Otter knew it was getting bad when Kensal grabbed the spare sword stuck into the ground beside her, pulled it out, and threw it towards Otter, where it landed at her feet. By the time Otter had fully registered this, Kensal had turned again to duck the sword of the nearest man as it stabbed towards her.
Reluctantly, Otter picked up the sword and walked as fast as she could manage over to help Kensal. Not that she was much use: she was reasonably strong, but her coordination had always been hopeless, and her first attempt at a swipe missed by miles. And, of course, only having one working arm and leg didn't help any either.
Otter'd had to do this often enough that she was a passable fighter by now. There were times before she'd met Kensal when she'd been attacked and had to defend herself, and times since then, like this one, when whoever they'd been sent to kill was too much for Kensal to handle on her own. So her natural clumsiness had lessened, a bit, and she had learned how to keep her weight on her left leg even when dodging a swipe. She managed to last in the fight for nearly a whole minute because of this, and stabbed one of the three men with what she hoped was enough force to kill him, but the second one caught her with a blow to the side of the head which unbalanced her, and she fell backwards, rolling aside awkwardly just in time to avoid the sword coming down for her. Kensal ran the man through before he could try again, and then turned her attention to the last one. Within another minute it was all over.
Otter used her left hand to push herself back up onto her knees, and began going through the men's clothes and backpacks. She took their coins, next-to-useless though they were, their lobelia rolls, of which between them they had seven, and their food, loading it all into her own pack. Then, noticing that the man she'd killed was small, and that the clothes he wore were cleaner and in better condition than hers, she stripped him and packed them as well. Carrying a change of clothes meant unnecessary extra weight, so they preferred to simply swap clothing as soon as they found something better. She'd wash them first, though, when they got back to the camp. Then she hooked one strap of her backpack over her right arm using her left hand and then reached her left hand behind her and wriggled it into the other.
Kensal, meanwhile, was slicing off the men's heads with her sword, wrapping them in the clothing of the two larger men, and loading them into her new enormous plastic bag. Then she asked, "Got everything?" and when Otter nodded her assent they set off back to camp.
It was slow-going: they were up in the heathland, where dry shrubs made the ground springy and each step that much more of an effort. They were still both pouring with sweat from the fight. They didn't talk much, needing to save energy, but once Kensal looked at her and laughed suddenly, with what Otter knew was sheer delight at having finished the job, and at still being alive, and infected, Otter laughed too. They came back into the camp exhausted but still grinning at each other.
"This is amazing," Kensal told Otter as she put the plastic bag down and slid off her backpack. "This bag I mean. Trying to fit three heads into my backpack would have been interesting. We'd have had to drag the client all the way up there if he'd wanted proof, or carry a head each in our arms like an ash-heap. Which I guess would be kind of appropriate, really."
"I was convinced it was going to fall apart when we were crossing a ridge or something," Otter said, "and all our proof would go tumbling down into Guatakin."
Kensal snorted. "That would've given them a shock," she said. "But seriously, Otter, the bag's brilliant. Thanks."
"Well, it's to both of our benefit," Otter said. "I didn't much fancy carrying a dripping head back to camp either."
Kensal propped the bag up against her tent, then left to wash in the river. Otter put the coins and lobelia in the tent, and then went after Kensal with the new clothes. She washed them, then herself, and got dressed in the new clothes. They were almost identical to her old ones, but better, newer and cleaner: a thick short-sleeved woolen tunic, which was undyed and had presumably been vaguely white at some point, too-big brown leather trousers and braces to secure them. Finding they just about fit, she threw her old clothes – apart from her shoes – into the trees, and when Kensal was dressed too they went back to the tent and crawled inside; Kensal was asleep within minutes.
Otter, before she could sleep, had to make sure they woke up in time for the client the next morning, but she'd done it so many times it only took five minutes; a drop of one potion and two drops of another in a dish by her sleeping roll that would react slowly all night and make a fingernail-sized explosion by her ear at six tomorrow morning. That done, she flopped down next to Kensal – and as she did, a small, grating part of her flicked her eyes towards the other girl's sleeping body; for a moment Otter registered the curve of her, the shape she made on the sleeping roll, and her heart rate stuttered, then she turned to face the other way, ignoring the warmth on her back, and shut her eyes.
The next morning, Otter woke Kensal and the two of them rolled the sleeping roll up into a sort of makeshift sofa, which they placed outside for them to sit on while they waited for clients. Then they lifted the sign from where it leaned against the tent and put it on display. It said:
FAST, EFFICIENT SERVICE – ANY PROBLEM SOLVED – WE: CARRY MESSAGES – MAKE DELIVERIES – FIND LOST OBJECTS – FIND LOST PEOPLE – RETRIEVE STOLEN THINGS – STEAL THINGS – KILL PEOPLE – LOTS OF OTHER STUFF: JUST ASK!
Kensal had made it, three years ago, when they first started working together. When Otter had first seen it, she had been slightly dubious – "It's very, um, honest. It might put people off a bit. Do you think we could at least say 'assassinate' instead of 'kill people?'" – but it had worked: they hadn't yet gone a whole week without somebody hiring them.
The client arrived at eight, surveyed the heads in the bag, and, satisfied, handed Kensal the vial of mercury he'd promised them. As he left, Kensal asked Otter, "So what are we going to do for it? Are you keeping it for alchemy, or putting it in the box?"
Otter shrugged. "I'll put it in the box for now," she said. "If we desperately need it we an always get it back. But if we can keep it aside, that'd be good. It's worth a lot."
Kensal nodded, then she said: "And those lobelia rolls from yesterday?"
Otter hesitated. "Weell…" she said. "I mean, they're not that valuable, but we should really save everything we can, and they are worth a bit, and they're hardly necessities…but one each couldn't hurt."
"Waay!" Kensal said. "Alright, knowing that'll get me through whatever we end up having to do today. Assuming we get a client, I mean. I have to be honest; after yesterday I wouldn't be all that upset if we had a day off today. I mean, shit, I'm good, but not three-trained-fighters-at-the-same-time good. If you hadn't helped…"
Otter winced at this. She had always been a crap fighter, even before she'd frozen half her limbs, and that had in any case already happened by the time she'd met Kensal. Mostly, she didn't mind; she was twenty one years old and alive, she could see and hear; her arm and leg were only frozen, not gone, and she had by now learned a limp that looked almost indistinguishable from a walk. That, all things considered, was pretty good going. To use magic for ten years and get away with nothing more than this was better than most people managed. But even so, she didn't particularly like it when Kensal made a big deal out of her rare contributions to the actual fighting, and reminded her how little help she generally was with it. Particularly since Kensal hadn't got the knack for subtlety. This, she knew, was illogical, and a product of the stupid reaction Kensal elicited in her, but even so it had taken her a year to manage ignoring it. When they'd first started traveling together, forced compliments from Kensal had resulted in responses along the lines of, "yeah, well, you should've told me you couldn't handle it before we took on the job; we're a team, that means you fight and I do fucking everything else, it doesn't mean you screw up and I limp in to do your job for you, alright?", leaving Kensal hurt and baffled. The temptation to make Kensal feel as small and stupid as she did was always huge, but she had it under control now, and she just said, "Welcome," and to her relief was spared having to say anything else by the arrival of another client.
It was a woman, and she all but ran up to them when she saw them. "You're the people," she said, very out of breath; Otter wondered where she had traveled from. "You help people. I can pay. You've got to help me."
"Course," Kensal said. "What do you need?"
"My daughter's missing," the woman said, and Otter realized that the shake in her voice could be from something more than just tiredness. "You've got to find her. I'll pay well. Please. I've tried everything –"
"OK," Kensal said. "That sounds like something we can do. When did you last see her?"
So…this is just an idea; may not go anywhere. What I'd like to do is write a novel in which each chapter is like a short story and stands alone, but they also add up into a coherent narrative overall – almost like a prose TV series in a way. Chances of it ever getting that far are small, though.