A Bargain Beyond
a free short story by Kit Campbell
They told us to never go into the forest. They said that was where the wild ones lived, creatures who had once been like us, but who had abandoned civilization to seek power no mortal was ever supposed to have. It had driven them mad.
But sometimes the danger you have been warned against your entire life is preferable to the danger staring you in the face. Probable death is always more attractive than certain death.
As I left the burning remains of my village behind me, I could hear the hammering of hooves in my wake. We’d tried to defend ourselves, to make a stand, but we’d been quickly overrun.
The pounding grew louder as I fled. I plunged into the trees, not heeding the foliage tugging at my clothes. I still carried my sword in one hand, but it hung uselessly by my side. I ran on, not caring where I was going, only following the instinct to get away.
After a long time, the sounds of pursuit faded. I stopped, panting, doubling over from lack of breath. I straightened, taking in my surroundings. And that was when I saw her.
She must have been one of the wild ones, because she resembled no woman I had ever seen before. Clad only in a simple dress, most of her dark skin was covered in tattoos which glowed slightly in the low light of the forest. She watched me closely with eyes so blue I could almost swear I saw movement in their depths. And her fiery hair was twisted into intricate strands and laced with small decorations.
I do not know how long I stared at her. But too soon I became aware of my pursuers again. I could not bear to run anymore, and my sleeve was stained with my own blood. I would not be able to keep up my flight. Death would claim me.
“Sister,” I said. My voice was louder than I expected it to be, but the wild one did not flinch or react in any way. “I beseech thee, as have my ancestors before me, to do right by me.”
Where the words came from, I am not certain. It just seemed right to say them, and I knew without knowing that they had been spoken many times before. The frightful noises drew closer and, much too soon, burst in upon me. Hands grabbed me, disarmed me, but I could not look away from the wild one. As our attackers, our destroyers, dragged me away, she raised her chin, impossibly blue eyes locked onto my own. “As is our way,” she said, her words lightly accented, “I shall come for you.”
I heard her clearly despite the shouting of my captors, but they did not seem to see or hear her. I was jerked up, and I looked to see what was happening. When I looked back, she was gone.
I was dragged back to the remains of my village. For the longest time, I refused to believe that charred husk was my home, refused to think too closely on the sudden mounds that seemed to have sprung up everywhere. Why they did not kill me as well, I have never been sure. I did not understand their words. But even as I began to welcome death, because at least that would alleviate the fear and the guilt, I was unceremoniously loaded on a horse—one of our own, one that I had often seen wandering our streets—and tied on to make sure I could not make my escape. I do not know that I would have tried again, even if I could.
What follows is unclear in my memory. I was seized by grief and they did little for my needs beside drag me from the horse for sleeping. Sometimes I was given water, or a little food, perhaps whenever I seemed too likely to slip away into my final freedom. I am unsure how long we traveled. It grew hot, and the landscape faded into a wasteland. Sometimes my mind would clear, and I would wonder why they had come for us, and why they had taken me rather than allow me to join my kin, and what their intentions were for the future. Maybe it was always their way, to take the last survivor. But these moments were few and far between. Most of the trip was spent in a haze of pain.
When we arrived, there seemed to be an impossible number of people. Their stronghold was made of caked bricks, and the buildings themselves were all that provided shade. The people pushed in between them, staring at me, chattering in their incomprehensible tongue. One of my captors made a speech, and the people cheered. I was pulled from my mount and taken to a raised platform, where the man continued his speech. Despite not being able to understand a word, I felt alert for the first time since the forest, and dread settled itself in my stomach. The crowd suddenly seemed hostile, more demons than people, and I shrank back from whatever my intended fate was to be. I was bound to an upright stake, the only wood I could see in the place. Perhaps I had been brought here as an example, a show of power. Perhaps, instead of a quick death, like those of my kin, I would know indescribable, lingering agony.
The man turned toward me, a sick smile on his face. My body shut down, unable to react to the terror bubbling through my insides. He reached a hand out toward me, then froze. I stared at him, uncomprehending, but he made no further moves. It was then that I realized that the entirety of the crowd stood still, faces contorted in shouts, and that their noise had faded into silence.
I turned my head. She stood there, beside me, untouched by the grime of the place. In the harsh sunlight she seemed even more otherworldly. “I have come to seal the bargain,” she said. “Do you accept?”
For a second, I hesitated. I knew, without asking, that I would no longer be of this world if I accepted. But I wasn’t sure I hadn’t already changed. “I do.”
The tattoos on her arms shone brighter, visible even in the sunlight. My bonds fell free. I took a weak step forward, peering at the silent crowd.
“Come.” She held out a hand. “We will go.”
“But what about them?”
“We are between time,” she replied without even looking. “They will feel and see nothing.”
“But—” I was unsure how to verbalize my fears. That they would come after me again, that they would burn others, that I would put her in danger.
“It does not matter,” she said. “Come.”
I put my hand in hers. She felt human enough. Looking up, I met her eyes and, for a moment, was lost in them. I pulled my gaze away to discover we had returned to the forest. I may have gasped. She dropped my hand and I stumbled to the nearest tree, running my hand down its trunk to test its reality.
“Come,” she said again. “The bargain is sealed.”
She offered me her hand again, but this was different—more of a promise than an order. I took it, and together we headed farther into the depths of the trees. I did not know where I was going, or what awaited me there.
It did not matter.