“I wonder sometimes, sir, at the darkness and the quiet.”
It was anything but dark or quiet, Mauer observed. The wind had picked up, the rain came down as the faintest of drizzles, and the dogs were barking. Three of the four other people present were seated around a tall fire that had been given far too much wood. Isaiah, Wil, and Limps. Dalton stood with his arms folded, but would soon resume pacing, his face illuminated by the blazing fire.
But Isaiah wasn’t talking about the darkness and the silence here. Not in the physical, tangible way.
“I don’t think He’s silent,” Mauer said.
“I didn’t mean to insinuate-” Isaiah started. He stopped as Mauer raised a hand.
“Let me continue. I don’t want to imply you’re wrong to say this, and it’s a good point of discussion. Let me think of how to gracefully word this.”
It was important to choose words carefully with Isaiah. The man was a competent soldier, a remarkable shot, and if told to march he would march until he was physically unable, and from that point the man would crawl.
It was possible that if the Academies were to conduct their tests, that they would find something wrong with Isaiah’s head. Mauer himself had spent some time trying to decipher the young man, after discovering how very sensitive he was. Isaiah would kill without remorse, but would sulk for weeks after a stern verbal rebuke. He was one of the more common people to show up when Mauer sat himself by the campfire, perhaps too eager to ask for guidance and too unlikely to seek his own.
Mauer had met Isaiah’s mother once upon a time. He would have liked to have her counted among his flock, as she was a woman from one of the countries to the south who had participated in the fight against the Crown. She had sought out the meeting, and much of it had been to evaluate Mauer. In exchange, while Mauer hadn’t outright asked, he had been able to verify that Isaiah had been this way since he was small.
Isaiah was nearly thirty, but he looked very much a boy, here, leaning forward, waiting for his answer like a boy wanting his forty pence in allowance. Though Isaiah’s deep brown skin, very green eyes and chin with a deep-set dimple had any number of young women cooing over him, Mauer knew Isaiah was entirely innocent. He was a peculiar lad.
“Whether He makes himself heard relates to whether we listen. Again, this isn’t to say you’re wrong, and I know you read your passages, I would never say you don’t try.”
“But hearing Him is a skill. It takes time and practice to learn that you hear him not with your ears, but with your heart,” Mauer said. He touched the fingers of his good hand to the respective body parts. As if to remind him of its presence, his other arm almost vibrated with restless pain. “All of you four have already come that far. Where it gets harder is when we lose sight of how open we are, or if other things stand in the way.”
The others were listening. Limps was an old man, an infrequent visitor to the campfire since Mauer had picked up the habit, one who rarely talked without being addressed first, and didn’t seem to need much more than a friendly voice late in the evenings. Limps was the hardest to speak to, because he gave so little feedback, outside of a nod. Best to leave him be.
“Fear. Doubt,” he said. The words were meant for Isaiah. He said them as if he spoke of fear and doubt that might be experienced by the smallest child in the deepest darkness. The next word was for Dalton, spoken to address a man, though Dalton was but an adolescent. “A desire for revenge.”
Dalton, by contrast, had only been visiting in the last week, six visits in the last seven days, after years of being content to follow orders and keep mostly to himself. He was a teenager, and when the Academy had wrought its mass sterilization, Dalton’s mother had spontaneously aborted the child she was carrying. Dalton had spoken of it to Mauer once, when he had first joined, had shed no tears when describing the blood and the two funerals that had followed. Mauer had his doubts the miscarriage and the death of the mother had to do with the drug, but he wasn’t about to argue that a good soldier’s reasons for joining the war were wrong. He wouldn’t take that belief away from Dalton when Dalton had nothing else.
The boy had no family but the other soldiers now. He kept company with a few soldiers and camp folk his age and with a fury of a different brand than Mauer knew. The boy didn’t sit, but mostly paced, periodically leaving, only to return and throw something more on the fire. He wanted badly to confess something, Mauer surmised, or to seek advice, but it had been a week and he hadn’t voiced it, whatever it was. Dalton’s anxiety was the reason the fire had been made as large as it had.
“Other needs and wants,” Mauer continued, and he said it as if it was to nobody in particular, but it was a statement meant to come to rest between two particular ears.
He didn’t look at her, but he somehow doubted Wil had received the message as intended.
“Even I feel I need to look inward and double-check myself,” he said. “Think twice about what I’m doing and why, and if I’m serving God.”
“Yes sir,” Isaiah replied.
“Would you like some tea, reverend?” Wil asked. The timing of the request and her blithe tone suggested she wasn’t taking his hint. She didn’t want to take his hint.
He deigned to nod. “Just bring me the hot water. And please, again, I must insist you not call me that.”
“Yes, o’course,” she said, in a way that suggested it had gone in one ear and out the other. She went around the group, offering tea. Only Limps accepted the offer.
She dressed like a soldier, she followed orders, she knew her guns, and she called herself Wil rather than Wilma. Mauer didn’t welcome vulgar talk in his immediate vicinity, but he knew soldiers were soldiers and he had overheard men talking about willing cunts and wet holes, trying to bait something out of Wil, and they had been effectively silenced when she had gone on at length about twitching rods with eager dew at the tips, about hardness meeting softness and, turning their words back on them, her own ‘wet cunt’. He’d had words with her after that, about how she was conveying herself, how he expected more of her, yet as effective as his words usually were in giving guidance and direction, he worried she heard only what she wanted to hear.
It was almost as if she wanted to be dressed down, as if her insolence begged it, because it was attention. In the midst of it she took his words and gave them an entirely new tone and order, taking away their power.
Wants and needs.
What was more, she straddled a line of propriety and masculinity with very clear distinctions that likely made sense only to her. She played at a male vernacular, but when she spoke her voice was soft wherever she could get away with soft, and whether soft or delivered as an order or insult, she spoke with an especially country Crown accent of a sort normally heard an ocean away. She normally wore her uniform clothes, but given a chance she would flaunt a dress, often flaunting at him in particular.
He tried to let her be, to not feed her the attention, but she often appeared at these campfires, at an hour when many had gone to bed. The pain of his arm often kept him awake, and rather than lie awake, staring at the walls of his tent, he came out here, to listen to those who needed listening to, to offer prayer and reassuring words. Wil turned up almost as often as Isaiah did.
She was gone for the moment, but she would soon be back with the tea.
Isaiah spoke up, “Is it possible that, given where we stand, it’s harder to hear Him than it was?”
“Where do you think we stand, Isaiah?” Mauer asked.
“I worry about the plague, and this blighting, which is almost a plague unto itself, sir. I feel as though we’ve meddled too much in His creation, played at being God, and He’s pulled away from us.”
“No, Isaiah,” Mauer spoke. “Not so. It is them who meddled, them who played at being God. You and I, Dalton, Limps, all of us, we’re fighting. We’re fighting on His behalf.”
The words felt hollow on his own lips, but he could see the effect that they had for Dalton and for Isaiah: Dalton’s anxiety eased and Isaiah seemed to find strength and direction in that.
He could paint a clearer picture, he knew, outline a way forward, and they would follow that path, but he didn’t. For the time being, they had retreated to an island in the midst of a lake, more or less outside of the reach of the blight. If he gave them a goal and inflamed their passions, it would do even more to ease Dalton’s restlessness and erase Isaiah’s doubts, but it would only backfire if and when he didn’t carry it through. No use giving them motivation with no power or allowance to enact it. It would only frustrate.
He could hear the dogs barking.
Wil returned, holding a kettle and three teacups, two of which were full. She handed one to Limps and set one down on her seat before bringing the remaining cup and kettle to Mauer.
He took the cup first. With his good hand, he handled the teacup in one hand, running his fingers along interior, edge, and handle, his eyes turned to the surface of the cup as the firelight lit it. He could feel the warmth at the handle where Wil had been holding it.
“You have the oddest rituals, reverend,” Wil said.
“Please, Wil. I’m not taking that role at present.”
“You’ve done a fine job the last few nights, if I may say so,” she said.
“Even tonight,” Isaiah said.
Mauer shook his head. He balanced the teacup on his knee. He held out his hand for the kettle and asked, “Who boiled the water?”
“Lieutenant John Coumb,” Wil said, handing him the kettle. “I can hold that cup for you, if you’d like.”
“No,” he said, before she could.
“You have the oddest rituals about tea that I’ve seen,” she said, her voice soft. “About your meals too.”
“About many things. Many were lessons I was taught when men didn’t take precautions,” he said. Coumb was a known factor. But the barking of the dogs and the fact that he didn’t wholly understand how Wil operated, it was cause for him to be cautious.
He shrugged one shoulder, letting his coat slip from where it was perched on his shoulder and draped over his bad arm. The act revealed his arm, and he knew that all present were looking.
He held his bad hand out, and he poured steaming water into the cupped palm.
“Reverend!” Wil exclaimed, eyes wide.
It hurt, as boiling water poured directly onto flesh should. His flesh was callous thick, yet it would blister and burn. Growths ran through it, resembling a fungus or plant, but they would crack and bleed as any flesh did.
He had grown used to pain. The arm always hurt, from shoulder to each of the blunt, crude fingers.
The water escaped through the gaps between fingers, burning as it trickled through. He closed his eye, feeling the agony of it, while trying to show very little of that pain. He tried to focus on the other sensations, to feel for grit, for the weight of the water, and how it moved.
With one eye, he watched Wil and her reaction. She seemed horrified, broken out of the spell that swept over her when she was around him. He felt sufficiently satisfied that nothing was amiss, no parasite or particulate was present, and that she wasn’t putting on a show.
He moved his bad hand, and the corner of his mouth pulled back with a twitch as a physiological reaction to renewed pain touched his expression. He took the modest cup in a large, burned hand that could have closed fully around the kettle, and set the kettle down on the bench beside him before drawing a leather pouch from his coat pocket. He kept the teabags on his person, in the pouch with a small spoon.
Mauer prepared his tea with care. Teabag in, a set number of turns of the spoon, at a pace he had rehearsed many times. He turned the spoon over and rested it at a set angle, and he eyed the small bubbles on the surface of the liquid that continued to swirl after the spoon had ceased moving, doing so with a mind to amount and to pattern.
It was quiet. There wasn’t a sound except for the stir of wind and the distant lapping of water on the shore.
“It seems most have retired for the night,” he said. He took a sip of his tea. “Dalton, you pass by the supply tent and makeshift watch tower on the way to your tent, don’t you?”
“Tell them to wake all of the patrols. They’re to tell the patrols to do a sweep, be watchful. They’re to be more careful than kind. Wake others up if they must, but let’s ensure we don’t have any trouble. Anything remotely suspicious gets reported. We’ll pick up and move to another location tomorrow.”
Limps spoke for the first time since asking for his tea. “I heard the Crown was close to finding us. Sniffers. Are you thinking they might have found us already?”
“They’ve been drawing closer,” Mauer said. “If it were that alone, I wouldn’t want to take such precautions.”
“If it’s not that alone, what else is there?” Dalton asked.
Mauer took a sip of his tea, “The dogs were barking.”
“Past tense,” Limps spoke, realizing.
Everyone present, Mauer excepted, reacted, hands touching pistols at their waists, their attention extending beyond the circle of light at the campfire.
“Check the dogs are alright while you’re at it, Dalton?” Mauer asked.
“I’ll go now, if that’s alright, sir?”
“Please do,” Mauer said.
He liked the way they responded. The questions they asked.
They were good men and women, overall. They were believers, even if some were believers in him and some were believers in God.
“Where are we going?” Wil asked. She’d seated herself on the edge of the bench Mauer sat on.
“I don’t reveal destinations to anyone but my key personnel,” Mauer said.
“Well, I’m only going to say, sir, I might’ve got family in these parts.”
“We’ll see,” he said. He finished his tea, handed his cup to Wil, and then he stood, collecting his coat and draping it over his shoulders. “I’m going to retire. Limps, will you look after the fire, or find someone who will? Dalfton built it, so if he returns, you can tell him I asked him to mind it.”
“I can, sir,” Limps said.
“If he’s left to his own devices, he might leave us with no wood and a signal fire that they can see from New Amsterdam,” Wil said, joking.
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Mauer said. He drew in a bit of a breath, then addressed the trio with more assertion, “Goodnight. I’ll be awake for a little while yet, in case there’s a problem, but I’m not to be disturbed otherwise.”
“Yes sir,” repeated an overlapping three times.
He didn’t like that he had to specify that.
“God be with you,” he said.
“God be with you,” was the echo from the other three mouths.
The camp was dark in contrast to the fire. There were tents throughout, and he was very aware of the numbers, that his army was presently very small. There were boats propped up, used as a roof or one side of a more structured tent, supplemented with tentcloth and all lashed up with rope and careful knotwork. His own accommodations were similar, only they came close to being an actual home. The boat had taken nearly everyone to move away from the water and turn over, with boards, railings and other furnishings coming away to serve as benches and other furnishings.
God be with you. His own words echoed in his head.
He was very tired, and he’d been getting more tired as of late. Whenever he ruminated on that growing feeling of exhaustion, it was always the same image and sound that sprung to mind.
One of his primordials had spoken. It had named itself.
It was a voice and a sight that had tainted every mention of Him since. He couldn’t even call it a device of the Crown, calibrated to sow unease in his mind. His God had been pieced together by his effort and by Genevieve Fray’s.
He lit candles, and as he did, he checked the papers that were stacked and scattered throughout his quarters. An Academy in the West had fallen to plague and Fray had braved that area to acquire a map. That she was willing to brave that kind of environment suggested she might have been hiding in the midst of plague as he hid in the midst of water and blight.
The map showed the spread of disaster. It showed which of the Academy’s weapons had been released, and the paths they had taken or been given.
There was not much ground left for the staging of a fight. The reported movements of nobles and higher-ups was suggesting that they would vacate, only a skeleton crew of Academy professors left behind to administrate. Experiments created to brave the plague and blight would stay behind, policing a smothered continent.
The fingers of his good hand traced over the images, drawing out imagined paths for Academy, refugee, rebel and Crown.
He wanted to stay up to keep an ear out for trouble, and he busied his hand with the tidying up of papers, he kept his eyes active by glancing over letters and messages, correspondence from members of his flock.
The alertness granted him by the tea gradually faded, and he heard no commotion. After what might have been an hour, he hung up his coat, then unbuttoned his shirt at the shoulder and side before pulling it off. Disrobing was a painstaking process when he had only one hand and he had his bad arm to work around, but he was careful to fold shirt and pants.
His monstrous hand quenched candles, pinching away the flames.
He retired, laying on his back, head on pillow, arm heavy enough at his side that it meant he slept on a faintly angled surface. He draped the crook of his good elbow over his upper face, shutting away the faint light and the light of the blazing fire that seeped between the wood of his accommodations and the ground.
It took a lot of focus to take his mind off of the throbbing of his bad arm. It felt as though it had been flayed alive, every inch of it hurting. The burn in the palm and fingers was of a different sort, more focused, reacting to every change in the air. It was something to focus on, a change from prior sleepless nights where the pain had trained him to remain awake until he fell into sleep with no progression or process that could be interrupted.
He didn’t dream, but he did sleep, and he did wake. It was as though he was laying in bed one minute, feeling cool, and in the next moment he was snapping to alertness, the temperature different, the feel of the thin stuffed mattress and sheets different.
His revolver was tucked between mattress and wall. He collected it, cocked it, and aimed it into the gloom with the same motion of his arm and hand.
He waited, and he waited for a considerable amount of time, aiming at only darkness, letting his eyes adjust to the light level. The fire deeper in the camp had shrunk by a fair margin. It would be close to five in the morning, if he had to guess.
Mauer waited, all of his instincts from the battlefield primed.
He shifted position on the bed, and in the doing, he used the thumb of his monstrous hand to flick a knife from under his pillow down the bed, closer to his waist.
Easing down, he pretended to relax, even as he took up the knife between two fingers of his monstrous hand. He set the revolver down. All of this was something he had done one to ten times a night for years. Being ready, being hyperalert, as if every night’s sleep was something stolen in the midst of an ongoing fight. The dogs barking and then settling down had him on edge more than usual.
In many ways it was. This long period of dormancy was one of the longer breaks he’d had from the fighting since he had been setting the stage in Radham.
It was different this time, though. That had been more of a beginning, and this felt like the approach to the end. He was tired, and he hadn’t been before.
He used the same techniques to fall asleep, dwelling on the pain of the burn, controlling his breathing, relaxing various muscles. Again, he fell into sleep rather than fading or slipping into it. Consciousness dropped away, and seemingly a moment later, he felt the movement of air across his burn.
His hand lifted, knife caught between two meaty fingers, and he backhanded his assailant. He struck the figure down, pinning them against the luggage container that served as a bedside table with the back of his hand and the blade of the knife on opposing sides of their throat.
“Oh,” the voice said. Female.
He remained silent, waiting for his eyes to adjust.
“Sorry,” she said, with her Crown accent. “I don’t know what came over me, that I found myself here like this.”
“Not wise, Wil,” Mauer said.
“No,” she breathed. “Apparently not.”
“Did something come up?” he asked. He hadn’t released her.
“I… was hoping to contrive for something to come up,” she said.
Was that it? It wouldn’t be the first, fifth, or even tenth time that Mauer had drawn that kind of interest. Twice it had been insinuations from men, even. He’d never reciprocated. It was an unfortunate consequence of his ability to draw people in; sometimes he drew them in too close. People who were looking for something often found that something in him.
“I’m a man of God,” he said. Again, the image of his primordial flitted through his mind’s eye.
“But you’re a man, aren’t you, Reverend?” she asked. And she sounded less sure of herself than he’d ever heard her.
“Don’t- I’ve told you time and again, don’t call me that.”
He released her, moving the knife away. There was the revolver to fall back on, just in case-
He felt the movement of air, and then her weight was on top of him. He brought the revolver around, and fingers closed around his. He was strong enough, fitter than the vast majority, and yet he was matched or beaten in physical strength here.
Her fingers tightened on his, and he felt the pain of cartilage grinding and flesh giving way as the vise closed his hand around the hardest parts of the revolver. He grit his teeth, and swung his bad arm up and at the weight on his chest.
It was two legs that caught his bad arm, toes finding holds in the gaps and hollows near his hand and wrist, the strongest part of her legs and hips stressing the weakest parts and angles of his shoulder and elbow.
He knew what she was, too late.
“Lambs,” he said.
She giggled. It didn’t sound like Wil anymore.
Two of her arms caught his good arm, one of her hands over his, the other on his forearm. The weight of her body rested across his, and her legs had his other arm. She was astride him.
“How many of mine have you killed?”
“None,” Helen said.
“I’ve left the dogs alone.”
“Will you leave them alone as you make your exit?” he asked.
“It depends on how this conversation goes,” she said.
“Mm hmm,” she said.
She laid her head on his chest. The angle of it was wrong, her head positioned too far down. She shouldn’t have been able to place her ear over his heart.
She wasn’t wearing much. A nightgown, perhaps, or just a slip. For the ruse of pretending to be Wil? She would have had to hear Wil speak, or even overheard their interaction, which meant she had been close for some time.
“I remember,” she said, and she moved his destroyed hand with the revolver. The flat of it rested against the back of her head, on her hair. “Our first real meeting. You pressed a gun to my head.”
“I do recall something like that.”
“You’ve been in my thoughts ever since. I could have approached you another way, but Sylvester did say that you shot him on sight.”
“Sylvester,” he said. “Are the Lambs still coordinating as a whole, or-”
“I defected. I’m officially dead, but that won’t hold up for very long.”
“Mm,” he said. “If you talked to Sylvester you know he and I parted on… not the worst of terms.”
“Oh, I know,” she said, her voice a whisper. She shifted position, and in the doing, she made the harder part of her ribs grate against his. “But I just-”
He took the opportunity and moved his gun-hand, and made it only inches before something in her seized up, reflexive, the hold on his arm becoming a stranglehold, as tight as his movement had been quick.
As he relaxed, so did she.
“I just really wanted very badly to hunt you, sir,” she whispered “To see if I could. To be here, like this.”
“Is that so important?” he asked.
“It’s my everything.”
He knew about inflection, about emphasis. The way she had said it, he absolutely believed it. That she’d gone as still as she had after uttering those words, not even breathing, her heartbeat barely perceptible as his own heart drummed its war beat, it drew out that statement, begging him to dwell on it.
“You have lines in your face you didn’t have when you pulled the gun on me, Reverend,” she said.
“It’s been many years.”
“You’ve changed considerably from that small child.”
“I have,” she said. “I used to be softer.”
As she said it, she changed position. The cushions of hip and chest rested heavily on him.
“Now I’m…” she moved one leg away from his arm, bringing it up so it rested across his lower body, bent. “…Hm. I had innuendo in mind, but you’re not cooperating.”
“Humor is often lost on me.”
“Amusement is, apparently.”
He wondered at his ability to use his arm, with all of its composite mass and muscle, warring with the strength of her one leg. He was stronger, he suspected, but she had the all-important leverage. The question was whether he could do sufficient damage before she ended him.
There was a similar problem if he raised his legs up, then brought them down to generate the momentum to stand and try to topple her from where she rested on top of him. She still had her grip on him.
“It’d be my first time, doing this with an emotional connection,” she whispered. “You were on my shortlist. So was Fray, and many of the Lambs. I wanted it to be special.”
“I’ve had my dalliances, but they were purely physical,” she said. “Flesh and flesh, with very little meaning. But this…”
“I think you’re losing sight of what you came here for.”
“…This,” she whispered. “This would be the sort of instance where I could give someone a happy ending.”
“Except you came here to have a conversation with me, you said. You’re talking in woulds and coulds.”
She laid her head down across his chest, and she pulled his arm down and in front of her, so the length of his forearm was parallel to her body, hugged close to her, his wrist between her breasts. The revolver was close to her chin, but his hand was too mangled to do anything particular with it and the angle of the shot was such that it put his own head in the line of fire.
“My passions are reserved for God and for justice,” he said. “For seeing this greater battle through. I’d say I’m sorry to disappoint, but in this instance I’m really quite glad.”
“I’m interested in the battle too,” she said. “Hot blood pumping, muscles tense, the blood, the screaming. It’s all very lively and interesting.”
Again, inflection and emphasis. She wasn’t talking about seduction, she hadn’t been from the start, aside from the teases. That left him to wonder what she meant by ‘first time’, when he had little doubt she meant violence.
Execution with an emotional component?
“Again,” he said. “We’re getting distracted from what you came here for. A conversation?”
“A conversation,” she said. “We would like your assistance. We’re staging something.”
“What are you staging?”
“If I told you, you’d interfere. We might welcome some of your involvement and interference, but not at this stage of things. For now, we want to get their attention. We have to be indirect. We want you to allow one of your own to get captured and it’ll need to be someone they know you’d miss.”
“To what end?”
“They’ll confess that you knew about a girl that had attained immortality in Lugh. That the Baron took her with the intent of marrying her and obtaining her secret, and she fled when the Baron died.”
These things were truth. He had paid attention to that whole proceeding. He just couldn’t see where it all led.
“What do I get out of this?”
“A victory. A true, honest to goodness victory, Reverend. And it will be one that has implications for the world.”
“A hollow victory, if it’s one I can’t even see the shape of.”
“It’s a victory, and whether it’s hollow or not doesn’t matter. Unless you’re about to tell me that self-aggrandizement or pride take higher priority than besting them?”
“No. I won’t say that.”
“We’re prepared to leave you the secret of the Block,” she said. “As an incentive.”
To say that she now had his full attention would have been disingenuous, as she’d already had it as part and parcel of having his arms in her deathgrip. Still, he hadn’t expected this.
This was everything he wanted, vague and unfulfilled as it was.
“I could be convinced,” he admitted.
“Yeah?” she asked, raising her head. In that instance, she sounded very much like the little girl again, and not the young lady of eighteen to twenty years of age.
“Tell me what I need to do, exactly.”
“You sacrifice your pawn, someone you can trust to endure under pressure. Someone who will experience torture and drugs and will convey only what we need you to convey, either because they’re that capable or because you can manipulate them to that degree. They’ll tell the Crown that you, the Baron, and others were interested in a miss Candida Gage, who was an imperfect immortal. She’s in Brichton. They’ll look there and they’ll follow the trail elsewhere, finding their way into our trap.”
“They’re not gullible.”
“But this will be very convincing,” Helen said.
He considered. He weighed the merits.
“I’ll want to be in touch.”
“We’ll arrange that,” she said.
He had plans in the works, but they were hollow ones. Gathered students, projects, wars on multiple fronts, targeted assassinations and kidnappings. The problem was that so much of the Academy had condensed. There were more resources in a smaller area, and it made doing the things he wanted to do that much harder.
It was a choice between this vague errand or a hopeless series of battles before his army crumbled in entirety. The sacrifice of one of his people versus committing the entirety of them to a losing fight.
“Alright,” he said.
“It can’t be you that you send, you know. They’d be suspicious, and you’d draw more scrutiny than the message did.”
“I know,” he said.
“Good,” she said. “Perfect.”
That statement uttered, she remained where she was.
Somewhere outside in the camp, someone was rising early. Likely one of the cooks. They scuffed the dirt with their footsteps.
“However,” Helen said. “We might have run into a difficulty.”
“If you’re concerned I’ll stab or shoot you the moment you let go, then we’re starting this arrangement on a bad foot. There needs to be a modicum of trust,” he said. He was careful not to point out his injured hand.
“No,” Helen said. “I’m having trouble letting go.”
“What brand of trouble?”
“My mind accepts that I need to,” she said. “My body doesn’t agree.”
Her breathing had changed.
“I’m afraid I may break you, despite everything,” she said. “I was worried about this.”
“This seems like an oversight,” Mauer observed, though he was more nervous than he had been since the beginning. Was this everything coming full circle from where it had started in Radham?
“It wasn’t an oversight. It was very sighted,” Helen said. “We knew I might have this difficulty.”
“A grave mistake then,” Mauer said.
“There were no good answers. Had it been Sylvester you wouldn’t have heard him out. Had it been Jessie, you-”
“Jamie. Had it been Jamie, there would have been difficulty communicating. You occupy different wavelengths.”
Ah, the one who had read off the list of the supposed dead, to destabilize his hold on the mob in Radham.
“And putting Jamie-Jessie here raises its own questions, because then it’s either Sylvester visiting the others, and that isn’t about to go well, or it’s me visiting them, and I’m not so sure I’m equipped to visit them and then leave again, or to say everything that needs saying. And if any of us stayed behind-”
“You’re rambling. Not that I particularly mind knowing just what you’re all up to, but I’d rather address this crisis of yours.”
She flinched. “Please choose your words carefully. The way you said crisis, it almost made me snap.”
“What words are a problem?”
“The word problem is. So is crisis. Strong words, words that mean trouble or bad things. Threats and provocations.”
Were his words, a gift that God had given him, going to now be his end?
He fell silent, waiting. She was breathing very rapidly now.
“I’m trying to be still,” she said, her voice soft. “I’m trying to be easy, to be quiet, when every inch of me is wanting culmination, in its bloody, bent glory.”
Mauer waited, tense. He wasn’t sure those last three words were the sort of words she should be saying. Challenging her might have ended up being the provocation that made her ‘snap’.
“Mr. Reverend Mauer,” Helen whispered.
“That might be one too many titles,” he said.
“I need you to do something for me,” she said.
“I should be able to oblige,” he said, picking words to sound nonthreatening. It wasn’t as if he was in a position to refuse.
He was very cognizant of the fact that not long after the cooks were awake, others would check on him, or would expect him to be up and about. He didn’t sleep much by habit, and his staying in bed would make others worry. It would make them knock, and intrusion was entirely something that might provoke this Lamb.
“As I ease down, I need you to be still,” she said. “I’m going to let go of you, and I need you not to do anything. Don’t flex a muscle, don’t move too quickly, don’t move slowly. If you do anything, I might react reflexively, and then you’re broken up into useless little bits, or we’re at the very least right back where we started.”
“You need me to be still?”
“I need you to relax, utterly, so I can follow your lead. I need you to stop fighting.”
He hadn’t done that in a very, very long time now.
“I don’t know if I’m capable,” he said, modulating his tone to sound nonthreatening.
“Your life may depend on it, sir,” she said.
“If I was capable of it, I would have done so at some point in the last decade, and I would have… given up entirely,” he said. He was still trying to avoid aggressive words, like fighting, war, and ‘died’. “I wouldn’t be here before you now.”
“That does pose a problem,” she said. “I’m very terribly sorry.”
Her hands were trembling as she held him.
“We’ll try,” he decided, knowing that it was a task they were bound to fail together.
“Trying,” she said.
It was a glacial process, and one that was hard to measure, as she didn’t relax progressively or in a particular order. It was more as if she was holding steady, trying not to act, and gradually, muscle by muscle, she released her hold.
The moment he had a meaningful chance, he would act. He wasn’t capable of proper surrender, not like this.
He would act.
She relaxed gradually, and the only sound was his own breathing and hers. She panted, and the pants grew further in between.
If she took her weight off of him, he would act. If she let go of an arm, he would act.
“I’m having difficulty moving further,” she said.
And others were waking up throughout the camp. Was it closer to six now? Six thirty?
How long before a loud sound spooked his foe here and drove her to act, explosively constricting around him, twisting his limbs out of sockets or snapping his neck?
She’d stopped, and she was frozen now, so unwilling to move a muscle that she wasn’t willing to breathe.
He still had the pistol in his ruined hand. What had been his good hand, something absolutely vital to him. His index finger was near the trigger, but the cartilage at the knuckle had been torn to shreds, and the finger might have been broken in one or two places. It wasn’t mechanically possible to pull that trigger.
His other hand was empty, and she had covered that base too thoroughly.
“Can I move my good arm?” he asked. “Just a small amount? It’s cramping.”
He watched her eyes move. He watched her eyes stop short of looking directly at hand or gun.
If he said gun, she would act, he suspected. If she looked at a gun, it might be the threat that activated her.
“Yes,” she said.
She knew about the gun. She knew what he had in play.
His arm moved. He made it a few inches before she tensed up in multiple places.
“Just a small amount more?” he asked.
“A small amount.”
Again, she tensed. He sensed the threat of it, read it in her.
She couldn’t bring herself to let go, and he couldn’t move any further, nor could he surrender to help her in letting go.
They remained like that for what might have been a minute.
“Move your shoulder,” she said.
“Yeah,” she said.
Like that, he brought his shoulder forward a fraction, drawing it inward. It was a movement on his part, and it drew a reaction from her, instinctive, when she was a small fraction of reason in a larger sea of something more dangerous.
She moved her hands, seizing his shoulder hard enough to hurt.
She’d let go of his arm, and he was free to aim the revolver. He didn’t.
Instead, Mauer moved the revolver as if he was throwing a punch. He struck her in the shoulder, the angle of the strike meant to catch his own ruined finger to drag it against her bare skin, to pull at the trigger, to shoot.
In the wooden hut formed from an overturned ship hull, the sound was impossibly loud. The pain of his finger was mild compared to what he was used to, but it distracted, took his mind out of the moment.
He’d caught her across collarbone and upper arm with the bullet, and she’d released her grip on his other arm. He used the strength it afforded to reach out and grab her- and when she didn’t let go he aimed and used the revolver again, in much the same fashion, grabbing and pulling on the broken finger with his bad hand.
She tumbled to the dirt floor of his quarters around the same time his people arrived en masse, having heard the shots.
He stood, shaky, as they entered. His lieutenants, his best soldiers, all armed. The real Wil, and Dalton, and Isaiah and Limps.
“Put the guns away,” he said.
“I’m really not enjoying getting shot so much,” Helen said, from where she lay on the ground. She had a bullet through one wrist and another bullet through collarbone and upper arm.
Mauer remained silent.
It would be so easy to order her death. It would have been so safe.
“Can you make your way back on your own?”
“I can,” Helen said. Slowly, she picked herself up. She had to do it without much use of her arms.
“Let her pass,” he instructed his people, and he made sure through tone that there was no room for argument.
The crowd parted.
He watched as she walked away.
God had spoken to him through the mouth of a primordial, so to speak.
It said something that his prayers were answered by a monster with the appearance of an angel, this time. It said something that he was being asked to sacrifice one of his own.
He wasn’t sure it was something positive, but he wasn’t about to quibble.