Published in Darklaw
Copyright © Teresa Wymore. All Rights Reserved.
Epic fantasy | 2017
AVESTINE, ROOK, AND Kami spent weeks riding away from the lands controlled by the Trade Empire. They traveled iceward along the shore of the Wealth River, a rough journey through thick forest.
Kami had ceased to ask about Riverside or Featherwood. Nor did she ask about Avjakar or any place that might be their new destination.
At first, Avestine was pleased at how she had managed Kami. Later, she was disturbed at how little of her own effort went into it. The shock of the attack by Darklaw soldiers had changed Kami, had quieted her. Kami turned inward, away from the world, away from Avestine.
Most mornings, Avestine woke to find Kami gone. She left before sunrise and returned with small animals or birds that she then skinned and cooked. Before sunfall each day, Kami’s mind was usually far away, perhaps anticipating the next day’s explorations. As the days passed, Avestine’s attempts to reproduce the pleasure of their last time together failed.
In order to avoid scouts, the small group avoided the coastal cities, so it wasn’t until they reached the smaller town of Graystone that they learned the Trade Empire had fallen and Darklaw had executed the royal family.
Darklaw now occupied Ureth Mourning and controlled important ports on Illusion Bay. Avestine knew her brother would move to consolidate his hold with heavy tributes from surrounding villages. Prying him loose at that point would be nearly impossible. She also marveled at the speed with which he had succeeded. He had managed to take the city quickly, to capture the ancient throne of the Trade Empire, when her father had failed at that very tactic a generation ago.
Her brother was neither a strategic genius nor an inspiring leader, and from what she had heard and knew of her brother, the current Darklaw legions possessed only a shadow of their former glory. The military juggernaut was now a loose cohesion of mercenaries and bullies, kept loyal with bribes and beatings, not devotion to the gods. Yet, somehow, her brother commanded the thrones of the two largest empires in the world.
ON A FARM outside of Graystone, Avestine and Rook searched for new clothing. A woman and two girls were busy in a vegetable garden. Their men were gone, perhaps to hunt, but several dogs maintained a watch from the porch.
“We need to get rid of the dogs,” said Avestine as she peered through a row of bushes.
Looking in the same direction, Rook glanced over her shoulder. “If we do it quick, the women might not hear the squeals.”
“Slaughtered dogs will get the townsfolk nervous. We don’t want any sign we were here.”
“Then we better find another farm.”
“I’m hungry.” The voice was Kami’s.
Avestine and Rook both turned.
“I’ll bring us back something for dinner,” added Kami and she slipped away before Avestine could stop her.
Avestine and Rook returned to their scrutiny of the farm.
“If we get some meat, we can coax them out,” said Rook. “They might prefer a free meal to a fight.”
Before Avestine could agree, she watched the dogs alert on the trees to her right. They paced and then froze, sat and then stood again. They whined a few times, glancing at each other, and then in unison they trotted down the steps and down the trail.
“Kami?” wondered Rook.
“We’ll find out soon enough.” Avestine crept from the trees.
They made their way to the back of the house. The shutters on one room were open, and Avestine climbed into the room. Rook kept watch outside.
She searched several drawers before finding a large brown shirt and trousers. In a basket, she found a worn but usable blue tunic and a dress she would like to see on Kami. Twisted among some string was a ring that looked to be made of beaten silver. She pocketed it and returned to Rook. They changed in the forest and headed for the town.
The blue fabric tunic reached halfway down Avestine’s thighs, and when the sunfall chill set in, she tied the tan cloak around her neck. Rook wore the brown shirt. Two ties cinched the collar, which he could loosen during the warmth of the day. They looked like two traders—ones not very successful in their business. Their horses were fitted with Darklaw saddles and shoes not easily disguised, so they left them outside of town.
When Kami finally caught up with them before sunfall, Avestine insisted she accompany them into town. She pulled out the dress she had stolen. “Put this on.”
Kami frowned. “I’m not wearing that.”
“You can’t go into town in soldier’s clothes. We can look for something else later.”
“You can’t wear that tunic. You’ll stand out like shit in the snow.”
Kami insisted she didn’t need to go into town, but Avestine wouldn’t relent. Rook added his reasoning to Avestine’s, and Kami finally agreed to try the dress.
When she emerged from the trees a few moments later, Avestine was pleased. The red-flower design brightened her features and the low collar emphasized her breasts. The hem brushed the tops of her boots and the three-quarter sleeves were nearly full-length on the short girl. With the oversized dress and her shaggy hair, Kami looked like the scrappy daughter of some farmer.
Towns along the roads of the Trade Quarter experienced their share of travelers, but most were on business for the illustrious. Graystone’s provisioners had a good supply of a traveler’s necessities, and though a woman of Avestine’s stature was unusual enough to gain attention, she had to risk going into town because Rook needed new boots.
After they made their way into Graystone, they rented a room and scouted the shops. When townsfolk noticed Rook’s lack of hands, Avestine claimed him as her servant, and then the attention drifted to her.
Such was the dynamic she and Rook had lived with for so long. Most people shunned him, disgusted by his compensating mannerisms, while those looking to impress their companions usually ridiculed him. The most dangerous men were the superstitious, who interpreted his deformity as the result of evil.
Fortunately, the people of Graystone didn’t see Rook as different from other trail-worn travelers looking for a little recreation. He even managed to get a free drink with his exciting tale about how he lost his hands to a hungry bear. The townsfolk thought he was harmless, probably a liar, which disgusted Avestine. Those in the Dark Quarter might hate Rook just as much, but they would fear him, too. They would know what his mutilation meant.
On the second day in Graystone, a game with a drunken traveler brought Rook enough silver to approach the only cobbler in town.
They left for his shop, passing traders and peddlers along the main street, when they neared a group of soldiers making an example of an old man. It wasn’t the first such scene they had witnessed. Having deserted long before Ureth Mourning fell, a handful of Darklaw soldiers were in town, their harassment escalating with each incident. Even those in town with the means wouldn’t stand up to a company of professional killers.
Avestine drew Rook to a stop, but Kami continued forward. The soldier in command shoved the old man, who hit the railing, flipped over it, and crumpled with a wet grunt. Kami reached to help, but Avestine nudged her into the shadows of the supply store’s canopy. A glance from Avestine told Rook to move Kami off the street, but the soldier’s companions moved around the walkway.
Reeking of whiskey, the commander hopped over the railing to study his handiwork. After kicking the still body, he spit a foul, brown mass to the ground and propped his hand on the hilt of his sheathed sword. His black leather cuirass hung unbuckled. He pushed it back and set his other hand on his waist.
As he glanced at on-lookers huddled against the shop walls, his stare came to rest on Avestine. His small eyes got smaller, and he pointed at her. “You!” He stomped over to her, his studded military boots clacking against the wooden walkway. When he reached her, he had to look up. He swelled as large as he could and spread his shoulders. He looked at Rook and dismissed him before asking Avestine, “Your man one of these sheep?”
She demurred, trying to slouch as best as she could. “Just traveling through.”
The soldier took hold of her chin, turning her face from side to side.
Kami braced herself to run, but Avestine let the soldier manhandle her.
A derisive smile made the ugly man uglier. “Scars? You look like a whore that failed to please.” He hooted loudly, turning to his two companions before his suspicious blue eyes drifted toward Kami. Avestine moved to her side.
The clink of metal from under Avestine’s tan cloak stole the soldier’s attention, and he spit again as he eyed the bulk under the fabric. “What ya got there?”
As he reached to pat her, Avestine stepped back, startling the soldier.
“Take off your cloak.” He drew his sword, and his companions dismounted behind him.
Avestine spread her arms. “My poor Henrik died. Left me only this.”
The soldier aimed his blade at Avestine. “Take it off.”
Having already counted the number of weapons available to the soldiers, including the makeshift ones—like the shovel in front of one store and the planks of wood stacked near the tavern—Avestine wasn’t afraid of the three soldiers, even should she lose her sword. But she continued her charade and untied the tether at her neck, letting her cloak slip to the ground.
The commander flipped up the latch on her scabbard and drew out her sword. He flipped the bruised blade back and forth in the sunlight. The few moments of tense silence ended with laughter. He ridiculed the metal’s nicked and dull surface, the blade’s blunt edges, its old-fashioned short design, and the pommel’s worn hand-wrap.
“This’ll do ya good,” mocked the soldier as he dropped the sword at Avestine’s feet, “if a pack a dogs come looking for ya. Broom a scare ‘em more.”
His laughter rose to an irritating shrill, and Avestine imagined her nicked, blunt, old-fashioned blade crushing his skull. She unlocked her jaw. “My poor Henrik, accident with a mule. Left me few coins and this old sword.” Reaching into the pouch on her belt, she drew out three silver coins. “One old sword and these pitiful few coins.”
Laughter faded as the soldier alerted on the sparkle in Avestine’s palm. He snatched the coins as he shoved her away. She let herself fall back against Kami.
The commander examined his treasure. “This is Ureth Mourning silver,” he commented. He jingled the coins and looked back at Avestine. “Ain’t ya heard? King’s dead. Coins like these’ll be melted, pressed with the emperor’s seal now.” He walked around her, patted her cloak and worked his hands higher, where he fondled her breasts.
Kami watched the hands and took a step toward Avestine, just as Avestine shook her head. The soldier noticed Kami and looked her over. As he reached a hand to pat her down, too, Avestine shuffled and stumbled, as if she were trying to run away. The sound of clinking drew everyone’s attention to a large silver coin that rolled away from her.
One of the other soldiers picked it up and handed it to the commander.
“What? Hiding something else?” He scrutinized the coin, his face registering surprise, then easing into a greasy smile. He held up the coin, glancing from it to Avestine and back. “Souvenir from yer working days?” He turned to his men and held up the coin for them to see. “It’s from Faye’s!” The soldiers hooted. He carefully slipped the coin into his belt at his hip and patted it as he said, “I’ll send ‘em your best wishes. What ‘cher name?”
He winked at her and stepped back. Disgust curled his lip as he began to survey the anxious crowd. “Anyone else?” He spit another brown mass near Avestine’s feet. He hopped back over the railing and mounted his horse. As he galloped off, one of his companions offered a lingering gaze at Avestine.