When you’ve got caldean steel sticking out of your breastbone, you start to wonder where things went wrong. For me, it was when I slid around the Bedmates Tavern in pursuit of Notorious Fen, who was waiting for me on the other side, dagger ready for the throw. Or maybe it was ten years ago when Notorious Fen killed my family and I started hunting her.
Hard to say, especially with a dagger buried in your chest.
Fen knelt next to me. It was strange to see her so close. She had a mole beneath her left eye, a little brown freckle I never would’ve suspected was there. Funny. Years of tracking her finally brought her face mere inches from mine. I’d call it a success, save for the steel being stuck in the wrong person.
“Does it hurt?” she asked, concerned.
I thought about that. I knew it should hurt. I had been scraped and stuck enough to know that. But it didn’t this time, and that scared me.
“Nope,” I coughed.
“Think you’ll pull through?” she said.
“Damn it all. My aim’s too good.”
I chuckled and tasted coins in my mouth. It hurt to laugh. That was good, at least. I was still alive enough to feel some pain.
“Seems unfair,” she said. “I’m the one who’s always killing. Thought it’d be time for you to have a turn.”
“Stop making me laugh, you bitch.”
“Sorry.” She grinned. “I just thought you were due.”
I couldn’t disagree. The number of people Fen put in their graves was legendary. A village here, a town there, sacked and razed by her and her crew. The Tavern Criers barely had to credit the villainy anymore; if someone was killed, it was likely Fen that did it. That’s what brought me to Grunewald in the first place. I got word that she was coming through. If I’d known that I was only going to get one more shot before I croaked, I would’ve picked a less dumpy place to die. The lean-to against which I was breathing my last was rotten to the studs and coated with muck, like all of Grunewald.
“What am I gonna do now?” Fen asked, sadly. “How could I go and do a thing as stupid as killing you?”
“You didn’t have much choice,” I said. “I was gonna kill you, after all.”
“You think you would’ve been happy if you had?”
“No,” I said. “Not happy.”
“I ain’t happy,” she said. “I ain’t even relieved.”
“Odd. You’d think you’d be glad that a hunter dedicated to your bounty is dying.”
Fen whistled. If there was any triumph in her, it didn’t show. I suddenly felt the urge to cry. I had been chasing her for years. Now it was over in an anticlimactic instant. One minute you’re rounding a lean-to across from Bedmates Tavern, next thing you know you’ve heard the whish of a throwing arm and there’s a dagger coming out of your chest like a door handle.
“I don’t blame you,” I choked. “In the heat of the moment, I would’ve done the same.”
She shook her head. “I should’ve come out to the open. I should’ve squared off with you like a real woman.”
“There’s nothing for it now. You got me, and that’s the end of it. Our little dance is over.”
A tear leaked out of Fen’s eye. “I just don’t know what I’ll do.”
Blood trickled from my mouth. Some part of me knew for sure it wasn’t long yet.
Fen took a deep breath and reached in her cloak. She drew out another knife, this one shorter, likely for shaping, not a weapon. She bent down and grabbed my wrist, elevating my arm and extending it towards her. She put the small knife in my hand, then pressed the blade to her throat.
“Do it,” she said.
“Do what?” I asked.
“Kill me. Without you, I’ve got nothing. I am nothing. Why do you think I keep raising hell all over the kingdom? Not because I like it. Hell, I hate it. But…” She fumbled for her next words. “The chase…the chase is all I got left. If I ain’t got you to chase me, then what’ve I got?”
I attempted to laugh, but sputtered blood instead. “Someone else’ll chase you.”
“No one like you. You made a life out of it.”
“Look where that got me.”
Fen pushed my hand and the blade further towards her neck. A small trickle of blood ran down my finger.
“Do it. For me.”
I’ll admit it, I was tempted. All the years spent waiting for a chance to kill Fen were culminating against a shitty lean-to in Grunewald. Of course, the scenario wasn’t playing out the way I intended, least of all because of the surprise stuck in my chest. Still, I sympathized with her dissatisfaction; I couldn’t envision my life without her. Then again, I didn’t need to, given the circumstances.
I uncurled my fingers and let the knife fall to the cobblestones.
“Do it yourself,” I said. “I just retired.”
Fen set her teeth. “You won’t do me this kindness?”
I shook my head. “Why should I? We’re enemies after all.”
She stared at me for a moment longer. Her eyes twitched with tears, making that little freckle bounce on her cheek. She rose from her haunches and left me against the lean-to. My last thought was to wonder if I should’ve taken her up on her offer.
Jim W. Shoemaker writes literary and historical fantasy, much of which is influenced by his graduate studies in Early Modern Mediterranean history. When he isn’t writing, Jim is glued to a good book or video game, occasionally taking a break to make an income as a University administrator. This is his first publication. Follow Jim on Twitter @jimwshoemaker.