We didn’t go far that night, just far enough to make sure we weren’t being followed, then off the road and into the woods to huddle under trees while freezing rain coated us with misery. It was the sort of weather that kills people, and even horses.
Kat put Elena and Bags to work sheltering the horses while Worm and I snapped dead branches off the nearby trees. Wet wood, but not saturated. When I got back to the our pathetic camp with my armload of twigs Kat already had a reluctant fire burning; she added my branches to the blaze and stacked more substantial logs nearby, to steam in the heat of the sputtering fire. I remembered the uncomfortable heat of our table back in town. I thought of the jug of wine we had left on the table there. I would have paid a very large amount to have that jug with me then.
Kat put a sodden log onto the flames and steam mixed with smoke as fire and water fought another skirmish in their eternal battle. Sodden, huddling as we were, a gambling man might believe that water will win that war, but put your money on fire. What fire touches is destroyed forever.
Finally we sat, a sorry soggy ring around an aggrieved fire, eating jerky and hard biscuits rather than stew and wine, and I expect than none of us was in a particularly fine mood. Which is of course when Claire found us. I heard her coming. Not just any stalker; each time her foot betrayed her by making a sound it was followed by noise from her throat, an inadequately-suppressed expression of the internal anger and self-reproach she carried with her wherever she went.
“Someone’s coming,” I said. “Don’t kill her.”
From across the fire Kat asked, “Our forger? You can tell from her footsteps?” Kat could not hear the throat-sounds, but my hearing is better and I am particularly attuned to those noises.
And then she was there. Claire stepped out of the deadly night, the pack on her back towering over her head. The freezing rain didn’t seem to bother her. “I was looking for a heroic band that just snuffed a Soul Thief,” she said. “You sad, pathetic folk see anyone like that pass this way?”
“Hello, Claire,” I said. I managed to stand.
“Sit your sorry ass down,” she said, and I did. “I heard you were sick,” she said as she slid her towering pack off her shoulders and guided it to the ground. The rain darkened her slick cloak but the struggling fire lit her pale face, her eyes so light of color they seemed gray. Those eyes watched me now, confirming the truth of the rumor.
A moment passed while Claire found a place in our tight ring around the fire, directly across from me. She freed a flask from a harness on her hip, pulled the stopper, and took a sip. She closed her eyes and I could see the warming alcohol as it flowed down her throat, filling her with a rosy cheer. She held out the flask. “Anyone want some?” She was watching me as she asked.
Bags reached out and accepted her offer; she smiled and handed it over. I shook my head. There is almost nothing I would not have paid for a sip of lovely nectar at that moment, but the price she asked was far too high. Bags returned the booze to her and she looked at me, her face stone. “You’re sure you don’t want some?”
I held out my hand. I did want some. The fire was tepid enough that she could hand me the flask directly over the flames without discomfort. Steam and smoke shifted into my eyes and I held them tightly shut as I took a sip and felt the burning liquid restore me. Kat made a sound, but I ignored it as the night became much less awful, Claire notwithstanding.
Claire waited for the warmth to envelop me before she said, “This soggy bunny must be the new family member I’ve heard so much about.”
Elena made a fart sound in her cheek at the same time I asked, “What have you heard?”
“Ridiculous shit,” Claire said. “From reliable sources.” She looked back and forth between the two of us, huddled together by the fire, and she shook her head slowly. “It’s a sorry-ass world if you’re going to save it.”
“Fucker don’t need savin'” Elena said.
Claire looked across the fire at Elena and said, “I suppose you’re right. There’s some needs to burn.”
“Huh.” Worm shifted under his cloak, inching closer to the fire, his ass barely on the sodden log he had been using as a seat.
Clare lifted an expressive eyebrow at me.
“That’s Worm,” I said. “A Soul Thief. Don’t piss him off.” Worm snorted.
Claire gave half a smile and looked across the smoky fire to me. “I always thought shit followed you, Marty. I always thought your best skill was being in the right place. Or the wrong place. Wherever the shit’s deepest, that’s where Marty is.” She took a long drag from her flask and handed it back over to me. “But I was wrong. You follow the shit. You’re not happy if you’re not up to your eyebrows in shit.”
“I’m also not happy when I am up to my eyebrows in shit,” I said. I answered her drink with one of my own.
“He takin’ care of you?” Claire asked Elena.
Elena spat into the fire, then glared across our close circle at Claire. “You got no fuckin’ right to ask that.”
Claire glanced at Elena, then at me, then at Bags and Kat and even Worm bristling around her, and she seemed to get a little bit smaller. “You’re lucky,” she said.