Monday, February 9, 2015

At Any Cost

Bran peered around the corner of the house into the lane. All clear.
He sighed and felt his stomach unclench. Maybe he could get to class today without the obligatory meeting with Cyne.
He stepped out into the wide, dusty lane, swung his bag up onto his shoulder, and set off at a brisk walk.
“Morning!”
Bran jumped as Cyne popped out of some nearby bushes, tossing a ball of light between his hands. He scowled and kept walking. “What do you want?”
Cyne grinned. “Nuthin.” He tossed the ball of light high into the air, where it disappeared with a small flash. He elbowed Bran. “So. Have ­you uncovered any hidden talents lately?”
Bran’s heart beat faster as he tried not to get angry. His father had said to ignore Cyne and he’d get bored and go away. Bran quickened his pace.
“Aww,” said Cyne, falling in next to Bran. “C’mon now. You don’t need to hide it. You could just show me a little trick.”
Stuck-up pig, though Bran. Just ‘cause he thinks he’s so good.
“Oh,” said Cyne. “That’s right. I forgot.”
Bran braced himself, knowing what would come next.
Sure enough, Cyne jabbed him in the shoulder. “You don’t have any hidden talents.” He laughed uproariously.
“At least I’m not a traitor.” Bran clenched his fists, put his head down, and walked faster.
But Cyne just sped up too. “Traitor? You’re just jealous. You just wish it was you destined for the good life.”
“Don’t.” Bran fought to control his outrage. How could anybody want to be a galdorman? Filthy peacocks that made everyone else’s lives miserable, keeping the riches to themselves and forcing the ‘common’ people to do their dirty work for them…
­Ignore him, Bran heard his father’s words. He chewed on the inside of his cheek. But what did his father know? Cyne was too stupid to get bored, he’d never go away.
“Well, look,” Cyne was saying. “I could always put a good word in for you with the Galdre. Now that I’m, you know, one of them and all.” He clapped his hands together and laughed again as blue lights ran up and down his arms.
Bran fought to slow his breathing. Mustn’t. Get. Angry.
“But that’s right!” Cyne slapped his forehead in mock disbelief. “I can’t! Because it wouldn’t matter!” His face twisted into an ugly sneer. “Because you’re not talented. So it won’t matter what anyone says, ever again. I’m better, I won.”
No! Bran shouted in his head. I’m better, I won! I deserved to win that race, they picked me, me, not you.
Cyne stepped around in front of Bran and stopped, forcing Bran to either halt or run into him.
Bran chose to halt.
Cyne stooped and stared into Bran’s eyes. “I would have won that race. I should have won that race. You know as well as I do that I didn’t cheat. You’re a liar.”
Bran’s heart raced. “I… I am not!”
“Yes,” said Cyne, “you are.” He straightened and gave Bran a strange smile. “But you know what?”
Bran shook his head, glancing left and right in the hopes of escape.
“I don’t care.” Cyne’s voice was so quiet that Bran stared at him in surprise. “That’s right,” said Cyne. “I don’t. Not any more.” He swung his shoulders freely. “So, you go to school. You go, and enjoy your popularity that we both know you only got because you’re a liar. Because soon, I’ll leave, and I’ll go with the Galdre, and I’ll be ten times the man you’ll ever be.”
Bran’s face flushed dark red. He stepped up nose to nose with Cyne.
Cyne smiled down at him, amused. “Going to take me on, little liar?” He snapped his fingers and light flared around his ears.
“Yes,” said Bran. “I am. And I’m going to win.”
“Cyne!”
The two boys jumped apart and glanced nervously at the girl running down the street.
“Er, hi Acha,” Cyne mumbled.
She drew to a halt in front of him and glared. “Are you picking on Bran again?”
Bran wished he could melt into the street. It was bad enough that he had to endure Cyne every morning – but for Acha to have to see it? He shuddered. He might as well make himself an outcast right here and now.
“There, there, Bran.” Acha put an arm around his shoulders.
In spite of his embarrassment, Bran had to admit it felt good.
“He won’t bully you any more.” She glared again at Cyne.
Cyne blushed. “I wasn’t… I mean, I didn’t… It’s just that…” He stomped a foot. “He’s a liar!”
Acha stiffened. “Cyne (lastname), if that’s the best excuse you can come up with I’ll expect to see you back here within the week. The Galdre won’t put up with stupidity, or liars. Come on, Bran.” She took his arm and dragged him down the street.
Cyne shot him a poisonous look as he went past. “I hate you,” he muttered.
Bran stuck his tongue out, pulling his arm out of Acha’s and waving her onwards. “Who wins now, sissy?” he hissed at Cyne.
“Pig. I’ll get you for this.”
“Fine,” said Bran. “I’ll meet you by the brook right after school. Then we’ll see who’s the liar.” Bran narrowed his eyes, giving Cyne one last hateful look. He would put an end to this. His stupid dad didn’t know anything.
He caught up with Acha and slipped his arm through hers. “Let’s go.”

 ***

Bran’s heart pounded. What was he doing here? Was he mad? There was no way he could beat Cyne face to face, not against the galdor.
He hunkered down in the long grass and tried to pretend he didn’t exist. That worked okay until he discovered he was sitting in the middle of an ant trail. The horrible little bugs climbed up his bare legs, biting and tickling.
He slapped at them as he leaped to his feet.
That’s right, he thought. Even the stupid bugs want to pick on me.
He glared around the clearing. Well I’m sick of being picked on, he thought. I’ve had enough. I don’t care what Dad says, they’re not going to stop until I prove that I’m stronger than him. Just ‘cause he got stupid galdor.
His father would be furious if he found out Bran had picked a fight, but right now Bran decided he didn’t care. Besides, if everything went well maybe his father wouldn’t even need to know.
A whistle drifted into the clearing. Cyne.
Bran peeked around a tree to see if he’d come alone. He let out a sigh of relief. Cyne was by himself.
Bran’s momentary relief turned to irritation. Just like Cyne to come swaggering in here, whistling that stupid tune of his, like he had nothing to worry about.
Well he did. Cyne may have galdor, but Bran had brains. And he planned to use them.
As he retreated back behind the tree, Bran’s foot grazed a large rock.
He drew in a sharp breath as a thought struck him.
­Of course. He didn’t need to meet Cyne face to face. He just had to win.
Bran stooped and snatched up the rock. He slid forward, making sure to keep the trees between himself and Cyne.
The whistling got louder, and Bran crouched down to check how close Cyne was.
Soon, he thought. Nearly there.
He could probably make the throw now – but he wanted to be sure. He let Cyne take a few more steps.
That’ll do it, he thought. Bran jumped out into the middle of the path, and before Cyne had time to do more than gasp in surprise, Bran flung the rock.
He’d always been a good shot, and he felt a thrill of satisfaction when the rock connected precisely with Cyne’s temple and Cyne crumpled to the ground.
He laughed.
Cyne didn’t move.
Bran narrowed his eyes. He’d better get out of here, before Cyne woke up.
He stepped towards Cyne’s body and grimaced. Cyne was going to hurt for days when he woke up. No one’s leg should bend like that. Well, it served him right. At least he wouldn’t bother Bran again.
Bran tiptoed closer.
Something was strange – not right. A small tremor of uncertainty broke through his grim satisfaction.
Closer, closer…
Bran inhaled sharply as he realised what was wrong.
Cyne wasn’t moving. Not at all. He wasn’t… Bran swallowed. He wasn’t breathing.
He stared down at the body, horrified. What had he done?
He gulped and backed slowly away.
Maybe if he just left, if he went home and didn’t say anything – maybe no one would know. Maybe everyone would think Cyne had wandered out here by himself and gotten attacked by some wild animal – there were lots of dangerous animals in the area, it wasn’t impossible…
He cast desperately around the clearing for something that would justify him, absolve his guilt.
A flash of light caught his eye and he scrambled across the clearing towards it. Metal. He reached down into the bushes, twigs scratching at his arms and grasped the object.
A knife.
He turned it over in his hands and an idea formed.
Yes… It was better than being attacked by an animal. After all, some kids just couldn’t handle the fact that they were destined to be one of their family’s sworn enemies.
And if he made some burn marks around the clearing, and slashed at some of the bushes, no one would doubt that Cyne had used his galdor.
And, thought Bran, if the knife is in his hand, no one will doubt that he killed himself because he found out he was a Galdre. No one.
Bran nodded. Yes. And then no one would ever have to know that Bran himself had been here, and no one would suspect a thing.
But that meant he had to put the knife in Cyne’s hand.
He shuddered.
He’s seen dead things before, of course. He’d killed things before, even – chickens, and once even a cow.
But this was different.
This was… human.
He held his breath as he neared the body, half afraid that Cyne might spring up and yell, “Ah ha! You thought you could defeat me! Well you can’t! You can’t! You can’t do anything because you’re weak!”…
…And half afraid that he wouldn’t.
Bran crouched beside the body. It didn’t move. He let out his breath, then froze.
Cyne’s hands were under his body. To put the knife in his hand, Bran was going to have to move him.
A sick knot formed in his stomach and he hugged his knees.
Maybe it would be better to just go home now, to run away and pretend it had never happened…
Then he thought of Acha. She’d overheard his challenge this morning, and she knew he was meeting Cyne here this afternoon.
He swallowed. He had to do it. He had no other choice.
Bran reached out a shaky hand. It’s okay, he thought. All I have to do is turn it – him – over. Turn him over, put the knife in his hand, and then I can go. That’s all. Just one turn…
Steeling himself, he grasped Cyne’s shoulder and flipped him over with a quick shove.
Bran recoiled, throat tight as a pair of eyes stared straight up at him.
He gulped down a lungful of air, eyes fixed on Cyne’s face. “It’s okay,” he said out loud. “He’s dead, it’s okay, he’s not going to do anything.”
Besides, Bran thought. Even when he’s dead he looks ugly. He smirked.
“Not so tough now, are we,” he said. “Hey? Are we?” He poked Cyne’s shoulder. “Yeah. Your stupid magic didn’t save you this time, did it. You think you’re so great, so much better than me just because your dad’s got money and you’ve got galdor.” Bran stood, fists clenched and face tightening. “Well I don’t care!” he yelled. “I don’t! Because you’re not better than me, and I proved it! My stupid Dad said you’d get bored, but you wouldn’t, I know, and I showed you. I won.” He glared down at the body, clenching and unclenching his jaw. “I hate you. I hate you and all your stupid money, and your stupid, stupid magic. You’re a traitor, and I hate you.”
As he spoke Bran’s anger cooled, and he was left feeling strangely empty.
“And now,” he said to the body, “I’m going to make it look like you killed yourself, and then I’m going to go home, and I’m going to live. And I will never, ever forgive you, as long as I’m alive.”
He crouched over the body and leaned close to Cyne’s face. “Do you hear me? This is All. Your. Fault.”
He gripped the knife tightly in his fist and raised it high in the air.
“I wish I’d done this while you were alive.” He smiled, and plunged the knife down, deep into Cyne’s stomach. It went it right up to the hilt, and Bran gave it a twist for good measure.
“And you know what the best bit is?” he said, so close his nose nearly touched Cyne’s. “No one will ever, ever know.”
Bran grabbed Cyne’s hand and wrapped it around the knife hilt. He stood up and surveyed his handiwork.
A frown crossed his face. There was no blood.
He glanced around the clearing, thinking, and his eyes came to rest on the creek.
He gave a tight smile. Perfect.
Crouching down, Bran heaved the body onto its side, then over onto its stomach, and over and over until it was lying right on the very brink of the bank.
Perfect.
He straightened, stretching out his back. Now to doctor the clearing.
He pulled a packet of firelights from his pocket – thank goodness his mother insisted on him being prepared for everything.
Picking up a nearby rock, Bran struck the firelight against it and the light flared to life.
Holding the firelight to a bush, he blew gently on it to fan the flame. The bush caught alight and flared up. Perfect. He watched the bush crackle and wither, leaves curling in on themselves and disintegrating into fine, black ash. The flames spread and soon the bushes across the whole west side of the clearing were alight.
Bran had a panicked moment as the wind gusted down and fanned the flames deeper into the bush. What if the whole woods went up?
But the wind gusted back the opposite way and the flames died down as they devoured the bushes.
Behind him Bran heard a splash. He looked around; the body had fallen into the creek.

Bran smiled. He’d won.

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