TFNIWLNW: 13

“Your grace, I accept your surrender. Please remove all your weapons.” The captain turned to Bags. “You, too. Tidwell, Mallory, search our prisoners. Thoroughly.”

Kat looked shocked. “I shall submit to no such abuse!”

The captain did not rise to her ire. “You have surrendered, your grace.”

“What about him?” She jabbed an angry finger my direction. “You have no idea how much cutlery he’s hiding.”

The captain looked pained and turned to me, shaking his head slowly. “You heard her,” he said to one of his men. “Apparently this gentleman has some other weapons. Make sure the only one here who can kill a soul thief is unarmed.”

Katherine stood, white-lipped, as she was relieved of her weaponry, and I of mine. Bags gave up his glittery sword and his hunting knife, but no one present considered him defanged.

I cooperated, giving up one blade after another, until I was naked for the second time in as many days. The soldier handled the blades with respect, pausing over the black blade. Traces of wizard blood clung to the base of the blade. “Beautiful,” he said. “Where’d you get it?”

“Old friend. There’s another out there somewhere.”

“Hopefully she’ll find her sister someday.” He was a big kid, angular, with a sideways smile and a crooked nose. I had been planning to kill him hours before.

“What’s your name, kid?”

“Wingles, sir.”

“I like you, Wingles.”

He gave a half-shrug, not sure how to take that.

“Take good care of these,” I said. “And if the world goes sideways, maybe you can help them back into my hands.”

“I can’t do that, sir,” he said as he nodded yes.

I smiled, but already that naked feeling was growing in my gut. “Well, I had to try.”

“All right, then,” the captain said. “Let’s move.”

And so I walked, the mounted patrol matching their pace to mine. Elena was on a horse always, riding behind the soldiers each in turn, entertaining them and worming her way deeper under their skins. They had already faced death for her once, and they would welcome the opportunity do it again.

The Captain’s plan was simple: travel some fifty miles to the outpost the soldiers called home, deposit the corpse of the man I had most recently killed, get more horses and men, and proceed on to Sky City to allow Katherine to face the King’s justice. I was confident that none of the prisoners in the group, myself included, had any intent to meet the king, but I was willing to follow long enough to see Elena under the King’s protection.

We covered about half the distance to the outpost on the first day, and once more I sat by the fire as the soldiers made camp with unthinking efficiency. I found myself next to the captain.

“I wonder,” I said.

He smiled. “This should be good.”

“I was thinking that I should teach Elena the basics of the knife.”

He thought for a moment. “I can’t let you have a blade.”

“But she can have one. She needs to be able to defend herself.”

“I’m not so sure about that. I think half my men would follow her orders instead of mine right now.”

I smiled. “She does have a way about her. Still, I’d feel better if she knew how to use a blade without hurting herself.”

The captain mulled for a moment and nodded. “All right. But you don’t touch the knife. Ever. You’ll be strictly supervised.”

“I want to use the black knife,” Elena said. Of course she had been listening in.

“We will start,” I said, “With a stick. Tomorrow, if you do well, we will use a simpler knife. The dark one…” I took a breath as I allowed that it might even be possible. “You will have to earn that.”

I expected protest, but she was watching me carefully. I wondered what she saw. “I will earn it,” she said. “Let’s find some fucking sticks.”

When Kat finally cornered me after the lesson she didn’t seem concerned that anyone in the camp could hear us. “That wasn’t the first soul thief you killed,” she said. She’d been waiting a long time for this conversation, and I have to admit that after avoiding it for so long I was hooked by her opener.

“No shit?” I asked. I hope historians see fit to make my words more clever.

Kat rolled here eyes “No shit, Martin. If you spent a little more time with your eyes open, you’d know that.”

A petty jibe. An attempt for high ground in the coming debate. But false. My eyes are always open when I kill someone. “You husband, then?” I asked. After all, he was the only other one I’d killed that she had known.

I couldn’t remember her ever smiling before. “Don’t make me laugh. The baron was a boy playing in the games of men.”

“And women,” I said.

She paused, and her smile came back, a little different. “And women. But no, my dearly departed husband was not a Soul Thief. It was Bags who figured out who you are.”

Who I was, to the best of my knowledge, was a smaller-than-average man who was physically and emotionally well-equipped to solve my problems by cutting people open. When I had money I was rather unpleasant to be around. None of those characteristics is terribly unique. Nothing that makes “who I am” terribly interesting.

“You are known to the Shadow Thieves,” Katherine said.

“And how do you come to know this?” I asked.

“Bags has done some work for them in the past. So have you.”

Many of my employers over the years had gone to lengths to preserve their anonymity, so now that the existence of the Soul Thieves was incontrovertible, it was certainly possible that they had hired me before. But I don’t as a rule kill my employers. Bad for business.

“They called you the Gray Man,” Bags said, sitting on my other side. “I wouldn’t have heard about you, but your last job for them caused a shit-storm.”

“What’d he do?” Elena asked, injecting herself in the conversation.

“There was a power struggle going on. The wizard I took my orders from hired the gray man to eliminate one of his rivals,” Bags said. He turned to me with his gap-tooth smile. “I was unemployed soon thereafter. At least for the moment, all the other Soul Thieves agreed on something. My master had crossed a line.”

“And you think I’m the gray man?”

Bags nodded slowly. “I do.”

“I don’t remember killing any wizards.”

“You took something from him. The stiletto you keep strapped to your wrist. I didn’t see it until we were in Mountain Forge. That’s when I knew.”

Unconsciously I rubbed my forearm where the knife should have been. It was true that I had relieved it from a man who would not be needing it any longer. He’d been a big man, well-muscled, with hair cut to a rough stubble, sleeping in a run-down hostel surrounded by others down on their luck. He hadn’t seemed very wizardly, whatever that meant. It was entirely possible that the man I’d killed had been the gray man, but there didn’t seem much point chasing that idea any further. My comrades had made up their minds. “And that’s when Kat started trying to get me to join you.”

Kat snorted. “That’s when I knew I’d succeed.”

Elena jumped forward and sat on my knee and put one arm around my neck. “He’s with me,” she said. “You two can fuck yourselves.”

Bags laughed and tousled her hair. “Things like this don’t happen by chance,” he said. “Someone wants us together. Someone whose wishes come true.”

first episode

2

TFNIWLNW: 12

Sometimes even the least of us do something grand. Sometimes we stand before a force that will surely destroy us, simply because we have spoken certain words some time in the past. At a moment like that there is no time for thought, no time for doubt, no time even to relish the idea that you might be more than you thought you were. There is only time to fight, and to die knowing that you changed nothing. It is fortunate, perhaps, that those times do not announce themselves ahead of time, and leave us to plot our petty murders.

I looked up at the stars, hard and unblinking in the cold mountain air. “They’ll kill him,” I said, softly.

Elena whispered, “Mrkl? The blacksmith?”

I nodded in the darkness.

“You’d slice open all these soldiers, even after they gave us food, to protect him?”

I nodded again, after a short pause. “He’s my friend.”

“Maybe he can get away,” she said.

“Traveling with an anvil is slow.”

Silence for a few moments. “You’re in no fuckin’ shape to take on nine of them.”

“I have to try.”

“Please,” she said. “There has to be another way. What fucking happens to me when they fucking kill you?”

If it was anyone besides Mrkl I might have listened. “They won’t kill me,” I said, and sat up to look around.

The camp lay in stillness. I could see seven forms wrapped in their bedrolls, leaving two others. A simple plan is the best kind. Find the two on watch, kill them silently, then cut seven throats. I inhaled to test my ribs. Adequate.

I almost cut myself when Elena screamed. “In the woods! In the woods! They’re out there!”

Well-trained men rose from their beds with weapons in hand. Elena continued to scream, her voice high and cracking with panic, which added to the confusion in the campsite. The captain’s words finally cut through Elena’s piercing cries, and the camp was mustered and ready.

“Where?” asked the captain.

“Out there,” Elena said, pointing into the darkness. “They’re coming!”

I put my arm around her, acting the way I imagined a father might. “It’s all right,” I said, and things like that, hoping my anger was not visible to the soldiers around us. I would have done the same thing in her shoes, I knew, but she was going to cost my friend his life.

As the soldiers mustered, three people stepped out of the forest.

“Oh,” Elena said. “Oh.” Her grip on my sleeve tightened.

I had not heard them approaching, and I hear everything. The red glow of the embers in the fire ring painted their white robes the color of blood. The one in front, apparently the leader, was an older man, his gray beard long and tangled. On his left a woman watched us with hard eyes, her mouth set in a permanent frown. Her hair was pulled back so tightly I thought it must hurt. On the old man’s right a younger man stood, clean-shaven and fair-haired, perhaps my age if years meant the same to them as they do to us. He, at least, seemed to find some humor in the situation.

“State your business,” the captain of the soldiers said.

The woman spoke. “We are here for the girl,” she said.

The soldiers shifted, tense and ready to defend their foul-mouthed little mascot. “She is under out protection,” the captain said.

The younger man chuckled while the woman said, “Recent events suggest the reverse is true.”

I stood, slowly, prying Elena’s fingers off my arm. “She is under my protection also,” I said.

The old man spoke for the first time. “She is in no need of protection.”

There was no answer for that. I stood before the Soul Thieves, a tiny piece of metal in each hand, aware that I was probably going to die, for a promise I had made only hours before.

“Stand down, sir,” the captain said to me. His sword was in his hand. “No one will take your girl while I have anything to say about it.” He stepped between us and the visitors, and his men fell in with him. “You are trespassing on the holdings of Lord Fairmont,” he announced. “Surrender yourselves and we will escort you to Mountain Forge. If you cooperate there will be no further proceedings.”

“I am afraid, then,” the old man said, “that there must be further proceedings.” He stepped back as the other two stepped forward. The woman gestured, and with a cry that came from deep in her gut she sent a shock through the camp that slammed into my body with the force of a tornado. For a moment there was nothing but thunder — no sight, no smell, no touch of the ground through my boots, just a sound that filled me and broke me and the taste of metal in my mouth. Then it was over and I was lying on my back, blood streaming from my nose, my ribs on fire once again. And I was angry. I stood, cleared my vision, remembered how to breathe, and looked at the Soul Thieves.

The old man was talking again, but my ears weren’t working. I discovered I still had my knives. The woman gestured again but I shouted right back, leaning into the shock until I was almost parallel with the ground, my feet dug in against the log that had once been my seat. The shock passed over me — through me — and I regained my feet. I stepped over the prone form of a soldier and was peripherally aware that the captain was moving, but only slowly.

I am, I like to believe, an even-tempered fellow, not ruled by my emotions. I have been in love two times and shall not be again. In my life, I have been angry four times. The first was when I was very young, before my mother trusted me with even the most mundane of blades, and resulted only in a small fire. The second time I was angry marked the end of my second love. That night, at the campfire, being pummeled by wizards who wanted to take my friend, was the third.

The fourth — well, if you haven’t heard the legends already you will just have to wait for me to get to it. The stories aren’t terribly accurate anyway. But now let us return to the night the Soul Thieves came for Elena. The third time I was angry.

As I staggered forward the shaft of an arrow appeared in the older man’s chest. He looked at it in surprise as another arrived from somewhere out in the darkness. Kat had found us as well, it seemed. He staggered, steadied himself, and knocked the third shaft away with a gesture, smiling with teeth stained red by his own blood.

Another shock slammed into me but I was having no more of that. I was having no more of any of this. I set my teeth and pushed forward, aware of pain but only as a curiosity. This is the power of the white rage that consumed me. I was not immortal, but I was the next best thing: my own mortality meant nothing to me. I smiled to answer the old man, and I saw him falter. As I lunged forward the younger wizard put himself between me and my prey and I put one blade in his gut and the other in his throat and wandered though his life with both. His blood splashed over me and it was glorious.

The woman said something in a language I didn’t know and light hit me, so bright it threatened to blind me through my closed eyelids. But anger ruled me and I didn’t care if I never saw again; I rose and rushed toward the source, swinging my blades in front of me wildly, unconcerned with whose flesh they found as long as they cut someone. I heard a cry and darkness returned and I shouted in triumph. At that moment I was little more than a knife with a human body attached — sharp, unbreakable, eternal, a simple object created only to kill.

But force of will can only carry one so far. While my eyes were still nearly useless they hit me, the force of the impact doubling me over, and in my own tiny world I flung my blades about with a prayer to gods I knew didn’t exist that I might draw blood. And they hit me again, from the inside, and I felt my guts getting mixed up and if I wasn’t helpless before I certainly was then. As vision returned I found myself on the forest floor, unable to close my eyes as mud packed into my left eye, while my right struggled to focus on a frond of moss clinging to a rock red with blood. My whole world at that moment. The anger slipped away from me, back into the dark place where it lurked.

Eventually I realized that no one was trying to kill me anymore. Good thing, because I was pretty close to dead already. A hand touched my shoulder. A big hand. Bags.

“You all right?”

I wasn’t ready to speak but I managed to cough. A feeble cough.

He lifted me into a sitting position and next thing I knew water was splashing into my eye, clearing out the mud, leaving only enough grit to be irritating. I managed to blink, managed to croak, and finally managed to speak.

“Elena?”

“I’m here.” Her small hands wrapped around one of mine. “I’m here.”

“Good.” I tried to put together my surroundings. “Did we… win?”

“You killed a soul thief.” That was Kat’s voice, a safe distance away.

“Huh,” I said.

“They’re not going to like that,” Bags said.

“We won,” Kat said. “You won. But it’s only the beginning.”

I opened my sore and scratchy eyes. The sun was dragging its sorry ass up over the eastern horizon, turning the sky pink. Bags and Elena watched me carefully, and I made a wish of my own that someday Elena could go a day in my presence without crying.

Beyond them, a shambles of a camp. The soldiers of the patrol, the five standing anyway, formed a rough ring around us. Their armor was dented and stained with blood, their faces bore the signs of abuse, but if anything they were more dangerous than they had been before. When you are given a chance to be a coward and you decline, you become a different person.

The captain crouched next to me. “Glad to see you moving.”

“Thanks.”

“Is anything you told me true at all?”

I pulled myself into a sitting position and Elena rushed to help, latching on to my upper arm. “The part about the berries,” I said. “That was true.”

“And the Soul Thieves want her?” He glanced at Elena.

“That was unexpected,” I said.

“I told you we had to go farther,” she said.

“Fuck me,” the captain said. “Soul Thieves. Never thought I’d actually see one. Didn’t really think they existed at all. Then the king puts out a bounty on the bastards and not a week later I’ve got three of them in my camp.”

“There’s a bounty?”

“Yeah. But good luck collecting it.” He sighed heavily and put his hand on my shoulder. “I’m in an awkward position here. Your friends are fugitives. You knew that.”

“Yes.”

“Then there’s the girl. If the Soul Thieves want her, then the King will very much want them to not have her. I don’t think I can protect her. And you saw what those arrows did to the old man. Right in his heart and he barely noticed. But you killed one. Which puts you in a position to be a very good friend of the king, were it not for the company you keep. Tell me the truth. Are you the third one we’re looking for?”

“He’s not,” Elena said.

I liked the captain. He seemed bound by honor, which is an annoying trait in any man, but he was straightforward and at least somewhat pragmatic. “I’m the only one you’re looking for,” I said. “I killed the baron. You can let the others go.”

“The baroness must answer to charges of treason.”

Elena whipped her head around to stare at Kat. “She’s a fuckin’ baroness? I just thought she was a bitch.”

Katherine frosted. “‘Hostage’ would have been a more accurate title,” she said. “And I am not a traitor.”

The captain shook his head and stood. “That’s not for me to decide, your grace.”

I managed to pull myself to my feet. The world spun a time or two before coming to rest; I was leaning heavily on Elena. My tunic was caked with deep red mud. “You’re in no shape to fight those two,” I said, gesturing to Bags and Kat. “Not after the beating you all took last night. Take the victory you can. You’ve got the man who cut the baron’s throat, the body of a Soul Thief, and Elena, whom the King will want protected.”

The captain considered, and nodded. “I place you under arrest in the name of the King,” he said. “Please surrender your weapon.” He was very careful to emphasize the singular.

“We surrender also,” Kat said. “On the condition that we are taken directly to the capital.”

I looked at Katherine in dismay. She smiled. “You didn’t think you could get rid of me that easily, did you?”

first episode

2

TFNIWLNW: 11

As we staggered out of Mountain Forge the sun came out for the first time since I had arrived. Each step that separated us from that weeping sore of a town was easier than the one that came before, as if I had somehow been steadily getting heavier there and hadn’t realized it.

I took a long breath. The air was sweeter than it had been since I killed the baron. The road wound down and down beneath our feet for several miles before disappearing into the tree line. We had no food, no shelter, no money. The problems I fled would catch me soon enough. But for the moment, the illusion of freedom lifted my step and eased the ache of my cracked ribs.

Elena’s face was etched with fatigue, but her spirits were high. And why wouldn’t they be? She was leaving something bad behind, and ahead lay the unknown. I wish, sometimes, that I could remember what it was like when I was young and the unknown was exciting.

We were not moving quickly. However remarkable my recovery had been, I was still far from well, and Elena’s long night had taken its toll on her stamina. “She’s going to catch up to us,” I said to Elena.

“The fucking princess?”

“Katherine. Yes.”

Elena scowled. “Maybe the bitch’ll follow the wrong fucking trail,” she said.

“Not Katherine.” I looked up at the sky. “There’s some thrice-damned, ill-begot plan she wants me to be part of.”

“Why you?”

“It’s either my sunny disposition or the fact that I’m pretty good at killing people.”

“Is it true what Mrkl told those sorry-ass motherfuckers? That you could have killed them all?”

I didn’t answer right away, just concentrated on my footing over a stretch of road with loose rock. “It’s happened before. Mrkl was there once.”

“I’m glad you didn’t,” she said after a few more careful steps. “A couple of the motherfuckers weren’t so bad.” I wondered if she included her uncle in that list.

The sun had passed overhead and was descending behind us when we reached the trees. Just inside the tree line I sat on a stone to rest. My ribs were aching and breathing was getting difficult. I leaned back against a tree, trying to find a position where inhaling didn’t hurt so much. Unsuccessful, I looked back up the mountain. No sign of pursuit. I allowed myself a moment of hope that the woman had given up on me.

After a quiet moment Elena said, “We should keep going.”

I looked over at her and I wasn’t sure she’d be able to stand. She sat with her back against a tree, eyes closed, one slender arm across her knees and the other forgotten at her side. “You think your Uncle is coming after you?” I asked. I looked back up the road and wondered if I was well enough to kill the man.

She looked down at the ground, then back up at me, her eyes round, tears collecting at the edges. “Please can we go? Just a little farther?”

I pulled myself carefully to my feet; she found a burst of energy and rushed to my side to steady me. I put my hand on her shoulder and gave it a squeeze, and tried for a reassuring smile. “The farther we get from that piss hole, the happier I am,” I said.

That night we ate berries. A handful each. Delicious, bitter and sweet that turned our tongues blue, but not enough. The cloudless sky meant the night would be cold. I sent Elena to gather wood and prepared my tinder. A fire would be a beacon for those looking for us, but I was under no illusion that we had done anything to hinder a competent tracker. The only mystery was why we hadn’t been caught already.

We pulled close to the fire, and to each other, and as we sat in that glow I felt stronger. When Elena’s uncle found us, I was sure I’d be able to handle him.

“How are you feeling?” Elena asked. In the firelight her eyes were vast and dark, and hard to read.

“Better,” I said.

She nodded and turned to stare fixedly at the fire. The joy of freedom had already given way to a new fear I couldn’t put my finger on.

“We’ll be all right,” I said. “Those sons of four-legged mothers back there won’t be hurting you any more.”

“They’re not the ones who frighten me,” she said.

“You mean Katherine? She probably wants to spill my steaming entrails out onto the virgin forest floor, but she won’t do anything to you.”

Elena just stared into the fire. I thought the conversation was finished when she asked, “Do you think you could kill a Soul Thief?”

Three consecutive sentences without profanity. This was not the time to take her question lightly. “I don’t know,” I said. “They have to bleed, though.”

She nodded. “The day you came in, and you said you admired my fucking use of the fucking language. I fucking made a wish.” A tear caught the light of the fire as it rolled down her cheek. “I wished for this. For you to take me away from there.”

“And your wish came true.”

She nodded, crying steadily now. “I didn’t mean for you to get fucking hurt, though.”

I put my hand on her shoulder in a way I hoped would be comforting. At some time in every child’s life they are certain they have performed some feat of magic and are about to be taken by the Soul Thieves. Of course, they are wrong, but there’s no sense fighting the certainty; time will take care of that. “I don’t think what happened back there was magic,” I said. “It sure didn’t feel that way to me, anyhow.” She started to speak but I held up a finger. “But if it was magic, and they come for you, I’ll stand between them and you as long as I am able.” It was an easy promise to make, but I meant it absolutely.

“Tomorrow we have to go a long way,” she said. “So they can’t find us. After tonight I’ll stop wishing you better.”

I paused before replying. Say what you want about my mother’s people, we are one and all very difficult to kill. Pain does not slow us as much as it does others, and the injuries we suffer heal quickly. But I had plenty of reasons to put more distance between us and Mountain Forge as well. I smiled into her worried eyes. The discoloration from her most recent injuries was fading, but her lip was still swollen and angry. “Tomorrow the miles will fly beneath our feet, and when next we rest not even the eagles will know where we are.”

In that silence I glanced sideways at Elena and saw that she was asleep where she sat. I put another branch into our campfire and it flared up, snapping and sparking. Elena slept right through it. I sat next to her and wrapped my cloak around both of us, wondering when Katherine would finally catch up to us and bring us some godfucked soup. She was probably leaving us out here to freeze our asses off to teach me some sort of lesson.

I was starting to nod off when the sound of hoofbeats snapped me back awake. Several horses, heavy, mounted, no wagons. Military, but no foot soldiers. Most likely a routine visit to Mountain Forge, but they would bring word of a murder that had happened far to the south, along with a description of Bags and likely Katherine as well. Having that bunch between Katherine and me was almost too good to hope for.

The horses were moving slowly, guided only by moonlight. I sat as still as possible and pushed dirt over the glowing embers of the fire, but it was the wind that shifted and betrayed us, carrying the scent of burning pine back to the road. Someone issued a terse command and the riders came to a halt.

“Remain where you are,” a voice called out. “Identify yourselves.”

Elena started awake. “Oh!” she cried out, startled.

“We are just weary travelers,” I said. I stood and added a branch to what was left of the campfire. I heard the captain deploy his men, reminding them that we might be a decoy so poachers could ambush them or escape. Thus cautioned, it took a few minutes for the captain and two of his men to reach us, and the fire was lively once more. He looked at the two of us and took in the lack of shelter or evidence of food.

“You are trespassing,” he said. “This wood belongs to our Lord Fairmont. Taking game here is forbidden.”

“We are guilty of taking some of his Lordship’s berries,” I said. “Nothing else.”

“How come ye to be here?”

“The filthy buggers stole me,” Elena said. “Right from my father’s stoop. It was…” Elena looked away and took a breath. “They took me to Mountain Forge to work as a fuckin’ whore. Fuckin’ slave. They throw the dead ones out behind the fucking brothel for the fucking animals to eat. My father came and saved me.” She took my hand.

“Looks like you paid the price,” the captain said to me. I imagine my face was not looking its finest. “Jonesey, let’s camp here. I don’t want to take the road up to the Forge in the dark. And get these folks some supper.”

While we sat still, a small camp sprung up around us. Our meal was welcome but not without a price, as the captain asked us more questions about how Elena had been kidnapped how I had managed to secure her freedom again. I let her answer. The names she gave I had no doubt were worthy of the soldiers’ attention. Yet it wasn’t long before he got to the question he really wanted to ask, and her other answers were forgotten. “Did you good people happen to notice a big man, probably twenty-five years old, blonde hair, with his front teeth knocked out?”

“There was one sack of sorrow with boils on his pecker that had these two teeth missing.” She pointed to the side of her mouth, on top. “And another guy whose teeth were black and smelled like vulture cum. His breath was fucking so bad it made me puke.” Some of the soldiers chuckled at her choice of words.

“The one we’re looking for had all his front teeth missing. He was traveling with a woman, and probably another man as well.”

Elena shrugged. “Don’t think so. But I only saw the pig-fuckers that came to the brothel.” A few more laughs.

“And you, sir?” the captain asked me. I shook my head.

“What’d he do?” Elena asked.

“He killed a very important man. He is very dangerous. If you do see him, be sure to tell someone right away. There is a substantial reward, offered by the King himself.”

Elena’s eyes lit up. “I hope we do see the piece of shit fuckbag.”

“I don’t,” I said. “I’ve had enough trouble for one lifetime.”

The captain laughed. “Your father is a wise man, young lady.” By then he knew just how much of a lady she was.

The interview was over, but the soldiers lingered around Elena, asking questions that invited colorful responses. “That son of a whore fucked by three bulls while the cows watched can suck my big toe,” was my personal favorite. Complex, but worth parsing.

I felt the mood of the camp shift as the hardened men of the patrol adopted Elena as one of their own. She enjoyed it also; it was a sort of respect she had never known in Mountain Forge.

Eventually we were laying wrapped in blankets that belonged to us now, apparently, on a bed of pine needles. Elena dropped back to sleep again, and slowly the camp quieted. I was exhausted, but I forced myself to stay awake, though perfectly still, looking up at the stars between the treetops. Up here, they seemed closer, and numerous beyond counting.

The next day the soldiers would arrive in Mountain Forge. It would not be long before they learned about Bags and Kat, and not long after that before they heard about me, and they would hear that Mrkl was my friend. If they stopped to torture Mrkl before coming after us it would buy us a little time, but they would probably save that for later.

In the end, there was only one thing for me to do. I took a breath, put the best blades for the job in each hand, and started to rise.

Her tiny hand rested on my forearm. “Please don’t,” she said.

first episode

1

TFNIWLNW: 10

No one had ever seen a Soul Thief, of course, but everyone knew someone who’s friend’s third cousin had been taken away. Perhaps she had wished for the rain to stop and it had. Perhaps it was a boy who had wished just once to win a race. Then the wish came true — the sun came out or the opponent tripped on a root, and that night the third cousin disappeared to never be seen again. The stories were consistent enough that they could not possibly be true.

That the Soul Thieves existed no one dared deny, but finding anything in our dingy world that bore their mystical fingerprints was impossible. Which either meant they touched nothing or they touched everything.

I, a man of reason, chose not to think about it too much. As a child I was as careful as the next to contain my wishes — except, of course, for those stormy nights when imagination grows larger than caution, and preposterous wishes are floated into the night, to see what might come. Those wishes, followed by a delicious moment of fear and anticipation, always crumbled, fading into a mixture of relief and disappointment. On a night like that I might have wished for a grand house, with plenty to eat, or perhaps I might have wished to have had a different father. The foolish, small wishes of a child.

I had never, I was sure, wished to be beaten to within a finger’s-width of my life and dumped in a shit pit to die. But here I was. At least Bags was there to fish me out, with his little half-smile.

Bags lay me gently on the floor of Katherine’s room, then sat cross-legged next to me in the comfortable silence we had developed in the woods, until Elena arrived with my bath.

My bath that night turned out to be a bucket of warm water and a sponge. As I lay on the bare floor, Elena, suddenly protective of me, insisted that she would perform the honors, and she began dabbing at the filth that covered my body. She started with my face, with my mouth and my eyes, and I heard her careful breathing and felt her fingers brush back my hair. I felt eyes on me and I felt a hollowness in my chest I could not identify, as if part of me was still out there in the rain.

“Scrub, girl,” Katherine said more than once.

“I’m hurtin’ the fucker” Elena would protest, but she’d scrub harder.

I managed to pry one protesting eye open and to focus it, more or less, on the girl. Her lip was split, and swelling. I tried to touch her face but she pushed my hand away. “Woke up Uncle,” she said. “Be still. Gotta clean your fuckin’ scrotum.” She smiled slyly. “Unless you’d like her grace to do the honors?”

The water was long cold by the time Elena was done, and my humiliation forgotten as my shaking grew steadily worse, until it was a series of convulsions with smaller convulsions between. I was aware of motion around me, aware of pain as I was moved, but it was as if I was watching from a long distance as they wrapped me in blankets and lay me on the bed. Then, the return of blessed darkness. At that moment, I would not have complained were I never to wake again. Something was waiting for me in the morning, something I had been avoiding a long time — Katherine was only the most recent messenger.

* * *

Sometime in the night my shaking stopped, and it was still dark when I came to accept that I would live to see another sunrise. I tried to accept the gift gracefully, even as the void I had felt the before continued to grow, as if some internal organ I didn’t know the name for had suddenly been taken from me. I reached for a knife and found Elena instead, curled next to me, watching my face with round, unblinking eyes. When she saw I was awake she put a finger on my lips and shook her head. “We have to go,” she said, almost silently, exaggerating the movement of her abused lips.

I was more than a little surprised to take stock of my condition and discover that leaving was even remotely possible. I felt far better than I had any right to. I managed to sit up without puking or even screaming. Her tiny hand on my shoulder steadied me, and I smiled at the girl, feelings I didn’t know how to name clouding my thoughts of her. “We have to go,” she said again.

We went. Slowly, slowly, down the hall, to my room. It had been ransacked, but my extra clothes and boots were still there, and Elena helped me dress. Whatever else I needed, I would have to find elsewhere. The grey light of dawn was peeking in around the shutters as we finished. I leaned a bit on Elena as we made our way down the main road, out of Mountain Forge.

We paused at Mrkl’s place. She ducked in and was back with him almost instantly. He looked at me gravely, sadly. “Martin,” he said. “I’m sorry.”

“Not your fault,” I said. My voice didn’t have the solidity it usually carried.

He looked at Elena, then back at me. “Take care of her,” he said. “Here.” He held out a bundle and opened it. My knives. “I talked to the people who took them,” he said. “Told ’em a little about you, what might happen if they kept ’em. I said they could keep the money.”

I stared at the knives, reached out and touched them, ran shaking fingers over the cold metal. The hunting knife with the recurved tip, the sleek stiletto that could find a heart so easily, the thick-bladed weapon I called Bleeder, and the lovely, dark-bladed knife, simple in form, that made music even when lying still. Steel that has tasted human blood is no longer just steel, not in the hand that held it while it drank. I took a shuddering breath, released it, and accepted the gift.

One by one I placed strapped their sheathes to my body, each in its place, feeling more whole with each one.

“Watch, girl,” Mrkl said. “Those are Martin’s true love. Don’t ever think otherwise.” He turned and walked back to his waiting bed. I watched his receding form.

“We have to go,” Elena said. She took a step and pulled my hand, gently. “Please.”

It sank in. We. We were escaping together. I looked at her bruised face. She was counting on me to get her out of that place. Me, the guy who could barely walk. “All right,” I said, not sure how I was going to let her down, but certain I would. And so we walked, slowly, side by side, into the unknown.

first episode

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TFNIWLNW: 9

Ah, greed.

Make no mistake, it is humanity’s greatest asset, the constant desire for more. The town I was in, the alcohol I was drinking, the friends I was renting — none of them would have existed were it not for greed. Avarice is, perhaps, my dearest friend.

But she has an ugly cousin: impatience. Some among us raise greed to an art form, manipulating the world with cunning and grace to take what they want. The most skilled practitioners of avarice have the patience of a toothless god. Alas, my acquaintances in that run-down tavern were not among that elite, to my sorrow and theirs.

For the happy part of my stay in Mountain Forge I was losing money to them steadily, each day enjoying my drink and leaving the tavern a little poorer than I had entered it. The dice were weighted, the cards marked, but I let them think I didn’t know, and enriched them a little more every day.

Little Elena was an island of light in the unbounded sea of gloom that is Mountain Forge when the rains come. My second day in the tavern, she greeted me, “H’lo, fucking Lord Toad-fucker.”

“Well, h’lo, you little festering pustule on a donkey’s scrotum.”

She smiled, then scowled. “What’s scrotum?”

“Ball sack.”

The smile was back. “Nice. Scrotum.” I watched her face as the word was neatly boxed and labeled, ready for reuse. And so began a tradition. Each day as I walked into the tavern she would greet me with a new insult, and I would respond in turn. She was a natural talent. On the last day she compared me to the offal running down the leg of the River God’s ox after it ate too much skungeweed. I was so impressed I almost forgot to insult her back. I sat down at one of the long tables with a warm feeling in my heart, and greeted my new friends.

But greed is always with us, and when not tempered by patience it will cause men to do foolish things. One of my new friends, perhaps the grizzled old man everyone called Mug, decided to accelerate the leakage of my funds into the community kitty. My wine that night had a little extra in it. Nothing dangerous, just enough to make a man feel invincible.

And invincible I was. Without the moderating influence of my own wisdom, I took the poor bastards for all they had. Invincible, I ignored Elena’s tugs at my elbow, her worried looks. I ignored the cloud gathering in the tavern, the angry glares and muttered curses. I laughed at them!

The illusion I had fostered was broken; my time in Mountain Forge was at an end. I don’t blame those men, not really, for what followed. I gathered their wealth, stood a little unsteadily, and stepped toward the door.

“Yer not leavin’ with that,” Jake said.

“It is mine,” I pointed out.

“Let the godfucked son of a whore’s twat go,” Elena said. Structurally a fine epithet but verging on nonsensical. She tried to push herself between me and Jake. Jake slapped her aside and I punched him in the face and to be honest I don’t remember exactly what happened after that. It was a blind and desperate struggle, surrounded, overwhelmed, crushed by numbers, flinging a fist into the confusion, feeling many land in return. Stars dancing as blows find my face, reeling breathlessly as fists hammer my gut. Sagging under the weight, in the end curling into a ball but there’s no protection in that, not really, as the kicks land on ribs and spine and death becomes a real possibility.

It was not the first time in my life my gambling friends had turned on me, but it was almost the last. This time, I did not draw my knives. I did not kill them all. Perhaps that small fact is significant, a sign that greater powers were in motion, twisting destiny. Perhaps I was just drugged and didn’t understand my peril. Perhaps, as Bags would say, there’s no use fretting over shit you’ll never know.

* * *

Consciousness was painful and unwelcome. I was lying on my back, and everything hurt. Icy raindrops stung my face. I took a cautious breath and my ribs protested while the smell of shit filled my head. I’d been thrown into a latrine. At that moment, it was difficult to appreciate the miracle of life.

“Marty.” I had heard my name used many times, I realized. I pried open one eye, puffy and reluctant. Elena was hovering over me. When she saw my eye open she said, “Fuck, Marty. I’m so sorry. I’m so fucking sorry. It’s my fault.”

I raised a filthy hand to touch her face. “It’s all right.” More breath than words.

She shook her head. “I brought the twat.” She glanced over her shoulder. “The lady. I didn’t know what else to do.”

Elena’s face was replaced with Katherine’s. I closed my eyes and wondered if dying from exposure was still an option. “It just keeps getting better,” I said. I think. Something else was wrong, as well. I reached to my side where I kept my hunting knife and found only bare skin. I was naked, without a single sharp instrument that I could kill people with.

“Let’s get you inside,” Kat said.

“Get Mrkl,” I said to the night, hoping Elena would hear me. I had no desire to be nursed by the blacksmith, under his silent disapproval, but that was better than being trapped with someone who wanted to change the world.

“You’re staying with me,” Katherine said. A statement of fact, not an invitation. I was in no position to argue.

And there was Bags, gleaming in his new chain mail, lifting me up like I was made of shit-smeared glass, and I clung to his tunic with a white-knuckle fist and choked off any sort of outburst as my ribs ground against one another.

Somewhere behind us Kat said, “Take him to my room. You, girl.”

“Yes, m’Lady?” I’d never head Elena’s voice sound so timid.

“You will arrange a bath. In my room. With hot water.”

“Now?”

“Of course now. This man is filthy. Go.”

I heard the girl’s footsteps hurrying off through the mud. I felt a moment of nostalgia for something that hadn’t happened yet. I was going to miss her when I left town.

I was beginning to shake violently, and Kat put her tunic over my naked form as Bags carried me into the boarding house, his strong arms cradling me. Light-headed, I began to laugh. “Be careful what you wish for,” I said.

A small smile from Bags in return. “Watch out, or the Soul Thieves will come for you.”

I pulled myself into his warmth and laughed at what I thought was a joke.

first episode

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TFNIWLNW: 8

I stepped into the tavern and surveyed the room. The six tables were little more than planks nailed to trestles, the boards warped and greyed with age, stained by spills from countless mugs. Benches lined them on either side, and a three-legged stool stood listing at each end. The two overturned barrels that served as tables seemed reserved for dice games. Two smaller tables occupied corners of the room. I like that sort of spot, but both were occupied.

The fire in the hearth did little to heat the room, but the smell of burning pine helped to cover the sour odor of unclean bodies and ancient puke. The floorboards creaked under my feet as I ventured farther into the gloom, but no one paid me any notice.

Men sat, men drank, men played cards. These were men who won their daily bread fighting the mountain, attacking the living stone and the wealth it concealed. There was a grey cast to the men to match the tables, their warped and knotted hands mirroring the twists and knots of the boards. They were strong men, and hard, but the mountain was winning. They played their games of chance listlessly, with a minimum of conversation, rarely even looking at one another.

I sat at the end of one bench, away from anyone else. I wasn’t ready to be social yet; that would come later, after the proper amount of lubrication. I let out a breath I hadn’t realized I’d been holding in. It felt like I’d been holding it for weeks. Here, in the quiet desperation of a working-man tavern, I was as close to home as I can come anymore.

“What you want, mlord?” The serving girl was fourteen years old at most, her skinny limbs long for her torso, her breasts only just starting to bud under her shift. Her dark, short-cropped hair showed a desire to wave.

“I’m no lord,” I said.

She glared at me through narrowed eyes. I noticed that one was puffy and slightly discolored. “You got all your fuckin’ teeth?”

I smiled. “Yes.”

“Then you’re a fuckin’ lord. What you want?”

“You have wine?”

“Oh, fuck, wine,” she said. “Yeah, we got fuckin’ wine, m’fuckin’ Lord.”

“Then bring me some, before the Seven Gods of the Sky finish their circle-jerk and drown the world in their spooge.”

The girl hesitated, then smiled. “All right,” she said, and disappeared through the opening to the kitchen.

She was back in only a moment with a mug filled with sour red wine. I took a long sip while she stood at my elbow, and I felt the glow begin in my belly. “What’s your name?” I asked.

“Elena,” she said.

“Elena. I admire your unrestrained use of our language.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“But you’re limiting yourself. You haven’t said ‘dick’ or ‘balls’ or even ‘twat’ yet.”

“Go lick your balls, you fucking twat,” she said, and turned away to serve other patrons. Smiling. In a strange town, in an unknown public house, the best friend you can make is the one who serves the alcohol. The rest will follow. And it is always refreshing to meet someone who appreciates the power of language. I took another healthy draught. Already the wine was tasting better. Things were looking up in Mountain Forge.

* * *

Katherine may have thought she was being subtle when she invaded our little haven, but every eye in the room turned to her when she came through the door. I was still seated in the same place, but now I was with friends, though we held our cards close to our chests.

Her nostrils flared as she took in the ambience, then she spotted me. I set my cards down as she approached. “Martin, I was hoping we could talk.”

Elena arrived with the wine pitcher. I’d lost count of how many I’d had, but it hardly mattered. “Who the fuck is this twat?” she asked me. Elena was going to be a project, I mused, but the kid had a gift, there was no denying that.

“Mind your manners, girl,” Katherine growled.

For a moment Elena seemed uncertain, hearing the note of high-born command in Kat’s voice. A note I find distasteful, even among assassins and fugitives. Instinctively I came to the defense of my young friend. “This twat,” I said, “was just leaving.” I took another solid gulp of wine and I was sure I had done the right thing.

Katherine looked like she had been punched in the face, but the shock quickly gave way to a hard, quiet sort of anger. “I’ll talk to you later,” she said, “when you’re sober.”

I looked a Elena. “Let’s make sure that never happens,” I said. The girl smiled, her grin toothy.

Katherine set her jaw, turned, and left. The inevitable conclusion to our acquaintance. I knew Elena would not leave me, though. Not until my money ran out. She would even pretend to like me, an illusion of friendship we both would maintain, for our individual reasons.

“There’s a special hell just for her,” Elena said as she refilled my mug. I smiled, but it was bittersweet. It was Elena’s first creative curse, which was worthy of celebration, but it was a disturbingly accurate one. Katherine was in her own hell. I thought of chasing her down and listening to what she had wanted to say to me, but it was my turn to play a card.

first episode

TFNIWLNW: 7

With every step I took through the sucking mud and dung and mule piss into Mountain Forge, the gold folded securely in my belt got heavier. I calmed my shaking hands and resolved that this time would be different. This time I would wake each morning clear-headed and I would go to bed each night having only lost enough money to make the locals happy to see me the next day.

It’s a little story I tell myself every time I come to a new town. My story is no more truthful than the stories of Evil Things in the Night that mothers tell their children to keep them from misbehaving, and no more effective.

My own grandmother told me of the Evil Things while I sat on her lap by the fire, with or without a roof depending on current circumstances, and from her lips the descriptions of the Evil Things sounded frightening indeed. Gloriously frightening, fascinating for their danger. In her tales, when the hero arrived it sounded like the party was over. I loved my grandmother. My mother, I think, ever the pragmatist, would have preferred dear Grams tell her stories in a more traditional form, but I caught her secretly smiling more than once. She was raised on the same stories, after all. You might even say that my mother married one of the Evil Things of the Night, but we shall speak no more of him.

As I trudged into town the air carried a feel of pent-up lightning, a tension waiting for release. Or perhaps that was just me. Ahead, beyond a handful of ramshackle hovels at the far end of the street, the mountain rose cold and hard, stunted trees clinging anywhere purchase could be found, shrouded in shifting clouds. A waterfall scarred its granite face, leaping down from above in a series of cascades with great energy, the sound of the rushing water a constant reminder that it was here before we were. Somewhere else, it might have been beautiful.

The street had been churned by heavy traffic and saturated with rain until it was a slow, muddy river, flowing with grim determination back the way I had come, as if even the mud knew something I didn’t. Somewhere nearby a shout was answered by the bray of a mule, while ahead of me two men in ragged clothes stood in the muck shouting at each other, their friends gathered under an awning nearby calling encouragement to both sides. That would be where the alcohol was. Even as I watched one of the pair took a hopeless swing at the other, and they both collapsed into the foul mud, either wrestling or drowning, to the cheers of the onlookers. I would not be one of the buffoons in the mud, I told myself. Another story.

To my right I passed a livery, the lower half built of stone and the upper half of green timber, freshly cut. The burned-out building next door told the rest of the story.

The ring of a blacksmith’s hammer pulled my attention to the other side of the street. The smithy was open on three sides, raised out of the muck on a stone floor. I recognized Mrkl hunched over his anvil, sweat streaking the soot on his face and somehow permeating his leather apron, and allowed myself a little smile. I paused to watch him work, his massive right arm striking the heated iron while his left hand turned the piece with a large pair of tongs. The wind shifted lazily and the acrid smell of the forge stung my nostrils.

The big man wanted nothing more than to do good work and to get paid for it, which meant he had devoted much of his life to avoiding military service. Behind him a stout boy worked the bellows, while another, skinnier kid moved efficiently, preparing the next piece in whatever it was Mrkl was making.

The world is vast almost beyond comprehension, yet the gruff blacksmith and I had crossed paths more than once before. One might be tempted to credit some mysterious hand pushing us mere mortals around for purposes beyond our comprehension, but perhaps a simpler explanation is that we both like to be in places where interaction with any sort of army is limited. I altered my course, delaying for a few more moments being warm, dry, and drunk. For Mrkl, I would do that.

He glanced up from his work as I stepped under the shelter of the smithy. He dismissed me, looked back down, then looked up again and grinned. “Martin,” he said. “You’re still alive.”

“I’m as surprised as you are.” I stepped forward and the big man dropped his tools and wrapped me in a hug that threatened to suffocate me. I don’t have many friends, and this is why. I freed myself, aware of the eyes of my traveling companions as they stood rooted in the muck outside the smithy. Mrkl seemed to think it was funny.

“The big guy out there,” I said. “I owe him a mail shirt. The best mail shirt.”

“You have money?”

“For the moment.”

“Shit.”

“I was wondering if maybe you could hold some of it for me.”

He looked at me with eyes gone cold. “Let’s not do that again.”

I nodded, but there was a hot coal in my throat. “All right. But I’ll pay for the shirt now,” I managed to say.

“You want the top?”

“Of course,” I said.

Mrkl smiled. “Of course. Let’s get him in here, then.” The blacksmith waved to Bags and Kat, drawing them into the shelter of the smithy. I had walked away from them a quarter of an hour before. Now here we all were.

“This is Bags,” I said. “He needs a shirt.”

Mrkl looked from me to the big man and to Kat and back to me. Kat somehow managed to say nothing, though I could feel her words trying to escape out of every crevice of her being. “All right,” Mrkl said.

“How much?”

He smiled down at me. “Pay me when I’m done.”

“I’d rather pay you now.”

“I know.”

I tested the air, in and out. “Just let me pay.” My fists were clenching and unclenching without my direct guidance.

“No. I will do the work, and then you will pay me.”

Cornered. “Kat,” I said. “Katherine, I mean. Let me give you the money for Bags’ shirt. More than enough. Then you’ll be rid of me.”

She thought for a good long while. Somewhere out in the rain the battle between man and mule continued, with no clear winner but plenty of noise. The cheering up the street had faded; the entertainment was apparently over. “All right,” she said. “I’ll take your money.”

Carefully I pulled out five fat coins, far more than any mail shirt had ever cost, and I felt the lift in my heart as I did it. The true joy of money is not the having of it. True joy comes from spending it. At last I would be able to set the coins free. Those who keep their money locked up are cruel at best.

Kat took the gold and didn’t even look at them before she said, “I recognize this coinage. You just paid me with money you took from my own estate.”

Bags laughed. “Your own estate won’t mean much if we fail.”

Kat glared at him. “We will not fail.”

Whatever they may or may not be failing at, I wanted no part of. “You want to join me for a drink later?” I asked the blacksmith.

“You going to be sober?” he asked.

I hesitated and said, “probably not.”

“Then I’ll pass. Maybe we can do breakfast tomorrow if you’re up before noon.”

“I’ll get up early tomorrow.”

“We’ll see,” Mrkl said. “I gotta work now.” He turned from me and shoved the dull black piece of iron he was working back into the coals of the forge.

I didn’t let it show that he’d stung me. I know what I am; I don’t need to be reminded. Especially not by him. “See you tomorrow,” I said, and stepped back out into the rain, which was falling with renewed vigor. I didn’t put my hood back up; I just let the rain fall in my face.

“You all right?”

I looked back down to see Kat studying my face. “Never better,” I said. “If you will excuse me, I have some business to attend to.”

first episode