Killing members of a group until the survivors do what you want them to do is a time-honored tool of politics. If some members of that group already wanted to do things your way, you are liberating them. If none did, you are oppressing them. The distinction is much more important to the survivors within the group than it is to anyone else.
Unimportant at least unless you are hoping to oppress people who are, as individuals, far more powerful than you are. In that case, it is much like having a wolf in your house. Those you oppress may be obedient for the moment, but you will never sleep well.
Perhaps you have heard of King Hubert, monarch of a small nation not that long ago and not that far away. Not satisfied ruling over goatherds and alpine farmers scratching a living in his mountainous nation, he gathered a force, small but ferocious, and annexed a wealthy river town in the valley below. The city was autonomous, and while it had walls there were few men trained to man them.
The town folded without a fight. Hubert placed a Governor in the city and at first things seemed peaceful — the burghers of the town were willing to allow the charade as long as it didn’t interfere with business. But then Hubert tried to levy taxes on them. The river town never raised an army, but they understood the power of money and the power of the deal. By the time two other neighboring kings arrived to fight over the bones of Hubert’s nation, the king had already died of a severed windpipe.
I don’t know why Hubert looked so surprised as his life left his body; it was the only possible outcome.
It would be just as foolish to believe that if we killed enough Soul Thieves then the rest would embrace our ideals. Yet that remained the best plan we had.
I looked into the bottomless shadows of the forest. I wanted, more than anything, to take Elena by the hand and lead her into the woods, to disappear forever. But Worm had found her, and others would too. She needed to be ready for that day. Hopefully between Worm and me — and Katherine, and Bags — we would be able to keep her alive and teach her enough to make her truly dangerous.
I allowed a heavy sigh to escape me. “It’s time to get started,” I said. “First, I’m going teach you how to walk.”
After two hours Elena understood just how much noise she was making, but could to little about it. She was growing frustrated, so I decided a redirection of her attention was in order. I sat her down on a rock and relaxed onto the ground next to it. I raised my hands slowly as I took a long breath in, then lowered them as I exhaled. I repeated, motioning for her to follow. Another long breath, and another, the hand gestures forgotten. I closed my eyes and listened to the forest, to the tiny, timid sounds of life and death. I opened my eyes again to find Elena watching me.
From some distance away came a larger sound; furtive and careful but there is only so much a creature can do when it puts its foot down. Elena’s eyes widened; she had heard it too. I smiled at her. I cupped my hands over my chest and twisted my face into an exaggerated scowl. The unmistakeable sign for “Katherine”. Elena smiled. I cupped my ear and pointed in the opposite direction, then put a question on my face.
She turned her head to listen, her open expression darkening with a scowl. She turned her head again, filtering through the sounds of the night, then looked back at me quizzically, one eyebrow raised.
“When you hear someone sneaking up on you,” I said, quietly but plenty loud enough for Kat to hear, “the very first thing you should do is to listen in the direction you might need to run. Always in your mind should be a list of safe exits.”
In the darkness Kat laughed. “Spoken like a Wanderer.” Her footfalls became somewhat less cautious as she moved toward my voice. “But others might say you should listen in every direction to better know how to attack.” She emerged from the underbrush only a few feet from where we sat. There was almost no light under the forest canopy but I saw her smile. “Did Elena hear me?” Kat asked.
I raised my eyebrows. “Perhaps you should ask Elena that.”
Kat’s smile disappeared as she narrowed her eyes, then looked at the ground. “Martin is right. I’m sorry. You heard me?”
I don’t know if Elena was being gracious or merely factual. “Not until we stopped moving.”
Katherine nodded and folded easily onto the forest floor next to me. “You were doing well,” she said.
Elena snorted. “Like a drunk ox with an angry goat up its ass.”
“I’ve seen worse first tries,” Katherine said. “The goat wasn’t kicking, at least.” Her words won her a smile from Elena. “Martin is a surprisingly good teacher.”
I chose to interpret Kat’s words as the compliment they were probably intended to be, but I wasn’t going to let her off too easily. “I’m full of surprises,” I said.
“I just meant…”
There was a pause then, and I felt the weight of Kat’s question before she even asked it. “What are we going to do?” Her voice had a quality I’d never heard in it before, a tinge of fatigue and human uncertainty.
The question caught me by surprise, but my answer would have been the same in any case. “I’m getting weaker,” I said.
“Every day. Either we move quickly or the best I can do is make sure Elena is ready when the time comes.”
Elena looked at me with wide eyes. “No.”
I continued, “Moving quickly doesn’t seem like an option, since we don’t have any moves.” I put my hand on Elena’s head, the way my mother had once done for me, and spoke the same words dear mum had said back then: “You will make me proud.” Elena slipped off her rock and knelt next to me, wrapping her arms around me.
Kat looked at us and a smile quirked her face. “You are full or surprises.” She shifted from her position on the ground and put one hand on my shoulder, the other on Elena’s, turning us into a tight ring. “You want to turn the world upside-down,” she said to Elena. “I pledge my support.”
Elena stiffened, slowly relaxed, and finally said, “Not upside-down. Right.”
“I pledge my support.”
Kat smiled in the darkness. “I might be a fucking baroness, but I believe in what you stand for.”
It was, perhaps, the first time that Elena had ever considered that what she stood for mattered. That it was more than a personal belief. That it was something that could be built upon. Something to be made real.
“You need to learn,” Kat said. “From Worm, from Bags, from me, and most of all from Martin. When I try to kill one of them, I fail. Same for Bags, and at least sometimes with Worm. They’re ready for him now. But Martin can kill them. You need to learn that.”
“I killed one, too.”
Kat chuckled in her tight Kat way. “Yes. That gives me cause for optimism.” She squeezed both our shoulders.
“But it was just lucky,” Elena admitted. The words did not come easily.
“I’m not sure what luck is, anymore,” Kat said. “Maybe it was luck, just good timing, but I don’t think so. You might not know how you made that happen, but you did. You made her fuckin’ explode.” Kat’s use of the phrase got her another smile from Elena.
“With time,” Elena said, “I’ll get stronger.”
Kat and I nodded in agreement.
“But how long? Who knows how long it will take for me to learn all this shit? And even then will I be as good as Martin is now? We have a fuckin’ map. We have a guy who can maybe read the map. Maybe You and Bags can’t kill Soul Thieves, but you can kill the people who get in our way. We should use what we have to get Martin as close to as many of the fuckers as we can, while he’s still able to take them down.”
Kat looked over at me. I thought carefully before answering. “That’s good tactical thinking. This may be our best chance. But if it is, we have already lost. If we do what you say we might inconvenience them, and perhaps even bloody them, but we cannot stop them. If we wish to win, we must stay alive and grow stronger until the opportunity to win presents itself.”
“What if it never does?”
Kat sighed and squeezed Elena’s shoulder. “Then we are no worse off than we are now. Martin’s right.”
Elena leaned into me. “All right,” she said. “But can we kill a few of them now and then?”
I put my arm around her, the way people do at times like this. “I suspect they will insist upon it,” I said.