Bran strode next to me, completely unconcerned with his lack of clothes. I stepped into the first room I saw, pulled a pair of gray sweatpants out of a chest of drawers - just about every room in the Keep had them, since people who shifted shapes found it convenient to have extra clothes present - and handed the pants to him.
"Can't control yourself?" He slipped into the sweatpants.
"That's it," I murmured, stole the spare blanket and pillow, and left the room.
He followed me to the balcony, where I made a makeshift bed in the recessed doorway and curled up. The stone shielded me from the sun, but I saw it all: the sky veiled with sunshine and touched with feathery smudges of clouds, the bright greenery of the trees, rustling in the breeze, the stone walls, still smooth and warm to the touch. I smelled the honeyed flowers and the light scent of wolves on the breeze. I drank it all in.
Bran perched on the stone rail. "A scrawny street kid. A throwaway human. Now you'll go to war because of her."
"Wars have been started for worse reasons."
He stared at me. "I don't understand."
How do you explain humanity to someone who has no frame of reference? "It has to do with good and evil. You have to decide for yourself what they are. For me, evil is striving to an end without regard for the means."
He shook his head. "Better to do a small wrong to prevent a big one."
"How do you decide what is a 'small' wrong? Let's say, you buy the safety of many with the life of a child. That child means everything to her parents. You devastated them. There is no greater wrong you can do to them. Why would that be a 'small' evil?"
"Because now more of you fools are going to die."
"We fools volunteered to fight. We have free will. I fight to save Julie and to kill as many of those bastards as I can. They came into my house, they tried to kill me, and they crucified my kid. I want to punish them. I want that punishment to be so hard, so vicious, that the next scum who takes their place wets himself at the mere thought of trying to fight me."
Slayer smoked in its sheath, sensing my anger. Normally I'd have to feed it, or its blade would become thin and brittle, but with the magic flowing this strong, the sword would last through the battle and then some.
I pointed to the yard. "The shapeshifters fight to take a stand against a threat and to avenge their dead Pack mates. They fight to protect their children, because without them there is no future. What do you fight for?"
He ruffled the wild nest of his hair. "I have no future anyway. I fight because I made a deal with Morrigan. Without mist, I'll age and die."
"Would aging be such a bad thing? Don't you want a life? A real life?"
He sneered. "If I wanted a real life, I wouldn't have asked to be a hero. When I die, I want to die strong, with a sword in my hand, sheathing it into the bodies of my enemies. That's how a man should die."
I sighed. "My father served as a warlord to a man of unequaled power. This man called my father 'Voron,' which means Raven, because death followed him. Voron had never been defeated with a blade. Had he remained as a warlord to lead the army he had built and trained, the world would be a very different place."
"Is there a point to this tale?"
"He left it all behind for my sake." And he did it all for a child not of his own blood.
"Then your father was a fool and now I know why you're one."
I closed my eyes. "There is no reasoning with you. Let me sleep."
I heard him jump off the rail and land next to me, and then he poked my shoulder with his finger.
"I'm trying to understand."
I opened my eyes. Explaining my moral code really wasn't my forte. "Imagine you're being chased by wolves. You're running through the woods, no settlement in sight, and you come across a baby lying abandoned on the ground. Do you save the baby or do you leave him for the wolves?"
I saw the hesitation in his dark eyes. "I'd leave the little bastard," he declared, a bit too loudly. "Would slow the wolves down."
"You had a doubt."
He raised his hand but I shook my head. "I saw it. You had a doubt. You thought about it for a second. The same force that drove that doubt is what makes us fight. Now leave me be."
I curled up on my blanket and closed my eyes. The wind gently stroked my face and soothed me into calm sleep.
DEREK AWOKE ME A COUPLE OF HOURS LATER. I looked at the sky. The sun rode high - it was just past noon.
I didn't want to die.
Derek's face was grim. "Jim has something for you downstairs."
He took me to the first floor and held the door open for me. I entered a small room, where Jim sat in a chair, testing the edge of that same knife with his thumb. In front of him, on the floor, sat Red. He was filthy. His left eye was swollen shut with a magnificent shiner. A long metal chain stretched from the wall to clutch at a metal collar around his neck. God help you if you offend the Pack, because they didn't need a K-9 unit to find you.
I crossed my arms and looked at him. He was only fifteen. It didn't excuse his betrayal of Julie but it precluded me from doing all of the things I would normally do under these circumstances.
Red squinted at me with his good eye. "You gonna beat me, go ahead."
I leaned against the wall. At the first hint of my movement, he ducked, covering his head. "Why didn't you tell me about the necklace?"
"Because you'd steal it." He bared his teeth. "It was mine. My power! My chance."
"Do you know what happened to Julie?"
"He knows," Jim said.
"Do you feel responsible at all?" I asked.
He scooted back from me. "What the fuck do you want me to say? Am I suppose to make nice and cry and tell you how sorry I am? I took care of Julie. I watched out for her for two years. She owes me, okay? They had their claws on my throat. Right here!" He clamped his neck with his grimy fingers. "They said, you get the girl or die. So I got the girl. Any of you assholes would've done the same. You gonna stand there and look down on me like that, well fuck you."
He spat on the floor.
"If you didn't care for her at all, why did you ask me to guard her?"
"Because she's an investment, you dumb whore."
He wasn't a person, he was just a ball of hate. We could beat him, we could starve him, we could lecture him, but no amount of punishment or education would make him understand that he was wrong. He was lost.
"What are you going to do with him?" I asked Jim.
Jim shrugged. "I'll give him a blade, put him on the field. He can show me how tough he is."