”is that what she told you?” The others had been so afraid, so desperate. An Eija-alihn, a hand of death had come into their midst and they all crumbled before her. They all knew why she had come and yet this one, a young man of about ninety, stood calm and firm. He did not raise a weapon against her, for he knew he would die. “Is that what she said to you to make you believe you were doing the right thing? That we were plotting to kill your Sol? It’s Khaltira-Sol, isn’t it?”
“You can sweet talk me all you want, but my task will be done tonight,” Ridahne said coldly.
“So be it. I would expect nothing less than one of her Eija. Tell me, how long have you been an Eija-alihn?”
“Dead men don’t get to ask questions.”
“Did you ever wonder if all she said about the people she sent you to kill were true? How many, do you think, did you strike down because of a lie?”
The night was cool and near silent except for the cicadas buzzing and chattering in the distance. A soft wind blew the curtains smelling sweetly of woodsmoke. Ridahne could hear every one of her own breaths, calm and soft.
“We never plotted to kill her, Eija-alihn. We wanted fair prices for our goods and refused to sell them for less. She was not pleased. So she told you what you wanted to hear. So you would go and see us dead. She tells you a lie and you believe you're doing the right thing. And for all you know, you are. The Tree doesn't prevent your lack of knowledge. So we die.”
“I won’t listen to your lies, dead man.” And Ridahne swung. The man went to the floor, silent except the drip of blood. Her task was finished. And in the quiet night she rode away, disappearing like a ghost. And as she did, one tiny, quiet thought crept into her mind, one that would change the course of her life forever.
Ridahne blinked away fresh tears which she wiped away with the back of her hand. Clearing her throat a little, she nodded to Darin and got the salve from her pack. Ridahne looked over the injury with a practiced eye, searching for signs of infection or undue irritation. While Darin rambled, Ridahne only gave a soft "mm," and a nod in reply. She was somewhere else tonight. Ridahne dipped her fingers into the sweet, herbal smelling salve and liberally applied it to Darin's wound and the area around it. "This is made from honey and other things. It keeps infection out. If it keeps bothering you then you should rest your arm in a sling tomorrow. Try not to move it much and it will heal fine." Her voice was tight and clipped, but not exactly terse. Morose was more accurate. Something was eating at her from the inside.
Ridahne sat back, her amber eyes taking on a much more orange glow in the light of the fire. A war was waged behind them. All she wanted was to stop thinking about the past, but something made her. The thoughts and memories and anxieties and regrets boiled in her, threatening to burst any moment. She felt sick. "Darin..." it was almost a whisper. It was a troubling sort of sight, a woman so strong, unflappable, fierce, to be so distraught. So broken. But there she was all the same. "I have to tell you. Something in me...I have to. I don't want to but something in me is going to explode if I don't. I just have to. But when I do, please don't run. Allow me to see you safely to Eluri, and if you wish you can choose a new guardian then, but please, let me see that you are in good hands..." She was so convinced that Darin would want to do away with her the moment Ridahne revealed the truth.
Ridahne took a deep breath, and as she did a small fragment of peace settled on her. Yes, she needed to do this. It would be better when it was over. She just had to do it, to 'pull the arrow out'. "Eija means 'hand'. We do the will of our Sol. We are defenders of order and the law. Enforcers of peace. We protected caravans, guided people through the Dust Sea. That was my work for many years." Another deep breath. She could do this. She had to. "My Sol recruited me for another job. Me and another. To find those who broke serious laws and bring them to justice. I became an Eija-alihn. 'Hand of death'. You asked what I was, what I did before I was exiled. Darin, I was an assassin."
Ridahne broke down into tears with her head in her hands. She did not wail or sob. Just held her breath to keep it from hitching uncontrollably. The normally tall and imposing elf seemed so small then. The words came out like iron ingots, heavy and painful, but they did come. She'd done it. And now that she had, it was like someone opened the floodgates. "They were horrible people. Rapists, murderers. I was told, I...I believed I was doing something good. Justice. And then she asked us to hunt down others and told us all kinds of things about them. Plots to kill her or one of the other Sol or something like that, but at some point I realized she made up things. She lied to us so my partner and I would carry out her will without question. And I...I was supposed to be doing something good. It got so out of hand and I couldn't do it anymore. I was so naive..." And at this point she slipped back into her native Azurian, speaking rapidly in anguish as the tears continued to flow over her inked face.
"I'm sorry...." she said at length. Mitaja trotted up and rather insistently stuck her wide face in Ridahne's, licking away the tears while Ridahne gripped her smooth fur like a lifeline. "I am not deserving of this task. If you cast me away I understand. I will not be angry with you. It's no less than I deserve."
She did feel better for saying it. And some of the roiling torment inside her eased, thought it didn't disappear. Darin deserved to know, and she had the distinct feeling that she would find out tomorrow when they reached the Tree anyway. Perhaps it was better coming from her than from some other source. She thought of her other transgression, the one that earned her exile. Oddly she didn't feel quite so guilty about that one as she did her work. She was a wretch for it, a traitorous snake, yes. But it needed to be done. The deaths of those people...had any of that needed to be done? Maybe some, in her early days, really were awful and deserving of death. But near the end...somehow all that felt worse than her treason. One had earned her favor, the other earned her exile. Yet which was the greater sin...?