Monks buttoned up and turned back. The possibility had also occurred to him that a member of this band was sick or hurt, maybe even wounded in the course of committing a crime, and they didn’t want to risk going to a hospital. It still seemed extreme to kidnap a physician; there were easier ways to get medical care while staying anonymous. But maybe using Glenn as a buffer figured in there, too.
“If somebody needs a doctor, why don’t you take me to them,” he said.
Taxman ignored him, instead watching a figure that was trotting closer, out of the darkness. It was the big man, Hammerhead.
“Freeboot wants you to wait in the lodge,” he said to Marguerite. “He’s giving a training session.”
She recoiled in shock. “That fuck.” The word came out in a harsh expulsion of breath.
“He wasn’t expecting us back so soon,” Hammerhead said. He sounded unhappy, apologetic, as if trying to mollify her.
“Why should I care?” she said. “He has the right to do what he wants.” She tossed her hair, defiant now, then stalked toward the building with the lit windows.
“Marguerite,” Hammerhead said, taking a quick step after her.
But Taxman interrupted with his hard-edged drawl. “You done good tonight, HH. Don’t fuck it up.”
Hammerhead, Monks thought. Taxman. Shrinkwrap. And Glenn, it seemed, was called Coil.
Hammerhead turned back, with his heavy jaw clamped tight. The name fit, Monks had to agree. His head was large, square, and seemed to bulge slightly at the temples, an effect that was accentuated by jug ears.
“He said for us to come on,” Hammerhead said.
Taxman looked at Monks and pointed with his knife to one of the unlit buildings fifty yards away.
The two men flanked Monks as they walked to it.
This structure was small, about half the size of a one-car garage, and made of peeled logs that were weathered with age. There were no windows, only a door of heavy planks. The smell of woodsmoke was strong here, and Monks could see a thin plume rising from a stovepipe in the roof.
Taxman motioned Monks to wait. Hammerhead pulled the door open.
A cloud of warm damp air spilled out, carrying the pungent scent of heated cedar. At the room’s center rear, a huge old iron stove blazed, with dancing flames showing through cracks in the casting. A metal bucket of water and a dipper sat on the floor in front of it. Crude three-tiered benches had been built against the walls. Monks realized that it was a sauna.
There were two people in it. One was a woman sitting sideways on a bottom bench, nude, leaning back against the wall. She was young, perhaps twenty, and quite pretty, her hair touseled and damp from steam. Her feet were up on the bench, her knees at her shoulders and apart. Her head was turned to one side, her eyes closed. Her right hand was poised between her thighs, wrist arched delicately, fingers touching her vulva.
The other was a man of about thirty-five, sitting against the opposite wall, watching her intently. He was naked, too, and also an impressive sight-tightly muscled, with corded forearms and knotty veined biceps. His skin, glistening with steam and sweat, seemed to glow in the firelight like molten bronze. He had a thick dark stubble of beard and hair.
Monks’s instant impression was of the blacksmith god Vulcan, taking time away from his forge to sport with a nymph.
So this was Freeboot. Deeply involved in a training session.
Freeboot’s head turned sharply toward the open door. The woman turned more slowly, her eyes opening and fingers pausing.
Hammerhead said, “Whenever you’re ready.”
Freeboot nodded. Hammerhead closed the door.
The woman came out alone a minute later. She moved as if she was in a dream, groping for a robe that hung from a peg on the log wall, slipping it on, then fading off toward another nearby building. If she was aware of the three men watching her, she gave no sign of it. The aroma of cedar lingered in her wake like perfume.
Taxman opened the door again and nodded to Monks.
Monks stepped inside, expecting the guards to follow. But the door closed behind him. The air was sweltering. Immediately, he felt the flush of blood rising to his skin, and started to sweat.
Freeboot was still sitting on the bench. His body was relaxed, but his eyes stared at Monks with hypnotic intensity. Monks noted again his superb musculature. He was not tall, nor thick like a weight lifter, but he looked like he was strung together with cables. It came home to Monks that the guards hadn’t come in because there was no need for them. Trying to attack this man would be like taking on a cougar. His arms and upper body sported large dark blotches, which Monks at first thought were birthmarks. Now he realized that they were tattoos that apparently had been filled in solid.
“Sorry we had to bring you here like that, man,” Freeboot said.
“Nobody had to do anything to me.”
“I can understand that you’re pissed off.”
“If Glenn had just asked me to come here, I would have.”
“It’s not that simple,” Freeboot said. “We don’t know if we can trust you.”
Monks’s mouth opened in outrage. This was the second time he had heard that what had happened to him was, essentially, his fault.
“If you can trust me?” he said.
“We’d like to treat you right. It’s up to you.”
Freeboot stood in a quick fluid motion, vibrant with strength and grace. He lifted the full dipper out of the bucket, and flicked the water onto the blazing stove. Steam poured off the iron with an explosive hiss. Monks threw his forearm across his face to shield himself from the blistering heat. A few seconds later, another hiss sounded, and a wave of even hotter steam wrapped around him, clawing its way inside his clothes. The hiss came a third time. Monks backed into the sauna’s corner and spun away from the stove, head buried in both arms, barely able to breathe the scorching air.
Over the next seconds the heat subsided, though not much, like a menacing presence that had taken a step back but was liable to attack again. Monks wiped his streaming eyes on his sleeve and turned around.
Freeboot was standing in front of the stove, looking entirely at ease, smiling slightly.
“Lose your clothes and hang for a while,” he said. “Sweat out the bad vibes.”
“Just tell me what you want,” Monks managed to say, half-choking on the words.
Freeboot kept watching him steadily for a long fifteen seconds. Then he strode past Monks, pushed open the door, and stood aside.
Monks stumbled out into the fresh cool night and crouched, hands on his thighs, working on getting his breath back. Another explosion of steam sounded inside the sauna, this one louder and longer than any of the others, as if Freeboot had emptied the rest of the bucket onto the stove.
Half a minute later, the sauna door swung open. Freeboot stood framed in the firelight, damp and shining, like a burnished statue.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s get down to business.”
He stepped out, took jeans and a shirt from pegs on the wall, and, still wet, pulled them on.
“Coil-your kid, we call him Coil ’cause he’s wound so tight,” Freeboot said, “he tells me you’re a medieval scholar.”
Monks had started feeling sharper. The shock of sudden heat and then coolness had helped.
“I’m not a scholar of anything,” he said.
“But you know about the Free Companies, right?”
“I don’t understand what that has to do with me being here.”
Freeboot’s gaze hardened into a stare. “I’m trying to get around to that, if you’ll give me a chance.”
Monks hesitated, unwilling to enter into a genial discussion. But to be overly stubborn would be childish and could backfire.