When I next woke, we were in a different place. The tree trunks were thicker, and farther apart, and the pine needle carpet had given way to beds of low plants. The smell of life and decay filled the air, the buzz of insects strident in the fading light. Somewhere nearby a stream muttered to itself.
My abdomen felt like it was hosting a war between rival clans of tiny fire-breathing demons.
Elena sat next to where I lay, her chin on her chest, twitching in her sleep. She was always skinny, but now she looked wasted. As if the very life was being drained from her.
“She’s magic, in’t she?” The voice was a coarse whisper.
I turned to find one of the patrol — Gregory? Griffin? — crouched down next to me. The kid was perhaps seventeen years old, the thin mustache on his face more a dream than a reality. But his pale brown eyes and the corners of his mouth spoke of experience, of things only soldiers know after combat. I nodded yes. “I think she must be.”
“I din’t believe in any of’t. Before now.”
He put his gloved hand on my arm. “You got to tell her to stop.”
“Stop being magic?”
“Stop fixing you. ‘fore she kills herself.”
I looked back over at the girl. “You’re right…” I left the sentence hanging.
“Private Wingles, sir.”
“Wingles. Yes. Where are we?” I managed to do no more than grit my teeth as my intestines changed their dance step. I wondered if I could open myself up and let the demons out. Not without a knife, I realized. Disarmed again. This was becoming a very bad habit.
“We should be in Brewer’s Ford tomorrow morning, sir.”
I was lying on a cot of sorts, a blanket stretched between two poles. A litter, that could be pulled by a horse. “You made pretty good distance with so many wounded.”
Wingles grimaced. “Gots to hurry. Mick an’ Evert… We’d have kept going but Smalls’ horse stumbled and he broke his arm, and now the bridge just ahead is washed out. Can’t risk fording in the dark. Not with wounded. She tries to hold ’em together, but…”
I nodded. Elena was at her limit. She was just a girl whose wishes came true sometimes. Not a healer. Now she had put my life and the lives of others on her narrow shoulders. I hoped, more for Elena’s sake than for the sake of the others, that we made it to Brewer’s Ford before anyone died. Myself included.
“Drink this.” And there was Kat, standing over me and holding a cup where I could not reach it without a little effort. Wingles helped me as Elena started awake.
“Martin!” she said, her fatigued eyes shining in the twilight. She looked at the cup. “Ugh. What’s that? It smells like scrotum sweat.”
“Drink it,” Kat said. “It won’t cure you, but it might slow down your dying.”
I took a sip. It was awful. “Don’t—” Kat said as I tipped up the cup and gulped down the rest of it, to get it past my tongue as quickly as possible. “Wow,” I said, wiping my chin. “That was awful.”
“I’ll make more,” Kat said. “You’re going to puke that batch up.” She turned and strode away, angry, apparently, because I had not obeyed the instructions she hadn’t given me in time.
I informed my stomach that there would be no puking, just to spite Katherine. My stomach, however, did not seem inclined to follow even the simplest of instructions, for even the noblest of reasons. I rolled over and heaved up my medicine. Hard to tell in the gray light how much blood was in there also. “Tired of puking,” I said.
“Tomorrow we’ll be at the fort,” Elena said, leaning over me and wiping my chin with a cloth. “Things will get better.”
I nodded. Since the beginning of time men have stacked stones one upon the other to create walls, and doing so they created “inside” and “outside”. Inside was the place you were safe, where the great saliva-dripping teeth of the unknown could not reach you. My family, though not unusual in any other way, believed that “inside” was where you could not escape those teeth. Or perhaps better to say that the teeth of the unknown were far less frightening than the teeth of the creatures that lived inside the walls. Of course, often we were those teeth, the instruments of the beasts that prowled the cities of man. But that knowledge simply reinforced our aversion to walls.
This time I was inclined to agree with Elena that being inside strong walls was a good thing. The keepers of the walls would want to hold me there, but that is natural for wall-keepers and I was confident that I would be able to restore my independent status when the situation warranted. In the meantime, anything that made it more difficult for our enemies to reach us was a good thing.
“The fort at Brewer’s in’t a big place,” Wingles said, “But it’s feckin’ tight. We’d ha’ been there tonight but for the feckin’ bridge.”
I glanced at Elena, but she didn’t seem to find any significance in the coincidence. My great aunt always accused me of finding ulterior explanations for even the simplest events. High praise. Lying on a litter, slowly dying, I had to wonder if someone was actively preventing us from reaching safety.
“Elena, it is time to put the edge on your knife.”
Excitement overcame fatigue. “Are you up for it?” she asked.
I chuckled. “You’ll be doing all the work. Open my bag and take out the whetstone. Wingles, please be so kind as to restore the girl’s knife to her possession.”
Wingles jumped up to obey. “Bone handle, leather sheath,” I called after him. While he was gone I gave Elena a brief lesson in the care of a whetstone.
Wingles returned with the proper knife and handed it to Elena. “Cap’n says it’s my ass if you end up with it when we’re done,” he said to me. “It’s her knife.”
Elena removed her blade from its sheath and studied the blade. Wingles pulled out his own knife and stone and held it at the ready. I raised my eyebrow at him and he shrugged. “Always good to watch an expert,” he said. “Maybe I’ll learn something.”
When Elena was ready she sat next to me and I propped myself up. I had her pour water on the stone and then I wrapped my hand around hers and held her naked blade to the stone at the proper angle. Where the metal touched my skin I felt the cold kiss and my breath caught.
Elena started to move the blade, but I prevented her. I tipped her hand up. “Too steep an angle, you lose sharpness.” I lowered her hand until her thumb was brushing the stone. “Too shallow, your blade is sharp, but prone to nicks and dings. The edge won’t last. The perfect angle depends on the hardness of the steel and what you want to use the blade for.” I adjusted her hand once more. “I think this is about right for you and a Mrkl blade.”
I guided her hand in a slow, smooth stroke, turning her wrist with the curvature of the blade. The steel slid across the stone with a light scratching sound. “Like that,” I said. “Now you.”
Her eyes squinted in concentration as I loosened my grip on her hand and let her pull the blade over the stone.
“Almost,” I said. We did another stroke with my guidance, then one on her own, then another with my guidance. Each time on her own was better than the one before, but the real test would be ten minutes from now, as her concentration flagged. “A little faster, now, a nice smooth stroke.” She did as she was told. “Now let’s turn it over and do the other side a bit.”
“How do I know when I’m done?” she asked.
“Wingles, may I borrow your blade?” He handed me his knife before he considered that he had just armed his prisoner. “Move your thumb over the edge like this.” I demonstrated, then handed the knife to Elena hilt-first, clenching my teeth as I let go. In only a few seconds it had become my knife to some part of me I did not control. She did as I had shown and smiled a little. “Test here, and here,” I said, indicating different locations along the blade. “His knife is reasonably sharp, but not consistent along the length of the blade. Sharper here than here.” Wingles would benefit from the lesson, I hoped.
“Now give Wingles back his knife, the way I gave it to you, and do the same test with your blade.”
This time she frowned. “I have a long way to go.”
She nodded and drew her knife over the stone again, a sloppier motion than before. “Like that, you’ll never finish,” I said. “Your new blade deserves your complete attention.”
Her next stroke was better, but not as good as she had been. I took her hand and reminded her muscles of the proper action, the way my mother had taught me. Her next stroke was very good.
I glanced over at Wingles, and guided his hand for a stroke.
“Seven masters of fuck hell!” Elena cried out. I turned back to see a ruby pearl of blood forming on the tip of her middle finger. I stopped her before she put her wounded digit in her mouth. Instead I guided her finger to the blade that had taken her blood.
“The first blood a knife draws is almost always its owner’s,” I said. I rubbed her finger across the steel. “With your blood you harden it,” I said. “You bind it to you.” That wasn’t really true, of course; it was not the steel that was hardened in this ritual but the soul that wielded it.
Kat returned and I lay back. She held out the tin cup again. “Sip this time,” she said. “How’s knife school?” Elena moved quickly to hide her blood and glare back at Kat.
I took the cup and forced down a few drops. “We have to be ready tonight,” I said.
Kat nodded. “Pretty convenient, bridge being out.”
Elena looked up, her eyes wide, “The fuckers are coming back?”
“Sharpen your knife,” I said. “If they come, keep it hidden. Let them pull you to them, cry and resist, until your hand is already closer to your captor’s belly than his own hands are. Then don’t get fancy, just go for the gut and keep the blade moving. Until you are in their grasp, let the soldiers protect you. Let Bags and Kat protect you.” I looked at Katherine as I said it.
Wingles tested his knife. “They won’t touch you while I’m still standing,” he said. Senseless bravery looks good on the young.
I took another sip of the poison that was supposed to delay my own demise, and put my hand on Elena’s, guided her blade back to the stone. “A sharp blade requires a steady hand and a quiet mind.”
She scowled at me. “You want my fucking mind to be fucking quiet now?”
In response I pulled the blade in her hand across the stone once more. “Listen,” I said. I repeated the motion. “Listen to the steel, listen to what it wants to tell you.”
“Shh… listen.” Another draw across the stone. And another. I released her hand for the last time. She took a shuddering breath, then another, calmer one, and resumed her task, with perhaps a bit more of a flourish at the end of her strokes than I was prone to, but we all have our own styles.
I took another sip of Kat’s concoction, and watched Elena from far away. Strength drained from my muscles and I felt like I was floating above my litter. So tired. I stared up at the stars as they emerged in the darkening sky. Vaguely I recall Kat and Elena forcing more of the foul preparation between my lips.
In my dreamlike state I felt something out there in the world, beyond my vision — many somethings perhaps, or many pieces of the same something — moving the world in ways I could not see for purposes I could not fathom. Perhaps it was my imagination, perhaps delusion, but while I lay counting stars it seemed the something was aware of me, too.