November 1, 2017

It has become a tradition for me to post my first day’s NaNoWriMo output here on this blog. Some years I’m happier with it than others; this time around I’m very happy with the idea, but no so keen on the execution. Maybe ok for a first draft (and hey, isn’t that what NaNoWriMo is all about?) but I’ve done better. This has the makings of a quiet, personal story, but this is November so at any minute someone may transplant an alien consciousness into the cat and off we go.

I’ll try to do right by Max and Fucking Cat another time. Oh, and by the way, there’s some profanity coming up.

Max woke from a dream of a rainstorm of needles to find Fucking Cat tearing at his face with age-worn claws. He pushed the cat away with his left arm — his organic arm; he couldn’t afford any more repairs on the other one — but the creature yowled and dove for his abused face once more.

“Fuck!” Max said. He held Fucking Cat away from his face and it went to work on his thumb with its teeth while its claws tore at the flesh of his arm. “Fucking Cat, OFF!” The cat went limp in his hand. At least the voice commands still worked; the last time Fucking Cat had been hacked he’d had to find the hardware switch under its patchy fur.

His cluttered little cube was dimly lit by dozens of red and green status lights, casting crazed shadows on the walls as they shone between the wires, gadgets, and simple junk that cluttered every surface other than his sleeping palette and a plastic chair which had one leg replaced by a section of aluminum conduit. Old electronics running a little on the hot side, last night’s algae cakes, and cheap gin provided the smell that Max thought of as “home”.

He rose from the palette and wiped the oozing blood from his face and his arm with a scratchy towel and examined the dark-red dots. There had been a time when he could afford paper towels, and just throw them down the chute when he was done. He put the cloth towel back against his face and sat in the chair in front of his main console. The metal leg shrieked briefly as it shifted on the hard floor to accomodate his weight. The screen came to life as he sat, bathing the room in a serene, blue-white light. The cube raised other lights in the room, warmer light, the better to care for his eyes. His left eye, at any rate.

It didn’t take long to find the information he was looking for. The virus that had infected Fucking Cat was called SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01 (pronounced peek-a-boy), and had first surfaced thirty-six hours before, somewhere in the home system, possibly even Terra itself. Max snorted. Rightly or wrongly, Luna would be blamed in the end. That’s how it always was with Terra. If they couldn’t blame Mars, they could at least blame Luna.

His research complete, Max turned to the portal for The Pet Smith, and found the expected announcement about SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01. He muted the corporate yammering of the stupidly-attractive representative, no doubt selected for him based on a marketing company’s databse of images Max lingered over just a little longer than others.

Ignoring the distraction, Max searched for the instructions to download the patch. They weren’t where he usually found them, and that’s when he noted the somber expression on the spokesman’s face. She wore the regrettable bad news face.
“Ah, crap,” Max muttered, and with his well-maincured right index finger he allowed the spokesman her voice.

The message began with the spokesman sitting at a table, wearing a conservative, her legs crossed, however, to display a shapely calf. “Hello. My name is Kiki Ventura. We at The Pet Smith are deeply troubled by this most recent attack on our most loyal customers.” A flash of anger crossed her face, her deep-red lips tight at the corners. “The latest viral threat attacks a positioning chip in some of our classic lines of companion animals. Unfortunately that chip set has not been manufactured in many years, and the manufacturer has not been able to provide a software patch to cover the vulnerability.” Here she looked almost heartbroken. “While we will provide tools to rid your companion of any current infection, we cannot guarantee it will not be infected again.”

Kiki raised a finger like a lawyer in court. “All patrons of The Pet Smith can be assured that SUPR DReD PeeKaBo01, or any attack like it, is simply not possible on our newer lines of animal companions. Later model positioning chips are self-contained and not vulnerable to outside tampering.”

One of Kiki’s eyebrows lifted, and she leaned forward in her chair just a little, forcing Max to appreciate her breasts. “For those many who have loved their classic companion animals for all these years, perhaps this is the time to move on. You will be amazed at the incredible range of lifelike behavior our Model 12 line exhibits, whether cat, dog, or less-traditional companion. As part of the transistion, at first your new companion’s behavior will be practically indistinguishable from your current beloved. And we will recycle your previous animal companion with all the respect and dignity it has earned after a lifetime of service.” A brief smile crossed her lovely face. “That’s seven lifetimes in tech years!”

Now an expression of hopeful earnestness. “For a limited time…”

Max silenced the feed again, sighed, and pulled up his bank statement. Enough to cover the deductible for a visit to the Alice, the local veterinarian. He looked at Fucking Cat where it lay in a gray heap on his desk, legs tangled, one yellow eye staring blindly into the corner of the room, the other closed.

The flow of blood on Max’s hand and face had slowed to a slow ooze; he put the towel carefully in the sink and sprinkled it with cleansing powder before turning back to the terminal.

The vet was busy, it appeared; he wasn’t able to get an appointment for several days. In a neighborhood like this one, most of the animals were what The Pet Smith would have called “calssic”. What they really meant was “old”. But having so many older pets in the area meant that sometimes there were solutions to problems that the manufacturers didn’t know about. Or chose to ignore. He made an appointment for Thursday, five days out, and set to work clearing Fucking Cat of his infection, knowing that as soon as he activated the beast he would be infected all over again. Max wan’t going to have anyone to talk to for a few days.

On Wednesday afternoon, Alice called him.

“Max,” she said with no preamble, “I think you should cancel your appointment tomorrow.” Her voice was tired, carrying the weight of decades of delivering bad news.

“Why’s that?”

“Your warranty company has dropped coverage of FC’s model,” she said. She didn’t like the name Max had given his cat. “I’ll have to charge you full. And on top of that, I don’t have any fix for PeeKaBo01. You’d be wasting your money.”
“You can’t fix him?”

“It’s hardware. You could put a new positioning chipset in, but standards have changed. You’d have to upgrade the feedback bus and get way faster-responding actuators to support the clock rate of the new chips.”

“How much would that cost?”

“Several times the price of a new cat.”

By now Max had curled Fucking Cat into a ball and closed his other eye, so it looked like he was just sleeping, the thinning gray fur of his tail wrapped around his nose. “I don’t want a new cat.”

“Max, I understand what you are going through. Really I do. But maybe it’s time to let go.”

“Can you deactivate the chip?”

He waited while Alice composed her answer. “I could, but…” Max kept waiting, and finally she continued. “That chipset is part of a feedback mechanism that constantly recalibrates FC’s movement. Without that system, FC will gradually become clumsier and weaker, until finally he won’t be able to move at all.”

“How long would that take?”

“In a cat as old as FC, probably a few weeks. Maybe a little longer. It’s… not how you want to remember your Fucking Cat. Not for just a few extra weeks.”

“You want to hear something funny, Alice?”

“This isn’t going to be funny at all, is it?”

“My arm has the same positioning chip set. My eye probably does, too. I got lucky on the leg and the fingers. I won’t ask you to shut down Fucking Cat’s positioning chips, but I’d be grateful if you’d teach me how to do it.”

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Alice said. “You can pay me in chickens.”

“If I had chickens I’d kill them for their chips,” Max said.

Alice smiled sadly. “You know what I mean.”

“I have to go,” she said.

“Why?”

“It dosen’t matter. I have to go. Can you look after Shadow? You’re the only one I trust.”

“I don’t want a fucking cat.”

“That’s not fair! He likes you!”

“It’s a fucking cat. It doesn’t like anyone. It pretends to like me to make you happy, because it pretends to want you to be happy.”

“What a mean thing to say!”

“It’s not mean if it’s true.”

“Just take him. Please. I won’t be gone long.”

“All right.”

“By the time I get back, you’ll be best friends.”

“I said I’d do it. You’re selling past the close.”

“You’re a good friend, Max.”

“Just fucking go if you’re going to go.”

1

Knives Episode 36 Published!

A quiet place, relatively safe. Physical wounds can be tended to, but perhaps those are not the only injuries our little band of heroes has suffered. It is, at last, a moment to pause, and to decide how to act rather than merely react. Which begs the question “Just what is it we want to accomplish?”

I like this episode for a few reasons. The last sentence is the biggest of those. A big moment for Katherine.

Anyway, enjoy Episode 36: People Like Us.

Behind the scenes, I didn’t get as many actual words written as I had hoped to while in Kansas. The reasons for that are complex, but with the help of the Repeat Offenders I came to a couple of significant decisions, story-wise. One of those changes is particularly scary (for me), and will be challenging to get right. To be honest, it paralyzed me for a bit. I have taken on a new tactic as I make my way to the big change: Try not to think about it too much.

November 1st, 2016

It has become a tradition for me to post my first night’s work here on the inaugural day of NaNoWriMo. This may not be all I write tonight, but it’s a good size for an excerpt.

Jaqi broke the surface with a gasp. “Four divers up!” Smokey called from the raft, his raspy voice carrying over the calm water. As Jaqi tread water, panting, she allowed herself a little smile. Last one up, again. Once the firefiles cleared from her vision and her breath slowed down she turned and swam to the raft, where her friends were already being pulled aboard. She passed her arm through a hoop welded to one of the steel barrels that foemed the floats of the raft, and waited until someone could pull her up. It would have been an easy climb, had she not just spent four minutes holding her breath.
After a few seconds Aaron’s sunburned arm reached down and she took his hand and let him pull her up.

Madre,” she said, and laid down on the sun-hot planks, feeling the heat of the sun on her skin. Someone handed her a tin cup with fresh water. Aaron had retreated to the sheltered section of the raft, heavy canvas supported by a steel frame cast half the raft into shadow impenetrable to her light-adapted eyes, but she could hear the children in there, doing their lessons with white-haired Annabelle, while young, gangly Alex no doubt watched over the cook fire. In the sun to her left Big John cursed steadily while fussing over one of the guy lines that held the mast in place.

“Anything?” Smokey asked. His dark hair was showing gray now. He had never been a big man, but now it seemed like a puff of wind would carry him back to his home in Cuba. He had threatened to pilot the whole raft there, one of these days, but Jaqi had heard that they were shooting new refugees there now. Sparrow said they were eating them, but Sparrow said lots of things.

Jaqi shook her head. “Fuckin’ South Beach,” she said. She sat up and looked down at the water, reading the gentle waves as they revealed where buildings stood below the surface. To the east, the rolling waves from the Atlantic broke over a reef that had once been the hotels and night clubs that lined Ocean drive, now just a jumble of broken, twisted beams and slabs of concrete breaking the surface, discolored by a slick layer of algae.

On the other side, the towers that lined Alton Road had also fared poorly when Henrietta had struck, the storm surge toppling two while undermining the rest. The Icon still stood, damaged when the Murano Grande went down, but only a few crazies lived there, distilling the brevetoxins from red tides into a substance they called “Brevelicious.” What they didn’t consume themselves, they sold to the archipelago. Sparrow knew a couple of them, he even said he’d spent the night there once, but Sparrow said a lot of things. At night the screams of madness from the Icon carried over the water for miles, while lights flashed wildly only to go abruptly dark

Jaqi lay back down, her black braid still dripping onto the deck. “Everything’s collapsed down there,” she said. “Your fuckin’ wine bar is gone, acere.”

Smoky looked up along the darker blue stretches that announced a streets lay below, forming a neat grid. “It’s around here somewhere,” he said.

Javy stood and spit over the side, his brown skin perfect in the sun, his lean frame starting to fill out with muscle. He almost caught Jaqi looking at him. “Either someone got it already or all the bottles are broke. There’s nothing left this close to the towers,” he said. “Fucking scuba dipshits were all over this.”

“We got time for another dive?” asked Jaqi.

Aaron frowned and looked at his phone. “Satellite says weather’s comin’ in.”

“Don’t look like it,” Javy said, making a show of inspecting the horizon.

Smokey shook his head. “Those are the worst ones. Barometer?”

“Dropping,” Aaron said. “But not much yet.”

“One more dive,” Jaqi said. She hated coming up empty-handed.

“You haven’t had time to recover from the last one.”

“I’ll make it a short one,” she said. “We’ll be heading for the towers in five minutes.” Already she was taking deep breaths, hyperventilting to fill her blood with oxygen.

Smokey sighed. “Anyone else want one more?”

Javy shrugged. “Sure.”

“You just said there was no point.”

He shrugged again.

Rosa said, “Fuck it,” and took her t-shirt off. Jaqi watched Javy watch Rosa adjust her bikini top. Jaqi busied herself with her fllippers and her mask. Short dive. The building she had tried to find a way into her last time down might have had retail space on the bottom floor. If she went straight at it, found an opening, there might be something worthwhile inside.
“Three divers,” Smokey said. “Get ready.”

Jaqi moved to the edge of the raft, and fiddled with her own one-piece suit, almost dizzy from the oxygen in her blood, but still breathing hard.

“Divers go,” Smokey said, and Jaqi dropped from the edge of the raft into the cloudy tropical water.

Starmind: Chapters 3 and 4

It’s not often I find a novel where every damn chapter is worthy of comment. Starmind, by Dave Van Arnam, turns out to be one of those. Not because it’s good, oh no, not all all.

When last we left this little yarn, I was wondering what possible excuse the author could find for medical professionals to even want to try to put the halves of two different people’s brains into one body.

Dr. Brian pretty much says he just wants to see what will happen. There’s a first time for everything, after all.

Yeah, Dr. Brian. The Brain surgeon. I have stopped correcting myself as I read. Nascent writers out there, if for some reason you want to call your guy Dr. Brain, just do it. No need to be coy. (Or better yet, call him Dr. Mtumbo.)

At this time, there are six characters of note. Inside the head, there are two men and one woman (although one of the men is more of an emotive blob). Outside the head, there are also two men and one woman. Both women are attractive, in nonspecific ways. Only one of the men has been described at all.

In chapter three, two of the three men capable of this sort of thought decide it might be kinda cool to have their brains installed in a hot female body. Both women find the idea of being installed in a man’s body to be loathsome. So… 1969.

On the second page of chapter three I laughed more than once. The dialog! Holy crap!

Here’s a choice nugget — the doctor, talking to the reporter:

I will not speculate on any emotional ties that might exist between you and Miss Rost, but it is obvious that your concern runs deeper than I, as a medical researcher and practitioner, dare to take cognizance of.

He better not dare to take cognizance of it! Or this gem three tiresome paragraphs later, as Parker, the reporter, continues his stilted verbal sparring with Dr. Brain Brian:

I am a professional in my own field, as you are in yours, doctor; and in my case it means I know how to research those necessary background facts that make conversations such as this more meaningful than the customary exchange of platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position.

Both those quotes are parts of much longer paragraphs. Despite this unbearable verbal mass, they do little more than exchange platitudinous awarenesses of each other’s position, along with a heapin’ helpin’ of as-you-know-Bobs. The reporter, for instance, tells the brian brain surgeon that it has been eleven years since the first successful brain transplant.

But I will say this: although there are some horrible moments in the discourse between the characters inside the head, it is way better that the interactions outside the head. At lest so far; the head occupants aren’t to a stage where they can engage in stilted verbal exchanges. Though there are plenty of problems inside the cranium, as well. Jailyn is witness to one of Joe’s sex fantasies, then exercises her will to make it stop. She apparently has none of her own. Sex, it seems, is something men want and women allocate.

There’s a nice twist, though, as the “simple” thoughts of the Idiot Adonis unexpectedly rise from the previously-unmentioned surviving lower parts of his brain and provide an emotional foundation for the two intellects who discover themselves so intimately connected. In the hands of a skilled writer, that might make the premise of a great story. I could picture a one-act play based on that theme.

Alas, we are not in the hands of a skilled writer, my friends. Yet still I read on, finding comedy where none was intended, hoping the pretty nurse kicks her boss of irrelevant appearance in the balls, knowing she won’t. The mystery of “why would anyone do something so stupid” has been answered with a “why not?” and on we go. The next question is: how will the author contrive to expose this odd trio to pseudogravitic multiwaves? And will he manage that before the ridiculous dialog slips from funny to tiresome?

Stay tuned, dear readers, for the answers to these burning questions!

1

Starmind

I found a battered old paperback in a box I packed up back in 2004, as I was preparing for the Homeless Tour. It was not with other books; it was jumbled with stuff that had come from my desk in my previous job. Starmind, it’s called, by Dave Van Arnam. It didn’t look even remotely familiar. The crappy copy on the back cover, circa 1969, did not stir any recollections.

The cover carries the tagline, “What ships can be launched on the far seas of the mind?”

I have now read the first two chapters, and I think that’s enough for me to stop and write a brief commentary. You don’t have to thank me; it’s what I do.

In chapter one, we meet three people and a technology. The three people are: a super-studly super-rich super-idiot, a super-clever super-sexy super-rich woman, and a super-intuitive super-smart engineer. The engineer is taking care of one of the massive pseudogravitic multiwave generators humanity has constructed out in space. Multiwave is… well, that’s not clear yet, but the Boss of Earth has made a huge commitment to the technology, with the hope of achieving faster-than-light travel. The engineer (Joe) also has a broken back, which gives him a chance to muse about how amazing it was that modern microsurgery can even repair nerves.

First note: I don’t care how far away the year 2057 might seem when you’re writing a story, there’s no need to be so specific. There’s no need to mention that the engineer’s dad was born in 1997. There’s no need to put dates on medical breakthroughs.

Anyway, chapter two (uh, this is a spoiler, but it’s only chapter two so get over it) comes along and all three of our main people are killed. One is burned to a crisp in a spaceship explosion, one is baked by multiwaves, and one simply falls to his death.

But get this: half of super-clever Jailyn’s brain was preserved, and half of super-intuitive Joe’s brain was also put into deep-freeze. And poor, idiot adonis Benjy is still completely intact, except his brain was destroyed in the fall.

So that’s where I’m at in this story, but what comes next is pretty obvious. Someone, for some mind-boggling reason, is going to decide it’s a good idea to put the two half-brains together in Benjy’s head. Pseudogravitic multiwaves will get into the mix, and a transhuman will be created. One whose mind, I might guess, will hold far seas upon which ships might travel. Or something like that.

The writing really isn’t all that good, I’m afraid; at points the dialog is downright odd. Van Arman invented a reporter as a foil for the Jailyn’s exposition in chapter one, and the conversation between the two doesn’t really resemble human conversation. “Trumped!” the reporter shouts once.

Good or not, I’m reading on! I must learn the logic that will be used to even consider putting two halves of different brains in the same body, and why anyone would think the outcome would be other than a horribly deranged monstrosity not even capable of governing the body they occupy. But someone’s going to suggest it, and others are going to approve.

Unless… maybe the multiwaves are behind the whole thing…

With that in mind, consider the way the book reached me, here in 2016. Perhaps there are larger, subtler forces at work. Maybe the multiwaves put the book in that box. If that’s the case, the fate of the world may hinge on me finishing this book.

1

The Unlikely Ones

I just finished reading a fantasy novel, and I really enjoyed it. In some ways it was a lot like other fantasy novels, but it was very different in several important ways.

It starts with the Unlikely Ones themselves. They are an odd assortment, seven souls brought together by the evil of a witch, bound to a quest to free them from the tyranny of her enchantments.

Ho, hum. Another Quest Story. But… consider. One of the seven is a fish. Another is a Toad. There is a gallant knight, and a lady fair broken and twisted young girl named Thing, along with a crippled kitten, a flightless raven, and a lovelorn unicorn who has lost his horn.

This quest is personal. None wish to change the world; they wish merely to be relieved of their burdens, to return to a normal life.

The setting of the story is England. Some kind of mystical between-the-ages England, but definitely not any sort of Middle Earth thing. I would like to go back and review the story and connect the events in the book with actual places. Because I’m absolutely confident the writer of this story had the full Ordinance Survey at her disposal while she pulled the party from place to place.

Back to the story. It is a play in three acts, clearly delineated by the chapter titles. At the beginning, just like in every fantasy tale, the questers come together. Even here, things aren’t completely according to script because, well… I’m not going to tell you. But you know how Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy starts with the world being destroyed? There’s a bit of that here, too, with one of the main staples of the quest story getting wrapped up right at the get-go.

The second act is perhaps the most predictable, as the unlikely ones are bound to each other, and Thing falls in love with the knight, and each of the seven must past a test of courage, or quick thought, or what have you. Before this stage of the quest is over, it is apparent to them that the quest has been specifically designed this way, so by the last test everyone knows whose turn it is. Which is kind of nice, because as readers we see it coming a mile away, and it would be disappointing if the characters in the story were too stupid to see the pattern as well.

The thing I most like about this story, however, is that victory has a cost. The story doesn’t end with the completion of the quest; there is a final movement in the book in which we watch the Unlikely Ones, no longer united by purpose, quietly return to lives suited to their various species. The world moves on, the ordinary triumphs.

I believe the book is targeted at young adults, but there is some “mature content” (rhymes with penises). I think some of Thing’s self-image issues would resonate more with a 15-year-old girl than with a 50-something male engineer, as we all wait for Conn to see her how she really is.

Overall, a mighty good read. A quest story that keeps things personal, avoiding the tiresome “Quest for the Important Thing to Defeat the Evil Guy” mold, but for that, perhaps more poignant.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or a $1000 Generic Men’s 3D Print Skeleton Playing Guitar T-shirt), I get a kickback.

1

TFNIWLNW: 15

Time makes no sense when the world is ending before your eyes. We stood, watching, helpless, as the walls of the fortress sagged, the towers fell, and all that could burn was consumed until not even ash remained. The captain held his men back and held back his own tears. After a while the horror exhausted us and we were just a group of empty shells, staring down on the destruction. Some of the soldiers sat; Bags disappeared into the forest. No one thought to follow their prisoner. Kat remained mounted, watching the destruction and death with a jaw set so hard I thought her teeth would shatter.

Elena stood next to me, her hand forgotten on my sleeve. “I hate all the gods,” she said. The captain looked up at her, startled, his eyes empty. He nodded slowly and turned his gaze back to the fortress.

I wanted my knives back. My skin itched where they should have been strapped against my wrists and legs, my hands twitched and flexed, missing their reassurance. My mouth was dry, which is just as well because my throat was too tight to swallow. If I didn’t find a way to get my weapons back soon, I was likely to do something foolish.

Finally it was over. The land around us was released from its unnatural twilight, and the fortress cowered under a sun no longer its enemy. In the town, the bell continued to toll in its stone tower, low and mournful, as if it were accomplishing something. Several of the dwellings on the north side of town were now afire, their thatch roofs and timbered rafters engulfed in yellow flame. The wind pulled the smoke of the fires toward the ruined fortress, where it rose with the heated air high into the sky. At least the fire would not spread through the town. I watched as men and women rushed about, some to draw water from the river, some to the burning houses, and others, soldiers, mostly, stepping cautiously into the blackened circle where their home and their friends had once been.

The captain stirred. “Let’s give what help we can,” he said. He looked around. “Where’s the big one?”

“Right here,” Bags said, emerging from the woods. The wind at his back blew his hair into his face, where it clung to the moisture on his cheeks. A few chunks of what had once been his breakfast were caught in his shiny new ring shirt. I’d never seen him look so tired.

“Get ready to move out,” the captain said.

“I think that would be unwise,” I said.

The captain was too exhausted to be angry. “I don’t care what you think.”

“They thought we would be in there,” I said. “They thought Elena would be there.”

He looked at me with narrowed eyes.

“That was for us.”

He paused for a moment but in the end he shrugged and let out a long breath. “Then the last place they will look for us is in there,” he said. “We are going. If you don’t want to come along, I’ll be happy to cut you down were you stand.”

I looked over at Kat and Bags. They were watching me. “Might be someone in there,” Bags said. “In a cellar or something. Needs help.”

Elena’s grip tightened on my arm. “We have to help,” she said. The wind shifted for a moment, bringing the smell of burning fields. A large gray ash drifted between slowly between us, hanging in the air, twisting and curling in the wind. It came to rest in her hair. “We have to fucking help,” she said. Her eyes looked a little wild and I regretted saying out loud that all those people had died in an attempt to kill her. The only innocent in the group was going to blame herself for the evil of others.

And so we went. Somewhere, people who could melt a fortress were working to confirm they had killed Elena. They would have people in the town, or somewhere nearby. Eventually they would know they failed, and they would try again. I had no hope of protecting her. Against the might of the Soul Thieves I had a few pieces of sharp metal. And at the moment, I didn’t even have that. As we walked I flipped a piece of wood between my hands, shifting it in my fingers, keeping them moving so they wouldn’t shake so badly.

The center of the destruction was a neat circle perhaps half a mile across; around that the fields burned, but the ragged line of the fire, driven inward by the wind toward the shimmering heat of the fortress, was not moving quickly. Once inside that ring we were blanketed in choking smoke that burned at my eyes and nose. I moistened a cloth and put it over Elena’s face, then did the same for myself.

We stepped past the smoldering stubble onto the hardened earth where the sun had shone so brightly. Around the edges bones of people and animals lay in charred piles, distinguishable by their teeth. A few cautious steps farther in and the dark, once-fertile soil was hard on the surface. Shining stone. Life had been erased here, never to return.

Of the buildings at the foot of the fortress, little remained. A stunted, sagging chimney and a warped, blackened anvil marked the location of a forge. Livestock pens had been reduced to areas with occasional charred bones. As had the barracks. Metal glinted here and there on the burned plain; armor, swords, and the simple tools of everyday life were almost indistinguishable. No knives to be scavenged out here.

We reached the moat, and I felt my stomach twist in my gut. The slow-moving water was choked with corpses — men, livestock, and fish all floating together, pale and bloated, singed and burned and boiled to death. Beneath the surface I could see hints of metal, the armor of men who had chosen drowning over burning. The earth, the stones, the air itself radiated with heat. I felt sweat trickling down my spine.

The air was heavy with the smell of cooked meat and the astringent smell of baked earth. When the bodies in the river began to decompose, Brower’s Landing would face a host of new problems. But, cooked as they were, the bodies would be slow to ripen.

We joined a group of men working to build a makeshift bridge to span the moat and reach the hole in the wall that had once been a door. It was going to take some time; they were tearing down structures in town for the lumber, and dragging it behind reluctant horses.

“Tell those lazy sacks of shit to hurry,” Elena said.

I nodded, and tilted my head back to look at the wall looming over us. “I’ll go on up,” I said. “See if anyone needs help.” I did not wait for the captain’s response.

I slipped out of my cloak and waded into the river, pushing my way through the death, stumbling over soft objects wedged in the muck beneath my feet. Something brushed my leg and I looked down to find a face staring up at me, attached to a bloated body, the eye sockets burned-out holes, the flesh pink and gray and shiny. No hair, teeth blackened behind burned-off lips. I turned aside and puked.

My great aunt Heldie was the one who taught me to swim. She taught all my family the art. It was, of course, a pragmatic decision — the water, she taught us, could be a very effective avenue of escape for those who knew how to use it. Today I was inclined to agree with her. I was sure I was escaping something as I crossed the water, but I had no idea what. I would be alone for a short time, and perhaps that was enough. I came up on the shore at the base of the fortress, clinging to rock still hot to the touch, streaked with soot where shrubs had once grown in the fissures. Around me others were already working to create the footings for a new bridge. They assumed I was there to help them. Instead I climbed.

The climbing was easy at first, over the rough living stone. By the time I got to the remains of the dressed stone blocks of the wall, however, there were few handholds and heat radiated off the walls and through my clothing and I was sweating like a slave in the pits of hell. I took off my shirt, tore it up, and wrapped a sleeve around each of my hands. I looked up at the empty gate, my destination, ten feet above my head. Rubble had fallen, partially blocking the way but providing plenty of scrambling opportunities. Move fast, touch as little as possible. Once up there, try to find a safe place before my feet burn up. A simple plan.

The day dimmed again, but it was not like before. I looked up. The clouds were back, gathering quickly. I swallowed, took a breath, and started my scramble. Up, up, the stone heating my hands and my feet, I scrabbled and pushed over the broken wall and into the cluttered gap that had once been a gate. I fell on my shoulder, cried out, rolled, the heat of the stone cooking my skin. On my feet once more I found a fallen stone to stand on; exposed on all sides it had cooled faster than the rest of the fortress.

I crouched on it, lifting one foot and then the other, certain I was about to cook to death. When the first raindrop fell, hissing at it hit the heated stone nearby, I paid no attention. But then another raindrop fell, and then another. The sky opened and rain fell in earnest, heavy drops that slammed into the heated stone with purpose, only to be turned to steam. I was surrounded by billowing clouds, turning the demolished fortress into a strange, shifting world of air and stone. My imagination turned shadows in the mist into monsters come to eat me alive.

I stepped off my rock. The rain was no more natural than the sun had been, but I was happy for it. Somewhere, someone who could change the weather was on my side. Or at least, not on the side of the ones who had done this. I turned my face upward, closed my eyes and let the cold hard drops hit my face.

Other rescuers would be here soon. If I was to gain anything from my head start, I had to move quickly. First things first: find a sharp piece of metal.

first episode

The Expanse Trilogy

I recently wrapped up reading The Expanse Boxed Set by James S. Corey, and I must say I enjoyed it quite a bit. It is Space Opera — space ships shooting at each other is a pretty common occurrence.

Humanity is expanding out into the Solar system; Mars is populous and prosperous, Earth is crowded but surviving, and the population of the asteroid belt is growing. The belters are few in numbers, but if armed conflict should arise, they would just have to throw rocks at Earth and Mars and let gravity do the rest. The three factions are in balance at the start of the story, but it wouldn’t take much to really mess things up.

Something like, say, the discovery of some sort of bizarre, obviously-manufactured molecule on a moon of Saturn. The molecule, when it comes into contact with organic life, reshapes it to its own purpose, whatever that is. A weapon? A tool? Impossible to say without putting the molecule somewhere where’s there’s a lot of living matter. Best guess is that a distant alien intelligence threw the protomolecule-bearing rock at Earth two billion years ago, but Saturn caught the incoming rock and held it in cold storage while life continued to get more complex on Earth.

But if the protomolecule was the fuel to plunge the solar system into chaos, the spark that touched it off is named James Holden.

In the first book there are two main characters, moral-high-ground-hugging Holden and a dissolute detective named Miller. They find themselves looking for the same woman, but for very different reasons.

Time for a fairly lengthy sidebar, here. Not long ago, a bunch of jerks fucked up the Hugo awards, ostensibly lamenting that all this inclusiveness and feel-goodiness was ruining Good ‘ol Science Fiction. Before us today is a massive work of GoSF. How does it compare to the Sick Puppies’ agenda?

In the first book, the main two characters are male. The third-most important character is Naomi, who apparently has hit the genetic jackpot, inheriting the best features of many of the races of earth. More time is spent on her more relevant differences in appearance, however; people who grow up in microgravity look different.

But still, the main female character in book one is attractive. Of course. The men? A little harder to tell. They’re not described in the same terms.

I wonder if Corey reviewed book one and decided that book two needed to be more diverse, or if he just felt the story had expanded enough to include more diversity. There are more characters, and one of the major ones, a skilled and powerful politician, is a grandmother with a foul mouth and a buddhist shrine in her office. She spends a lot of time with a Martian gunnery sergeant who also happens to be female. It’s not a big deal.

And that’s the answer to the Sick Puppies. There is a scene in which parents have to make difficult decisions about how to raise their daughter. It just so happens the parents are both women. But the argument is the same, the love is the same, and that’s what the story is about. Saying, “Fuck you, sick puppies! In my story everyone is gay!” is not the answer. But a heartbreaking moment between two people can happen no matter the genders of the actors.

OK, back to the books. A quick hit list:

Not to say that’s there’s no shooting in the first book, but it felt to me like shooting became ever more important as the story moved along. In book one, there was substantial opportunity for cleverness to prevail; by the end of the trilogy cleverness was more about gaining tactical advantage in a firefight. In that way, even as the story expanded in scope, the options open to the participants grew ever more narrow.

Favorite phrase: “vomit zombies”.

At one point, a character says, “Don’t you FUCKING touch me,” and I went, “oh holy shit.”

Later, another character says “We need to talk,” and I said “oh holy shit” again.

I’m willing to bet this is the first work in this genre to specifically mention Hatch green chile. Out there, the treasures of home are even more special. Bull is a good man, a long way from New Mexico. (Though it seems like he’s from northern New Mexico, and therefore might prefer chile from the Española area instead, given his druthers.*)

I’m very curious now about the TVizaion of this series of books (on SyFy). How will they make the Belters look distinctly different? Will they commit to the intimate moments between the action sequences? Will the cast be able to carry those moments? Will they make the spaceships sleek?

If you enjoy GoSF for the right reasons, I think you will appreciate this trilogy.

Note: if you use the above links to buy these books (or Bose Lifestyle SoundTouch 535 Entertainment System), I get a kickback.

___
* And with that, I win the award for ‘most pedantic, picky-ass novel criticism ever’. I’ve been working hard for this honor, and this effort finally put me over the top. We all covet the Hatch when we’re beyond the borders of the Land of Enchantment. Unless the Española is available, is all I’m sayin’. Seems to me Bull is from Española, but it never actually says so.

2

TFNIWLNW: 14

In the military, one comes to realize that every plan is opposed by an unknowable force. Nature, when it comes right down to it, is an asshole. If one were inclined to believe in gods, it is inescapable that one of the most powerful is the one that makes sure any plan you make will be broken on the rocks of cruel reality.

Even a simple plan — say, perhaps, “reach the outpost by nightfall” — is subject to the whims of cruel and capricious deities whose stature is raised when a working man curses.

The captain of the squad of soldiers who were our captors was building those gods a citadel with his angry words with every step we took. Brewer’s Ford was not far, a reasonable goal even though one of the party on foot had recently been beaten badly. Yet, as the day progressed we seemed to draw no closer.

First there were the signs of a poacher’s camp. We stopped, and the men around me prepared to approach the camp. But on this day one rider, a gruff man named Smalls who seemed to be part bear, tumbled from his horse and broke his arm. While some went to his aid the rest found that that camp was long cold. The sun was sinking toward the horizon by the time Smalls was back on his horse, and soon after that another horse threw a shoe and then it was a farmer’s cart broken down blocking a bridge. We could have forded the stream, but the captain was responsible for safe commerce. So we stopped and helped the old man get rolling again.

There may have been other delays I have failed to catalog; it was a slow and frustrating day. Frustrating for the captain because had an important job to do, and for me because I wanted to see little Elena protected from the Soul Thieves. But, despite our best wishes, when night stole over the land there were still many miles to traverse. The captain wanted to push into the night, but heavy clouds rolled in, until I could see no farther than I could spit. We had no choice; we made camp.

Another fireside knife lesson for Elena. She followed my instruction with uncanny focus, eager to move from stick to sharpened blade. At the end of an hour, I relented. I asked Wingles to give her my fish knife, a slender blade sharp only on one side, delicate in the same way Elena was delicate. Deadly delicate. After the lesson Wingles took the knife and we curled up together near the dying fire. We had no tent, but the soldiers had given us a heavy tarp we could pull over ourselves if the clouds turned to rain. She snuggled in next to me to share warmth, and for a moment I felt at peace.

The air was heavy and still, and carried sound well. Around the camp I heard the three sentries move, and breathe, and snuffle. Between the spits and cracks of the dying fire I heard the creatures of the forest as they moved around us in the night, some curious, some wary. The fire’s smoke hugged the ground and I heard some of the company snort and sneeze in their bedrolls. A perfectly ordinary night.

“Do you think I can be as good as you, someday?” Elena whispered.

“Better, I hope.” I think she understood because she didn’t ask any more questions.

The next morning, the clouds were a distant memory as the sun sparkled the morning dew. We ate a swift, unsatisfying breakfast of hard bread and cured meat, the soldiers decided who was to have the honor of carrying Elena for the next hour, and we set out, covering ground much more quickly than we had the day before. It was just before noon when we broke from the forest on a ridge over the flood plain and saw the outpost ahead.

What the captain called “the outpost” turned out to be a rather large military installation. I hadn’t been to Brower’s Ford in several years, and in that time the fortress had been expanded and the garrison greatly increased. It seemed that the King had decided to be more than just the titular lord of the north. The lands of the north were not as empty as they first appeared, and either the king or someone who whispers in his ear had decided that it was time for those folks to start paying taxes.

The fortress itself squatted on the banks of the Artles river, just north of the town, where the lazy water made a gentle turn in its easterly journey, dodging an outcrop of black rock that served as the foundation for the fortress. Some time in the distant past a channel had been dug to divert part of the river around the other side of the rock, giving the fortress a moat. While the outcrop was too small to support a castle of any real significance, the modest structure was impressive in its own way. Three stubby towers anchored a wall that followed the contours of the native stone, broken only by a stout gate wide enough for two horsemen. The bridge across the moat was wooden, and no doubt could be demolished in moments should the need arise.

The plain at the foot of the fortress was busy with human activity. I could recognize the stables even from a mile away, as well as other stone and wood buildings that appeared to be barracks, a smithy, and livestock pens. The fortress had outgrown its perch, it seemed.

Surrounding fortress and town were fields green with grain blowing in waves with the gentle breeze, fed by the rich soil of the river valley. Hedgerows separated the fields, the boundaries following a logic that I could not decipher.

When we came into sight of the fort, Katherine stopped. Bags pulled up his horse as well, and the rest of the party eventually followed suit. The captain turned back on his horse to see what the problem was.

“I’m not going in there,” Katherine said.

“You are my prisoner, your grace,” The captain said.

“I surrendered on the condition that you take me directly to the King. Is the king in there?”

“No, your grace.”

“Then I will not go there, either.”

“I must report to my commander, your grace. It is he who will see to your escort down to Langifer.”

“Langifer? What the hell is the King doing there?” Katherine asked. I was curious as well. Langifer was a capable military fortress, but away from any large city it lacked the amenities the king was rumored to enjoy.

“When last I heard, the king was en route to Langifer to confer with his liege lords in the south.” The captain shrugged. “Of course that news is weeks old now. Commander Harrick will know more, and will see to your escort.”

“Harrick. He’s in charge here?”

“Yes, your grace.”

Katherine considered a moment before speaking. “He hated my husband, and respected my father. I almost trust him.”

The captain looked relieved. “Then —”

“Almost. Once we’re inside those walls, it becomes much easier to forget promises made by underlings out in the woods somewhere.”

“I assure you, you grace, that the commander is a man of honor, as am I.”

They continued to argue, but I stopped listening. Something was happening to the sun. I looked around as it began to feel like twilight, though it was midday. The sun was just… dimmer. Down on the plain, a horse cried out. It was dimmer yet where I stood, but the castle on the rock below was lit so brightly I could barely look at it. As the world got darker, the fortress began to shine so brightly it seemed to be lit from within.

The commander and Katherine stopped their argument. A shout floated up to our position, then another. Suddenly, the air was filled with shouts and screams and smoke began to rise from behind the stone walls. On the plain at the base of the castle walls, buildings, crops, animals, and people all caught fire. Some rushed for the river, few made it.

Nearby an evening bird chirped as the day dimmed into night and the temperature dropped. I had to turn my eyes from the blinding furnace on the plain, and trails streaked across my vision as the image of the burning castle was seared into my eyes. More shouts, more screams, the animals and the humans no longer distinguishable.

A roar, and a blast of hot air on my face forced me to turn my gaze back toward the fortress, to try to peer between my fingers as I hid my eyes behind raised hands. In my distorted vision it was as if the stone itself was burning. I turned away again. In the town, a bell began to toll, calling men to action. But what could anyone possible do?

Elena found me and latched onto my hand. “What’s happening?” she asked. “What the fuck is happening?”

I shook my head, but it took me several moments to find a word. “War,” I said.

first episode

1

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

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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.

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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