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Blackbird



He was the one they called Blackbird. By blood trails and by this name was he known.


A cold wind blew hard across the verdant hills that tumbled down into the valley below, the wind whispering as it thread itself through the tall grass, endless tendrils of green waving under a blood red sky. The warmth and richness of the sunset belied the chill in the air. A black feather blew across his path, settling at his feet. Emile blinked, his eyes turned to the firmament. The late sun was still bright. A maverick crow pursued a hawk across the sky as ochre and crimson bled into the horizon. The cool, bright air was in stark contrast to the dark nights in which he so often found himself.

Assassins work best in the dark. Twilight was his favored cloak, shadow his only ally. The only one worth trusting anyway. Emile sat upon the hill, contemplative, looking down into the dale. The Long War had largely ravaged this land but left this valley and the small township it concealed there unspoiled. He watched as the shadow of the coming night crept slowly over the village below until the sun disappeared behind the mountains. He stood, whistled, and waited. A large black crow lit upon his shoulder.


In the quickening twilight, he moved.


Alone in a dusty street, Emile withdrew a tattered piece of cloth and a slip of paper from his cloak. Unfolding the note, the assassin read by the light of the glowing moon. EMPEROR The black bird upon his shoulder fluttered his wings restlessly and cawed.


“Patience, old friend,” said Emile softly, stroking the bird affectionately.


He gave the strip of cloth to the bird who took it in his beak. Understanding his errand, the carrion crow leapt from his shoulder and disappeared into the black sky.


The black bird always found his quarry. Emile followed, keeping to the shadows.

~

On the chimney of a beautiful, secluded villa perched a crow, faithfully awaiting his master.

An open window, left carelessly ajar to permit the cool air of an early spring evening, permitted more.


A callous blade gleamed, seeking its purpose.


Waiting patiently in the dark, the assassin listened intently, counting the seconds between breaths. Satisfied the target was asleep, the bringer of death moved silently.


Emile crossed the threshold. But in this house, the shadows spoke.


“Hello, Blackbird.”


There, illuminated under the light of the moon sat the Emperor, crossbow in hand. He lit the oil lamp on the table beside him as he pointed his weapon at Emile. The moonlight fell upon him like silver ribbons.


“Please,” he said, gesturing toward an empty chair, “let us talk a moment about loftier things than this uncivilized errand in which you find yourself entangled.” Emile was caught off guard. Not every contract had gone according to plan, but never had a target taken him by surprise. He sat. He had little choice. The Emperor rested the crossbow on a table next to him. “I suppose I should be flattered. The enemy has sent their very best.” Emile said nothing. “I suppose you think yourself a free man, answering to no one. But we all have our masters, Blackbird, don’t we? My master is war. Yours, the coin.” The old man regarded Emile in the lamplight with one eyebrow raised, his head askew, as if attempting to study him from another angle. He scratched his grizzled beard, gazing out the window into the moonlit sky. “Perhaps you think yourself justified,” speculated the Emperor, “but what is it that justifies a man in taking a life?”


“Many would say,” said Emile slowly, “that your actions justify mine.”


The Emperor smiled like a tutor whose errant pupil had finally asked the correct question.


“Tell me, Blackbird, what good grows from evil seeds?” The old man’s eyes narrowed, his voice tightening to a hiss. “Have you truly less blood on your hands than I?”


Emile did not venture a response. The old man relaxed, leaning back in his seat.


“You will find, perhaps, that there is a difference between being justified and being just,” said the Emperor.


His pensive gaze returned to the open window. “I extend an offer to you in good faith,” said the Emperor. “I weary of strife and bloodshed. Depart here, and endeavor to reclaim what remains of your soul. Were it mine to command, I would have followed my life down another path than one of war. There is no longer any other path for me. For you, however, there may yet be hope.” After a pause, the old man smiled. Emile was surprised to find something genuine in it, something hopeful. But he was paid to do a job. And he was a professional. Like a coiled viper, Emile struck. Leaping across the room, he buried cold steel in the old man’s throat. He watched life ebb and that tenuous hope, so fragile and fleeting, drain from the old man‘s eyes, swallowed by the shadow that had overcome him.


“I had hoped,” struggled the old man, a solitary tear gracing his cheek, “that at least one of us could have been saved.”


There were no more words. He lay still, his eyes fixed on forever. The job complete, Emile stood to depart, but felt a great pain and a sickly warmth in his side. He looked down to see a crossbow bolt protruding from his abdomen. The old man was a far more capable adversary than he had appreciated. Searing pain began to shoot through his body as blood colored his boots. He needed to find help, and quickly. Emile forced himself slowly down the steps leaving a trail of blood behind him, a crimson waterfall on the path to perdition. Emile struggled through the door and into the street, exhaustion clutching his body like a wraith. He fought the urge to sleep for this, like the urge to draw forth the arrow that had pierced him, was an instinct that betrayed him.


So many of his instincts had done so.


Every step was agony, every heartbeat expelling life from the wound. His vision blurred, his world grew foggy, indistinct. The moonlight blinded him. He lost all sense of time as his brain restricted itself to only its most essential functions.


He was dying.


With no sense of where he was or how far he had traveled, he collapsed in the road and sank into the sweet reprieve of that deep sleep preceding death.


Yet death was robbed of him, as he also was robbed of death.


Awaking with a gasp, Emile instinctively attempted to rise only to seize and collapse in screaming agony. Needles of pain threaded themselves through the fabric of his body. All about him was white mist, a blanket of fog. He knew not whether he was alive or dead.

The pain told him he was alive.


Then, a cool rag on his forehead, a soft hand on his face. A soft voice in his ear.


“Be still, you are badly wounded.”


Darkness reclaimed him.

~

His ears were ringing. The world came into focus around him. Then, a voice from the emerging world.


“I feared you would not awaken.”


Though his vision was still blurred, Emile could make out a beautiful young woman waiting by his bedside, a single blonde braid spilling over her shoulder.


“I am forever in your debt,” he forced out in whispers between breaths.


She turned the cool compress on his forehead, urging him not to speak, assuring him that no debt need be repaid, that a kindness was its own reward.


Emile laughed weakly, both cynically amused and touched.


The healer asked his name.


“I have no name,” he muttered before falling back into a dark and dreamless sleep.


For the next day, Emile lapsed in and out of consciousness, his waking memories more dream than reality. His body healed swiftly, and his senses began to return to him.


On the morning of the third day, Emile awoke to the sound of singing. There in the bright rays of morning sun the healer sang sweetly, an incarnation of grace dancing among the wicked. The more his vision cleared, the more he was taken with her beauty, and as she danced, he saw visions of other lives, other possibilities opening up before him like fresh blossoms in the new spring, the scars of the past falling back against a departed world.

Noticing that he had awoken, she came and sat by his bedside.


“You have yet to tell me your name,” she said gently, as one might hold out a piece of meat to a stray and wary dog. Emile paused and regarded her cautiously, as a wild dog might.


“For years,” he said breathlessly, “I have been known only as Blackbird. I long to once again be known by my real name, if only to one person.”


She held his gaze, waiting.


“My name,” he said, “was once Emile.”


Taking his face gently in her hands, her earth-brown eyes gazed deeply into his.


“There is no path you are yet on that you cannot turn aside from,” she said, a hopeful and unguarded smile flourishing across her gentle features like a sunrise upon the shaded earth. “And your name is Emile still.”


There is always a moment at which things change, if they change at all. Revelation comes to men only when they are ready, yet they are still always unprepared. Emile began to understand. The blood men bought from him purchased only that. There was meaning beyond his experience that had always eluded him until now. He was ready to let go of the life that had nearly killed him.


The hardened assassin wept as he had not since he was a boy.


Memories swirled about him like leaves in the wind. Begging forgiveness as he mourned, reeling under the weight of the past, he wept for himself, for the men he had killed, for all the unexplored paths that he had so cavalierly walked by, for all the time gone by, never to be redeemed.


As if understanding more than she should, she did not question, only embraced him as the man he was crumbled before her and washed away, like sugar cubes in the rain.

He wept for what seemed to him like hours, until he fell asleep in her arms.


When he awoke, the red light of the setting sun threw itself across the floor of the cottage, specks of dust glistening in the light as though they were stars. He found her preparing to depart.


“I must look in on my father, Emile” she said, seeing him awake. “I have not seen him for several days now and I am becoming concerned. It is unlike him.”


The healer smiled, as though recalling a fond memory.


“You would like him,” she said, continuing her preparations. “And I suspect he would like you as well. He was an important man in the War,” she said. “His name is Richard, although friends call him the Emperor. A term of endearment, I suppose.”


She stood upon the threshold, looking back at Emile.


Then, she was gone.


No sooner had she left than Emile collected his things and disappeared into the gathering dark.

~

This place was familiar, yet he was not, a stranger now to himself.


Emile watched oceans of green dance before him in the valley below, blown this way and that by a playful breeze. He felt the pangs of loss more acutely than the arrow that had been so lovingly removed from his body. It was a pain like no other, an agony as uniquely cruel as it was exquisite, a torment for which no balm or remedy existed, an affliction no healer could allay.


The pain told him he was alive.


As a blood red sun began to chase the horizon, a black-feathered bird lit upon a branch in the tree above him.

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