It would be easy to characterize me as someone who solves my problems by cutting throats. That’s not entirely accurate, however; most of the throats I have cut have been to solve other people’s problems. Instead, with the sometimes-violent encouragement of my father, I built for myself a life that simply didn’t have the sorts of problems most people have. When I was without coin, I found someone who needed something done they were not willing to do themselves. When I was flush, I drank with strangers. I had the occasional lover but he would quickly become irritated with me, thinking I was holding back an essential part of myself. Perhaps I was; who am I to say? But I never felt the need to kill any of them.
Now I had my own problems, and the lives I was taking were no longer a matter of honest commerce. I had become, quite without my consent, part of something larger — a Great Cause. Great Causes never end well for my kind; we are not made for idealism.
For instance, there was Grimble, a member of our little society and an uncle of mine, more or less. A fine man, skilled at his profession, until a regular employer became his only employer, which is bad enough, but then the employer became his leader. And that’s a different thing. Grimble was killed in a battle, caught scouting behind the lines of the enemy. He had known — he must have — that he was taking a terrible risk. But his leader asked him to do it, thinking Grimble’s skills might turn a failing conflict. Grimble killed four of the patrol that flushed him out before an arrow pierced his throat. My uncle is remembered by the Wanderers.
I didn’t want to be remembered by the family, but it was becoming increasingly clear that my story would contain valuable lessons for those who followed. Children would sit on their mother’s knee and ponder, “What was Martin’s first mistake?” Most would say killing the baron was my first mistake, but they would be wrong. Killing an asshole is not a mistake. Sharing a chicken with people who like you for killing the asshole is the real mistake. Remember that, those who follow. Don’t share chickens. Stay in your tree. Mind your own fuckin’ business.
In all honesty I am forced to admit that until that crisp clear morning at Rock Fork when Worm arrived, I thought I would be able to extract myself from the Great Cause, and probably get Elena free as well. With Worm’s arrival it had become much more probable instead that Bags himself would be the one to kill me. I watched as the brothers embraced, tears leaving shiny trails down Worm’s pale face. Bags’ back was to me but his wide shoulders lurched with each soul-deep sob.
Sooner or later I would have to kill Worm, and Bags would turn on me and I would not defend myself and I would die. I was in no hurry — as long as Worm didn’t threaten Elena. But would I even recognize the threat before it was too late? The smart move was pre-emptive.
I put away the heavy hunting knife, and slipped the slender black blade into my hands. If I was going to die, I wanted to die with her in my hand.
It. Not her. Knives have no gender, no souls. They are bits of metal, nothing more.
I took a step forward, then another.
“That’s close enough, friend,” the soldier said.
He was wrong about that; I was almost close enough, but not quite. I had to assume the soldier would react quickly and decisively if I made a move. I looked over at him and he stared back, his face empty, his sword swinging idly in his right hand. His left arm carried a small shield that allowed him to deflect blows with his arm, without losing visibility. Good against small blades. The soft wind whispered in the trees while we watched each other.
“It’s all right,” Worm said, disengaging from Bags. He wiped at his eyes while he gathered himself, then he held up his hands to show they were empty. “I’m a rebel, too.”
“We’re not rebels,” Kat said form somewhere behind me. Her voice was flat and hard.
Worm kept his eyes on me. So did the soldier. “I am a rebel,” he said. “Against the Council.” I was pretty sure who he was talking about but I waited for him to say it out loud. “The Council of Remoden.” Another wait. “They are the leaders of the Collective.” Another pause while he waited for me to give him the satisfaction of recognition. “You know us as the Soul Thieves,” he said at last.
“You are in rebellion against the Soul Thieves?” I asked.
“Against the Council. Some of the Collective think the new leadership is leading us astray.”
Elena was at my side. Her creeping skills were improving by the day. “You’re a Soul Thief?”
He gave her a respectful nod. “I am member of the Collective, yes. As are you.”
“The fuck I am.”
“You have the talent. You know that by now.”
“Just tell me this.” Her voice wavered as she spoke, which just made her more angry. “Have you ever sucked the life out of some poor kid?”
Worm thought for a moment, then took a deep breath before answering. “Yes,” he said. “Once.”
Elena spat. “Then we’re not in the same club, no matter what you call it.” Her bravado broke and she started to cry and I put my hand on her head. “Bags, why?” she asked. Her words cut his heart out, but he stood still.
“That was the day I became a rebel,” Worm said, his voice soft but heavy with conviction. He took a step toward Elena but both the soldier and I stopped him. “That was the day I knew we had to change. My people want to end that practice forever.”
“He’s not a bad person,” Bags said.
“When was the last time you saw your brother?” I asked. I drew Elena closer to my side as she pulled herself together. I didn’t expect an answer from Bags and I didn’t get one. We both knew it was long enough that a good kid could have been turned into something else.
“What do you think?” I asked the soldier.
The soldier was a little surprised to be included in the conversation. “He’s a god man,” he said. “Better’n the rest of ’em.”
“Have you ever killed a Soul Thief?” I asked.
He snorted. “Likes of us can’t touch ’em, you’ll find out. Not that I didn’t try. William here saved my ass.” Again no honorific. I wondered about their relationship. Somewhere more formal than “Worm” but short of “My Lord”.
“Why are you here?” Elena asked.
“Because you wanted me here,” Worm said.
“Like I want Kat’s dick in my butt.”
Worm scowled but quickly abandoned any attempt to understand Elena’s response beyond the obvious connotation. “I let you bring me here. I became a mote,” he said.
“That makes total fuckin’ sense,” Elena said.
Worm took a breath and I knew a lecture was coming. “You can change the world with your will. You know that now. But even when you’re doing your best to NOT change things, it’s unavoidable. The desire leaks out, but the effect can be very subtle. So, like a mote of dust can move on a breath of wind that no one else can feel, I let myself be pulled by the tiniest of influences. The trick is to not be blown by the wind at the same time, to be carried on the wishes of the masters, but only be moved by the tiniest of breaths. I let your tiny wishes move me while not responding to the powers of the Council and their followers. It was dangerous; I could just as easily have blown into the grasp of someone who wanted me dead.”
“Quite the act of faith,” Kat said. I didn’t look back, but I was sure her bow was still ready.
“I am indeed fortunate,” He said. “But to find this little gathering is… astonishing. Even my brother.” Worm shook his head and placed his hand on Bag’s shoulder. “We have all been motes, it would seem, and the wind has been moving us for a long time.”
“That’s Katherine, my friend,” Bags said, perhaps hoping to settle the conversation on friendlier grounds. “The girl’s name is Elena, and you’ll not be hurting her.” Then again that didn’t sound so friendly. “Martin is a Wanderer. He’s killed a few Soul Thieves already. But Elena made one’s head explode.”
The soldier took another step towards Worm. “Perhaps—”
Worm held up his hand to stop the advice and I used the distraction to take another tiny step myself. Elena shadowed me perfectly. “I have heard about you,” Worm said to me. “I assumed you were more legend than truth.”
“Not long ago I felt the same way about your sort.”
His eyes narrowed. “Your name is Martin? If I’m not mistaken you are the man known among us as ‘The Knife’. I do not think the appellation is metaphorical. You killed a friend of mine.”
“That’s not surprising.” I tried to appear nonchalant while I prepared to fight a wizard in broad daylight in an open field while his soldier friend and maybe Bags as well beat me down. “It’s possible. I’ve killed a lot of people.” The blade rested comfortably in my hand.
The soldier took another step to reach the Soul Thief’s side. “Do not do anything foolish,” he said.
“If you two leave now I won’t have to,” I said. I was confident that if I was willing to die, I could take Worm with me. It was the only way I could think of to keep Elena safe.
Bags looked between us. “Martin, please.”
“She has brought us together,” Worm said. “I cannot leave now.” He held one hand up in front of him, palm up, fingers curled. The morning air seemed colder. “You should respect her wishes.”
I took a breath, measured the distance, and prepared to move.
“Can you fix him?” Elena asked. “If you can fix Martin then you can stay.”