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A Stranger's Errand

By bradleyzimmer All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy

A Short Story

Van trudged through the dark brush, muttering and mumbling to the hunting knife at his belt, as he always did. It was an old habit he had picked up when he had trained for the army. “You can always trust your knife”, the armourer had told him, when first placing the blade in his hand.

You can always trust your knife. The words had stuck in his mind, and they had proven themselves true time and time again. Two decades later, after the wars had all been fought, and the weapon had more than earned its retirement, the knife was the closest relationship in Van’s life, save for his daughter, Nara.

Nara. That’s why he was here. That’s why he was in this damned forest on this damned errand. What was he even looking for anyway? The bastard who sent him out here – the bastard stranger holding his Nara for ransom – didn’t tell him anything useful. “I want you to bring me something. You’ll know it when you see it”. What the hell does that mean?

And why did he have to choose them anyway? Why did the stranger burst into Van’s home when he and Nara were sitting down to supper? It had all happened so quickly. Before Van had even had time to reach for his knife, the stranger was holding a blade of his own pressed against Nara’s neck, a small, dark bead of blood forming where he had pierced her skin. The man gave his orders, and before he knew it, Van was alone in this gods-forsaken forest.

Lost in his own grumbling, Van placed too much weight on an old rotting log, and lost his footing. He stumbled and fell to the forest floor, splashing down hard into the mud. “Fuck!” he cursed, knowing only his knife could hear him. “Where is this fucking thing?” How many hours had he been out here? All he wanted was to find whatever he was looking for, give it to the stranger, and get back to his normal quiet, safe life with his daughter. Was that too much to ask?

He returned to his feet, wiped some of the muck from his cloak, and patted his side. The knife was still there. Good.

Then he saw it. Well, he saw what he thought was probably it. There was an object – something unnaturally out of place – wedged under the grey, dying roots of a nearby oak. It roughly resembled a kind of man-made stone, and emitted a soft, eery glow. Van couldn’t begin to understand what it was, or why the stranger wanted it, but he knew it was what he had been sent to find.

After carefully carving it out of the tree root, Van secured the object in his pocket and turned back the way he had come, with a renewed sense of purpose. “Soon,” he muttered - to the knife as much as to himself. “Soon she’ll be safe.”

When Van finally emerged from the forest, and staggered out into the open, the sun was just now appearing over the horizon. Had it really taken all night? He suddenly felt drained, now knowing just how long he had been hulking through the mud and muck. He was tired, he craved sleep, but he knew he had to keep going.

Other villagers were about now, some offering him morning greetings, some remarking at his disheveled appearance, and others just going about their usual business. When he opened the door to his modest home, Nara was sitting in a chair, facing the doorway, with the stranger standing behind her. The grin on the man's face was the most sinister thing Van had ever seen.

“You sure took your time." He said. "I was beginning to doubt you would return.” He lightly ran his blade up and down against Nara’s cheek. “I thought maybe this sweet young thing had been left an orphan. Did you find it?”

“Yes,” Van stated, trying his best to maintain a facade of confidence, as he reached into his pocket and pulled out the object. “I have what you want. Here.” He thrust his hand out toward the stranger, and took a hesitant step forward.

“That’s far enough." The stranger pointed with his knife, without letting go of Nara. "Put it on the table.”

Van did as the stranger demanded, and placed the stone next to the now-cold bowls of stew on the table. “Why us?” he muttered under his breath.

“What was that?”

“Why did you need us? Why didn’t you go into the forest and get this damned thing yourself?” Van’s blood was beginning to boil. He had done as he was told, he had obeyed, but still his family was in danger. How much more was he going to endure before he could sit down with his daughter, and know they were safe?

The stranger laughed, “You obviously know nothing about the land surrounding this village, do you?” I’ll spare you the details, but to answer your question, I didn’t retrieve the object myself, because I couldn’t.” His sinister smile grew “You’ve done me a great service, Van. Too bad you’ve damned yourself and your people.”

The stranger hurled Nara to the side, her side hitting hard against the stone fireplace, as he lurched forward to grab the object from the table. He snatched it up in his greedy hands, his eyes showing a sudden flash of madness.

Van took the opportunity to act. He drew his knife from his belt and plunged it into the stranger’s gut. Van let out a cry; a confused mixture of elation, relief, and the accumulation of fear and anger that had built inside him all night. He stood in place, twisting and turning the blade, trying to shred the bastard’s innards.

He pulled the knife out of the man's gut, and noticed it was clean. The stranger had not shed a single drop of blood. Van looked up to find the stranger staring directly into his eyes.

“You truly are a fool.”

Van ignored the taunt, and stabbed him again. The knife darted in and out of the man, but kept coming out clean. 

The stranger simply laughed. “Don’t you get it? You’ve given me a power no mortal should hold. You can stand there all day, sticking me with that pathetic weapon of yours. As long as I hold this" he held the stone up to examine it, "it won’t do you any good.”

Van was slowly realising what he had done. He had given this stranger - this madman - some kind of invulnerability. Who knows what he'll do with such power? Whatever he does, Van knew it will be his fault. Plus, there was no telling what other powers it might have granted him. Van may have just handed this stranger the means to inflict suffering on hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocent people.

At that point, he noticed Nara had crept up behind the stranger. Van directed his eyes to the object in the man’s hand, hoping his daughter would know what he was thinking. She followed her father’s gaze to where the stone was loosely gripped. She seized it, and bolted to the other side of the room.

The stranger, taken-aback, quickly turned to face her. Van threw his arm around the man’s neck, and thrust the knife into his back. He pulled the blade out, saw it was glistening crimson, and then reached forward and ran the serrated edge across the stranger’s throat.

The man fumbled clumsily, trying to stem the flow of blood gushing from the open wound in his neck, until he dropped to the floorboards. He lay lifeless in a growing pool of red. 

Finally, Van felt the relief of knowing it was over. He slumped, the whole event catching up with him as the adrenaline wore off, and he steadied himself against the table.

Nara ran to her father, and wrapped her arms around him.

Van held his daughter tight. They were safe. 

"You can always trust your knife,” he mumbled.

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