I close my eyes before I kill him.
Just in the final seconds as my swordpoint hits fast and straight through the hole in the chain mail under his arm. In order not to see the expression on his face, his eyes bulge, the gasp of breath when he realizes it was a killing stroke. There’ll be pink bubbles on his lips as his knees hit the muddy ground, and his own weight jerks his body off my sword as long as I square my feet.
It’s the worst way to do it, to not watch. Anything could happen, but I can’t do it any other way.
As he falls I look again, in time to turn heavily and block another attack with my shield. But Deck knocks the new enemy over by grabbing his collar and flinging him back. My brother stands over the fallen soldier and guts him before grinning at me through a blood-flecked beard. He’s just managed to grow it.
I lower my sword because the enemy band is withdrawing back into their forest. It was only a score of them, down to a quarter of that now, and their long shadows stretch back toward us through the trees, promising more tomorrow. And the next day and the next, through the gods know how many more weeks. Here on the southern front, there’s almost no winter to speak of, and so no pause in the king’s war.
Deck bares his teeth at their backs. “Run!” he screams after them. “Run from us!” And he claps me on the shoulder, making me stagger. I sink the tip of my sword into layers of fallen leaves for balance, thinking of how Captain would cuss at me for it. Your sword is your life, boy, don’t treat it like a stick – what if there’s an enemy behind you and you can’t bring the sword up fast enough? You want to do nothing but fling mud in some banger’s face as you die? I breathe through my teeth, as if I can stop the thick smells from sticking to my tongue: blood and rot and that sharp smell of the evergreens around here.
“Let’s go, Half,” Deck says, not waiting before he begins tromping back toward camp. I kneel down, ignoring the ache in my right thigh from an old scar, and set down my shield beside Deck’s gutted enemy. He’s clutching at his stomach, where blood leaks through the wide round metal joints of his armor, and I smell his death easily enough. But it won’t be easy for him, and I pull my dagger from the sheath on my gauntlet. He’s hissing and his big eyes stare up at the purple sky as I tug off the helmet skewed on his head and set my blade against his throat.
He’s doomed, and this will be better than him gasping and bleeding here until the wolf-priests come to collect our dead and burn the enemy overnight. This is the right thing to do. The good thing.
But I close my eyes again, while the knife pushes gently into his dirt-crusted neck. It’s got to be done. It’s just another practice thrust, Half. Do it.
And I do. I should’ve taken my gauntlet off first, but it’s already got blood soaked into the cracks and this spray won’t make it too much worse.
As I drink thick broth at the fire that night, my sword hand begins to tremble.
I set down my mug and clench a fist, tucking the offending hand against my side. I’ve only been back at the front for eight days. I should be good for at least twelve more before fatigue sets in, before I’m anxious again and jumping at the cracks from the fire.