As we staggered out of Mountain Hole the sun came out for the first time since I had arrived. Each step that separated us from that weeping sore of a town was easier than the one that came before, as if I had somehow been steadily getting heavier while I was there and hadn’t realized it.
We stopped half a mile out of town and I took a long breath. The air was sweeter than it had been since I had killed the baron. Birds sang (to outshine other birds), small animals frolicked among the bushes (to steal the food of the other small animals), and all around me there was a host of the signs that lead one to believe the world has moods like ours, and today the lump of dirt we build our houses on was in fine fettle indeed.
And now, away from Kat and Bags, I could restore my own armor: simple anonymity. Once more I could be a man no one noticed.
The road wound down and down beneath our feet for several miles before disappearing into the tree line. We had no food, no shelter, no money. The problems I fled would catch me soon enough. But for the moment, the illusion of freedom lifted my step and eased the ache of my cracked ribs.
Elena’s face was etched with fatigue, dark shadows bruised her face beneath her eyes, but her spirits were high. And why wouldn’t they be? She was leaving something bad behind, and ahead merely lay the unknown. I wish, sometimes, that I could remember what it was like when I was young and the unknown was exciting. Too much of it had become known over my years, and rarely to my delight.
We were not moving quickly. However remarkable my recovery had been, I was still far from well, and Elena’s long night had taken its toll on her stamina. “She’s going to catch up to us,” I said to Elena.
“The fucking princess?”
Elena scowled. “Maybe the whore’s twat will leave us alone,” she said.
“Not Katherine.” I looked up at the sky. “There’s some thrice-damned, ill-begot plan she wants me to be part of.”
“It’s either my sunny disposition or the fact that I’m pretty good at killing people.”
“Who does she want to kill?”
“It’s a pretty long list. An army-sized list. Not a Martin-sized list.”
Elena wiped sweat from her forehead with her rough-woven sleeve. “Is it true what Mrkl told the troll dongs at the pub? That you could have killed them all?”
I didn’t answer right away, just concentrated on my footing over a stretch of road that had been temporarily converted in to a stream bed, covered with loose rock. “It’s happened before.”
“I’m glad you didn’t,” she said after a few more careful steps. “A couple of those heroes of the clusterfuck weren’t so bad.” I wondered if she included her uncle in that list.
* * *
The sun had passed overhead and was beginning its weary descent toward the mountain behind us when we reached the trees. Just inside the tree line I signaled to Elena that I needed to stop. I sat on a stone to rest. My ribs were aching and breathing was getting difficult. I leaned back against a tree, trying to find a position where inhaling didn’t hurt so much. Unsuccessful, I looked back up the mountain. No sign of pursuit. I allowed myself a moment of hope that Katherine had given up on me, or that she’d value her overdue contact more than she valued me.
After a quiet moment Elena said, “We should keep going.”
I looked over at her and I wasn’t sure she’d be able to stand. She sat with her back against a tree, eyes closed, one slender arm across her knees and the other forgotten at her side, lying in the dirt. “You think your Uncle is coming after you?” I asked. I looked back up the road and wondered if I was strong enough to kill the man.
She looked down at the ground, then back up at me, her eyes round, tears collecting at the edges. “Please can we go? Just a little farther?”
I pulled myself carefully to my feet; she found a burst of energy and rushed to my side to steady me. I put my hand on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze, and tried for a reassuring smile. “The farther we get from that piss hole, the happier I am,” I said.
That night we ate berries. A handful each. Delicious, bitter and sweet, turning our tongues blue (to Elena’s vast pleasure), but not enough food for hungry travelers. The cloudless sky meant the night would be cold. I sent Elena to gather wood and prepared my tinder. A fire would be a beacon for those looking for us, but I was under no illusion that we had done anything to hinder an even marginally-competent tracker. The only mystery was why we hadn’t been caught already.
We pulled close to the fire, and to each other, and as we sat in that glow I felt my strength returning. When Elena’s uncle found us, I was sure I’d be able to handle him.
“How are you feeling?” Elena asked. In the firelight her eyes were vast and dark, and hard to read.
“Better,” I said.
She nodded and turned to stare fixedly at the fire. The joy she had found in her freedom had already given way to a new fear I couldn’t put my finger on.
“We’ll be all right,” I said. “Those sons of four-legged mothers back there won’t be hurting you any more.”
“They’re not the ones who frighten me,” she said.
“You mean Katherine? She probably wants to spill my steaming entrails out onto the virgin forest floor, but she won’t do anything to you.”
Elena just stared into the fire. I thought the conversation was finished when she asked, “Do you think you could kill a Soul Thief?”
Three consecutive sentences without profanity. This was not the time to take her question lightly. “I don’t know,” I said. “They have to bleed, though.”
She nodded. “The day you came in, and you said you admired my fucking use of the fucking language. I fucking made a wish.” A tear caught the light of the fire as it rolled down her cheek. “I wished for this. For you to take me away from there.”
“And your wish came true.”
She nodded, crying steadily now. “I didn’t mean for you to get fucking hurt, though.”
I put my hand on her shoulder in a way I hoped would be comforting. At some time in every child’s life they are certain they have performed some feat of magic and are about to be taken by the Soul Thieves. Of course, they are wrong, but there’s no sense fighting the certainty; time will take care of that. “I don’t think what happened back there was magic,” I said. “It sure didn’t feel that way to me, anyhow.” She started to speak but I held up a finger. “But if it was magic, and they come for you, I’ll stand between them and you as long as I am able.” It was an easy promise to make, but I meant it absolutely.
“Tomorrow we have to go a long way,” she said. “So they can’t find us. After tonight I’ll stop wishing you better.”
I paused before replying. Say what you want about my mother’s people, we are one and all very difficult to kill. Pain does not slow us as much as it does others, and the injuries we suffer heal quickly. No magic needed. But I had plenty of reasons to put more distance between us and Mountain Hole as well. I smiled into her worried eyes. The discoloration from her most recent abuse was fading, but her lip was still swollen and angry. “Tomorrow the miles will fly beneath our feet, and when next we rest not even the eagles will know where we are.”