AN EARSPLITTING WAIL echoed through the forest.
To Eutau, who buried his face in his hands trying to ignore it, it sounded like the squealing of a cornered pig. Memories he wanted nothing more than to forget seized him, and he saw his hands covered in dirt and blood.
His chest tightened as he remembered her plea, begging him to agree to take on a responsibility he had never asked for. A responsibility that had robbed him of his freedom.
He looked up and swallowed down the bitter laughter that fought to break free of his lips. I never should have made that promise.
Ignoring the sweat dripping down his face, he stood and went to the wailing bundle of rags that lay on the ground in front of him. A tiny gray hand flailed about as if sensing him and pleading for comfort.
He kept his distance.
“I fed it just a few hours ago!” He ran strong fingers through uneven dark hair, scratched the red-black scars that covered his chest, and cursed. “Dammit. I should have taken the nanny goat instead of just milking it.”
Belle, his tame woodrat, went up to the screaming rags, her pointed ears pressed low against her head. “Stay away from it,” he said, waving her away. “Go. Keep watch.” Belle bristled her fluffy tail at him and ran off into the forest. He grumbled under his breath. She is still mad at me for having this baby around. Not that I blame her.
He walked over to the narrow stream he had set camp by and fished from the rocky shallows the skin that held the remaining milk. The afternoon was blisteringly hot, but the stream had thankfully kept the skin cool. To his growing annoyance, he was quickly discovering that high summer, a perpetually hungry baby, and the never-ending battle to keep milk from curdling made for a most unpleasant combination.
And this is why wine is infinitely better.
He again considered giving the baby some wine in the hope of getting it to remain silent for more than a couple of hours, but decided against it. It would be a terrible habit to develop—for him, that was, not for the baby.
Given that he had not slept in three days and was doing his best to keep from accidentally killing an infant that was currently screaming louder than a merry drunkard, Eutau could not really be blamed for what happened next.
“Got a good pair of lungs, that one does.”
Before he could react, he felt the sharp point of a dagger press uncomfortably against the nape of his neck.
“Turn around. Slow.”
He did as told.
There were four men, including the haggard one holding the dagger to Eutau’s neck. Two were rummaging through his belongings while the last, a heavyset man with missing teeth, was hunched over the baby with a small knife that he was using to pry back the rags Eutau had spent a good half hour trying to fashion into a swaddle.
“No wonder it’s crying. Fucking thing’s diseased! Lookit its skin!” the heavyset man exclaimed. He took a disgusted step back and began frantically wiping the tiny knife against a clump of grass.
Stay right there, thought Eutau. He scanned the forest floor. Where is Belle when I need her? So much for keeping watch.
The haggard man brandished his rusted blade at Eutau. “There’s a war going on. Not safe for a lone man and his baby,” he said. His voice was matter-of-fact, but his darting eyes betrayed his nervousness. Eutau’s height and pupil-less gray eyes made him an imposing figure.
“Not my baby,” Eutau snorted. He would be damned before he let anyone believe he had sired a child.
“Oh? Then whose?”
“Before I pin your hand to the ground, I will tell you.” Eutau allowed himself a small, modest smile. After all, there was no point in being greedy. Only four of them, already afraid, and not soldiers.
“Now now, friend, no need for violence,” the haggard man said, his dark eyes twinkling at the last word as he smiled uncertainly back, as if unsure what to make of the response.
The men who were ransacking Eutau’s bags wore expressions of delight. They had found his gold. “Man’s up to ‘is ears in coin! Gotta be someone ‘portant, like a merchant or somethin’.”
“How about it, Mister Secrets?” the haggard man asked. “You a merchant?”
“That I will tell you when I pin your foot.”
The man laughed, but this time he did not smile. “You can see that you’re outnumbered, yeah? Or are those blank eyes of yours as blind as they look?”
Eutau was done talking. He ducked down past the dagger and brought his fist up into the haggard man’s groin. The man buckled over in a wheezing gasp, and Eutau’s elbow crashed into his temple, sending him to the ground, stunned.
First, the baby.
Drawing a throwing knife from a hidden sheath in his boot, Eutau hurled it at the heavyset man, whose eyes momentarily crossed as he registered the knife lodged in his brow. He fell to the ground convulsing, just out of reach of the baby.
Next . . . But ‘next’ were already up and running away, the two men leaving Eutau’s gold and belongings scattered on the ground as they fled for their lives.
Eutau spat in annoyance. Then he broke into an enviable sprint, pulling his favorite dagger from beneath his shirt as he ran. In less than a minute he caught up to the slower of the two and drove the dagger into the man’s back.
Now . . . But ‘now,’ as it turned out, was quite fast and had managed to cover a good distance while Eutau was finishing off his slower colleague. “Dammit,” he said, crushing the slower man’s neck with his boot. “I will have to track him.”
The familiar sound of squealing pig rang through the forest, more frantic than before.
He had somehow forgotten about the haggard man, who was only stunned, not killed. Worse still, he had not taken the man’s weapon. Eutau darted back toward the camp. For some odd reason, it now seemed very, very far away.
Promise me, Eutau. Promise you’ll take care of my baby.
You cannot ask me t—
I can, and I am. Please, Eutau. I need to hear you say it!
I promise. But stay . . . stay.
Would he lose the baby as he had lost her? Would he return to the camp and find impossibly green eyes—her eyes—staring back at him from a lifeless body? It hurt to think so, but was that not what he had secretly hoped for?
The squealing had stopped.
No . . .
If the baby died, it would not be his fault. Not really.
No . . .
He had honestly forgotten that the first man was still alive, that he had a weapon. Not that much force was needed to do away with a screaming, shitting, constantly starving, utterly dependent infant. A hand over its small face would suffice . . .
No, please let it be alive. Please.
The man was still out, and the baby was very much alive.
Slightly uptilted emerald-gold eyes set in blotches of black on an otherwise gray face looked up and, upon seeing him, smiled. It smiled, and Eutau felt the fear in his stomach catapult to his head and trigger the beginnings of a headache.
“You are far too content.” Eutau took hold of the baby’s squirming legs and lifted. “Really?” he asked. He made a dour face at the infant, hoping that his displeasure would somehow register.
It cooed at him.
Eutau changed his mind—he wanted the baby to die. But preferably by circumstances beyond his control.
The rustling of someone coming to spirited away his wistful fancies. Gingerly, Eutau lowered the baby’s legs and resisted the urge to make a face at the watery squish. Blood, guts, and messy sex were one thing, but cleaning up an infant’s needs was an experience he could have gone blissfully without.
He picked up the rusted dagger the haggard man had dropped and sneered. No attacker worth their skin would have allowed their weapon to degrade to such a pathetic state.
“That’s”—the man coughed—“that’s a rather forceful hook you got there. A soldier, huh, not a merchant?”
“If I recall correctly, there was a price to be paid for that answer.”
“Yeah, about that. How about we call it even?” The man looked all around, his eyes lingering just a second longer on the body of the heavyset man, who lay dead near the baby. “Looks to me like we already paid our debt.”
Eutau let the man feel his fury. “Oh, surely. But I promised you answers, remember?”
He blanched and rose to flee, but Eutau kicked him back down and stabbed his left hand to the ground with the rusted blade.
“The baby belongs to my sister.”
The man screamed as his right hand flew to his left, gripping the hilt of the dagger and pulling to no avail.
Eutau took hold of his own dagger, stomped down on the man’s ankle, and stabbed the blade through the foot.
The man wailed.
“And I am not a merchant. I am a mercenary. Was I not the victim you were hoping for?” Eutau took the man’s head in his hands and twisted, expertly snapping the spine in one fluid, brutal movement.
EUTAU VERY much doubted that the lone man who had managed to escape would come back. And besides, Belle had returned and was very pointedly on guard. It was almost as if she knew that she had been derelict in her duty and was trying to make it up to him. With that assurance, he opted against moving camp and decided to take full advantage of the cool stream.
Or at least that had been his plan, but a certain baby’s needs were currently getting in the way.
“Finished already?” Eutau put the milk pot down. “I guess you really were hungry.” He lifted the naked baby out of the water and began patting its back. He was not familiar with infants but had observed enough to know that after a feeding you were supposed to rest it over your shoulder and gently pat it until it vomited down your own back.
The infant made noises and gurgled, its pudgy legs kicking at random. Eutau found it akin to an insect that had been flipped on its back, unable to turn itself over but able to flail its limbs in protest.
He patted and patted until . . .
“Either you are a particularly disgusting infant, or all infants are particularly disgusting.” He seated the baby back down in the shallow part of the stream and rested its spine against the nook of his knee. Wide-eyed, the baby studied its surroundings as if it had never seen them before. The water rushing and splashing up against its belly was of particular interest.
Careful not to disturb the preoccupied infant, Eutau washed his back and hair, and then washed his back again. He then submerged the milk pot in the water, taking extra pains to wash out the spout. He was not sure how well it needed to be cleaned, but the last thing he wanted to suffer was an infant with an upset stomach. Adults with upset stomachs were infantile enough.
The infant had managed to maneuver its head into an awkward position, its eyes seemingly fixed on something above it. Eutau looked all around and, despite seeing nothing, felt a chill that had nothing to do with the cool water assail him.
“Kira.” Saying its name felt strange, as if he were granting it permission to invade his heart. “What are you looking at?”
It ignored him and, stuffing its fingers in its gummy mouth, smiled.
The cold feeling persisted, and Eutau found his eyes wandering toward the dead bodies he had left lying in the camp.
“Stay away from him,” Eutau warned, not knowing if his words would have any effect.
The cold feeling grew stronger.
He brought Kira out of the water and cradled him against his chest.
“Stay away from him or I promise I will kill you again.”
The baby let out a loud wail of discomfort, and the unnatural coldness dissipated.
Perhaps we should set camp somewhere else, reflected Eutau. As he sat in the stream considering what to do, he suddenly realized that his fingers were occupied.
He looked down and, to his surprise, found that he was comforting the tiny hand that had somehow made its way into his. Striking emerald-gold eyes studied him with such quiet intensity that Eutau could not help but wonder what the baby thought.
“What do you see, Kira? Someone you should be afraid of? Someone who despises your company and wishes for your death? Someone who longs for his freedom?”
Their eyes locked, his pupil-less gray against Kira’s green, and Eutau waited. He waited to see his feelings of rejection reflected in the baby’s eyes.
But there was no rejection to be had—only love. A love without expectation. A love that had nothing to do with flesh or lust. A love that was pure and honest and hoped—hoped, not demanded—that he love it in return.
Eutau looked away, but his hand did not relinquish its hold on the baby’s. “I hate you.”
He gazed back at Kira, who graced him with a stupid, toothless smile. Eutau smiled back, doing nothing to stop the tears that ran down his cheeks and into the bubbling stream.