I once killed a man who studied the moon and the stars, who charted the sun as it moved through the sky, its path varying by the seasons but following some greater law. I killed another man who said the sun was pulled by a giant bird, and the seasons changed as the bird flew higher, got tired, and as a result came down lower to share the warmth of his flaming cargo. On the surface the latter sounds silly – why can’t we see the bird, especially when the moon comes between us and the sun?
But something has to move the sun. Something has to move the moon. Something has to move the planets as they wander between the stars. When I mentioned this to the astronomer, he almost smiled and said, “Why must something move them? Perhaps there is simply nothing to stop them.” I am happy that he told me that. Happy that he could see me consider his idea before I slid my little stiletto between his ribs. I think he was happy to see me consider it as well. Perhaps the astronomer took solace in the thought that his ideas wouldn’t die with him. The man who had paid me to kill him was the one who believed in the bird.
Perhaps we all move until something stops us.
As he clung to my arm and whispered into my ear with a voice driven by a punctured lung, the astronomer said, “It’s all much simpler if we allow that we are not in the center.” He fell, then, with a final sigh, and was no more. Perhaps he could have been one of my kind, had events fallen differently.
At Rock Fork, the sun rose and the sun set, perhaps drawn by a bird, perhaps out of sheer stubbornness. While we crawl around in the dirt, it doesn’t really matter why the sun does what it does, or why the moon is just a little slower as it moves across the sky.
The moon had just been overtaken when I could feel that it was time to leave our broken sanctuary. I awoke when dawn was still just an idea, and I was certain that it was time to take the godfucked map to the godfucked king and then to slip away with Elena, and leave the war to the people who cared about the outcome. Old Robert and Fritz would find a new place to build a Hole, and word of its location would filter through the Wanderer world.
In the early-morning light I watched Elena brush Gorowir, her forehead creased with concentration as she moved the brush in long, even strokes. The horse leaned into the stiff bristles of her brush, his breath hanging heavy in the still air. Of all of us, I think Gorowir was improving the most rapidly. I had even seen him trot the day before, while Elena called out words of encouragement I suspect the horse did not understand.
Bags was with her in the paddock, towering over her as he brushed his own horse, letting Elena do the talking, sharing an easy smile and the occasional laugh. I wondered if his smile would be so warm if it had teeth in front.
“Yer not well yet,” Old Robert said. He knew it was time for us to go as well. He handed me a metal cup filled with hot tea; we awkwardly completed the exchange touching only the handle.
I nodded. “No guarantee I ever will be,” I said. I took a sip. I was starting to get used the sharp medicinal taste. Almost starting to like it.
Old Robert spat, and scratched his head. “Deep hole?”
A deep hole is one that not even other wanderers knew about. When we need to disappear entirely. Some of us have been given up for dead only to emerge months later. I nodded. “First the King, then Deep Hole, Elena and me, until things quiet down.”
“Might be a while. Think things are going to get louder first.”
He gave up his scratching and inspected his fingernails. “You got other family can teach her things she needs to know. She’s already old to be taking up the trade. Deep hole’s just gonna make it worse.”
“She’s liable to attract a lot of lightning right now.”
Old Robert squinted toward the edge of the wood. I followed his gaze in time to see Fritz vanish back into the shadows between the trees. “Looks like she might already have,” Old Robert said.
Katherine emerged from the woods to my left, striding toward us with purpose, her scowl so fierce her eyes were in shadow even as the early-morning sun hit her face. She held her strung bow in one hand, an arrow nocked but not drawn. Her other hand was in a fist.
“What in Myrova’s eastward-facing bunghole is going on?” Elena asked.
“Unexpected guests,” Bags said.
“Shit.” Elena looked around for guidance.
“Be calm,” Bags told her. “And keep your knife close.”
I might have given her that advice, but I was whispering it to myself as Katherine closed in, looking murderous.
“We shouldn’t still be here,” Katherine hissed between grinding teeth. “We should have left days ago.”
“Days ago might have been the time to point that out,” Old Robert said. His words did not placate Kat; her anger was with herself.
“Who’s out there?” I asked, hoping to move the conversation to more productive ground.
“There’s two I know about,” she said. “Not trying to hide. Skinny little fuck who couldn’t sneak up on a stone, and another man, larger, with a sword and a heavy pack, who does what the skinny guy says. He left the pack a way back so he could use his sword.”
“Anything interesting in the pack?” I asked.
That earned me another glare. “I had other priorities.”
“Fritz’ll have a look, I expect,” Old Robert said. “But unless they’re stupid, they won’t have left anything interesting.”
While we spoke, Bags recovered his sword and paced slowly toward the edge of the woods, placing himself between the newcomers and us. An open field was not my battleground of choice, but I chose my hunting knife and drifted away from the group. “Stay close to Robert,” I told Elena over my shoulder. Katherine would make her own decisions.
The two newcomers emerged from the forest, moving slowly up the path. The larger one was in the lead, and my quick appraisal of him was “dangerous”. Lightly armored, he moved well, and his eyes scanned the meadow as he catalogued threats. His nose had been broken at least once. His sword was ready but he must have known he was at the mercy of a good bowman. Or woman. He was working to keep his body between us and his companion. The long, dew-kissed grass of the meadow dampened his leggings and his worn leather boots.
The other newcomer was dressed in a plain light-brown tunic, belted at his waist with a cloth sash that had no place to hang weapons. He took a few steps into the clearing and stopped short, frozen for a moment, his eyes wide, fixed on Bags. Bags stiffened, and readied himself.
The newcomer took a fumbling step forward, then another. He picked up speed, heading straight for the big man.
Skinny guy’s bodyguard, caught by surprise, jogged to catch up to his charge. “Be careful!” he called out, apparently needing no honorific.
The skinny man stopped abruptly ten feet from my favorite toothless warrior. “Is it you?” he asked. His voice rose in pitch and his eyes widened. “Baxter? Bags?” The hair stood up on the back of my neck.
Bags scratched his chin and nodded slowly, tilting his head, then froze. He spoke so quietly I could hardly hear him. “Worm?”
The skinny one, Worm, sprinted the rest of the distance as Bags’ sword landed forgotten in the grass. They embraced, Bags’ arms threatening to crush the smaller man. Worm’s feet dangled while they laughed and said unintelligible things.
“That was unexpected,” Old Robert said. Across the meadow the bodyguard barked a laugh in agreement. Everyone relaxed a little bit — except Katherine and me. It seemed a safe bet that Worm was Bags’ brother. Which meant Worm was a Soul Thief. Judging from initial reactions, Bags was going to be pretty upset when I killed him.