I reach her hut and put my knife in my pants’ side pocket. My first knocks on the door. At the sound of scattering parchment and light footsteps, my pulse quickens. The door does not open. I grit my teeth and knock again, softer this time.
The door opens and doe eyes greet me. Knots form in my stomach at the sight of her.
“Barak,” she says softly. “What brings you by?”
I swallow hard. “I want to apologize for walking out on your story. I know it was inspired by me and you only meant well.”
She grips a knife in her hand. Noticing my gaze on what she’s holding, she sets it down on a table and brings her attention back to me.
“That’s a good blade,” I remark.
She crosses her arms and lowers her thick lashes. “I wanted to be able to relate to you in some way, but I guess that backfired.”
I clench my fists to quiet the rage that starts to boil within my veins. “You’ll never understand what I went through, Almaz.”
Her swallow is audible as she looks at me again. “Your apology is accepted. I hope you’ll accept mine as well. I realize now that trying to relate to someone who survived a war is foolish. You’re right. I’ll never know what that’s like.”
I force a smile. “Will you walk with me for a few moments?”
She looks up at the stars. I can see them sparkle in her eyes.
“It’s late,” she says.
“I know. We won’t go far.”
She gives me a look. “Why now?”
“I want to clear my conscience.”
She nods. “Let me get my shawl, then.”
That was too easy. I choke back a dark laugh.
When she returns to the doorway with the wrap around her shoulders, we walk out of the main camp area.
“How far do you want to go?” she asks, her tone unnaturally high.
I smile. “To the river?”
“Why do you want to go so far?” she asks as her breaths become quicker. “Can’t we talk right here? No one at camp will hear us now.”
“I thought you loved the river.”
“I do, but not when it’s late and dark.”
“A regal woman such as yourself is afraid of the dark? I find that surprising,” I taunt.
“It isn’t normal to be doing this,” she says, stuttering. “Let’s go back.”
“Terrible things happen in broad daylight, too. Even you know that.”
She frowns. “This is starting to get a little strange, Barak. What is it that you are doing right now?”
My smile falls. “You weren’t afraid to approach me by the river the other day. In fact, you hunted me down, didn’t you?”
“Barak, you’re always alone,” she says softly. “I was worried about you. That’s all.”
“How about now?”
“I’m still worried about you, but I don’t think you’re ready to be helped. I realized that tonight. I took things too far and I think you’re angry with me for that. I think you need more time.”
“I don’t need help.”
She takes a step backward. “I think it’s time to go back to camp. We’ll talk again at a decent hour. If you want to.”
I reach out to grab her by the wrist before she can retreat. She tries in vain to pull away.
“What are you doing?” she hisses.
“I’m making things right. Life is all about balance. I hear you tell that to the youths at least once per day. Good needs to balance out the bad.”
“Please, let me go.”
I chuckle. Those who thrive in the public eye are always so weak when they’re alone.
“What are you afraid of, story teller? I thought you were a warrior.”
“Barak, please let me go!”
I tighten my grip around her slender forearm and stare into her petrified eyes. My hate for her intensifies. My hands itch to hurt her; every part of me aches to see her writhe in pain. She is in my grasp now and she can’t escape.
“You wanted to make your mark on the world,” I rasp, pulling her close. “The people here love you so much that they forgot those who sacrificed their lives for them. My friends are dead, but who do they revere? You!”
“I’m sorry they didn’t pay you and your men the respect you all deserved,” she says quickly. “War and loss has different effects on different people.”
Her features relax as she looks up at me. I can almost feel her hope rising. I laugh without humour. She doesn’t understand her own hopelessness yet.
“You think you can help me by writing some shit story about what you think battle is like?” I ask.
I wrap an arm around her and she tenses. Her warmth presses into mine as our torsos touch. She’s so delicate in my arms, so beautiful, but I don’t desire her the way most men do. I’d rather watch her crawl in the mud.
“I’m no stranger to violence, Barak,” she says, almost breathless now. “You said you wanted to talk, so let’s talk. I can’t understand the full extent of what you went through, but I know how it feels to watch others suffer when you can’t do anything to help.”
“I don’t want to talk,” I say, bearing my teeth. “That was a lie to get you to come out here with me. You’re really gullible for one who acts like she’s so worldly. It surprises me how easy it was to lure you out here, actually.”
“You’ve allowed the war to change you into a monster!” she cries, pushing against my chest in a pathetic effort to escape. “I should have listened to them.”
Everything I see, including her, vanishes from my sight. All I see is red. All I feel is hot rage. Then the red fades to black. I feel cool blades of grass tickling the skin on my arms and legs. I open my eyes. Twinkling stars greet my vision as my heart thunders in my rib cage. I’m lying on the ground. Rapidly retreating footsteps alert my attention to the present. I roll over and spring to my feet. I race after Almaz’s shadowy form.
At the edge of camp, I catch up to her. I wrap my arm around her and pull her against me. I cover her mouth with my other hand as she screams. It comes out muffled. Not loud enough for them to hear. She struggles, but she is weak in my grasp.
I can smell her terror. I lick her face, tasting it. My hand travels from her mouth down to her thin neck.
“Barak, stop,” she begs.
“Finally, someone else is feeling what my friends felt when they died on that battlefield,” I whisper softly in her ear. “No one deserves this more than you do.”
I squeeze her neck hard. She gasps for breath, clawing wildly at the air as the life drains out of her. I relax my hold before she loses consciousness. She collapses, lying in a heap at my feet. I take the knife out of my pocket. Wheezing, she rolls onto her back and gazes up at the half moon.
“It’s so beautiful, even now,” she sighs.
“You think this is poetic, story teller?”
“I’ve lived fully with no regrets,” she says weakly. “At least I can say that.”
“Even in the face of death you’re so arrogant.”
“I only tried to help you. Deep down, I think you know that.”
Her eyes dart desperately about the sky as she attempts to take in as much beauty as possible before she’ll never see it again.
“When you spoke about the river and where it runs into the lake, what did you mean by that?” I ask.
She looks at me and sees my knife. The tears on her face glisten in the moon’s silvery light.
“Words can’t properly describe what that place is, Barak. You’ll have to experience it yourself.”
“Were you warning me not to go there?” I ask, playing with my knife.
She shudders. “I think you should see it for yourself. If I tell you what is beyond that place, you won’t believe me.”
“That’s not an answer. Being vague won’t save you.”
“What will, then?” she asks softly, visibly shaking.
I position my body so that I am standing directly over her. My feet are planted on either side of her hips. She stares up at me without blinking.
“Why are you doing this? Why not just leave me here in the dirt and flee?” she pleads.
“Because killing you will kill them, too.”
I fall onto her and sink my knife through her heart. After a final wet gasp for air, she lay still beneath me. Her eyes are wide and empty. Fresh, dark blood taints her glowing white dress. I stand back and watch as beautiful patterns form on the gown’s fabric. Even in death, she is art, but she can’t enjoy that glory.
“Your stories are finished now,” I say grimly.
I walk back to my hut to gather up my carvings, some food, and essentials for my journey. Once everything is in my hemp sack, I sprint away from the camp without looking back.