The young couple sat beneath the ancient oak at the edge of their land. They watched their son playing the family dog, a mutt of such mixed heritage that its ancestry would never be known, and they smiled. Their work was finished, and the mid-afternoon meal in the shade was a well-deserved treat. Leftover pheasant, fresh picked vegetables and homemade brandy made for a perfect lunch that day.
Times had been hard since the end of the war, but they had survived the war, disease and famine, and their fortunes had finally turned around. The crops were growing and there was almost no sign of the blight, only one of the piglets died before it was weaned and spring had come in March instead of May. They were all signs that the world was beginning to shake off the nuclear holocaust, at least in the places that were not radioactive wastelands.
Nathan and Diana Carter were hard working, honest people and they did their best to teach those same values to their son, Bernard. They could not teach him much in the way of books, but they taught him how to live off the land, to never steal, and to treat everyone he meets, like he wants to be treated. They were good people, the kind of people that would make the new world a better place.
Or so they hoped.
Darwin, the dog, stopped chasing the stick that Bernard was throwing. His ears stood up on end, and swiveled about like miniature radar dishes. He thought he heard something, a noise out of place amongst the windblown branches of the oak. It was unfamiliar, but not unnatural; a sound carried deep in his ancestral memory, but lost without context.
Bernard did not understand why Darwin had stopped playing, and he yelled at the dog, trying to get its attention, but the game was over. He walked to the dog, wrapped his arms around its neck, and tried to make it move. A quiet whine escaped from Darwin’s throat before he turned to face the old road. The boy looked where his dog was staring and saw a thin cloud of dust rising just beyond the hill. It reminded him of a dust devil, but there was not enough wind, and it was moving too slowly.
“Dad?” he called out. “Dad, Darwin sees something.”
Nathan stood and walked to his son’s side. “What is it Darwin?” he asked. “What do you see?” He shielded his eyes from the sun with his calloused hands.
His son felt, more than noticed, the shift in his father’s body. “What is it, dad?”
“Visitors, I think.” Nathan did not take his eyes from the growing cloud of dust as he said, “Diana, take the boy into the house, and lock the door until I say otherwise.”
“What is it, Nathan/” she asked as she gathered up their lunch, and went to her husband’s side.
“Men on horses; a lot of them by the look of it,” he said. “It may be nothing, but I don’t want to take the chance.”
She nodded, grabbed Bernard’s hand and dragged him toward the house. Darwin followed close behind, leaving Nathan Carter standing alone, in the grass, beside the garden that his family had planted.
It took longer than expected for the riders to come into sight. Nathan had been right; there were a lot of them, and he was worried. When they reached his home, the riders fanned out in and arc before him; twenty men on horses and they all carried spears, sabers, guns or some combination of the three. Bernard stared in fascination. He had not seen a horse since he was a little kid, and they had killed it for food during the winter. For those men to have so many horses was incredible.
“What is your name, farmer?” asked a large, bearded man who sat upon a huge horse at the top of the arch. A long sabre hung at his waist, nearly hidden from sight by his belly, which hung over the pommel of his saddle.
“My name is Nathan, friend. Your horses look tired and thirsty. There is a stream just inside the woods beyond my home,” he said. “You and your men would be welcome to rest there and take your fill of water.”
“Oh, we would now,” the bearded man said. “That is nice of you to offer, but we are hungry as well. Would you mind if we helped ourselves to your garden as well?” The man asked, but the dark brown eyes of the man suggested it was not a question.
Nathan considered what the man was asking, and knew that they would leave him and his small family with next to nothing, but another look at the visitors told him they would take what they wanted no matter what he said. “Help yourselves,” he said as he swept his arm toward the garden. It would be a hard winter, but there was still time to forage before winter.
“Thank you, Nathan. My name is Robert Gillroy, and these are my men.” He waved his men forward, and said, “your hospitality is appreciated. We’ll help ourselves and be on our way."
Some of the men dismounted and searched through the garden, while others rode their horses about the homestead, scooping up anything that looked useful. Nathan kept calm, willing himself not to look at his home, hoping that the bandits would content themselves with his food and his tools. Gillroy, and two men that stayed by his side, alternated between watching him, and keeping an eye on the other men. When Nathan heard the rattle of his door, he flinched; when a bandit started kicking the door he looked. He wanted to run to his house, and stop the man, but fear paralyzed him.
The door shattered with another kick. A dog barked and the man yelled as he defended himself from the family pet. Darwin was a not a big dog, so the bandit was able to grab it by the scruff of the neck and throw it into the wall. Silence followed a pitiful whine was as the man stabbed the dog with his saber. He cleaned it off on the dog's fur before he sheathed it and entered the house.
A scream pierced the air as the bandit rushed in, and it did not stop until he came back outside, dragging Diana by her hair, and he slapped her hard. Nathan shouted; his paralysis ended by the sight of blood on his wife's lips.
On his third step, he stopped. He did not want to stop, and was surprised by his sudden lack of momentum. Nathan looked down at the length of steel protruding from his chest. He knew it didn't belong there, but he could not remember why. Time stilled as he noticed the details of the blade. It was thick and shaped like an elongated diamond. The word, 'Toro,' was etched into the metal. He wondered about the word until blood covered the letters, and his vision grew dim. He died not understanding what happened.
"You should have let the boys have their fun, Nathan," Robert Gillroy said as he kicked the farmer's body from his spear. "Allright, gents, it looks like we found ourselves some entertainment. Take your turns with her, and if one of you greedy bastards kills her before everyone has had a turn, I'll gut you myself." A cheer went up and Diana was dragged back into the house.
For the rest of the day, and well into night, a man left the house and was replaced by another. Her torment was unending as she was raped, and beaten, by each of the bandits. She tried to muffle her screams, but it was too much for her to endure. She looked at her tormentors, the floor, the door, and the ceiling; anywhere but at the cupboard in the corner where she had told Bernard to hide. Her husband was dead, but her boy needed her, so she swore she would endure. It was an admirable attempt, but it proved to be too much.
When all, but Robert Gillroy himself, had taken a turn, the bandit leader walked into the house. He looked at her, broken and bleeding, but still alive. Her eyes were opened wide, as if she had been visited by the devil himself, and her breathing came in rasping croaks. It took him a moment to realize that she was still screaming, but her throat was too raw to make the proper sounds. He shook his head, and turned to leave, but a noise caught his attention. He pulled a long bladed hunting knife from behind his back and approached the cupboard in the corner. Robert flung open the door, prepared to kill whatever was inside, but he stopped at the sight of the young boy quietly crying.
"What is your name, boy?" Robert asked. When there was no response, Robert grabbed the boy by the arm, pulled him out and lifted him up so that he was face to face with the runt. The boy's eyes never left Robert's, though the tears continued to fall. "This is your one warning, boy. You answer me, or I will kill you. Do you understand?"
"Yes, sir," the boy said.
"Good. Now, what is your name?" the bandit asked again.
Robert set the boy down next to his mother. Her eyes did not flicker with recognition, but the boys tears continued to fall and a sob escaped his lips. Robert slapped him hard enough to knock Bernard down. "Look at her, Bernard," he said as he pointed at her naked form, every inch of it covered in cuts and bruises. "She is dead in all but name. It would be a mercy to end her suffering. He flipped the knife around in his hand and held it out to the boy from the cupboard.
Bernard stood up, looked at his mother and the bandit, before his gaze turned to the knife. He loved his mother more than anything in the world. He did not want her to die, but her suffering was obvious, even to him. She was no long looked like his mother. His mother was pretty and smiled all of the time, even when he was bad. His father had told him it was a mercy to kill a wounded animal, rather than let it suffer and die slowly.
For a brief moment, Robert thought the boy might lunge at him. He was not afraid of such a small child, but he didn't want a new scar to add to the collection either. He watched the struggle on the boys face and knew when the decision was made. Bernard look up at the bandit, the knife held loosely in his hand, an unasked question in his eyes.
"Cut her throat, boy," the man said. "Hold the knife tight and draw it across her throat from here to here." He used his finger to demonstrate the cut on his own throat. "It will be quick."
Bernard knelt beside his mother, holding the knife with both hands. He focused his attention on her neck, so that he would not have to look at her eyes, and did his best to block out the sound of her labored breathing. He reached forward and placed the blade against the side of her throat. He closed his eyes, pushed down, and pulled the knife across her throat as quickly as he could. A hot spray of blood covered him as her arteries opened to the air. Bernard opened his eyes in surprise, and watched as his mother's heart gradually gave up the fight and no more blood gushed from the wound.
The heavy hand of Robert gripped Bernard's shoulder as the bandit said, "it was a tender mercy. I wish I had been able to do the same for my own mother."
Bernard woke with a start. He blankets were soaked with sweat and clung to him like a second skin. There were no sounds other than his own breathing. The assassin looked about his small room and found nothing out of place. His room at the Terre Haute Syndicate was as close to a home as he had lived in for years, but it was not a place of comfort or solace.
The dream had come again. It had been months since the last time, but it was always the same. It was the only dream he remembered; the only dream he had had since Robert Gillroy had found him in the cupboard. The dream always came back when a change was due, so he wondered what the fates had in store for him as he rolled over and went back to sleep.
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