Authors: Rachel Rossano
Brone rolled his eyes and balked.
“It is only until we reach town,” I assured the horse,
rubbing his neck. “Then we will be rid of him for good and I will treat you to
a night in a real stable, with a carrot and everything.”
Brone liked the idea. He tossed his head, which caused our
captive to unleash a whole new flavor of foul words, blaspheming Deus’ name.
“Enough,” I said.
Reaching over, I grabbed his head by its disgusting hair.
Yanking his chin up so his throat was exposed and his neck hurt, I drew my
knife again. “Be thankful that the price on your head is for your living body.
Now, cease the venom or I shall gag you.”
An abrupt silence followed. I heaved a sigh of relief.
Hopefully that was enough to guarantee a quiet walk into town. If not, I would
muzzle him with the smelliest rag I could find.
“Fifteen gold.” The steward spoke around a full mouth of
stew without bothering to keep his lips closed.
My stomach turned. I really needed to get out of this line
of work for a while. Characters like Steward Farley were far too common.
Moreover, they always hung out in slums like this tavern. The common room was
dim with smoke from a badly vented chimney. The rushes on the floor stunk of
rotting food, sour ale, and things much worse.
“The bounty contract states twenty, steward.” I addressed
the shining oil on his balding scalp. “I am willing to call any of these fine
men as witnesses to it. Twenty gold flans for the return of your criminal.” I
rested my hand on my first dagger, but he didn’t notice.
The steward cursed, spewing bits of half-eaten meat across
the already filmy table. “If a woman caught him, he isn’t worth the bounty set.
Now take the fifteen and be thankful I am paying you at all.”
“You will pay me twenty.” Planting the tip of my first throwing
knife in the tabletop next to his left hand, I reached for my second. Before he
could do more than jump slightly in his seat, the second warmed in my palm. “If
you don’t, I shall take the man with me.”
Again the man cursed as the pain behind my eyes grew. The
stench nagged at my stomach. If I didn’t resolve this soon, I would heave in
the man’s lap. I didn’t really feel up to this argument, but I wanted the
money. Argue I must.
“Are you threatening me, wench?” he asked, rising half out
of his chair. The mild sound of conversation around us died abruptly and the
“No.” Calmly flicking my second knife under his nose, I met
his gaze evenly. “I only want what is rightfully mine. My twenty gold flans, if
you please, or I shall speak to the enforcer.”
As the blood washed from his face, I almost regretted using
the threat. The local enforcer, the king’s representative in the area,
possessed an exceptionally nasty reputation.
“Why didn’t you say that you knew the enforcer?” His hands
fumbled in his pockets. He plunked down a small pile of gold and hurried out
the back door without paying for his meal or asking where the criminal waited.
I picked the flans up with a sigh. They made a comforting
weight as I counted out the full twenty into the small bag at my waist.
After retrieving my knife from the tabletop, I surveyed the
room. At least four men returned my scrutiny with varying degrees of wariness.
I doubted I would be able to find a decent meal in the kitchens and the company
A tavern wench in a low cut bodice that sagged dangerously
wove through the tables to my side.
“Can I get you anything, miss?” She simpered, holding the
greasy tray before her like a shield.
“No, thank you. I have some unfinished business to attend
to.” As I met the girl’s fearful eyes, I couldn’t help the twinge of pity. If
Deus hadn’t provided me with the talents to earn my living another way, I might
well be in this woman’s place. I dropped a silver coin onto her tray. “Take
this for the steward’s meal and keep the remainder for yourself.” Then, before
she could thank me, I strode toward the door and out into the noon sunlight.
Brone greeted me with a whinny. I untied him and then
Filling my lungs with a deep breath, I closed my eyes and
lifted my face to the sun. The light made my head throb, but the clean scent of
fresh air more than made up for the pain. That and the lightened feeling I
always experienced after finishing a bounty brought me to the decision.
I had delivered my last bounty. Never again would I enter a
slum like the one behind me looking for a man to hunt for profit. I possessed
other skills, and I would use them. The land would wait until I earned the rest
Straightening my shoulders, I opened my eyes and set off in
the direction of the edge of town. Surely someone would be seeking a falconer,
a hunter, or even a stable hand, anything to keep my hands busy and guarantee
me a place by a fire and a meal in my belly for the winter.
I traveled to the next valley, two days away, before finding
a decent-looking inn and a meal. After settling Brone down in the stable with
the promised carrot, I procured myself a bed for the night and sought out the
Heavy beams spanned the ceiling. Tables and chairs jostled
for floor space. The worn edges and scarred table tops offered a welcome,
well-worn atmosphere. The only occupant, a stooped old man, tended the fire. I
guessed he had aged beyond his usefulness in the fields judging by his silver
hair and toothless grin.
“How are you, old father?”
His grin widened. “Fair enough, my lass. Are you a looking
I shook my head. “Simply a meal, father. I have journeyed
far and I hoped to find something to fill my belly before I go seeking work.”
The wizened blue eyes scanned my attire: tunic, leather
jerkin, and worn leather leggings. “And what kind of work are ya seeking,
child? You don’t appear to be the serving wench type. I don’t know of what
other work a lass like yourself might find.”
I smiled and slid onto a nearby bench. “I hunt well, know
how to care for falcons or other birds of prey, and am not afraid of mucking a
stall or caring for a horse.”
The old man’s eyebrows rose. “Surely ya don’t mean man’s
“Aye, I do, father. You wouldn’t know of a lord or noble who
might be interested in hiring an experienced hunter or stable hand, would you?”
He studied me. “Nay, there t'isn’t anything the likes of
that about except the enforcer’s estate, but I suspect ye wouldn’t find a place
there. At least not a place ye’d want. Now if Lord Iselyn were around, it
t’would be a different tale.”
The innkeeper approached and inquired if I would like to
“The stew is mighty good and the ale is the best in the
valley.” The old man winked at me. “I like to take a nip of it myself every
once in a while.”
Taking his hint, I ordered a trencher of stew and two
tankards of ale, one for me and one for him. The innkeeper nodded and
disappeared into the kitchen.
“So, who is this Lord Iselyn?” I indicated the seat across
“Ah, now he was a good man,” he declared as he reached for
his cane. Pulling himself to his feet, he hobbled over to the bench and sat
with a heavy sigh. “Yes, a good master. Oversaw the whole valley, ya know.”
On the way through the pass, I noted a ruin high on one of
the mountainsides guarding the road. It had once been a great fortress, but it
seemed abandoned now, the fields overgrown and the outer wall decaying. And in
my dealings with the locals, none mentioned a Lord Iselyn.
“I haven’t heard of a Lord Iselyn in these parts.”
“Nor shall ye.” Leaning forward as though he thought to be
overheard, he whispered, “He is dead, poor man. Dead at the command of Orac the
Usurper.” He spat in the rushes and then looked at me apologetically. “Sorry,
miss, there is no love lost between he and me.”
I knew of Orac. Only a few years before, he overthrew the
rightful king by military coup and declared himself the rightful ruler of
Trathlay. Rumor was he proceeded to milk the resources of his people to feed
his own outrageous habits. The whispers ran free about the new king’s tastes in
women, wine, and entertainment. I suspected that at least half of what I heard
about Orac was true.
“Why would he kill one of his own nobles?”
“Ah, but Mynth wasn’t one of his. He was loyal to Sigmon the
Just and the old ways of overseeing the land. When Mynth, Lord Iselyn, objected
to the new tax demanded of his lands, Orac sent an army to raze the land and
kill the noble. They came in the night, and by subterfuge, entered Iselyn.
Seeking out Mynth and his wife in their bedchamber, they slit their throats
while they slept before setting fire to the bedclothes. The night watch finally
noticed the flames. As everyone ran for water, the alarm sounded in the
village, but it was too late. The harvest burned in the fields while Mynth and
his wife burned in their bed. We suffered a hard winter that year.”
“Shame on you, Alec,” the innkeeper scolded. “You know that
the walls themselves listen for Orac’s enforcer.” He slid a heavy trencher full
of thick stew with a floating slab of bread across the table. A waft of beef
and turnips flooded my senses and my mouth watered. A mug of ale followed,
liquid sloshing over the edges and covering the table as he thumped it down.
Plunking down the second before my companion, he shook his head. “Don’t fill
the lass’ head with tales.”
“Othon Nartin, you know as well as I that these aren’t false
tales I am telling her.”
“Aye, but the telling is dangerous nonetheless. Besides, not
all of the stories are true.”
“I haven’t told her anything to fear,” old Alec insisted as
he lifted his tankard to his mouth. Draining the whole in three long gulps, he
set the mug down with a thud. Sending a sly glance at the innkeeper’s
retreating back, he leaned in close. “Old Lord Iselyn had a son, a lad named
Tourth. He still lives in the ruins of his father’s house. They might be
interested in exchanging a share of their meat and their roof with someone who
can contribute to the stores for the winter. Tell him that old Alec sent ya and
he will hear yar case.”
Sitting back on the bench, he belched loudly. “I thank ya,
lass, for the ale. It warmed me for my journey home. My daughter-in-law will be
watching for me to ten’ the children while she sees to supper.” Gripping his
cane, he rose from the bench and hobbled toward the door. “I hope to be seeing
ya about,” he called over his shoulder, and then he was gone.
I studied the door in his wake. He was a strange old man and
his message about Lord Iselyn’s son was stranger yet.
I frowned down at my dinner. If there was no likely place
for a falconer, hunter, or stable hand nearby, I was not going to be able to
afford a meal like this any time soon. I took a mouthful. The turnips were well
cooked and the meat tender. I closed my eyes and let the thick gravy coat my
On the trail, I rarely took time to cook. Most meals were
bread and cheese or salted jerky. Occasionally, after a capture, I would treat
myself to a stew, but it never was this good. This taste could only be produced
by cooking it all day over a low fire. I was hardly ever in one place that
Now there wasn’t a chance of finding a place before the
frost. I worked on breaking up the chunk of bread. I couldn’t help wondering
about Lord Iselyn’s son. Even if the roof was meager, it would be more roof
than I possessed. I was certain that I could definitely earn my keep by
contributing to the communal pot, if that was the only price. As I loaded my
spoon for another bite, I decided that I would ride by the ruins on my way out
of the valley. If it didn’t work out, I would keep riding. I spent one winter
on the road; I could survive another.
Shoveling the stew into my mouth, I savored the taste and
relaxed. No matter what, Deus always provided for me in some way. He had done
wonders in the past; I didn’t expect Him to start failing now.
The stinging scent of the brine made me grimace as I hung
the last haunch of boar on the rack in the smokehouse. As much as I was
thankful for the previous morning’s kill, I hated the job of preparing the meat
for smoking. The scent of the spices in moderation would have been pleasant,
but mixed in concentrated form for the meat to soak in, they overwhelmed. At
the moment, only extreme hunger would motivate me to work past the smell to gag
down the meat.
Leaving the haunch to drip before I began the fire, I walked
out into the crisp mid-morning. A well-fed buck hung from the tree by its hind
legs in the barren courtyard. Ignoring it, I took a deep breath of cool autumn
air and let it out slowly. The bright sunlight warmed my face and shoulders as
birds called to each other from the vines climbing the side of the ruined keep.
If I closed my eyes and beheld my surroundings without my vision, I could
believe the keep towered strong and tall above me and–
I opened my eyes and turned to find the source of the voice.
Once I located her, I frowned.
Despite the masculine leather jerkin and leggings, I was
certain of her gender. Perhaps it was her diminutive height or the long, thick
braid of rich brown hair that fell gracefully over her left shoulder. Either
way, I would have never mistaken her for a boy.
Her hand rested lightly on the well-worn hilt of the throwing
knife at her waist as she balanced on the fore of her feet. She wasn’t one to
be taken lightly. This woman knew her way around a knife and I didn’t need to
see her throw one to know it would land where she intended.
“I seek Lord Iselyn’s son.” Her horse nudged the back of her
left shoulder. “Do you know where I might find him?”
“It matters the reason that you are seeking him.” I met her
gaze. Her dark brown eyes studied my face for a few moments as I returned the
favor. She wasn’t classically beautiful, but something was attractive about her
even features and honest, open face.