I wasn’t sure what to do, or what to think.
In the years since the fires consumed the Whitewood, I’d struggled with my demons in more ways than I could remember. Nightmares that left me shaking and soaked in cold sweat. Panic attacks. I couldn’t sleep if someone was moving in earshot. I was terrified of fire–for a time, looking at a candle had been enough to reduce me to an incoherent wreck, unable to stand or breathe. Being in a crowded room, or just hearing the wrong word said the wrong way, was enough to send me back to the refugee camps.
There were days it was too much to bear. Especially when I’d just been recovering from the infection. There had been days when I couldn’t get out of bed. Days when I sat in the corner and shook, struggling to breathe, struggling to remember where I was. Days when I thought I couldn’t take another moment of the agony, the fear and hate and pain and helplessness.
What had kept me going through it was the knowledge that that wasn’t my life now. I was safe, now. I was doing better. I could last out the fear, the memories, the nightmares, and once they were past I would be in a better place.
And Corbin was an enormous part of that. He was the one who saved me. When I was sick unto death, infected wounds and starvation and all the ills of life as a refugee, he was the one who took me in and nursed me back to health. When things were bad he was the one who was there–not pushing, just giving the me the space and the safety to work through it as best I could.
To a large extent I’d rebuilt my world around him.
And it had all been a lie. Every time I thought that he was there to help me, every time I used those thoughts to cope with the things that preyed on me, it had been a lie. Corbin wasn’t something that helped me with my demons. He was the reason for them.
Everything I’d ever known, everything I’d loved, was torn from me in a single day of fire and death. My family was murdered before my eyes, my home destroyed, my life destroyed. And the only person in the world whom I’d thought I could trust was revealed as the architect of that destruction.
Black gods. How was I supposed to cope with that? How was I supposed to handle learning that?
I should have listened when Corbin told me I didn’t want to know. For my picture of the world to have dark spots would have been better than setting it ablaze.
I was still moving, but I wasn’t at all sure where I was going, or why. The world felt blurry and distant, everything around me seen through a sort of haze. Once again, I had the experience of being almost a stranger in my body, watching with a sort of numb bemusement as it decided on its own what to do.
There were plenty of perfectly reasonable things that I could have done. But I wasn’t feeling reasonable. I wanted to feel safe, and I knew how to get that feeling. The fact that it was one of the stupider ideas I’d had didn’t seem to matter. So I left the inn, and stumbled out to the forest out back.
I could just see the ward Corbin had built to cover the gap, though I didn’t go to look at it closely. It looked nothing like the warding posts. Where they were small and simple, this was a strange, asymmetrical metal frame that sprawled across the ground. It was apparently effective, though. Or, at least, the monsters hadn’t come back yet.
I ignored that, and stumbled on through the trees. A part of me was expecting to be jumped by one of the ghoul-things. A part of me wasn’t sure whether I cared if I was.
A part of me was strangely, distantly proud that I made it to my secret place in the woods without breaking down. I found the rocks, and ducked through the bushes. The thorns tugged at me, tiny pinpricks of pain that I could barely notice. I stumbled into the pocket, and curled up on the rock in the sun, without losing my composure.
But when I did, my composure shattered. I lay there, curled up tight with my legs hugged to my chest, racked by silent sobs. I wasn’t aware of crying, but my cheeks were wet. I shook and trembled, whimpering just barely loud enough to hear. If there’d been anything in my stomach beyond tea and a few sips of blackwine, I would have been throwing it up.
I wasn’t sure how long that went on. It was hard to track time, hard to process anything through the misery and the fog that seemed to fill my mind. I knew that from experience. When I got like this seconds passed like minutes, and minutes passed like hours, and hours passed like days, and days blurred by in the blink of an eye.
Time flowed by. Eventually I opened my eyes again. The sun was bright and golden, and the world it lit was dark and grey. The rock beneath me was warm against my fur, and I felt cold inside.
It was an enormous effort to sit up. I was exhausted, terribly exhausted. It had been days since I’d gotten any real sleep, or eaten properly. Days of being battered and broken and cut and bruised and burned, and I wasn’t sure how much of that had happened and how much I was just remembering from nightmares, but it didn’t seem to matter.
I pushed myself up to a seated position, and took out an iron coin. This one wasn’t stained with blood, and I had to remind myself to add a yet to that statement. I rolled it around in my fingers, watching how it caught the light and threw it back. It was a dull metal, iron. It didn’t shine the way silver or copper or even steel might.
On one side was the flower of Akitsuro, the stylized blossom that was the most common symbol of the empire. On the other was a crudely drawn short sword. The weapon of the legions’ rank and file. It was a simple weapon. Easy to make, easy to use.
A sudden spike of anger hit me, cutting through the fog, and my hand seized around the coin. The magic flowed through me at the same time, channeling without thought or purpose or decision, and the iron penny in my grip snapped. It broke again, and then it shattered.
When I opened my hand the coin was in fragments. My hand stung; I’d gripped it too tightly, and the jagged edge of one of the pieces had dug into my skin. The frustration had faded, leaving me feeling exhausted and numb once again.
I heard a noise just outside the pocket, a rustling in the bushes. It was an effort to move my head enough to look in that direction. I felt like I should do something, but no thoughts of what to do were forming. No thoughts of anything were forming; my mind was dangerously blank, filled with fog and snow and white noise.
But it wasn’t a ghoul that walked into my sanctuary. It was Sigmund. The new blacksmith looked agitated, nervous, fearful, angry. He was holding a hammer in a too-tight grip, knuckles white. He relaxed slightly when he saw me, but only slightly.
“Silf,” he said. “What are you doing here?”
I shrugged listlessly. A part of me was both furious and terrified to see him here–in my place, my sanctuary, the one place in the world that was supposed to belong to me and me alone. But it seemed too hard to actually express any of that, or even feel it.
He took a deep breath and let it out, returning the hammer to the loop on his belt. “Maybe it’s just as well,” he said, as though I’d answered. “There’s something I needed to tell you. I have…I have a plan.”
I cocked my head to the side and looked at him. Even the curiosity felt muted and distant.
“Friedrich had some money cached in the smithy,” Sigmund said. “And supplies–food, weapons, that sort of thing. Now that he’s gone, it’s mine. We could take it and run, go to the city.”
“‘We?'” I echoed.
He nodded. “You and me,” he said. “We’d need a ward to get past the ghouls. You can’t move the warding posts, but I saw Corbin moving that thing he made around. We could take that.”
I stared at him. I was starting to understand what he was proposing, and the anger it aroused in me was enough that I could feel it through the fog. “They’d die,” I said. I realized that I was standing, that I’d moved closer to him.
To his–very slight–credit, Sigmund didn’t feign ignorance. “They’re dead anyway,” he said. “And we can’t all run. The ward wouldn’t cover all of us. But you and me, we could make it out.”
I stared at him. I wanted to yell at him, but I couldn’t think of what I could say that might even begin to convey what I felt in that moment, and even if I could have found the words, I couldn’t have said them. So I just stared.
Apparently my expression conveyed something of the revulsion I felt, though, because Sigmund flinched away. “I don’t like it either,” he said, defensively. “But we have to face facts. Branson’s Ford is doomed. The people here are doomed. But we can get away from it. We can make a life somewhere else.”
I didn’t quite spit in his face. But only because our relative heights made it difficult, and it ended up hitting him in the chest instead.
“With you?” I said contemptuously. I snorted.
Sigmund went bright red with embarrassment and anger. “You think you can do better?” he asked, too loud and harsh. “You’re just some Changed slut with no family or friends. You should be glad anyone would want you at all.”
So that was how this was.
Even Sigmund seemed to realize that he’d gone too far. He froze, not saying anything else, not looking at me.
But as I pushed past him, he grabbed me.
That wasn’t a very good idea.
Sigmund was a good deal bigger than me. And as the blacksmith–the blacksmith’s apprentice, I reminded myself, because like hell was I going to give him the honor of the position Friedrich had earned now–it went without saying that he was stronger than I was. You couldn’t do that job without layering on muscle. Any direct contest of strength between us would be laughably one-sided.
But like I’d told Black, I was stronger than I looked, and I was fast. And I knew what I was doing. And at the moment I was worked up, my already delicate temper pushed to the breaking point.
So the instant he touched me, the old habits that I’d built up in the camps took over again. I moved with the grab, putting him off balance, and then lashed out at his face.
I’d forgotten that I was missing a claw on that hand, which was the only reason I didn’t actually tear his eye out. The other claws were enough to tear bloody gashes across his cheek, his brow. He flinched away, giving me a chance to break his grip.
I started for the hole leading out of that pocket in the rocks again, and would have left it at that. But Sigmund was recovering his balance and coming after me again, and I wasn’t sure I could outrun him in my current state, and I wasn’t sure I could count on getting away from him if he got his hands on me again.
So I threw the fragments of the shattered coin at him, putting more than just muscle behind them.
I didn’t see the details of where they hit, or how badly they hurt him. He fell. That was enough. I turned and fled without checking to see if he would live, not entirely sure whether I wanted him to or not.