They only met one group of thieves along the road. On a plateau on a higher hill, as they passed a fence between two ranches, ten or so shivering men rose from bushes on either side of the road. The men ran shoutingly to the road, waving staves and pitchforks. Digger took up his own staff, ready to blunt some skulls. Long before the thieves reached them, Silk drew the largest of his swords—nearly five feet long including the handle, its blade stout and curved. With the sword in hand, Silk got off his horse. His deep frown was an impatient one. He walked toward one of the groups of thieves and began scolding and threatening them. “Think you have problems, do you? Some of us have the weight of worlds on our shoulders. You’ll find your fingers in awkward places less you run off right at this moment. Get back to your wives and strumpets,” he shouted. His voice rose to such a gargantuan level and he looked so big that the thieves all slowed up, their eyes widened and confused. They broke the loose ranks they’d formed and retreated, at first only one and two at a time. The fight went out of the whole group of thieves then, however. They all fled back to the bushes.
Silk returned to his horse. He put his sword away and remounted. Without a word or a glance at his comrades, he began riding along the road again. A feeling of wishing to be left alone generated from him.
“Well, that was a display, wasn’t it?” Digger muttered. Twig agreed in his head. The outburst sounded like Silk taking frustration out on a third party. The new arrangement irked him. Probably Twig was to blame.
The rest of the ride that day passed in silence. Digger cleared his throat every now and then. By his muscle tension Twig surmised Digger found the silence awkward. The quiet also seemed to rankle on Silk’s nerves. At least he grew more agitated as the sun angled across the sky. Shadows lengthened. They never stopped for a midday meal—Silk and Digger ate something while they rode. Evening began to rise as they entered an area of woods that had burned sometime the autumn before. The blackened skeletons of trees filed away from the road.
Twig knew that the road made a turn two thirds of the way around the left hill. From the slight tightening of their skin and unsettlement of their stomachs—audible under the rustle of their cloaks—Digger and Silk would soon need to camp.
“I will begin making camp near the next bend in the road,”Twig said. He handed Digger the reins of Bones. Dismounting, Twig walked into the burned trees. Going straight over the hill, Twig began gathering wood. It was quicker to walk than ride. The road took a long sweep around a stone ridge that could be easily scaled on foot.
Knee-deep in snow, Twig reached the top of the stone ridge, his arms mostly full of wood from the burned trees. He was out of usual audio range, where people should be unable to hear behind them. Digger chose that moment to talk to Silk.
“Have you asked yourself why this darkling let Novoselic away in favor of you?” Digger muttered.
“Now that you mention it, I might have done well to give it some attention,” Silk said sarcastically.
Digger left it amiss. “What reason do you think?” he asked.
“I’m not sure yet,” Silk said.
“Can’t have your good will in mind,” Digger said. “Best sleep with both eyes open for a spell.” Twig passed to the other side of the ridge. He could still hear their voices, but the words became too distant to discern every one. Gathering the last firewood he could carry, Twig ambled to the bottom of the hill. He found a flat spot, empty of trees or underbrush. There he made a fire, using matches he’d taken from the Holy Assassins. The only supplies he’d taken from every corpse was fire making tools…and tea, if they had it. Only the Holy Assassins had tea. He also had from them a tall, narrow tin cup. When he had made his fire he balanced the tin cup on a tripod of sticks over the fire. Filling the cup with snow he waited for it to boil. He lay on his belly close to the fire on his cloak, which he had spread out on top of the snow. The road bent around the hill, visible through the heat above the fire.
Silk interested Twig. Certain sure. A target of the same Holy Assassins as the Assassins who targeted Twig—Silk interested Twig as much as anything in the new world. The dying request of a fellow dealer in death meant something to Twig—similarly, the implied conflagration of interest between him and another soldier hunted by the Assassins.
Digger walked around the bend in the road. The shadow of the hill cast over him. His silhouette showed black against the grey snow on the side of a farther hill. Sticks of wood filled his arms—he’d dismounted to gather them. The father of his great granddaughter interested Twig as well. The son of the Wiga thrown in with an enemy of the state whose reward would scare off all but the most brutal hunters. Times had certainly changed. “The state”possessing enough scratch to offer so large a reward implied of it things that had never been true before. The size of bounty offered by this new state had only ever been offered by gods before. Engelkind’s state was a higher level of civilization that Twig had ever known. It implied vast cities—standing armies—infrastructure only every afforded by the gods. Things like that had begun appearing, funded by only men, when he had gone into boot camp. Engelkind’s had greater worldly influence than any man. The lands south of Wildhagen’s borders must look different than the rolling plains and sweeping forests of the old days.
What he had seen of Wildhagen looked the same as it ever had. That was a comfort.
Digger walked into the circle of fire glow. His expression flat, he looked at Twig. Digger nodded, dropping the wood he’d gathered. Crouching next to the fire, he took off his gloves and began warming his hands. He glanced at Twig’s back. Twig lay on his cloak—only his leather clothes protected him from the cold, the many mismatched straps crisscrossing his body.
“Are you cold?” Digger asked.
“Yes,” Twig said. “It never worsens. Nor do I warm.”
“That is strange,” Digger said. Silk arrived, carrying two bedrolls and a bag that smelled of the salty meat and bread going into traveling rations.
“Yes,” Twig agreed. His water had neared a boil.
“Are you hungry? We noticed you have no food.” Digger’s voice had concern. It sounded genuine. Twig was inclined to smile, to try comforting Digger. He felt no certainty that he could smile on purpose without looking peculiar. He left his face blank.
“The smell of food twists my stomach,” Twig said. He took the tin cup of boiling water from the fire with the corner of his cloak, dropping a few large pinches of tea leaves into it. The tea he had was a dark tea and most of the leaves sank to the bottom of the cup. He set it before his nose on his cloak and let it steep.
“Surely you must eat anyway,”Digger said.
“Surely I must,” Twig said, copying Digger’s inflection. He agreed with the statement—sure he must eat. He very much did not want to eat and had not eaten for weeks now. It seemed to have no effect on him. He inhaled the dusty smell of the tea’s steam.
“Leave him alone,” Silk said.“He’ll eat if he wishes.” Tossing Digger a bedroll, Silk set the sack of food on the ground. He unrolled his own bedroll and lay on his side on it. The gold lace on his hood flickered to the fire. He glanced back and forth from Twig to the flames.
Silk and Digger ate in silence, drinking from a skin of wine that they passed back and forth. Digger offered it to Twig. Twig shook his head. He stuck to his tea. None of them spoke while they ate. When they had finished, Silk wiped his beard with snow and rolled onto his back, his eyes open to the stars. Though Digger wore his cloak with the hood up, he had pulled the blanket from his bedroll over his head as well. He oiled his knives. They needed it. He had four knives with him and none had been oiled recently. Being sheriff of Súthende had absorbed much of his time, Twig supposed.
“I’ll take first watch,” Digger said after a while.
“You might,” Twig said. “I do not sleep. I will watch all night.”
Silk smiled. He didn’t believe Twig.
“All men sleep,” Digger said.
“I do not sleep,” Twig repeated.“I am willing to watch all night. He is not willing to allow me to watch all night.” Twig said, looking at Silk. Silk looked back, listening. His eyes were thoughtful.
“Silk’s has trust issues,” Digger said.
“You should not trust me,” Twig said. Digger kept his attention firmly on his knives. The forced relaxation in his posture betrayed agreement: he mistrusted Twig too. “Watch with me.”
Digger nodded, wiping the oil from his knife’s blade. Silk, smiling, looked back up at the stars. The situation amused him.
Continued on January 12...