We crossed the county line out of Racine a couple of days ago and we've been hiking north ever since. It's open country now, flat grassland with a few hummocks that aren't big enough to be called hills. We haven't seen a house or working farm in hours. The fresh open air, without a hint of the scents of smoke or manure, is a relief after days in the stench of everything about Racine County. It's a clear day, sun beaming down and turning pale little Bindi's shoulders and cheekbones an angry shade of red, but she doesn't complain. She never does.

Marv tells stories as we hike. It passes the time. He makes gambling sound glamorous, full of big scores, sudden disastrous losses, and narrow escapes. He has a soothing voice, higher than mine but pleasant, and a natural gift for telling a tale. Between stories Bindi hums, cheery little tunes with their rhythm more or less in time with our footsteps. I just walk. The only songs I know need a whole tribe to be sung properly, and most of my stories would horrify these people. They don't need to hear about the day I took my first ear in battle, or the night raids my tribe made on the fort to lure soldiers outside into ambushes. And the happier times – long summer nights whispering with Tana, or hunting trips with surly old Hurgin – those are mine. I'm not prepared to share them.

Marv breaks off a story in mid-sentence, holds up a hand, and we all stop. I hear it now too, a low steady thumping from nearby, just over a low hill fifty feet to our front. Marv takes off, fast but quiet, using low underbrush along the edge of the road as cover. Before long he disappears over the crest of the hill. I curse under my breath and slide my knife out of its sheath. It should have been me doing the scouting. Marv is faster than me and as sneaky as they come, but he hasn't got a weapon. If there's some kind of threat ahead...

Marv is out of our sight for maybe thirty seconds when somebody shouts, “Who's there?” He's been spotted. Bindi and I move up at a trot to join him.

The owner of the voice is my height but thicker through the body and arms, beefy and balding, brandishing a baseball bat – nothing fancy, but good enough to crack a skull. Twenty paces beyond him there's another figure on the ground, unconscious, face purple and swollen from a recent beating.

I said, who are you?” the bat-man snarls. “What the hell do you want here?”

Marv holds up his hands, palms out and empty, and flashes an innocent, harmless smile. “Easy there, buddy,” he says. “This is none of our business. We're just passing through.”

You're not 'passing through',” the man says, hefting the bat for emphasis. “What you're gonna do is turn around and go back where you came from.” He doesn't have tribal regalia, but he talks like a Boss.

We're not looking for any trouble,” says Marv, still smiling, “but we're headed north. Just let us by and we'll be on our way.”

The man seems immune to charm. He steps into the middle of the old roadway, blocking our path. There's more talk, him growling, Marv reasoning, Bindi chiming in. It doesn't seem to be going anywhere. I tune most of it out.

I've been studying him through the whole exchange. Not his face – eyes can lie to you, and mouths were practically made for it – but his body language. It's there in the set of his shoulders, the shift in his hips every time one of us moves, the stance on the balls of his feet, ready for a lunge. This man doesn't want to be talked down or reasoned with. He wants to fight. This won't get settled without force.

I picture him in a blue uniform. It helps.

The beaten man on the ground sits up. Bat-man storms over to him, shoves him down with a foot, screams at him. While he's distracted I slide the crowbar off my back and hand it to Marv.

He gawks at it, confused. Are we going to fix something?”

Yeah,” I tell him, “I'm pretty sure we are.” I draw my ripper, ready now to carve with either hand.

The man turns back to us, advancing quickly, bat high over his shoulder ready for a swing. The lower half of him is uncovered. I start picking out targets: the big artery in his thigh, maybe a stab to the abdomen...

The fight only lasts a couple of seconds. Bindi produces a slingshot from somewhere and sends a rock whizzing past the guy's ear. Marv ducks a wild swing and cracks him across both shins with a meaty thud. The swing puts the man's back to me and I slice him with one hand and stab for a kidney with the other. And just like that, it's over. He drops the bat, takes a knee, and gives up.

The air bears the coppery scent of fresh blood. We stand aside as the man rises and limps away. Every instinct I have tells me to run him down, lay him open, paint the ground with him, leave his carcass for the crows. I fight it all down. That was the old way, the way of the tribe. I'm in a new world now, with different rules.

I shut my eyes so I can't make myself crazy watching him escape. I force myself to take long, deep breaths, getting my body under control, putting the animal back in its cage. After a couple of minutes the reddish haze has cleared from my vision and my breathing is more or less normal. There are still tiny tremors in my hands, but nothing you'd notice if you weren't looking for it.

The beaten man is on his feet. Bindi and Marv are speaking to him. I rejoin them. They tell me his name is Roland. I nod a greeting at him.

Behind my eyes the bat-man screams as the knife goes into his belly and tears upward toward his breastbone, while the tribe cheers me on. The image is enough to let me give the new guy a smile.