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.
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”