Light flooded in. His dreams felt like they had been eaten.
“Are–are you awake?”
Arthen gave a faint grunt.
Arthen tried to focus the room around him. The first thing he saw was a short steel barrel attached to a piece of carved wood. Various pots, cauldrons, tools, pliers, melted and twisted metal all around. The smells of stale smoke lingered on the stone walls of the hut. He was shirtless. He felt his right arm constricted with tight bandages wrapped around the entire appendage. Something else also heavier spiraled around his arm on top of all the bandages that faintly clinked when he shifted–a chain?
He awoke fully with a few quick slaps to his face.
“Wake up! Come on.”
“Alright.” Abner stood up very quickly from Arthen’s side and started to fidget with the lining of the pockets on his trousers. “Time to go.”
“Hold on. Where–”
“Please! Just–it’s time to go.”
Arthen stared at the man. He looked at Arthen sternly but there was an obvious strain for composure in his eyes behind his thick eyeglasses.
“Can you just–”
“Alright–get the hell out!” A deep voice came out of nowhere on Arthen’s left along with the sounds of heavy footsteps stampeding toward him. “Just get out! Get out!” Then Arthen was thrown off his cot and he landed on the stone floor landing on right arm. He let out a cry of pain as a heavy ache rocked through his bones.
“Oh please don’t hurt him!”
“Come on! Out!”
“Yup–let’s move on.”
Arthen was hoisted up by his armpits and pushed across the floor, his feet tripping and catching on the cracks of the stone and the tools that littered the ground. The son practically carried Arthen the rest of the way out of the house, the two of them making a trot similar to a dying horse. Arthen stumbled out the door and fell down onto the dirt path, scraping palms on broken rocks and debris. He rolled over onto the brown grass and gasped hard in frustration.
Looking back to the house he saw a strong looking man with a protective leer on his face spearing Arthen like a buck standing up against a wolf for his herd.
“Wait! Where am I? What happened?” Arthen gasped.
“Tell him we did our job and the debt is cleared.”
Arthen took a deep breath to comprehend. “What do you mean?”
“Homer! We can’t–”
The man turned around and closed the door behind him. He returned a moment later and threw a cloth-wrapped pack at the ground in front of Arthen. Arthen picked it up and unfolded the cloth to reveal a dirty poncho that was wrapped around a small leather pouch and a very large knife.
“I’m not much of a hunter,” Arthen said.
“Not for hunting. Do yourself a favor. You’ll be better off without that arm. There’s no knowing what you are with that thing. And don’t think you can use that knife on us in the night. We’ll throw fire and stone at you before you even reach our doorstep. Now get the hell out of here.”
Homer walked back into the house and slammed the door.
Arthen let his head rest onto the ground, staring back up at the sky just as he did when he had woken up the morning after Drywood had burned. It was extremely difficult to comprehend what had happened to him, his mind couldn’t grasp the turn his life had taken in four days. His thoughts turned to Ketrian but Arthen felt something different now. He felt no pull to follow him, to catch up. He rose his raw right hand above his face and saw the chains imprisoning his bandaged arm.
What did you do to me, Ketrian?
Arthen started to feel sick. How could he be that pathetic to follow him? Ketrian had done this to his arm and Arthen’s first instinct was to follow him? He had already abandoned Arthen and his family once before, why would he follow him after a second time?
He tried to kill me. He cursed me.
Arthen lifted his head to look back to the house. He could feel the invisible wall of fear that had now been placed between him and Abner’s family; people who had helped him but for some reason feared him afterwards. This arm. This hand. These scars.
He unlatched the chain around his arm and threw it away from him. He then unwrapped the bandages, every turn left a subtle throb on his tender muscles and skin. His naked arm revealed completely pale skin with pink streaks spiraling to his palm. There was no bleeding, but every movement in the air left a hornet’s sting.
The violent bursts of energy, the hair loss, the scarring, the bleeding, the sharp pains in his head. What had Ketrian done to him? Arthen could still feel a faint presence of some parasite or disease lingering in his veins and nerves. Was there no end to this? Abner had tried to do something to cure this, whatever it was, but it evidently was not enough due to Arthen’s banishment. Was it only going to get worse?
I don’t want this. I don’t want this. Please just take this from me. Please just let me die. I don’t want this anymore.
Arthen got back onto his knees in the leaves with the knife and poncho in front of him. He reached for the knife and examined it. What fascinated Arthen the most about it was how clean it was. How pure it looked.
Enoch would not condone his death–forfeiting his own life for his own pain, the life he gave him.
But no one is here. My own brother, the last person in my life tried to kill me and left me with this. All alone.
The knife–its purity could cleanse Arthen of this. He examined the blade side by side with his right arm.
Sure I would lose a lot of blood, but Abner could patch me up seeing that the danger is gone.
But where to cut? He thought at first just at the wrist to save the most flesh as that was where the Ketrian injected that black dagger. But the more he traced the scars with his eyes, the farther the cut line ascended up his arm and to his torso.
Fine, the shoulder socket it is! Then I’ll just dig out the rest on my chest. Start at the armpit and pull up? Surely this knife is large enough and I am skinny enough to just stab in the center of my shoulder and pull down. No. Wait. Working upwards would prevent unnecessary chops and would be cleaner, right? Yes. Armpit up. Alright.
So Arthen took the knife’s blade in his armpit, holding the hilt with his knuckles facing upward with his left hand. The cold purity of the blade stung his wounds which made it even more difficult to concentrate.
Just one clean cut. You’re not a butcher, but it will have to do.
Stop. A deep voice rang out.
Arthen turned all around him to see where it came from. There was no one around. Homer had left Arthen completely alone in the edge of the woods outside of the house. The only sounds were the leaves rustling ominously like the voice.
“Who’s there?” Arthen cried aloud.
No reply came.
After searching the area around him, Arthen reflected on his own presence. He still held the blade in his left hand and his right hand faced upwards showing the twinkling red star mark on his palm. The purity of the dagger seemed to fade and it was replaced by fear and uncertainty. He felt cold and frightened.
These aren’t my hands.
He dropped the knife and cried again. Whatever was inside of him ached Arthen’s brain and made his body feel heavy and empty.
But around his neck, his mother’s pendant still remained. He grabbed onto it for strength.
Arthen grabbed the poncho and stuck his head through it, covering his bare torso. The small pouch he wrapped the drawstring around his wrist. He decided the leave the knife behind to save from any temptation. Then he got up and took his first step into a more uncertain world, weary and mentally-fatigued. With no Ketrian to follow and no wolves to lead him, he walked out of the woods to find the Northern Highway.
Don’t give in.