Fifteen Years Ago

Myron was late. Damned late. And these godsforsaken mountains were freezing, even though it was spring. The snow had melted for the most part, but patches of it remained scattered across the mountain, leaving the loamy forest floor a patchwork of soggy grass, crumbling dirt, and dirty snow.

Titus rubbed his hands together, clinging to the paltry heat that the friction caused, the kidskin gloves a pathetic ward against this icy wintry air. Dark. It was so dark that it was hard to see much more than the hands in front of his face. And he did not dare risk a fire as he waited. And waited. And waited for Captain Myron to return to their designated, clandestine meeting place.

The Navarian Commander looked up to the inky skies through the ceiling of conifers and aspens, marveling at just how bright the stars were here on the side of the mountain. Brighter than normal, somehow. Like he was closer to the gods.

But Titus knew that the gods paid no attention to him. They never had. And judging by the fact that Myron was at least an hour late, the gods very well might be smiting him, just for the Sheol of it.
Not that he didn’t deserve it.

The distant clomp of horses’ hooves tore his attention from the glittering skies, and he squinted to make out any sign of whoever was approaching.
Please let it be Myron.

A bronze Midvarish medallion glinted in the starlight—Myron’s horse. Thank the gods. Titus nearly cried out in relief, but silence was key tonight. Silence and secrecy, the two currencies of Titus’s whole godsdamned life.

“Where have you been?” Titus growled as Myron dismounted his dapple mare.

“We were delayed,” he said, carrying a limp bundle in his meaty arms.

“I take it you got one,” Titus said, stepping across the space between them, reaching out for the cadaver sprawled in the captain’s arms.

“The boys found several for you to choose from,” Myron said, making to hand over the child. “But they took such a damned long time about it, I just chose one for you and brought her as quickly as I could.”

Titus took hold of the bundle of ebony hair and dirty nightgown, taking just a moment to steal a glimpse of the child. A little girl.

A breathing little girl.

“What in Sheol is this?” Titus barked. Stirring. Godsdamnit, she was stirring!

“The tincture is wearing off,” said Myron casually. “You’ll want to find some more of it if you want to keep her quiet. She was the quietest of them, but gods, Titus, little girls? What in Sheol are you planning to do with them?”

“Not them. One. I said I needed one,” Titus barked, the weight of the child in his arms suddenly unbearable. “A dead one!” he added.

“What?” asked Myron, furrowing his brow. “You never said that.”

“Yes, I did!” Titus barked.

“You damn well did not! You just said to bring a little girl. You never specified that she needed to be dead!”

The girl stirred in his arms, her eyes fluttering. Tiny. She was so godsdamned tiny. He hadn’t expected that.

“Shit, Myron! What am I supposed to do with her?” Titus asked, the panic welling.
Myron reached to his belt, pulling out a dagger.

And in the matter of a heartbeat—one single heartbeat—Captain Myron slit the throat of the little girl in Titus’s arms. Blood, warm and thick, glistening in the moonlight, poured down her neck, across Titus’s arms. Bile burned in his throat as he watched the light leave her heavy eyes, as he felt her go even more limp in his arms.

He looked up to Myron, reeling from the shock. “What. In. Sheol. Is. Wrong. With. You,” he growled.
Myron snorted a laugh. “You’ve gone soft, Titus. You’ve been working for that damned Navarian king too long. Grow some balls and finish your job—whatever the Sheol it is.”

Rage. Rage and disgust and downright nausea roiled within him. It took a considerable amount of effort not to lunge for his sword and gut the haughty bastard. But that would require putting down the girl, and it just didn’t feel…right.

Myron turned his back, slinging a foot into the stirrup of his horse, a useless smirk on his drawn mouth. “Good luck, commander,” he purred. “The gods know you’ll need it.”

And then Myron was off, flinging himself onto his trusted horse and turning back toward the direction he had come in one fluid movement, leaving Titus standing dumbfounded in the mountain forest, holding a dead little girl in his arms.

It took him a moment to gather his thoughts and figure out what in Sheol to do. Her warm blood still dribbled down his arm, and blinding guilt nearly crushed him. He had meant for them to bring a dead child. A dead one. The whole point had been to avoid this very situation. Not that Myron needed to know that.

Titus knelt on the ground, setting down the tiny little girl as carefully and gingerly as if she were his own. He took off his cloak, the black wool merging with the midnight and darkness, the Navarian seal expertly embroidered on the collar catching starlight. He laid it across the girl, wrapping her still-warm, blood-soaked body in it before scooping her into his arms again. The only warmth he could offer her. The last warmth she would ever know.

He flung her over his shoulder, grunting as he mounted his own horse, setting off down the mountain, into the foggy mist below, knowing damn well that he just added murder to a very long list of the reasons why Titus Melamed would burn in Sheol.


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