Aphelion Issue 239, Volume 23
May 2019
 
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The Toll

by H. R. Gillette



"He sent another one?"

Glori inhaled deeply and nodded. The air was laden with earthy scented moisture lingering from days of rain. She held the breath a moment before it slipped past her lips in the form of an exhausted sigh. Lost in thought, her fingertips gently traced a shallow boot print as she knelt, the mark barely visible within its nest of wet leaves and forest debris. A partner print was nowhere to be found; no other prints could be found at all. Without the aid of the revealing forest mud to guide her, Glori doubted she would have seen any sign of the newcomer at all.

"What are you going to do?"

"What I always do," she replied. "Why do you still ask me questions like that?"

"Because I still have hope."

Wiping the mud on her pant leg, she stood. "This is the only way."

"This is never the only way," the voice whispered.

Glori pulled her cloak tighter around her slight form. There was no point arguing. She left the print, moving through the forest on invisible pathways known to those who made the dreary, moss-laden place home. Her steps were deliberate, calculated, and completely silent. As the night air cooled, thick fog snaked through the trees and settled in the lowest points along the ground. The white blanket swirled away while Glori moved through only to circle back after and heal the swaths she cut in passing.

Cresting a ridge within the forest, she crouched down, hidden by the shadows beneath two gnarled trees. At the base of the ridge, a narrow creek carved out the valley below. Beyond the opposite shore, a vast flat within the woods stretched to the horizon. No movement was visible among the ancient trees.

She waited.

A myriad of chirps and whistles populated the night air as the prey watched for her hunter.

"What makes you think someone is down there?" a voice asked her.

Glori frowned. "She's circling my tracks from yesterday. It's common sense."

"I don't think everyone would call it common sense."

"Maybe you're right." She ignored the implied accusation. It was not her fault she had to resurrect abilities hard fought to forget. It was not her fault so many lives were lost. Not her fault; his fault.

Movement below snagged her gaze. A darker spot against the natural forest hues, the concealed figure crept along the creek bed. Glori remained where she was. Instinct urged her to venture closer, find another vantage point from which to study the enemy. She curbed the feeling and held her ground. There was no reason to follow someone who would inevitably come to her. Though the stranger moved quickly out of sight, Glori waited until the waning moon crept higher in the sky before she eased out from within her veil of moss, foliage, and shade.

A narrow trail paralleled the crown of the forest ridge. As it inclined, the path transitioned from soft, black forest dirt to hard clay riddled with stone. Boulders, abandoned by massive ice sheets ages before, rose up out of the ground. Shrouded in moonlight, they held an eerie likeness to bones, like the flesh of the world had peeled away in that secluded place. Glori took her time navigating the rocks. Selecting one of the tallest boulders, she maneuvered to the top and sat down. She straightened her cloak, placed her worn sword across her folded legs, and waited.

####

Mist from the cool of night evolved into the fog of morning as the first rays of daylight encased the forest in a muted dawn.

By the curious silence surrounding her, Glori knew she was not alone. Remaining on her perch, she slipped off her dew-soaked cloak and wiped the moisture from her face. She stared down the path, her vision focused on the point where the trail vanished around an imposing stone.

It was just light enough to see when the first arrow erupted from behind a decaying log propped precariously between two tall boulders. The tell-tale twang of the bow string proved the fibers were cold and wet from a long night's wait. The sound was more than enough of a warning.

Like a startled stag, Glori dropped at the noise, flipping backward off the rock. Knees bent, she allowed the shock of landing to travel up her legs and disperse throughout the rest of her body. She pressed her back against the comfort of the impenetrable boulder and listened.

Silence.

Her opponent was on the move.

She took out her knife and ran the blade across the fabric of her shirt just below her shoulder. The weapon edge stained crimson as it cut through the thin barrier over Glori's skin. The injury was superficial; after all the wounds accumulated through the years she barely acknowledged it. Rubbing the torn cloth to ensure an obvious bloodstain, she then ran her red fingers down the back of the stone, streaking the surface from top to bottom. She sheathed her sword and jogged over to where the arrow had landed amid a clod of dirt and grass. Glori picked it up, broke it in half, and tossed the feathered end back toward the blood-stained rock. She placed the metal broadhead in a pocket before moving on.

On the eastern edge of the ridge, knotted trees invaded the landscape of rocks before the land descended back into the ancient forest. Glori knew her adversary had dropped down to the lower ground as well, a learned instinct for all in their profession. The high-ground was for defense only, which was why her foe would not suspect Glori to be lower on the ridge.

"You could leave now, put some distance between you two."

"I could," Glori said quietly.

"But you won't."

"No lessons are taught that way."

The voice sighed. "You can't do this forever."

Glori nodded. She knew a day would come when someone younger and faster would beat her at the game. The thought churned up a cold swell in the pit of her stomach. Not only did it imply that he would eventually win, it damaged her dark sense of satisfactory accomplishment. She was the best. She clung to that knowledge, used it as raft in her sea of swirling apathy. Like a sword, that sick comfort defended against the demon of loneliness that shadowed her footsteps. It was the only thing she had left. If she ran, she forfeited her private legacy.

Glori glanced down at her wound. It still bled; her skin was unable to close quickly due to the smooth edges created by the knife. To a trained eye, a blood trail led right to her position. Before long, her hunter would circle back to where Glori had sat on the boulder, notice the blood and assume the arrow had made impact. The blood trail would be barely detectable, but it would be there. Glori was counting on it.

When she was sure enough time had passed, she walked past her previous position until she located a depression in the forest floor. She continued beyond it until the bowl was out of sight. Cleaving low, dead branches from trees as she went, she doubled back to the hole. Mounding the branches within it as well as around, Glori took care to make the brush look as natural as possible. Bracken piles littered the area around her, dropped by the wind-swept pines on the ridge. The pile completed, she removed her knife and buried it deep within the center of the cluster. If she looked hard enough, the metal was visible behind the web of limbs. Satisfied, Glori pressed a hand to her gash to stop the blood and slowly scaled the ridge again. She sat down a short distance away out in the open and watched.

Before long, the dark silhouette of her pursuer appeared against the forest backdrop. The other assassin crouched down, hand outstretched as she touched a faint spatter of blood that adorned one of the forest leaves. Still low to the ground, the woman leaned forward, and shifted her weight on to her other foot. The sound of brittle leaves beneath her step made Glori sigh quietly. This other woman was at a disadvantage. Years of assassin training were geared toward silent speed within castle walls, hiding in doorway shadows, and quick dispatch of unaware enemies. The forest was a bully of a challenge. Crackling leaves, open spaces, and wild creatures were odd ingredients thrown into an already deadly potion. Glori did not feel remorse for the adapted advantages life in the forest afforded her. The women sent after her were not innocent peasant girls. A trained killer should know enough about the enemy before they entered unfamiliar territory.

The other assassin stopped just shy of the manufactured brush pile. She stared at it, instantly wary of the area.

As she watched, Glori briefly lifted her gaze to the rising sun. She knew the moment it reached the point she anticipated by the reaction from her opponent.

The other woman dove sideways as the light filtered through the brush pile and a glint of bright metal was suddenly visible. She tucked into a roll to avoid losing her footing completely and came to a stop just a few feet shy of where Glori sat. The invading assassin sat up, knife at the ready, focus on the pile of sticks.

Glori tapped the point of her sword on the woman's back.

"Did you really think I'd be foolish enough to bury myself beneath your feet?" she asked.

The other woman's shoulders tensed. "I wouldn't put it past you. You remain in the open when you should hide; you go low when you should go high; you stay still when I expect you to move. I can't predict the actions of a madwoman."

Years past, Glori would have chuckled at the comment. Now, however, she could not deny there was some truth to the words. She nodded. "Rule number one: Don't predict actions at all."

"Yeah, sure."

"You know," Glori said. "There's no shame in this. He didn't prepare you properly. You didn't know."

"He said you were an army deserter."

The forest dweller was silent for a moment. Her adversary was young. She had the unconquerable confidence of youth and, therefore, felt she was entitled to an explanation for her failure. Glori rarely engaged her foes in conversation, but the girl reminded her of her own early years. "You believed him? Does he often send you after army deserters?"

The girl's silence gave Glori her answer.

"Listen, I know more about your..." She had to swallow before she said the word. "...Employer than you may think." She leaned closer, her voice lowered. "It seemed like a dream assignment, didn't it? You're his first in command. You probably spent a year doing difficult assignments. Your confidence grew. He favored you over everyone else. And then it changed, didn't it? You were no longer killing worthy opponents. You occupied his bed as much as his war room. When you questioned him, you were imprisoned. He beat you for no reason because he could, because he owned you." Glori saw the girl hold her breath for a moment. "I was the first," Glori whispered. "His unnatural attachment to me has led to the deaths of many others like you. Do not feel badly for failing him."

"You're lying. He loves me." There was hidden desperation in the woman's voice, another indication of her age. She was lying to herself.

"He sent you to die. He knows it will be years before I'll lose enough of my senses to become a target. He does this to torture me, not to advance you."

"Then I hope he's successful. I hope our faces haunt your dreams."

The conversation was at an end. Glori adjusted her grip on the hilt of the sword. "On the contrary, your deaths are the only solace I have."

####

Rain drummed off the balcony stones. A cool breeze danced through the bedroom and whisked the curtains up, filling the air with neglected dust.

He opened his eyes, unsure what woke him. Stretching against the cold sheets, he stared up at ceiling, listening to the rain outside. The fire in the hearth had died hours ago, but the orange glow of embers stirred by the draft whispered of its previous warmth.

He didn't recall leaving the balcony window open.

"You didn't leave it open."

The man bolted upright and turned toward the voice. He was so surprised he did not speak for a moment. Even though she was concealed in the shadows, he knew who was in his room.

"We both knew it would come to this," Glori said softly. "It couldn't go on forever.

He swallowed the fear he felt and eased out of the opposite side of the bed, the side without any weapons. It was a detail he was sure she remembered. Clearing his throat, he said, "Glori, I always thought you'd come back."

"Keep up the humor if it comforts you," she whispered.

"After all these years, why now?" He watched as she stepped out of the darkness. Her face was just as he remembered it, her hair still long and pale. She was still looked young, even though he had not seen her in years.

Glori sighed. "I'm tired of this. I thought if I ran far enough, killed enough of your hunters, you'd leave me alone. It was a foolish hope on my part."

"Leave you alone?" He laughed. "After all we've been through together?"

This was something he had not anticipated. He never thought she would have come for him—in his own castle, no less. She left, years ago, fearful of him in so many ways she did not dare even speak against him. He had been too angry to let her go easily, and after a while, his attempts to bring her back became a game between them. He never anticipated this. He should have, that was how Glori was. Her volatile nature was what made her the best.

"Come on, Glori. We've got a lot of time to make up for. All is forgiven if you want it to be."

She studied a small blade held in her hand, turning the weapon over a few times as if deep in thought. "It's over now," she said, advancing toward him. "You've already forfeited a painless death. Let's not make it a loud one, too."

####

"What will you do now?"

"I don't know," Glori replied. "Maybe I'll go to the coast."

"Leave the forest?"

She nodded. "The forest deserves some peace."

The voice sounded pleased. "You always did like the sea."

The retired assassin smiled. For once, she was in agreement with herself.

THE END


© 2011 H. R. Gillette

Bio: Hope Gillette lives in Upstate New York with her husband, four cats, two dogs, and a horse. She is the author of The Legacy, a short story that received Honorable Mention in the Writer’s Digest 2009 Short Story Competition, placing fourteenth in the top one hundred. Her brother, Bryan Hathaway, is a published author in the Christian book world. Hope is an active member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators.

E-mail: H. R. Gillette

Website: Hope Gillette: Official Author Site

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