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Winters Past

By Drew McCaffrey All Rights Reserved ©

Action / Fantasy

A Short Story

The sun-tanned door creaked against the weight of his body pressed against it. Trayan reveled in the sight of Mar Denan's nervous sweat popping out from his forehead; Mar's eyes bulged as Trayan's hand found purchase around his throat.

"Didn't want to die in a desert, did you?" Trayan crooned, her voice low and sulfurous. "Didn't want to die at all, I imagine. Too much trust in your little talent."

Mar stared into her eyes, gurgling incoherent nonsense through a compressed throat. The summer sun burned down on them, their shadows pooling around their feet on the crackec clay steps. Trayan leaned in, not bothering to mitigate the pressure of her hand. Tessi filled her thoughts, the little girl from a week ago. The girl who was gone, now.

"Doesn't it hurt, knowing that magic has abandoned you? Doesn't it sting, seeing your incompetence come to fruition?" Trayan's mouth stretched into a cruel grin as she eased her knife from its sheath at her waist. Mar sagged against her grip, his large frame seeming lesser by each passing minute. His eyes were once terrifying, icy blue and hard; his clean, straight teeth had been the talk of Hinton. Now those eyes seemed watery and afraid, and Trayan knew she had him.

Mar Denan, finally hers. Finally. Trayan allowed herself a moment to revel in that, imagining how nice it would be to live off of the reward money. She wouldn't need to take another job for at least a year. Hell, she could get out of this accursed desert and back to a normal life. She hated the way her mouth was always dry, the way her eyes hurt in the harsh glare of the sun. Hinton was just not the kind of town she preferred, even despite...well, that wasn't worth thinking about.

Mar's gurgling became more urgent as she lifted her blade to his cheek. His hands, grasping her wrists in impotent fright, began twitching. Trayan tilted her head in curiosity. Was she really cutting off his air that much? She didn't want him to pass out before she ended the bastard. She wanted him aware, knowing that his magic was gone with his voice, trapped inside by her steely grip around his throat.

Trayan loosened her hand. Even as she did so, she knew it was a mistake. Hoarse and whispered though it was, Mar still managed to speak one word of magic.

Between one blink and the next, Trayan found herself inside the body of a little girl, her own tiny frame at the age of six. She knew the scene immediately. Her father by the window, her two sisters giggling together at the table while her mother fixed a small dinner. It was cold despite the fire burning happily inside the stone fireplace. Winters were always cold in Neeran Call. She liked to look out the very window her father stood in front of, staring down the slope of the mountainside at the houses and palaces, frosted by the incessant snows of Northern winter.

"Trayan, sit down. It is dinner time," he father said, his voice hard as ice. "Stop fooling around."

Trayan felt tears come to her eyes. He was always like that, cold and uncaring but demanding at the same time. He never spoke like that to her sisters. It never occurred to Trayan that perhaps it was because Jennae and Lena were already at the table, obedient and dutiful.

She blinked away her tears and found herself somehow back in the present, her hand grasping at air as Mar slipped out of her choke. With a shout, she hurled herself at him, tackling him to the dusty street. In her peripheral vision, she saw the few remaining people nearby turn and hurry away. Whatever residents were on the other side of the door were no doubt cowering in closets or the cellar.

While she struggled with Mar, her knife slipped from her hand and skittered away, sending up tiny puffs of dust from the hard-packed street.. She grunted with effort, barely keeping a grip on the much larger man. Dust from their scuffle kicked up and into her face. She blinked, trying to protect her eyes. Mar barked a word.

And Trayan found herself once again in that old, cold house in Hinton, during the harsh winter eleven years earlier. Tears streaked her cheeks as her father roared at her mother, his knife buried in a piece of undercooked venison. Jennae and Lena huddled together in the far corner, as though the fireplace might protect them from his formidable rage. Trayan stood halfway between them and their father, her arms crossed and hugging herself, wishing she could do something....

With a blink and a tortured groan, she was back in the dusty street and Mar had snaked out of her grasp again. "Leave me alone, you little bitch!" Mar growled as he scrambled to his feet. Her knife was in his meaty fist, and he glared at her beneath a gash on his forehead she didn't remember giving him. "I'll put you back there permanently if you don't lay off."

Trayan groaned and rolled onto her back. She shook her head, trying to banish the images of her childhood from her mind. "You're...done...Mar," she gasped around the dry, dusty air in her throat. She pushed herself into a crouch, her eyes darting from Mar's face to the knife in his hand and back. His mouth twisted, and he spit onto the dirt in front of her.

"Done? You thought you could stop me, you little slip of a girl?" His grimace became a sneer. "And coming against magic, with just a knife..." he laughed, and with a flick of the wrist, sent Trayan's knife sailing in an arc to land in the road twenty feet behind him. "I should trap you in your mind just for the temerity of it. Naive fool."

Trayan growled and stood straight. Her hands curled into fists, desiring nothing more than to beat this man down. To dispense her justice for the things he did in towns across the region. For Tessi's blank, dead eyes, stuck in the torture of her past. For a poor girl, sun-tanned and innocent, robbed of more than just her family.

Mar chuckled and wagged a finger at her. "Don't try it, girl. I'll send you back, and you'd be daft to think I'm lying."

"You need to touch me for that, Mar," Trayan said, her voice rough as the tan leathers she wore. Rough as the coarse road beneath her boots. Rough as her father's leather belt.... With a snarl, she wrenched free the knife hidden in her right boot and twirled its hold-string around her wrist. "You need to touch me, and you need to talk. I'll take care of that for you, though."

Mar laughed outright. "And how do you intend to do that, girl? Be mighty tough to do when you're stuck as a little child, getting spanked by your mommy or buggered by your daddy or whatever awful thing happened to you back then." His eyes lit up with a sadistic, icy glow. They stood out in stark counterpoint to the harsh sun beating down on them through a waterless sky. "Don't think I missed the tears in your eyes when you came back. You didn't like it. Not at all."

Trayan screamed at him, her hand convulsing on the hilt of her boot dagger, raw emotion tearing at her throat in wordless rage until she ran out of air. She wanted to kill him. Kill him, kill him, kill him...with a noise halfway between a sob and a curse, she sprung at Mar, knife upturned.

His eyes widened in amusement and he danced to the side, his open palm reaching out to grab Trayan's pale brown hair. He spoke a word, and it was winter in Neeran Call.

Her sisters still cowered in the corner; her mother still wept. But her father...her father advanced on her, rage etched on that handsome face, unhidden by his thick black beard. He raised his hand and struck her across the face, knocking her down in a flash of red and black pain. He struck again, shouting something that did not penetrate the fog over her consciousness. Trayan shuddered, there on the hardwood floor, her six-year-old body wracked with abuse.

Why? she wailed, her mind churning and whirling, funneling down onto that one question. Why? Why must I be so weak? Why must things be too much for me to handle? In that mist of pain and frustration, she latched onto a distant memory, a memory of the future, a memory of another little girl, dark-skinned and vacant-eyed, touched by the hateful magic of a robber and killer.

"Tessi!" Trayan shouted, and she was back in Hinton, her hair tangled in the grip of a killer, her scalp screaming in agony as Mar tightened his grip. She was staring almost straight down at the dirt, her body limp, held up only by Mar's fist in her hair.

But her knife was still there, the leather rope on its hilt looped around her wrist.

"Tessi?" Mar's voice came from above her, a confused rumble. "Who in the burning hells is Tessi?" And then, as he realized what it meant that Trayan had shouted, "Shit!"

Her knife was back in her hand. Fighting through the pain wrenching at her head, she swung her hand in a flat arc, hand-length blade yelling silently with her in the hot desert glare. And then it disappeared, buried to the hilt in Mar's side even as he tried to untangle his fingers from her hair and push away.

He gasped in pain, not dead of course, no. Not Mar Denan. He was too big, too strong, too lucky to live through a simple knife in the kidney.

Trayan acted even as he stared down in shock and dismay at his wound. With the leather loop still giving her control, she whipped her arm back and rolled away, tearing her knife from his side and her hair from his hand. Well, most of her hair; from the way it felt, she was sure a good chunk of it tore away.

Mar growled as she rolled through the dirt, coming up in a crouch, bloody blade ready. He pressed a hand against his grey shirt, now stained with blood, and staggered a step toward her. She hopped back, light on her feet, wary. She wasn't about to let him get a hand on her again. She didn't need more time behind her six-year-old eyes. No, there she was nothing, a fly, impotent. Just another little girl to be tortured and cast aside. Here she could fight. Here her actions were not in vain.

Mar stepped forward again, his hand reaching for her...and he fell to one knee. His clear blue eyes had a glazed look.

Trayan held her breath, the muscles in her arm aching from her grip on the knife. Her knuckles stood out, white against the tan of her skin and the darker brown leather of the hilt.

Mar tried to say something, but it came out as an indistinct gargle, and he fell on his face. Finally.

Trayan leaped forward and planted her knife at the base of his neck, her skin trying to crawl as the steel rasped against the bone of his spine. She had to be sure. She had to, even as bile churned and rose in her throat. The acidic burn made her eyes water, aiding the tears that threatened.

I am not weak, Trayan told herself. I am not weak. Not again. Never again.

She lurched back, letting the leather loop go. She vomited onto the dirt road of Hinton, unmindful of the silence that stretched around her, and cried for the memory of suppers in Neeran Call, of winters past.

As the tears dried up, Trayan decided that living in the desert might not be such a bad thing.

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