Night came quickly, the clouds of the breaking storm skating across the face of the rising gibbous moon. Up on the rock no lights flickered; no one remained after the sun went down. Too dangerous, and too painful. The dungeon had been breached, the bodies tallied; there was no reason to hurry anymore. No one would take the time to discover that one of the victims had been bludgeoned to death, rather than baked or suffocated. The commander and his guard had not been found, but that surprised no one; none who had been in the towers would ever be identified. All that was left was to contemplate the power of the people who had done this, and to curse them. Quietly, lest they hear.
In the face of disaster, people who live in different worlds find a common thread that holds humanity together. That night the people of Brewer’s Ford, the merchants and the laborers, the wealthy and the destitute, gathered in the public houses. All shared stunned, delayed grief that would for some harden into anger, while for others it would melt into despair. No one wanted to be alone. Some cursed, some wept, some laid plans, some mourned their losses.
We sat in a corner of one of the local tap houses, surrounded by the townsfolk but separate from them, an object of curiosity. We had arrived in town with soldiers, but Baldwin’s men met any questions about us with tight-lipped silence. Their captain had told them only one thing: The slightest slip could cost Elena her life. She had been a mascot before; now she was a symbol of hope. As was I, apparently. Baldwin’s men didn’t like me, not really, but I had killed one of the enemy. And now I was an officer.
Tight lips carry their own messages, of course, and the people around us knew we were not simple travelers who found themselves in the wrong place. I didn’t need to hear the stories that were growing all around us; we were threads in the fabric of the tragedy, and we would be remembered long after we drew our last breaths.
I sat where I could best watch the long, narrow room, and I put Elena next to me. Katherine scowled when I put her across from me, with her back to the crowd, but Bags would have blocked my view.
Elena hadn’t said a word since I had come down from the fortress. Now her finger traced the raised grain of the table, demanding all her concentration. I put my finger down near hers, moving slowly across the grain to intercept her. When we touched she froze, and I asked, “are you ready?”
Her eyes never left the table. “Ready for what?”
“When I say, just look up and scan around the room. Like you’re looking for someone. Don’t let your eyes stop on anyone.”
“What’s the point?” she asked. There was surrender in her voice.
“Now,” I said.
She looked up, glanced around, and looked back down.
“Was anyone looking at us?”
Her finger lifted off the table, but her eyes remained downcast. “I think… yes.”
I released a breath I hadn’t realized I was holding. Bags nudged my elbow but I ignored him. “Here’s the difficult question,” I spoke into Elena’s ear. “Was anyone watching us?”
She thought for a moment. “Can I look again?”
I felt a moment of proud satisfaction. Most people, especially those of her age, would have looked back up at the room when I asked that question. That’s when I knew I was right to make her a Wanderer. To make her my daughter, heir to the treasure of my clan. My mother had long since abandoned the hope of having a grandchild, but sometimes wishes come true in the most indirect of ways. Elena was older than ideal to join the family, but she had her other talents as well. I allowed myself a moment to believe she had a chance to become the greatest of us all. I suppose all parents have thoughts like that.
“Not yet,” I said. “We’ll take turns, and try to be unpredictable.”
Her hand gripped my wrist. She looked at me, her eyes moist. “Are we going to fuck them up?”
“Yes,” I said. “We’re going to chop off their balls and feed them to weasels.”
Her fleeting smile didn’t last. She started to crumble, curling into me. “All those people,” she said. “Because of me.”
“Maybe,” I said. “But maybe not. Look now.”
She glanced up and made me proud. She wasn’t furtive, or even subtle. She looked around, her face apathetic — bored, even — then looked back at me and shook her head. “What did you see?” I asked.
“I saw sad, I saw angry. I saw a bunch of fuckers lookin’ at us like we’re gonna fix it.”
I had also been watching the pub while Elena looked around, watching how people reacted to her. I saw what I needed.
“We should be far from here,” Katherine said.
“I agree,” I said. “But I have orders.”
Kat snorted and looked at me across the table, her arms folded across her chest. “We all know how much that means to you.”
Bags nudged me again. “Martin, there’s something I have to tell you. Now.” His statement earned him a searching look from Kat. Perhaps I was about to learn about what was left of their own plans.
“Let’s take a walk,” I said. “I could use some fresh air.” Not exactly what I needed at that moment, but this wasn’t a moment to be telling the truth.
Bags stood and so did I. Almost every eye in the pub turned toward the gleaming warrior. I put my hand on Elena’s shoulder and bent back down so only she and Kat could hear. “If there’s trouble,” I said, “keep each other safe. Follow the river. We’ll catch up.” Kat opened her mouth, thought, and closed it again. She nodded. To Elena I said, “Don’t stab Kat before we get back, all right?”
Elena looked at me with a tiny ghost of a smile. “Don’t take too long,” she said.
I put my hand on her head, and wished that I had already taught her much more about how to use her weapon. “Don’t do anything stupid,” I said. The summary of generations of accumulated knowledge. As we spoke I palmed my dark-bladed knife, keeping it hidden up my sleeve. I straightened and turned to Bags. “After you.”
We walked between tables, making our way through the crowd. I kept the corner of my eye on one woman who studiously ignored us as she pretended to weep into her ale. Our path would take me right behind her. A cut to the throat, swift and precise, and one more of our problems would be solved.
I was two steps away from her when Bags stopped and touched her shoulder. She looked up at him, startled. He shook his head, a tiny, subtle motion, then waited. After a moment she returned the gesture with a tiny nod. Bags glanced back at me and continued walking. I walked past her without killing her, wondering if I had made the right choice.
Once outside Bags started walking and didn’t slow down. Our path took us downriver, away from the disaster, but I doubt Bags was aware of that. I kept pace as cramps seized my midsection, fighting to maintain a normal gait for whoever might be watching. The world is filled with enemies.
We were soon out of town, sheltered from the light of the moon by the branches of ancient trees. “I need to stop,” I said. I stepped off the road and into the shelter of a clump of bushes. I barely managed to squat in time.
“You all right?” Bags asked from the road, in a voice I thought louder than necessary.
I considered my answer carefully. “Still feeling some effects from the other night,” I said more quietly. Something was still not right in my abdomen, but as I released the cramps abated.
Bags waited in silence for a few moments, then began to speak. “She didn’t know what was going to happen.”
I couldn’t see his face from where I was. “You knew her?”
“I knew who she was. Gray Watch.”
“I’ve not heard of them.”
“No, you wouldn’t have. They work for the Soul Thieves.”
I wasn’t surprised to hear that. I decided that there was nothing left inside me and found some wide leaves in the underbrush. “What I don’t understand is why I didn’t kill her.”
“She didn’t know what was going to happen.”
I stood and got my clothing arranged. “That’s twice you’ve said that.”
Bags found a fallen log at the side of the road and sat. I emerged from the bushes and sat too, feeling things rearrange themselves in my gut. I waited, but I knew what he was going to say next. “I was in the Gray Watch,” Bags said. “I worked for the Soul Thieves. But not the ones that did this.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“Because the ones who did this killed the man I worked for.”
“And the woman back there? Who does she work for?”
“She just resigned.”
“She told you that?”
I chose to believe Bags. A lot can be said in a tiny nod. “So she won’t tell them about us voluntarily.” I left the implication hanging.
“I was thinking,” Bags said. He stood up and looked back toward town. “I was thinking she could come with us.”
I remained seated, my eyes closed, listening to the night. It would be so much easier just to kill the woman. Or better yet whisper a comment to the right person and let the townsfolk tear her to shreds. I doubted Kat or Elena would mind. But Bags would. “Is she skilled?”
“She’s Gray Watch,” Bags said.
“We have some unpleasant work to do tonight. She can come along.” I didn’t intend to let her out of my sight until I could form my own judgements about her. Bags was obviously relieved. “You have any more surprises?” I asked.
“One,” Bags said. “But it’s pretty big.” He looked down at me with his toothless grin. Normally I liked that grin. I wasn’t so sure I would this time.
I stood and began walking, very slowly, back toward town. I was tired of surprises. I was tired of this whole business.
“There’s a Soul Thief that might help us,” Bags said. “We’ve been trying to contact him.”
“What makes you think he wants to help us?” I asked.
“He’s my brother,” Bags said, and began walking much more briskly back toward town. “We used to call him Worm.”