Morning found us little rested, but the rain had stopped, leaving in its wake bitterly cold pine-scented air. The frozen ground, brittle with ice, crunched beneath my feet as I moved about. I added wood to the smoking embers of last night’s fire, and puffed the flames to life. Life-sustaining fire established I pulled a simple breakfast from my pack and sat on a rock and chewed the unfriendly food, washing it down with melted ice. Even with the fire, the cold took hold of my joints, making even the simplest motions uncomfortable. Another symptom of my twisted-up insides, I guessed. Another thing to look forward to for the rest of my life, however long that turned out to be.
Kat watched me work; I’m fairly confident she had not moved from her seat by the waning fire all night. We all have nights like that, when moving might not be difficult, but deciding to move is impossible.
“Good morning, sunshine,” Elena said, reading my mood as she sat up from her blankets. She rubbed her eyes with one hand, scratched herself indelicately with the other, then shambled over to sit in the warmth of the fire I had encouraged, holding our her tiny hands and flexing her fingers, her olive skin darkened further with the grime of the road. The cold air turned her breath to clouds; her nose was bright red and running a bit. “It’s fucking cold,” she said. “Where’s your better half?”
“She said she was scouting,” I answered with a shrug.
Elena grunted. “Scouting for scrotums to kick, I bet.”
Kat looked up from where she sat, her feet stretched out to the sputtering flames, one hand occupied drawing figures in the soft earth with a twig. “I don’t like her,” Kat said.
“You are safely in the majority on that point,” I said. In the woods I heard the sound of light footfalls heading our direction from the north. They had the sound of a stealthy person not trying particularly hard to be stealthy.
“Must be lonely,” Bags said quietly, sitting up from his bedroll. Somehow his new mail shirt still gleamed when everything else was coated with mud.
Elena cocked an eyebrow at Bags. “Don’t tell me you like her.”
Bags shook his head. “I just feel sorry for her, is all.”
“How lonely can she be? She’s a married woman,” Elena said, a teasing smile catching the corners of her lips as she looked over at me.
“She’s not married,” I grumbled. “At least, not to me.”
Bags started to say something but looked at the three of us and stopped, returning his attention to the campfire. My great aunt, dear sister of my dear grandmother, long ago taught me that what is not said is just as important as what is. It’s just harder to hear. Bags was always one to stand for the misunderstood, but I didn’t think Claire qualified. If anything, I understood her too well.
By then Kat heard the approaching footsteps as well and started to rise, but I held up my hand. “It’s Claire,” I said. I flexed my stiff fingers and tried to loosen up my back by twisting to one side and then the other. It was time to get moving. “The sooner we get this Godfucked copy made, the sooner we can bid Claire a fond farewell.”
“Maybe I’ll come along with you,” Claire said, and we all turned to see her walking between the trees, her cowl over her head to protect her from the water dripping from the branches high above. “You sorry fuckers look like you need all the help you can get.”
“You have a job,” I said. “Just do it and go.”
Claire shrugged. “I’ll do my job. We’ll talk about the rest later. Right now it’s time to introduce ourselves to our new hosts.”
“How far?” Kat asked as she stood and hefted her pack.
“Few miles,” Claire said, gesturing back the way she had come from. “They’re already up and about, so I don’t think we’ll be surprising them. Not on horseback, anyway. May as well take the road.”
I didn’t imagine that the farmers would be terribly happy to see us, but there wasn’t much to be done about that. At least the horses would have shelter for a couple of days; the weather was taking a toll on the beasts, especially Mighty Goromir.
We packed, saddled up, and I managed to pull myself up onto the back of my horse without assistance. Claire had no horse, but she smiled up at me. “I can run faster than you rotters can ride.” She was right, and Goromir wasn’t the only broken thing slowing us down.
I suppose you get used to anything over time, and sitting in a saddle on a cold morning while trying not to let anyone see how much I hurt was just normal now. So of course Claire had to add her own discomfort, moving easily along next to my plodding horse, one hand hooked to my saddle to let the horse help her along. Or perhaps she was helping the horse. She didn’t look up at me when she said, “I’m not angry with you.” She said it so quietly I almost didn’t think I’d heard it. Quietly enough I thought maybe I could ignore it.
Claire’s voice again. “Martin.”
My eyes were pressed shut, I realized, and when I pulled them open she was looking at me. The horse plodded on; Claire easily kept pace. “Martin,” she said again. Her hand was on my thigh, the hand that was not gripping the saddle. She was skipping sideways as my horse and I stumbled along, trying to tell me something that could not be spoken. Or at least something I did not want to hear.
“We’re probably going to die,” I said, then I realized that was a stupid thing to say, so I added, “soon.”
“I felt them,” Claire said. “We all did. We felt them. The children, when you set them free.” My spine went cold when she said those words. “All of us felt it.”
Claire tightened her grip. Her cowl had fallen off her head as she looked up at me, and her dark eyes were a little rounder than usual, the white going almost all the way around. “That has to mean something. Do you remember my father?”
Of course I did. Our people remember all our dead. Claire’s father had died because he wanted his mark to hurt, to feel helpless. He lingered in one place too long, and help arrived. “If I recall,” I said, “he wasn’t the most attentive of parents.”
“He was a right fuck,” Claire agreed. “Until someone hurt me. Then…”
“Is that what happened to that guy you were sweet on? What was his name?”
“Porvy. From the village. Yeah. He took from me without asking. Dad tore him to shreds.” I remembered the incident, and Claire was not being hyperbolic. She turned to look up the road. “It was that same anger that got him killed.”
I leaned forward in my saddle to shift my discomfort to other parts of my anatomy. “You think the Wanderers are like your fucked-up father? Uninterested until you cross a line, then baying for blood?”
“Maybe,” she said. “All I really know is that for the last few days I have wanted to kill every last Soul Thief and I don’t know any Wanderer who doesn’t share that desire. This weird protective urge has to come from somewhere.”
I looked two horse-asses ahead to where Elena rode Goromir. I gestured with my chin. “She certainly feels it, but I’m not even sure she’s really one of us.”
Claire looked up at me in surprise. “You don’t feel it?” When I looked back at her with raised eyebrow she said, “Wanderers are lost, Martin. We are souls with no anchor. Elena is one of us. She always has been. You just brought her home.” Suddenly aware of her passion Claire snorted and looked away, back into the woods. “But maybe for you two, there is no home. You don’t even know what an anchor is.” She made sure she had my attention before she said, “You two, Martin, you’re like us, but…” She shrugged. “We’re most of us craftsmen, and you’re an artist. I tried to tell you that a long time ago, but it was Elena who woke you up. Elena woke us all up.”
I am no artist, Claire’s wild accusations notwithstanding. I walk with both feet on the ground and I never embellish a kill unless the client specifically requests it. But I knew what an anchor was. An anchor was a quality in a mark that made him easier to kill.
But as I digested Claire’s words I watched Elena and I discovered a certainty: I would die protecting Elena. She was something the world had not seen before, and I would one day die to improve her chances of success. Not because some asshole god thought that would be a funny joke, but because I chose that future. The world belonged to her, and if I could get her there, my mission would be complete and I could simply fade away. That knowledge was reassuring. In the end, I was just a servant to those who would change the world. The things I might do in my life were already in the ledger, already moot.
You might be surprised to learn I still believe that. Faith is a funny thing.
Claire was watching me. “What just happened?” she asked. “You seemed almost happy for a moment.”
I hesitated, then shrugged. “I just had a comforting thought.”
“Did it involve your own death?”
I looked to see if she was joking. She wasn’t. “Yeah,” I said.
She smiled. “Just don’t let those fuckers get your soul.”
I smiled back. “I think we can agree there’s no risk of that.”
She turned to face the way we were traveling, but her hand was still on my leg. She spoke quietly, so quietly that had I not known she was speaking I would have heard only the wind. “And whatever you do, Marty, don’t let them get her.”