a trap."

His smile faded. "I didn't say that, Aralynn. You're a lovely woman."

She nodded her thanks, already knowing the truth of it. "Regardless, there are too many who think my profession distasteful for them to attempt my seduction where anyone might see."

To that, Haron couldn't protest. He too knew the restrictions placed upon women in their world. She was an anomaly, one they didn't know how to handle. Though she wasn't loud, bold, or brash, she did show too much skin. She refused to take a man's word as law, or obey him simply because he was male. She could be violent. Often whenever her sword was drawn, it was a bloody affair. Blood did not bother her as the males thought it should. Aralynn, like most young women, bled once a month. It was nothing to be feared.

"Any other meetings?" Aralynn asked, drawing the attention away from her previous statement.

"No, that was the last." He seemed worried. The stress lines were deeper with the sunlight casting shadows over them. Haron stared out at the window shoulders sagging, and Aralynn knew it was from the duty he felt to the people he was in charge of.

For a moment, she considered going to him. She wanted the proficiency with words required to give him comfort, the sort that would convince him everything would be alright, and that the threat on his life wouldn't succeed. But, it was only a moment before she reigned herself in, turning away from the momentary flight of foolish fancy.

Her job was not to comfort. Her job was to keep him alive. So, she stood in silence and watched.

The first attempt happened during dinner two nights later. Aralynn only caught it because the plate passed her close enough that she could make out individual scents.

"Wait," she said, as the scent registered. The servant stopped barely a foot past her. A single step closed the distance, and she took the plate from him so she could get a deeper smell.

"Aralynn?" Haron asked, confusion tinting her name.

She ignored him to breathe again, mentally sorting each individual scent until she classified the one that had called her attention.

"Do all your guards steal your food to sniff at it?" Haron's sister, the Lady Anis, demanded, each word mocking Aralynn's actual ability to do her job.

"I wouldn't eat anything yet, Lady Anis," Aralynn said, refusing to rise to the bait. "Unless I'm mistaken, Lord Haron's dinner has been dosed with seeds of the Strychnos Nux Vomica."

"With what?" Anis demanded, fork held halfway to her mouth.

"Strychnine," Aralynn translated the poison rather than the plant.

"I've never heard of it."

"That's unsurprising. It's not common around here, as it's found in Asia and Australia." Though how it had come to be around here was a far more interesting question.

"How sure are you?" Haronn asked.

"I've encountered Strychnine before," she answered. "It has a very distinctive smell. Even mixed in with everything else it's still there, although fainter than usual."

She crossed to the table and laid it before Haron.

"Smell it," Aralynn told him. "Strychnine is quite disagreeable to the senses."

Anis sneered, though her utensil descended to her plate. Haron, however, didn't even hesitate to lean in, resting one hand beside the plate to balance himself. She stood in silence, watching him sift through the smells. She knew the instant he caught the Strychnine because his nose wrinkled and he leaned away from the plate.

"It's actually there?" Anis asked.

"Well, something is," Haron said. He sent a servant out for the cook.

"How do we know she didn't do it?" Anis asked. "Poison is a woman's trick." Anis had refused to call Aralynn by name for three months, ever since she'd gotten there. She supposed it was a not-so-subtle way of letting Aralynn know she was not welcome.

"And a cowardly man's," Aralynn said. "Or a man attempting to frame a woman. I assure you, Lady Anis, if I wanted to kill your brother, I have far more direct methods."

"I believe it," Haron grinned.

"Of course you do," Anis snapped. "She's bewitched you."

"I'm not bewitched, Anis," he said in a tone that suggested they'd had this conversation many times before. "I've actually seen Aralynn's combative capabilities. If she says she's seen this before, I trust her. It's not in her interest to see me dead. She doesn't get paid that way."

"Unless she's working for someone else."

"I don't work for idiots," Aralynn said, moving the plate away from Haron. The last thing they needed was for him to take a bite while they argued. While she doubted a single bite would kill him, she'd rather not take the risk.

"What does that mean?"

"It means I don't work for people who don't respect my abilities as a warrior."

Anis raised an eyebrow over her perfectly made up face - as befitted a woman of her station.

"Besides," Aralynn continued, "why would I poison his food, only to tell him about it?"

Anis sighed. "I don't think like a …" she trailed off, casting a dark look over Aralynn's attire, "like someone of your profession."

Haron's sigh was heavy, as though the heavens had placed their weight upon his shoulders. "Anis."

She glanced at him. "Fine. Perhaps you didn't actually mean him harm. Perhaps you wished to impress him."

Aralynn canted her head to the side. "Impress him?" she repeated. "Lady Anis, you, yourself, just said he seemed bewitched by me. Why would I need to impress him?"

Her response, whatever it might have been, was cut off by the cook's entrance. Obviously, Anis didn't want to continue the conversation within his earshot.

"You called for me, Milord?" the cook asked.

"Yes. Is there something new in tonight's stew?"

"Yes, Milord," the cook answered, brightening. "You noticed then? We were told it'd add a certain kick to well-known foods."

"Were you told what it was?"

"Yes, Milord. Sticken-something."

"Strychnine?" Aralynn offered.

"I believe so. You want me to get more of it, Milord?"

"Strychnine is poison," Aralynn told the cook, who paled at the word.

"I didn't know, Milord, I swear. My wife came back from market with the seeds. They smelled something awful, but she said the stew he had going was heavenly enough and tasted right good."

"I need your wife to show me this merchant," Aralynn said. "With your permission, Lord Haron."

"Do so. Meanwhile, is there anything not seasoned with this Strychnine?"

"Yes, Milord. I'll have it sent right away."

Aralynn stayed long enough to scent the new meal, but found no trace of the poison. She didn't hope to find the merchant, so was unsurprised to find his spot empty. If he had made a purposeful attempt to poison Lord Haron, he'd probably packed up and left immediately after his sale. She spent the entire trip convincing her elderly guide that the stew she'd tasted at the stall hadn't been poisoned. He'd probably used a different herb to spice it than the seeds he'd given her.

The second attempt at his life was expected. It was during a ride through Haron's lands, visiting his vassals. It was a man dressed in the sturdy clothes of those around him, but he wasn't as gaunt in the face, nor as worn as the others. Haron, for all his virtues, couldn't see the difference when she quietly picked him out. To him, the man was just another peasant.

"You worry too much," he told her, riding closer to the small group before Aralynn could remind him of the 'merchant's' attempt on his life. Whoever was trying to kill him was good enough to fool the peasants. Haron, unfortunately, was arrogant enough to believe he'd know when a man came to kill him.

She followed at his side. It wasn't necessarily proper for a woman of her status, but she couldn't protect him if she lingered behind him. Her attention, though she let her gaze wander, remained on the would-be assassin. If she attacked before him, Haron wouldn't believe her. He would only believe her if he had an obvious weapon on him. If he was as good as she thought, the assassin's weapon would at least somewhat match his supposed position. So, she'd wait.

The peasants bowed to Haron as he approached. The would-be assassin mimicking without hesitation.

"Afternoon," Haron called as he stopped his horse. "How goes?"

"Well, Milord," the head peasant - or who Aralynn assumed to be their leader - said.

"Good." Haron dismounted, Aralynn following after from her own. Her hand rested on the hilt of her blade, ready but relaxed. She didn't want the man to suspect her knowledge. It might make him withdraw to attack later. Perhaps at a time and place where she couldn't immediately pick him out.

Guards - good guards - were masters of being alert without seeming too, of making people look over them, and looking inconsequential. Aralynn's gender, and vibrantly blond hair, made being looked over impossible, but she was often dismissed as unimportant. Most liked to believe she was too dumb to understand them, which made her unnoticed alertness a little easier to maintain than the average guard.

She followed Haron through his inspection of the farm. As he made inquiries and got his answers, Aralynn stayed a half-step behind him, and - incidentally - on the side the assassin stood. Finally, Haron returned to his horse, and the assassin struck.

Aralynn put herself between Haron and the crude blade. It dug into the shoulder of her off arm. Pain seared down the arm, and fell out of her mouth in a grunt. Her main hand reacted automatically by gripping the assassin's wrist. She watched the surprise dance across his face, which gave her the advantage she needed to shove him away and withdraw the dagger.

"What?" Haron said behind her.

"Get him out of here!" She ordered the guardsmen. She heard them ushering their lord away, but Aralynn's eyes remained on the assassin who'd missed his target. The dagger remained in her hand. There was no point in getting rid of a weapon that could be used against her.

The horses galloped away as Aralynn lunged forward. She needed to end this before the loss of blood made her lightheaded. It would take awhile, but she'd rather not risk getting anywhere near it. He had another dagger on him. He aimed low, managing to catch her around the stomach, a glancing blow that was mostly caught by the leather armor she wore.

It became obvious that the assassin was not trained in combat. He was quickly wounded to the point where he couldn't fight. As he lay bleeding on the ground, Aralynn knelt beside him.

"Who hired you?" Aralynn demanded.

"I hear you wear a charm for every kill," he said, at which Aralynn stilled, wondering where he'd heard that. "Will I be a charm then?"

"No," she answered. "I haven't killed you. The dagger did."

"There's not a difference there."

"Yes, there is. That you fail to see it is no concern of mine. Who hired you to kill Lord Haron?"

He refused to answer the question, however what he did say had her swinging onto her horse and racing to find Haron. Her efforts were in vain as no other assassins leapt at them as they returned to the castle, but Haron's rides to check his vassals were put on hold until they knew - or had proof - who was trying to kill him. Just because Aralynn believed it was Lord Dastan didn't mean it actually was.

Lady Anis, however, had another idea.

"She's trying to kill you," the lady raged, uncaring that Aralynn was present.

"Aralynn was injured protecting me,'' Haron argued back calmly, though he did motion over to where her wound was being bound. She'd insisted on stitching it closed herself, which she'd learned long ago actually aided healing, but couldn't bind it right with only one arm.

"You didn't see her kill the man, did you? Who's to say she didn't let him go?"

"His corpse lies by the farm," Aralynn told her.

"And only your word that it's the same man. It's convenient that you sent everyone away while you dealt with him."

"Would you rather your brother stay where there could have been a second assassin?"

"There wasn't."

"But we didn't know that," Haron said.

"A convenient excuse," was her reply before storming from the room. Haron sighed.

"She's right to worry," Aralynn said.

"You mean to say you are trying to kill me?" he smiled.

"No. I meant that anyone could be a threat."

"I can't look at everyone like they're trying to kill me."

"But you can listen when I tell you that someone is."

He paused, blinking. Then, he did something she'd never seen another noble do: he looked sheepish.

"I did ignore you, didn't I?"

Aralynn nodded.

"I'm sorry. If I'd listened, you wouldn't have been hurt."

"Perhaps," she shrugged with her good shoulder. "Perhaps not." Rarely did people actually come out of a fight completely uninjured.

"You wouldn't have waited for him to attack."

It wasn't a question but she answered it anyway. "No, I would not have."

"I'll listen better next time."

She'd believe it when she saw it.

The third, and final, attempt, came a month later at Haron's yearly ball. Aralynn had been convinced to forgo her armor and usual weapons for a gown. It would Haron had said, give her leave to stick close without making anyone nervous. It was also unlikely that anyone would recognize her as his guard. Despite her obvious physical traits, no one really looked at her. She couldn't argue with his reasons, but had figured out how to go armed regardless.

Her hair, which had taken over an hour to style, was piled atop her head with a long skinny dagger sheathed within it. The hilt overlapped a comb to make it appear part of the decoration. Another dagger lay hidden between her breasts where no one would dare search. Under the skirt was another two daggers, but she'd have to show more skin than was acceptable to retrieve them.

Her face was made up as Lady Anis' usually was, though someone else had had to do it because Aralynn never wore it, and she'd been lent jewelry - reluctantly - that glittered around her neck in the lights lit around the ballroom.

"Smile," Haron murmured as he led her about the room.

"I don't smile." She hadn't for a while. Smiling allowed people to get close, which was the last thing she needed.

"If you don't smile, people will wonder what I've done to anger you." He glanced at her and sighed. "At least look like you're enjoying yourself."

"I'm not," she answered, but actively worked to lessen her glare as a couple approached them. She even managed a small smile.

"Lord Haron, you remember my wife, Aderyn?"

"Of course I do. A pleasure to see you again, my lady."

"And you, my lord," the lady answered with a shallow curtsy.

"Lord Aaron, Lady Aderyn, might I introduce you to Aralynn. She's visiting here for the next few days."

"Lady Aralynn, a pleasure," the lord said, giving a short bow in her direction.

"My lord," she answered, returning his bow with a curtsy as shallow as his wife's.

Introductions done, the two lords spoke briefly of Haron's current plans before moving on. Neither woman was invited to join.

"I'm not a lady," Aralynn murmured as they moved on.

"I didn't introduce you as such," Haron said. "That they mistook you as such is no fault of mine"

"You lie."

"Well," he allowed, "I suppose my wording might have aided their misinterpretation."

The ball was dull. She'd never been to one before, but there was nothing interesting about standing around listening to men talk, but at least it was something she was used to. Listening to women chatter was worse.

Lady Anis played her part to perfection, welcoming her to the circle when she was led over by another guest. There was nothing Aralynn could say that wouldn't mark her as 'other'. Anis, surprisingly, helped keep the attention off her, though perhaps it wasn't so surprising. If Aralynn said something inappropriate, it would reflect on them, as her hosts.

When the dancing started started, Aralynn expected to fade into the background so she could keep an eye out for someone who shouldn't be there. The long silence told her that either the assassin's employer had needed time to hire someone else, or they were planning something she wouldn't like. Unfortunately, Haron had different ideas.

No sooner had she found a seat - a momentary place to wait out the first dance - than Haron appeared at her side.

"A beautiful lady shouldn't sit during the first dance."

She stared at the hand in horror, but knew she couldn't turn him down without drawing attention to herself. Her callused fingers felt odd against his smooth palm. He helped her to her feet and led her to the floor.

"I should be looking for your assassin," she said through a tight smile.

"You can," he assured her, leading her through the first steps as music filled the air.

"I hardly see how."

"Try to enjoy yourself," he said. "It is okay. I won't think less of you for it."

"I'm not worried about that, Lord Haron."

"Good," he grinned before passing her to the next lord in line.

Aralynn spent the entirety of the song making polite conversation, and the next, when she got dragged into it as well. By the time she returned to Haron, she was no closer to finding out if an enemy was amongst them.

"Well?" he asked, finally leading her away from the dancing.

"I've seen nothing," she said, eyes scanning their surroundings.

"Did you enjoy yourself?"

She arched an eyebrow at him. "This is hardly my idea of a good time."

"You mean you didn't try."

"My job is to keep you safe, not 'have fun,'" she told him.

"Everyone needs a break. You're far too serious."

"For a woman?" she challenged.

"For anyone. Half the nobility have forgotten how to have fun. It's why they fight against new ideas."

"I'm a warrior, Lord Haron. I get better at my profession by incorporating new styles and tactics into my repertoire."

Their conversation distracted her enough that she didn't notice the threat until it was almost too late. A gleam caught her eye. At first, she thought it the goblet the servant carried, instead of the blade half hidden beneath it. The delay gave her only one course of action.

She shoved her weight against Haron, catching him off guard enough the end him to the ground. Her momentum took her down with him, but not before the 'servant's' knife got her in the side. The angle was awkward and her fall ripped the knife from his grip. The man stumbled from the force of it.

She yanked the knife out, dropping it to the ground and lunged at him. Her shoulder got him in the gut. They crashed to the ground, to the cries of horror around them.

"Guards!" Haron called.

Aralynn fought the assassin, ignoring the the pull at her side, and the jolts of pain. Until he got her there with his knee. She cried out, unable to silence the pain. Then, the guards were there restraining him, and she was able to stem the blood flow with one hand. Her shoulder, tender though mostly healed, twinged. Hopefully, she hadn't hurt it any further.

Haron helped her to her feet. Around them, the nobles stared in horror. Ladies, she knew, did not lunge at people, or wrestle with them. The fact that blood, her blood, stained her gown further struck her as other.

"We should question him, my lord," Aralynn said, hoping to stem the flood of judgement around them.

"Your injury needs looking at."

"It's unimportant," she told him, pulling away from Haron. "Finding out who hired him," she motioned to the would-be assassin, "is."

"Both can be done at the same time."

"The dress has to come off, Lord Haron. I doubt even your sensibilities would be able to handle that."

"You won't be in the same room, Aralynn."

Her eyebrows shot upward but was saved from further argument by Anis appearing at her side.

"I'll see to her, Haron," she said, taking Aralynn gently by the arm.

Aralynn was too surprised by Anis willingly touching her to protest being led from the ballroom like some half-wit child.

"Fetch her armor," the lady ordered a maid. The young woman ran from the room.

"It would be quicker to get patched up and return to his side," Anis said after the doors closed behind them. "Than to stand there arguing until you pass out from blood loss. Unless your goal truly is to leave him defenseless, you should consider other options." Though the lady's hand never left Aralynn's arm, Anis refused to look at her.

"The wound will not kill me," Aralynn replied, "nor am I losing enough blood to have passed out. I am in no danger, Lady Anis, but your brother is."

"The best way to deal with men," Anis told her, "is to make them think they've won. Argue, and they grow stubborn."

"Which doesn't change the fact that they're often wrong."

Anis rolled her eyes, finally sending her a glance of exasperation. "Of course they are, they're men. But, they're also prideful creatures, and if we tell them so, they will fight. A woman's job is to direct, not force."

She directed Aralynn into the small side room where Anis often spent her afternoons with needlepoint. She closed the door behind them, then - as gently as she'd led Aralynn there - helped her from her gown.

"We are not meant for force and violence. Those are men's squabbles."

Aralynn snorted as she stood in her undergarments. "You would have me play deaf and dumb," she said as the lady searched for a needle and thread to stitch the wound.

"No, but you are outspoken even for a warrior. It makes you …"

"Abnormal," Aralynn finished. "Being a woman who fights marks me so. That I speak means I cannot be dismissed."

"There are better ways."

"I am not some landed lady who can sit and wheedle someone to my way through subtle poking. Nor could I ever be."

Anis motioned her to sit on a stool and knelt beside her so she might stitch the wound. Aralynn let her.

"If you would not be so brash, I would not protest my brother keeping you on, even after this danger has passed."

Aralynn paused, frowning down at the lady, whose so-gentle fingers brushed her skin. "You don't like me, Lady Anis, why would you tell me how to stay?"

"Because Lord Haron does," she answered. "You and your … antics make him happy. I have not seen him smile since our father died. Despite how I feel of you, I would not have him return to his gloom."

"I cannot stay."

"And why not? Isn't a permanent position better than uncertainty."

"A guard is only so good as their alertness holds."

Anis blinked up at her. "You fear laziness?" she asked, amusement filtering into her voice. "Surely you've learned my brother attracts excitement?"

Aralynn shook her head. She couldn't stay. The longer she stayed somewhere, the more likely affection was to grow within her, which would doom the recipient. The very last thing she wanted was Haron's death. She wouldn't -

Her thoughts froze in place as realization flooded her. She already cared. She loved him. Not in the way a woman was supposed to love a man, but as a woman loved a friend. The last person she'd cared for like that had been burned a witch.

"What's wrong?" Anis asked. "You've gone pale."

A slender hand reached up to touch her face, but Aralynn stood, striding away.

"Don't touch me, Lady Anis" Aralynn sid. "You've done your duty, and you wouldn't want to be bewitched." Her tone was cold as she quickly rebuilt walls she hadn't realized had fallen.

Anis blinked at her from her knelt position, hand still hovering mid-air. Aralynn stared down from her tower of ire. She knew how intimidating she she could look. Being half dressed meant little in that regard. But, Anis' expression softened and her eyes brightened in realization.

"You love him," she breathed.

"You're mistaken, Lady Anis."

The lady's head shook once to either side. "No." she rose in one fluid motion. "I've seen this look before. Denying it will do you no good."

"I do not love him, Lady Anis." She couldn't, wouldn't admit it. Maybe, if it wasn't said, if she denied it with every breath, she could prevent it.

Anis' eyebrows furrowed in confusion. "I've never seen you so panicked." She crossed to Aralynn, who backed farther away. The lady paused once again growing concerned, a look Aralynn loathed, but had seen far too often to not notice those too wide eyes, the down turned lips, the raised eyebrows. The placating hands were less common, but she'd seen those too.

"I won't tell him. He has no need to know."

"I don't love him," Aralynn repeated, but her voice was too breathy to be strong, or sure. It was the kind of denial people ignored.

"Fine," Anis said, tone of the kind someone used on a wild animal they were trying to lure closer. Aralynn resented it, but couldn't fault her. She was acting irrationally.

She took a long, slow breath, forcing herself calm. When she had herself under control, she turned her attention to the still woman, half a room away.

"I do not love him, Lady Anis," she said, "Though I do respect him. It is for that respect that I will not stay here longer than I must. My presence would eventually harm his reputation."

"Perhaps it would," Anis replied, slowly, "but he will not accept that as a reason."

"Then, I will simply tell him it is time for me to move on."

A knock sounded on the door.

"Enter," Anis said, waving Aralynn away from view. It was the maid, carrying Aralynn's armor.

"Thank you," Aralynn said.

It took her longer than usual to don her armor, as every movement it seemed, tugged at the stitches in her side. Anis helped, where she could, but she knew little of how to put it on.

When she was finally presentable, she was shown to the men.

They found a sigil on the man, indicating he'd come as part of Lord Dastan's retinue. Aralynn had accompanied Haron to confront the lord. Haron, despite his youth, was the highest ranked noble in the area. With proof of Dastan's treachery, Haron sentenced him to death, to be taken place at noon the next day. From her place beside him, Aralynn heard others murmuring, not of Dastan and his fate, but of her. Nobles, she's learned, gossiped about the most juicy, scandalous topic.

Dastan's treachery might have been everyone's favorite topic had Aralynn not attended the party on Haron's arm. They wondered if she was his mistress as well as guard, or if 'guard' was only what they called her because of the scandal it'd cause to keep her so near at hand. They spoke of her reaction, or lack thereof, to the pain of her wound. 'Unnatural' was spoken behind hands. 'Abnormal' whispered into ears. They watched her with eyes full of curiosity, fascination, and disdain. She ignored them as best she could, keeping her attention on Dastan's protest. Nobody believed him.

Aralynn stayed three days after his death to make sure no other assassination attempts went through before word of Dastan's death spread.

"Leaving?" Haron repeated, leaning back in his seat. "Why?"

"You're safe," Aralynn said. "It's time for me to move on, Lord Haron.

Haron rose, circling his large, wooden desk. "But why, Aralynn?" I thought you'd stay awhile longer, at least."

She gazed at him with blank eyes. Seeing the concern and worry over her well-being was almost her undoing. It had been so long since someone cared. Was it no wonder she had -

Aralynn cut the thought off before it could go further, but her chest tightened with the knowledge that she had to leave immediately. Every minute she spent near him risked his life.

"It's just time for me to go," she said. "I'll leave in the morning."

"Where?" he asked. "Do you have another job lined up?"

"Not as yet, but it's never long before offers." She turned to go.


She paused, glancing back.

"Stay. You could have a place here."

Aralynn shook her head, long blond ponytail brushing the skin of her neck. "Your sister would never give you peace."

"My sister has warmed up to you. I think it was watching you take a blade for me."

She doubted that, but kept the words firmly behind closed lips. He'd want to know what happened, and that was a secret he should never know.

"I'd keep in touch, but I can't." For more than one reason.

He grinned. "If you stay, I'll teach you to read and write."

"It's improper for a woman to know such things."

"It's improper for a woman to know how to fight too," he teased back, "but when has that stopped you?"

And this was why she couldn't stay He always found ways passed her defenses.

"I can't stay," she said, instead of replying, and left the room before he could say more.

She had few possessions. Fitting them, and provisions onto her horse took little effort. The cook, increasingly fond of her since she'd saved his lord from poison at his hands, had outdone himself with her traveling fare. She'd eat well for weeks before she'd have to buy something.

Her breakfast was eaten in the kitchen at his insistence while the cook, an elderly man, warned her of the dangers in the area.

"Now, I know you can take care of yourself, and God only knows how well you were taught, but you'll be traveling alone. Any lone traveler can be in trouble, so you be careful."

"I will," Aralynn assured him, silently wondering why this place was full of people who didn't look at her as though she were the devil incarnate.

"It's getting cold out there," the cook's wife said, entering from another room. "Especially at night."

"I've been in worse," Aralynn assured her.

"That doesn't mean it isn't cold. Here," she held up a cloak, a nice thick wool. "This will keep you warm."

"I couldn't," Aralynn said, shaking her head.

"I made it for you," she said, placing it around Aralynn's slim shoulders. "I know the look of someone itching to leave, and I knew you didn't have a decent cloak. You didn't show up with one anyway. There," she stepped back with a smile. "It fits."

Aralynn didn't know what to say. When was the last time someone had given her something? Anything?

"Don't say anything, child," the woman told her, tone gentling. "I get the feeling you've experienced far too much hardship for your age. You're overdue a kindness, I think."

"Thank you," she managed. Then, she had to leave before she started crying. She hadn't cried in years. If she started now, she might never stop. She had to leave before she brought these people grief.


She turned from the main entrance, glancing up the stairs to see Haron standing there. His sister wasn't far behind him.

"Lord Haron," she answered.

"Thought you could slip of without a goodbye, did you?" he grinned.

"I don't like goodbyes."

"Figures," he laughed as he started down the stairs.

Anis lingered at the top, watching Aralynn, but her eyes saw too much. She knew too much. She knew, or thought she knew, why Aralynn left. She'd correct her if she could, but that would do far more harm than good.

Haron cried out, grabbing both their attentions in time to watch him pitch forward on the stairs.

"No," Aralynn breathed, already moving as Anis screamed above them. Haron tumbled down the stairs, a flail of limbs, until he landed at the bottom. Aralynn collapsed beside him, fingers going for his neck despite its unnatural angle, and the glassy eyes gazing out at nothing. Anis appeared at his other side.

"Haron," she called. "Haron!"

"He's dead," Aralynn told her tone void of any emotion as she pulled her fingers away. Inside, however, was anything but. She hadn't left soon enough. She should have left as soon as she'd realized her affection. Maybe then he'd still be breathing.

"No. No, he can't."

"I'm sorry," Aralynn breathed, grief and guilt welling inside her, overpowering the horror.

"Not your fault," Anis said through her tears. "He wanted to say goodbye. It's not your fault."

Yes, it is, she wanted to say, but the words caught in her throat.

Others arrived, though it was Aralynn Anis lung to, sobbing against her brother's unwilling killer. Finally, she was led away, and Aralynn left. The cloak about her shoulders weighed heavily on her. She didn't deserve kindness. She should take it off, let it all to the ground, and let herself freeze. But, she didn't. She clung to the wool in a desperate attempt to warm herself.

If she were a good person, she would shut off her heart. She'd avoid people at every cost. She would never let herself care. But she wasn't, and she couldn't, and people died around her while she rode away.

She stopped just once before she left the town. A jeweler's, where she bought a small silver charm. It took most of what she'd just earned, but it didn't matter.

Now, she had 16 small charms on the bracelet around her wrist. Sixteen charms that jingled a merry chime with every movement.

So Walks the Reaper is a series of short stories centered around Death. There are eight short stories that make up this work, with no connection between them except that they will all have someone die in it. This is a work I'm attempting to get published, though the channels to go though might mean that it takes a while to get there.

I hope you enjoy So Walks the Reaper, and stay tuned for other works in the making.

Allanasha Ke Kiri