Photo stolen from http://cdn.screenrant.com/wp-content/uploads/The-Hunger-Games-Katniss-Shooting-Bow.jpg, courtesy of the Internet. The image depicts Jennifer Lawrence playing Katniss Everdeen in the upcoming movie The Hunger Games, which I am eagerly anticipating."Archer" is a short story that was written in September of this year for my creative writing class. Very loosely based on a reimagining of an unfinished novel that I co-authored in fourth grade, it features sibling dynamics brought up to eleven in a fantasy world. Many a sibling will claim, "I'm going to kill my brother/sister!", but would they really be able to follow through? And what would happen if you were forced to do it?
They were sent their assignments by letter. The officials could just have easily walked across the complex to address them in person. But this way, none of them could voice a complaint without making a fuss. This was the way it always had been. It was one of the many unspoken rules of the Hall: assassins didn't object. Assassins received their tasks and carried them out. Assassins detached themselves from whatever misgivings they had as they collected whatever gold was offered to them as payment. It was good money. At the Hall you couldn't afford to be picky.
That being said, Lek was surprised that Arria didn't even consider lodging a complaint in the beginning. He had been sure that she would weigh her options, analyze each decision and its outcomes, and ultimately decide to rail against the establishment as she had done so many times before, pitting her high moral standards against the passive officials. Lek wouldn't have blamed her; it would have been second nature to Arria. “The way she carries herself, you'd think she was a bloody crusader,” he had once heard the others muttering in the courtyard. “A noble, a knight or somethin'.”
But no, Arria just scanned over the piece of paper, her eyes showing no glimmer of recognition or regret or anything. She tucked the note into her pocket with a sharp nod, and headed off to the archery range for the approved mission-preparation practice.
He followed her, slipping in on her right side, as if to shield her from the calculating glances of the other assassins. “Ari? You okay?” She picked up her pace. Her gaze was still locked ahead, on a distant destination that only she could see. “Are you okay?” Lek repeated.
They reached the range then. Arria, still unresponsive, plucked the first bow and quiver off of the wall within her reach and drew out an arrow, all in one swift motion, ready to fire.
“Ari, do you want to talk?”
Lek watched as the arrowhead buried itself in the center of the target, the fletching at the back shaking with the force of the impact. A kill wound, at least. Quick. Clean. Efficient. The instructors would have approved.
“No,” she finally replied, stepping back to reload. “Just go.”
Lek did as he was told. As the back door shut behind him, he lingered for a moment to listen—expecting a sob, a scream, something—but he was left unsatisfied. What was going on in her head? For once, Lek had no idea. Even though the assassins were instructed not to show any sort of emotion, that was an area in which Arria had always failed. She was a passionate sort of person; her emotions flew out from her like arrows, burying themselves in the hearts of whoever dared the challenge her while she stood, proud and wrathful, in the distance. Lek hadn't been surprised when she had chosen archery as her discipline.
He took the note out of his own pocket and read it over again, searching for something that his best friend might have missed, but nothing had changed. The same condemning yet emotionless words stared him in the face.
You have been assigned to kill Fall Lyrrin, commander in the court of the king of Grik, by the end of this week. Printed below is some basic information about the target as well as his photo and his expected whereabouts at the optimal time for assassination.
Siblings: One sister, Arria Lyrrin, currently employed by the Hall, in active Team 013.
Lek knew very little about Arria's older brother, save that the two had fallen out years ago and hadn't spoken since. She had mentioned him once, maybe twice, and that was it. Another one of those unspoken rules: at the Hall, your family and your past didn't matter. Any emotional links to the outside world could weaken your performance. Perhaps Arria and Fall had been close before the argument, but he was no longer a major part of her life.
Until now, at least.
Lek folded the note back up and slid it into his pocket, and, after a backward glance at the door to the archery range, walked away. He had a mission to prepare for.
It was Torin's first assignment, and thus she had every right and reason to be excited; still, Lek couldn't help but think that his younger sister was being a spoiled brat. Didn't she have any sympathy? The girl was certainly smart enough to make the connection between Arria's last name and that of the team's assigned target. So why was Torin grinning, eagerly oiling and stringing her bow while her own mentor suffered in silence? Then again, even when they were younger Torin had been a tad... insensitive. Lek had learned to work around it.
The court of Grik was a good two days' journey by horse, which was the assassins' preferred method of travel. The team rode out of the gates of the Hall on Tuesday morning, exactly a day after they had first received the operation instructions. There was no time to waste when you were on the job. Every moment was life-or-death—for you and your target.
No one was going to allow you time to mourn your victim, either.
Lek shifted uncomfortably as the metal blades of the knives he had hidden in his jacket pressed against his shirt, the cold of the steel seeping through the fabric into his skin. There was too much silence, out on the road. Too much time to think. Back in the Hall or out on the job, you didn't think about what you did, you just did it. The instructors had never seen fit to warn any of them about this stillness, or the guilt that came with it.
Torin's chestnut mare pulled up alongside Lek, and he glanced at the fifteen-year-old girl. With her chiseled facial features and white-blond hair pulled back into a tight bun, a faint smirk still clinging to her face, she looked cruel. Downright sadistic. The very picture of an assassin. Arria, a few feet ahead, looked more like a soldier, which was what their cover was supposed to be. Tall like Torin, but more sturdily built, graceful only when drawing a bow. Also, rather stolid, which was incredibly out of character for her.
Amazing how different two archers could be.
The silence stretched on for hours, occasionally interrupted by a quick conversation started by Torin or maybe Lek, but never Arria. Arria didn't talk, not even when they settled down to eat lunch. She just stared into the distance, lips pressed into a thin line and hands clenching the reins so tightly that her knuckles turned white.
Night fell as they crossed through the hamlet of Thawlin. The three companions dismounted at a pleasant-looking little inn called the Pale Horse and rented a room for the night. No one there raised an eyebrow at them. Apparently small bands of soldiers passing through was a common occurrence, nothing noteworthy; either that or the weapons on their backs were enough to shut everyone up.
It was both comforting and unnerving to Lek, being feared.
The girl turned around, eyes darting from side to side. “Why are you awake?” In the early light of dawn, her eyes looked red and puffy. It was clear that she had been crying. Which was something that Arria never did.
Lek sat down beside her. “I've been meaning to talk to you for a while. You know, away from...” He tilted his head towards Torin's sleeping bag.
“Yeah, well, so have I.” Arria tugged at her dark ponytail. “Away from everything. I couldn't... I couldn't let them hear.”
“What, the people at the Hall?”
“Yes.” She exhaled deeply, and emotion started to break into the flow of her voice. “Yes. They don't... they wouldn't understand. They'd see it as weakness. Maybe rebellion, too, if I let myself get too angry.”
“Rebellion?” Lek asked. “Are you going to, you know, refuse to do it?”
“No.” Arria began staring again. “No. This is something I have to do. Something I'm going to have to overcome.”
“Whatever happened to the independent moral crusader I knew before, huh?” Lek tried to keep his tone encouraging, but something accusatory couldn't help but slip in. “What happened to my best friend, who would do anything to make people see justice?”
Arria glanced away. “My brother was always a threat to the well-being of the people. Fall was brutal and arrogant, even when we were young. The more influence he gets in the government, the worse off this country is going to get.” What little emotion she had shown a few moments before disappeared. “I kept trying to bring him to justice, but it never worked. Now I get my chance.”
“You can't honestly think that, Ari. That's not like you—no, no, sorry, it is. It's exactly like something you'd say to try to convince yourself that this is right.” Lek glanced over his shoulder at his sister's still form. She looked so much more innocent in her sleep. “Don't you think that there are times when I want to kill Torin? Because she's being so cruel? And yet, I could never do that! She's my family! And she's not a bad person!”
“Why are you trying to make me feel guilty?” she snapped, losing any illusions of emotional control. “Don't you think that I'm having just as hard a time of this as you would have with Torin? Or haven't you realized that I spend nights awake thinking about how everybody I've ever killed had a family, people that loved them? They weren't bad people, either! None of us are!” She took in a shaky breath. Lek started to speak, but Arria cut him off. “I'm just trying to get through with this with some dignity, okay?”
“No, I'm not sure you do. Your situation's only hypothetical-”
“You're my friend,” Lek insisted. “You're my friend, and your situation is painfully real. I think I understand, if not completely. And I'm behind you.”
Arria sighed, and her fingers twitched, as if grasping for her weapon. “Thanks, but I don't need help. This is something I have to do.”
They set out on the road again, and it seemed that the closer they got to their destination, the more tension emerged among the members of the group. Ever since their conversation that morning, Lek had hardly spoken to Arria, and she seemed to have no desire to start a conversation. Simultaneously, Lek grew increasingly frustrated with Torin. He knew that he really shouldn't be, of course. She didn't know any better—she had been practically trained from birth to act this way, conditioned to accept things like this. And then his mind turned back to what he had said to Arria, about how he could never kill Torin, and the horror of what Arria was being forced to do...
Why couldn't he be more like his little sister, oblivious to the wrongness of everything around him? It would make everything a whole lot easier. But then again, assassination was never meant to be easy. It was a job for the most hardened of souls. Someone who could handle strains like this.
On the other hand, did that make those people immoral?
“Perhaps we should shoot him while he's asleep,” Torin mused. Lek saw Arria's body stiffen. “Less of a chance that he'll make a noise and give our position away. And he'll be in his bedchamber, an added plus.”
“Please, Torin. Someone might hear us,” he said.
Lek rolled his eyes, marveling at his sister's lack of concealment. That was going to cost her her life one day, for sure...
No! I can't let that happen! I won't!
He inhaled sharply, reining in his thoughts. Protective thinking was the kind of thing that endangered everyone on the mission. In any case, an assassin should run for his life and assume that the others will have the clarity of mind to do so. Anyone who doesn't is clearly a detriment to the team. The needs of the organization outweigh any personal loyalties an assassin might have.
The words of the assignment letter, which he had destroyed back at the Hall, rolled through his head. You have been assigned to kill Fall Lyrrin, commander in the court of the king of Grik, by the end of this week... Printed below is some basic information about the target as well as his photo and his expected whereabouts at the optimal time for assassination. Kill, target, optimal time for assassination. No one deluded themselves about the kind of work they were carrying out, not with those words staring them in the face.
The knives once again pressed against his skin, and silence flooded his ears. He almost wished Torin would start talking again.
Assassins didn't dream. At least, not the way normal people did.
Lek's dreams had started to change after his first month at the Hall. Gone were the twisting roads of chaos and whimsy, deep flights of the subconscious more confusing than anything else. For an assassin, sleep was light, and thus true dreams were infrequent. Instead, there came quick visions, hazy glances into his state of mind. Lek's dreams were always moving, always on the road, always ready to take action as he slipped through the dusty mists of nowhere.
Lek killed people in his dreams.
And it wasn't a scary thing, either. He had no time to be emotionally invested in his dreams, he was too busy moving. There was no thought to it, no recoling in horror. Kind of like his life.
That night, Lek had his first real nightmare in a long time. He was moving and killing, just like normal, when Torin came up to him. He stabbed her; and as the blood rushed out, he felt a stab in his own body. He actually felt the pain. It was almost too much for him to bear, but he pressed on. Then came Arria, and then his parents, his friends, his teacher, one by one in a never-ending parade of pain. It grew quieter and quieter still, until Lek could almost hear his own mind screaming—
He woke up terrified, because the pain was real.
Sleep had never been a repose for him, anyway.
Everything went as planned, right up until Fall Lyrrin was decidedly and unquestionably dead.
Arria lowered her bow. One arrow, that was all it had taken. Lek would have killed the man himself, to spare his best friend the pain of doing it, but knife wounds were messy and it was much safer to do it from a distance, just in case. The arrow had cut through maybe three yards of air and lodged itself in the sleeping Fall's temple. Quick. Firm. Done.
After a few moments, the blood began to trickle out of the man's would. Trickles turned to flows and soon it was gushing out and drying in a crusty mess around his head and pillow.
Arria inhaled sharply.
Lek saw it in her eyes. Her face stayed exactly the same, but the hardness in her eyes fell and shattered into a million pieces, revealing the brokenness of the mind underneath. The corner of her mouth twitched, and her whole body began shaking. She stepped forward, hand stretched towards the arrow in her brother's head. Lek started toward her, to pull her back into the safety of the shadows and maybe calm her down until—
Before he could react, Torin grabbed Lek's arm and pulled, sprinting towards the exit. “We have to leave. Now.”
“B-but we can't just-”
“We can, and we have to,” she hissed. “No matter what we do, they're going to find her, and she's going to die. We can't let ourselves die with her.”
Lek twisted the girl's arm and released himself from her grip. “Can't you bring yourself to care at least one little bit? She's suffering in there, going practically mad, and all you can think about is getting back to the Hall unharmed?”
“What else is there to do, Lek?” Torin glared at him. “Go back in? Fight off the guards? Run into the throne room, climb on top of the furniture and scream to the world that life isn't fair? Mount an attack on every establishment that we can think of and watch the world burn because some people are never going to be helped? They already know. A couple of young assassins aren't going to overthrow the natural order and create a utopia, a couple of young assassins are going to get caught and hanged for murder. And Arria's not going to be saved either way.” There was no trace of sarcasm or malice in her voice, only weariness. Weariness and desperation.
“You think I have no sympathy, but I'm only doing what I have to do. Better run away and live to see the sunset like clever people than stay and fight and die like those goddamn crusaders,” she added, almost as an afterthought.
Lek nodded, and together the siblings pushed open the door to a swarm of guards who had heard the scream. Torin shot them down as Lek slashed at throats. They ran out of the building splattered with blood, found their horses, and rode off back to the Hall bearing mixed news.
But this time, Lek made sure to glance back before returning once again to the silence of the road.