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Idea

I thought I’d get this one out of my head before it slipped away.
—————————–
A badly tuned guitar played with more enthusiasm than talent split the night as I crept through the shadows of the gravel parking lot. I found my quarry’s car, a meticulously restored sedan from the Kennedy administration, complete with a vanity plate that read “MRBIG” on it. I put my ear to the trunk, but didn’t hear anyone bumping or thumping around in there.  
 
I crouched in the big car’s shadow and tried to figure out what I was going to do next. I wasn’t part of the crowd that would normally be welcome in the Hawg Shed, and I didn’t think I’d get far if I just walked in and ordered a beer.   Best case scenario would be that I’d arouse suspicion and get tossed out or spook the man I was looking for.  Worst case, well, I didn’t want to think about worst case.  A couple of big guys stood at the door, lengths of pipe or something like that in their hands.  I doubted they were there to enforce the dress code.
 
Maybe there’s a back door, I thought as I looked around the compound. Off to one side, a dilapidated old farmhouse, its spine broken by several wet winters with no windows, squatted at the very edge of the glare from the floodlights. I slipped from one shadow to the next, finally making a quick dash up the cracked and uneven walk to crouch at the top of the rotten porch stairs.
 
Now to find a way in there, I thought as I tried to get my breathing to slow down.  
 
The guitar gave way to someone banging away on what sounded like a pretty impressive drum set, then the almost inhuman growl of the lyrics drowned even that out.
 
“Wish they’d turn that crap down.”
 
I tensed at the voice, deep and powerful, but not loud. I slowly turned to find myself face to face with an older man sitting in an old kitchen chair next to the front door. His eyes twinkled and he smiled underneath a heavy handlebar mustache that might have been black at one time, but was now shot through with gray. He was wearing an old pair of jeans and a white shirt under a battered bomber jacket, complete with sheepskin at the collar.  A pair of heavy work boots were tapping to the band’s rhythm, so he couldn’t have disliked it that much.
 
“Uh, sorry,” I stammered. “Didn’t know anyone was home.”
 
“Nah,” he replied with a dismissive shrug. “Just wish they’d shut that place down. It’s hard to get any rest with all that going on.”
 
“I guess they’re just blowing off some steam.”
 
“Son, we were just blowing off some steam when all of us got together after the war and started riding together. This is just,” he waved at the pole barn dismissively, “well, it’s just not right.”
 
“All of you?”
 
“Yeah, a bunch of us raised a little hell on weekends, but it weren’t nothing like what those assholes do.” He looked over to the edge of a porch, where a scrawny orange cat had silently jumped up from the overgrown bushes. At a gesture from the old man, it padded over and jumped into his lap.
 
The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I noticed that the cat didn’t stop at his lap, though. Its paws sank through the denim of his jeans until the cat stood on the chair’s seat.
 
He reached up and started scratching at its ears. I could hear it purring, but when it started kneading its claws, they sank into old wood instead of his leg.
“Nah, we never did anything like what they’ve got going on over there.”  He shook his hear ruefully.  “Worst we ever did was get drunk and see how fast we could race up Dixie Highway.  Those boys, well, I don’t want to think about what they do after the crowd goes home.
 
“I was trying to have a look, but I don’t think they’ll let me in the front door.”  I had to fight hard to keep my voice even.
 
“Yeah, you better go around back and go in through the old storm cellar.” He moved his hand to scratch under the cat’s chin. “Just, be careful, boy. Devil’s business going on in Elmer’s old barn these days.”
 
I heard the crowd in the bar across the parking lot roar when the band stopped playing and glanced over to make sure nobody was taking an opportunity to come out. When I looked back, the old man was gone. In his place, the cat had curled up on the kitchen chair, still buzzing with contentment.
 
Well, I thought, guess I’ll see what’s going on around back.

Escort Duty – Part 16

A few minutes later, Erika and Greta were ensconced in their room and were busily taking advantage of the washbasin and pitcher of cold, clear water the innkeeper’s wife had brought for them. The two men took seats at the bar and sipped on mugs of beer while they talked.

Simon put down his empty mug, but shook his head when the barman raised a hand to him.

“After a month alone with those two,” Hollo said, signaling for a refill, “you deserve another beer.”

“I’ve had worse times,” Simon said, “Although I believe our charges are sick of my face and voice by now.”

A smirk came to his lips as he said, “But another drink would be good.” Hollo chuckled as he raised his hand a second time.

Simon took a sip from the earthenware mug the barman laid at his elbow, then sighed contentedly. “Ah, that’s good. We must take some to the ladies once they’ve freshened up.”

Hollo also took a pull from his beer. Wiping the foam from his lip, he said, “The plague hasn’t spread to this side of the river, but the news is that it’s ravaging Pesht worse than any army could do. It’ll be a wasteland by winter at this rate.”

“From what we saw, no horde could do better,” Simon replied, “We can let the ladies rest here for a few days, then we’ll continue moving west. The sooner this job is over, the better.”

“Going to have to steal some horses if you don’t intend to walk.”

“No, we’re not going to steal anything, my friend. We’re going back and getting our things from that bastard at the border.”

“Seems a lot of trouble for a few nags and the princess’….” Hollo started to say.

Simon gave him a hard look and brought a finger to his lips.

“Quiet, fool. We’re not among friends,” he muttered.

Hollo nodded, but said nothing further. The barman, who had been walking past, seemed to have heard nothing. Simon watched him go, his eyes slitted, then he shrugged and faced his companion.

“We’ll leave after dark and be back by morning,” he said, “Rest up tomorrow, then leave the next day.” He lifted his mug and took another drink. “You’ll have to get us some horses for tonight.”

~~~

Simon and Hollo finished their drinks, then took a clay pitcher of beer and some food up to the women. They were both freshly scrubbed as well as plain water could do, and had found a hairbrush somewhere. Greta had helped her mistress take off her dress, and after the princess wrapped up in a sheet, hung her dress out the window to air out.  Their moods were improving with their appearance, and the sight of a pitcher of beer, a few bowls of stew, and fresh-baked buns made Erika squeal like a little girl.

As they ate, Simon told the princess of his plans while they ate.

“We’ll be back tomorrow morning, but you’ll have to watch over yourselves tonight. Stay here, and don’t go out for anything or let anyone in.”

“Yes, yes, we’ll stay here in our cage, Simon,” she replied dismissively.

Simon gave her a measured look, then stood and walked to the door. Hollo followed.

“Simon, be careful,” Greta said as he opened the door to leave.

“I will, my lady,” Simon replied with an easy smile, “Please take care of your mistress.”

Once the two men were outside, Hollo walked to the stable, a couple of bronze coins jingling in his hand, while Simon waited in the courtyard. A few minutes later, Hollo rounded the corner, leading two horses. The two men mounted without a word, and turning their noses toward the east, were soon making their way back toward the bridge and its garrison.

~~~

Erika watched them go from her window. Behind her, Greta was preparing her bed for the night. Both of their stomachs gurgled at the same time, and they exchanged a look before both laughed at the sound.

“Greta, do you think they’d give you something more to eat downstairs?”

“But, my lady, Simon said…”

“I know what he said, Greta. I also know that the smell of that stew the innkeeper is serving downstairs is driving me mad. Go and fetch some. Oh, and see if you can get another bucket of beer. Might as well celebrate our freedom a bit more.”

Greta bowed her head resignedly, then walked down into the tavern. She spied the barman, who was speaking to two men in black leather breeches and jerkins. Spying the maid as she came down the stairs, he pointed to her. The two men pushed themselves away from the bar and walked toward her with grim looks upon their faces. Greta retreated to a corner at their approach, raising her arms in front of her face as if she expected to be struck.

“Where is your mistress?” one hissed in her ear as he grabbed her by the arm and twisted it behind her back, “Where is Princess Erika?”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 15

As the first dawn after the new moon exploded over the eastern horizon, the door to the hut creaked open. The officer, his uniform just as dirty as it had been when he had locked them away, called from the yard.

“Happy day!” he cried, “Time to leave!”

Simon led Erika and Greta from the hut. The maid blinked in the bright sunlight, while Erika looked angrily at the half-circle of soldiers arrayed around the hut.

“I’d thank you for your hospitality, sir,” she said haughtily, “if I could call it that.”

“No need to be rude, my lady,” the officer said, “You and your servants are free to go.”

Simon looked about, his mouth turning down into a frown for once.

“Where are our horses?” he asked, “I had hoped to get them back.”

“You have no horses, nor anything other than what you have on your backs. That was the deal, remember?” the officer said, “The things you brought with you are now the property of the Duchy of Booda, in repayment for our hospitality these past four weeks,” the officer answered with a smile.

“My sword is a dear gift from my family. I would consider it a service to be repaid to get it back,” Simon said, locking eyes with the officer.

“And am I to walk? Is that how you treat a noblewoman in these parts?” Erika said, her harsh voice rising to fill the yard.

“You have what you have,” the officer said, his smile disappearing, “Now, be gone, or my patience will wear even more thin than it has become.”

Erika looked to Simon, who shook his head. He gave a half bow to the officer, then led the ladies back to the road. Behind him, he could hear the soldiers following them to the edge of their post, then felt their eyes on his back until they had crested the first low rise in the road.

Once they were out of earshot of the soldiers, Erika laid into Simon.

“So we walk all the way across Booda, is that it?” she hissed.

“My lady, there is nothing to do now but to walk, for now. We cannot stop. We either walk forward, or we walk back.”

The trio trudged along the road the rest of the morning. At mid-day, they stopped at a small bridge and rested in its cool shade. Simon was able to gather some water plants for them to eat, which was not much better than an empty stomach.

Finally, just as the sun was beginning to dip toward the horizon in front of them, they spied the smoke from the cooking fires of a village. Their stomachs rumbling a tune for them as they went, they hurried forward.

Soon, they were on the village’s outskirts, and the sounds and smells of that little bit of civilization almost overwhelmed them after a month of near-silence and hunger. Simon led them toward a building with a sign, which bore a picture of an armored knight riding a shaggy dog, hanging above its door. As they drew closer, they made out the name of the tavern, “Ambrosius and the Knight”.

“Hopefully I will be able to bargain some labor in exchange for a meal or two,” he said as they went.

“Am I to muck out stalls now?” the princess snapped. Hunger and fatigue had not improved her mood.

“No, my lady, I’m sure they’ll need a scullery for the night,” Simon said drily, a half smile on his tired face. Greta flushed at this, but all Erika could manage was to stick her tongue out at him.

As they trudged up the lane toward the tavern, they were surprised to see a familiar face.

“Hello, Hollo,” Simon said as his friend pushed himself off from where he had been leaning against the tavern’s wall.

“Simon, how goes it?” Hollo said with a nod. The guide looked the same as ever, while the three travelers were thin, worn, and dusty from the road.

“Where in the name of the seven sisters have you been?” Erika demanded shrilly. Even Greta looked shocked at the reappearance of their guide.

“Oh, here and there, my lady,” Hollo answered, nodding toward the inn, “I’ve gotten us rooms here, if you’d prefer them to sleeping in the woods.”

Erika’s face flushed a deep red, and her hands trembled as she clenched them into fists. Then, like a thundercloud that dissipates after darkening the sky, she lifted her head and said simply, “That will do, my man. Show me to my chamber.”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 14

The trio spent the next few weeks languishing in quarantine. Food was bland, monotonous, and enough to keep them from starving, although Greta complained on occasion that her ribs were showing. Simon spent the days singing to the ladies or telling stories, and occasionally Erika would sing along in a high voice which rang like a silver bell across the yard.

They kept count of the days by watching the moon as it rose across the gorge behind the hut. They had come to the bridge the morning after the new moon, so when the moon was full again, they knew their ordeal was half over. In celebration, Simon talked one of the guards into bringing them a couple of apples, which the ladies enjoyed as if they were the finest delicacy they had ever eaten.

Several days later, as the first heat of early summer was baking them and even the breeze from the window seemed hot and steamy, their patience wore thin.

Simon sat upon the bare floor at his usual spot in front of the door. In his hand, he held a small stick, which he used to beat a rhythm on the leather of his boots as he sang.

In Nottingham there lives a jolly tanner,

With a hey down down a down down

His name is Arthur a Bland;

There is nere a squire in Nottinghamshire

Dare bid bold Arthur stand.

 

With a long pike-staff upon his shoulder,

So well he can clear his way;

By two and by three he makes them to flee,

For he hath no list to stay.

 

And as he went forth, in a summer’s morning,

Into the forrest of merry Sherwood,

To view the red deer, that range here and there,

There met he with bold Robin Hood.

 

Erika glared at the half-elf from her bedroll, where Greta was fussing at her hair. The maid had neither comb nor brush, so she used her fingers to untangle her mistress’ long hair, then braid it back together. Her own hair was as neat as she could get it, but she was continually pushing it back into place.

“Must you sing that again?” the princess said crossly, “I’ve heard that one enough that I can hear it in my sleep!”

“Is there another song you’d prefer, my lady?” Simon replied.

“I swear, I’ve heard every poem, tale, and ode ever jabbered by drunk minstrels!” Erika cried, bringing her hands to her face and rubbing her eyes.

“It’s only a few more days, mistress,” Greta said, “Then we’ll be on our way.”

“I would sacrifice either of you to the darkest gods of the wood to feel a cool breeze and have something better than bread and water to eat!”

Simon shrugged, then returned to his singing.

As soon as bold Robin Hood did him espy,

He thought some sport he would make;

Therefore out of hand he bid him to stand,

And thus to him he spake:

 

Why, what art thou, thou bold fellow,

That ranges so boldly here?

In sooth, to be brief, thou lookst like a thief,

That comes to steal our king’s deer.

 

For I am a keeper in this forrest;

The king puts me in trust

To look to his deer, that range here and there,

Therefore stay thee I must.

 

Erika made a face at Simon, then turned away from Greta and lay upon her blanket.

“Awaken me when it’s time to eat again. I’m going to sleep until then,” she said petulantly. Above them, a crow cawed from the roof’s peak. “And if that damned bird gets close enough, wring its neck and feed it to me raw!”

Greta looked at her mistress with worry in her eyes, then looked to Simon, who had stopped singing, but continued to beat a rhythm on his boots.

“It’s only a bit longer, Greta,” he said gently, “Then we’ll be on our way.”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 13

Simon reined his horse to a halt when they came within shouting distance of the bridge. A squad of guards, armed with spears and bows, barred their path, and an officer in armor stood before them. On the far end of the bridge, clusters of huts lay on either side of the road, but wood from a fire only rose from the ones to the right. The bridge spanned a deep valley, a cataract of white water roaring at the bottom of its steep granite walls.  The mid-day sun glinted from the sides of wet rocks along its banks far below, and the spray from a waterfall just upstream made a rainbow halfway down the gorge.

Simon raised his hand in greeting, his leather gauntlet dusty from the road.

“Well met, good sir,” he called out, “We wish to cross to Booda.”

“Go back!” the officer replied loudly, “None may come into our lands from this accursed place!”

“We’re not from Pesht,” Simon replied calmly, using his knees to urge his horse to walk a little closer. He stopped when one of the archers lifted his bow and pulled his arrow back to fire.

“Duke Kyrali has decreed that none may come from Pesht!” the officer shot back, “Now go!”

Simon looked about the border post, then glanced down at the gorge. The sides weren’t exactly sheer cliffs, but the ancient, misused trail that ran to the bottom looked treacherous enough to claim at least one horse and rider on the way down and back up, even without the detachment of soldiers watching every step.

Simon looked back at the soldiers and called out, “Is there nothing that can be done? I am the escort of Lady Piroska of Tanahuk, and she has business in Booda.”

The officer considered the three riders for a moment. Finally, he stepped forward to within speaking distance.

“Is it just the three of you then?” he asked quietly.

“Yes.”

“Why the pony? Did you lose a child along the way?”

“The lady insisted. I have no idea why she wants the smelly thing to come along.”

The officer examined the riders again.  His mouth worked as his eyes measured their clothing and trappings, seeming to weigh the situation in his mind.

“Since you don’t seem to be rabble trying to get away from the plague, here’s what I can do for you,” he finally said, “You stay here for a month. If you don’t get sick, I’ll let you go. If any of you get sick, my men will kill all of you and I’ll have your bodies burned.”

“My mistress needs to be in the capitol as soon as possible.”

“It’s either that, or you turn around and go back the way you came.”

“That’s inconvenient, but if that’s all that can be done, there are worse fates.”

The commander met Simon’s eyes with a hard gaze, “This isn’t a free service. Everything you have is mine. If you’re good guests, I’ll let you walk out of here with the clothes on your back.”

“My mistress will not want to walk,” Simon said.

“That’s not my concern,” the officer said curtly, “Those are my terms. Agree or go back.”

“Unfortunate,” Simon replied with a sigh, “but it appears we have no choice.” Behind him, Erika looked furious, but held her tongue.

The officer signaled to his men, and they retreated across the bridge. Simon and the two women followed them over the gorge, then to the unused clutch of buildings. The trio dismounted, then were herded into one of the dilapidated huts. The officer watched as Gnarlthing was handed over, as well as the pouch of coins which Erika kept on her belt and everything else they carried.

“You’ll stay in there for a month. You will touch no-one, nor shall you speak to anyone, understand?” the officer said sternly.

“We understand, good sir,” Erika said, “But what are we to do for a month?”

“Entertain yourselves, my lady. One of my men will be by to feed you every morning and evening. Tip the slop bucket out the window in the back when you use it,” he replied, turning to leave. Erika did her best to burn a hole in the back of his tunic with her glare as he went. His men barred the door, then led their horses and the mule toward the buildings on the other side of the encampment. Simon watched them go. He noted that the officer went into the hut next to the stable, where their horses were led.

“Why didn’t you fight, and where is Hollo?” Erika demanded.

“My lady, there were five men with spears, four archers, and an officer with a sword on the bridge,” Simon replied, “There are at least twice that many on this side. As for where Hollo went, he’s about. He’s a wanted man on this side of the border, so I guess he didn’t care to chance being recognized.”

“You should have found another way across!”

“Princess, this is the only bridge for a hundred leagues in either direction, and I’m sure they’re just as rigorously guarded.”

“So we just sit here for a month?” Greta said.

“It would appear so.”

“I should have taken the damned boat,” Erika hissed in disgust, “At least then I’d have had a bed to sleep in.”

Two thin blankets lay in one corner of the hut, and a bucket sat under the window. Other than that, the place was bare of furnishings. The wattle and dob walls were dingy and damaged from want of care.

“Well, it’s going to be a long month unless we find something to keep ourselves occupied,” Simon sighed as he took a seat on the packed earth floor next to the door. He could hear the guards shuffling around in the yard outside, and the caw of a crow echoed through the gorge behind their prison. The sound brought a smile to his lips.

That evening, a soldier came to the hut and lowered two buckets through the window, one with bread in it, the other half full of water. Simon tore the dense, stale loaf and distributed it to the women. They ate in silence as the light of sundown streamed through the open window, taking turns cupping handfuls of warm, sulphurous water from the bucket. Once the sun set, the darkness inside the hut was almost absolute.

“Well, good night, my ladies,” Simon said as he lay down in front of the door, “I wonder if this counts as our first day.”

Erika shook her head and muttered to herself as she wrapped herself in one of the blankets, while Greta lay down next to her. Simon lay quietly for a few moments, listening as the women fell asleep and the guards made their rounds. The last of the spring rains pattered against the hard-packed dirt of the yard outside the door and on the hut’s thatched roof.

At least the roof doesn’t leak, Simon thought as he drifted off to sleep.


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 12

Hollo placed the last stone over Soren’s grave as the early morning sun peeked over the top of the pines surrounding the meadow they had used as a camp the night before. In the valley below, a huge column of black smoke rose from where Taszar had been, but his sharp eyes no longer saw the old woman who had set it alight.

He stood and stretched as Simon led the women over. Greta had wept softly as she went about her duties.  Erika, on the other hand, kept a stony expression on her face, betraying her grief with only a stray tear or two that burned hot tracks down her cheeks. The women wore clean clothes, both because they wished to honor Soren, and because Simon had burned the clothes they had worn as they rode through the village the night before.

Erika wore the plainest dress she had, which was of a deep green velvet embroidered with silver flowers. Greta’s dress matched the one she had worn before, made of soft wool dyed the color of oak leaves in autumn.

Simon had cursed himself for not bringing along plainer clothes for the princess, but had cursed most vociferously when he found that no spare set of traveling clothes was in the bundle Hollo had spirited away from the camp. He had burned his clothing, too, and now wore the black leather breeches and armor, with two gryphons embroidered on its chest in gold thread, which he normally wore only in battle. There was no other clothing for him to wear, and the presence of the women kept him from going about naked until he could find something more suitable.

“My lady,” Hollo said solemnly, bowing low. He looked exhausted after traveling all night to retrieve his pony and catch up with the group after they had traveled up into the hills above the village. His clothes had also gone into the fire, but the guide had an identical set in his saddle bags.

“Master Guide,” the princess said simply, her eyes, brimming with tears, averted from Soren’s grave. Simon had awoken her when he found the captain dead from the wound to his head. Hollo had found them by the light of their campfire soon thereafter, and both men had labored until past sunrise to dig him a shallow grave.

Greta washed the body and dressed him in his armor before Simon and Hollo gently placed him in the hole they had dug. Hollo prayed as Simon placed Soren’s sword in his dead hands, then both men labored to cover the body with several layers of stone from the nearby creek.

“A good man,” Simon said simply.

“Yes,” Erika said, emotion cracking her voice, “I will remember his service.”

Hollo looked up at the sun. “We’d best be going, my lady,” he said, “We need to be away from here before the Lord of Pesht sends men looking for your attackers.”

Erika nodded gravely, then leaned down and lay her bandaged hand on the stones of Soren’s grave. Rising, she turned and walked to her horse.


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 11

They rode down the trail until they came to a dry stream bed, which ran to the north. Simon turned there, taking them out of the hills and onto the valley floor just as the sun touched the mountains to the west. Soon, they rode in darkness, their way lit only by the stars.

Every so often, Simon would reach down to touch Soren’s breast and count his breaths. The soldier continued to breathe, but made few sounds and no movement. When Simon touched the bandages around his head, he could feel the wet of his blood seeping through them.

Simon looked up at the stars and whispered a prayer to his family’s gods for Soren.

“He can be a hard man,” he said, “but he’s loyal and a good warrior. Watch over him for me.”

The stars blinked down at him coldly, and no message of hope or comfort repaid him for his prayer.

Their horses stumbled through several fields left to fallow, but when they came upon a narrow lane of packed earth, they found their footing. After that, their progress was slow, but steady, and soon the forms of houses and barns loomed out of the darkness as they passed.

“Can’t we have a torch?” Greta asked plaintively after a tree, which she hadn’t seen, smacked her in the face with the end of a branch.

“Hush,” Erika ordered, “Simon’s trying to secret us across to the village, and that’ll give us away!”

The path turned to the west as they crossed a bridge over a small river, its water babbling through the bridges pilings as it went. The road on the other side was of stone and seemed well maintained compared to the dirt track they had been following.

“We should see the village soon,” Simon said quietly, “Hollo said it sits on that water, and it’s tucked right up against the hills.”

They rode on as a sliver of moon rose over the horizon. It was not bright enough to see details, but now they could make out farms as they came upon them. No dogs barked as they passed, nor did they see any lights or other evidence of people.

“It’s all abandoned,” Erika said.

“The bard at the tavern told me about this,” Simon replied, “He said that entire swaths of the countryside were deserted from the plague.”

“I thought that was up by the capitol?”

“Branka must have been wrong. There ought to at least have been a watchman on that bridge, and I’ve never come this close to farms at night without some cur waking up the entire household. There’s nobody here.”

The road turned to follow the river and rose to meet the hills in the distance. The only sound they heard was the water as it moved over stones in its bed and the clop of their horses’ hooves on the paving stones.

Finally, just as the moon set, Simon caught sight of a light ahead. He hissed to the women and pointed. The women started to speed their mounts toward the village ahead, but Simon raised a hand to stop them.

“Patience, ladies,” he said, “The captain needs us to be steady.”

After another half hour of riding, they came to the outskirts of the village. The buildings were dark, and by the light of the stars and the fire in the village’s central marketplace, which was what they had spied as they approached, Simon could make out doors and windows hanging open. Further in, the foundations of buildings remained where they had been pulled or burned down, leaving holes like open graves on either side of the road.

Simon gently halted his horse as they came to the center of the village, a plaza covered with the ashes of what must have been a huge fire. A smaller pyre blazed atop the ashes now. Erika could see the legs of chairs and other furniture fueling it, and the princess’ breath caught in shock when she saw the tiny body, wrapped in bedsheets, burning atop it.

The still form of an old woman kneeled next to the fire, her head bowed as if in prayer. Her face was streaked with soot, as was the plain brown and green dress she wore. A golden brooch, decorated with red and white stones to take the shape of a flying dragon, lay on her breast. Next to her, a staff of polished and engraved wood and several torches lay in a neat stack. Simon dismounted and approached her.

“Is this Taszar?” he said as he stepped closer.

“It was,” the old woman croaked, “once upon a time.”

“What happened here?” Erika called from atop her horse.

“Everyone died. Everyone,” the woman replied, standing up. Simon could almost hear her bones groan at the effort. She was stooped with old age, and she used the staff to support herself as she lifted her head and examined the strangers.

“Two weeks,” she said, “two weeks ago things were just fine here. Now, I’m all that’s left.”

“We were looking for the healer,” Simon said.

“No healer here, not anymore,” the woman said, “Old Katta is all that’s left.”

“The plague?”

“Everyone got sick, even the animals. Whole families would lay down at sunset and not rise with the sun. Now, they’re all gone.”

“Did nobody escape?” Greta asked. She clutched at the throat of her dress, looking around at the empty houses.

“Some tried. The Count’s men stopped them on the other side of the mountains and wouldn’t let them pass, so they came back here to die.”

The crone was wracked with a spasm of coughing, which doubled her over as she tried to catch her breath. Finally, the fit ceased, and she spit a gobbet of red-tinged phlegm onto the ashes at her feet.

“Won’t be long for me, either,” she said, leaning on her cane.

“When did the healer die?” Simon asked.

“Oh, I didn’t die,” Katta replied, trying to crack a smile, but failing, “I just gave out. So much death, and nothing I could do. My power faded as I watched them die.”

“We have a hurt man here,” Erika said, “Can you not help him?”

“Nay, it’s best I don’t try,” Katta said, turning toward the princess, “I’ve no power left to heal him, and I’d just spread the contagion to all of you.”

Simon nodded sadly. “Is there anything we can do for you?” he asked gently.

“There’s nothing to be done. By the time the sun rises, I will be with my children and their children in the next world. You’ll only join our fate if you come much closer.”

Simon turned and remounted his horse. He solemnly raised a hand to the old woman, who returned the gesture before falling into another coughing fit. He reined his horse back onto the road and led the women away from the pyre.

Katta watched them go, then kneeled in the ashes again. The words of a prayer returned to her lips as she lifted her head to watch the flames lick up toward the stars. After a long while, the fire burned down to a bed of coals shimmering in the dark. The old woman picked up one of the torches, lit it, and then hobbled toward one of the buildings near the plaza.


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 10

Hollo and Simon gently placed Soren on the tarp they had strung between his horse and Simon’s. The soldier’s head was swathed in bandages, and his breathing was shallow, but regular as a clock.

Hollo looked at Simon, saying, “I’ll meet you on the other side of the village after I fetch my pony. She’s been tied to that tree for hours, and if I don’t hurry, something’s going to eat her.”

Simon nodded, and Hollo trotted back up the trail. Erika, already mounted, watched him go. She paid no mind to the bandage around her wounded hand as she took up her reins.

“Can you find this village without him?”

“I’ve never been there, but I saw it from the hills this morning. If we can get to the valley floor before sunset, I’ll be able to get us there.”

“How is the captain?”

“He’s still breathing, my lady, and every so often he makes a noise or tries to mumble, so there’s hope.”

Erika nodded sadly. “Such a good man,” she said quietly. Greta’s breath hitched, as if she were going to start crying again, but she only stared forward from her saddle.

“That he is,” Simon replied, “Let’s get going. There’s not much time before dark.”

~~~

They rode in silence for a time. The path opened up as they followed it around a large hill, and Erika brought her horse up to ride next to Simon.

“I never thanked you,” she said.

“No need, princess,” Simon replied, “I’m sorry you were wounded.”

“Better this than to be dragged to Pesht or worse.”

“Yes,” Simon said with a knowing nod, “it can always get worse.”

“True,” Erika said, looking down at her hands, “I just don’t understand”

“Understand what, my lady?”

“He… he hit me,” she said as she looked over to Simon, “He struck me with a bare hand.”

“That happens in a fight,” he replied drily.

“But, that’s not how it’s supposed to work. It’s not fair.”

“Princess, in a fight, there is no ‘fair.’ He wanted to hurt you, you didn’t want to get hurt. Whatever either of you did to disappoint the other is what’s fair. Blades, axes, spears, teeth, fists, whatever’s handy, you use them all to win.”

“But my teachers, my father…”

“They taught you how to fence, my lady, how to spar, but not how to fight. I pray there isn’t a next time, but if there is, remember the difference. It almost cost you your life today.”

Erika said nothing, but rode on in stony silence. In her mind, she replayed the fight over and over, and compared it to her lessons.

“You’re alive, my lady, and he’s not going to hurt anyone again,” Simon said, guessing her thoughts. “Nothing else matters.”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 9

Soren lifted his hand to halt the little group as they came to a flat spot with a spring bubbling out of some rocks. Two days of hard riding had put them deeper into the mountains and across the border with Pesht. The mid-day sun was warm as Greta and Hollo laid out bread and cheese, while Simon filled their water skins from the spring.

“How much further until we come to another village?” Erika asked as she sat down to eat.

Hollo gestured to the valley below them. It was a patchwork of fields and pastures, with buildings sprinkled sparingly across it.  Several silver ribbons of water ran down from the hills, joining in the middle of the valley into a wider river, which flowed out between two low peaks.  Directly across from them, nestled up against the hills, was a village.  As far away as they were, their eyes could only make it out as a blob of darker color against the green and gold of the valley floor.

“There are a few settlements and freeholds down there, my lady, and the village, but we’ll need to avoid all of them,” he answered.

“I’d kill for a night in a warm bed.”

“I’m sure you would, princess,” Simon said, returning from the spring, “But with villages come the eyes and ears of your enemies. We’re too close to the capitol for there to not be garrisons, and it’s best we don’t chance it.”

Erika sighed as she nibbled on a slice of cheese. Greta sat next to her, eating the last of the dense bread Branka had packed for them. The men soaked  hunks of way bread in water, then slurped down the resulting mash.

“We’ll need to do some hunting if there’s to be much to eat tonight,” Soren said.

Hollo nodded. “I’ll see what I can do,” he replied, “Maybe I’ll get lucky and get a wild goat or a deer.”

Erika made a face, but said nothing as she took the cup of cold water Greta offered to her.

Simon pointed to a draw on the other side of the wide valley, saying, “We’ll try to make it there to camp by nightfall. It’s far enough from the village and those farms for our purposes. We’ll be able to have a fire after dark without the farmers down there seeing it. We just have to follow this track through the hills to the other side.”

“I’ll meet you there an hour or so after sundown,” Hollo said, lifting himself up and walking to his pony.

“Why didn’t you get something better at the tavern?” Erika asked curiously, “You always look like you’re about to catch your foot on that nag.”

“Oh, she’s a good girl, and as surefooted as I’ve ever seen, highness,” Hollo said. The black amulet hanging from his neck caught the sunshine as he turned and mounted the little horse. The others watched him ride back into the pines before they turned back to their meal.

~~~

Simon guided his charges around the perimeter of the valley that afternoon, being careful to not let them be seen from the fields and homesteads on its floor. As they went, he talked with them in low tones.

“I asked about the plague while we were at the tavern. It hasn’t hit this far out, at least, not yet, but closer to the capitol, it’s killing hundreds,” he said, “That’s another reason to keep clear of the people.”

The ladies nodded at that. The little group quietly made their way around to the southern tip of the valley, then started back up the other side toward the notch in the ridgeline Simon had pointed out to Hollo.

The sun was almost halfway toward the horizon when Simon stiffened in his saddle and put up his hand to call a halt.

Soren put his hand to his sword’s hilt and whispered, “What is it?”

“Thought I heard something, like a foot slipping on the ground.”

All four of them sat silent for a moment, straining their ears and looking around for anything amiss. Simon nodded to Soren and pulled Gnarlthing from its scabbard. Soren copied his movements. Seeing the two men draw their weapons, Erika pulled her short sword from the scabbard on her saddle.

“My lady, please, only use that in the direst of emergencies,” Simon whispered without taking his eyes from the woods.

“I can handle myself in a fight,” Erika replied curtly.

Simon did not answer, but nudged his horse forward. Soren waited for the ladies to follow, then took up the rear. The mule, burdened with gear, plodded along behind him.

The forest sounds continued as always, with birds twittering their spring calls and the breeze causing the trees to groan as their limbs moved. The sound of their horses’ hooves echoed dully along the rude track they followed.

All four riders kept looking about as they rode. Soren turned his head to try to release a bit of tension, and his neck cracked like someone snapping a branch across his thigh. Simon looked back sharply at the noise, but turned forward again when Soren shrugged in apology.

They came to an outcropping of stone, its weathered layers variegated between deep gray and soft green as it jutted out from the side of the hill. The path narrowed as it took a sharp turn around it, blocking their view. The trees to the side of it seemed to close in on him as Simon rode around the rock. The two women followed, Greta first, then Erika, their eyes large as they looked to either side of the path. Soren looked behind them as he went, trying to watch both the path and the rock above.

The path opened back up when the rock was behind them, but remained too narrow to ride two abreast. Simon turned in his saddle to watch his charges emerge from behind the rock, then smiled and waved as Soren came into view.

“I was worried there. Perfect place for an ambush,” he called out. Both men returned their swords to their scabbards. Erika followed their example a heartbeat later.

“I still don’t like this,” Soren replied, looking around, “We should have risked the valley floor.”

Simon started to reply, but instead drew his sword as a figure rose from the top of the outcropping and lifted a staff to the heavens. A loose stone rose up and flew at Soren faster than the eye can see. The soldier crumpled as it hit the back of his head, falling to the ground next to his horse. Simon’s shout of warning was drowned out when more attackers emerged shouting from the woods.

Greta screamed as a man grabbed at the reins of her horse, while Princess Erika snatched at the hilt of her sword. Two men rushed at her, one of them appearing from a puff of smoke at the side of the trail. That one, the man who had stood on top of the rock, swung his gnarled staff at the princess’ body. It caught her in the middle just as she pulled her blade free, knocking the wind from her and toppling her from her mount.

Simon shouted as he rode at the attackers. Gnarlthing sung in the air as he brought it down, connecting with the man trying to unhorse Greta. The brigand, bearded and dressed in rough clothes, screamed as the blade bit deep into his shoulder. He released the horse and slumped to the ground, pawing at the gaping wound with his uninjured hand.

Simon brought Gnarlthing back up to swing at the man standing over Erika’s crumpled form, an axe in his hand, but fell backwards from his horse when the attacker with the staff shouted something unintelligible and struck at him. The half-elf struck the ground hard, but rolled away from the staff as came down with a whistle. The ground where it hit charred and smoldered as its bearer lifted it to lash out at Simon again.

Greta, sprayed with her attacker’s blood and seeing Simon unhorsed, screamed again. The maid kicked her mare in the side, and galloped down the trail, leaving the fight behind her.

Erika gasped at the pain in her gut as she desperately tried to take a deep breath. She saw a shadow fall next to her and rolled over. Her attacker, his face twisted with anger and teeth bared, loomed over her, an axe in his hand. Erika brought her short sword up, striking at the axe. Metal rang as she smacked it aside, then the princess thrust her blade into the man’s chest just where her fencing instructor would have pinned a target for a blunted sword.

The raider screamed as he felt the point of Erika’s sword slip into him, then again as she withdrew it, its wickedly sharp blade grating against his bones and cutting a line down the front of his torso. His blood flowed strongly through the wound, and he fell to the earth with a groan. Erika struggled to her feet, her breath coming in short gasps against the spasms in her diaphragm.

The wizard faced Simon, sparks and smoke spewing from the iron-shod ends of his staff. He was gaunt, his face and head hairless. His eyes blazed as he muttered a curse, and the air around him snapped with energy.

The half-elf swung Gnarlthing at the man’s throat, but in a blur, the staff parried the blow. The wizard brought his weapon back around almost as fast as Simon could see, and the half-elf barely ducked in time as it sizzled over his head.

Simon leaped forward as his attacker brought his weapon around again, this time swinging down as if to pound Simon into the dirt. He brought Gnarlthing down as his legs drove him close to his attacker, the metal slicing into the middle of the man’s staff. The wood between the wizard’s hands cracked at the impact, and the staff bent inward toward its bearer. The sparks on either end of the staff ceased as the wood parted under Simon’s blade. The wizard dropped it and sprang backward, narrowly escaping Simon’s blade as he brought it back up.

Erika watched this with owlish eyes, not sure if she should interfere in another’s fight. She caught movement from the corner of her eye, and brought her blade up by instinct. The forest rang with the impact of steel on steel.

She turned to face her attacker, finding a squat man in brown leather breeches and jerkin, his head balding. In his hand, he carried a long, curved dagger, its nicked and notched edge shining in the sunlight filtering down through the trees.

The princess drew herself up to the fighting stance she had been taught, and by habit, drew her blade up to her forehead in salute to her opponent. The man looked at her quizzically, then swung at her with his dagger.

Erika easily parried the attack, then followed up with a slash at his face. Her opponent dodged the stroke, then circled to his left. His knife hand flicked out a few times, feinting to see what Erika would do. The princess followed his movement, turning so that he remained to her front. At each feint, she moved as if to block the expected blow.

The wizard bellowed as he raised his hands, and Simon felt something fly past his ear as he whirled to his right. The half-elf completed the revolution, bringing Gnarlthing around in a wide arc. The wizard jumped back, and a smile came to his face as the blade continued past him.

Simon brought his sword back and put his free hand on the hilt. He looked to the wizard and smiled. The man looked puzzled for a moment, then his eyes blazed as he brought his hands to his neck. A long, thin, stream of blood seeped through his fingers as the wound Simon had sliced through the front of his neck opened.

“Good luck chanting spells with that,” Simon wheezed as the wizard fell to his knees, his breath and a scream of rage and pain bubbling out between his fingers.

Erika’s foe feinted once again, and she turned her sword to block the blow. Instead of the thrust she had expected, though, the man lashed out with his free hand, catching her on the cheek with a closed fist. Erika cried out as her head snapped back in shock and pain. The man followed up with a slash of his blade, cutting across the back of the hand Erika brought up to touch her face. She screamed as the knife burned a jagged gash through her skin.

The man’s smile widened as he moved in with a whoop of triumph. The princess brought her short sword up, but he batted it away with his dagger. Her sword rang like a bell as it struck a tree several feet away. Erika screamed again, her eyes fixed on the blood smeared on the dagger’s blade.

The man stopped half a step from the princess, his smile replaced with a look of shock, then he fell forward. Gnarlthing protruded from his back, its point stuck between his shoulder blades. Simon put his foot on the man’s shoulder, gave his sword a twist, and pulled it free. The brigand gave out a sharp cry, then convulsed. After a moment, he stilled.

Behind Simon, the wizard fell onto his back with a long, gobbling cry. Erika stared at him in shock. Simon looked from the princess to the fallen man, then shrugged. He walked over to the wizard, who was writhing in the dust of the forest path. Simon placed the tip of his sword on the man’s breastbone.

“Be still, man, and I’ll stop your suffering!” he shouted.

The wizard’s wild eyes focused on the tall half-elf towering over him, and he stopped his twisting and heaving in the dust. Simon nodded and brought the heel of his free hand down hard against Gnarlthing’s pommel, driving the blade deep into the wizard’s chest. The man’s eyes bulged at the pain, then dulled as life passed from him. Simon wrenched his blade from his carcass

Simon turned toward the man Erika had killed. He lay face down on dirt soaked crimson with his blood. Simon regarded him for a moment, then wiped Gnarlthing’s blade on the wizard’s cloak and put it back in his scabbard.

The princess was shaky as she walked to Simon. Mindful that she was no longer armed, she pulled a small knife from the sheath she kept on her belt. She looked over at the brigand she had stabbed and shuddered.

“I…. I killed him,” she stammered.

“Better him than you, my lady,” Simon answered. He used the toe of his boot to turn the man’s body over onto its back. There was a place on his tunic where the cloth was darker than the rest.

“He’s in the service of someone who doesn’t wish to be known,” Simon said, “Cheap bastard took the badge from his shirt rather than buy a new one.”

A wave of nausea washed over Erika as she surveyed the carnage around her. She put her hand on Simon’s shoulder to steady herself while the world tilted around her. It was only after the feeling passed that she remembered Soren and rushed to his side.

The soldier lay on his back, the moss-covered ground under his head stained with blood. He was breathing, but one eye was half-closed and unfocused, while the lid on the other was completely shut. As Erika took his hand, she felt him tremble spasmodically at her touch.

“Soren!” she cried. The soldier made no response to the sound of her voice.

Simon walked over and lifted Soren’s closed eyelid. Gently, he probed at the soldier’s skull, and his hand was stained crimson when he brought it back. He cursed under his breath as he wiped it off on the moss.

“The back of his head’s dished in,” he said, “There’s not much beyond prayer that I can do here.”

“What about a healer?” Erika said, “Could that help?”

“Maybe, but we won’t find one of those here.”

“There might be one in that village down there.”

Simon nodded at that. “We’d risk being discovered,” he said, “but it’s either that or slit his throat to spare him the suffering.”

Erika put her wounded hand to her mouth in shock. “You won’t kill him!” she cried out.

The wounded attacker, who still held his hand firmly over the wound to his shoulder, screamed at them, “I know a healer! Take me to her and she can take care of both of us!”

Simon’s smile was cruel as he stepped over to the man.

“And what makes you think I won’t just make you tell me about her and leave you here for the wolves?” he hissed.

“Your princess won’t let you….” the man said, then cut off when the blade of Simon’s dagger rested against his throat.

“Why do you think she’s a princess?” Simon asked, his voice suddenly gentle.

“Lamlok told us we were going to capture a princess,” the man cried out.

“And who is Lamlok?”

“The wizard!” he said, gesturing to the man Simon had killed, “He’s from Count Herceg’s court. He hired us to capture her and bring her to Pesht.”

Simon nodded at this, then said, “And how does Count Herceg know about all this?” He increased the pressure of the blade against the man’s skin.

“I don’t know!” the man squealed, feeling his skin part before the razor-sharp edge, “We were just supposed to snatch her and bring her back to him!”

“And where is this healer?”

“Lamlok said that there’s one down in Taszar! An old woman!”

“Well, then, I guess I don’t need you anymore, now do I?”

The man’s eyes widened at that, and he scooted back, trying to get away from Simon’s blade. He crawled under the branches of a bush, heavy with spring blossoms, then collapsed once the danger from Simon’s dagger was gone.

Simon looked at the man for a moment, a hard look on his face. He put his blade away without taking his eyes off of the brigand at his feet, only turning his head when he heard the pounding of hooves on the trail.

Greta and Hollo shared her saddle as he brought her horse back to the group. Tears flowed down the maid’s face, then a cry of joy escaped her throat when she saw her mistress. As soon as Hollo reined the horse to a halt, she slipped to the ground and ran to the princess, wrapping her arms around her and crying.

“Oh, my lady, I’m sorry!” she sobbed, dropping to her knees, “I was so frightened!”

Erika, who still knelt next to Soren, put her arm around her maid and hugged her close.

“It’s all right, Greta, it’s all right,” she said soothingly, “There’s no shame in it.”

Greta continued to shudder and weep as she released her mistress and looked down at the man next to her.

“The captain, is he…?”

“Not yet, but he soon will be if we don’t get him to a healer.”

Hollo looked about as he dismounted. “Bit of excitement?” he asked.

“You could say that. Someone in Pesht knew we were coming and sent these lads to fetch us,” Simon answered.

“I saw the maid riding through the woods like her hair was on fire, so I stopped her and came to help.”

“Where’s your pony?”

Hollo motioned toward the hills to the south. “I left her tied up over there somewhere. Once we get this straightened out, I’ll go get her.”

He looked over at Soren and lifted his eyebrows questioningly. Simon said nothing, but gave a small, slow shake of his head. Hollo touched the hilt of his dagger, but Simon raised a hand.

“That road apple over there says there’s a healer in Taszar. The princess’ll be wanting to take him there.

“That’s the big village with the mill to the northwest of here. I checked it out after I left you this morning, but didn’t see anyone in the fields.”

“We’ll have to be careful, but she insists.”

Hollo jerked his head toward the wounded attacker, who had slithered further from the trail and was trying to crawl into a thicket of thorn bushes.

“What’s to do about him?”

Simon glanced over at the women, then said quietly, “Once he’s out of sight, take care of him.”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

Escort Duty – Part 8

The next morning, Simon was enjoying a mug of wine and some bread when Erika and Soren came down the stairs from their room. Soren wore his normal drab tunic and breeches, but Erika had changed into a gown of blue satin with white fur collars and cuffs. A chain of pearls hung from her neck, and at her breast a brooch of silver and pearls glistened in the light.

Simon stood as she alighted from the stairs, bowing dramatically to her as she smiled at him.

“Good morning, my lady,” he said, “You are certainly the most beautiful woman in these parts.”

“Why thank you, good sir,” she replied, her voice light and sweet. A good meal and a night in a comfortable bed seemed to have done wonders for her mood. Soren looked at Simon suspiciously, but said nothing.

“Why, I’m sure your appearance today will be the talk of these folk for weeks to come,” Simon continued, leaning against the table, “and of everyone who passes through.”

Erika’s smile faded, her brow wrinkling to a scowl.

“You’re mocking me, aren’t you?” she said, her tone changing from the tinkle of a silver bell to a low growl.

“Of course, not, my lady,” Simon replied, “I look forward to the excitement of trying to dodge patrols and pursuers who seek the beautiful lady dressed in rich raiment.”

Erika fumed at that, and opened her mouth to retort, but Soren cut in.

“You think you’re funny, don’t you?” he demanded.

“Actually, I think I’m hilarious.”

“What makes you think you can poke fun at your betters?”

“Well, since my mother is a princess of the Chanani, and her line stretches back to before her people were driven into the Wispmark, and your grandmother was the daughter of a goat-herd, I think we really ought to evaluate the term ‘better,’ shouldn’t we?”

Soren tried to respond to that, but the words caught in his throat. Erika arched an eyebrow and suppressed a smile of her own.

“How did you know that?” he hissed after a few moments.

“Soren, do you really think I hired on with your master without learning everything I could about those he trusts?”

Soren said nothing, but stole a glance at the princess.

She arched an eyebrow and said “A goatherd?”

“She married well, my lady,” Soren explained, his pale face flushing in embarrassment under his beard.

“Scandalous,” Erika replied with a small smile.

“It was, my lady. The court never let her forget it, but my grandfather loved her.”

“I’m sure it doesn’t matter,” Erika said, “Any house that traces its lineage finds such things regularly.”

Soren nodded, then turned back to Simon.

“And what of the princess? Are you her better?”

“Oh, no, not at all. I am but her servant.”

“Then you should act like one,” Erika snapped, “Greta knows her place.” Greta looked up at the mention of her name, but seemed to be trying to shrink out of sight while the others argued.

“My place, lady, is to protect you. You are making that difficult by attempting this trip in such finery,” Simon replied.

“What would you have her do, travel in rags like a beggar?” Soren said, a touch of anger in his voice.

“No, that shouldn’t be necessary. But we must do something so that she does not shine like a diamond in the dust.”

Erika glowered at the half-elf. She again opened her mouth to retort, but stopped and turned when the door opened behind her. Branka came in, a basket of eggs hanging from the crook of her elbow. A younger woman, smaller than the innkeeper and carrying a basket of greens and vegetables from the garden, followed her.

Simon considered the younger woman for a moment. He smiled at Branka and said, “Is this little Annya? Say it isn’t so!”

The young woman blushed and looked at the floor as Branka replied, “Of course, who else would it be?”

“Why, it seems only yesterday she was tottering around and singing like a little angel!”

“Well, she’s all grown up now,” Branka said, setting her basket on the bar, “She’s to be married at the first full moon of summer.”

“Ah, a blushing bride,” Simon said, tipping his head down to level his eyes with Annya’s, “And which of the strapping young men hereabouts is the lucky groom?”

“He’s a groom at the palace in Pesht,” Branka said with a smile. She chuckled at the joke. “She’ll be leaving her dear mother here in the sticks and be a maid for the Count’s wife.”

Simon considered that for a moment, then tilted his head and smiled at the innkeeper’s daughter. She set her basket down on a table and joined her mother at holding the eggs up to the light from the window to find the ones which had been fertilized.

“We met when he came through here with his lord a few months ago,” she said in a soft, piping voice.

“A fine match, and I’m sure he’ll be as good a husband as you will be his wife,” Simon said thoughtfully, “Do you have a wedding gown yet?”

“I have a few things,” the young woman said, looking away from her work, “and Oleg says I can get something nice once I get to Pesht.”

Simon turned and winked to Soren and Erika. The Princess’ eyes bugged out as she understood where he was going.

“You’re in luck, little one,” he said after turning back to the two women candling their eggs, “My companions here deal in ladies finery, and I believe they’re of a mind to make a bargain today.

Both Branka and Annya turned to face their guests. Branka was the first to speak.

“Bargain? How so?”

“My lady Erika is in need of some traveling clothes. Hers seem to have been mislaid, and all she has are such as you see her wearing now.”

“And she’d be willing to part with it if we have something to offer?”

“Yes, she’d like to get something that doesn’t attract the eye so much, if you catch my meaning.”

Erika gave Simon a hard look, then smiled at Branka and her daughter.

“Yes, ladies,” she said sweetly, “This is a wonderful gown, but I’m afraid that it just won’t do for the road.”

Branka stood and walked over to Erika, wiping her hands on her apron. She reached out and pinched a bit of fabric between her calloused thumb and forefinger.

“Very nice,” she said, “but what do you want in trade?”

“Annya, how tall are you?” Erika said sweetly.

“I am seventeen hands at the top of my head, my lady,” Annya said, standing up.

“What a coincidence,” Erika said with a smile, “We’re almost the same height, and if I don’t miss my guess, we’re about the same at the shoulders and hips.”

Soren looked quizzically at the princess, but said nothing.

“Would you be willing to trade a dress or two for the ladies gown?” Simon said, looking more at Branka than at Annya.

The older woman considered it for a moment, then said, “She only got the one dress better than what she’s wearing now. You could have that.”

“What if you threw in a few odds and ends to seal the deal?” Simon replied.

“I can make sure you leave here with enough food to get you through Pesht, if that’s what you’re after.”

Annya blushed, saying, “It’s a beautiful dress, but I’m not sure I could wear it.”

Erika waved her hand at her dismissively. Smiling warmly, she said, “Pish, don’t worry about that. Come with me and we’ll see how it fits.”

The princess extended her hand to the innkeeper’s daughter and gently led her up the stairs to her room. Greta followed, her eyes shifting from her mistress to Simon and back.

“If she likes it, is it a deal?” Simon said.

Branka looked at him through slitted eyes, then spit on her hand and extended it to the half-elf. Simon returned the gesture, and they shook on it.

“Annya’s good dress and some provisions for one ladies gown,” the innkeeper said before picking up the eggs and walking into the kitchen.

“Call me when she’s done,” she called over her shoulder, “I want to see my baby girl in a fine dress.”

Soren waited until he heard her working in the kitchen before he turned to Simon and glared.

“Did you just trade away a fine gown for some bread and a set of plain clothes?” he demanded.

Simon sat back down to his breakfast and took up his cup. Gesturing to the stool across from him, he answered, “Here, have a seat and eat something.”

Soren’s lips tightened to a white line, but he took the offered seat. As he sat there, he crossed his arms and looked at Simon expectantly.

Simon took another bit of the bread, and after swallowing it, said, “Soren, this way we will be able to go through most villages or even a city or two without sticking out. If she’d gone about dressed like that, we’d have had to stick to the wild lands and this trip would take three times as long.”

Soren considered that, then nodded.

“All right,” he said, “But you’re just lucky she cooperated.”

“If I didn’t think she’d cooperate, I wouldn’t have tried to do it,” Simon replied, “She’s just like her father. Bit of a hothead, but practical when it’s needed.”

“I suppose you knew her father when he was that age?” Soren said, taking a piece of the bread.

Simon snorted. “What tales you all believe about the elves,” he said, “I’m younger than you are, and if I’m lucky to die in my sleep as an old man, I won’t be any older than you will be when you meet such an end.”

“But I thought you all lived forever.”

“Old wives tales. I’m as mortal as you are. I’m just better looking.”

Soren looked at him darkly, then saw the smile on Simon’s face. Shaking his head, he returned to chewing his bread.

“I spoke with someone last night,” Simon said after washing a mouthful down.

“About?”

“Pesht.  You heard what Branka said about a plague?”

“We heard that there’s some epidemic going through the capitol, but we’re not going that way, are we?”

“Not if we can help it,” Simon replied, “But my friend said it’s spreading along the main roads.”

“Should we go back?”

“Do you think we could convince her highness to go back to your master and admit defeat?”

Soren thought about that as he chewed a mouthful of bread, then shook his head.

“Not a chance,” he said, “Can we go around to the coast and get a ship?”

“That would double our journey, and I didn’t exactly bring along a treasury to hire a boat and crew.”

“What about the mountains in the north?”

“That’s twice as far as going straight through to Booda, and it would force us to go through their capitol.  All roads lead to Pesht in Pesht.”

“So what choice do we have?” Soren asked, putting his mug down.

“Hollo says that he knows ways through the hills which will keep us off the roads,” Simon replied, “That’ll only cost us a few days.  It’s either that or we turn back now and have Dveglammar hire a ship to take the princess home.”

Soren considered Simon’s words for a moment, then picked up his mug.  He drained the last of his wine before saying, “We’ll follow Hollo, but we won’t take any chances with the princess.  If we come upon a place the sickness has reached, we’ll turn back.”

Simon nodded and lifted his own drink in acknowledgement of the soldier’s decision.

Both men turned when they heard footsteps on the stairs behind them. Greta came down first, followed by Erika. The princess had changed into a simple long-sleeved shift of green wool, with a few embroidered accents at the throat and hems. The only hint of the finery she normally wore were the leather riding boots peeking out from under her skirt as she walked down the stairs.

But both men’s attention was drawn to Annya, who came last. Her tawny brown hair had been let down from the braid she normally kept it in, and now her tresses fell in curls down either side of her face. Her eyes sparkled as she carefully walked down the stairs in the blue satin and white fur gown. She had been pretty, if a little plain, before, but she seemed to almost glow in the sunshine from the windows now.

Simon and Soren gaped for a moment, then bowed to her as one when she alighted from the stairs. Behind them, Branka came out of the kitchen, stopping with one hand to her mouth.

“Oh, but that’s a beautiful lady there, that is!” was all she could squeak out before rushing forward to take her daughter’s hand and turning her around.

“Do you like it, mama?” Annya asked in a hushed tone, “Is it too much?”

“Darling, it’s wonderful,” Branka said with tears in her eyes.

“Your Oleg will be the envy of the court, Annya,” Simon said, “He’ll certainly be the luckiest man there.”

Branka turned and engulfed Erika in a tight hug. The princess gasped as she felt the older woman’s arms crushing in on her, but returned the embrace as best she could.

After setting Erika down again, Branka dabbed at her eyes with the corner of her apron, saying “I’ll make sure you eat well on your trip, my lady. Thank you for this.”

Erika smiled warmly at the woman’s happiness, saying “Think nothing of it. She looks better in it than I do.”

“Come,” Branka said, clearing the emotion from her throat, “Let me make you a proper breakfast.”


Other episodes can be found here.  The entire anthology can be purchased at Amazon.

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