Authors: Rachel Rossano
“Old Alec sent me here. He said that Mynth’s son might be
interested in my help this winter.”
“What kind of help would that be?”
“I can track in almost any kind of weather and rarely lose
the prey. I have lived through the winter on my hunting skills alone, and I
know my way around horses. Give me a task and I will work at it until I do it
Judging from her confident stance and the weathered
appearance of her gear, I was inclined to believe her. Her face showed no signs
of hunger; signs I knew well from last winter. Kat’s face still remained leaner
than when father was alive.
“And what do you ask for in return?” I asked. “As you can
see, we have little to exchange.” My gesture included the obviously ruined
keep, the crumbling outer wall, and the weed-clogged courtyard.
“A roof over my head, a warm fire, feed and stabling for
Brone, and a share in the kill,” she replied. The horse, recognizing its name,
blew in her ear and then eyed me placidly.
She asked a small price for her services should they prove
to be as good as she said. I willingly agreed. Extending my hand, I offered my
“Tourth Mynth of Iselyn, at least what is left of it.”
“Wren Romany of Braedoch.” Her grip was firm. The rough
calluses on her fingers reassured me that I had made the right decision.
“Come, I will show you where to stable your horse.” I led
the way past the keep to the far side of the courtyard. The stable survived the
fire by a miracle, and I was daily thankful that it had.
The cool musty darkness greeted us at the door. By the
flecked sunlight filtering in through the open windows, I led her to the
farthest stall. “I would offer one closer to the door, but Trader, my stallion,
has a tendency toward orneriness. Your mount will be safer here.”
“And warmer,” she observed with a nod.
“When you have finished, I will show you the rest of our
little kingdom. I will be in the smokehouse.”
She inclined her head and I left her to her work.
The moment I stepped out into the sunlight, Svhen rode into
the courtyard in a deafening clatter of horse hooves. “Ridgeback lygras…in the
northern meadow. We can’t hold them off.”
My chest constricted. Kat was with them. She accompanied
Arthus and Dardon to bring in the sheep.
“Where?” Wren demanded from behind me.
I turned to find her already leading her horse back out into
the courtyard. I knew I would lose valuable time running for my bow and quiver.
When Svhen opened his mouth to question her presence, I didn’t wait for him to
“Tell her, Svhen, and then wait for me,” I ordered, already
ducking into the stable for my weapons. Thankfully, Svhen obeyed.
“Out the back gate and straight up the mountain,” he
informed her, in a brusque tone. “You can’t miss the trail.”
A cacophony of metal on stone signaled her departure as my
hand closed on the smooth wood of my bow. Whipping the quiver from the wall, I
ran back out into the sunshine.
“Who was that?” Svhen brought his mount close and offered me
a hand up.
“A new friend.” I grasped his wrist and jumped on behind
him. We leapt forward before I could settle into place.
My thoughts filled with my sister. Dardon and Arthus could
handle themselves when defending the herd from most of the predators that ventured
this far down the mountain. Kat, on the other hand, became a liability, another
precious thing to defend. I shouldn’t have let her go.
We cleared the back gate to find Wren nowhere in sight. “I
hope she took the right trail,” I muttered. Svhen heeled the mare into a
“I wanted to send Kat for help, but she was nowhere near a
mount and then the horses bolted. I only just caught Jayden before she spooked.
I am sorry, Tourth. If something happened to her, I–”
Fear gripped my chest. “I understand, Svhen. Just pray that
we are not too late.”
Jayden pounded along the trail. Both of us held our breath
in fear of what we would find as we crested the last rise.
Riding down into the field, I searched the area for Kat’s
golden hair. When my eyes finally fell on her slender form bent over something
on the ground, the tension in my chest relaxed marginally. She lived.
The sheep huddled in a small group under a nearby tree,
bleating pitifully while the sheepdog kept the stragglers from wandering. At
first glance, I could see we lost half the flock. Three lygra carcasses lay in
the tall grass, staining the ground red. The nearest died instantly, an arrow
lodged beneath its front leg and buried to the feather in the animal’s chest.
Dardon squatted over a small, wool-covered body. He rose to
greet us as we approached. “You are late.”
Svhen pulled Jayden to a rough stop a few feet from him.
“What happened?” I asked as I slid to the ground.
“We had no warning. A pride of five ridgeback lygras
attacked. Arthus went down and Kat took up a defensive position over him as the
sheep scattered. I managed to kill one lygra, but then two of them started
after the horses and disappeared. Svhen ran for help while Kat and I tried to
hold off the rest. I gave up on the sheep. The remaining cats circled us. The
leader prepared to lunge when this rider came out of nowhere. He killed the
leader.” He pointed to the closest one. “It took three shots, but he managed it
after two went wild. Then he drew the other one away from us before finishing
her off with another arrow.”
“Where is she now?” I asked.
Dardon shrugged. “He said something about going after the
horses. A useless chase. You know how Trader gets when he spooks. Even if he
does find them, I doubt he can catch them.”
Normally I would have agreed with him, but I now realized
that Wren understated her abilities. Anyone who made a shot like the one that
took down the lygra was a woman to approach with caution. In some situations,
two wild arrows could be ignored if the third one hit its mark that well.
“Is Arthus well?”
“He will live. Just a swipe at his right shoulder.” He
motioned to where Svhen was already helping Arthus to his feet. Kat hovered
over him like an anxious mother.
As we approached, she chided Svhen for moving Arthus too
“It is just a scrape, Kat.” Arthus grimaced.
“Yeah, give the man some room, girl. He can walk. The cat
didn’t get his legs,” Dardon pointed out.
“But he lost blood,” she protested. She flicked her braid
over her shoulder. Strands of golden hair kept falling into her face. She
glared at Svhen’s departing back. “You are not planning on making him ride
back, are you?”
“What do you expect him to do?” Dardon towered over her. “He
isn’t exactly in the best condition to walk back and if you think we are going
to haul his sorry butt back to the keep just because you want us too, you are
“He is injured,” Kat protested.
Dardon rolled his eyes. Svhen grunted and proceeded to
assist Arthus onto the horse.
She turned to me, pleading with her eyes. “He is injured,
Tourth. Shouldn’t we be more careful with him?”
“He has been in a lot worse condition before. Let Svhen take
care of him. Once we get back, you can mother him all you want.” Tucking a
strand of silken gold behind her ear, I bent to kiss her forehead. “I take it
the lygra did not manage to get your tongue. Are you whole otherwise?”
She nodded with a distracted frown. “Thanks to that
stranger. I thought for sure I was a dead woman when she showed up.”
“She?” Dardon frowned. “It was a man.”
“No, a woman in a man’s clothing.” Kat’s lips tightened and
her hands went to her hips.
“I think I would know a woman if I saw one.”
“I am the female here and she was a woman.”
Seeing that this could become another of their famous rows,
I decided to put a stop to it. “I am sorry, Dardon, but she is a woman.”
Dardon turned to glare at me. “You always take her side.”
“Oh, hush it, Dardon, and see for yourself.” Kat pointed out
an approaching rider.
I couldn’t help the laugh that burst from me at Dardon’s
face. Wren returned, leading the two runaway horses, a feat he proclaimed
She halted her mount with a single command and the other two
followed. Trader, my stallion, tossed his head in protest.
“I assume these are yours. I noted only three stalls
prepared in the stable.”
“Yes, they are the runaways.” I answered while Dardon
Kat jabbed him in the ribs.
Wren observed us as though oblivious to the sensation she
created. However, when she met my eyes, a hint of amusement glimmered in her
gold gaze. “I spotted some wandering sheep on my return with these two. Would
you like me to herd them back?”
I nodded. “Dardon will help you. I should bring Kat back to
tend to Arthus or she will have my hide.” I crossed to claim Trader’s leads.
“But who will watch the sheep while they gather the others?”
“We will drive them back to the fold. They are so rattled
that I doubt they will do much feeding the rest of the day.”
Dardon approached and claimed his horse from Wren. As I
mounted and Wren headed off to gather the sheep and herd them down the
mountain, I couldn’t help calling back to Dardon, “Be nice, Dardon. She is a
Tourth’s comment to Dardon didn’t make much sense, but I
didn’t dwell on it. Conversations regarding my perceived gender occurred often
enough. Dardon sent a dark glare over his shoulder at Tourth's retreating back
before stalking off to look for wandering sheep.
We located the strays with ease because many of them bleated
for help. Silently, we freed three from thickets and one from a crag. A few
huddled under a tree, and one managed to get itself stuck in a thorn bush.
Between watching for signs of more lygras and trapped sheep, I studied my
Dark as his name suggested, Dardon’s olive skin-tone
appeared only partially due to hours in the sun. His face bore more scars than
most seasoned warriors. He stood a good half a foot taller than me. He carried
himself with a large measure of confidence. Venturing a guess, I placed him as
a veteran of the civil war only a handful of years in the past. Despite the
crusty exterior, I suspected he and Tourth shared similar ages, mid to late
thirties. After the civil war, the defeated men sought any opportunity to earn
a living. To him serving a titleless noble in a derelict fortress probably
meant a chance at survival. In fact, the recent civil war explained most of the
Svhen with his fair complexion, white-blond hair, and
accented speech harkened from a land beyond my wanderings. I wagered he was one
of the fair-skinned warriors from further west who sometimes hired on as
mercenaries in other wars. Arthus still remained a stranger, but I suspected he
also claimed a military background. It would explain their relationship with
Tourth. Swordmates tended to be close even after other loyalties faded. The
young woman and how she ended up with this group of men, however, still
remained a mystery.
“Where do you harken from?”
I glanced up to find Dardon watching me warily. “I was born
in the east.”
“What brought you here?”
Ah, so this was going to be one of those conversations.
I leaned back in my saddle and frowned. “I needed a roof and a fire for the
winter. Tourth agreed to let me stay in exchange for my help with the hunting.”
Dardon grunted and then fell silent. Time would prove my
value to him. What I needed to find out was which bothered him more: the fact I
was a stranger or my gender-defying behavior. Then I would know how to go about
winning his trust. For now I would assume both and work from there.
The sun lingered low in the west by the time we finally
herded the last of the sheep into the rickety pen to join the others. The
penned sheep greeted them with a chorus of bleats like victorious heroes.
“So, who is going back to skin those lygras?” I asked as
Dardon secured the gate. I leaned over Brone’s shoulder with the sun to my
back. His hand paused for a second before he turned to squint up at me.
“I am not sure we will want to eat it. Have you ever eaten
ridgeback lygras before?”
I shrugged. “It is a tad on the tough side, but cooked
right, it is passable to an empty stomach.”
Dardon frowned. “I find it hard to believe you have eaten
“I have eaten almost every kind of wild animal you could
“I can imagine quite a few.”
Ah, here came the testing. “Try me,” I replied.
“Roasted on a spit two springs back. I wouldn’t recommend
trying to eat the tail, though. It leaves a nasty aftertaste.”
I nodded. “Stringy, but I was desperate.”
He studied me for a few moments. I returned the favor,
measuring him with my eyes. He would be a challenging opponent, with all that
height, but I could use it against him if this took the form of typical male
bonding, a face off. Since I left home, I found that men accepted me more
quickly if they perceived me to be one of them, rough, physical, and direct.
And in this situation, the sooner I integrated into the group, the better.
Dardon was as good a candidate as any of them and vastly superior to Svhen, who
would most likely skin me alive. So, I began plotting out my strategy for the
possible coming tussle.
“I don’t believe you. You might be an accurate shot, you had
to be to make that first kill, but I don’t believe you have skinned, cooked,
and eaten lygra before.”
I nodded, jutting my chin out slightly as I did. “Fine.”
Turning Brone back toward the upper fields, I glanced over my shoulder. Dardon
still stood next to the sheep fold watching me with confusion. “So, are you