The fire crackled and sputtered as it nibbled at the damp branches I had laid for it. Smoke rose reluctantly in the heavy night air; were it not for the heavy cloak of clouds overhead I would not have risked giving away my location. I allowed myself a smile in the glow of the fire. After a good night’s work I deserved better than to huddle in the darkness. I had put a lot of distance between myself and the blood-soaked public house, and I had taken pains to be difficult to follow.
The blade of my hunting knife reflected the light of the fire. I inspected it carefully, tip to butt, looking for any damage that might have occurred while it was carving through the baron’s flesh. The hardened steel had encountered only soft flesh and some cartilage around the baron’s voice box, and had sustained only the tiniest of nicks, almost imperceptible. Traces of noble blood remained, and I spit on the blade and wiped it with a soft cloth until no memory of the man I killed remained. I thanked it for its service and slipped it back into the sheath at my side, the only visible knife I carried.
My stomach growled. No moment can ever be perfect; I wished I had taken the time to eat before killing the baron. It wasn’t the first time I’d gone without dinner, however, and it wasn’t likely to be the last. Nothing drives the work ethic quite so well as an empty belly. I also wished I had not left my eating knife at the inn, lost in the confusion. A fine blade, strong and sharp and well-balanced, valuable for the attention it didn’t attract. Sometimes the most ordinary-looking tool can be the most dangerous.
I sighed, pulled my travel-worn cloak tighter about me, and once more opened the purse I had liberated from the baron. We are creatures of habit, all of us, and I honestly don’t remember removing the baron’s money sack while I was removing his family jewels. But here it was, heavy with gold — far more gold than the baron could possibly have needed for a night out abusing his common folk.
The freshly-minted coins gleamed in the fickle light of the fire. Whatever the young Baron Rothfork had intended to do with them, they were mine, now. My little friends, liberated from servitude.
The distant sound of footsteps made my ears try to swivel on my head. Far away, but heading my direction. Two people, one making no attempt to be quiet, the other almost silent. Alone, the furtive one would have been able to get very close indeed. I took a long breath in through my nose, released it through my mouth. I needed to act, but I needed to act wisely. And quietly. There were only two of them, but if they had found me, they were more skilled than the average yahoo.
But dark woods at night — that’s my battlefield. I am, in the words of my uncle Norton, one sneaky son of a bitch. Away from the fire I moved, easily, carefully, silently. I had scouted fallback positions before laying a fire, and on this damp night I chose to move out and up, into the comforting branches of a towering conifer thirty yards from the little clearing that had been my home. Some twenty feet off the ground I pulled my night-colored cloak around me and relaxed with my feet underneath me. If I had to, I could jump, but that didn’t seem likely. I practiced shifting my double-edged knife between forward and reverse grips while I waited.
It was twenty minutes or more before the pair arrived at my campsite. During that time two things became clear to me: they were following me, and they weren’t trying to hide the fact. By the time the big man stepped into the light I was not surprised to see him. His ragged chain shirt had another gap, but I didn’t see any sign of blood. I would have smiled, but my teeth would have reflected the waning firelight.
Behind him was another man — no, a woman. The quiet one. Her eyes flashed into the shadows all around the fire, not scanning for me, but for signs of my passing. She held a short blade of darkened steel, more a large knife than a sword, while a compact bow hung from her shoulder. Her clothes were earthtone and her boots were soft. Her straw-colored hair was pulled back so it would not interfere with her vision. She was a tracker. Outside my family I’d never met a woman in that line of work before, but her presence here marked her as a good one.
The big man turned and smiled at her; she smiled back. He slipped the pack off his back and sat on my rock as he swung the pack around in front of him. She remained standing, keeping her eyes on the shadows in my general direction, the darkened blade comfortably loose in her grasp.
Out of his pack the big man pulled an oil-stained bundle. He opened it to reveal three roast chickens. He laid the cloth at his feet, pulled a drumstick off one of the birds, and took a bite. “Shit, this is good,” he said.
I smiled. She saw me, but she tried to pretend she hadn’t. “Do you have enough for one more?” I asked.
“Sure,” the big man said, “But I’m not giving you your seat back.”
I began my descent. “So you recognize that it’s my seat.”
The tracker spoke. “The seat belongs to us all.” Her voice was a husky alto. The conviction it carried sounded like trouble.
“My little brother has a saying,” I said as I reached the base of the tree. “The man with the chickens can sit where he chooses, as long as he shares.”
The tracker opened her mouth to speak, but then just nodded. I stepped into the light and appraised her as she appraised me. We were about the same height, and about the same weight. Her brown eyes were almost black in the firelight. Her mouth was set in a thin line that pressed the blood from her lips.
“My name is Martin, more often than not,” I said.
“Baxter,” the big man said through a mouthful of food. “But usually Bags.” He wiped his hand on stained trousers and offered it to me. I shook it, careful not to seem like I was trying to prove something.
“Katherine,” the tracker said. She paused, and a tiny smile quirked her hard face. “Always.” She kept her hands on her weapons.
I sat on the ground next to the food and slipped my hunting knife out of its sheath. It would have to be my eating knife, now.
The big man held up his hand to stop my action; we held those positions until he could swallow the bite he was cheering. “Got you this,” he said, and pulled my eating knife from his pack. “You left it behind.” He handed it to me, handle-first.
I was, for the smallest of moments, just a little bit undone. “Thanks,” I said. It didn’t seem like enough. I put my hunting knife back in its sheath and sliced off a chunk of bird. I regarded Bags while I chewed the first succulent bite. Everything tastes just a little bit better when you’re hungry.
“You all right?” I asked. I gestured with a chicken bone toward the new gap in his chain shirt.
He smiled toothlessly and felt at the gap with grease-stained fingers. “Definitely gonna be purple under there,” he said. “But that’s what the shirt’s for.” He took another bite of chicken, pulling the tender meat off the bones with his molars.
“Looks like it’s saved you a few times.”
He looked down at his battered armor. “Yeah,” he said. He pulled at the metal links idly, tugging the new gap closed. A gap that could kill him in his next fight. “Lotta holes in it now, though.”
Katherine’s back was to the fire. All I could see of her was a cloak pulled over her head and draping to her knees, lean calves and skinny ankles below that. “Then why haven’t you replaced it?” Her voice was carefully flat.
Bags looked at me and shrugged, a little half-smile on his chicken-grease-slicked face. He took another bite.
I used my eating knife to slice off another chunk of meat. Rosemary filled my head and I felt benevolent toward the entire world. “I found some money recently,” I said. “Let’s get you fixed up right.”
“Thank you,” Katherine said, interrupting Bags’ attempt to demur. She turned and in a single motion crouched down and tore a piece of chicken away with long, slender fingers. She was watching me carefully, her forehead creased between her eyebrows, the campfire light dancing yellow and warm in the depths of eyes. “Good people should help each other.”
“And on occasion I help good people as well,” I said, to lighten the mood. Let’s not make any mistakes here; I am not a good person.
Katherine sent me a thin smile. “This is going to be an interesting journey.” She stood and turned away from me and punched Bags gently in the shoulder. “Eat up, big guy. We’re going to be walking a long way.”