I slept poorly. Between the oppressive dampness of the camp and the discomfort in my gut, dawn found me little rested and uncharacteristically cantankerous. Elena, bless her beggar’s soul, read my mood as I pulled my soggy ass out of my soggy bedroll while the sun peeked through the hanging branches of the trees that surrounded us.
“Gonna be a good day for cursin’ lessons,” she said, before moving to intercept Kat before the woman could approach me.
“Fuck you,” I grumbled to her back, softly, ashamed that I couldn’t come up with anything better.
Bags put his heavy hand between my shoulder blades. I felt the warmth of it through my layers of clothing. “You all right?” he asked.
“Tired,” I said. I wanted to walk away from his touch but I didn’t.
“You’ll be all right,” Bags said. “You’re tough.”
I nodded, entertaining the lie. “You’re right. I just need a quiet place to rest.”
“Think we’ll get there tonight?”
“Tomorrow, more likely.” I wanted to give the cavalry every chance to catch us and relieve us of the godfucked map.
We ate a sullen, cold breakfast and returned to the road, moving slowly south, through villages that appeared with clockwork regularity along the river. Both the river and the road carried more traffic than they usually did, as news of the attack gave people new reasons to be in other places.
That bright morning Elena managed to find a degree of charm that I could not muster to talk with the others on the road; to learn the where-from’s and the where-to’s of the other travelers. Most were happy to share their tiny biographies, but a few met her questions with irate suspicion. She would shrug at those and go to seek more freely-given information — only to return to the quiet ones later, with better-crafted questions, that suggested she might have a story to share of her own.
Conversation is a form of barter, an exchange of information and stories. Usually the value of the product offered is negative — we covet the opportunity to tell our stories; it is the listener who commands a price. And then rarely listens. For a Wanderer, for one who prefers to take information without giving any, it is an ideal situation. Elena understood this; no doubt her years of serving alcohol to broken men gave her a deeper understanding of the exchange, whether she understood it or not.
But now those around us were desperate for information, hungry for the opinions-delivered-as-fact that dominated conversation on the road. It was, for once, a seller’s market. We could not solicit information from some of the others without offering a story of our own. On that score, Elena did not disappoint.
“My uncle was at that Begaa-cursed fort,” she would say to a wide-eyed man leading a wobbly-wheeled cart filled with complaining sheep. “Fuh. Uncle — that’s what my palsied stepmother called him anyway.” Elena rolled her eyes. “But my stepmother would have opened her shop for business on the day the virgins died.” She gave him a knowing look. “Her shop was between her legs, if you hadn’t figured that out already.” The pace of her tale would increase as she brought her audience in. “Anyway, Uncle Carbuncle (that wasn’t his real name, that’s what I called him) was stationed at Brewer’s — unless he was kicked out of the army first. No one’s quite sure. My grandfather and I (this is my real grandfather, my dad died before I can remember then my mother married a fucking twatnoodle then mother died and he married the holy cum bucket) want to find Uncle Carbuncle and kick him in the scrotum.”
I was now a grandfather. And no one seemed to find it odd that we would go to such trouble to kick a man in the scrotum — though all agreed Uncle Carbuncle deserved it. And when Elena fed her stories to our fellow travelers, they felt well-compensated for their own information of dubious value.
Most of the travelers had theories about recent events, their wild guesses presented as absolute fact. Most did not know the full truth of Brewer’s Ford, or simply could not believe what they had heard. All professed outrage, and a determination to address the cowardly attack. Some headed north to Brewer’s Ford to enlist, others traveled south to avoid conscription.
In all the conversations, there was “us” and there was “them”. Never much definition of the terms, but we were all “us”.
We plodded southward and Elena talked to the travelers, enjoying her subtle larceny, polishing her myth. The horsemen didn’t come back for us. With my slow pace and frequent stops they could easily have caught up with us, could easily have lifted my burden. Should easily have caught up with us. Unless I had exaggerated the importance of the map we carried in the King’s plans. Or maybe Baldwin had convinced them that I was to be trusted to get the object to the king. Or something else. I suspected I would never know. All I did know was that I still had the godfucked thing, and I had allowed myself to be ordered to take it to the godfucked king.
Eventually I was able to manage few colorful phrases for Elena’s education. “He’s just a maggot in the discharge from a buzzard’s cunt” was a favorite.
Finally it was time to stop. “We’re in Richmond’s holding now,” Katherine fumed that night. “But no sign that he’s doing anything. The coward.” The last she said more quietly. We were camped with a handful of other traveling parties, in a campsite that was almost a town of its own accord. A cluster of wagons in the center provided food, drink, and other hospitality, unburdened by taxation. On my previous times through these parts the camp had been upbeat and boisterous, but tonight even the pickpockets went about their business in grim silence.
I squatted on the trampled ground, watching the people around us, never letting the fire dazzle my eyes. On the other side of the camp a man started singing a patriotic song, and soon his mates shouted along, their voices a challenge to the darkness. “We shall always be!” the chorus went. “We shall always be!” With each time through more of the camp joined, until even I shouted along, so that I would not be the one not shouting along.
“We shall always be!” I struggled to my feet as the rest of the camp rose. At times like that, with everyone filled with such vigorous passion, it is easy to believe even the silliest of statements. Katherine shouted the phrase at the sky, raising her fist, a tear forming in her eye. She glanced, saw me watching her, and hesitated for a fraction of a moment before rejoining the chorus. But the tear in her eye dried, evaporated by the heat of self-conscious anger.
After two extra choruses the song died away, the shouting losing structure to become just noise, then fading to sullen anger. Someone tried to get another song going, but the moment was lost and we were all just a fractured mob. What had been stone for a moment had dissolved back into sand.
Kat scowled into our meagre fire. “If they’d seen it,” she said, “if they’d seen the fort burn, if they heard the cries of the men and the animals, they would understand what was at stake. It would be more than wounded pride. They would come together.”
“Or they’d run for the hills,” I said.
She shook her head. “They’d understand, most of them would, that there’s no hiding from this. We stand together or the Soul Thieves will enslave us.”
It was Elena who answered, her voice low and steady. “You see those sad fucks in Mountain Hole?” she asked. “Digging until they die? The whores getting fucked to death? How are they not slaves already?”