The road once more. We moved at a steady pace, sleeping where we could find shelter, avoiding towns and even roads where we could. After our first mistake we avoided towns, anyway.
Two days south of the now-deserted cabin that had been the hole at Rock Fork, on a gloomy evening that promised cold rain, we five dodged yet another military caravan camping by the road and slipped into the knot of half-timber houses beyond. We made our way to the only lodging-house in the tiny town — a respectable-enough structure, whitewash almost glowing in the fading light, with small patches of flowers in raised wooden beds on either side of the front door. The door was open just a crack, striking a balance between welcoming guests and rejecting the coming rain, sending a shaft of light out into the road.
Kat turned to Bags. “You and Elena take care of the horses. We will secure rooms.” Her tone had become more formal lately.
Dutifully Worm and I dismounted, neither of us gracefully. I suspected that travel did not agree with Worm even at the best of times, and he was still a long way from recovery. I ran my hand through my hair and it came away with several strands. I was not in the best of shape, either. By the time my head was shiny and smooth, the stubble on my face would be entirely gray.
“We are a fearsome pair, aren’t we?” Worm said.
“I’m not as dangerous as I look,” I said. I tried to make it sound like a joke.
The three of us made our way to the front door of the Inn and pushed it open, stepping into a quiet tavern with more seats filled than not. An open hearth opposite the door hosted a merry blaze, cracking and spitting sparks as it consumed too-green wood. Most of the patrons had the appearance of locals, rather than people who had been on the road.
We were greeted by a small, graying woman with a ready supply of warm energy. “Room and Board?” she asked me.
“There are five of us,” Kat answered.
“The boy’s hurt!” the woman exclaimed as she saw Worm. The truncated end of his arm was oozing once more into the bandages we had wrapped around it. “Come in, come in, sit by the fire.” She ushered us to a table close enough to the fire to be uncomfortable, at least to me. Worm seemed to appreciate the heat. In the light he seemed even paler than usual. “My name is Alice,” the woman said, “If you need anything at all, just ask.”
Alice named a sum, Kat did not haggle, and I paid out of the money Old Robert had given me. Holes are equipped with all the tools a Wanderer needs to recover and get back in the race, and money is one of those tools. Plenty of money.
“Wine or ale?” Alice asked.
“Wine,” I said, ignoring Kat’s scowl. “Probably rather a lot.” The world was falling apart, I was falling apart, but I knew it could all wait just one night, and it had been a while for me.
That was when Bags and Elena came in from the stable. He came through the door, wiped his feet vigorously on the bristly mat, grinning his empty grin. Elena followed, emulating his exaggerated foot-wiping, never taking her eyes off him. The room gradually quieted as the two joined us.
“Mother’s balls!” Elena said as she sat, “It’s hotter than Goromir’s scrotum over here.” Her words bounced through the now-silent tavern.
“Fuck,” Worm said, and I could only agree.
Alice was hovering over our table, her hands knotted in a towel. “Are you…?” Our host quickly worked through the implications, then her eyes landed on Kat and grew to the size of two moons. “My Lady,” she said, taking a step back from the table. “Forgive me; I did not know.” She started to bend her knee but stopped, caught in the middle.
The room seemed to heat up even more, my skin prickling with sweat under the gaze of the other patrons. “Wine, please,” Worm said.
“Right away, sir” Alice said, released from limbo. She backed away and dashed to the large wooden barrel dominating the corner of the room near the entrance to the kitchen. The people at the tables nearest us used the diversion to slip out of their seats and find places to sit farther away, until we were an island. Finally a low mutter of conversation filled the silence, but it was not the congenial conversation I had heard when we first entered.
“It seems,” I said, very softly, “that we are not viewed favorably here.”
Kat looked at me across the table and nodded. “Perhaps we should leave.”
Three large men rose from a table in the corner. One of them spoke loudly enough for all to hear. “Someone go get Hinkey and the rest of his boys. We’ll keep the traitor here.” At his words two other patrons, older men, scuttled out of the room. The three took a position in front of the door, arms crossed across their chests. They were unarmed. It was ridiculous to think they could stop us if we wanted to leave.
“The Guard’s already here,” Bags said, standing slowly but keeping his hands well away from his weapons. “We are escorting Lady Katherine to meet the King’s justice.”
“We’ll save you the trouble,” the big man said. “Lord Upton wants her.”
“You fuckers must be dumber than shit-covered rocks,” Elena said. “We’re working for the fuckin’ king. Lord Fuckin’ Upton can suck your tiny dicks. Now sit your fuckin’ twat-stained asses back in your chairs and fuckin’ mind your own fuckin’ business.”
The three blinked and took a step back. I glanced at Worm and the expression on his face told me what I needed to know. The power of Elena’s words, poetic as they were, was not the only force she was applying.
“Beg pardon, Miss,” the leader of the trio said.
I was just about to let my breath out when five metal-clad men arrived, uniformly dressed in the colors of Upton, the lord of this area. Bags moved his hand to his sword but did not draw it. “We’re on the king’s business,” he said, settling into a ready stance.
“We’ll save you the trouble,” the one in front said.
I shot another glance at Worm, and saw a crease between his eyebrows.
“For the sake of all that fucks,” Elena said. “If you’re so fucking interested in saving us trouble, go the fuck home.”
The man drew his sword; the others followed his lead. Bags’ weapon rang as it cleared its scabbard. I heard Worm’s chair scrape on the floor as he stood.
“Go the fuck home,” Elena said, her voice ice. “Put your little swords away or shove them up your ass for all I care. My friends and I are tired, and hungry and if your little half-assed lord wants to come and personally save us trouble I will save him the trouble of cleaning his tiny dick after he disappoints your mother.”
The men’s swords lowered a fraction. “You can’t talk about Lord Upton that way.”
Elena smiled. “Lord Upton would not be invited to the Seven Virgins’ feast,” she said. When her more literary insult didn’t have the desired effect she held up the little finger of her left hand. “Can you even feel it when he’s fucking you in the ass, or is he too small? Maybe the puss from his pox-ridden cock makes it slide in better?”
The swords lifted back up, and the expressions of the soldiers darkened, but Elena was undaunted. “Upton licks the shit off the king’s boots,” she said. “Are you heroes prepared to die committing treason for a shit-licker?”
The swords, wavered, then dropped farther than before.
Elena said, just loud enough to be heard across the silent room, “There’ll be time enough later to die for something important.” The hair on the back of my neck stood up, and I wasn’t the only one affected that way. “Go home.” The last was almost gentle.
The soldiers nodded, and one by one they slid their swords back into their scabbards. Bags did the same. I realized I was holding two knives, and I put them away. Worm sat back down. Through the entire encounter, Kat had not moved. I saw her release her breath.
“Carry on sir,” the leader said to Bags. “Make sure justice is served.” He looked at Elena. “Good night to you, miss.”
“Good night, Hinkey.”
He smiled at the use of his name. “Safe travels, miss.” He turned and followed his men out of the pub. While all eyes were on them, I leaned over to Worm and asked, “Brown tunic, darker trousers?” Worm gave me a tiny nod.
Alice was suddenly back, with a pitcher and a cup. “Your wine, m’Lord.”
“Lord Porcupine,” Elena said.
Alice’s forehead crinkled when presented with the unusual name. “m’Lord Porcupine,” she said. “Shall I bring your supper now?”
“Not yet,” I said. I looked at the wine. Not yet. We had a Puppeteer to kill first, before he could tell anyone about the girl who had cut his strings.