There is a moment each morning when the night must recognize that day is coming, when darkness admits it must give in to the sun’s bullying ways, yet clings to the world for just a while longer before slinking back into the shadows. In the forest it is a time before color has awakened, when mist hangs close to the ground and the air is gravid with the scent of the earth. There is a silence then, broken only by the furtive steps of timid creatures trying to steal a meal in the stillness, before the predators of the day begin to stir.
Those who believe that the sun has no choice but to rise may not appreciate the magic of that moment. They forget that it will not be long before the uncaring ball of fire rises without them. When I am able, I stop at that moment and thank whatever gods might yet be out there for allowing me to know that simple peace once more.
It is also an ideal time for hunting. When my companions stirred with the growing light they were welcomed to the day by the smell of rabbits cooking over oaken coals.
“I could get used to this,” Bags declared as he tore dark meat from the bones and pushed it into his mouth. It gladdened me to hear him say it, but I wondered if he could. The pace and the terrain were taking a toll on the big man. His hands bore a dozen cuts and scrapes from climbing, and fatigue was etched in his face. He favored his left foot when walking and I saw blood on his socks when he took off his boots. I had not been unhappy to bid the horses goodbye when the terrain got rugged and the forage sparse, but Bags, it seemed, had been born on the back of one of the beasts. Still he greeted each day of toil with a smile.
Katherine, on the other hand, suffered not because the pace was too fast, but because it was much too slow for her liking. Each day she would range ahead, finding the best route for the big man, and then sweep behind us, checking for signs of pursuit. For every mile we covered, she walked three or more. Each night she agreed with tight-lipped reluctance to stop when Bags could go no further.
For my part I was content to pace Bags, traveling mostly in silence, encouraging him when I could, carrying his pack on occasion — though never for very long — and helping the civilized man to negotiate the wilds. I rarely like the company of others for any amount of time, but Bags had the almost-magical ability to not speak when he didn’t have anything to say, and that makes all the difference.
North, we traveled, relentlessly north; only Katherine sure of our destination. She knew more than I did about the people who wished us dead and the people who might still have use for us in this world, so I was content to let her choose our path, all the while knowing that while we toiled through the rough country, word of the baron’s death was traveling by road, and would quite likely be waiting for us wherever we emerged from the wilderness. A problem for another day — but each day Bags was going to be less useful when it came to dealing with the unfriendly people we might meet.
“Going to rain today,” Katherine said.
I looked up into the brightening sky. There were no rain clouds, just high, feathery clouds fleeing to the east as if driven before a horde of fiery demons.
For a moment Bags’ smile faltered. “Rain. Well that’s just grand,” he said.
“It is, actually,” Katherine replied. She softened a bit. “Hang on a little longer, Bags, and you can rest. I made you something for your foot.” She handed him a wad of dark green leaves that surrounded a gelatinous mass that smelled awful.
Bags peeled open the leaves and looked skeptically at the gray ooze. He took a suspicious sniff and pulled back, his face reflexively frowning. He blinked deliberately. “Ugh. What is it?”
“I found some dragontooth while I was scouting yesterday. I made a balm last night. Rub it on your blisters.”
“Isn’t that stuff poisonous?” I asked.
She ignored me. “When you put it on, it’s going to burn like you stuck a hot iron on your foot. But it’ll harden up your skin where the blisters tore off. And, uh, don’t lick your fingers.”
While Bags tended to his wounded foot Katherine turned to the food I had prepared. She took a bite of rabbit and nodded. “Thanks for breakfast, once again,” she said. “I appreciate not having to hunt.”
“I just put out snares,” I said. “The rabbits do most of the work.”
Bags picked up a pebble and threw it at me. “Just say, ‘you’re welcome’.”
Katherine allowed herself a hint of a smile. “You’d rather not take credit for anything, would you, Martin?” she asked.
“I have always found credit difficult to distinguish from blame.”
“You’re worried I’ll blame you for making breakfast?”
“Your breakfast is stolen property. This forest belongs to someone. I would rather he never give me credit for cooking his rabbits.”
She made a face like she had bit into something bitter. She had extremely well-developed scowling muscles, I noted, forming small knots at the corners of her mouth and between her dark eyebrows. “Lord Wilmont can choke on his own genitals,” she said, “now that Rothfork won’t be sucking on them.”
I had to chuckle at the fine polish she put on her obscenity. She had not grown up poor, but she was comfortable enough living simply now. The frayed edges around the hood of her cloak and the patches on her knees bespoke a thrift I was not accustomed to finding in one raised in comfort.
It was possible, of course, that her carefully-learned diction was simply artifice, adopted with care, with the intent to conceal, rather than reveal, her origins. I am acquainted with people who have made that effort. The roll of her r’s and the elongation of her vowels hinted of the north, an impression reinforced by her pale skin, but her northness had been muted, subjugated by the tyranny of a southern-born tutor. Father dearest had hoped to improve her value in the eyes of the powerful men in the moneyed south. Based on current circumstances, I hazarded that his plans were not working out the way he hoped.
“Why are you smiling?” she asked me.
“I was jut trying to imagine how it went when your father tried to marry you off.”
She stood abruptly and reached for her bow. Bags finished with the ointment and pulled on his boots. Apparently it was time to start walking. “Oh, I married him,” she said. “Father did very well for himself. But that’s over now.” She held her hand out to Bags and helped him to his feet. “Better?” she asked him.
He tested his medicated feet and nodded. “Better.”
I stood also and gathered my few belongings.
“My husband is dead,” Katherine said. “He was mutilated before his throat was cut, in a tavern while surrounded by his own men. No one seems to know whom to blame. Or to credit.”