Make no mistake, it is humanity’s greatest asset, the constant desire for more. The town I was in, the alcohol I was drinking, the friends I was renting — none of them would have existed were it not for greed. Avarice is, perhaps, my dearest friend.
But greed has an ugly cousin: impatience. There are those among the ranks of humanity who have raised greed to an art form, who manipulate the world with cunning and grace to take what they desire. The most skilled practitioners of avarice have the patience of a toothless god; they are able to see far into the future and are willing to sacrifice immediate reward for a greater future bounty. Alas, my run-down acquaintances in that run-down tavern were not blessed with such a long view. In such a setting, Impatience whispers her promises into the ears of the sorry men at their tables, changing “I want more,” a healthy desire, into “I want more NOW.” It is a very old story, and rarely is it told with a happy ending.
In Mountain Hole the days continued their gentle cadence, marching us into the future on silent feet. Katherine avoided me but lingered in town, stewing and cursing, and therefore Bags remained as well. Elena was swift to take sides in what she saw as a rift between former friends, and Katherine became “the twat.” Bags, however, she was much more willing to forgive. Elena was sure that she would be fast friends with Bags, were it not for the twat standing in her way.
But the end to those happy times had to come. While my fellow drinkers saw me as a man on his way to being as poor as they were, they could exercise patience. I expect it was when, at the end of my first week in town, I discretely (I had hoped) offered my second gold coin to Elena’s Uncle Harkin to be converted into more spendable denominations, that the locals began to wonder how many acquaintances that shiny gold coin might have in my purse, and how they might accelerate the passage of precious metal from their happy-go-lucky drinking partner to themselves. Without the virtue of patience, those men could not be content to allow me to pass those coins to them at my own pace.
The night blood spilled seemed no different at first than those that had come before. Elena, as had become our custom, greeted me with an insult. “Hello, you half-wit windbag,” she said. She was learning that the most cutting insults aren’t necessarily vulgar, but touch on the anchors of the target’s image of himself, diminishing the positive and reinforcing the negative. A critical skill when one finds oneself in stranded in polite company.
On the other hand I had learned I needed to be more careful with her feelings. The word “scrawny”, for instance, while absolutely descriptive of her, was a knife too sharp to use lightly. I smiled and embraced the vulgar. “Hello to you, you little festering pustule on a donkey’s scrotum.”
She smiled, then scowled. “What’s scrotum?”
The smile was back. “Nice. Scrotum.” I watched her face as the word was neatly boxed and labeled, ready for reuse.
The evening fell into its usual rhythm, but as the hours passed something intangible shifted. I started winning. I folded hands I might have held another night, and pushed the pot higher when I had the cards. As I did every night I read the cards and the faces and I knew all; unlike other nights, I used that knowledge to take the money of those who sat at my table with ruthless efficiency. I was invincible. Invincible, I ignored Elena’s tugs at my elbow, her worried looks. I ignored the cloud gathering in the tavern, the angry glares and muttered curses. I laughed at them!
Somewhere, deep in my head, I was aware that I had been drugged. I knew that my feeling of invincibility was the result of a substance my former friends had given me, to make me reckless so I might lose faster. I knew that, and I didn’t care — because I was invincible.
The illusion I had fostered was broken. I was not an amiable loser; they knew I knew they were cheating and I could cheat better. They could no longer look me in the eye. I don’t blame those men, not really, for what followed. I gathered their wealth, stood a little unsteadily, and stepped toward the door.
“Yer not leavin’ with that,” Jake said.
“It is mine,” I pointed out, my voice calm and reasonable. At least, I remember it that way.
“Let the godfucked son of a whore’s twat go,” Elena said. Structurally a fine epithet but verging on nonsensical. She tried to push herself between me and Jake. Jake slapped her aside and I punched him in the face and the night became a blur. I found myself in a blind and desperate struggle, surrounded, overwhelmed, crushed by numbers, flinging a fist into the confusion, feeling many land in return. Stars dancing as blows found my face, reeling breathlessly as fists hammered my gut. Sagging under the weight of them all, in the end curling into a ball but there’s no protection in that, not really, as the kicks landed on my ribs and spine and death became a real possibility.
It was not the first time in my life my gambling friends had turned on me, but it was almost the last. This time, I did not draw my knives. I did not kill them all. Perhaps that small fact is significant, a sign that greater powers were in motion, twisting destiny, preserving me for the battle to come. Perhaps I was just drugged and I didn’t understand my peril.
Perhaps, as Bags would say, there’s no use fretting over shit you’ll never know. I did not use my knives. The only blood spilled was my own.
* * *
Consciousness was painful and unwelcome. I was lying on my back, and everything hurt. Icy raindrops stung my face. I took a cautious breath and my ribs protested while the smell of shit filled my head. I’d been thrown into a latrine. My body was shivering from the cold so violently it bordered on convulsions. At that moment, it was difficult to appreciate the miracle of life.
“Marty.” As I had climbed out of the well of blackness into unpleasant consciousness I had heard my name used many times, I realized. I pried open one eye, puffy and reluctant. Elena was hovering over me. When she saw my eye open she said, “Fuck, Marty. I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. It’s my fault.”
I raised a filthy hand and stopped myself before I touched her face. “It’s all right.” More breath than words.
She shook her head. “I brought the twat.” She glanced over her shoulder. “The lady. Katherine. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Elena’s face was replaced with Katherine’s. I closed my eyes and wondered if dying from exposure was still an option. “It just keeps getting better,” I said. I think. Something else was wrong, as well. I reached to my side where I kept my hunting knife and found only bare skin. I was naked, without a single sharp instrument to hand that I could use to kill people should the need arise. My heart started beating a little faster.
“Let’s get you inside,” Kat said.
“Get Mrkl,” I said to the night, hoping Elena would hear me. I had no desire to be nursed by the blacksmith, under his silent disapproval, but that was better than being trapped with someone who wanted to change the world.
“You’re staying with me,” Katherine said. A statement of fact, not an invitation. I was in no position to argue.
And there was Bags, gleaming in his new chain mail, lifting me up like I was made of shit-smeared glass, and I clung to his tunic with a white-knuckle fist and choked off any sort of outburst as my ribs ground against one another.
Somewhere behind us Kat said, “Take him to his room. He’ll want a fire. You, girl. Elena.”
“Yes, m’Lady?” I’d never head Elena’s voice sound so timid.
“You will arrange a bath. In his room. With hot water.”
“Of course now. This man is filthy. Go.”
I heard the girl’s footsteps hurrying off through the mud. I felt a moment of nostalgia for something that hadn’t happened yet. I was going to miss her.
Kat put her cloak over my naked form as Bags carried me into the boarding house. His half-smile was still there, even while he carried a shit-covered man. His strong arms cradled me and I felt safe. Light-headed, I began to laugh. “Be careful what you wish for,” I said.
A little smile from Bags in return. “Watch out, or the Soul Thieves will come for you.”
I pulled myself into his warmth and laughed at what I thought was a joke.