Sparks of pain raced along Cree Lin's body as the fire licked his skin. The smell of burning flesh and timber filled the air, and he gagged, choking on the scent. Screams cut through the roar of the fire and pierced his heart, leaving him with only one thought. The fire was all his fault, and he couldn't stop it. He reached with the last of his strength and willed the flames to burn hotter and faster. He wanted death.
Cool hands touched his face, stilled the flames, and drove the pain into the darkest reaches of his mind. He opened his eyes and stared into the bright blue gaze of the woman who stalked him across his dreams. He tried to speak, but all that emerged was a scream.
Cree gasped and opened his eyes. His chest hurt, and his skin felt tight and raw. The scent of burning wood and flesh still lingered in his nostrils. He blinked and cleared away the last of the dream haze from his eyes. He frowned. His little cook fire had burned down to coals, and his mare cropped grass nearby. He raised trembling hands to his face, expecting to see burns, but the flesh was still smooth, not charred.
He kicked dirt over the remains of his fire and called to his horse, then patted the mare's neck and fished a treat from his pocket. Cree smiled and hoisted himself into the saddle. "We should be at the village before dark." He nudged the animal into motion. "Then you can eat all the grass you want." His thoughts darkened as he fell into the familiar rhythm of the road. "Always assuming the village is still there," he muttered and forced his thoughts away from that dark path.
By the time Cree finally saw chimney smoke ahead of him, the sun had begun a slow descent and the mountain air had turned even more chill. He shivered and ran a hand through his long hair, wondering if anyone in the village would recognize him. Perhaps his eight years in the uncivilized south had altered his appearance enough that he wouldn't be recognized.
A small crowd gathered at the edge of the village as Cree rode into it. He wove his shields a little tighter, not wanting to sense anything from them. He wanted to push past the crowd and find the inn, but the rare appearance of a stranger in the out of the way village turned him into a spectacle. The crowd pressed tight around him, and he slid from the mare's back, afraid they would startle the animal. He'd made it halfway through the gathered knot of villagers when his path was blocked by a burly barrel of a man. A great bush of curly, blond hair covered his head and face, and his arms looked strong enough to crush Cree without effort. The formidable scowl on his face gave Cree pause.
"Who are you?" The man crossed his arms across his chest and spread his legs wide, effectively blocking the path.
For a moment, Cree wondered if he should invent a name, but the glower in the man's eyes caused him to reconsider. This one didn't look like he'd tolerate lying. "Cree Lin. I'm just passing through." He dipped his head in a bit of greeting and hoped the man would move aside. He was tired, and he wanted nothing more than to get to the inn and fall into a deep, and hopefully dreamless, sleep.
The man extended his hand. "Name's Benjamin. I'm the blacksmith here." He peeked over Cree's shoulder. "Our village seems a bit out of the way for a traveler. You don't have goods to trade. What were you looking for here?"
Cree swallowed hard. He'd dreaded hearing that question. "I just want a bed, a bit of food, and tomorrow I'll be on my way." The lie came far too easily. He wanted to stay for several days. He wanted to remember why this village haunted his dreams.
The blacksmith laughed. "Well, we don't have an inn anymore. So you've traveled here for nothing." He pointed back the way Cree had come. "There's an inn near the end of the pass, you could be there in no time."
Cree resisted the urge to strangle the blacksmith. "The pass is treacherous in the day. I'm not risking it at night. There used to be an inn here. What happened to it?" A ripple of whispers raced through the crowd. Cree cursed silently, certain the villagers would recognize him now. He gripped the reins of his mare and wished he had enough room to maneuver back into the saddle. If he could get back on his horse, he'd ride down the pass, regardless of the danger.
Benjamin's expression grew stern. "What would you know of our inn?"
Cree shrugged and summoned another lie. "Nothing, but I passed through here once long ago. I remember an inn then."
Benjamin took a step closer and squinted in the near darkness. "When was this?"
Nervous whispers ran through the crowd. Cree swallowed his fear and tried to summon another lie. This time though, it wouldn't come. "Eight years ago." The words came out as a whispered squeak.
The blacksmith grabbed Cree's arm and propelled him past the crowd into the village. "It's all right," he said to the nervous villagers, who'd begun to whisper amongst themselves. "I think our friend is just a little confused. I'll set him straight." The crowd dispersed slowly, but a few of the older men and women cast curious looks Cree's way.
He cringed under that scrutiny. "I'm not confused," he muttered.
"I'm well aware of that," the blacksmith hissed in Cree's ear. "And I can't believe you had the nerve to return here. Not after what you did."
His hand tightened on Cree's arm. The touch burned like a branding iron on the tender flesh underneath. Cree grimaced. "What did I do?" He didn't expect an answer.
The blacksmith plucked the reins from Cree's hand and motioned to a passing child. "Take our visitor's horse to the stable and see that it is well fed."
"Don't thank me yet." Benjamin led Cree to a small cottage. He opened the door. "Go inside."
Cree walked into the little house and winced. He'd known the family who lived there. He'd eaten at the long trestle table, even slept in one of the box beds. He closed his eyes and swallowed his tears. They had died because of his folly. The door slammed shut, and Cree's heart skipped a beat. He turned to face the blacksmith's angry eyes.
"I know who you are. I wasn't sure, but then you said eight years..." His hands clenched into fists as he advanced on Cree. "I can't believe you had the nerve to come back here after what you did."
Cree closed his eyes and took a step backwards. The seething rage in the blacksmith's mind made him ill. He spun his shields tighter and tried to block the anger, but his fear, combined with exhaustion, kept him from succeeding. "Please, let me explain. I had a reason for coming here."
Benjamin closed the gap between them. "I'm sure you did. And here's my answer to whatever question you want to ask." The blacksmith drew his hand back and leveled a punch at Cree's chin.
Cree tried to dodge, but he only succeeding in providing a better target. The blacksmith's fist connected with his nose. Blood ran into his mouth, and spots danced across his vision. He staggered backward. Another blow landed on his cheek and knocked him senseless.
He woke with an aching head, and he opened his eyes to find himself lying in one of the box beds. The blacksmith was sitting next to the bed, wearing a scowl. Cree raised a hand to his cheek and winced. "Was that really necessary?" He glared at Benjamin, wishing his head wasn't pounding so hard so that he could return the punches. "You could have listened to what I had to say."
"You're lucky I didn't do more than knock you around." He leaned close. "I almost didn't recognize you with that long hair. You're a little older. The fine clothes are gone. And your skin's gotten darker, but as soon as you said eight years, I knew. You are Ellery mac Torol."
Cree sat up and fingered his sore cheek and nose. "Ellery mac Torol is dead."
Benjamin laughed. "Funny, it looks like he's sitting in front of me."
"Ellery mac Torol is dead. I am Cree Lin."
Benjamin raised a brow. "Well, whoever you are, you're not welcome in my village. Not after what you did."
"If you would let me explain..."
"I don't want to hear your explanation. Did you come back here to torture the innocents who are still alive or just to try to make amends with yourself?"
"I came here to find out what happened, but obviously, I won't find out from you." He slipped from the bed and stood on shaky legs. "If I'm not welcome, I'll gladly leave. Where's my horse?"
The blacksmith shrugged. "You said you wouldn't try the pass in the dark."
"I'll make an exception. Where's my horse?"
"In the stable," Benjamin said, as if that were the most obvious answer he could come up with. "I'll let you stay here until the morning if you answer my questions."
"Why are you here?"
Cree glared at him, wishing he could wipe the supercilious smirk off Benjamin's face and knowing he couldn't. "I wanted to find out the truth." He looked away from the blacksmith, a sick, sorry feeling replacing the pain in his head with a deeper one in his heart. "I don't remember."
Benjamin shrugged. "An easy way to absolve yourself of blame." The blacksmith stood and advanced on him again. "I would like to see some remorse, some sign that you regret killing all those people. My brother died because of you."
"Remorse?" Cree met Benjamin's eyes. "You want to see remorse." He pushed the sleeves of his shirt past his elbows. Glistening scars covered what had once been smooth flesh. "There is your remorse. I don't remember much of what happened, but I do remember calling the flames on myself."
Benjamin sat down heavily in his chair. His mouth open and shut without any sound coming out. He pointed to the scars on Cree's arms and shook his head.
"Would you rather I had succeeded?" Cree pushed his sleeves back down. "Or perhaps you would rather have finished me yourself?"
The blacksmith recovered enough to speak, though his eyes still showed his shock. "I don't know. I never thought...I never knew. I..."
"I would rather I had succeeded." He closed his eyes and watched little bits of memory play through his mind. The village in flames. The despair, and knowing, somehow, that it had all been his fault. And then pain, lots of pain. "At least I would have died swiftly."
"But you aren't dead."
Cree shrugged and resumed his place on the bed before his legs refused to hold him anymore. Memories of that day did that to him. "I might as well be, because all that's left of me is a walking body, a husk that can talk and breathe. I can't feel anymore. And I can't remember..." A hand touched his shoulder, and he flinched. He didn't want sympathy; he didn't deserve sympathy. He only wanted answers.
"Perhaps, I was wrong. Perhaps..." Benjamin scratched at his beard. "Perhaps we can help each other."
Cree's jaw dropped, and he flinched away from the blacksmith's touch. "What do you mean help each other? You wanted me dead a few moments ago."
The blacksmith tapped a finger against his lips. "Rash words spoken without understanding." He shrugged. "Sometimes I react without thinking. But you've given me something to think about."
"I don't have anything to offer you."
Benjamin grinned. "But you want my help, maybe even need my help, and I could use an extra worker. If you want me to help you remember, then you'll have to earn both my help and my trust."
The blacksmith stood and walked towards the door. "I'll show you."
Cree sighed. Night had fallen. Exhaustion left him weak and tired, and he just wanted to sleep. "Could you show me tomorrow?"
Benjamin opened the door. "Tonight or not at all."
With a weary groan, Cree stood and followed the blacksmith outside. "If that's the way you want it." He followed Benjamin past a neat row of cottages to a ramshackle building in the back of the village. From the smell, Cree guessed it was a stable of some sort. "You wanted to show me where my horse was? You couldn't have done that when I asked?"
Benjamin plucked a lantern from a pole just outside the stable and fumbled with it until he finally got it lit. "No, I'm not showing you your horse." The lantern cast a dim light through the small stable. All six stalls were occupied. The first held Cree's mare, the next four held the tough, wiry ponies the mountains were famed for producing, and the last held a creature that took Cree's breath away. The horse was coal black. From the proud curve of his neck and the smooth play of the muscle, Cree knew the animal was from fine stock. The horse stamped once and shifted uneasily in its stall.
"That is my stallion." Benjamin turned expectant eyes to Cree. "He needs a trainer, and I once heard that Ellery mac Torol has a fine hand with horses."
Cree stared at the stallion, completely dumbfounded. He touched his sore cheek and winced. "I can't. I..."
Benjamin shrugged. "That's my offer. You train my horse and I'll give you all the answers you want."
Cree wanted to refuse, but the longer he stared at the stallion, the more he wanted to sit on its back and feel its muscles tense beneath him. He wanted to bask in the freedom it would give him. He looked at the blacksmith and held out his hand. "I'll agree to that."
Benjamin grinned and put his hand in Cree's. "Good."