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34: The Prize

In the north, the almost endless days of summer are quickly consumed by the night as the sun flees southward. We had not slept the night before, and while Bags and Kat may have had the stamina to push onward, what little remained of my own strength failed as the sun dashed toward the horizon.

“I’d rather not stay in a town,” Kat said, echoing my own thoughts. “Let’s just find a spot in the trees by the river.”

I nodded my assent but it wouldn’t have mattered anyway. I wondered, thinking so quietly that I almost didn’t think it at all, if the Soul Thieves could control water as well as they had the fire of the sun. I thought quietly, but Elena cast me a nervous glance.

As darkness overtook us we found a place to camp two miles north of the next town. We passed through a wall of drooping willow branches into a small clear area, the river whispering past on one side, the trees standing watch on the others. Gray twilight washed everything of color, the trees dark and formless. I slid off my horse, almost falling, and accepted Katherine’s steadying hand. The ground was soft beneath my feet and the air was heavy with moisture and decay; staying dry would be a challenge. The clearing had obviously been used as a campsite many times before; charred remains of a fire lay in a neat pile, while a darkened streak in the sand showed where the river had washed away countless other fire pits. Enough people used this place that firewood was difficult difficult to find. I allowed that to be Bags’ problem.

“Is it smart to have a fire?” Elena asked. We were sitting on our packs watching the other two set up camp.

I put my arm over her shoulder and gave her a squeeze, happy she had asked the question. “You could argue either way,” I said. “But I don’t think our current enemies are looking for campfires. So I’d rather just be more comfortable.” Elena smiled and nodded.

Finally, a small fire burned and we sat in a close ring, cursing the smoke when it came our way, laughing at the curses of the others when it drifted toward them. A quiet time, when fear’s voice seemed fainter. After a meal of hard bread and harder meat Bags said, “So, let’s take a look.”

Perhaps one voice in my head advised to leave the thing from the well in my pack, to consciously avoid knowing anything about it. But willful ignorance is rarely a successful survival strategy. Best to know what you are carrying, if only to throw the godfucked thing in the river. “All right,” I said.

I shifted from my pack and pulled out the bundle. Heavy cloth, still damp, wrapped tightly in on itself. I cut the cord that held the bundle together and slowly I unfolded the outer wrapping. Beneath was a layer of burlap, saturated with the oily tar. Inside, a layer of soft leather, dry, stained by oils from the waterproofing. Beneath that was a silk sack holding the final prize.

If it was a prize. I freed a wooden spindle tightly wrapped with a supple, milky translucent sheet. The others circled around me as gingerly I pulled the edge of the sheet and unrolled it from the spindle, the material smooth between my fingers. The fire glowed through the sheet as I held it in front of me. I was almost relieved to be confronted by an array of symbols and diagrams I had no hope of understanding. This was certainly something outsiders were not intended to understand.

Bags snorted, chuckled, and put his finger on one of the symbols on the sheet. “I used to live right there,” he said.

I looked at the symbols more closely, and knowing what to look for, they resolved into a map. But it was a map that made no sense.

“These are paths,” Bag said, waving his big finger over a network of lines. “If you take the right one, you’re two days’ ride from anywhere.”

Kat grunted. So… anywhere is two days’ ride from here.” She pointed to the triangle at the center of the map.

“If you can find the path,” I said.

Bags nodded. “Right.” I waited while he scowled at the abstract symbols. “I’m not even sure the paths exist most of the time. They’d tell me where to turn, and it would be a path I’d never noticed before. It’s like they’re only there when they need them.”

“They’re like doors,” Elena said. “Most of the time the fuckers are closed.”

I nodded. “But a wall with a thousand doors is not a wall,” I said. “No matter how strong the doors are.”

“Can we use this?” asked Katherine, sweeping her hand over the map.

I looked at Bags. He scowled. “I don’t see…” His scowl deepened. “It doesn’t show the outside ends of the paths. The ones on our side.”

An omission like that made the map worthless, even to the people who made it. The network or paths was just a pretty picture if one couldn’t tell which path went where in the outside world. But it was easy to imagine that there might be information on the map we could never hope to interpret. Or even see.

Bags touched his finger to the map over the triangle at the center of the network. “We called that the city, or the hill,” he said. “Generally when one of us went up there, it was not a good thing.”

“Well-defended?” Katherine asked. She was looking over my shoulder, and I could feel the hard splint on her arm pressing into my back.

Bags snorted. “They’re called the black watch. Cocky bastards. But good. The city is walled, the watch is vigilant. You get the feeling, though…” He ran fingers through his road-grimed hair. “You get the feeling that none of that is really necessary. That’s it’s for show.”

“So a conventional attack isn’t likely to succeed,” Katherine summarized.

Bags shook his head. “There probably aren’t enough people in the world to make an army big enough.”

Her use of the word “conventional” already had me worried, and now she proved my worries right. “Fortunately,” she said, looking at me, “we are hardly conventional.”

I had no words for a response, just a short bark of laughter. The glow of the fire lit the map from behind. It would take but a twitch of my wrist to send the thing to a fiery end. I might have, were it not so useless to us. “My orders are to take this to the King.”

Bags threw his head back and laughed, his voice booming through the quiet grove. Katherine’s laugh was softer, but pointy. “You remember your orders at the oddest times,” She said.

I let them have their fun. Tomorrow the cavalry would catch up with us and relieve us of our burden, or at the very worst they would escort us to our destination. There would be no chance for us to try to use the incomplete map for some foolish enterprise.

I rolled the map back onto its spindle and slid it into the silk pouch. After a moment’s consideration I restored the rest of the protection around it.

“We don’t have to decide right away,” Katherine said. “Let’s get to your safe place. We can study it while we heal.”

I hesitated once more. The waterproof cloth would burn readily. I sighed and put the map back in my pack. It is difficult, sometimes, to let go of something someone else wants so badly.