She stared at a crack in the ceiling plaster. It looked like the claws of a dragon, ripping open the roof to get inside. Outside the night was still, the silence occasionally broken by a dog’s bark or a roosting bird dislodged from its perch with an indignant squawk. Twice in two days her old life had come calling and she wasn’t sure what to think of that. Prince Vlarimar was the son of King Vlodmed. She swallowed a lump that crept into her throat. King Vlodmed had rent apart Erania, swallowing her home, and Helian’s. He had killed all she loved, and so he had killed a part of her too. The part that truly cared. And now she lived a different life, with a different name, so that King Vlodmed need not fear an heir to Swallowmeres’ throne might come to take it back.
She wondered if she should have listened to Helian. At least found out what he was talking about. Not that she thought much of destiny. Fate perhaps, but destiny…. what even was that really? She pitied the people left behind, farming a landscape scarred by fire and pestilence. But she didn’t want to go back and bear witness to it all. The images were still readily available in her head, without any effort to recall them.
She turned away from the dragon claw and stared at the wall instead. Sleep would have been nice but instead she saw shadowed humps of plaster that looked like the hills of home. She shuffled over the other way and stared at the furniture. Her chair looked like someone was sitting on it. She must have thrown her clothes in a bigger heap than usual. The clothes person moved, and she sat up in fright, clutching the blanket to her chest. It moved again, falling to the floor and she cursed. Her heart beat wildly. She got up and pushed all her clothes to the floor, before getting back into bed and pulling the blanket over her head. It was too hot, but she didn’t care. What she couldn’t see wouldn’t harm her.
Sunlight woke her. It streamed through a gap in the curtains, straight into her eyes. She squeezed them shut and yawned. It was still early, and she could do with more sleep, but she didn’t want to miss the nine o’clock deadline. There was movement in the inn, creaking floorboards, and slamming doors. With a groan she sat up and scooped up her clothes. For a moment she just sat staring into space, until a hard knock on the door made her jump.
‘Get up Janen or there’ll be no breakfast left.’ Zorbel’s deep throaty voice brought her back to the room. She pulled on her clothes and smoothed down her dark curls. Ever since she had dyed her hair it was determined to frizz at the slightest opportunity. She had long since given up fighting it, instead opting for a large square of cloth, wrapped into a band, that she used to tie it back out of her face.
She grabbed her pack, making sure the bow was fastened on securely and slung it over one shoulder, the sword belt over the other. Then she took a deep breath and pulled her confident guise in place.
The dining hall was quieter than the night before. Only those who had picked up work could afford to stay, the fee taken up by the hirer, as was traditional. Breakfast was hearty. Bacon, sausages, eggs, bread, still warm, dark yellow butter pats, fruit preserves, everything a hungry warrior could want. She didn’t feel so hungry.
‘I got you a plate load,’ Zorbel called from a table. Petra sat with him, alongside Nial, Farron and Gad. She sat at one end, in front of the pile of food and felt vaguely sick.
‘You look rough,’ Petra said, her mouth full of bread. She wasn’t strong on tact.
‘I didn’t sleep well. There was a spring that kept sticking in me.’
‘You should complain,’ Farron said, his large puppy dog eyes giving him an air of innocence that was totally untrue. ‘Then we can watch as old Mac has a hissy fit at his staff!’
She smiled. ‘Its fine. Let the next occupant complain. I will just be glad when we are on the road.’
‘I sleep better under the sky,’ Zorbel said.
‘You sleep anywhere Zorbel. You can’t hear a thing over your own snores!’ Gad dodged a piece of sausage launched from Zorbel’s fork.
‘You just got ‘the look’,’ Petra said quietly, looking down at the table with a smirk and gesturing towards Old Mac overseeing the dining hall.
Kintra picked through the food feeling slightly better for something in her belly.
‘Is this all of us then?’ Gad asked.
‘I think they were after eight, so there must be two more,’ Petra said. They each looked around the room. ‘Perhaps we don’t know them. Simen and Flo got the bodyguard job, and Michel joined a big company heading south on a raid into Massiland.’
‘A raid?’ Kintra asked.
‘Yes. There seems to be trouble at the border, and someone needs extraditing.’
They finished the rest of their meal and collected the horses from the stable. The morning was slightly fresher, the wind coming from the East, and the ride to the stud was pleasant. Kintra relaxed, enjoying the comradery of friends. Sorrel felt eager, after a night in a huge stall, with room to lie down. She even flirted with Gad’s stallion, instead of flattening her ears and flatly refusing to look at him.
As the emerald green fields and regimented fence line of the stud came into view her stomach flipped over. What if Vlarimar were here? He had never met her, but the Palace contained family portraits. Then the image of her home, flames erupting from windows leapt to the front of her mind, allaying any fears of recognition. There was nothing left. Perhaps she should be thankful.
They entered a yard, swept clean of any sign of horses. Wooden stables were arrayed all around its edge, many of the doors draped with thoroughbred heads, beautifully proportioned. It seemed they looked down their long noses at the horses that entered their manicured domain, even though Sorrel had good bloodlines and Gad’s stallion, Tomas was a stunning black Amorian mount. She patted Sorrels neck before dismounting and whispered, ‘What would they know?’
‘It looks like the other two are here,’ Nial said shading his eyes against the sun. Two horsemen were following them into the yard, their identities shadowed by the light.
‘And there’s the Prince himself!’ Petra said coyly.
Kintra’s heart lurched at the words. The Prince walked towards them, a tall black robed sorceress at his side. They only had eyes for each other, and Kintra quickly pulled the scarf off her head, allowing her curls to shield her face. Just in case.
‘You trying to look sexy there?’ Petra asked with a nudge.
‘Ha, of course. Aren’t you?’
Petra smiled and looked back at the Prince. He was handsome, in a regal, haughty way. Kintra hated him.
He looked up and she quickly looked to the side at the two new members of their company. Then she coughed and turned to fumble with her saddle bags. The two elves Helian had pointed out at the Tavern were dismounting.
No, no, no. But its alright. Helian had said they didn’t recognise her. Perhaps no one had given them a description then.
‘Welcome Florian and Selamia,’ the Prince said holding out a hand to greet the elves. He knew them, he knew them! Her skin prickled all over. She watched with horror as Vlarimar approached, shaking hands with each of them and asking their names. Petra held his hand a little too long, staring deep into his eyes. If she hadn’t been so petrified, she would have laughed at his expression. He reached her and she quickly curtsied looking at his feet.
‘Janen, your highness.’
He reached for her hand pulling her up. ‘Ah. One who knows how to address royalty. Get up Janen, you needn’t stay there.’
She rose, looking up as he walked away. The sorceress watched her intently for a moment, but quickly lost interest.
‘As you all know,’ began the Prince, ‘A number of my horses have been stolen. Thieves came two nights ago and took a field of mares with yearlings at foot. I will not divulge the value of the stock, but I am sure you can imagine, it is high.’
Kintra rested a hand on Sorrel’s neck for support. The mare blew a soft nicker.
‘The only lead we have is this, a torn piece of cloth, we presume from a cloak. On close inspection you will see this cloth is of the finest weave and has a little gold brocade still attached. There are few in these parts who would use such a cloak to rustle horses. However, Massiland has a well-known highway man, who occasionally will join others if the gain is worth it, who is known to wear such cloth.’
Zorbel glanced at her with pursed lips. Massiland again. It could be a coincidence.
‘If this belongs to him, it is likely he is working with a team who are extremely good at what they do, which is why I wanted only the best.’
‘It’s a pity he didn’t pay to suit,’ Zorbel whispered.
‘And how good is a highway man who leaves evidence behind?’ muttered Farron.
The sorceress glanced over, and they fell silent.
‘Can we see where the horses were taken from?’ Petra asked.
‘Indeed, you can. Follow me please.’
Kintra noticed the Prince stayed very close to his sorceress. Good job, she thought. Petra will devour you.
They were led to a very large field rich with lush grass that all their horses lunged towards. Petra, renowned for her tracking skills, handed her mount to Kintra, and went to investigate. The elves too studied the ground thoroughly, talking in their own tongue, and took the cloth from Vlarimar.
How do they know him, she wondered? Three enemies. Two she had to travel with. Why weren’t they tracking her? Unless Helian had just tried to scare her. He did have a sword pointing at his balls at the time. She relaxed a little, angry at how easily he had tricked her. Just like when they played at court. He would distract her with one thing and then do another. And all these years later she was still falling for it!
Petra came back to the group. ‘Nothing but hoof prints. They headed out East. Shouldn’t be too hard to follow for the next few miles at least.’
‘How many horses are missing?’ Farron asked.
‘Twelve mares, fourteen yearlings, all branded with a small circle within a circle under the mane.’
‘I think we have all we need,’ Zorbel said, mounting his grey. ‘Can we take the cloth?’
One of the elves held it up, and then stuffed it in his saddle bag. Kintra mounted Sorrel with relief, and they turned to go, Petra up front with the elves.
‘Good luck,’ Vlarimar called.
‘I think we might need it,’ Nial whispered.
By lunch time they had reached the River Den. At this point it was wide, leisurely meandering through flower strewn water meadows. Petra walked over as they dismounted. ‘The tracks stop here. I suggest we take this opportunity to eat, and then, it looks like we get wet!’
‘Looking forward to it,’ Kintra said taking off Sorrels saddle and bridle. The mare quickly rolled in the grass, before grabbing a mouthful of grass hungrily. The others followed suit, trusting their mounts to stay close. It was hot and humid, and the river glinted invitingly. She pulled her shirt away from her skin shaking the bottom to allow air in.
‘Nothing better than a swim with a couple of women on a hot day’, Farron said innocently. He gave her a sideways glance, purposefully looking at her breasts, hanging loose without her wrap, before giving her a grin. She smirked and looked away. Sometimes they had a thing. Not a relationship, just a thing. It worked well for both of them.
Petra swiped at his head playfully and he skilfully ducked sideways. Her lithe dark brown body was not as curvy as Kintra’s, her breasts small. But she was beautiful and knew it.
The elves sat apart from the rest of them, deep in conversation. ‘I don’t like them,’ Zorbel said, his voice low, ‘In fact I don’t like much of this.’
‘Me neither,’ Nial said. ‘I’ve been thinking about that field, the horses were stolen from. Did it look grazed to you?’
They all sat in silence thinking back. Farron spoke first. ‘I didn’t take that much notice; I was looking at the broken fence.’
‘It was lush and green,’ Kintra said, ‘And now I think about it, I don’t think it looked touched.’
‘But we have followed the tracks of a hell of a lot of horses this far,’ said Petra, reaching for an apple. They had piled the food in the centre of their circle. ‘Yet something feels wrong, those two in particular.’ She nodded towards the elves.
‘This highway man from Massiland…. anyone heard of him?’ They all looked at Zorbel and shook their heads. ‘Well that in itself, is strange. How many times have we worked near the border, or in Massiland itself? I think we might have heard rumours.’ They sat in silence. Kintra felt uneasy again. Petra suddenly got up.
‘I’m going to look at the opposite bank. Kintra come with me. You three watch those elves.’
‘Can we at least paddle?’ Farron asked straight faced.
Petra shook her head as if in despair as she walked away.
Kintra scrambled to her feet. ‘Clown,’ she said as she passed him.
The water was warm near the bank, but as they waded further out it became cooler and inviting.
‘It’s shallow enough to cross with horses here,’ Kintra said, freeing her leg from a mass of weed.
‘But I can’t see where they got out. Look at the bank, nothing.’
The opposite bank was sandy and full of small holes. Birds flew back and forth into the holes, tiny beaks full of flies. Nothing had disturbed their nests.
‘So, they took them down river then. It makes more sense.’
Petra nodded and started wading with the current. Suddenly the bottom dropped away, and they had to swim back to shore. They wrung out their clothes as much as was possible while still wearing them.
‘Farron will be all over YOU tonight,’ Petra grinned looking at the now clinging wet shirt covering Kintra’s chest. Two dark patches stood out through the light fabric.
‘It will dry,’ Petra shrugged. They walked back to the men, who stood holding the horses, now all fully tacked.
Nial let out a low whistle and nudged Farron, who theatrically fell to his knees, clutching his heart.
‘Janen what are you doing to me?’ he stared into her eyes.
‘Get up you daft bugger.’ Zorbel grabbed his shirt sleeve, turning his own eyes away. Gad and Nial turned away too, each with a smirk on their faces. Kintra felt a slow tingle in her stomach as she looked at Farron and gave him a wink. He sighed, grabbed his crotch and hobbled to his horse.
The two elves approached as the women mounted.
‘What did you find?’ Florian asked politely.
‘They didn’t leave the river on the far bank, and they didn’t travel downstream, unless they swam the horses,’ Petra answered.
‘We go upstream then?’ Selamia asked, shading his eyes to look in the direction of the river.
‘No.’ Petra shook her head and they all looked surprised. ‘We go back the way we came.’