Authors: Grace Draven
Elsbeth calmly nocked an arrow into her grandfather's crossbow and wondered which of the villagers she'd have to shoot tonight.
"Come out, Angus Weaver! 'Tis your doing that the beast is attacking!"
Her door shivered beneath hard blows as the mob outside beat their fists against it and shouted their anger.
"Aye, Angus, come out! You're not welcome here no more!"
She waited until there was a pause in abusing the door before jerking it open to face her adversaries. A line of surprised villagers met her gaze. As one, the crowd took a step back at the sight of the crossbow pointed at them. Elsbeth was no marksman, but at close range she could hit what she aimed for. At the moment, her sights were leveled on the mob's ringleader, Malcolm Miller. Big, muscled, with a shaggy head of dark hair and an equally shaggy beard, he reminded her of a bear--brutish and quick to use sheer force to get his way.
Torchlight bathed the crowd in dancing shadow, lending it an eerie, swaying quality, as if it were a single creature, darker and far more malevolent than the beast that terrorized their village these days. Malcolm's features looked especially cruel in the flickering light, a Fool's Day mask to scare small children. Elsbeth suspected the light revealed much about Malcolm--the beast lurking behind the human facade.
"Move aside, Elsbeth." He stepped closer, but hesitated when she raised the crossbow a little higher.
"Or what, Malcolm?" Her finger tightened against the crossbow's trigger at the crowd's restless movements. Rivulets of sweat tickled her ribcage. The lump of fear wedged in her throat made it difficult to breathe, but she wouldn't move from the doorway. "Why have you brought these good people out into the night to beat my door down and disturb my grandfather's rest?"
Malcolm sneered, his small eyes glittering with malice and an avarice that sent shivers down Elsbeth's arms. "You know why, woman. We want Angus. He's the reason the dragon is destroying this village and wiping out our livestock." He turned from her to face the crowd. "Is it not so, friends? We had no trouble with dragon-kind until Weaver came here telling his tales of slaughtering such a beast and showing his dragon armor to all and sundry."
A chorus of "Ayes!" answered him, and the crowd surged forward again, driven by Malcolm's words to punish the one they considered the harbinger of their misery. Once more they hesitated at the sight of Elsbeth's ready crossbow.
The ringleader jeered at his companions. "It's just one woman with a single bolt! She can't stop us!"
Elsbeth raised her voice to match his. "Aye, just one bolt to kill one man. Which of you lads is willing to take that bolt in the gut so your brave friends can drag a crippled old man out into the cold and hang him?" Her lip curled in derision when Malcolm himself made no move to rush her. "You, Malcolm? Give me an excuse. You've been nothing but a thorn in my ass since we came to live in Byderside."
Her grip tightened on the bow as Malcolm growled and took a threatening step. So be it. The miller's son would go down first. Elsbeth had never killed a man before, and her stomach churned at the prospect, but she didn't hesitate to take aim.
A hard, commanding voice rang out, freezing everyone to stillness. "Stop this! Hold, I say!"
A ripple of motion parted the mob, revealing a small silver-haired figure dressed in a night rail and tattered robe. Ireni the Elder strode to the front and blessed Malcolm with a withering look. His shoulders hunched, and he looked away, shame-faced before the diminutive elder. She glowed with an aura of authority and power, and Elsbeth wondered how such a small woman could quell an angry crowd more effectively than her loaded crossbow. Whatever worked, she thought, heartily grateful for Ireni's sudden appearance.
The older woman stood close to her. "How are you, girl?" Her voice was low, for Elsbeth's ears alone.
"Terrified. Thank all that is sacred you came when you did. I thought I'd have to shoot Malcolm."
"'Tis a pity you didn't. It might shut him up for once." Ireni's faded blue eyes twinkled with amusement, and Elsbeth smiled, despite her grim circumstances.
Ireni leveled the same damning glare on the villagers. Like Malcolm, many bowed their heads and shuffled their feet. But a few refused to be shamed and shouted their grievances.
"That dragon is killing our livestock and burning our fields!"
"It's vengeance for its kindred. Angus killed one of its own!"
Ireni snorted in disdain. "And ye thought to stop it by swinging a dying old man on a gallows tree?" She crossed her thin arms over her chest. "Come straight from Will's tavern, didn't you, lads?" A few mutters answered her, but none spoke up to argue, not even Malcolm, who alternately glared at Elsbeth and undressed her with greedy eyes.
"Go home," the elder ordered. "If you wish, we'll hold council tomorrow to talk of this, but we won't be doing it here in the cold night while a frightened woman holds off a mob of drunkards far gone in their cups!"
Elsbeth held her breath and kept a tight grip on the crossbow.
, she prayed.
Let the elder's words be enough.
It was soon apparent they were, for the men slowly wandered away, a few leaning on each other in stuporous camaraderie as they stumbled home.
Malcolm was the last to leave. Sober and sharp-eyed, he bared his teeth in a feral smile. "This isn't over between us, woman."
Fear burned a cold fire in Elsbeth's belly, but she met his eyes and curled her lip in disgust. "We've yet to start anything, Malcolm." She kept the bow trained on his midsection. "And we never will."
He glowered at her, and then spat at her feet before turning and walking away, his hulking body casting a sinister black shadow on the moonlit ground. The two women watched him go, and Ireni's voice ran deep with worry.
"Watch yourself, girl. Malcolm has coveted you since you first came to Byderside. His interest grows dangerous."
The bow in her hands suddenly felt heavier than a cart shaft. Elsbeth's shoulders sagged as she lowered it to her side. Tears stung her eyes. "May the gods bless you all your days, elder. I think you saved us this night."
Ireni gave another of her signature snorts and patted Elsbeth's arm with a wrinkled hand. "Bah. You did fine on your own. I thought for sure Abelard would piss his trousers when you swung that bow his way." That elicited a weak laugh.
"Then he was not alone. I nearly pissed my skirts when Malcolm rushed me." The humor eased some of Elsbeth's tension, soothed the fear that scraped jagged edges along her nerves. She opened the cottage door wider, spilling firelight from the hearth into the darkness. "Please come in and get warm, elder. I've plum tea from the south. A barter gift from a merchant in Durnsdale."
Inside, the house offered comfort and sanctuary. The main room was warm, redolent with the scent of the dried herbs hanging from the rafters. A fire burned in the small hearth, heating a cauldron suspended over the flames. Smoke twisted upward in lazy spirals, venting through the chimney Angus had built to keep the house clear of haze. A scuffed table and pair of benches took up most of the room, sharing space with a loom tucked into a corner and surrounded by baskets of bright wool thread. The loom held a half-finished rug sporting a celestial design woven in colors of blue, black, and deepest burgundy.
Elsbeth unloaded the bow and set it in its place near the door. She checked the door's crossbar, making certain it was wedged well into place. For the first time since their move to Byderside, the barred door did not feel so invulnerable. She doubted she'd see the back of her eyelids this night. Despite Ireni's edict and the villagers' obedience, she didn't trust they wouldn't congregate again and pay her another visit before dawn's break.
Ireni made her way to the loom for a closer look at the rug. The woman's wizened face crinkled into a map of care-worn roads as she peered closely at Elsbeth's work. "This is lovely, girl. One of your finest I've seen." Her faded blue eyes gleamed with admiration. "What city merchant with a fat purse and a spoiled wife commissioned this one?"
The heat of the hearth fire felt good on Elsbeth's chilled arms. She stirred the coals and lowered the cauldron to boil the water for tea. "A spice trader ready to spend a good profit from a loaded ship. That's my second one for him. He's commissioned three." She straightened and sighed. "Who knows if I'll finish the third now."
Ireni met her gaze with a worried one of her own. "The village will want a solution to this by council session tomorrow." She left the loom and settled onto the bench Elsbeth prepared by the fire. Her fragile bones creaked as she sat.
Elsbeth pulled two cups from her small chest of dishware, keepsakes from a mother she didn't remember. She allowed the anger to seep into her voice, the indignation. "Angus and I have broken bread with these people for five years gone, elder. Before he took to his bed, he was always welcomed at the Hound and Hollow for an ale and a smoke. I've quilted with the women and taught two of their children how to weave. I've played my fiddle at their handfastings." She prepared the tea, pausing every few moments to wipe the tears from her eyes and off her cheeks. "And yet they turn on us like a pack of dogs catching the scent of the weak in their midst."
The cups rattled together. "I almost had to shoot someone tonight." Her voice shook as much as her hands.
The old woman's touch, soothing and soft, halted her frenetic movements. "'Tis a natural thing to be frightened, Elsbeth, and angered. Malcolm and his lads were lucky you didn't kill one of them. I never saw that bow waver in your hand. But they're not all bad folk, girl. They're just frightened, and fear can turn civilized men savage."
"I know, but it still feels like the worst betrayal." Elsbeth poured their tea and took a seat next to Ireni. "Do you believe the dragon is doing this out of vengeance for my grandfather killing its kindred?"
"What a pile of horseshit."
Elsbeth almost spit out a mouthful of tea. Ireni muttered another string of oaths and pulled her shawl closer around her shoulders. "If that were so, every other town and dale would have been reduced to an ash heap years ago." She paused and delicately sipped her tea. "I know a little of dragonkind. It seems to me if they were all flying about fulfilling blood vengeance for a dead relative, there wouldn't be many of us left."
Elsbeth's eyebrows rose. "Their strength is legendary, as is their magic and wisdom. But their numbers seem few. Wouldn't they seek retribution for men killing them off?"
Ireni shook her head. "I don't think so. You never hear of dragon towns or communities. Their lairs and caves house only a single dragon. I think they are solitary beasts, little concerned with a brethren's welfare." She patted Elsbeth's arm once more. "To my way of thinking, the dragon troubling this area is here for an easy meal or two. How hard can it be for a beastie like that to take down a ewe or cow, eh?"
"True, but it doesn't solve my problem. The villagers think Angus is responsible, and I doubt they'll listen to reason now." Elsbeth rose to refill both cups. "We can't leave, elder." She cleared her throat of its betraying warble. "He's too weak to move. He wouldn't survive a journey to another town, not even to one as close as Durnsdale. If the men will only wait a fortnight, they won't have to bother with lynching him." Bitterness laced her tone.
A hacking cough coming from the only bedchamber punctuated her remark. Elsbeth bowed before Ireni. "Excuse me, please."
The room was shrouded in semi-darkness, its only illumination a half-burned candle set on a chest against the wall. Angus Weaver half-reclined in his bed, huddled beneath a mound of blankets. Candlelight sallowed his shrunken features, dulled the white hair resting on his bent shoulders. Elsbeth sank to her knees by the bed and took his hand, touching the fingers twisted by the bone sickness.
"You should be asleep, Papa. It's late."
He peered at her with rheumy eyes. "I heard someone knock. Who comes?" His voice, once strong and filled with ready laughter, whispered in reedy threads.
Elsbeth kissed his palm, grateful Angus's hearing was as poor as his eyesight these days. That had been more than a knock at the door. "It's only Ireni, Papa. She came to visit." It wasn't a lie.
"At this late hour?"
"Yes. She knows of a nobleman, newly married, who is building another home for his bride. His factor is seeking craftsmen to furnish the home. He might be interested in a rug." That was a lie; one she told with ease. Angus would never know of this night's sad work if she could help it.
Angus sighed and touched Elsbeth's hair with a trembling hand. "Give her my regards, would you? I'd greet her, but I'm afraid I..." He trailed off, his hand falling to the covers, his eyes closing in an exhausted slumber. Elsbeth kissed his palm again before placing it under the blankets. His breathing was harsh, stuttered--the rattle of bones in a soothsayer's cup.
She pinched the candle before leaving, plunging the chamber into darkness. He'd sleep well enough until morning, when she'd brew a medicinal draught to ease his chest and give him nourishment.
Ireni had abandoned the bench to stand in front of the hearth and warm her backside. Her voice held a quiet sympathy. "How is he?"
Elsbeth shrugged. "Well enough, all things considered." Her mouth turned up in a rueful smile. "He wanted to know who knocked at the door."
The elder eyed Elsbeth closely. "It's times such as these when it helps to have a man in the house. A young, healthy man," she qualified when Elsbeth opened her mouth to argue there was a man in the house. "Don't be daft, girl. You know what I mean."
"A man like Malcolm?"
"No, of course not. You'd kill him within a month." Ireni grinned, and Elsbeth couldn't help grinning back at the ridiculous image of her felling the hulking Malcolm Miller with a skillet on her wedding day. Ireni's expression turned earnest, questioning. "I'm old, Elsbeth. I've earned the right to meddle and ask indelicate questions. Why haven't you taken a husband? We've had no wars in decades. There are many men to choose from here in Byderside and Durnsdale, and you're a handsome woman. Do you want to reach my years with no companion or children? Do you want to face down village mobs on your own?"