Curse it! Curse it all! Barely a day outside of my tribe's territory and I see already my true colours. How can I possibly face my family's killer with this yellow stripe down my back?
I had wanted to avoid the roads, move through the forest instead and find safe passage from the shadow of the trees, but I'd had little choice when the Brunali cut through. I had to use the old bridge. I'd watched, I'd listened, and there was nothing out there at either end. So I'd left the safety of the forest, walked out onto the road and began crossing the bridge. I was barely two thirds of the way across when I heard a stifled grunt, at which I'd frozen in place and listened again. There was something going on beneath the bridge at the far end, and though I didn't know what at the time, I couldn't bring myself to turn around, but neither could I advance. When I finally did make my feet begin to move, I'd tip toed to the edge and peered over just enough to see the shoulders of three men and hear another grunt of pain. Two men faced towards the river, the one in front restrained by the one behind, while the one who faced them pummelled the other with punches. I could tell by the leathers of the two at either end that they were bandits, while the man in the middle wore clays over his arms, the symbols of a nearby water tribe painted onto his shoulders.
I stood on that bridge, frozen in place, terrified, while my kinsman was beaten senseless. I knew I should help, or those bandits would abduct him when he was weak enough and sell him on as a slave. It's happened before, too many times to count. Bandits and 'civilised' people didn't live in these lands, but they invaded for their benefit. And they never seemed to lose.
The sound of strikes continued - I can hear them now, even as I write this, though it was two days ago - getting rougher, wetter, and it sounded like they would never tire. They laughed as they did it, and spoke in their harsh, outland tongue, surely telling him what fate awaited him. One of heavy labour, starvation and beatings worse than what he presently received - they couldn't rough him up too much or they wouldn't be able to sell him, but his owner would surely do to his own property whatever he wished.
I stayed still, I listened, and while I found that my fingers itched to wrap around their throats and my heart hammered in rage, I could do nothing. My feet wouldn't move.
And then, from nowhere, I found a roar tearing free from my throat, my feet hammered across the stone and I leapt down beneath the bridge to land upon the attacker.
Even writing this, it sounds absurd. It was as if I was possessed by something, a spirit of vengeance, a spirit of rage. The actions were not my own.
But that, it seemed, was all that my shared spirit could muster. Once down there I found myself paralysed by fear once again, and though the attacker had struck his head and seemed free of the strength to rise, the other bellowed, dropped his prize and leapt upon me instead.
The rest happened too quickly to recall. All I remember are tears, fear, the image of myself beaten to a bloody pulp and being sold to the people in the south, and the sound of a familiar tongue crying a curse. When I'd opened my eyes, the man of my neighbour tribe stood over me. He told me I was foolish, that I could have gotten myself killed, and I knew he was right. But he also thanked me, told me that if I hadn't jumped in and landed upon the other man like that, he likely wouldn't have been able to free himself.
I do remember my cheeks burning.
But I had done nothing. A brief spike of adrenaline had thrown me over the edge, but it had fled before I could do anything more, and I knew, despite that single moment, that I was a coward. I would have stayed on that bridge until he'd entered a deep dream and the sound of assault had stopped, until they'd moved off with him in their clutches.
The shame I feel is so great it burns my chest and makes my stomach feel deep and empty even now, and it was only made worse by the way the man, Tarui, had thanked me.
He'd been a hunter, and carried a number of knives upon him all for different purposes. And he had given one to me. It was a skinning knife, he'd said, but that he didn't need it as, for now, another blade would do that job well enough. I'd objected, of course, but he'd said that a knife was a knife, and could do any job regardless of purpose. It would not bounce back off of skin, it would not bend against wood, and if I was heading through the area, I may well need it.
I'd told him, too, that I had little idea how to use it in defence, and then he showed me. He showed me how to brace it, how to strike quickly like a marlin while keeping myself protected, and where to strike to maim, disarm or kill.
I realise now how disrespectful I'd been to ask, and my cheeks still burn in shame for it now, but how could he have gotten caught if he knew all of this?
He'd let himself, Tarui had said, to try to learn about their method for attack, but they had been stronger than he'd anticipated. His tribe had been targeted three times already and he had vowed to put a stop to it. But he was not the strongest in his tribe, he'd admitted with a shameful smile, he had only the hottest blood. But he would learn from this mistake, that he vowed as well.
I had saved a life, but it had not been my doing. I am a coward, and no single blade nor brief instruction on its use will change that. I think, if I was set upon by bandits right now, even after such an encounter with a stranger on the road, I would quickly succumb.