She walked into a haze of smoke and the stench of male sweat and stale beer. Hegard smiled and nodded a greeting. ‘Be with you shortly lass.’
She slung her pack down at her feet, but kept her sword buckled firmly in place. It wasn’t the worst tavern on the road, but men and beer often ended in violence.
‘You want the usual?’ Hegard asked, grabbing a tankard from the shelf behind him.
‘You mean you have something different?’
He chuckled and shook his head. He drew the ale slowly creating a frothy head, just the way she liked it. At least he kept a good barrel. And she was hot, thirsty and in need of something cool.
‘It’s busy,’ she commented as he placed the tankard in front of her. ‘Is there any food left?’
‘Soup and bread is about all.’
‘That will do.’
‘You be wanting a room? I only have the attic free.’
‘I’ll take it. What’s going on?’
‘There ‘ave been reports of dragons in the mountains. All these daft swines think they ‘ave a chance of killin’ one!’
She raised her eyebrows as she quenched her thirst. ‘Perhaps I ‘ll hang around. It might be entertaining.’
Hegard smirked as he grabbed another’s proffered tankard and refilled it. She decided it was safer to stay at the bar than find a table. Most were taken anyway. There were a mix of races present, local farmers, a couple of tall white-haired elves in quiet discussion with an elderly, well dressed man. Two tables of dwarves were the rowdiest, singing some drinking song about wenches and gold, with a bit of mining thrown in for good measure. In a shadowed corner to the side of the chimney breast a lone hooded figure, bent over his drink. He suddenly looked towards her, and she swung her head back to her beer. The skin on the back of her neck prickled and she knew he watched her. Stay calm, she reminded herself, taking intentionally deep long breaths.
A bowl of soup and a hunk of bread appeared in front of her. ‘You alright there, Janen?’
‘Just starving to death quietly,’ she responded with a grin. ‘Who’s the mystery man in the corner?’
‘No idea. He arrived just after four and has sat there ever since. Only bought two drinks. Pushing his luck he is. Can I pay you to turf him out?’
She blew on the soup hiding the shiver that ran down her spine. ‘He doesn’t seem to be bothering anyone.’
‘He’s bothering my purse, so he is!’ Hegard stomped off to serve another dwarf.
She ate the soup too quickly, burning her throat. The eyes of the man bore holes in her back. If he didn’t stop… She pushed the dish away and downed the remains of her ale, the cool drink easing her throat. She could either hide away or be direct. Perhaps he just fancied his chances. She wasn’t great at hiding away.
Pushing her stool back she hauled her pack over one shoulder and walked over to his table, watching for a reaction. If he was after sex, she was pretty sure her approach would startle him. But he didn’t move. She couldn’t see his eyes, only shoulder length brown curls circling a short beard. His hands were on the table either side of his drink, away from any weapons. He watched her. Was she making a mistake? As she neared, he raised his left hand, gesturing towards the seat opposite him. She took it, feigning confidence.
‘What do you want?’ she asked in a low voice.
‘I know who you are.’
An icy cold tingled in her head and her brain froze. Her heart hammered in time with the dwarven song. The man didn’t move.
‘Less confident now Princess?’
She hissed through her teeth and silently drew her sword under the table directing its point between his legs.
‘You could do that. But killing me would draw attention to you, and those two elves have been given a commission by Lord whatsit over there to track you down. So, it might be wiser to listen to what I have to say.’
He pulled his hood back just enough for her to make out his eyes.
‘Fuck.’ The point of her sword dipped to the floor.
‘I really don’t think this is the time or the place.’
‘I thought you were dead,’ she whispered.
‘I am. In the same way you are. But I have recently become acquainted with some information which, is relevant to you too. Unfortunately, our destiny has become entwined. We have to reclaim what is ours.’
She stared at him. ‘That’s not destiny it’s a death wish.’
‘Let’s not argue over semantics. Here’s what I suggest. You leave first and I will meet you in the stables shortly. They have no idea that you are who you are. Let’s keep it that way. As we ride, I will explain.’
‘How do I know you won’t hand me over as soon as my back’s turned?’
Why had she said that?
He sighed and looked away with a small shake of his head. ‘You will have to trust me. I’ve been home. The lands are still barren, and our people starve, but there’s far more that I won’t discuss here. The only way we survive now is to be on the same side.’
‘Really? Do I have to give you my hand too so you can scoop up my kingdom and have it disappear into your own?’
He leant forward, his mouth a hard line. She could make out the deep blue of his eyes now, and they were cold as ice. ‘What kingdom, Kintra?’
She silently sheathed her sword and stood. She walked away without looking back, stopping at the bar to ask for her room key. His eyes still bore into her back. When she reached the stairs in the entrance hall, she glanced quickly back towards the bar. No one was watching. She pulled open the door to the stable yard and made her way to Sorrel. The mare looked up from a hay net. ‘Sorry old girl,’ she whispered throwing on the saddle. In two minutes, she was galloping up the hill behind the tavern, headed towards Ferman Forest.
The forest floor was thick with pine needles and little else. These alpine slopes only held a thin layer of soil, and the tall resinous pines blocked out the sun. Now, it was pitch black. She led Sorrel, silently weaving through trees. The track through the forest lay behind them, and hopefully so did Helian. She was not going to spend time considering anything he’d said. What was the point? That part of her life had ended painfully five years ago. She was alone now and had learnt to survive. Yes, there were times when she was hungry that she wished for tables sagging with the weight of food, but then she would look around her and guiltily wish for an apple, or a hunk of bread instead. The excesses of royalty were embarrassing when you experienced the other side of the coin.
She plodded on, guided by her trusty in built compass. She planned to reach Dendon by tomorrow evening. Some Baron was sure to be hiring a company there, and her skills with a bow as well as her highly attuned intuition were well known in the mercenary circles. She would feel safer among friends.
After a couple of hours, the forest gave way to a small hillock. Sparse grass and heather grew giving Sorrel something to eat. She would rest here until morning. She sat awhile, looking out over the sea of treetops. The night was still and warm, high cloud hiding any celestial bodies, and any light to be seen by. She forced her mind away from elves, and Lord’s whose reasons for tracking her could so easily keep sleep at bay, and instead thought of Helian. He disturbed her, but he wasn’t dangerous. She hadn’t thought of him in a long time, presuming him and his family dead and gone. She pondered his words and wondered why joining forces would make a difference. And then she smiled. What forces? The futility in their situation broke through and she turned on her side, adjusting her pack under her head and fell asleep.
The sun rose early in summer, but the mountain behind her meant it was mid-morning before its rays fell on her face waking her gently. Her stomach growled as she stretched. She patted it firmly. ‘You will have to wait.’
She sipped from her canteen, not knowing when she would find a water source. She could see that carrying on this present line would get her to the Dendon road. Although the forested slopes covered much of her view, where they headed down into the valley in the west, she could see the dark smoke of coal fires rising up in smutty tendrils from chimney pots. Sorrel stood resting one leg; her eyes half closed in relaxed slumber.
‘Sorry old girl. I must once again disturb you.’ Hearing her voice Sorrel stretched out her neck and shook it, then followed with a long stretch of the resting leg. Kintra waited for her to finish her morning ritual before tacking up and leading the mare back into the forest. In the half daylight she could make out low hanging branches and she trusted Sorrel to avoid hidden deadwood beneath the needles. She mounted, adjusted the saddle bags evenly, and allowed the mare her head.
The heat was oppressive under the trees, and nothing stirred. The birds sounded miles away, staying in the treetops where the sun shone, and insects gathered. She stripped off her shirt leaving a thin wrapping of cloth covering her torso. It was what she classed as undergarments these days. Wrapped tightly it kept her breasts from bouncing around and flattened them so as not to look too comely. She had learnt early on that a Princess may use her body, and clever words to get what she wanted, and suffer no consequences. In the real world, using her shapeliness only attracted the wrong sort of attention, by the wrong sort of men. It was better to hide such assets, and instead use her sword and bow as ways to prove her worth. At least royal life had equipped her well in that department. It hadn’t taken her long to figure out how to slightly change her manoeuvres to mortally wound or kill. What had once been an enjoyable past time, was now a necessary survival skill. It was also useful when you had no money for food.
How life has changed she thought. Would she want to go back? Yes, she conceded. But on her terms. And she could never rule from a throne, she would be a warrior queen.
Planning how to run a kingdom that no longer existed, in a way she had only heard about in legends, whiled away the hours nicely until the road came into view through the trees.
Dendon was always busy. It thrived on its fertile river valley land, and the local produce in the market was known to be the best you could get. It was a great place to find mercenary work, as plenty of rich people lived there, with plenty of quarrels with other rich people. Kintra bought a sumptuous hot fruit pastry with a dollop of whipped cream on top, that melted splendidly into a throw away ceramic pot. It would see her through until supper. She idled along the edge of the market, Sorrel in hand, headed for the Merchants Arms. There was a notice board behind the bar with all local jobs advertised. Of course, you had to buy a drink to see it. She didn’t mind, it made good business sense, all though there were many who muttered unpleasantly about it. She couldn’t see the point. What would it change?
Judging by the packed stables to the rear of the inn she would have some competition. Fuller, the old stable hand, who always looked as if his back was about to give way, greeted her with his usual straight-faced nod. He took Sorrel without comment.
‘Don’t forget she kicks other mares,’ she called after him. She didn’t, but Sorrel deserved a stall to herself. He raised a hand, not looking back.
The inn was busy, but its large size accommodated its patrons without feeling overcrowded. She made her way to the bar and stood patiently to be served.
‘Can I see the board please?’ she asked as the serving girl handed her a tall glass of iced water with crushed Hilden berries at the base. The girl handed it over.
‘I’d get in quick if I were you.’ She nodded towards a table where two business like men were interviewing mercenaries. ‘It’s for this job here,’ she pointed at a scrawled hand. ‘The others are mostly filled now, other than the few that pay badly.’
‘Thank you,’ Kintra said, handing the board back. The job was simple enough. Horse rustlers had plundered a stud. The pay was what she would expect. As she worked her way across the room, she wondered why so many of the higher ranked mercenaries were interested. She could name most of those that stood in the queue, either by acquaintance or reputation.
‘Hey Janen!’ A thickset man in full leather armour with a nasty scar down his right cheek, waved her into the queue at his side. She didn’t hesitate to jump in. There were a few whispered expletives behind her, which she ignored, making a show of greeting Zorbel. No one messed with Zorbel and the giant sword strapped to his back. She hugged him like a long lost brother and kissed the scarred cheek.
‘How are you old friend?’
‘The same as ever. Working my arse off, and wishing I was somewhere else instead.’
She smiled. He liked his moans, but he was a good buddy in a fight.
‘I presume you are trying for this too?’
‘Yep. Doesn’t seem to be anything else today. And I am a little intrigued as to why it’s so popular with us higher ranking individuals!’ She gave him a nudge and a wink.
‘I have no idea, but it piqued my interest for the same reason.’
They watched as the person in front of them sat down for his interview, both straining to hear anything that might help them. The man didn’t last long and walked off fuming. Zorbel quickly took his place. Kintra stood feigning boredom, picking at the metal work on her sword pommel. Zorbel looked round at her and beckoned her forward. Surprised she walked over and placed a hand on his shoulder.
‘Zorbel says you are good with a bow,’ one of the men said. ‘He also said he wouldn’t join without you.’
Kintra squeezed her friends’ shoulder. ‘I am famed for my archery,’ she said confidently. What else could she say!
The man sighed. ‘Ok, both sign here, and here. The fee is non-negotiable. Meet tomorrow at the Minoa Stud, nine am sharp.’
They walked back to the bar. ‘That was easy,’ she whispered, ‘Thanks!’
‘They knew who I was and wanted me, so I thought I’d try it on! Let’s get some food, I’m famished.’
The food was always a treat at the Merchants Arms. It reminded Kintra of food from her old life, flavoured with herbs and spices, meats flowing with juices and an array of different vegetables and breads. They sat at a table with others they knew.
‘Horse rustlers should be easy enough to find’, a dwarf with an over large nose said between mouthfuls of chicken, that he pulled from the bone as if ravenous.
‘I hope so. But have you heard who owns that stud?’ Petra was a huge ranger, an Amorian from across the endless ocean, which apparently wasn’t as endless as cartographers thought. Everyone looked at her.
There was a sudden hush. Kintra felt her stomach hit the floor.
‘What’s he doing with a stud out here?’ Zorbel asked. ‘It’s a hundred leagues at least from his home.’
Petra shrugged. ‘No idea. But there must be something more to it all, because they only hired decent mercenaries.’
‘Hey…. I’m a decent mercenary!’ the dwarf said, looking round his nose, and half a chicken. Preta raised her eyebrows and looked away.
Someone tittered, and then everyone started laughing. Kintra joined in. No one could know.
f you enjoy Fantasy you might very well enjoy the techniques I use in The Magical Community of I. I lead Heroes on adventures into self.