Time passed, a comfortable time with Elena huddled against me. I pulled out her knife and carefully freed it from its sheath. She reached for it but her hand stopped when I shook my head no.
Mrkl had done well. A blade for slashing, but with a pointed, slightly upcurved tip that would serve well for stabbing and cutting back. The balance was perfect for a smaller hand; the steel sang with its own voice. I tested the edge and smiled.
“Is it sharp?” Elena asked. She pushed her dark hair back behind her ear and watched the firelight play across the steel of the blade.
“Not yet. That will be up to you.”
“What the twelve hells? Why?”
“When it is sharp, when you have made it sharp, you will understand.”
She reached out again and I moved it farther from her. “Careful.”
“Fuck. You just said it wasn’t sharp.”
“That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t respect it. You insult it when you don’t handle it carefully.”
She cast me a skeptical look.
“This knife might save your life one day. But if you don’t treat it with respect, it’s more likely to take your life instead.” I offered it to her hilt first. “Take it by the handle.”
She did, gingerly. “It’s beautiful,” she said, her voice a whisper.
I taught her the anatomy of her new knife, told her about the materials, the steel and the stag-horn handle, how the knife was made, and the subtle indications that Mrkl was a master craftsman. At the base of the blade, near the tang, was a tiny mark, Mrkl’s mark, in a place only those who spent time studying the knife would ever find it, small enough that few would be able to recognize it. I had to laugh at his seeming modesty; he was boasting in a way only those who mattered would hear. Two of my blades carry that same mark.
I taught her how to put her knife in its sheath and take it out again. When we were done I took control of it for the evening. “Tomorrow you will begin putting the edge on it.”
I put another stick on the fire, and Elena gradually slumped against my side. I sat, watching the flames, looking for any messages that might be hiding there. When I exhaled I could see my breath. I suppressed a shiver, but I couldn’t stop my stomach from growling.
In the ensuing silence I glanced sideways at Elena I was not surprised to see that she was asleep. Moving as little as possible I put another branch into our campfire and it flared up, snapping and sparking. Elena slept right through it. I sat next to her and wrapped my cloak around both of us, wondering when Katherine would finally catch up to us and bring us some godfucked soup. She was probably leaving us out here to freeze our asses off to teach me some sort of lesson. The kind of lesson I hate.
I was starting to nod off when the sound of hoofbeats snapped me back awake. Several horses, heavy, mounted, no wagons. Military, but no foot soldiers. A mounted patrol, most likely on a routine visit to Mountain Hole to remind the citizens who their king was. Harmless enough, but they would bring word of a murder that had happened far to the south, along with a description of Bags and likely Katherine as well. Having that bunch between Katherine and me was almost too good to hope for.
The horses were moving slowly, guided only by moonlight on a deeply-rutted road. I sat as still as possible and pushed dirt over the glowing embers of the fire, but it was the wind that shifted and betrayed us, carrying the scent of burning pine back to the road. Someone issued a terse command and the riders came to a halt.
“Remain where you are,” a voice called out. “Identify yourselves.”
Elena started awake. “Oh!” she cried out.
“We are just weary travelers,” I said. I stood and added a branch to what was left of the campfire. I heard the leader deploy his men, reminding them that we might be a decoy so poachers could ambush them or escape. Thus cautioned, it took a few minutes for the captain and two of his men to reach us, and the fire was lively once more. He looked at the two of us and took in the lack of shelter or evidence of food.
“You are trespassing,” he said. “This wood belongs to our Lord Fairmont. Taking game here is forbidden.”
“We are guilty of taking some of his Lordship’s berries,” I said. “Nothing else.” Contextually true.
“How come ye to be here?”
“The filthy buggers stole me,” Elena said. She took my hand. “Right from my father’s fucking stoop. It was…” Elena looked away and took a breath. “They took me to Mountain Hole to work as a fuckin’ whore. Fuckin’ slave. They throw the dead ones out behind the fucking brothel for the fucking wolves to eat. My father came and saved me.” When she spoke with passion, she fell back on her favorite imprecation, but at a moment like this it is passion that convinces.
“Looks like you paid the price,” the captain said to me. I imagine my face was not looking its finest. “Jonesey, let’s camp here. I don’t want to take the road up to the Hole in the dark. And get these folks some supper.” He turned back to me and held out his hand as I started to rise. “Baldwin,” he said, “Captain in His Majesty’s Mounted Reconnaissance.”
I took his hand. “Andrew,” I said. “This is Helen.”
Baldwin shook her hand as well. “I’m happy you’re safe, Helen.”
“You can kill every fuck with a penis in that whole godfucked brothel, and throw Lady Fuckin’ LaRue into the fire; I won’t mind,” she said.
The captain chuckled. “We’ll see,” he said.
Elena scowled. “Unless you were planning to be fucking customers,” she said. “Before you fuck anyone there you should go out back and find the bones, scattered by wolves halfway up the fucking mountain, and count the fucking skulls, and then you can fuck yourselves instead.”
Captain Baldwin hesitated before saying, “We will see justice done.” It was not easy for me to suppress my smile.
While we sat still, a small camp sprung up around us. Our meal was welcome but not without a price, as the captain asked us more questions about how Elena had been kidnapped, and how I had managed to secure her freedom again. I let her answer. The names she gave I had no doubt were worthy of the soldiers’ attention. Fortunately it wasn’t long before the captain got to the question he really wanted to ask, and her other answers were forgotten. “Did you good people happen to notice a big man, probably twenty-five years old, blonde hair, with his front teeth knocked out?”
“There was one sack of sorrow with boils on his pecker that had these two teeth missing.” She pointed to the side of her mouth, on top. “And another guy whose teeth were black and smelled like vulture cum. His breath was so fucking bad I puked on his foot.” Some of the soldiers chuckled at her choice of words.
“The one we’re looking for had all his front teeth missing. He was traveling with a woman, and probably another man as well.”
Elena shrugged. “Don’t think so. But I only saw the pig-fuckers that came to the brothel.” A few more laughs.
“And you, sir?” the captain asked me. I shook my head.
“What’d he do?” Elena asked.
“He killed a very important man, a close friend of the King. If you do see him, be sure to tell someone right away, but remember he is very dangerous. There is a substantial reward, offered by the King himself.”
Elena’s eyes lit up. “I hope we do see the piece of shit fuckbag.”
“I don’t,” I said. “I’ve had enough trouble for one lifetime.”
The captain laughed. “Your father is a wise man, young lady.” By then he knew just how much of a lady she was.
The interview was over, but the soldiers lingered around Elena, asking questions that invited colorful responses. “That son of a whore fucked by three bulls while the cows watched can suck my big toe,” was my personal favorite. Impossible to parse, but passionately delivered.
I felt the mood of the camp shift as the hardened men of the patrol adopted my young charge as one of their own. She enjoyed it also; it was a sort of respect she had never known in Mountain Hole. The soldiers lived in a world described through profanity, and they understood her raw talent.
Eventually we lay wrapped in blankets that belonged to us now, apparently, on a bed of pine needles. Elena dropped back to sleep again, and slowly the camp quieted. I was exhausted, but I forced myself to stay awake, though perfectly still, watching stars move in their steady arcs between the treetops. Up here, they seemed closer, and numerous beyond counting.
Tomorrow the soldiers would arrive in Mountain Forge. It would not be long before they learned about Bags and Kat, and not long after that they would hear about me, and they would hear that Mrkl was my friend. If they stopped to torture Mrkl before coming after us it would buy us a little time, but they would probably save that for later. In either case, Mrkl would face an unpleasant death, just for the misfortune of having been my friend.
As a rule I accept that we all must leave this world one way or another, but… not Mrkl. Not like that. He still had blades to forge.
The soldiers could not reach Mountain Hole. Most of the patrol was asleep; if I could kill the sentries silently the rest would never feel a thing. I took a breath, put my hunting knife in my left hand and my dark little beauty in my right, and I started to rise from the warmth of my blanket.
Her tiny hand rested on my forearm. “Please don’t,” she whispered.