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.
* * *
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.