By morning the horsemen had yet to catch up with us, but the story of a small group of people who had killed Soul Thieves swept through the camp like wind-driven fire through dry grasslands. The descriptions the incident varied, with the number of dead ranging from one to an uncountable many, but it wasn’t long until the people around us began to look at us differently.
I pulled my hood up over my head, covering as much of my face as I was willing to compromise my peripheral vision. “We should go,” I said. “Quickly.”
“They won’t bother us,” Bags said. “They’re too frightened. If someone comes too close Katherine can chase them away.” Elena smiled at his comment, but Katherine stared at Bags in stony silence for a moment, one eye swollen almost shut, before hoisting her saddle onto her horse with her good arm. In silence we all did the same, Bags helping Elena while I managed on my own. I was the last in the saddle, trying to get comfortable while Katherine scanned our camp for any forgotten items.
We rode from a camp that had fallen silent, all eyes on us. I pulled back further into the cover of my hood. There was no hiding Bags, however, and before too long stories of the baron’s assassin and the Soul Thief slayer would collide. It would be difficult to predict how any individual would react to seeing us.
As we reached the road and turned south, a shout came behind us, from the camp. The man shouted again, and others picked up the call. A cheer, hailing us as heroes. Katherine’s back straightened as the cheer grew, and stayed straight after it faded, leaving we motley heroes alone on the road in the early morning light.
The road steepened as fields gave way to forest and the river flowed with greater vigor, sweeping toward the edge of the plateau a few miles ahead. Bright-colored birds flitted from tree to tree, and under the cover of the trees I lowered my hood once more to listen to the sounds of the forest around us. We passed one platoon of soldiers heading north, and a pair of oxen-pulled wagons, but the road was empty when I saw the sign only my kind understood. “This is it,” I said, loud enough for Kat to hear.
She stopped, scanned the underbrush, and I caught a fleeting smile stealing across her face before she turned her horse away from the river, through the thick underbrush to find a path on the other side. She waited while the rest of us came through. “How far?” she asked.
I dismounted with slightly more grace than I had the night before, and inspected a low bush crowded with white flowers. After a few moments of searching I found the one that had been cut from its stem, but was still fresh. When the sun had risen this morning, the hole at Rock Fork had been secure. By now, I knew, our presence had been noted; no new flower would be cut tomorrow.
The seldom-traveled path was easy to follow as it wound between the trunks of oak and chestnut; the morning light shone through the leaves and dappled the ground with dancing circles of light. Except for a pair of fresh deer tracks there were no other footprints on the path. Had I been alone and on foot, there would still be no footprints.
The trees gave way to a grassy clearing with a modest half-timber cottage in the center, its dark slate roof tiles glinting in the morning sun. Old Robert stood in the path halfway between the trees and the cottage, his arms crossed across his chest and his feet apart, scowling beneath his gray eyebrows. “I was afraid you’d turn up here,” he said, “after all the shit I’ve heard.” He inspected each of us as we dismounted. “She’s taken a beating,” he said, gesturing with his chin at Katherine.
I nodded. “This is Katherine, who is—”
“I know who she is.”
I gestured to the big man, still sitting on his big horse. “This is Bags. And this is Elena. Elena is my ward, now.”
That surprised Robert. “You?” he asked. I nodded, and he continued to glare at me. “Hope I’m the one gets to tell your mother,” he said finally. “You’re sick, ain’t ya?” I nodded again, and he turned to Elena. “Welcome to the family.”
“Hello,” she said.
Old Robert grunted, a deep frown creasing his face, which on Robert was indistinguishable from his smile. “Let’s get this one patched up,” he said, gesturing to Katherine. “You can help, girl. Martin, you rest. You got the horses, big man? You can put the tack in the shed. Fritz will be back with supper about sunset.”
“Fritz is here now?” I asked. “What happened to High Rook?”
Old Robert cast a glance at his new guests. “Someone was careless.” He turned to Kat and gestured her toward the cottage. I’d hear the full story later, away from unwelcome ears, along with all the other news that had passed through this place.
I wandered toward the cottage and sat on a section of log where the sun could hit my face. I closed my eyes and listened to the low conversation coming from inside the cottage as Robert inspected Katherine’s injuries. “Routine,” I heard Old Robert say. “But…”
After a moment of silence there came a muffled snapping sound. Katherine gasped in pain, and Elena said, “Motherfucker!”
“It’s all right, girl. Arm wasn’t going to heal quite straight,” Robert said. “When you fix something like that you have to be fast and hard. If your patient knows you’re about to straighten it, they tense up. Fight you. Better to surprise ’em.” He made a sound that might have been a laugh. “Usually you get a better scream though. Get that bucket over there. Lady’s gonna puke.” I heard Elena scramble to comply and I winced as I listened to Kat retching. But Old Robert was right; usually they scream.
More time passed. I sat, feeling the heat of the sun on my face, and listened to the world around me. I tried not to think too much, and just let the world talk to me. I listened to birds shouting at one another and to small creatures furtively creeping through the grass and stealing from one another, while the wind sighed through the leaves of the trees as they tried to block the light from their neighbors. Overhead a hawk cried out, intent on murder.
Heavy footsteps approached and the sun on my face was eclipsed briefly before I felt the log shift as Bags sat next to me with a heavy sigh. We sat in comfortable silence for a handful of minutes, less alone but not crowded. Eventually I asked, “How are you, Bags?”
“Everybody got hurt but me,” he said.
I opened one eye a slit and looked at my companion. His automatic smile was nowhere to be found; he stared out past the forest, seeing nothing. The scar on his face I had noticed when we first met had faded, no longer looking so fresh. “We’re still alive,” I said, closing my eye again.
“I knew what you were, right away. A Wanderer. There in the tavern when you asked me to fight with you — that next day in the woods was the last honest fight I’ve had.”
“This has not been a war for honest men,” I said.
“Is it a war? Are you fighting in it?” I could feel his eyes on me.
“It’s a war. Not sure what the sides are, though.”
Bags waited for the answer to his second question, but while he can be patient, I was willing to sit there until the knot in my gut killed me. “I’m fighting,” he said eventually.
“For whom? For what?”
“I trust Kat. Katherine, I mean.” I opened my eyes in time to see the grin flash across his face and vanish. “I trust her. And Elena. She’s got a fire, and she believes in…” his brow creased. “People like us.”
I wondered what group “people like us” encompassed. I suspected any definition Bags attempted would not include Kat, and probably wouldn’t include me, either. “People like us” is an illusion, a banner to salute just like any other.
Yet, Elena would disagree with that, I realized. For her, “people like us” was the people who didn’t appear in the stories, except in large groups to get slaughtered by other large groups of “people like us”. She had escaped Mountain Hole, but she knew that none of the others she had known there ever would. Those were her people. The ones who were already dead but for the dying, never to be forgotten because they had never been known.
Behind me the cottage fell silent, and I felt the log shift once more as Katherine said down on my other side. I could smell the sharp tang of the ointment Old Robert had put on her facial wounds. I cracked open an eye. She looked pale in the bright sun, where she wasn’t bruised. “Sooner or later you’ll have to fight,” she said. Of course she’d been listening to our one-sided conversation. “You’ve seen what they are capable of.”
“I thought you were fighting a cabal who wished to overthrow the king.”
She grunted. “My late husband’s plans and those of the Soul Thieves have to be related.”
“How do you know? A weak king could invite multiple insurrections. And like two dogs fighting over scraps, they may turn on each other.”
“King, rebels, Soul Thieves,” Bags said. “King’s probably the least evil of the bunch. Eventually two will align against the third.”
“If they haven’t already,” Katherine said. “And the damn fool king may not even know there’s a rebellion yet.”
“Or he might be dead by now,” Bags said. “The rebellion might already be over. We’ll find out when we get there.”
We were all quiet for a while, until Kat said, “King, rebels, Soul Thieves, and us.” I actually felt a chill at the grim certainty in her voice. “Maybe you’re right, Martin. Maybe we’re not fighting for any of them.”