Days passed. Katherine’s bruises faded, her face healed, and soon she no longer needed the splint on her arm. She spent her time and her anger exercising with Bags and prowling the woods surrounding the cabin.
My health improved as well; no longer did I need to excuse myself abruptly many times a day. Yet I had not returned to my previous vigorous self. I tired easily as was often short of breath. “Blood’s weak,” Old Robert said. He fed me a steady diet of organ meat, liver and kidney, along with all the red meat he could force me to consume.
Old Robert and I had skills that complemented each other, and we took turns teaching Elena. While I concentrated on taking lives without having one’s own life taken in return, Old Robert, with the help of Fritz, gave her lessons in restoring life — how to stop bleeding, how to set bones, how to fight infection. He knew his time with her was limited, so he concentrated on knowledge she could use to stay alive long enough to find help from one of those like him.
My lessons were more physically demanding; the endless drills that lead to mental and physical toughness, the discipline that keeps a body always ready, and the alertness to act at the right moment. Secondarily I taught her bladework, as a means to focus her mind and body and turn them into the weapon the knife represented.
She was a good student, but Elena paid more attention to Bags and his tutorials on horse care than to either of us. Under her attentive care, the noble steed Gorowir progressed from being a tragic horse to merely an old and tired one. He was hardly limping at all as he plodded around the meadow, and his ribs were much less obvious. Elena claimed his eyes were clearer and his hearing was extraordinary, while his superior intelligence was manifest in myriad ways too subtle for the rest of us to appreciate.
Bags taught Elena to ride with only her knees to guide the horse, so hands were free for sword and shield. For that week, Elena was either learning or sleeping. She improved at every discipline, showing the rapid progress that differentiates “adequate” from “embarrassing”. Soon progress would not come as easily for her, and she would have to make choices. For the moment, however, she was happy. And so was I.
“King’s holed up in South Reach,” Old Robert told me late one night, when it was only the two of us. “Gathering his allies or pissing his pants, depending who you ask.” We were outside, well away from the cabin, under the stars, with a small sack of dried meat and a crock of clear water from the river. The breeze blew chill and rustled in the treetops, while the rush of the tiny creek nearby would prevent our voices from carrying too far.
“Can’t get much farther from running the day-to-day business of the kingdom than South Reach,” I said. “But no farther from the Soul Thieves than we are here.” Old Robert knew about the map I carried, that placed the Soul Thieves’ stronghold close to everywhere.
Old Robert nodded. “Strong fortress, though. Reassuring to people who don’t realize fortresses don’t matter anymore. Walls can be broken now.”
Of course I knew that better than anyone, but I hadn’t stopped to consider the larger picture. The king, and people like the king, based their power on piles of rock and the gold that rock protected. Brewer’s Ford was the announcement to the world that piles of rock were now death traps for the occupants rather than the anchors of civilization we had all thought them to be. Walls of stone meant nothing in this new war. Not if the Soul Thieves decided to break them. If the king wasn’t safe in his castle, was he still king?
“Must have cost the shriveled bastards plenty to melt Brewer’s,” Old Robert said. “Else they would’ve cooked a few castles more by now. Establish their dominance. You ask me, they fucked up.”
“How so?” We listen to Old Robert when he talks like this. He’s right about things more often than the rest of us. But he’s not always right.
“Too far from the center,” he said. “It was an angry act. Petulant. You and your friends put pepper up their assholes and they moved before they should have. This map you carry is shit and you know it. Fucking worthless. But the Soul Fuckers thought you’d be at the fort by then. You would have been, if that bridge hadn’t washed out. They burned Brewer’s to kill you.” He scratched his head and took a drink from his mug. “Funny thing. Our people, we don’t like walls, but we’re good at getting over them. It’s part of who we are. When there are no walls, who will we be?”
“The Soul Thieves are bad for business?”
“Wars are bad for business. Less need to be subtle. But…” Old Robert scraped his worn boot in the dirt. “Those magic fuckers have been good clients up ’til now.”
I failed to hide my surprise. “They’ve hired us?”
Old Robert snorted. “Of course. Now that we know they exist it’s easy enough to tell. In truth, it would be stranger if they hadn’t hired us on occasion; until recently they’ve appreciated the efficiency of a light touch no one can trace,” Old Robert said. “I’m reasonably confident they’ve hired you. Toothless thinks so, too.”
I chewed on that for a few moments. I had no reason to believe he was wrong. “Why does Bags think so?”
“It’s just a strong suspicion on his part. But if you don’t want him to be certain, you probably shouldn’t let him get a good look at that stiletto you’ve got strapped to your wrist.”
I flipped my hand and the blade was resting comfortably in my palm. It was a beautiful weapon, elegant in the singularity of its purpose. Between ribs, into heart, without a lot of mess. The metal gleamed in the moonlight; the handle was dull black and almost invisible. I flipped it around, looking at it from every angle. “Why not?”
“You got that off someone who wasn’t going to be needing it anymore, yes?”
One of the ways we say “corpse.” “That’s right,” I said. “I cut his throat while he slept. Messy. My client paid extra for messy. The guy wasn’t very diligent for an assassin, but only an assassin is going to carry a blade like this.”
Old Robert spat. “Or a poseur.”
“True. Those never last very long.”
“No they don’t.” Old Robert agreed. “Puttin’ the pieces together, I think that crappy assassin was a Soul Thief. Off to do something so secret he couldn’t trust anyone else to do it. Like, maybe, kill a colleague. Only the colleague was smarter, and hired a professional to kill him first.”
“Happens all the time. That doesn’t make him a Soul Thief.”
“True enough, true enough. But according to young Baxter that’s exactly what happened to his boss. Had a stiletto, too, that no one found after he turned up dead. Long hair, dark brown, skin almost white. Big nose.”
“That’s the guy. Bags described him for you?”
“Yeah. He wants to know what happened; I told hm I’d keep my ear to the ground. You can add one more to the list of Soul Thieves you’ve killed. That’s four we know about, plus the one who exploded. Another fuckup driven by anger.” Old Robert scratched behind his ear, intently working at a spot. “Fucking bugs,” he said. “I put spurge weed in my hair; I think it just makes ’em angry.”
“I killed Bags’ boss.”
“Yep. Not just boss, friend. I shouldn’t expect hard feelings, though. He knows you’re just a weapon. Intellectually, at least. You never know how the heart deals with news like that. The more interesting question is, has any other Wanderer ever killed a Soul Thief?” He gave up on the irritant behind his ear. “Since we didn’t know they actually existed, it’s not something we’ve tracked.”
“If they’re in the habit of assassinating each other, it can’t be the first time we’ve served them.”
“If they are, then probably so,” Old Robert said, nodding. “Maybe the Soul Thieves know. If you get a chance, ask them next time you see one.” His laugh was little more than a wheeze. “They were smart to hire you. But now they hate you so much it’s making them stupid. You’ve hurt them. You can make of that what you will.”
I knew what Kat would make of that. What she probably already had made of that. Kat was a lot of annoying things, but stupid wasn’t one of them. If she thought I was a unique weapon against the Soul Thieves, that would explain her persistence at Mountain Hole. I wondered when she had first known that the Soul Thieves were actively involved in her problems. Probably all I’d have to do is ask her and she’d tell me everything. I wondered if there was an easier way to find out.
“What do you think of Elena?” I asked.
Old Robert smiled. “I see why you chose to take her under your wing.” He shrugged with his eyebrows, tilting his head toward me. “If you did choose.”
“Even if it all happened because she wished for a way out of Mountain Hole, I’m all right with that,” I said.
“What if that wasn’t her wish?” Old Robert asked. “Or perhaps more precisely, what if that’s not her only wish?”
“You think she has bigger plans?”
“Plans? I don’t think so. But she has no love of for the world as it is now. How could she not wish for a way to make it better, even if she doesn’t know she’s wishing it? Recruiting you, and now all of us, would be a good first step. And if breaking walls breaks the backs of the lords, she won’t shed a tear.”
I smiled. “All of us? You’ve been recruited?”
He scratched his chin and looked into the dark sky and spoke carefully. “She’s one of us now. You made it that way. So how I feel isn’t important. But… I’m glad. I like her. And the way she thinks about our world appeals to me. More than it should. The Wanderers are simply tools. Knives. A knife is not concerned with the petty ethics of the man holding it.”
“She’s not going to be a very good Wanderer, is she?” I mused.
Old Robert wheezed his laugh again. “No. She feels altogether too much. And she isn’t so good at being quiet, either. Not a good Wanderer. But she will be a very, very good something else.” He tore off another bite of dried meat with his teeth and swished it down with a gulp of water. “Just dunno what.”