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19: The Crossing

The night passed in a greenish haze of discomfort and uncertainty, and the camp heaved a sigh of relief as the sky lightened in the east. I opened my eyes and sat up. Whatever was in Kat’s evil potion had worked its mystical wonders on my insides and I felt better than I had in… well, three days, at least. All I needed was a sharp object to calm my shaking hands and I might even have said I felt good.

The Soul Thieves had not returned. Perhaps the bridge being washed away was simply the result of the endless rains we had experienced up in the mountains. Perhaps the our enemy was hiding away, licking their wounds, uncertain yet how they should come for Elena the next time. Perhaps they had decided she wasn’t worth the trouble.

Elena lay on a blanket, curled under a cloak donated by one of the soldiers, her sheathed knife still clutched in her tiny fist. My whetstone was balanced on a rock nearby, carefully raised above the muck.

I took a breath, held it in, and let it out in a plume. The morning air was cold and pure. I stood; the soldiers moving about breaking camp stared with wide eyes at my improved condition before returning to their tasks at a quiet command from their captain.

“You seem improved,” Baldwin said, his voice low, little more than a scratchy whisper.

“Yes,” I said. “I do seem so.”

“You can help, then.”

“Of course. I try to be an amiable prisoner. May I have a moment of privacy in the woods, first?”

“Don’t run off,” Baldwin said, with a smile. He knew I wasn’t going anywhere without Elena. Or my knives.

“Don’t leave without me.” I made my way deeper into the woods, farther from camp than was strictly necessary, and stood, motionless, listening to the world. It sounded different, happier, when people weren’t nearby.

I squatted, did my business, and inspected the result. Not encouraging. Loose and tainted with blood. I decided to blame that on Katherine’s medicine. I allowed myself the possibility that I might somehow survive the day. We have a saying in my family: If you don’t kill one of us outright, be prepared for a quiet meeting at a later date. It is somewhat a comfort among us to know that our ends will likely be swift.

I took a breath and let it out again. The solitude was itself a tonic. So much of the world seemed empty of humanity, yet we few still packed ourselves into towns and cities, dumping shit out our windows onto passers-by below. While that does create an environment where specialists like those in my family can prosper, it remains a perplexing tendency. One thing is certain, however: it is easier to rule those who live inside walls.

I returned to camp ad soon we were ready for the short ride to the river crossing. There were nine horses and thirteen of us, but two men were in litters. In deference to my imperfect health I was put on one of the litter-dragging horses. Elena rode the other, leaving Bags and Kat to walk. Our pace was slow, hoping to avoid jostling the injured any more than necessary.

Little was left of the wooden bridge that had once crossed the swift-running river. Swollen by the steady rains we had endured in the mountains, the angry, muddy water raged along its channel, tearing at its banks and sweeping trees and debris along with it. On the near bank a man stood guard over a neat pile of tin ingots; on the other side an ox team stood idle, still in the traces of a cart filled with supplies heading back up the mountain.

“Got some men coming up from town,” the guard said. “Bringin’ rope and hardware so we can set up a winch, haul things back and forth. Should be here soon.”

Baldwin chewed on that for a moment. “Jeffries, go downstream, see if you can find a safer place for horses to ford the river. Wingles, you go upstream.

“Best spot we found is downstream a small piece,” the guard said. “But…” He pointed to a tree trunk sweeping along in the deluge. “You meet one of those it won’t be pretty. An’ you sure ain’t gettin’ them across.” He gestured at the litters.

Baldwin nodded, his lips pressed together until no color remained. “Wingles, Jeffries, get to the other side. When the materials arrive, I don’t want there to be even the slightest moment of delay. Let’s get a smaller rope across now, so we will have a way to pull the larger rope over when it arrives.”

Half an hour later the two soldiers appeared across from us, drenched and muddy but uninjured. When the crew arrived from town, Baldwin took command. While the soldiers saw to getting all the horses across, the workers pulled the main rope taut between stout trees, suspending an impromptu trolley from it. The vehicle was little more than a platform of old, weathered wood, with ropes anchored to each corner that met at the base of of a wooden pulley block, white with age. After a test with a few ingots of tin Baldwin declared it fit to transport his wounded men and prisoners across the torrent.

The challenge with the wounded was keeping them from falling off the tram. Everton was lucid enough to hang on, but the one named Mick had to be tied to the trolley, and cut free on the other side. The pulley wheel balked a couple of times, but with careful tugs to the guide ropes the men managed to convince it to turn once more.

Baldwin ordered his men on far side to go ahead of us, pulling the wounded. Then he turned and found me. “You’re next,” he said.

I didn’t like the idea of being suspended over the water in that rickety contraption. “I can take a horse across,” I said.

“Not chancing it. And I saw you ride this morning.”

“I could just pull myself along the rope,” I said.

“I’m sure you could. But you were almost dead yesterday, and I’m not going to watch your strength give out when you’re halfway across. Get on.”

I did as I was told, staying on the outside of the trolley, careful to not get entangled with the trolley’s ropes. If it went in the water, I wanted to be clear of it.

The old wooden wheel in the pulley block moaned and scraped in a way that was much more alarming when I was hanging by it than it had been while I stood on solid ground. Whatever it had been used for in the past, it had already been discarded as unfit — thus its availability to fill a function that lives depended on.

Twice the wheel stopped rolling entirely, and the men pulled the ropes harder to keep me moving. Each time with a loud snap of protest the wheel unfroze and resumed its reluctant turning. I was nearly to the other side when the pulley wheel froze once more. I hung on, bobbing and swaying over the angry water, while men on both sides tugged and jerked at the ropes to get me moving again. I was just reaching with my right hand to climb up to the main rope when the men on the far side pulled sharply. With a snap the pulley wheel’s axle cracked and the wheel shot out of its housing, buzzing past my ear and into the water.

The trolley lurched and swung crazily, sending my feet skidding off the damp planks. The world went silent for a moment, my stomach rising into my chest as I fell, twisting, until the shock through my left shoulder told me that the grip I still maintained with my left hand would hold. The water below me roared, reaching up to my kicking feet like a thing alive. Pain shot through my gut and the world became soft around the edges. Still I held my grip, swallowed the pain, swallowed the fear, and managed to reach up with my right hand and take a tenuous hold on the slippery platform.

Another jerk on the ropes almost sent me tumbling. What I shouted to the men on the ropes wasn’t so much words as pure sentiment. But if any of them later had farm animals for children, that would be why. I could hear men shouting in response, but could discern no meaning over the roar of the angry river.

After a deep breath I asked one more act of strength from my burning forearms. I grit my teeth, swallowed the pain, and pulled myself up into a more secure position, my knees on the trolley’s planks, clinging to the corner ropes. It was then, as they pulled me lurching and spinning to safety and I had nothing to do but hold on, that my mind filled with images of what might have happened.

My legs were rubber and my heart was beating double-time in my chest as too many people surrounded me and helped me down from the trolley. “Elena is not getting on that fucking thing,” I panted while doubled over.

Work was already underway to repair the pulley, or at least to remove the wheel and just have the block housing slide along the rope. And then, despite my protests, Elena was on her way over. She insisted that she be next, so she could take care of me, of course.

She crossed without incident and rushed to where I sat. “Martin you pile of rotten donkey shit, you are not going to fuckin’ leave me like that.” She was crying as she put her arms around me.

“Nice to see you, too,” I said and returned the hug.

“I just want to fucking get there,” she said with her face buried in my cloak. “I’m so tired.”

“Not long now,” I said. “Just a few more miles and we’ll be safe.” I knew as I said it that I was at the very least oversimplifying. But once we reached the fortress the danger would be different, and perhaps simpler to understand.