The Soul Thieves will come for you.
No one had ever seen a Soul Thief, of course, but everyone knew stories of people who had been taken. My mother once told me that her cousin’s childhood friend had wished for the rain to stop on her birthday. The storm ended abruptly, and that night the girl was gone. A client told me of a friend of his, who in turn had a friend who had wished fervently to win a footrace with a rival. The other boy tripped on a root, my client’s friend’s friend won the day, and vanished into he unknown that night. The stories were consistent enough that they could not possibly be true.
A wish that comes true may be nothing more than good fortune, but, everyone agreed, it could be a sign of fledgling talent — the ability to change the world with one’s will. It was this magical power the Soul Thieves were said to feed on.
That the Soul Thieves existed no one dared deny, but finding anything in our dingy world that bore their mystical fingerprints was impossible. Which either meant they touched nothing or they touched everything.
I, a man of reason, chose not to think about it too much. As a child I was as careful as the next to contain my wishes, to constrain my desire to change the world — except, of course, for those stormy nights when imagination grows larger than caution, and preposterous wishes are floated into the night, to see what might come. Those wishes, followed by a delicious moment of fear and anticipation, always crumbled, fading into a mixture of relief and disappointment. On a night like that I might have wished for a grand house, with plenty to eat, or perhaps I might have wished to have had a different father. The foolish, small wishes of a child.
I had never, I was sure, wished to be beaten to within a finger’s-width of my life and dumped in a shit pit to die. But there I was. At least Bags was there to fish me out, with his little half-smile, and it almost felt like I had wished for the indignity as a path to the brief feeling of comfort I knew then.
Bags laid me gently on the floor of my room, then sat cross-legged next to me in the comfortable silence we had developed in the woods, until Elena arrived with my bath. Kat paced from window to door and back again, agitated, filled with anger but having no object to apply it to.
My bath that night turned out to be a bucket of warm water and a sponge. As I lay on the bare floor, Elena, protective of me, insisted that she would perform the honors, and she began dabbing at the filth that covered my body. She started with my face, with my mouth and my eyes, and I heard her careful breathing and felt her fingers brush back my hair. I felt eyes on me and I felt a hollowness in my chest I could not identify, as if part of me was still out there in the rain. My hands made their way to where my knives would normally be, and stopped, aimless, confused, when they found nothing. I was incomplete.
“Scrub, girl,” Katherine said more than once.
“I’m hurtin’ the fucker” Elena would protest, but she’d scrub harder.
I managed to pry one protesting eye open and to focus it, more or less, on Elena. Her lip was split, and swelling. I tried to touch her face but she pushed my hand away. “Woke up Uncle,” she said. “He don’t like getting woke. Be still. Gotta clean your fuckin’ scrotum.” She smiled slyly, which started the flow of blood anew. “Unless you’d like her grace to do the honors?”
The water was long cold by the time Elena was done, and my humiliation forgotten as my shaking grew steadily worse, becoming convulsions that drove the air from my body. I was aware of motion around me, aware of pain as I was moved, but it was as if I was watching from a long distance as they wrapped me in blankets and lay me on the floor near the fire. Then, the return of blessed darkness. At that moment, I would not have complained were I never to wake again. Death is the end of pain, and not to be feared. Something was waiting for me in the morning — something dark and dangerous lurked, tangible but unknowable, that wanted me naked, without my blades. Something I had been avoiding a long time. Death seemed a reasonable alternative.
* * *
During the night my shaking stopped; it was still dark when I was forced to accept that I would live to see another sunrise. And so we carry on, ignoring the simplest answer to our questions.
I tried to accept the gift of another day gracefully. I have ended enough heartbeats to appreciate how little they are worth; mine is no better. With a twitching hand I reached for the comforting touch of a knife and found Elena instead, curled next to me, watching my face with round, unblinking eyes. When she saw I was awake she put a finger on my lips and shook her head. “We have to go,” she said, almost silently, exaggerating the movement of her bruised lips.
I was more than a little surprised to take stock of my condition and discover that leaving was even remotely possible. I felt far better than I had any right to. I managed to sit up without puking or even screaming. Her tiny hand on my shoulder steadied me, and I smiled at the girl while feelings I didn’t know how to name clouded my thoughts of her. “We have to go,” she said again.
I looked over at Bags, sleeping in a heap in the corner of the room, an arm over his face, his mouth open, spit dripping down his cheek to darken the sleeve of his new leather shirt. No sign of Kat. On Bags’ belt his hunting knife stuck up, beckoning to me. I swallowed and tried to look away but it was there, a white-hot beacon shining into my consciousness no matter which way I turned my head.
With Elena’s help I stood, but instead of stepping toward the door I moved toward the corner where my friend slept peacefully. I needed the knife more than he did. He could always get another. Hell, Mrkl could make him one better than the one he was wearing, I was sure of it. The handle was antler, the craftsmanship good.
Elena pulled on my arm, “What in the name of the twice-fucked virgin are you doing?” she whispered. “We have to go.”
I nodded, the cold morning air turning my skin to gooseflesh. The knife, Bags’ knife, I reminded myself, was almost falling out of its sheath. Calling to me.
“I have clothes for you,” she said. “You can put ’em on downstairs.”
I couldn’t say the words. I have to steal from my friend. My hands were calm now, my head clear. Clothes didn’t matter. Bags liked that knife, I knew. I’d return it to him, somehow. Or pay him, when I had money again. I wasn’t stealing. I was borrowing. I needed the blade more than he did.
And just like that I had the knife, cradling it to my breast as Elena pulled me from the room and lead me stumbling down the stairs. It was heavier than it should have been. Once she had me dressed her strength began to wane; by the time we staggered into the gray dawn it was difficult to tell which of us propped up the other.
We stopped short, ragged and exhausted after only a few steps. Mrkl stood in the middle of the road, sinking in the muck. He looked at me gravely, sadly. “Martin,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault,” I said. My voice didn’t have the solidity it usually carried.
He looked at Elena, then back at me. “Take care of her,” he said. “Here.” He held out a bundle and opened it. My knives. My heart lurched up into my throat; it was a moment before I could breathe again, and by then I stood in front of the Blacksmith.
“I talked to the people who took them,” Mrkl said. “Told ’em a little about you, what might happen if they kept ’em. I said they could keep the money.”
I stared at the knives, reached out and touched them, ran shaking fingers over the cold metal. The hunting knife with the recurved tip, the sleek stiletto that could find a heart so easily, the thick-bladed weapon I called Bleeder. My eating knife, deceptive in form and all the more deadly for that, and the lovely, dark-bladed knife, simple, elegant, that made music even when lying still. Steel that has tasted human blood is no longer just steel, not in the hand that held it while it drank. I took a shuddering breath, released it, and accepted the gift.
Mrkl held out another knife, smaller, in a tooled-leather sheath. “This one’s yours,” he said to Elena. “But I’m giving it to Martin until he can teach you how to use it.”
“Thank you,” she said, watching the object pass from Mrkl to me the way a dog watches a morsel of food.
“I’m glad you’re leaving this place,” he said to her.
I slipped her blade into my pocket and one by one I attached my knives to my body, each in its place, feeling more whole with each one. With each knife it was easier to breathe, easier to think. My hands steadied. My old friends had returned.
“Watch, girl,” Mrkl said. “Those are Martin’s true love. Trust me. Don’t ever think otherwise.” He started to turn away.
“Wait,” I said.
He stopped and turned a skeptical eye my direction. “This belongs to Bags,” I said. I held out the knife I had taken, hilt-first.
Mrkl took a long breath, his chest expanding, then receding again. “You stole this,” he said. “From your friend.”
“Just give it back to him.”
He took the knife. “I used to say that whatever else you were, you were loyal to your friends.”
“I didn’t kill them last night,” I said, regretting the desperate edge that found its way into my voice.
“They deserved it. But this…” he held the knife by the bade, staring at his own reflection there.
“We have to go,” Elena said. She took a step and pulled my hand, gently. “Please.”
It sank in. We. We were escaping together, little better than fugitives, staggering from Mountain Hole with the clothes on our backs and not much else. I looked at Elena’s bruised face. She was counting on me to get her out of there, away from her uncle and whoever he would eventually sell her to. She was depending on me, a man who could barely walk, a man for whom loyalty was an abstraction to be used when it was convenient. “All right,” I said, not sure how I was going to let her down, but certain I would. “Goodbye,” I said to Mrkl’s receding back. He spat.
And so we walked, slowly, side by side, leaning on each other, into the unknown. It would not end well, of that I was certain.