A gentle silence settled around us as we finished our food. We all knew what must follow. Travel. Pursuit. Fear and maybe death.
I don’t make much of an impression when I’m in a room, and that’s all right with me. Even after I killed the baron I doubted anyone who was there would be able to identify me with certainty. Were I alone I’d just need to put enough distance between my face and that ugly scene, refrain from showing too much of the baron’s money in one place, and I’d be fine. Eventually the powers that be would find some other poor bastard to execute, pat themselves on the back for a job well done and justice served, and turn their attention to the next terrible crime.
Bags, however, had made quite an impression. We could get him new armor and maybe even new teeth, but it wouldn’t matter. The baron’s friends would follow him to the end of the world. If Bags was to survive, it was time to find shelter from the storm.
“Know anyone who hated Rothfork?” I asked my new companions.
Always-Katherine nodded. “Almost everybody.”
Almost everybody is worthless. “Anyone who might be grateful enough and powerful enough to protect us?”
She ran a hand over her pulled-tight hair, looking for any strands that dared defy her, while she framed her response. “Grateful and powerful, yes. But willing? Probably not. The baron’s enemies aren’t going to want to reveal themselves yet.”
Yet, she said. I wiped my fingers on my cloak and stretched my legs out in front of me. The fire was just a glow now, painting our faces red. Bags belched and laughed. I asked the question I already knew the answer to. “What makes you think that?”
She spit into the fire. “Because one of them hired me to kill the son of a bitch.”
Bags laughed. “That’s why she made us come marching out here. To see who stole her fun.”
“And to keep you alive,” she said. She turned back to me. “Who are you working for?”
I patted my stomach. “I fill my own belly, and starve on my own account,” I said.
“Why did you kill him, then?”
“He was an asshole.” And that’s the whole truth. But people want to make it complicated.
She smiled, but it wasn’t a particularly friendly smile. “Do you kill all assholes?”
“I’d like to.”
“Bags said the baron was attacking a woman, and you killed him for it.”
Katherine was trying to like me, trying to see me as a defender of the weak, a man willing to risk his life to protect the downtrodden. A lot of people are like her; they feel a need to enjoy the company of the people around them. Those people annoy me. “I killed him,” I said, “but that’s not why.”
I let it drop. If they wanted to think I was some godfucked saint then it would be easier if I ever needed to cut their throats. The coals of the fire faded, and no one moved to add more wood. The night closed in around us, while in the darkness the furtive sounds of the forest told my ears of the life-and-death struggle that surrounded us. Everything lives at the expense of something else. Life is murder.
“They’ll know by now we are headed toward Bishop’s Junction.” Katherine said. “They’ll be waiting for us there. We should turn north.”
The terrain to the north got very rugged, making mounted pursuit less of an advantage. It also meant slow, hard travel and a much longer wait before I could start spending my new money. “That’s a good choice,” I said. “You two head north; I’ll cut back southeast.”
“You’re coming with us,” she said.
“Huh,” I said. I would have said the same thing if Katherine had told me rocks were made of water.
She looked at me with narrowed eyes and shook her head slowly. “You’re the one who got us into this.” Her hands lay quiet on her knees, as if she was expecting a fight.
“I didn’t get you into anything,” I said. “You said yourself you were planning to kill the guy.”
“Not by starting a brawl in a crowded room. You got Baxter into it. Deep. Don’t you feel any responsibility for that?” She spoke like the big man was a child to be protected.
I looked up into the blackness over our heads. My eyes found nothing to support the notion that there were stars up there beyond the clouds.
“I was just happy to have help,” Bags said. “I would have done it anyway.”
“You are an idiot,” Katherine said, but there was softness in her voice. I heard Bags laugh. I stared up at the sky as I listened to him sucking the chicken grease off his fingers. A branch almost directly over my head shook. Probably a porcupine looking for dinner.
“We should let him go his own way,” Bags said. “This isn’t his fight.”
“It’s everyone’s fight. If you go south,” Katherine said to me, “then we go south, too. If you go north, we are all less likely to die.”
I abandoned my contemplation of the empty heavens and looked at Bags and Katherine. They both watched me as I worked through my options. Kat was striving to keep the hope out of her face, Bags was trying not to smile. He knew I was cornered; Katherine knew that she was cornered. She was hopelessly outnumbered in hostile lands and even a friend like me was better than no friend at all. We both understood how desperate she was, but there was nothing to be gained from pointing that out. Not at that moment, anyway.
Katherine decided to push her argument. “Baxter’s an idiot, but he wants what’s right. I don’t know what you are, but you impressed Bags. We’re staying together until I figure that out.”
And not a moment longer, I added silently, because that was the truth of it. To know me is… let’s just say love doesn’t enter into it. But I liked Bags and his toothless smile. I could stay with him a little longer, and maybe even convince myself that I had a choice.
Having chosen, there was nothing left to do but act. I stood and reached for my pack. “I hear the north is lovely this time of year.”