I was tired, but it was still a struggle to get to sleep again after that. I tossed and turned, and spent a lot of time staring out the window. When I did manage to drift off, my sleep was restless, troubled, and brief. It was almost a relief when the sun came up and gave me an excuse to stop trying.
For once, I was the first one downstairs. Corbin was still in his room, though he wasn’t asleep; I could hear him moving around in there, fiddling with something. The guests were either asleep or doing a convincing imitation of it.
I got down to the taproom, and stopped, hesitating. It was cool, and dim, and silent. Empty.
The first thing that should be done was getting the fires started again. Everyone knew that; it was the first thing you did in the morning. Even if we hardly needed them half the time, it was…what you did.
But I didn’t deal with the fires. I didn’t start them, didn’t feed them. Corbin had always been very insistent upon that, even when I protested that I could do it. After the events of the past few days, I wasn’t sure I should argue with him on that particular topic.
So I left them alone, and went about my usual routine. I opened up the taproom, cleaned everything up again, and then went down to the cellar to collect things for the soup. I grabbed Changed beets and barley, onions, potatoes and turnips, a head of cabbage. After a brief pause, I grabbed meat, as well, the last of the lamb and the rest of the rabbit Black had killed. It wasn’t enough meat to feed everyone anyway, and putting it into the soup would help to stretch it out.
I took my time in the cellar, lingering over things. I wasn’t sure I wanted to leave, really. The cellar wasn’t a safe place, exactly, but it was a comfortable one. It was private. And it was…I knew it. I knew what to expect down here, knew what the rules were. Compared to the uncertainty and fear surrounding what was happening in the village lately, it was a relief to know.
But in my experience, hiding from problems was usually a temporary solution at best. Eventually, you had to do something about them. So after a few minutes, I took the food and went back upstairs.
Corbin was in the kitchen when I got there, making bread. “You’re up early,” he commented, not pausing as he mixed the dough. It was a simple sort of dough, as such things went; flour and salt, sugar and water, a bit of starter to add yeast to the mix. Corbin didn’t measure. He never did.
“Couldn’t sleep,” I said, setting the bag of vegetables and meat on the counter.
He did pause now, for just a moment, before resuming his mixing. It wasn’t so much a break as a stutter, a momentary hesitation before he remembered what he was doing. “Nightmares again?” he asked, trying and failing to keep a light, pleasant tone.
For a few seconds the only sounds in the kitchen came from the mixing of the dough and the crackle of the fire. “We can make them leave, if you want,” he said at last. “Just tell them they aren’t welcome to stay here.”
I shook my head. “Better we can see them,” I said.
Corbin smiled slightly. “That’s a good point,” he said. “Well, it’s your choice. You’re the one who has to deal with having them around. But if it gets to be too much…well, just tell me.”
I nodded gratefully, and grabbed a knife to begin cutting the vegetables.
I’d just finished hauling in water when Black walked into the kitchen. She looked cheerful and energetic and, all things considered, disgustingly perky for how little sleep she’d gotten. I felt exhausted, and I knew that she must have slept less than I did, but to look at her I’d never have guessed that.
I was starting to wonder whether we’d been Changed in opposite directions. I needed more sleep than a human to be functional, and it was starting to seem like Black didn’t sleep at all.
“Come on, Silf,” she said to me, beckoning. “I want to show you something, and we should get going before the others wake up.”
I looked at Corbin. He laughed and shook his head. “You might as well go with her,” he said. “Black usually gets what she wants, I’ve found. I can take care of things here for a while.”
I shrugged, and followed Black out the back door.
“All right,” she said, pausing just outside the inn. “Do you know somewhere we won’t be interrupted? Fairly nearby, hopefully; I’d rather not lose too much time walking.”
I thought for a moment, then shrugged and led her to my secret place, the hollow in the rock where I went when I needed to get away. It was a bit cramped for two, but it was nearby, and I’d never been interrupted there.
Just inside the trees, Black grabbed a pair of packs off the ground. I was reasonably confident that they hadn’t been there when we went through in the dark earlier that morning, so she must have carried them out before she came downstairs. The one she handed me was the smaller of the two by a considerable margin, but it was still a large pack, and heavy. It made me feel very glad that it was only a few minutes to our destination.
Black seemed rather dubious when she saw the rock outcropping. But once she’d followed me through the crack, squeezing a bit to fit through with the pack, she grinned widely. “Oh, this is perfect, Silf,” she said. “This is excellent.”
I shrugged. “I like it,” I said simply.
“I can see why,” she said, walking over and sitting down at the edge of the pocket. “It’s a nice place.”
I shrugged again, and hopped onto my usual rock. I curled up there, watching her.
Maybe a minute passed in companionable silence before Black spoke again. “I didn’t do this just to get you out of the inn,” she said. “I actually do have something to show you. Do you know how to defend yourself at all?”
I shrugged, a gesture that probably came across a bit oddly given that I was curled up on a rock. “I channel,” I said.
“You said you knew a bit. Is it enough for that, do you think?”
Rather than answer, I reached into my purse and pulled out an iron half-penny. I held it up in front of me, staring at it.
Everyone I’d talked to had their own words for channeling. Or, well, everyone who could do it; most people didn’t have the knack. Those who did all experienced it differently, though. It was a very personal sort of experience.
The best analogy I’d ever come up with was a river. Not a stream, like the one we’d used earlier, or even the river north of town. No, this was a real river, like the Blackwater at its stronger points, and in flood at that. The magic was like that, something so much bigger and stronger and more than me that any comparison was absurd. The scale was simply too different for there to be a meaningful comparison.
To continue the analogy, then, channeling was quite literally channeling the force of that water. Sometimes it went as far as building water wheels and levies, but that was difficult and dangerous. Most of the time it was more a matter of just putting a pipe into the river, aiming it more or less where you wanted the water to go, and hoping that nothing went wrong.
I opened myself up to the magic, and gasped as it hit me. I felt a sort of vibrating tension in my body, butterflies in my stomach and my fur standing on end. At the same time, I could feel my awareness expanding, a buzzing pressure against senses that had no name from every direction.
I focused that awareness on the coin in my hand, concentrating. And the I opened a channel.
The bit of iron shot across the pocket, slamming into the rock hard enough to shatter the coin.
“Damn,” Black said, staring at the broken half-penny. “That’s pretty good. Very good, for someone without training.”
I shrugged, struggling to close myself off again. It was always harder to block the magic out again than it was to let it in. It took a few moments, but eventually I was alone in my body again, the sense of pressure fading. “Metal is all I have,” I said, relaxing again. “They did some tests, when I first showed potential, and it was pretty definitive. Decent in metal, but no potential at all in anything else. They probably would still have trained me eventually, but…”
“But the attack happened first.”
“Can you do other things with it?” Black asked. “Move larger things, maybe?”
I nodded. “A few things,” I said. “Not much, but I know a few tricks.”
“All right,” she said. “Well, I’ll trust your judgment on that. I can’t channel, and metal wasn’t a common channel in the war, so you probably know what you can do with it better than I can.”
I smiled wryly, and shrugged.
“It won’t work inside the wards, though,” she said. “Will it?”
“Not well,” I said. The wards kept the vast majority of magic out, which meant that you didn’t have to worry about being Changed inside them, but it also made channeling almost useless.
“You still need to be able to defend yourself there,” she said. “Which is why I brought this.”
I’d known what was in Black’s pack, generally speaking. I could feel the metal in it while I was channeling, and there were only so many reasons to be carrying that much metal. But it was still a bit of a shock when she dropped her pack, and opened it, and I saw what was inside.
Weapons. Lots and lots and lots of weapons.
There were knives in there, blades meant for piercing armor or carving flesh rather than the daily tasks most knives were put to. A legion-issue short sword in it sheath. A light hatchet that obviously wasn’t meant to be used on wood. A pair of long, curving blades that I didn’t recognize. Even a slightly smaller version of the spear she carried with her.
“Go ahead and drop yours,” Black said. “There’s a bow and some arrows in there. I think that’s probably the best place to start.”
It was only a couple of minutes before I had the bow out and drawn, and I was taking shots at an oddly colored rock on the other side of the pocket. Black stood behind me, coaching me on how to hold myself and aim.
The first few shots went reasonably well. I was wildly inaccurate, of course, even at such a small distance. It was painful, too, forcing the muscles in my arms and back to work in ways that they weren’t built for. But I could do it.
The fourth shot was different. I knew, as soon as I released the string, that something was wrong. I felt a sudden spike of pain, and something pulled me off balance.
The next thing I knew, I was sitting on the ground, the bow lying on the ground next to me. My finger hurt like hell, and there was a fair bit of blood on my hand and the ground.
“Silf?” Black said, sitting next to me. “What happened?”
“String caught on my claw,” I said, stumbling over the words a little. I held my hand up, trying to keep it from shaking too much. “Tore it out completely, it looks like,” I said, looking at my forefinger.
“I didn’t realize you had claws,” Black said, grabbing my finger and squeezing it to staunch the bleeding.
“Not very long,” I said. “And they retract. Just caught it wrong.”
She grimaced, grabbing the bow with her other hand. “Right there,” she said, setting it down and pointing at the string. “Looks like you cut it almost completely through.” She paused, obviously thinking. “Will the claw grow back?”
“All right,” she said. “Bow probably isn’t the answer, then. And with how your hands and arms are built, I don’t think you’ll be able to use a sword properly. Axe or spear, then. I’m thinking axe is more likely. Are you ready to keep going, or do you want to wait?”
I shrugged. “I’ll be fine once the bleeding stops,” I said. “Losing a claw hurts like a bitch, and it’ll be tender for a while, but it’s not really serious.”
Black seemed like she was about to say something, but then she closed her mouth, and grabbed the hatchet from the bag.
An hour or so later, I was sitting on a rock at the edge of the fields west of town. I should probably have gone back to the inn with Black, but I wasn’t ready to deal with it quite yet. I’d have to deal with the legionnaires at some point, but at the moment I just didn’t quite feel up to it.
So I went here, instead, to watch the river. There was something very calming about it. The motion, the sound, the way the light sparkled off its surface.
It was peaceful. I felt like I needed something peaceful right now.
I’d been sitting there for maybe three minutes when I heard a voice. “You mind if I join you?”
I glanced over and saw Sumi, the older legionnaire of the group. I tensed briefly, then shook my head sharply and went back to staring at the river.
He sat down next to me with a sigh that made me think of tired muscles and creaking bones. I noted that he left a few feet between us, leaving me plenty of personal space. “What’s your name?” he asked. “I didn’t catch it the other night.”
“I’m Sumi,” he said. “It’s nice to meet you.”
I nodded, a bit stiffly.
“You don’t like us very much,” he asked. “Do you?”
“Don’t know you.”
“But you got stiff when you saw it was me,” he said. “And the other day, when we showed up, I thought you were about to bolt.”
“Not fond of the legions.”
He nodded. “I figured it was something like that. We’re not here for your friend, if that’s what you’re thinking. Hideo was trying to scare him the other day, but the truth is, nobody cares anymore.”
I was tempted to ask what he was talking about. Clearly he knew something about Corbin’s history, which was something I’d been wondering about for a few years now.
But, then, even if I asked, could I trust what a legionnaire said about it? Probably not. So I just shrugged.
I expected him to say something else at that point, or just leave. But instead he sat there, letting the silence thicken until I felt pushed to fill it. “I grew up in the Whitewood,” I said. “And I was there when it burned.”
Sumi sighed, a long, quiet sound. “Ah,” he said. “That wouldn’t leave you with good memories of the legions.”
I shook my head.
“I was there, too,” he said. “The whole Fourth Skellish was, we were the backbone of the assault force. I was just a foot soldier, didn’t have anything to do with the orders. But it was still…I’m not proud of what we did.” He shrugged. “Don’t expect that makes it any better, but it’s all I have to offer.”
“Where is the road going?” I asked quietly.
He snorted. “There is no road,” he said. “You already knew that, I’m guessing.”
“They’re going to keep saying there is,” he said. “Keep stringing people along. But I’ve never been much of a one for the cloak and dagger.”
“What are you doing here, then?”
Sumi smiled at me. “I wouldn’t worry about it,” he said, standing. “It’s nothing to do with you.” He looked down at the river for a moment, looking pensive. “This place reminds me of Kaido Shrine in the capital,” he said. “Sometimes people go there to get clean.”
He shook his head abruptly, and started to walk away. “Good luck, Silf,” he said. “I’ll see you around.”
I watched him go, leaving me alone with the river.