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?”
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.”
“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.
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.