I’m not sure how long we stood like that, my head tipped up to a featureless gray sky while water streamed down my face and inside my clothes, Katherine an arms-length away, watching me. Mrkl’s hammer rang in the soft air while he instructed his apprentices with a low, calm voice.
“Let’s go back to the tavern,” Bags said from somewhere behind me. “I could use some spiced wine.”
I had to admit it was good weather for a warm, fortifying drink. I pulled my gaze down to the street, not really a street at all but the intestinal tract of an animal unfit even for the slaughterhouse, a creature living only because it was too tired to die. My new home. My first two steps took extra effort as I pulled my boots free of the mud in which I had become rooted, each pull rewarded with a vaguely obscene sucking sound. “First round’s on me,” I said.
In the dark comfort of the tavern I made a desultory attempt to knock the filth off my boots. I shed my cloak and sat heavily by the fire. Bags put another log on the grate before he sat next to me; Katherine faced me across the table. The three of us had the room to ourselves. We were going to have a talk. A little drama whose end was already written: there would be strong words, accusations, perhaps even a storming out. Not a happy ending, yet the drama had to be performed.
Katherine started to speak, but Bags held up his hand. “Let’s get the wine first,” he said. He turned his head and shouted over his shoulder toward the opening in the back of the room. “Hey, Elena!”
Elena’s voice answered from down the hallway past the kitchen. “Hold your fuckin’ dick!” she called back. She didn’t stop talking as she approached. “Your fuckin’ life is wasted anyway, you limp-dick — Oh, hi Bags.” Kat and I exchanged the briefest of smiles across the table at the abrupt shift in Elena’s tone. “I thought it was some of the usual buggers. Hello, m’Lord Porcupine and…” She hesitated. “Lady Katherine.” She said it almost like a question.
“Mulled wine,” I said.
She made a face. “Mulled fuckin’ wine. You want some food, too?”
“Can I buy you two an early lunch?” I asked my companions.
“We’ll see,” Katherine said.
“I’ll get the wine,” Elena said.
I stuck my feet out toward the fire as the flames enveloped their new fuel. Steam came off my boots; mud dried and flaked away. Soon Elena brought three steaming mugs on a tray and distributed them among us. I wrapped my hands around the warm crockery and inhaled the aroma. Cinnamon, and something else. Cloves, perhaps. How far had those spices traveled to entertain my nose for a moment before being consumed? I closed my eyes and took a sip, tasted the bitterness of the wine and the nip of the spice, let the warmth fill me. I took a breath through my nose, opened my eyes again, and turned toward Kat, watching me across the warped and faded planks of the table. “All right,” I said.
Katherine took a sip of her own wine and said, “My husband thought he would be king.”
I considered that. “I can’t imagine the King we already have would have been very happy to hear of the late baron’s ambition.”
Katherine smiled, but there was no humor in it. Her fingers were tracing the raised grain of the wood in the table. Her nails were ragged at the ends, chewed off. “I doubt he knew. The king is almost as stupid as my husband was. But although my dear departed Lord and Husband was a fool, he was a fool with a treasury full of gold. Gold buys power, and armies. He might have managed to buy the throne, but he would not have been the one sitting on it.”
“Were I the King, then, I’d be grateful to those who thwarted the baron’s ambition.”
“Were you the king,” she said, “The usurpers would all be dead in unmarked graves.”
“Or I would be,” I said. That seemed a much more likely outcome.
Bags slurped as he drank his wine, then he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “The gratitude of the King is not worth very much right now,” he said. “But don’t tell the king that.”
“Isn’t Rothfork’s money yours, now?” I asked.
Kat’s face screwed up. “If I set foot in Beaumanes I will be wed to Wilmont in a week, and dead in two.” Her scowl broke for a moment. “I was… just a thing to my husband. A toy he bought.”
“And now Wilmont is whispering in the king’s ear, labeling you a traitor,” I said. I heard a footstep in the hall behind me and held up my hand. Elena was making extra noise as she approached with refills. I appraised Kat’s worn clothing once more, and the practiced way she moved. She had been wearing that cloak long before her current troubles began. She preferred the forest to the castle, always had.
Elena paused by the table. “Any food yet?” she asked, but she was moving her hands as if she had a big belly. Then she pointed to the wall at the back, and cupped her hand to her ear.
“Perhaps a little to nibble,” Bags said.
“I got bread and cheese and pickle,” Elena said. “Uncle just baked the bread.”
“It smells delicious,” Bags said. “Bring it on.”
Elena blushed as she scampered from the room.
“You have an admirer,” Kat said.
Bags shrugged and gave a little sideways smile. “It’s easy to stand out in a place like this. Even Martin does. Or should I say Lord Porcupine?”
Katherine leaned in toward us. She spoke with almost no sound at all; I almost lost her words in the gentle muttering of the fire. “Martin. I need your help.” She glanced around and leaned in even closer. “This war. I can’t win it with armies. But if Wilmont were dead, and Crasley, I could press my legal claim to my estate.”
I replied to her plea softly, gently. “Katherine, you have vastly overestimated my skills.” Overconfidence was the greatest sin, perhaps the only sin, in the eyes of my grandmother. After her stories of the Evil Things in the Night, after the hero had taken the head of the creature back as a trophy to frighten ladies and impress gentlemen and to earn his just reward, dear Grams would say, “what did Grenlok (or whoever the monster of the day was) do wrong?”
This was not the wrong of good and evil, she was the looking for the mistake that cost the monster his life. “He made things complicated,” I might say, to Grams’ approving smile. Or, “He did not kill the good knight Miskinen when he had a chance.” The tiny woman would nod, and say, “Look deeper.”
“Pride,” I would say, after careful thought. “He overreached.”
Not a smile for this answer, but a grave nod. “Had the Evil One eaten only common folk, only little boys who disobeyed their mothers, he might still be alive today. But instead,” and here she would sigh and shake her head, “instead he kidnapped a princess. Does a princess taste better than a naughty boy? Perhaps; I am not one to say. But if you are not ready to fight gallant knights with flaming swords, then better to stick with naughty boys.” At this point in the lecture she would gaze into the fire, and say, “Princesses are rarely worth the trouble.”
If my family had a motto, it would be, “Know your limits.”
Katherine stared at me, her throat tensing as she refused to allow herself to swallow. “You impressed Baxter,” she said. I didn’t reply; in the silence I watched hope erode around her eyes; her shoulders dropped as though some unseen hand had lain slabs of lead on them. “He thought…”
“Your family,” Bags said.
I sat, my feet getting uncomfortably hot in front of the fire, waiting for either of the other two to continue.
Kat finally relented. “Baxter says you’re a Wanderer,” she said.
I took a breath. “That’s just a name” My family, if you could even call it that, had earned the name some time in the dim recesses of the past, perhaps a hundred years ago, perhaps a thousand. We are not historians; in fact we go out of our way to forget. Some of my clan enjoyed listening to the whispered rumors and ridiculous puffed-up legends that surrounded the name “Wanderer”, but I found them inconvenient. Better, when someone meets me, if the idea of the Wanderers never crosses his mind. It makes my work easier. “We are sometimes called that, but you’ve been listening to stories,” I said. “You will find the reality crushingly disappointing. We are… ordinary.”
“You are skilled,” Bags said.
“So are you. So is Kat. There is nothing the least bit special about me, other than my astonishing good looks.” I watched for a reaction, got none. “Wanderers. Hell, Bags, if you want to make me into some kind of mythical creature, why don’t you say I’m a pixie? Or a dragon? Why don’t you just say I’m a thrice-buggered Soul Thief and we can all have a good laugh?”
“Because you’re not a Soul Thief,” he said.
I turned to Katherine, struggling to keep my voice low. “I’m sorry. I like you, Kat, I really do. But I’m just a simple man who is good at what he does, and who knows what he can’t do. I’m not going to die trying to put you in a castle you don’t want to be in anyway. And I care not at all what sorry fool is farting into the cushions on the throne in the capital, or what other sorry fool wants to be the one who farts. Down here in the muck, it doesn’t make the slightest difference who is king.”
Katherine looked down at her hands, then back up at me. Her gaze pushed me back an inch. There was something in her features that hadn’t been there before, something fueled by anger that hinted at a potential for savagery. I almost fell in love with her at that moment. “You’re right,” she said through a clenched jaw, barely even moving her lips. I didn’t even realize I was leaning across the table to hear her words. So was Bags. “I do not want to sit in a castle. But I will do that and a thousand other distasteful things if it means men like my dearly departed husband will suffer. That Wilmont will suffer, and all his kin.”
And all his kin. Elena arrived with a platter of food, simple fare but plenty of it. The sausage was hard and well-seasoned, the bread still warm from the oven and heavy with grain, the pickle spicy-sweet and chunky. I ignored the spots on the cheese, was surprised when Katherine did as well. Were I king, I thought, I would eat meals such as this every day, though perhaps with a better wine. Elena cast worried looks between us, glancing from face to face, but she said nothing.
As Elena refilled our mugs the iron hinges on the front door groaned, announcing new arrivals. Three men shuffled into the room, three I recognized from the day before. “My fuckin’ heroes!” Elena called out, winking at me. They sat a safe distance from us and Elena brought them their first drinks of the day. One of them, thin-limbed and hollow-faced, coughed into a rag already stained with fresh blood. The other two pretended not to notice.
I looked back at Katherine as she carefully folded her passion in a neat bundle and hid it away. She stood from the table, outwardly calm. “You would let the world burn.”
“It’s always burning. I stay away from the flames.”
She turned and left. I imagined my grandmother’s sigh as we came to the end of Katherine’s story. “What was her mistake?” dear Grams would ask me.
I knew the answer, of course. “It was personal for her. She was driven by anger.”
But as always, the surface truth conceals a greater, deeper truth. “Driven from what? To what?” She asked me as I sat in silence with Bags.
At that moment I saw as clearly as my grandmother had. “She wanted to change the world.”
Grandmother shook her head sadly. “That never ends well.”