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17: The Cost of a Small Victory

It seemed that hardly any time at all had passed when a hand touched my shoulder. A big hand. I opened my eye and turned my abused head to look up. Bags smiled.

“You all right?”

I wasn’t ready to speak but I managed to cough. A feeble cough.

Bags lifted me into a sitting position, propped against the same log Elena and I had occupied before the patrol found us, a hundred years ago. While my head was still spinning from the adjustment water was splashing into my mud-caked eye, clearing the muck, leaving only enough grit to be irritating. I managed to blink, managed to croak and spit, and finally managed to speak.

“Elena?”

“I’m here.” Her small hands wrapped around one of mine. “I’m here.” I put my other hand over hers. I swallowed my pain; my left shoulder was even less whole than the rest of me.

“Good.” I tried to put together my surroundings. The camp was a shambles; the ground was littered with the implements of daily life: cooking pots, bowls, blankets, dropped weapons, odd bits of armor. The soldiers tended to their comrades. None were unbloodied, but those able to stand looked different than they had the night before. Harder. They had stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the face of an enemy beyond comprehension, and they had not faltered. Knowing you can do that changes a man.

I turned my attention back to Bags. His new chain shirt was dirtier but didn’t seem to be damaged. “Did we… win?”

“You killed a soul thief.” That was Kat’s voice, a safe distance away. “Cut open another, I think. There’s a lot of blood where she was standing. Can’t all be yours.”

“Huh,” I said. I tipped my head back and closed my eyes. I remembered arrows sticking out of one. I remembered him laughing. I remembered the blood of the younger man gushing over my hands, and the look in his eyes, the monumental surprise. I’ve seen that expression many times before, when a man is abruptly reminded of his own mortality, but some times seeing that expression is more satisfying than others.

“They’re not going to like that,” Bags said.

“We won,” Kat said. “You won. My arrows…”

“Next time,” I croaked, “shoot more of them.”

Frustration found its way into Kat’s voice. “I emptied my quiver. After the first two, none of them reached him. They just… went around. Then the Soul Thieves were gone. They didn’t leave a trail I could find.”

“They’ll be more careful, next time,” Bags said. We all pondered that in silence for a moment.

Captain Baldwin limped over and crouched next to me. “Glad to see you moving.”

“Thanks. Likewise.” Now that I didn’t need him dead.

He seated himself with a heavy sigh. “Is anything you told me last night true? Anything at all?”

I shifted to look at him and grimaced. My shoulder was a bonfire. Elena rushed to help, latching on to my upper arm. I pulled myself together. “The part about the berries,” I said. “That was true.” My guts didn’t feel right either. Like they’d been taken apart and reassembled incorrectly.

“And the Soul Thieves want her?” He glanced at Elena.

“That was unexpected,” I said.

“I told you we had to go farther,” Elena said.

“Fuck me,” Baldwin said, closing his eyes and running a gloved hand over the stubble on his jaw. One eye was puffy and starting to turn blue; a cut over that eye was begging for stitches. “Soul Thieves. Never thought I’d actually see one. Didn’t really think they existed at all. Then the king puts out a bounty on the bastards and not a week later I’ve got three of them in my camp.”

“There’s a bounty?”

“Yeah. But good luck collecting it from prison.” He sighed heavily and put his hand on my good shoulder. “I’m in an awkward position here. Your friends are fugitives. You knew that.”

“Yes.”

“Then there’s the girl. Elena? She’s not your daughter.”

“Not… technically.”

“Not technically. But if you tell me she is innocent of all this, I will believe you. And if the Soul Thieves want her, the King will very much want to keep her from them.”

“She is innocent.”

He sighed. “Thank you. In that case I place her under the protection of the crown. But out here? We can’t stop those people if they try again. You saw what those arrows did to the old man. Right in his heart and he barely noticed. None of the rest of us even got close to the bastards. But you killed a Soul Thief, which puts you in a position to be a very good friend of the king, were it not for the company you keep. Tell me the truth. Are you the third one we’re looking for?”

“He’s not,” Elena said.

I liked the captain. He seemed bound by honor, which is an annoying trait in any man, but he was straightforward and at least somewhat pragmatic. “I’m the only one you’re looking for,” I said. “I killed the baron. For my own reasons. You can let the others go.”

“The baroness must answer to charges of treason.”

Elena whipped her head around to stare at Kat. “She’s a fuckin’ baroness? I just thought she was a bitch.”

Katherine frosted. “‘Hostage’ would have been a more accurate title,” she said. “And I am not a traitor.”

The captain shook his head and stood. “That’s not for me to decide, your grace.”

I managed to pull myself to my feet. The world spun a time or two before coming to rest; I was leaning heavily on Elena. My tunic was caked with deep red mud. “You’re in no shape to fight those two,” I said to the captain, gesturing to Bags and Kat. “Not after the beating you and your men took last night. Take the victory you can. You’ve got the man who cut Rothfork’s throat, you have the body of a Soul Thief, and you have Elena, whom the King will want to meet. That’s enough to get a shiny bit of metal to pin to your uniform on special occasions. Someone else can bring in the baroness. Hell, as far as I’m concerned, she wasn’t even here. Don’t grasp for more than you can hold.”

The captain considered, and nodded. “For the sake of the girl, I agree. Very well, based on your confession, I place you under arrest in the name of the King,” he said. “Please surrender your weapon.” He was very careful to emphasize the singular. I handed him my hunting knife, and the captain’s smile showed a gap where a tooth had been the day before. He was doing it for Elena, of course; he thought I might be able to protect her. I had a feeling that I could come to like the captain.

“We surrender also,” Kat said. “On the condition that we are taken directly to the capital.”

I looked at Katherine in dismay. She smiled. “You didn’t think you could get rid of me that easily, did you?”

I shook my head. I actually had thought I could get rid of her that easily. Something moved on my insides and I sat back down again.

Captain Baldwin took a heavy breath. “Your grace, in that case I must ask for your weapons, and those of your escort.”

“That’s not acceptable,” Kat said.

“You have surrendered, your grace. I require your weapons. And his.”

Kat flared up and put her face into Baldwin’s. “You would take my weapons, but leave Martin with his? The man is a fucking porcupine.”

“Lord Porcupine to you,” I wheezed, but I don’t think anyone heard me.

The captain sighed heavily. “You heard her grace. Sergeant, kindly disarm the baroness and her charge. Then make sure the only one of us who has shown any ability to hurt a Soul Thief is also fully disarmed.” He cleared his throat. “Thank you, your grace, for calling attention to that singular threat, before our prisoner hurt anyone else.”

I am reasonably confident I would have enjoyed Kat’s response, but the world was starting to spin around my head, on no particular axis. I was aware of hands, carefully stripping me of my weapons.

“That’s one’s Elena’s,” I mumbled as the newest knife in my care was removed. “Give her it so…” Speaking was getting difficult; words weren’t forming in my head properly.

“You all right?” Bags asked.

“I’m not—” and then my gut heaved and turned inside out and I yawned out a gush of bright-red blood. I didn’t even have time to turn my head. I stared at the blood pooled in the mud between my feet, my blood. I wiped my face with the back of my hand; some blood was still dribbling out through my nose. “That’s not good,” I said. My face began to sweat but the top of my head felt cold. I slumped over a little more, then slid off the log into the mud I’d so recently been hoisted from. I felt Elena’s attempts to prop me up, which served only to send arrows of white pain through my shoulder.

A hive of angry bees was invading my head. “Widow’s wort,” I said to the sky. If it doesn’t kill you, it can stop the bleeding inside.

“You’ll not find that for a thousand miles,” someone, probably Kat, said.

“Brewer’s Ford” my almost-friend Captain Baldwin said. His face loomed into my rapidly-narrowing field of vision. “We have a surgeon there, saves more than he kills.”

As the blackness nipped at my eyes I managed a tiny smile. “He must be a very good surgeon indeed.”

Baldwin’s heavy glove rested on my good shoulder. “You’ll be all right,” he said, but honest men have difficulties with even the most well-intentioned lie.