I walked as quickly as I could, wanting to punish Elena for her careless words, wanting to punish the world for being the way it was. But after a few miles I was winded. The first light of the new day found me slowing down and struggling to catch my breath. Still I plodded down the road, letting its ruts guide me. South. The river was nearby; I couldn’t always hear it but I could feel it nonetheless. Frogs peeped in the distance and a flock of geese honked overhead, heading the same direction we were. The sun, still below the horizon, began to paint the scattered puffy clouds above our heads, turning them pink and orange. The air had a nip to it that found me quickly when I slowed my pace.
Bags was at my side, taking two steps for every three of mine, his new mail shirt gathering grime but still able to gleam in the soft light. “We should rest a bit,” he said. “After what you’ve been through, you need to give yourself a chance to heal.”
“You’re pale,” Katherine added from my other side. “Is there blood when you pee?”
I shook my head. There hadn’t been the last time, anyway.
“That’s good,” she said. “You just need to rest and eat some red meat. Liver and kidney. Feed your blood.”
“I can rest when we reach the King.”
Katherine glared at me. “Who knows how long that will be? Who knows what they will do to stop us? We need you strong.”
If the old man had been telling the truth, I was not going to get stronger. He had tried to scramble my insides when we met in the woods, but hadn’t finished the job. He had crippled rather than killed. I had faith in my ability to heal from just about anything, but I hadn’t had to deal with magic before.
Elena’s warm hand found mine. “I need to rest, too,” she said. “I think my feet are bleeding in my shoes.” I knew by then what a sentence with no profanity meant.
“You should have said something sooner,” I said.
In response, tears gathered in the corners of her eyes. “I’m a fuckin’ terrible Wanderer,” she said.
“We were all terrible when we started,” I said. “It’s something you learn.”
“We’re not really equipped for a long march,” Bags pointed out. “Let’s stop at the next town and use that warrant of yours. Get some supplies. And horses.”
I looked at my three companions. They all seemed to think riding was a good idea. In my condition, I had no argument, beyond simply not liking the creatures very much.
Katherine surveyed the fields that stretched away from the road, empty and quiet in the early morning light, the green drying to brown in patches. “We’re getting close to Little Bend,” she said. “There’s a garrison there, but they probably sent all they could spare north yesterday.”
“Then we’ll take what they couldn’t spare,” Bags said. “It’s the military way.”
“What makes you think they’ll give it to us?” I asked.
Bags gave me his first real smile since Mountain Hole. “Do you authorize me to speak to them on your behalf?” He asked, then appended, “Sir?”
“You’re our quartermaster,” I said. Katherine scowled. “What?” I asked.
“We can’t take all they have. They have jobs to do, too.”
I watched her for a moment. Her cheek was red and puffy, still seeping clear liquid as scabs hardened over her scraped skin, her eye swollen almost shut. Her hair hung limply, weighted with grime clinging to a mixture of sweat and Soul Thief mist, yet her back was straight and her shoulders square. Her weary eyes looked everywhere but at me.
Kat, for all her sterling qualities as a pain-in-the-ass idealist with unreasonable expectations, was not a good liar. She wanted to be the one to decide who our quartermaster was. The war she had wanted to start was leaving her behind. It wounded her, but she knew how petty it would sound to complain about it.
Knowing I had read her, she looked back to the north, toward her original goal. “The king is a fool. He doesn’t even know he’s trapped. He needs an army he can trust, not… us.”
I had to admit she had a point, and every day our little band was less impressive. “How’s your arm?”
“It’s fi—” she glanced at Elena and stopped herself. “It hurts. Won’t be using the bow for a while.”
“Do we need to set the bone?”
Elena said, “She fuckin’ did it already. I had to help. Thought I was gonna fuckin’ puke.”
Kat put her good hand on Elena’s shoulder and gave her a little smile. “We do what needs to be done,” she said. I wasn’t sure who the “we” was in that statement, but apparently Elena understood. She nodded wisely.
“I can carry Elena as far as Little Bend,” Bags said. “Martin, you’re going to have to walk.” The toothless grin was back. “Unless Katherine…”
Kat allowed a hint of a smile to touch her tightly-pressed lips. “Not likely,” she said. “We get to town, we get horses and supplies, we get out of town before stories about us catch up.” And like that she was in charge again. Which was all right with me.
“That won’t be long,” I said.
She nodded. “It won’t. Then we get someplace quiet and defensible, and we rest and regain our strength. Then we find the king, if he’s still breathing by then.”
I did not want to stop, but Katherine was right. “I know a place,” I said.
“And Elena,” Katherine said. “Nothing from you.”
Elena tilted her head. Of all of us she was perhaps the least battered, but pain and fatigue etched her face as well. Now that I was paying attention to my surroundings again, I could see the way she stood, trying to avoid certain parts of her feet. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“No magic. No healing. They will find us if you do.”
Elena scowled. “I’m not sure… I’m not sure I know how to not,” she said, “Just like I don’t really know how to do it in the first place. I just kinda… did.”
Elena nodded and I could see she was deciding just how far the was going to take Katherine’s orders. The way a Wanderer would.
With a sigh I turned to face south again. Bags knelt down next to Elena and said “Climb on up.” Elena scrambled over his pack and sat on his shoulders. “Oof,” Bags said as he rose, but his legs were strong and sure under the load.
“I can see for fuckin’ miles up here!” Elena said. She locked her hands across Bags’ forehead. “I can fuckin’ see tomorrow!”
We continued walking toward the town, not moving quickly, hoping only to arrive before our names did.