Amid the Green Corn: Part Eleven

by Cooper Young

You earned this, he told himself. Every last bit of this. I hope you know that, you weak-willed little bastard. Whatever they do to you, you earned it. 

If they catch you–

If they kill you–

If you never hear again–

You earned it.

His eyes stung from burst of sandy earth that had cost him his horse and his hearing, but they at least still worked. Saturn High worked his way into a crouch and, hiding behind the bush, did his best to gauge the situation. Most of the Rilikan had passed him by now, and he didn’t seem to be in any immediate danger. His problem now was how to avoid them when they eventually gave up chasing what remained of his clan and returned home. He abandoned his bush and cut south around the hill directly in front of him, hoping to swing a wide enough crescent on his way home to avoid the issue entirely. It might take him an extra day or two, but when he returned home…

He stopped dead. When he returned home, he still wouldn’t have bought his way out of Fire in the Field’s blackmail. Fire would tell Delia about the affair–or affairs, depending on how much he knew–and Delia, poor, long-suffering Delia would die. It felt as though a net had tightened around his heart. He’d pushed that realization back over and over for the last two days, but there it finally was as a cogent thought: his wife, as sick as she was, wouldn’t survive the shock of what he’d done. All these years of hard work keeping her comfortable and safe would have been for nothing.

They were probably for nothing anyway. She’d never recover, and even if he dodged the blackmail bullet this time those affairs had still happened. They could still come flying back at him any given day. There was no taking those back.

Except one, of course.

Was it worth it?

Yes, he thought, and he was amazed by how quickly and clearly the answer came. Of course it was worth it to kill his lover for the chance to spare his wife pain. He’d done a lot of stupid things over the course of his marriage, but he did love Delia. Maybe not in the wild way he’d loved Star once–maybe not in an emotional way at all–but that love and all the others had faded over time. Delia had been a constant, a low, comforting hum that never faded though louder songs came and went. Though over the course of her illness he’d been tired and lonely he’d never once begrudged her the care she needed. He may not have always been madly in love with her, but he’d loved her in the quiet moments. Now, as he stood frozen and deaf behind the soon-to-turn Rilikan tide, that somehow seemed more important. Crouching, he moved again, dodging between clumps of brush as he slipped slowly northwest between the hills.

Night hadn’t fully fallen when he found Star Between the Peaks. There were torches lit in the distance; the Rilikan were on their way home. She sat alone on a hilltop, her rifle resting behind her over the back of her saddle, her red curls shifting in teasing patterns in the evening wind.

This time he gave himself no time for nostalgia. He fired; he missed. She didn’t even seem to notice, looking instead over one shoulder toward the distant Rilikan line. All this, and she didn’t notice him. “Ada!” he shouted, suddenly enraged. Her head spun toward him, then back to the west, then to him again as she finally comprehended. “Ada!” She went for her rifle. Too slow, he thought. Something rapid and dark was moving out of the west. He fired. 

Time seemed to stop as he watched the red ribbon fly, unfurling gently from the pale skin between blue eyes–unfamiliar eyes in a half-remembered face. The man who’d ridden between them slumped. Saturn saw Star scream something, first to the dying man and then to him, and while he couldn’t understand what she said he realized how badly he had botched things.

For a moment he wavered, knowing that running home would be nearly as bad as staying where he was–unless he took the shot now, as she dismounted to chase her brother’s corpse to earth. That wouldn’t fix his mistake, but it might ease Fire in the Field’s anger. If he killed her too…

His flustered thoughts were broken by the bullet that pierced his shoulder. Ada hadn’t left her horse.

He turned south and ran, feeling the hoofbeats he couldn’t hear reverberating through the earth beneath his feet.