The main room in the farmhouse had a large fireplace at one end, surrounded by blackened iron tools for tending the fire and for cooking. Kat had taken a station by the shuttered, unglazed window, peering between the gaps in the wood and listening for any indication that someone might be outside.
Worm seemed to be having a bad day. He sat propped near the hearth, his skin pale and slick with sweat. I imagined his assessment of me would be similarly pessimistic. I stood near Worm, footsore but not ready to sit on anything, simply happy to have nothing in contact with my nethers for a while. Bags was somewhere outside, befriending the farmstead as he watched over them.
A long plank table ran down the middle of the room, and it was here that Claire set up the tools of her trade — pens of all varieties, pigments, calipers, a half-dozen loupes. The way the loupes made the smallest details clear was as close to magic as I had known until recently. The time it took to shape and polish each crystal element was staggering.
Not all wanderers are killers, not all even outlaws. Some are craftsmen, creating the tools the rest of us use. My black blade and her sister were crafted by a Wanderer, now deceased, extinguished by his own handiwork. The tools that Claire now placed in precise locations around her work table were also crafted by the meticulous hands of our brethren. Those artisans could have lived fat and large off their skills, but instead they toiled anonymously as members of the family. The most meticulous, patient craftsmen are predisposed to be Wanderers — where they are, even who they are, is lost in the execution of their most recent project. Only one like that can spend a year searching for the perfect piece of quartz, then spend months more shaping it and polishing it into perfect form, its curvature governed by inscrutable rules. Anyone could do that, perhaps, but a Wanderer can let it go when it is complete.
Claire placed each piece of equipment on the table with swift surety, her tools arrayed with a logic only she needed to understand. Two areas on the table were kept clear — one for the original map, surrounded by the loupes and measuring tools, and the other space reserved for the copy, surrounded by inks and pigments and pens of every sort, and a towering pile of scrap. Finally she pulled from her pack a thin, flat piece of ironwood and laid it in the center of the “new copy” section of the table. Each action was careful and precise, and Elena watched with fascination. “She looks like you do when you sharpen your knife,” she whispered to me, far too loudly to not annoy Claire.
“She is doing the same thing,” I said, not bothering to whisper. “Those tools are her knives.”
Claire threw us an annoyed glance and said, “And twice a day I will have to pick up all my shit, and we will let fucking busybody farmwives putter about the room, just so when we leave, no one will think anything strange happened here. Twice a day I will have to go through this whole godfucked ritual again, and time will be lost. Or we could just kill them all now, and save the world.” She turned back to her pack, pulling out a long cylinder of pale wood with raised ridges periodically along its length.
“What’s that stuff?” Elena asked, managing to ignore Claire’s tirade.
Claire took a breath. “It’s called bamboo. It’s from the south.” She rolled her eyes as she handed the tube to the curious girl.
Elena inspected the article. She rapped it with her knuckle, cocking her ear to listen to the hollow sound. “My uncle said that I’m from the south,” she said. “It’s why I’m so dark. The sun cooks people.”
“If you go far enough south, there are people darker than you,” Claire said.
Elena chewed on this information. “Are there Soul Thieves there, too?”
“Beats the fuck out of me,” Claire said. “If only we had some sort of map, maybe we could figure it out.”
“There are Wanderers there,” I told Elena. “We share stories. But we don’t work together much; we would be too conspicuous down there, and they would attract even more attention here.”
Elena thought for a moment. “If we’re there, then there’s fuckin’ Soul Thieves down there, too.”
I shared a glance with Claire and thought Elena had to be right. We were bound to the Soul thieves in some way — we were all of us mythical creatures, legends to frighten children, and somehow we were about to go to war.
“Yeah, we are down there.” Claire said. Apparently our shared glance had meant something different to Claire; Elena could by any right choose allegiance with either side, but she was a Wanderer. “And the fuckin’ Soul Thieves are everywhere, except when they’re nowhere,” Claire continued, “and we have to kill every last one of them.”
Claire looked at me and held out her hand. “So let’s see the godfucked thing.”
I handed Claire the bundle with the map at its center. For someone outside of our little band this might have seemed petty, to force her to unwrap it, but Claire would not have had it any other way. The means the previous owners of the map had used to protect it would be interesting to her.
“This thing,” she said, turning the bundle over in her hands, “smells like a trap.”
“Of course it’s a trap,” Katherine sniped from her station by the window. “We wouldn’t have the bloody thing if it weren’t. Are you going to do your job or not?”
Claire looked up at Katherine, and perhaps an understanding was reached. “I’ll do my job,” Claire said. “After that—”
“Just do your job.”
Claire smiled a little. “All right, your grace, we shall leave the after for after.”
Elena had been inching sideways toward the door doing the conversation. “I’m gonna check on Goromir,” she said, taking hold of the door latch.
Worm chuckled in his corner by the hearth. “I’m sure Charlie is taking good care of of your mighty steed. Or is it Charlie you’re checking on?”
Elena rolled her eyes. “Charlie’s like a dog’s butt. Kind of cute in its way, but you wouldn’t fuck it.” She looked at Worm. “Well, maybe you would.”
“Go see Charlie,” Kat said. “But don’t be stupid. Listen to the things they say to each other, especially when they think you’re not listening. Some of them still want to go for help. Evan will eventually decide he’s willing to die for his honor, and he will get someone else killed as a result. Probably Charlie.”
“Brave words don’t kill your enemies,” Worm said. “They kill your friends.”
Elena looked at me as she slipped through the door. Claire laughed. Kat joined her. Even Worm chuckled.
“I think I missed something,” I said.
“Your face right now,” Worm said, “could curdle milk.”
“I just don’t like that Charlie,” I said. “I don’t trust him.”
“Really?” asked Kat, shooting me a smile larger than I thought she was capable of. “Because among that bunch he’s the one I trust the most. I can tell exactly what he’s thinking.”
“The one you have to trust,” Claire said, “is Elena.”
I took a breath. Claire was absolutely correct. And I did trust Elena. But… “But she’s never met a Charlie before. And Charlie has definitely never met an Elena before. I’m not saying Charlie’s a bad guy, but…”
“But he shouldn’t be allowed near your daughter, is that it?” Kat asked. She reached out and put her heavy hand on my shoulder.
“As much for his protection as hers.”
“You don’t care about him.”
I shrugged. “Maybe not. But Elena would feel terrible later if she exploded his fuckin’ head.”
“You’re hilarious,” Worm said.
Kat tightened her grip on my shoulder. “Go talk to her. Just tell her why you’re worried.”
My turn to laugh.
Kat would have none of that. “She brought you to her, Martin, to free her. She brought us all together, but you are the one she wished for. It’s not all just stabbing people and exploding heads. Sometimes it gets difficult. She needs you.”
“I’m supposed to be convalescing.”
“No one who sees you will think you are healthy.”
“But I’m supposed to be—”
I took a shuddering breath. I was plenty ready to do my duty as a hero as long as it came easily to me. This… “She better appreciate this,” I muttered.
“She will most certainly not,” Claire said, grinning now.
“Why is it that everyone here is an expert except the one who has to do it?”
“It’s all right,” Worm said, “Ignorance is the easiest qualification to be an expert. None of us have suddenly discovered we have a daughter about to be impregnated by a clumsy farm boy whose head will then be exploded leaving a horrified and distraught mother utterly unprepared for the responsibility of raising a child in a world that is quickly going to shit and she is the one to put it all back together.”
“Heh.” I gave Worm a grim smile, but his words were what I had needed to hear. Simple recognition that I was about to attempt the impossible with dire consequences for failure. I suppose every father except my own has faced this moment, although perhaps without the exploding heads and destruction of humanity that would surely follow if I failed. But to be honest, I care far less about humanity than I do about Elena.
I limped to the door and put my hand on the latch. “If I die today, carry on with the mission.”
I meant it as a joke, but I was met with grim nods. Even Claire. “Fuck me,” I muttered as I cracked open the door and slipped outside. I stood on the wooden porch and prepared myself for the ordeal ahead.