“Is he dead?” Elena asked behind me.
I turned to glare at her. “I told you to stay in the bushes.”
She ignored me and walked around the corpses to reach me where I crouched by Worm. “Fuck me backwards,” she said, hunkering down next to me. She touched the shaft of the arrow sticking out of his shoulder like a flag pole. “I’ll go get Old Robert.”
“He can look after Bags first,” I said.
Elena opened her mouth to say something, then closed it again. She nodded. “I guess we should try to stop the bleeding at least. Unless you just want to kill him.”
I would have preferred the term “let him die”, but the result was that same. I sighed. “Cut some bandages from those guys’ clothes,” I said, indicating the bodies of the soldiers. “Maybe stay clear of the Soul Thief, though.”
I cut Worm’s cloak and shirt away from the wound in his shoulder. Only a little bit of blood leaked out around the shaft of the arrow. Worm’s blackened arm lay next to him in the grass, clawed and brittle fingers pointing up, skin cracked, clear liquid seeping out and already attracting flies. Black streaks ran down his arm, twisting like veins. I wondered where Old Robert would choose to cut. Trying to save his elbow could end up costing the man his life.
Elena pulled her knife from its sheath and turned to work on cutting bandages. She hesitated and poked at the corpse with her blade, then with her finger, and finally she pushed at his nose, distorting his face. “I think every bone in this fucker’s body is broke,” she said. “He’s like pudding.”
“Worm did that,” I said.
She smiled. “Nice. You recognize this uniform?”
I turned away from Worm and looked at the dead soldier she was stripping. He wore gray and maroon, with black piping along the sleeves and legs. Certainly a uniform, but with no identifying marks on it at all, and no indication of rank or status. I looked at the other non-wizard corpses and saw the same thing. What did that say about the unit they were part of? “No,” I said. “But that was a good question.”
Elena pulled the dead man’s knife from its sheath, frowned, and replaced it. She found his bow where it lay nearby and inspected it more carefully. “I should learn to shoot one of these,” she said. She took an experimental tug on the bowstring and grimaced. “Ugh. Maybe a smaller one.”
“Kat would be happy to teach you,” I said.
“I don’t know that she’s happy to do anything. Happy is not her way.” Elena squinted out into the sunny clearing. “Bags is movin’.”
I looked between tree trunks into the clearing and saw Bags sitting up, supported by Katherine who knelt beside him, while Old Robert hovered over them both. The soldier who had been with Worm lay still and ignored in the grass. We all have our priorities.
“Go get Old Robert,” I said. “But think about this carefully. If Worm lives, what do you want him to teach you? How to turn people to jelly or how to put people back together?”
Her eyes went wide. “I have to fix you.”
I smiled and put my hand on her bony shoulder. “No. I am a tiny thing. Here and gone, and none the wiser. We are all tiny things. This war is tiny, if it’s even a war at all. Do not make your choice for a tiny reason.”
“You don’t want me to fix you?”
I shook my head. “Not if it takes you from your path.”
“But I’m tiny too. What does my path matter?”
I smiled. “To me, you are not tiny. I promise I will die from something other than a fucked-up gut.”
She hurtled into my chest and knocked me off my heels to sit on the soft forest floor, almost on top of Worm. My arms wrapped around her of their own volition as she buried her face in my tunic. I felt her sobs through my hands as they rested on her back. “You’re an asshole,” she whispered, “but you’re not tiny.”
I pulled her close and didn’t correct her youthful folly. Wanderers don’t leave footprints; we are the tiniest of all. I wanted her to be one of us, but I had to accept that I also wanted her to be more than that. I wanted her to make a mark. Perhaps that is the plague of fatherhood; perhaps it was simply rebellion against my own fate.
“You better keep your promise,” she said.
“I will.” The way I was heading, I wasn’t going to live nearly long enough to have to worry about tummy troubles. “Go get Old Robert.” I put my hands on her shoulders and pushed her away so I could look into her red-rimmed eyes. “Let’s see if we can keep this little bastard alive.”
She was up and running into the meadow before I could blink. My little protege was a killer, just like me. I made myself comfortable and allowed a smile to steal across my lips as I listened to the sound of my gut tying itself in knots.
“Thank you,” Worm whispered. The corner of his mouth twitched upward and his dark eyes opened a sliver to look at me, but his head did not move. “We will teach the scary girl.”