Shattered Lands

This is a dark fantasy novel but there are no magic swords, no dark lords, no mighty heroes, no princesses and no plucky band of adventurers trying to save the world.  There are so many more stories to tell other than the same one that’s been told and retold over and over.  Here’s my attempt to bring the genre in a new direction.

Chapter 1

Resha balanced one tray of food in one hand and held three pints of beer in the other as she expertly wound her way through empty tavern to the table where a group of Ork, Goblin and Human mercenaries were waiting.  The Angry Hamster Tavern seldom this empty.  Not many people were out and about these days.

Her cloven hooves normally would be great for avoiding the large, flat feet of customers, but today there was nothing to avoid but chairs and tables.  The three mercenaries in the corner were the only customers they’ve had in two days.  The locals were staying in their homes, have fled or had been conscripted.  The whole countryside now seemed like a vacant, lifeless wasteland.  The few rumors that reached here at the tavern spoke of all the kingdoms of the continent rising up for war.  How could all the kingdoms be at war at once?

She placed the tray of food and the pints down on the table and got a squeeze on her backside for her effort.

“Thanks, love,” Resha said with her best smile.

“I’m ready whenever you are,” the Goblin said.

For some reason the Goblins always flirted with her the most.  She had heard that Goblins liked Saytrs more than others.  Some said it was because of the horns.  Her horns weren’t very big but they grew every year.  Her mother’s horns weren’t very long when she died.  Mother had only been thirty and Resha fifteen at the time.

“Say, what’s going on out there?”  Resha asked.

“There’s going to be a kalumping tomorrow me thinks,” the Ork said.  The Ork was a tall, lanky thing with gray/greenish skin and a face that looked almost like a skull with sharp teeth.  His black hair was a tangled mess and it looked as if neither of these people had seen soap and water in weeks.

“Tomorrow?  Where?”  Resha asked.

“Not far from here.  We’re going to try to offer our services tonight.  Hopefully we’ll get a good wage considering they’re about to fight and all,” the Goblin said.

“Well, best of luck to you,” Resha said.

“Say, does the fur on your legs go all the way up?”  The Goblin asked.  His wide mouth was smiling, showing all his sharp teeth.

“Four silvers and you can find out,” Resha said.

“If I had four silvers.  I’ll come back tomorrow after the battle.  Then you can bed a hero.”

“I’ll be waiting.”

Resha gave her best flirtatious smile and went back to the bar where Rodrig stood cleaning a mug.

“They’re not spending a lot, are they?”  The owner asked.

“Not today, Rodrig.  Maybe after the battle.  They say there’s going to be one soon.”

“What?  Here?”

“I think so, yeah.  Nearby at least.”

“That can’t be good.  All those muskets and cannon going off…I hope we’ll still have a town left to service.”

“You think its going to be that bad?”

“I’ve seen a battle once.  I was just a lad, but I saw it.  They’re more destructive than the gods should allow.”

Resha turned back and looked at the three mercs.  Normally their type was loud and rowdy.  Today they were sullen and quiet.  There was a tension in the air that she could feel.  Things were different, like feeling the air gets before a storm.

The other serving wench, a ochre skinned Hobgoblin came in from cleaning pots and pans in the backroom.  She was wiping her hands as she walked up to them.

“What’s going on, eh?”  Leksha asked.

“Nothing yet.  Those mercs say there’s going to be a battle tomorrow,” Resha said.

“Not my concern,” Leksha said.

“It will be.  The battles going to be very close,” Rod said.

Leksha shrugged and leaned against the bar.

“Listen, girl,” Rodrig said, pointing a finger.  “Those soldiers are going to be hungry and many of them won’t have the coin or inclination to pay.  They’re going to take.  That’s what these armies do.  They take and take from us common folk.  Forging, they call it.  Looting’s what I call it.”

“Who’s fighting?”  Resha asked.

“I imagine its our boys with Teroshian Empire allies against the Kingdom of Ferras, but it could be anybody nowadays.  I can’t keep track of whose allied with who anymore,” Rodrig said.

“What about a song,” Leksha asked.

“I’m not in the mood,” Resha said.

“Please, deary?”  Rodrig asked.

She didn’t care much for Leksha, but Rodrig had always treated her fairly.  She had been here since her mother died and while he was far from being family, he was the closest thing to it.

“Alright.”

She walked up onto the small platform and grabbed her teardrop shaped lute.  She sat down on the small stool and quickly tuned the seven strings.  She loved playing.  It was probably the single best thing she learned from her mother.  Her mother wasn’t perfect, far from it, but mother did teach her to love music and she was grateful for it.

“Right, I’ll be playing a song I learned long again from an ancient Elven sorceress who said it could only be played while the Great Plates cover the sun.  But, I’m going to play it for you all today.”

She always made up some ridiculous story about where she got her songs.  Humor helped people relax and enjoy themselves.  If she was selling food, beer, wine or herself, she used humor to smooth out the transactions.  Also, she didn’t see why people had to go about so serious and downcast all the time.  Mother never seemed happy and Resha was determined to not be like that.  She knew that she’d never be wealthy with a large house, land, silk or servants.  If her happiness were to depend on the things around then she’d never be happy.  Her happiness had to be inside her.

Some people liked sad, melancholy songs.  She liked the more energetic, happy songs, though the ones she wrote sometimes turned out more angry sounding than she intended.

The song she started to play however, was a funny song written by a Harpy she knew a few years ago.  As she played and sung, she saw that the mercenaries were starting to smile and if they felt better even for a minute, then she had done her job.  She liked making people happy and just wished more people had that desire.

Her long dark brown hair was getting in the way so when she finished the song she quickly tied it back into a tail before she started the next song.

As she began to strum the first chords of the new song she heard a horse galloping to a stop in front of the tavern.  The mercenaries looked out the window they were sitting by and jumped out of their seats.

Resha hurried over to Rodrig, still clutching the lute in her hands.

“What is it?”

“Looks like an army messenger,” Rod said.

The three mercenaries grabbed their things and ran out the door.  She watched them through the now open door as they approached the rider, an Elf by the looks of him, and began talking to him.  She couldn’t hear what they’re saying.

“Probably asking about a job,” Resha said.

“They can’t be too good at what they do if they have to search for a job.  The whole continent is tearing itself apart with war.  There’s no want of opportunities to kill people,” Rod said.

A few minutes later the rider in the blue uniform rode off and one of the mercenaries came back in.

“How much do we owe?”  The human asked.

Resha shied away from the human.  Humans had a well earned reputation for violence and brutality.  They didn’t have horns, claws, teeth or wings like other races, but they made up for it in ferocity.  Only a dragon could outwit them on the battlefield.

She had heard much about war from overhearing the conversations of customers.  She knew the difference between rifled and smoothbore muskets.  She knew that pike formations were growing less useful and that officers were concerned about the growing accuracy of firearms.  Apparently they made very good targets with their tall, feathered hats.

After the human paid and left the tavern was empty except for the three of them.  Rod cursed under his breath and turned away to clean some more mugs.

“I guess it will be a quiet night,” Leksha said.

They didn’t get any more customers that day, but it wasn’t quiet.  Uniformed riders rode past the tavern all the rest of the day.

Resha stood outside by the door and watched them go by.  Some had blue uniforms and others had red and green.  She kept hoping that one would stop to rest their horse so she could ask for any information, but none of them did.

With nothing else to do and all the cleaning done, she went to her tiny room in the back of the tavern.  Rodgrig let her live there and left her alone most of the time.  This was where she took special customers and for rent Rodrig took a small cut of whatever she earned.  Tonight, she would be alone however.

As she lay in her old, rickety bed with blankets that had holes in them, she thought about what was going on with the two armies.  Would they really risk fighting here, so close to the town?  The tavern was outside of town near the crossroads, but it was still considered a part of the town.

She had never seen a battle before but Rod ordered her not to go anywhere near it.  He said the risk of stray bullets was too great.  She was curious but not curious enough to risk her life.

Still, she couldn’t sleep.

Resha walked out side into the warm summer night.  In the distance, near the farmers’ fields she saw a sea of campfire lights.  They were only about a mile away.  In the distance, past the town, she saw the campfires of the other army.  She couldn’t believe how many of them there were.  How did they keep so many people fed?  At most the tavern held sixty customers at once and that was only during festival days.  Festival days were hard and keeping enough food and beer going was a heroic task.

She was a fair cook and wondered how much the army paid for cooks.  She’d be well out of the way of fighting and she could charge to play music for them.  Everyone said she was the best musician in the village.

As she stood there in the warm, humid air, she wondered what tomorrow would bring.  She didn’t believe anyone would come so she’d probably stay in her room until the fighting was over.  She heard soldiers talk about battles that lasted multiple days and she prayed that this wouldn’t be one of those.  She’d prefer that they didn’t fight at all.

After a while Resha went back to her room and went to sleep.  She tossed and turned, unable to shake the uneasy feeling she had.

In the morning she went outside.  The sun hadn’t come out from behind the Sky Shield yet.  When the Creators made the world they placed the Sky Shields to keep the sun from burning up the world.  She always wondered what they were.  They were very big and moved slowly.  She once heard two traveling priests arguing about what the Sky Shields were.  One said that they were giant metal plates and the other said that they were rock covered in glass.  She didn’t know how anyone could know such a thing.

The glow of the sun was starting to appear again as the Shield slowly moved away.  It was the Ne Bada plate.  There was no visual difference between the plates but the astronomers and sorcerers knew by the timing which plate was what.

In the distance she could hear the horns calling out in the army camps.  Right now the soldiers were waking up and preparing for a hard day.

“It’s starting,” Rod said from behind her.

She turned and saw Rod walking up to her.  He held an old musket in one hand and his pipe in the other.

“I imagine that regardless of who wins and looses, they’ll be deserters and soldiers fleeing.  They’ll come here and demand we help them.  The musket’s in case they decide to take what we don’t offer.”

She suddenly felt like she needed to get a knife or something to protect herself.

As the Shield moved away to reveal the sun, the two armies began to move.  Formations were assembling in the field in front of the town.

“They’re going to be closer than I thought they’d be,” Resha said.

“I think we had better find a safe place to hide,” he said.

“Where’s Leksha?”

“She’s staying in the village with her parents today.”

“Safer than here.”

Despite the obvious danger, she stayed and watched the two massive armies that covered all the fields south of the town.  She could see officers riding around on their horses.  She saw the cannons being prepared for battle and she saw units of cavalry riding around behind and beside the two armies.

“Come, let’s go in,” he said.

She nodded and followed him.  As they went inside she heard the pounding sound of many horses running at full gallop.  She looked and saw brightly colored cavalry charging up the road.  They had gold decorations and feathers in their tall hats.  Their breastplates and armor shone in the sun.

It was an amazing sight; amazing and terrifying at once.  Resha quickly went inside and closed the door.

“Bullets will be flying soon.  Stay in your room and stay down once the shooting starts,” Rod said.

She thought about grabbing the lute and playing in her room, but she decided on the flute.  For some reason the flute made her feel better.

About an hour later the battle started.  At first it sounded almost like corn popping.  It started off with a few scattered shots but soon the intensity grew to the point she couldn’t make out one gunshot from another.

Then the cannons started and they sounded like loud, deep ‘cracks.’  She closed her eyes and tried not to imagine the people that were dying every second.

“You all right in there?”  Rodrig called out from his room.

“Yeah, I’m all right!”  She said.

Then she realized that she hadn’t had any breakfast.  She crept out of her room and to the kitchen.  She took out some bread and salted meat and made a sandwich.  It was quick and she didn’t want to be standing for any longer than she had to be.

As she left the kitchen she saw out the large front window of the tavern and saw the battle.  Mostly what she was were clouds of light gray smoke.  Occasionally there were geysers of smoke and dirt as a cannon found its mark.

The battle looked closer.  Crawling on the ground she made her way to the window and watched as blocks of soldiers moved as tight formations.  Horsemen charged around the edges of the battle releasing volleys of gunfire into the edges of the enemy’s army.  Some would charge up, fire and run off again.  Others would charge in with pistols and swords.

She could see the reflections off of the armor of the infantry.  She couldn’t imagine how anyone could wear such heavy things.

Then the glass shattered above her as a bullet shot through and struck the wall on the far side of the room.

Resha quickly ducked to the floor and scurried back to her room.

After eating she tried to play more of her flute but she just couldn’t concentrate.  Her mind wouldn’t focus or let her think of anything aside from the battle outside.

Mother had once told her that her father had been a soldier.  She said that he had died in a battle and she wondered if it had been a battle like this.

Suddenly there was a bright light and everything exploded around her.

The next thing she was aware of was that she was lying on her back staring up at the sky.  Broken wood surrounded and covered her.  Her ears were ringing and smoke made it hard to breath.

What happened?

She tried to sit up but wooden planks that had been her wall stopped her.  The left side of her face felt wet and warm.

As her mind became clear she realized that she couldn’t see out of her left eye.  She pushed the boards that were on top of her off with her right arm so she could release her pinned left one.

When she brought her left hand up to wipe away the blood on her face, she froze.  The bottom of her stomach almost lurched as she saw that her left had was simply gone, like a giant animal had bitten it off.

Her head swam and the remains of her room spun around until she blacked out and collapsed back onto the floor.

Chapter 2

When Resha came to, she saw an army sorcerer kneeling beside her.  He was a young man but looked very tired.  He looked down at her with unmistakably sad eyes.

“What happened?”  She asked with a dry throat.

“You’ve been injured.  Please don’t try to sit or stand.”

She quickly looked down to her left hand and where her hand should be she saw a bunch of bandages.  Her right hand came up to her left aye and felt bandages there as well.

“You’ll live but I’m not sure that’s such a good thing anymore,” the army mage said as he stood up.  He wore a tight red coat that opened up at the waist and hung loosely down to his ankles.  She could see dirty black boots underneath.

He looked back down to her.

“I’m sorry about your friend.  He didn’t make it.”

“What?  Rodrig?  He’s dead?”

“Yes.”  He sighed and looked up at the sky through the gaping whole in the ceiling.  “I don’t know what I’m doing here.  Saving you may be the cruelest thing I’ve done.”  As he walked away he could hear him muttering to himself.

She lay there feeling nothing.  She didn’t feel pain, probably thanks to the sorcerer’s healing magic, and she didn’t feel any emotion.  She brought her stump up and looked at the tightly wound bandages.  She had seen healing magic before and wondered if the bandages were there just to hide the wound from her’s or other’s eyes.

Eye.

Her good hand felt the bandages over her left eye.  She reached up and felt for her left horn.  Thank goodness it was still intact.  She didn’t know why she’d worry about such a vain thing like that.  She had much worse problems.

She rolled on to her stomach and looked around.  Her room was a smoking wreck and the Tavern was in complete chaos.  Tables and chairs lay strewn about, some broken.  Plates, mugs and knives were everywhere.

Her home was destroyed.  She couldn’t fix this, not if she had two hands.

She tried to stand but her head suddenly felt light and she staggered to the door and held on tightly.  She waited for her head to stop spinning.  She felt weak and awful.  It was as if she hadn’t eaten or slept in days.

Strangely the only other thing she felt was thirsty and she hurried over to the bar, grabbed a mug from the floor and dunked it in the barrel of water they kept.  Some of the beer kegs were still intact but she didn’t want to make her head even more unbalanced than it already was.  She had heard that Saytrs could hold their alcohol, but she had never pushed her limits.  She never had time to be drunk.  She worked every day and balancing trays of food while drunk was not an idea she had liked to test.

Muddy footprints covered the floor.  People had been here.  Soldiers.  As Rod had said, they’d be here.  Only he wasn’t hear with his musket to chase them away.

Where was Rod?  She went to his room and found him lying halfway on his bed with two large bloody wounds in his chest.  They looked like bullet wounds.  His musket was nowhere to be seen.  Even though she didn’t know how to use it, she would have liked the reassurance that it was there.

“Rod, who did this to you?”

She wanted to, but she didn’t cry.  She wanted to shed tears for him and for herself, but they wouldn’t come.

Something was wrong with her.  She could feel that she wasn’t right, but she would have to come to terms with that later.  Right now she had her own survival in mind.

Resha stumbled into the main room and looked out the shattered windows.  Everywhere she looked she saw uniformed men running about.  In the distance the town had pillars of smoke rising up from burning buildings.  Centaurs pulling carts of wounded hurried by the tavern and Elf and Human officers on horseback looked at maps and talked among themselves.  She knew they were officers because they had the most decorated uniforms.

One of the officers saw her.

“Hey, miss!  You had better clear out of here,” the human shouted out at her.

“Why?”  She asked.  Her voice came out sounding weak.

“The enemy’s coming back and we’re going to hold them off here.  Don’t worry, we beat them once, we’ll do it again.

She only nodded.  Who won here was the least of her concerns.

More fighting?  What was she supposed to do?  She had nowhere to go.  She had no family, no friends, and no where else to go.  This had been her home and it was now a battlefield.

As the realization of loosing everything sunk in she began to feel.  In a flash she had lost her left hand, eye and her home.  She looked down at her stump and realized that she would never play the lute or flute again.  She was maimed so she couldn’t rely on her looks anymore.

Money.  Rodrig had to have had some money stashed away.  She hurried to his room and went to the loose floorboard where he kept his money.  She had seen him put money there before.

When she pulled the floorboard away she saw that the small metal box was still there.  There was a tiny lock on it and she searched Rod’s body for the key.

“Sorry Rod, but I hope you realize that I need this right now.”

She unlocked the box and found at least a hundred silvers there.  At least she had that.  She still had some hope and that was all she needed.  She had to hold on to that and not think about what she lost.  If she did that she wouldn’t make it.  At is was, she could feel the claws of despair reaching further and further into her chest.  Tears welled up in her eyes and she blinked them away.

But where was she supposed to go?  The town wasn’t safe but maybe someone there knew where she might be able to go.  Either way, she had to get away from here before greedy soldiers found her or more fighting broke out.

Resha found Rod’s old backpack and put her few clothes in there.  She didn’t have many clothes but it almost filled the backpack.  Next she threw in all the dried meat she could find, some cooking utensils and she had a hard time tying her blanket into a roll and attaching it on the outside of the backpack.  It was a lot harder with one hand and made her injuries much harder to ignore.  With the help of her teeth she managed to get it all in order.

When she went outside she saw that the next plate was almost there and within the hour it would be nightfall.  If she stayed here alone at night, she’d be vulnerable to lustful soldiers.  If she went into town, she wouldn’t have anywhere to sleep.

She had no desire to sleep outside with just a blanket so she hid the money again and slept in Rod’s old bed.  She had dragged him out into the woodshed.  He deserved a better funeral than that, but she felt weak and it wasn’t just her physical energy she lacked.

She curled up in the bed and wrapped the blanket around her shoulders.  She wished mother was there.  So she lay there alone in a smashed house while the shouts and commotion of the army filtered in through glassless windows.

She had never felt so alone in her life.  She was alone, hurt, scared and didn’t know what was going to happen to her.  All she knew was that she had to get away from this place.

That night she let herself cry.  She cried until her tears dried up and she cried until she fell asleep.

In the morning she looked at herself in Rod’s shattered mirror and saw the bandages that covered half her face.

“I won’t let you cry over this again.  Happiness doesn’t depend on what’s around you,” she told herself in the mirror.  “You have to be strong and take care of yourself, like mother said.”

Once she ate the remaining bread and eggs she found in the destroyed kitchen, she packed her money and left the destroyed tavern that had been her home for ten years.

Her hooves crunched on the dirt road and the cool morning air actually felt good.  She looked back at the destroyed tavern and the officer tents that now sat huddled under the apple trees in the field across the road.  The army was getting up as well.  Like her, they arose before the sun came out.

When she arrived at the Tight Water, she found it mostly deserted.  Usually all the housewives were up and shopping for the day’s food, farmers were going out to the fields and shops were opening.  Now it looked as if no one lived here.

She had been hoping for someone to ask where it would be safe to go.  She walked through the empty streets and finally found an old man pulling a cart full of his belongings.

“Excuse me!”  She called out.

The man turned and saw her.

“You’re that Saytr girl from the tavern,” he said.

“Yeah.  Where can I go to be safe?  The other army is coming back and its not safe here.”

“No, it’s not.  As for where to go?  I don’t know.  I’m going to Read Heath where my sister’s family lives.  I don’t know if its safe, but I’m going.  Good luck.”

He then marched off with the cart behind him.

So, he didn’t know either.  Leksha’s house was intact but empty.

She had to go somewhere.  Up north from them was the small kingdom Natan and further north was the lands of Beshka.  It was too mountainous, cold and brutal up north.  To the west was the Kingdom of Ferras and to the East was the Teroshian Empire.  Seeing as how both of those countries were fighting each other, she decided to turn south.  At least the weather would be more pleasant near the coasts.  She had never seen the ocean.  That sounded nice and so her choice was made.  When she had fewer options, the choices became remarkably simple.

She walked out of Tight Water village and began walking down long dirt road.  She had come from this road when mother and her first came to Tight Water.  She hadn’t been on it since.

Resha thought about the feet of other races and how they had to have shoes to protect their feet.  What was the point of having feet if they had to be constantly protected?  Her hooves weren’t very quiet, but at least she wouldn’t have to worry about sore feet.  That was the biggest thing she heard about all the soft-feet races; sore feet.  Everyone should have hooves like her.

That was something to be grateful for; she still had her legs in perfect working condition.  As long as she had her legs, she could get to safety.

She stopped under a large willow tree at noon and sat down to eat her lunch.  Behind her was a thick forest and in front of her was a large open field with trees on the other side.

“Hey! Look what we have here!”  She heard a rough male voice say from behind her.  She jumped up and looked around.

Two soldiers in ragged uniforms, short rifles and two snarling war hounds came out of the woods.  They were both lanky, skeletal looking Orks.

“Looks like we have a little cripple goat girl,” the other soldier said.

“Doesn’t look like she’s good for much.”

Resha looked around for any way to escape, but if they let those hounds loose, there’d be no way to escape.  Also, they had guns and not matter how fast she was, she couldn’t outrun a bullet.

“Please, don’t hurt me,” Resha said.

Her heart was beating and all the terrible possibilities that could happen raced through her mind.  She would plead, beg and offer anything to avoid being killed or hurt.

“We won’t hurt you,” the first soldier said.

“Of course not, deary.”

“I can’t say the same of our dogs here.”

Resha looked down at the monstrous dogs and their sharp, snapping teeth.  The things had raw, brute strength filling their muscular bodies.  Their teeth looked as though they could rip her to shreds without pausing.

“Please…” she started to beg but the two men began laughing.

“Well, I don’t want a cripple girl, but she can still be some fun.”

“How so?”  The other soldier asked.

The first soldier stepped closer and leaned in to her.  She could smell his sweat and his bad breath.

“Let’s say we play a little game,” the soldier said.  “It’s kind of like a race.  We’ll give you a bit of a head start and then we release our two canine friends here.  If you can get to the woods on the far side of that field there, we’ll call them back and you live to go on your merry.  If not, then…well, our dogs our pretty hungry.  I can’t really guarantee that they’ll listen to us either way.”

“Why are you doing this?  I’m no threat to you,” she said.

“That’s exactly why we’re doing this, because we know you’re not a threat.”

She couldn’t understand why people would do such horrible things.

“I thought Orks were supposed to have a code of honor,” she said.

“Well, things aren’t always like they are in the story books.  Honor doesn’t feed your belly.”

“And what do you gain from this?”  Resha asked. “You dishonor yourself, your people and whatever army you serve.”

“Only if they find out.”

She knew that they had no plans of letting her live. The realization made it hard to breath.  She didn’t want to have her life ended like this, as some cruel game for two wicked men.

“Just let me go and I’ll be on my way.  There’s a town up ahead and no one lives there.  You can loot it however you want.”

“Thanks, I think we just may do that, but that won’t stop our little game.”

“I’d start running if I were you,” the other soldier said.

Resha didn’t hesitate.  She started running.  She knew her appeal to their inner soul wasn’t going to work.  They had left the light of the creators far behind.

She took off across the field as fast as she could.  Her hooves were kicking up dirt as she ran and she didn’t look back.  She still had her pack on, but if she slowed to take it off, she’d loose time.  She just had to get to the trees and then…she didn’t know what, but maybe she could climb a tree or find a large stick to fend the dogs off with.  All she knew was that she had to move fast.

The field looked as though the army had passed through.  The tall grass had been trampled over and foot prints were everywhere.  The ground was soft and was slowing her down.

Behind her she could hear the dogs snarling and barking.  Suddenly they stopped barking and she knew that they’d been let off their leashes.  They were coming right at her.

Her legs were burning and her lungs were straining to get enough air.  It didn’t matter how much it hurt because hurting was much better than dying.

What kind of world was this that she could be mutilated by a stray cannon shell and then wind up being killed by to thugs?  Where were the Creators?

She wanted to pray but she couldn’t get her mind to think of anything beyond how she didn’t want to die.

That single thought pushed her to run faster than she had ever run in her (what was probably going to be) short life.

Then she tripped.  She fell right on her stomach and face knocking the wind right out of her.  Feeling the dogs approach she scrambled to her back and saw the two vicious beasts bearing down on her.  She could see their muscles pulsating under their fur and feel the beating of their paws on the ground.  They were two rage filled, demonic beasts.

As they grew closer she could hear their harsh breathing and see their eyes locked onto hers.  She knew she was dead.  The two demon hounds were running at her from the side, close together.

Suddenly the ground erupted in a flash of light, dirt and smoke and the dogs flew, tumbling into the air.

Warm liquid and hard dirt splashed against her face.  She sat there, panting and wondering what had happened.  The dogs had just exploded.

“Land mines!”  One of the soldiers shouted.

She lay down on her back, still trying to catch her breath.  The blue sky circled above her.

She lay there for a long time.  Hopefully they’d think she was killed by the blast.  She was crying, but not from sadness or remorse.  She didn’t even know why she was crying because everything was too much.  She had seen death coming for her.  She had been seconds away from a horrible death.

Why was this happening to her.  She was a maimed cripple without a home and now rogue soldiers had tried to kill her for sport.  The healer mage had been right; it would have been better to let her die.

When she dared a look she saw that the two soldiers were gone.  She stiffly got up and made her way carefully to the woods.  One wrong step and she’d find herself scattered all over the field like those two dogs.  She checked every place where she was about to step.

Once she was far away from the minefield, she found a safe place in the woods and collapsed down behind some trees where she could see the road but could still stay hidden.

She had learned an important lesson.  Stay hidden and don’t let people catch you unaware.  If she didn’t stay alert, she would die.  She also learned (despite how much she wished it weren’t true) that some people had no good left in them.

Chapter 3

Zalandri could hear the cannons growing closer with every passing minute.  She had to hurry or all of it would be lost.  She clutched the empty backpack to her chest as she ran as fast as she could into the Great Library.

Everywhere she could see she saw people, students and scholars alike, grabbing as many books as they could carry.  She could see her philosophy professor standing up on a table shouting orders at everyone.

“Grab as many as you can!  Head to the city of Vatasha in the Kingdom of Katoli!  It’s far south but its neutral and our books should be safe there!  Get the books out of here!  The Ferras troops will be here any hour!  Please!  Do everything you can to save our knowledge!”

Zalandri saw him through other people’s eyes.  Her own had never worked and she had been blind until she came to the university four years ago.  Sight From Other’s Eyes was one of the first spells she learned.

She remembered the first time she saw the Great Library with its marble pillars taller than most buildings.  She had stood and stared at the immense dome with its golden mosaics and round windows around the base that made the dome appear as if it were suspended in air.  She had never imagined that the world was so beautiful.

All her life she had been blind and hadn’t realized what she had been missing.  Now that she knew, she never wanted to be blind again.  As it was she still depended on others’ eyes.  She had had to learn to read through eyes that weren’t her own and she saw what she really looked like through the eyes of another.

The first time she saw herself she marveled at how strange she looked.  She knew that Elves had large ears and were slender, but she didn’t realize how pale, sickly and strange they looked.  The first person she saw was her human professor and that was through the eyes of her Saytr Spellcraft professor.  Their eyes were so bright and beautiful, but she was horrified at how gray and lifeless her own eyes were.

Zalandri had come to love the University more than her own home.  Before she had come here she had been the fourth daughter of a minor country noble.  Being blind meant that the likelihood of being married very small and so was largely ignored by her parents and siblings.

In Elven culture, the strong deserved the power and thus the right to rule over the weak.  No one wanted a weak, blind wife.  Without being married off, she was just a drain and a burden to her parents.  When she suggested that she could attend the University, they were happy to be rid of her.

Here, however, she wasn’t just accepted, she was embraced as a fellow scholar.  Though her talents didn’t lie with the use of magic, she was still able to learn enough to count as a Scholar of the Arts.

History was her true love and that was where she went.  It took longer to learn how to walk through seeing herself through others’ eyes than it had to learn the spell.  There were so many people around to see through, but most were so frantic that they weren’t looking at anything but what they were doing.

The spirits that surrounded the sorcerers were agitated as well.  Occasionally she’d catch a glimpse of a spirit from the corner of her eye.  Normally she could feel them, sometimes hear them but rarely see them.

That was the price of magic.  The energy they used to perform the Arts attracted spirits of all kinds.  Some were good and many sorcerers befriended them.  Others were cruel, malevolent spirits that were jealous of the living.  A large part of a sorcerer’s training was learning how to block out the voices of the spirits that lingered around them. So far she only had two that she knew of and they didn’t cause too much trouble now.

She made her way to the history section and saw that someone looked up from shoving books into a backpack and saw her coming.

“Zalandri!  Glad you’re here.  Save as many books as you can,” Erit said.

She didn’t know him very well but she knew he was preparing to graduate, or at least he was.  She saw him briefly from someone else’s eyes and now that she was close to him she couldn’t see him at all.

She looked frightened.  Her long, pointed ears were perked up, her slender neck extended, her lips were pursed and her dead eyes were wide.  She looked paler than usual.

“How should I do this?  By rarity?  Importance?  Specific topics?”  She asked.

“Rarity or age,” he said.

Then he turned away from her and continued searching the shelves.  She could only see the books he looked at and couldn’t do it on her own.

“I’ll trust your judgment and your eyes.  Fill my pack,” she said.

He knew her situation and nodded.  She watched as he went through the books and quickly pulled them off the shelves and stacked them neatly in his pack.

“Oh, could you get that one?”  She asked.

“Which one?”

The Imperical History of the Mytazon Empire.”

“Sure.”

He stacked that in her backpack and continued on.

There was a loud explosion somewhere outside that shook the Library and brought dust falling down from the ceiling.

“They’re getting close!”  He said.

“Hurry!”

Zalandri noticed that his selections became faster and less thought out.  He was grabbing books and throwing them in their packs now.

As soon as he was finished, he closed his back and threw the heavy load on his back.

“Good luck to you.  Safe journey.”

With that, he was gone, running out the door.

When she lifted her pack she was stunned at how heavy it was.  How was she supposed to go all the way to Vatasha like this?  She had no knowledge of traveling or even being on her own.  She had to find someone to travel with or she’d be blind and helpless.

Then there was an explosion.  This one was so close and loud that it made her jump and throw her hands up to cover her head.  Through another student’s eyes she saw that a part of the dome had exploded and dust and broken stone were falling down into the library.

The beautiful dome, the artistic work of years was vandalized in a single, careless moment.  This was her favorite place in the world and it was going to be destroyed.  The siege had lasted three months and now that the Ferras army was breaking through, she doubted very much that they’d show mercy.

After some difficulty, she managed to get the backpack on and she saw Professor Dayshan, her history teacher.  She hurried over to the tall Minotaur.  He was surrounded by students and barking orders.

“May I travel with you?”  She asked.

“Of course, but we need to hurry,” Dayshan said in his deep, rumbling voice.

She was with a group of four students and Dayshan.  It made her feel a little safer though this was all so strange and horrible.  Though a scholar, his size and horns would protect them.

Then another explosion rocked the Library.  She quickly jumped from one person’s view to another until she found where the blast occurred.  Someone on the far side of the library was knocked over by the blast that came through and shattered the window he was standing by.  The person who’s eyes she was seeing through raised a hand covered in blood.  Zalandri broke the connection and went back to Dayshan’s eyes.  It was strange to be looking down on everyone.  She also noticed how short she was compared to everyone else.  Only the Halflings, pixies and dwarves were shorter.

She couldn’t search out someone’s eyes for more than a hundred paces.  At first it was only ten paces but through practice and training she was able to extend it out.  That was fine because right now there were no one else’s eyes she wanted more than her fellow scholars.

“Let’s move,” Dayshan said.

Their small group hurried out of the library and onto the main square of the university.  It was like a small city within the city.  Since coming here she had only left the ground three times.  The University had everything she needed and wanted.

Now the grounds of her home were scattered with papers, discarded objects of all kind and people running around with arms full of scrolls, books and clothing.  The colonnades and marble buildings were still there, but the air was different now.  She could smell smoke and when Dayshan turned around she saw smoke rising up in the distance, near where the Ferras army had broken through.  They were tearing through the city on their way to the palace.  The University, unfortunately lay in the path.

“Stay close and remember, whatever happens, we must make it to Vatasha alive and with our cargo,” Dayshan said.

Their group ran to the front gates that led into the city.  When they opened the gates they were immediately greeted by the sight of thousands of people crowding the streets.  Everyone was in a panic and fleeing for their lives. There were carts, mothers clutching children and people pushing and shoving, trying to get to the eastern gate and away from the invading army.

The cannons sounded very close.

They moved into the raging river of fleeing people and immediately she felt the crush and push of the current.  She lost sight of herself from Dayshan’s eyes and tried to find the eyes of another one of the students but there were so many pairs of eyes that she couldn’t find them.

“Professor Dayshan!”  She called out, but there was no chance of him hearing her.  The constant roar of the frightened herd of people was too much for any one person to be heard.

Zalandri was suddenly very frightened.  She was alone in a crowd of people and if she tripped, she knew she’d be trampled to death.  No one would even notice.

She calmed her mind like her professors had taught her and thought about the situation logically.  Once they were outside the city gates, she’d be able to find them again.  She just had to make it outside the gates and she’d be fine.

A cannonball landed on a building in front of her and to the right.  It was a store but the blast destroyed it completely and sent splintered wood and glass into the mass of people.

She knew people had died in the blast because she could feel the spirit energy surge like a broken dam.  She wondered if her two company spirits were still following her.  They probably were.  She wished that they wouldn’t.

Someone shoved her and she went sprawling to the ground in a narrow alleyway.  She banged her knee pretty hard and that made it more difficult to stand up.  The back was already growing too heavy.

Zalandri looked out into the river of people.  With her heavy load and small frame, she would never make it out of the city like this.

She looked up between the buildings and saw that the Sky Shield was approaching and soon it would be dark.  She had to make it out of the city before dark or she would never find her group.  She also had to hurry because of the invaders caught her, she knew she would either die or wish she had died.  The Ferras army had many Human, Ork and Goblin mercenaries and all three of those races thought Elves were very attractive.

She wasn’t attractive though.  She was plain by Elven standards and her sisters had never let her forget it.  At the University she had immersed herself so much in her studies that the thought of relationships had seldom entered her mind.  She had simply been too busy to worry about it.

Still, if those mercenaries found her, she would regret having ever been born.  As a student of history she had read countless tales of cities falling after a siege and it seldom ended well.  All those stories of looting, murder and rape entered her mind and she found it difficult to believe that she was actually living it now.  Out of all the countless stories in history, this was the one she wanted to live the least.

Yet, this was the path that fate had decided for her.  Zalandri imagined that like her, these other people were wishing that they weren’t here to live through this.

She stood there, trying to figure out a safe way out of the city.  The push of the crowd was too much.  She looked through many people’s eyes, looking for a cart she could sneak onto or a large Ogre, Troll, or Minotaur to fall in behind and act as a buffer.

Then screaming started.  It was far away but it was definite screaming.  She listened with her well trained ears.  People were screaming that the invaders had arrived.  The Ferras army was in sight!

Frightened and trying to keep herself from paniking, she looked around faster for any sight of something that could help her.

Zalandri almost tripped on something.  No one else was in the ally so she couldn’t see what it was.  She crouched down and felt it with her hands.  It was a large metal grate to the sewer.

The sewer exited out of the city and it hadn’t rained in weeks.  However, the smell coming up from the sewer was stunningly awful.  Dayshan did say that they had to make it out alive no matter.

She quickly searched around with her hands until she found a fist sized rock.  She dropped it down and heard it hit cement with only a tiny splash.  The sewers weren’t flooded.

Gunshots erupted over the sound of screaming people.  She didn’t know if it was soldiers fending off the invaders or mercenaries murdering people, but she didn’t want to find out.

She lowered herself down into the tunnel.  She was short enough that she didn’t have to bend over.  Dayshan would never have fit down here.  The smell was so awful that she had to take her scarf and wrap it around her face.  She had never imagined such a putrid, horrid smell.

Whatever was on the floor of sewer sloshed like thick mud and she tried hard not to think of the details of whatever it was.  She thought back to the training her mentors gave her about tuning out the spirits.  The same techniques could be used to tune out other horrible things.

Carefully she made her way through the sewer.  She was blind again and she had to remember to let her hands and feet see for her.  It had bee years since she had had to rely completely on her other senses like she had to do growing up.

The utter blackness of it all and the feeling of being alone threatened to break through her mental and emotional barriers.  She recited the Cantation of Elmisarius and that served to calm her mind and focus on the task at hand.

When there was another grate she heard that the sound of her footsteps changed.  She would stop and listen and judge if she were outside the city or not.  So far, every one of them had screaming people.

After a while there were no more grates and she kept walking.

Then, after an hour or so of walking, she came to another grate.  She could hear people talking, but no screaming.

Zalandri pushed the grate aside and pushed her enormous backpack out.  Then she lifted her self up, almost falling on her face upon exiting.

There were now plenty of people around to borrow eyes from.  She was on a paved road leading away from the city.  People, now refugees, were filing past and looking at the strange elf that was crawling out of the sewer.

She looked around but no matter where she looked, she didn’t see her professor or any other student of the University.  She was alone.  She had to get to Vatasha but didn’t know how to get there.

In the distance she could see the burning dome of the Great Library.

Chapter 4

Resha had been walking for three days.  She slept under trees and avoided anyone that looked like a soldier or mercenary.

So far the nights had been warm and she only needed her blanket for cushioning but she knew that eventually the winter would come and she need to find a place to live by then.

The forest was growing less flat and soon she’d be in the rolling hills and lake country.  If she kept going south, she would reach the high mountains of Zefuld.  She had to reach them before winter came or she’d be stuck on this side of the mountains until the next summer.

She stopped for a break and took some dried meat out of her pack.  It was a pleasant day and so far she hadn’t had to deal with rain.  As long as she focused on what she had and not what she didn’t have, she was alright.

There was a possibility she could still play the lute.  She’d have to use her right hand to play the different notes and strings and use her stump to strum.  It would limit what she could do, but she could still play.  She had to look at the good things and ignore the bad.

And she still had her voice.  With her voice she might be able to earn money.  No one would want a one handed serving girl but she wouldn’t need both hands to sing.  Rod’s money would only last so long.  Eventually it would run out and she needed a way to make a living.  She also doubted very much that she’d be able to make enough money selling her body.  Even if she could, she didn’t want to make a living like that.  However, she had to live somehow.

Then she thought she heard something; voices.  Resha ducked down and looked around for the source.

Coming down the road she saw a large group of people.  They were civilians and they looked tired.  There were men, women and children of all ages.

Finally!  Some people.

Resha stood up, grabbed her pack and came out onto the road.

“See?  I told you someone was there,” a female voice said from the small crowd.

“I’m Resha.  Where are you all heading?”

A man stepped out in front.  He had a small sword at his hip and a pistol in his hand.

“Were coming from Rotvan.  The Ferras army has taken it.”

The Angry Hampster was on the boarder of Ferras and Terosh and was technically on the Ferras side, but they didn’t need to know that.  Right now it didn’t matter who was from where.  They were all in the same situation.

“Where are you all heading?”  She asked.

“We’re heading south, to Narasha City,” the man said.

“South?  That’s the direction I was heading.  Mind if I join you?”

“Why not?  We have little food and none to spare though.”

“I have my own, at least until we get to Narasha.”

“Very well.  Welcome aboard and try not to cause trouble.  We’ve had enough of it.”

“So have I, as you can tell,” she said, holding up her bandaged arm.

The man didn’t laugh.  He had no sense of humor.

She fell into the rear of the group as they started walking again.

“Where are you from?”  Another Saytr woman asked.  She was holding the hand of a small child.

“A small town called Tight Water.  I worked at a tavern there.”

“I’ve heard of Tight Water.  What happened there?”

“Two armies fought right outside of town.  A cannon shell hit my tavern where I was.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be.  You didn’t do it…did you?”  She asked in a way that was clearly joking.

The woman made a faint smile.

Walking next to the woman was an Elf girl.  She was a small thing with ears as large as a Saytrs.  Like all Elves she was a creepy, sickly looking thing with long gray, stringy hair, pale skin and gray eyes.  Only this Elf’s eyes looked much lighter than any other Elf she had seen.  She had on a long coat that went down to her ankles that was tight around the torso and arms and loose at the waist.  Her shoes looked too soft to do a lot of walking.  She also had on an enormous, over sized backpack.

She didn’t trust Elves.  They were secretive, sneaky, arrogant, elitist and surprisingly vicious.  Every Elf she had ever known had been a cruel, merciless bastard.  But, it was always better to make a friend than an enemy.

“I’m Resha,” she said to the Elf.

The Elf looked over towards her, but not at her.  It was as if her eyes stared off into nothing.

“Oh, um…I’m Zalandri.”

“Where are you from?”

“I’m a scholar at the University.  At least I was.  They burned the Great Library.  Can you imagine all that knowledge, lost forever?”

“Wait, are you blind?”

“Yes.  My eyes have never worked.  I use magic to see through other people’s eyes.”

“Amazing!  I’ve never heard of anything like that.”

“Well, it’s the most powerful magic I know.  I’m not that good at the Arts.”

“It’s more than I can do!  What else can you do?”

“I can light simple fires.  Move objects, create light, mend objects and some minor…very minor healing.”

“That is so amazing.”

Zalandri actually smiled.  She hadn’t ever seen an Elf smile before.  It was nice to know that they can.

“Where are you heading?”  Zalandri asked.

“I don’t know.  South.  I don’t have any specific places in mind.  I don’t know anyone.”

“I’m heading to Vatasha.  It’s to the south but they have a large library and University there.  I saved a lot of books from the Great Library and I’m taking them down there and meeting up with the others.”

“Vatasha?  I’ve never heard of it.”

“It’s in the Kingdom of Katoli, along the coast.”

“It’s by the ocean?  I’ve always wanted to see the ocean!”

“Me too.”

Then the Elf scratched her chin and puckered her mouth as if thinking.

“Resha, I’ll make a deal with you.  You seem like you know your way around the world.  I don’t.  You can see, I can’t.  If you’ll be my eyes and my guide, I’ll pay you when we get to my parents’ house.  It’s about four days from here.  We can walk there and I can pay you then.”

“How far away is Vatasha?”

“I don’t know.  On the map it looks pretty far.  Maybe two or three months?”

“That long?  My family’s rich.  I can pay you well, enough to get set up on your own in Vatasha.”

That did sound very good.  If she could make it there, she would have a place.  She wouldn’t have to worry about sleeping on the streets or in strange people’s beds.

“You have a deal Zalandri.”

“Excellent!  Thank you for doing this.

“Do you know how to get there?”

“Not really.  We keep heading south and asking directions along the way.”

“Sounds like a good plan!”

“Hey, Marka, how far away is Narasha?”

“Five days,” a woman said.

“I thought Narasha was close,” Zalandri said.

“It is close but we’re just walking slow,” Marka said.

“I don’t think my food will last that long.  Are there any towns along the way?” Resha asked.

“A few small ones I think,” Marka said.

“I have a little money,” she said to Zalandri.  “I can buy us some food if we can find a place to buy it.”

“I only have a little,” Zalandri said.

“If we work together we’ll find a way,” Resha said.

“You’re a very optimistic person.  I see little reason to be so.”

“Well, you can’t go through life crying and moaning about all the things you don’t have.  You have to learn to make do with what you do have.”

“Great in theory but not in practice.”

“It just takes some work.  It’s not always easy,” she laughed but it didn’t come out sounding as genuine as she would have liked.

“Thank you for accepting my offer.  I appreciate it.”

“As long as you don’t mind seeing through one eye.”

“One is better than none.”

They continued walking and Resha handed Zalandri some dried meat.  Zalandri told her about the University and how everyone was trying to save the books.

“What kind of books did you get?”  Resha asked.

“History books.  That was my area of focus.  Some of the books I have are the only ones that exist.  If they’re lost, the information contained inside is also lost.”

She talked a great deal about what sounded like her boring life as a student.  She seemed to be excited about it though.  It sounded boring, but it also sounded peaceful and quiet and right now that did sound very nice.

“I used to have to ask people to read books for me so I could see it with their eyes.  Because of that I had to read a lot of books I wouldn’t have chosen.  I’d sit in the library and look through other’s eyes as they read.  Knowledge is knowledge and sometimes I didn’t care what it was as long as I was learning something new,” Zalandri said.

“Well, at least you have plenty of books to read on this trip,” Resha said.

“Well…we have plenty of books to read.  I can’t read them unless you look at them.”

“Oh, that’s right.  Forgot about that.  I guess I’ll be reading a lot then.  I’ve never read a book before.”

“You’ve never…we’ll have to change that.”

“I can sing and I used to play flute and lute.  I might still be able to play lute but I’ll have to change how I play.”

“I’m sorry.”

“But I still have my voice.  Want to hear a song?”

“I’d love to.”

She chose another funny song and sang it the best she could.  She had to be the best in order to make up for the lack of instruments.  As she sang the other refugees listened.  She saw some of them smiling.  When she finished they all clapped and asked for another one.

At night they camped in the woods and Zalandri went around and lit fire for everyone using her magic.  Small flames simply burst into life on the wood the refugees had gathered.  Resha thought it was wonderful but Zalandri didn’t think it was anything special.

“I’ve seen sorcerers call down lightning, read thoughts and levitate in the air.  I’m far from anything like that.  Some have a natural talent for it, but I don’t,” Zalandri said as she sat down beside Resha’s small fire.

“Do you mean that anyone can learn magic?”

“Yes, though it will come much easier to some and other might spend their whole life learning basic spells.”

“How did you learn such a powerful spell like seeing through others’ eyes?”

“Well, I can’t say I did it on my own.”

Zalandri pulled back her long, stringy, light gray hair and revealed a small spiraling tattoo on the back of her neck.

“What’s that?”  Resha asked.

“It’s a power rune.  They infused the ancient rune with the spell.  I didn’t have to learn the spell, but I did have to learn to control it.  It’s just always on.  Research is what I’m good at, not spellmaking.”

“I would love to learn that fire starting spell.  Do you think you can teach me that?”

“Maybe.  We might as well try.  But first, can I look through my backpack and make a log of all the books I do have?”

That didn’t sound nearly as fun as learning to start fires, but she agreed.  She opened Zalandri’s pack and began looking through the books while Zalandri wrote in a tiny notebook.

“The Esoteric History of the Creators?”  Resha read aloud.

“What?  That’s in my pack?”  Zalandri crawled over and quickly snatched the book away.  “Amazing!  I’ve tried to read this book three times but each time the librarian said that an important scholar was reading it.”

“Is that book important?”

“This book speaks of the ancient legends of how the world was created.  It’s a collection of the oldest histories available.  Every book I research references this book as its source.  I can’t believe I have it!”

Zalandri kept that book beside her while they catalogued the others.  It was as if she didn’t want it out of her reach.  Sometimes she would reach down and check to make sure it was still there.

As Resha lay down under the cover of a tall, bushy tree, she thought about how fortunate she was to encounter someone to travel with.  She wouldn’t have to be alone and afraid.  She now had some real hope and that felt very good.

“Are you awake?”  Zalandri asked.  “Of course you are, I can see through your eyes.”

“I’m awake.”

“What happens if we come across enemy soldiers?”

“We run.  We run as fast as we can.”

She thought of the two Orks and their attack dogs.  She didn’t want anything like that happening to them.

“You were injured in the battle by your town?”

“I was.”

“How do you keep going?  I wouldn’t have been so strong.  I would have given up.”

“I do what I have to.  Always have.  If I give in and surrender then I won’t live.  I have to keep living.  It’s as simple as that.”

“My life has never been simple.  I have to work twice as hard for the same thing.”

“Well, you have me to help out.  I’m your eyes.”

“I can’t believe you agreed to help me.  Don’t you have anyone to go to?”

“The only family I knew I had was my mother and she died years ago.”

“I’m sorry.”

“You apologize a lot.”

“I’m not apologizing, I’m showing my remorse for your loss.”

“Oh.”

“What was your tavern like?”

“It was small, dirty and poor by your standards.  I liked it.  It wasn’t the best home but it was the only one I had.  I served the patrons, I sang, played the lute and…”

She wasn’t going to mention selling her body.  If this worked out then she wouldn’t have to do that again.

“You’re a pretty girl though, did you have anyone special?”

“Special?  No, nothing like that.  I doubt many men will be looking at me like that.”

“None sense.  I heard some of the men talking about you.  Many still think you’re pretty.”

“But not enough to make a living out of it.”

“What do you mean?”

“Nothing.  Its just that looks will help me earn money performing.”

“I understand.”

She didn’t understand at all.  She had had a soft, rich life and didn’t know what it was like to wonder if she was going to eat that day.  However, they were all in the same situation now and equal to the eyes of the world.

Chapter 5

Zalandri removed the scarf from her head.  It didn’t matter anymore because every inch of her was soaked through.  The backpack was oiled and protected against the rain but she wasn’t.  She wrapped the soggy scarf back around her neck and folded her arms around her chest.

It had rained all day yesterday and all morning.

“I’m sick of rain.  I thought I liked it because of how it sounded.  It used to calm me and make me feel happy when I was blind.  I’d listen to all the patting of the rain and imagine I heard music, but I’ve never had to be out in it for days.  I think the priests have it wrong.  Hell isn’t an inferno, its cold and rainy.”

“At least it isn’t cold!”  Resha said.  She was always too optimistic.  Sometimes life was awful and there was no reason to pretend it didn’t.

The Saytr always managed to have a smile on her face.  She had recently lost a hand and eye, her home and everyone she knew, yet she still managed to smile.  She was either a saint or a huge fool.

She was looking at herself walk from someone behind her.  It was a male because whoever it was kept looking at Resha’s back side.  Resha had a body that was round and curvy, yet still managed to be slender.  If it weren’t for her recent injuries, she’d have been the prettiest woman at the University.  She would have been the kind to have men do her work for her.

For a poor serving wench, she actually seemed like a genuinely kind person.  She didn’t think such poor people could afford the luxuries of kindness and morality.  Those were two words she came to understand at the University.  They were never used in her household except with scorn and mockery.

Resha liked to sing to the children at night and tell funny stories.  She had never heard of a woman with such a sense of humor.  It was as if the children magically knew she was kind and funny and flocked to her like little ducklings.

Children seemed to flee from her.  Even other Elf children.  She knew the other races didn’t trust Elves and for good reason.  They thought Elves were “creepy” and “selfish.”

“Look!  There’s the town,” Resha said.  She pointed with her good hand.

Zalandri borrowed the eyes of someone at the head of the group and saw the dark shape of a walled town and a few lights through the rain.  It certainly was a town.

This made her walk a little faster and Resha had to catch up.  She envied Resha’s hooves.  They didn’t create the suction of mud like her own feet did.

Their group of refugees made it to the town gate where four guards in mismatched uniforms stopped them.  She tried to hear what the group’s leaders were saying to the guards.  She could see them arguing and talking but couldn’t make out what they were saying.

“The guards don’t look happy,” Resha said.

“Clearly.”

“They might not let us in.”

“Why wouldn’t they?  We need help.”

“Because maybe they can’t support hundreds of refugees.”

“But we’re only fifty.”

“But fifty more might come tomorrow or the next day.  Remember, survival of the town is their number one concern, not a bunch of homeless freeloaders,” Resha said.

“For someone so sunny, you seem to understand the darker side of people.”

“I don’t understand all of it.  Some things I’ll never understand.”

Through someone else’s eyes she saw Resha look down to her bandaged hand.

“Listen Salandri, I’m not nieve or ignorant.  I understand survival and what people will do in order to keep living.  This mass killing they call war is something I don’t understand.  What is this war about anyway?”

“Royal sucession.  Zefuld’s king died without a direct heir and the Teroshian Empire claimed that the throne was theirs through marriage of the emperor’s daughter.”

“What does that have to do with Ferras?”

“Ferras was the ally of Zefuld.”

“So?”

“Well, many in Zefuld didn’t want a forign soverign so they appealed to Ferras for support against the Empire.  The Empire called on its allies and Ferras called on its allies.  Now the whole continent is at war.”

“All this senseless killing is over the inheritances of rich nobles?”

Resha said “nobles” with a sneer.

“It’s more than that.  It’s a power struggle that has been going on for centuries.”

“Power.  Bah!  Common folk are dying because a bunch of rich people want power.  It’s all meaningless.”

“It’s not meaningless.  Who has the right to rule is an important issue.”

“Wonderful, but why must we fight for it?  It’s their power, let the rich fight for it!  Maybe if we had a share in ruling the country then I’d volunteer to fight but seeing as how I’m excluded, I’ll exclude me fighting.  Besides, I think I’ve paid enough of a price for their greed.  I’m not going to give them another drop of my blood.”

Zalandri had never looked at it that way and she didn’t think Resha was right, but it was kind of shocking to hear such a negative opinion about the nobility.  Nobility ruled by respect, love or fear.  She didn’t hear any of those in Resha’s opinions.

She was about to ask Resha if such opinions were common but the guard began speaking.

“Attention everyone.  You may stay here for the night.  You may have what you can buy and nothing more.  In the morning we will hopefully have some bread for you but after that you must be on your way.  We’ve had many refugees come through here and we just can’t support you all.  We’ve already taken in too many.  I’m sorry but you’ll have to move on tomorrow.  There’s a barn you can sleep in tonight,” the guard said.

“One night’s better than none,” Resha said.

Their group went into the town through the wooden gate.  The guards looked more annoyed than anything.  It was as if they didn’t consider them people.

The guards showed them to the barn.  It was a simple wooden building with hay all over the inside.  There were about ten people already there when their group entered.

“Wonderful!  More mouths to feed!”  A young female Goblin said.  She stood up from her pile of straw and walked over to them.  The Goblin was about five feet tall and came up to Zalandri’s shoulders.  She had a yellowish, green skin with a large nose, sharp teeth, large pointed ears and bright yellow eyes.  Her dirty, stringy black hair fell down all around her face.  She wore a ragged, sleeveless dress and black work boots.

“Should we apologize for loosing our homes?”  Resha asked.

“I don’t want an apology from you.  I don’t want anything from you.  I just want you to go away,” the Goblin female said.

“Don’t worry, we’ll be gone tomorrow,” Zalandri.  She wanted to calm the Goblin down.

“Good.  We came here first.  If you want a place to hide, go find somewhere else,” the Goblin said.

“We will.  We’re heading to Vatasha.  It’s a neutral country.  How long do you think it will be until the war comes here?  Enjoy your peace while it lasts,” Zalandri said.
The Goblin furrowed her brows and Zalandri could tell that she was thinking about it.

This Goblin wasn’t stupid, she was just afraid.

“What’s your name?”  Resha asked.

“Taka.”

“Well, Taka, I suggest you leave here as soon as you can.  Those armies are going to tear this country apart,” Resha said.

“Vatasha?  I’ve heard of that place.  Are all you going there?”  Taka asked.

“No, just us two.”

“Nuetral you say?  That means they aint fighting, right?”

“That’s right.”

Taka eyed them over with her yellow eyes and then went back over to sit with her group which consisted mostly of other Goblins.

Resha and she found a spot away from the others where they could talk in privacy.

“Do you think the armies will come here?”  Resha asked.

“From what I understand of the campaign…they’re going to move south so they can occupy Zefuld.”

“So, why attack the Empire?”

“To knock them out of the war early.”

“Zefuld’s a small country, right?  Why so much trouble over it?”

“Because it controls all the mountain passes leading south.  That means they also control the trade routes.”

“Ah, I think I see.”

She was seeing through Resha’s eyes and she saw that Resha kept looking back over to the Goblin.

“Why do you keep looking at her?”

“She’s scared.  Did you see her hands?  They were rough.  She’s a worker.  Like us, she’s lost everything.  Also, see how she sits slightly apart from the others?”
Zalandri hadn’t noticed but now that it was brought to her attention she did see it.

“She doesn’t belong there,” Zalandri said.

“She doesn’t.  I’ve seen many people like her.  They act stronger than they are, hoping that no one will notice their weakness.”

“I thought she was a witch but now I just feel sorry for her.”

“Me too.  She looks so sad.”

Zalandri looked at Taka through Resha’s eyes.  Taka sat with her knees tucked up to her chin and she stared off into nothing.  She knew that look.  Most of the refugees she was traveling with had that same look.  She was wondering what the Creators had in store for her.

“I’m going to go see what I can purchase.  You stay here and rest.  I imagine that your feet hurt.  I’ve seen how you’ve been limping.”

Resha stiffly got up and left the barn.

Instead of going to someone else’s eyes, she lay down using her pack as a pillow and fell asleep.

When she awoke she saw that Taka was sitting next to her and talking to Resha.  They were talking in hushed whispers while they chewed on bread.

“You’re awake!  I have some bread and bacon for you,” Resha said.

She saw through Resha’s eyes as she sat up and took the cloth bundle.  She opened it and saw three slices of hard bread and three strips of thick bacon.

“I love bacon!” Zalandri said.

“Who doesn’t?”  Resha asked.

She began eating.  She hadn’t eaten all day and she was starving.  Her feet hurt.  Her back hurt from carrying that huge pack for days and her stomach had been clawing at her all day.

“Taka here speaks Ferrasian.  She can help carry some books and she’s plenty mean with axe.”

“I chopped wood for my family,” Taka said.

“Do you have an axe?”  Zalandri asked.

“No,” Taka said.

“Well then…” Zalandri was about to ask what the point of all this was when Resha held up her hand.

“Strength in numbers, Zalandri.  We’re going to be two defenseless women traveling alone.  The more we have, the safer we are.”

“We need weapons,” Taka said.

“Clearly, but we can’t afford guns and even if we could, I don’t know how to use them,” Zalandri said.

“My father had an old blunderbuss.  I know how to use them,” Taka said.

“Are you saying you want to travel all the way to Vatasha?”

“Resha here said that two people paying rent is better than one,” Taka said.

“For when I settle down in Vatasha.  If we could split the rent I might be able to afford living there.”

She had to look at Taka from the corner of Resha’s eyes because Resha was looking at her.  Taka must not have any idea that she was blind because the Goblin was looking right at her.

She didn’t want an ill tempered Goblin with them, but the thought of carrying all those books another day made her think it over.

“Right then, she can come,” Zalandri said.

Taka made a wide, toothy smile.

Resha thought that Taka would offer protection, but Zalandri didn’t see how a short, scrawny Goblin was going to put up a fight against an Ork or Human mercenary.  However, Resha had a point.  It would be nice to have someone help carry the books and it would be better in a fight to have three instead of two.

“I also bought another blanket for when it starts to get cold and more provisions,” Resha said.

“Good.”

“I didn’t bother buying flint to start fires.  I figured I had you for that,” she said in another one of her bad jokes.

In the morning they set out again and this time Taka trailed close behind.  She had a dull red bandana on her head and a walking stick in her hand.  She carried her share of the books in a well worn backpack they bought from one of the refugees that was staying in town.

“It’s not raining,” Resha said.

“Yes, we have that to be thankful for,” Zalandri said.

The morning was clear and sunny but in the afternoon there was a slight haze in the distance.

“What’s that?”  Zalandri asked.

“Smoke,” Taka said.

“From what?”

“Don’t know,” Taka said.

Two hours later they found the source of the smoke.  As they exited some the woods they had been traveling in, they came across a ruined field filled with dead bodies.  They wore different colored uniforms but somehow they all looked the same brown dirt color.

“A battle…so close to town,” Taka muttered.

Bodies were sprawled out wherever they fell.  Crows and dogs were there and further down the road she could make out the small tent city of a camped army.
The group stopped while the self appointed leaders began talking the situation over.

“Not good.  We should go around,” Resha said.

“Agreed,” Taka said.

“But they’ll have patrols, won’t they?”  Zalandri asked.

“Of course.  That’s why we got to keep our pretty little heads down,” Taka said.

“But first, I want to see what we can find on the battlefield.”

“What?  You want to steal from the dead?”  Zalandri asked.

“It’s not stealing if they’re dead.  Do you know what a soldier carries around with him every day?  Lots of things we need.  Knives, cooking things, blankets, socks, soap and money.  That’s not even mentioning the weapons,” Taka said in her hissing, scratchy voice.

“It’s stealing and I’m not going to be a thief,” Zalandri said.

“We don’t have a choice, sister.  We have to do what we have to do to keep living,” Taka said.

“You sound like Resha.”

“I agree with Taka.  It’s worth the risk.  Not only can we find things we need, we can get things to trade,” Resha said.  “Money’s going to be hard to find soon enough.”
Zalandri really didn’t like it but Professor Dayshan had said to do whatever it took to get the books to safety and this would indeed help her cause.

“Very well.  Let’s go see what we can find,” Zalandri said.

“We have to wait to see what the group decides,” Resha said.

“Why?  They travel slow and are stupid.  We can stay away from roads and stay out of sight without them,” Taka said.

“Wait, I thought there was safety in numbers,” Zalandri said.  Did they really know what they were talking about?

“There is, but only if those numbers aren’t idiots,” Taka said.

She wanted to see Resha’s reaction but Resha and Taka were both looking at her.

“Taka, look at Resha for a second,” Zalandri said.

“Huh?”

Taka was confused but she did it and Zalandri saw that Resha was nodding her head.  They both wanted to leave the group.

“What was that about?”  Taka asked.

“Zalandri’s blind and has to use magic to see through other peoples’ eyes,” Resha said.

“What?  You’re blind?”  Taka leaned in close to Zalandri’s face.  “Sacred hog swill, you are blind,” Taka said.

When one of the other refugees realized it was an Empire army, they voted to go to them and ask for assistance.  Even she didn’t think that was a good idea.  The army was more concerned with killing the enemy and not being killed in return than helping a few refugees.

“So we split away from them and scavenge what we can,” Resha said.

“Let’s wait for our fellow homeless to distract the army.  I want to get that stuff but I don’t want to die doing it,” Taka said.

As the refugees moved on they discretely slipped into the woods and hid themselves.  The night was also coming and things were getting darker.  That would help them not get shot but it would make their scavenging more difficult.

She still didn’t like the idea, but there wasn’t really a choice.  They needed too many things to pass this opportunity up.  It felt very disrespectful and she prayed silently for the Creators to forgive them.

Once the refugees made contact, they crawled out of their hiding places and crawled on their bellies to the nearest group of bodies.  She couldn’t imagine how dirty she was going to be after this.  Her University robes were going to be filthy.  They stayed silent as they separated and went to different bodies.  She had to rely on her sense of feel. She hadn’t relied on it in some time but she could still use it if she had to.

The smell was awful and the buzzing of flies was loud in her ears.  By the sound she knew where to go.  The body was covered in mud and was cold.  Her hands began searching all over.  At the moment she was glad she couldn’t see.

The body was on its side and she felt around the belt.  The belt had several pouches and a sheathed knife on it and she struggled to remove the whole belt.  The man also wore a large backpack and she unstrapped it and began dragging it back to cover.
But then her hand felt something long, thin and made of wood and mettle.  A musket.  She grabbed that up and dragged it along with her.

She was the first back to the woods, probably because she didn’t spend so much time choosing what to get.  She didn’t have the ability to be choosy.

Taka was the next to return followed by Resha.

“I found a lot of good stuff,” Taka said.

“I think with this stuff we might be able to make it,” Resha said.

Taka held up two musket pistols and Resha had a pistol and a rifle.

“Blankets, rations, balls, powder, soap, knives, belts and money,” Taka said.

Zalandri wondered if Taka had ever owned so much stuff in her life.

Chapter 6

Taka walked along with her new backpack, knife, pistols and purse of money.  It was strange because she had never had more and at the same time she never had less.  Her family was gone.  Her friends were gone.  Her home was gone.  Her pride was gone.  The Teroshian Empire army came through her village and took everything they wanted.  They took all their pigs that her father had worked so hard for.  They took their two cows, their bread, their crops and what little money they had.  Then the troops took her.

Her own country’s troops had taken what little she had.  It was as if the Creators scorned her so much that they took the few shabby things she had in her life.  Now that she had some worldly possessions, she lacked the one thing she needed most, her family.

Taka’s six brothers and two sisters were out there somewhere.  They probably thought she was dead.  Maybe they were dead.

She took out the army knife she had pilfered and looked at the shiny blade.  If anyone came to take from her again, she would sink that knife into their hearts.  She would rip their throats out with her own teeth.

Taka then pulled out one of her new pistols.  The mechanism was similar to father’s old blunderbuss.  The loading was the same.  With these she could protect herself.

The Saytr, Resha, knew how to take care of herself.  The creepy little elf however, was a spoiled rich girl.  Her hands looked soft as silk, not that Taka had ever felt silk before.  It seemed all she cared about was herself and those damned books.

“What’s so important about these books anyway?”  Taka asked.  They were growing heavy and they took up space that could have been used to carry things more useful.

“These are rare books that contain knowledge that can’t be found anywhere else.  If these books are lost, the world looses what knowledge they contain,” Zalandri said.

“Right, but what’s so important about this knowledge?  Is it going to feed bellies?  Cure the sick?  Make me happy?”  Taka asked.

“No, it will give us an understanding of where we came from and how we got to where we are.”

“So, these books can tell us why these royals are so sheep-loving greedy and stupid that they make us pay for their problems?”

“Um…yes…something like that,” Zalandri said.

Resha chuckled.  Resha was good sorts.  Common, decent and honest.  Also, she knew what it was like to suffer under the brutality of this stupid war.  They had both lost everything.  The only part of Resha she didn’t like was that she liked the spoiled Elf for some reason.

“How far to Narasha?”  Taka asked.

“Two more days,” Zalandri said.

“Once we’re there, we can rest a bit and maybe earn a little money,” Resha said.

“How?”  Zalandri asked.

“Hard work.  Labor.  Ever hear of them?”  Taka said.

“Easy with the spurs, Taka.  Zalandri has lost a great deal as well.  She had to work hard to get to where she was.  She’s one of us,” Resha said.

“Agh,” Taka said.

“Agh?”  Zalandri asked.

“It’s a Goblin term for…forget about it or it wasn’t important,” Resha said.  “But to answer your question, I plan to sing.”

“How much money do you think you can earn like that?”  Zalandri asked.

She asked a lot of questions.

“I have no idea at all,” Resha said.

“We’ll earn what we can.  That’s all we can do,” Taka said.

“That’s all anyone can do,” Resha said.

Taka looked up at the sky through the trees and saw dark clouds forming.  It would be raining in the afternoon.  She hated the rain.  Life was miserable without it, but add in everything damp and cold and miserable turned into intolerable.

“I suggest we find shelter before it starts raining,” Taka said.

“Good idea.  Catching a fever out here would ruin your day,” Resha said.

“It would also be nice to not be miserable,” Zalandri said.

Finally the Elf said something she could agree with.

An hour later they found a great outcropping of rock and broken trees that formed a perfect little shelter.  They set themselves up and got comfortable.

It felt so good to remove that heavy pack.  It was as if she could breathe again.  She got out her blanket and set it down on an angled rock so she could sleep without having hard rock jabbing into her back.

She shared a bed with her sisters back at her family’s house.  Her brothers shared two beds and mother and father had one.  Now she had a bed of her own but she’d give anything to have her family back.

Now she was with two strangers that weren’t even Goblin.  They looked so different than the people of her village.  The priests said long ago that all races came from the same Creator Race.  She didn’t see how that was possible.  They were all too different.  Of course, every race thought theirs was the original Creator Race.  If there ever were Creators, they weren’t watching over their creations.  If they existed, they were either standing back and enjoying the suffering or they just didn’t care.  Indifferent gods were not ones she was going to bother to worship.

She placed her hands behind her head and looked up at the ceiling of the cave.

“Should I start a fire?”  Zalandri asked.

“No.  We don’t need to heat our rations and the light would just attract unwanted attention,” Resha said.

“You’re right.  We shouldn’t risk it,” Zalandri said.

“Lay down.  Relax.  Rest.  Enjoy it while you can,” Taka said.

“Peaceful moments don’t come very often,” Zalandri said.

She would never tell them what the soldiers did to her.  It would make her look weak.  She was weak though.  She couldn’t defend her family and then she couldn’t find them.

Taka thought of Gratok.  He was the handsomest young Goblin in the village.  She would meet him in her father’s barn late at night and they would roll around like animals in the hay.  She didn’t know what she had done to attract his attention but she had been thankful for it.

She wondered where he was.  Was he still alive?  Had he been conscripted into the army?   She missed those late nights in the hay.

“Want some pork?”  Resha asked.

“Sure,” Taka said.

Resha walked over and handed her a dry piece of meat.  She liked meat, but what she really wanted was a real meal.  She wanted hot, fresh bread, roasted, juicy meat and baked squash.  It was going to be a long time before she had a real meal again.

Mother wasn’t going to be there to bake for her anymore.  She had another two years before she would be officially ready to leave the house, but there she was; out on her own.  This wasn’t at all what she had wanted for life.

She looked over and saw Resha smiling as she prepared her blankets to act like a mattress.  What did she have to smile about?  She had the least reason to smile than anyone.

Taka rolled over and looked out at the woods.  She listened as the gentle patting of the rain started.

“What’s this Vatasha place like?”  Taka asked without rolling over to face them.  She didn’t want to look at them because she didn’t want them to see the weakness in her eyes.

“It’s a sunny, peaceful city.  People who have been there say it’s the most beautiful city in the world.  Part of the city is built up on steep hills and mountainsides.  The other part spreads out along the water in a giant crescent shape with the world’s largest artificial harbor.  They say the seafood is divinely delicious and that you can find whatever you desire there.”

What she desired was her family but she doubted very much that she’d find them there.  Maybe they sold families there.  If she had money she could just buy a new one.  Or perhaps they sold happiness and hope.  How much would a future cost?

She hated hearing stories of places that were too good to be true.  No such places existed.  It was like when the priests spoke of heaven, a perfect place where perfect people went.  Cow dung.  All of it.

“I’m tried of all this.  I want to go back home,” Taka said.

“Where is home for you?”  Resha asked.

“Four days east of Rotaun.  It was in a small valley with a clear stream and away from everyone.  It was quiet and boring,” Taka said.

“Sounds lovely,” Resha said.

“It was.  But it’s gone now.  The army burned it.”

“The Ferras army burned my Great Library.  The first place I’ve ever felt like I belonged and they just burned it,” Zalandri said.

Taka could understand that.  It was the Elf’s home and no one deserved to loose their home.

“We’ll find new homes,” Resha said.

“And new families?”  Taka asked.

“If we have to.  We can’t live alone and we have to do what we can to survive.  Love is a part of that,” Resha said.

Taka had never thought of it like that but now that Resha said it, it made perfect sense.  At the moment she had the physical necessities of life.  What she didn’t have were people to care for and to care for her.

She closed her eyes and thought about this Vatasha place and wondered if it really could be as wonderful as Zalandri said it was.

“Give me your canteens.  I’ll put them outside to collect the rain,” Resha said.

“It’s on my pack,” Taka said without opening her eyes.

She awoke early the next morning before anyone else.  Everything was wet outside but it wasn’t raining anymore.

Normally her mornings started off with preparing tea for her family.  Somehow she had become the family’s unofficial tea maker.  Right now she would do anything for a hot cup of tea.  Any tea would do, even bad tea.

Maybe she could find some herbs in the woods?  It was worth a try.

Taka walked out into the wet woods and slid a pistol into her belt.  She wasn’t going anywhere unarmed.  She began searching the woods for herbs, berries or anything else that was edible and wasn’t dried military rations.

Then she saw a clearing a little further ahead.  She tramped through the wet bushes and came into a clearing full of leafy lemon balm plants.  Lemon balm made delicious tea.  Taka began collecting as much as she could.  It wouldn’t help her make tea today but as soon as the leaves were dried she have her tea once again.

Once she had enough to satisfy her for a while, she made her way back to the rocky shelter.  She tied the leaves into bundles and hung them off her backpack so they could dry in the open air.  She couldn’t have any today, but the thought of having it soon was enough to make her day seem a little more hopeful.

Once everyone was awake they got ready and began walking again.  She could have slept for another day or two.  She was used to laboring in the fields, chopping wood or tending to pigs, but all this walking was starting to wear on her feet.  The Elf walked strange and she imagined her feet hurt as well.  The Saytr seemed perfectly fine with all this walking.

Sometime before midday Resha stopped and motioned for them to get low to the ground.

“What’s wrong?”  Zalandri whispered.

“There’s a bridge up ahead.  Six men with muskets are there.  I think they’re unofficial toll collectors,” Resha said.

“Bandits,” Taka said.

Resha nodded.

“Let’s go around the bridge then,” Zalandri said.

They crept through the forest until they got to the stream.  It was a brown, raging torrent of a stream.

“The rain from last night is coming down from the hills and causing this,” Resha said.

“We can’t cross that,” Zalandri said.

“We can’t take on six armed men either,” Taka said.

“Either we go find another crossing or we wait for the water to calm down,” Resha said.

“Both choices will take a long time,” Zalandri said.

“I don’t like walking so I say we hide and wait,” Taka said.

“I like that idea,” Zalandri said.

“Alright then, we’ll wait and stay quiet,” Resha said.

They waited all day and the water didn’t calm down.  It was going to be dark in about an hour and they decided to just camp there for the night.  They were hidden but still within sight of the bridge.  None of them talked or moved too suddenly. The last thing they wanted was the attention of those bandits.

Then they heard the sound of talking and squeaking wagon wheels.  Taka peeked through the foliage and saw a group of people approaching the bridge.  There were three men and two women, all Orks.  They looked like they were well off but not rich.  Merchants maybe.  One woman was old, one was middle age and the two males were older.

“What to do we do?”  Zalandri asked in a hushed whisper.

“What do you mean?  We do nothing,” Taka said.

“If we don’t do anything, they’ll be robbed,” Zalandri said.

“We can’t do anything about it.  There’s six armed men.  Haven’t you noticed?”  Taka said.

“I saw, but we can’t sit here and do nothing,” Zalandri said.

“You want to get those books to Vatasha?  Then you keep your head down and stay quiet.  You’ll get yourself killed out there and you won’t help anyone,” Taka said.

“I know it feels awful, but we can’t help them.  We stay down and out of sight and we live,” Resha said.

Zalandri looked almost ready to cry.

“We can’t help them,” Taka said.

As they watched they saw the bandits move in towards the people and surround them.  Taka couldn’t make out what was going on but when she heard screaming she grabbed her pistol.

Then gunshots rang out and when the bandits stepped back, the four people were dead.

Taka looked over to Zalandri who sat there with tears in her eyes and her mouth hanging open.  Resha sat down next to her and put an arm around her shoulders.

That fool Elf would have jumped out and gotten killed trying to save those people.  Unfortunately, Taka knew Zalandri wasn’t crazy.  She also wanted to help those people but her own fear of dying stood in the way.  She simply wasn’t going to die over strangers.

As she settled back down, she heard the screams of the dead people in her mind.  Maybe they could have helped.  Maybe they should have helped even if they could have died.

She tried not to think of it but there were much worse memories that would creep into her mind if she wasn’t thinking about it.

“I wonder how much money those murderers have,” Taka whispered to the others once night had fallen.  They could see the glow from the brigands’ camp.

“More than we have,” Resha said.

“Exactly.  Only one stands guard while the others rest.  Once they go to sleep…”

“Wait a moment,” Zalandri said, holding up her hands.  “You want to attack them in their sleep?”

“Why not?  Sleeping men are much easier to kill.  We have enough guns to take them out,” Taka said.

“No, we have five.  That leaves one to kill without a gun.  Let’s not even talk about the fact that we don’t know how to use them and one of us can’t aim through the sights of her own gun,” Resha said.

“I can do what I have to,” Zalandri said.

“It’s hard enough aiming a gun with your own eyes.  It’ll be impossible to aim using someone else’s,” Taka said.

“If they’re awake, I’ll see through their eyes and aim it straight between them.  If they’re asleep,” Zalandri said.

“You really think a soft rich girl like you can kill another person?”  Taka asked.

“Do you think you can?” Zalandri asked.

“I know I can,” Taka said.  Those bastards were just like the ones that destroyed her life.  The world would be much better without them.

“I saw what those animals did to those people.  Yes, I can pull the trigger,” Zalandri said.  Zalandri’s dead eyes were looking directly at her and the look on her face made Taka believe her.

“Alright.  How are we going to do this?”  Resha asked.  She seemed the least comfortable with the whole idea.

They discussed what to do in hushed whispers and loaded all their firearms.  Then they waited for the five men to fall asleep.  The one guard was sitting by the fire drinking and carving something with a small knife.

Zalandri had a rifle and a pistol as did Resha.  Resha held the rifle in her good hand and balanced it with her bandaged arm.  She had two knives on her belt.  Taka had a pistol and her army knife.  If this didn’t go well, one or all of them could end up dead.  She could feel her heart beating.  For all her bluster she had never done anything like this before.  The closest thing to this was sneaking out of the house to the barn for her romps in the hay.

It was her job to take out the guard.  If she failed the guard would get off a shot with his musket.  That would mean she could end up with a large lead ball drilling into her chest.

So far they were being very quiet.  They went very slowly, only going about a foot a minute.  The guard’s fire was loud and crackling from the wet wood and that gave Taka some reassurance.

The closer she got, the more she thought about what those beasts did to innocent people like her and her family.  The more she thought about it, the less afraid she felt and the angrier she became.

The guard was looking out into the fire and they were coming in from the other side of the fire so that the light would keep him blind to their movements.  They crawled out onto the road but stayed close to the edge.

She looked over to the others to make sure they were ready.  They were only within a few feet of the camp.  Only Resha looked at her but she knew Zalandri was seeing through her eyes.

Taka nodded and raised her pistol.  A second before she fired the guard saw her through the orange flames of the fire.  She pulled the trigger and then there was the split second long sounds of the mechanism and then the shot followed by a large puff of gray smoke and the unmistakable smell of gunpowder.  The shape of the guard fell over backwards.

Instantly some of the other bandits began to get up and reach for their guns.  Resha and Zalandri fired.  Taka turned in time to see two men fall back to the ground.

She quickly found one of the men that was still struggling to get up.  She pulled her shiny knife that glowed orange in the firelight and leapt on the man.  Taka thrust the knife into the human’s belly.  She was surprised at how little resistance there was.

The man screamed and backhanded her off of him.  She fell onto her back and knocked the wind out of her.  Without thinking, she scrambled back onto her feet in time to be knocked down by the man she had stabbed.

He was on top of her with his hands around her throat.  She couldn’t breath and she saw tiny stars appear in her vision.

She remembered the knife and slashed it across his face.  It all happened so fast that she didn’t see exactly where she struck him but he recoiled back with both hands clutching his face.

Taka scurried over to him and jabbed the knife down into the man’s chest.  She did it again and again until he stopped moving.

Covered in blood and gasping for air she looked over and saw that Resha and Zalandri were standing over the bodies of four other men.

Taka smiled as blood dripped down into her mouth.

Chapter 7

Resha watched as Zalandri stood above the corpse of the bandit with a smoking musket pistol in her hand.  She was looking down at the body almost as if she had enjoyed killing him.  Zalandri didn’t look afraid or worried or upset.  She had narrowed eyes that looked out into nothing and a slight smile on her lips.

Elves were knowing for having cruel streaks and it seemed Zalandri wasn’t immune to that.  She wasn’t very strong but inability to do violence wasn’t one of her weaknesses.

Taka was covered in the blood of the one she had stabbed to death.  She was smiling but Resha saw that she wasn’t smiling with her eyes.

She looked them all over for wounds and was surprised that they were all still living.

The rifle she had fired first kicked more than she had thought but the range was close that she didn’t miss.  Supporting it with her maimed arm didn’t work out as well as she had planned and when she fired, the gun flew out of her hand.  She had quickly drawn the pistol and shoved it in the other man’s chest before firing.

Her hands were still shaking from the energy of it all.

“We did it,” Taka said.

“That’s what they deserve,” Zalandri said and kicked the dead body.

Taka bent down and began searching the corpses.  Resha started to search as well.  They found the stored loot easily, but there wasn’t as much as they had hoped.

“Let me see that,” Zalandri said and bent down beside the box.  She put her hands on it and sat there for a moment.  “They hadn’t been doing this for long.  They are deserters from the army of the Duchies of Canoton.”

“How do you know all that?”  Taka asked.  She narrowed her small yellow eyes and jutted out her lower jaw, revealing her sharp teeth.

“It’s one of the spells I was learning.  I can read the history of objects,” Zalandri said.

“That’s a neat trick,” Taka said.

“So, this is all they had?”  Resha asked.

“They have weapons, clothes and some cheap jewelry in the trunk over there,” Zalandri said.

Taka hurried to the trunk and pulled out an officer’s saber.

“This should fetch a nice price!”  Taka said.

Resha was about to dig through the assorted swords, knives, cleavers, axes and pistols when she heard something in the woods.

“Shhh!  I think I hear something,” Resha said.

They all froze and looked around.  Taka began quietly reloading one of her pistols.

Then Resha saw a large dark shape moving in the woods.

She grabbed a powder charge, tore the top off and pored it down the barrel like Taka had shown her.

“What’s this?” A booming low voice said from the woods.  “Someone’s killed the bandits.  Three girls no less!”  She could hear the twigs and branches breaking as the large creature moved closer.

“Who are you?”  Resha asked.  She fumbled for one of the led balls in her belt pouch.

The large shape entered the road and into the light of the fire.  It was tall and massive with large arms that hung down to its knees ending in hook-like claws.  It had a jacket covered in the leaves and vines of the forest and matching pants though no shoes.  Its head was bald but it had enormous curved horns that jutted forward.

Taka and Zalandri both looked too terrified to speak.

“I’m Ishmatan,” the large creature said.

“And what are you?”  Resha asked.

“I’m an ogre.  I was told by others that bandits were causing trouble in my woods and I came to get rid of them.  I can’t have brigands in my lands.  These are my woods and I say who gets to do what here.  But when I arrived I saw that the problem was taken care of.  How did this come to be?”  He spoke with a sort of laugh in his voice.

“Well, we were waiting for the stream to settle so we could cross and avoid the brigands.  Our plan was to stay out of sight but then we saw them rob and murder a group of merchants.  So we waited for them to fall asleep and crept in and killed the,” Resha said.  She was struggling for words.  She had never seen such a massive, muscular creature before.  She had heard of Ogres but had never met anyone that had actually seen one.

“Why kill them?  It would have been safer to avoid them,” Ishmatan said.

“Yes, but…we knew they had money and supplies…” Taka tried to say.

“No, that isn’t why you did this,” the Ogre said with a strange look in his eye, like he was looking right through them.

She looked over at Taka and Zalandri.  They both looked as confused as she did.

“You risked your lives to end this danger to other travelers,” Ishmatan said.

“We couldn’t leave them to murder everyone that wanders buy,” Zalandri said.

“Yes you could have,” Ishmatan said.  “Follow me.  I’ll take you to my home.  You three look as if you could use a good meal.”

She heard Taka’s stomach growl.

Resha didn’t want to go with the Ogre and find out that she was to be a part of this ‘good meal.’  She had no reason to trust this large creature.  The problem was that she didn’t see how she could refuse.  To refuse would be impolite and she didn’t know if her tiny pistol would even hurt this hulking creature.

They gathered their things and followed the giant through the forest until they came to a rocky hill side covered in gnarly old trees.  There was a house built into the side of the hill complete with a large wooden door and large square windows.

The air around the place had a different feel to it.  She couldn’t figure out what it was, but there was a definite energy to the place.  The grass in the clearing was thick and tall and the trees seemed to make a canopy over the clearing.

The Ogre opened the door and ushered them all in.  She kept her hand by the butt of her pistol just in case.  She didn’t exactly trust every stranger that came along.  She saw that Taka also had her hand near one of her pistols.

Inside was warm and a large wooden table filled the center of the room.  On the far side of the room, along the wall were racks of every kind of weapon imaginable.  There were old swords, axes, spears that had axe blades on them, maces, muskets and even a few small cannon.  The cannons looked like they were modified with wooden stocks to be carried like a hand gun for the Ogre.

“Welcome to my home, make yourself comfortable.  Have a seat and I’ll serve you some stew.  I’ve had it on the fire for a while.”

They sat down at the over sized table that came up to their chest and Ishmatan served them large bowls of steaming stew.  The smell made her mouth water.

“This smells delicious!”  Taka said.

“Because it is delicious,” Ishmatan said.

The Ogre handed them wooden spoons and they began to eat.  It was hot, thick and amazing.

“This is really good, Mr. Ishmatan,” Zalandri said.

“Why thank you.  You’re a student at the University, yes?”  Ishmatan asked.

“I am…or was.”

“I heard about the Great Library.  That is a loss to the world.”

“That’s actually why I’m here.  I’m trying to bring these books to Vatasha where I’ll meet up with my professors.”

The Ogre stopped and looked at the tiny Elf.

“You have books from the Great Library?”

“Right here in my pack.”

“I see.  Then it will be my honor to assist you.  Is there anything you require for your journey?”

“Resha?  Taka?  Do we need anything?”  Zalandri asked.

“Safety,” Taka said.

“I see.  You need protection.  I might have something for you.  But for now, eat, rest.  May I see your books?”  Ishmatan asked.

“Of course,” Zalandri said.

She pulled out of her pack a few books for the Ogre to look at.  He picked them up gently, like they would fall apart if handled too roughly.

“Amazing.  These books you carry are more precious than any thing I can give you.  Protect them with your life,” Ishmatan said.

“I will,” Zalandri said.

“You only have two spirits about you.  You must be a novice,” Ishmatan said.

“I am.  Magic wasn’t my area of study.”

As Zalandri and the Ogre talked of books, history and philosophy, Taka and she sat in a corner of the large house with their blankets.  It was late and she was tired.  She watched the Ogre for any sign of lying or violence.  She saw nothing but honesty.  He sat and talked as a scholar with Zalandri as he whittled on a large piece of wood.

“I don’t know why, but I trust him,” Taka said.

“I don’t want to, but I do as well.”

“I’ve never seen an Ogre before.”

“Few have.”

“Looks like Zalandri’s made a friend.”

She didn’t feel like laughing.  Too much had happened that day.  She had killed two people.  As she settled in the realization swept over her.  She took two people’s lives.  She hadn’t thought about it at the time.  She simply pointed the guns and fired.  At the time she was thinking that she had to kill them before they killed her or someone else, but now that it was quiet, the thought filled her mind.  She didn’t know who those men were.  She had seen what they did, but they were still people.

Did this make her a bad person now?  She had always wanted to help people, even the rude customers at the tavern, but this was a whole other world.  These people wouldn’t call her names for being slow, they would kill her for every coin she had.  She wasn’t prepared for all of this.

Resha curled up in her blanket and went to sleep.  She dreamed of the people she shot and that she was shooting everyone she saw.

She awoke sometime in the middle of the night by a faint crying.  She looked around but everyone was asleep except the Ogre.  He was sitting by the fire, still carving away at the piece of wood.

“Can’t sleep?”  Ishmatan asked.

“I thought I heard someone crying,” Resha said, rubbing her eyes to clear the dreams away.  It felt cold in the house and she had that strange feeling that someone was standing nearby but nobody was there.

The Ogre looked up from his carving.

“You must be more sensitive than normal.  What you heard was Zalandri’s spirits; the ones that are attracted to the energy of her magic.  They feed off of it in a way.  She’s not strong so they’re not strong.  Most people wouldn’t have heard them.”

“You hear them?”  She knew that the Ogre was magic somehow.  She didn’t know much about magic but she could feel it on her skin and in her bones.

“And see them as well,” Ishmatan said.

“Does Zalandri?”

“She always hears them but only rarely sees them.  She can block them out of her mind most of the time.”

“Why is the spirit so sad?”

“I don’t know.  Zalandri might know.  You better get back to sleep though.  Rest while you can.  Always rest when the opportunity comes.  Tomorrow I have some people I want you to meet.”

“Who?”

“They’re refugees like you.  They entered my territory this evening.  There’s two of them, an Ork female and a Centaur female.  You can help them and they can help you.”

“What kind of people are they?”

“We’ll speak more in the morning.  Sleep.”

She was about to say that she wouldn’t be able to sleep knowing that there was a spirit nearby, but as soon as he said “sleep” she couldn’t stop but lying back down and closing her eyes.

In the morning she was the second one awake.  Taka was already at the breakfast table eating fresh bread with berries baked into it.

“Good morning, Taka,” Resha yawned.

“Come try this bread.  It’s good,” Taka said.  She didn’t have her red bandana on and her greasy black hair was up in a bun.

“Where’s Ishmatan?”

“He’s preparing me a bath!  Can you believe it?”

“A bath?”

“Yes.  He says there’s a hot springs nearby and that we have time to rest before the two other refugees arrive.”

“He’s already told you about that I see.”

The Ork and the Centaur were camp followers but the army they were supporting was scattered.  He says they can help defend us.”

“How does he know so much?”

“I don’t know,” Taka shrugged.

Then the giant Ishmatan came back in.

“Your bath awaits.  Follow the fox.  He will lead you to the spring,” the Ogre said.

Taka actually smiled and left through the door in a hurry.

“Why are you being so kind to us?  You’re not getting anything out of this.”

“I’m helping you because you’re good people and right now the world is short of good people.  We need every pure soul to do their part to push back the darkness.”

“I can’t change the world and make it a nice place,” Resha said.

“No, but every little thing you do has ripples that spread out and fill the lake.  Every decision has consequences and when you choose to do good even though it’s the hard thing to do, you make it just a little easier for the next person to do good.  You don’t have to go out and conquer hordes of evil.  You just have to live your life in a way that reflects the soul within you.  That is why I am helping you; because you can help many more.”

“Me?  I can’t do anything to help others.  I can barely help myself.  I’m not exactly in the peek of my physical condition.”

“Ah, yes, about that.”  The Ogre reached in a large satchel he was carrying and pulled out what looked like a doll’s arm.  It was beautiful polished wood and the thin hand was carved so delicately that from a distance a person couldn’t tell that it was wood.

The wooden arm looked small in the Ogre’s massive hands but when he put it in front of her, she saw that it was the size of her missing appendage.

“What is this?”  Resha asked.  She was unable to take her eyes off of the wooden arm.

“You put it on, like this.”

Ishmatan opened the arm and she fit it on her like a sleeve over her stump.  The inside was lined with a very soft cloth that she didn’t recognize and he tightened the arm in place.

She held the arm up and it almost looked like her original one.  The polish was the same color of her skin and the hand was in a dainty neutral position, like it was resting.  No one would be able to tell what it was until they were very close.

“It’s amazing,” she whispered.

“I only wish I could do more.  In the cities they have magic that can give arms like this life and act as your original, living arm.  They cost more than you have earned in your entire life.”

“No, this will do.  Thank you so much.  I’ll never be able to repay this.”

“You can if you get those books to safety.  You can if you treat the people you meet with kindness and show them that the world is still a good place.”

“Is it?”

“It can be.”

She sat back and looked at her new hand and then at the Ogre.  He was such a strange creature.  He was a large brute, but he was intelligent, knew almost everything that goes on and was perhaps one of the kindest creatures she had ever met.

“What would you have done to those bandits?”  he asked.  “I didn’t see you carry any weapons with you.”

“I wouldn’t have needed weapons for those villains.  I would have torn them apart limb from limb with my bare hands and nailed their torsos to trees as a warning to anyone else that this is my territory and that I’m not to be trifled with.”

“Oh.  Remind me to never anger an Ogre.”

“That would not be a wise course of action.  As committed as I am to spread light, I and equally committed to stamping out the darkness where I find it.”

“Are all Ogres like you?”

“We all share a certain love of knowledge and wisdom, but we don’t always see eye to eye.  We do however, stay very well connected.  We have our territories that we don’t interfere with.  We respect each other’s privacy.”

“One more question.”

“Of course.”

“Can you show me where this bath is?”

She got Zalandri up and together they went to the hot spring where Taka was.  They all got in and bathed as thoroughly as they could.  It felt so wonderful to lay in hot, clean water.

Ishmatan had some extra clean clothes lying around that he had collected over the years.  Most of it was men’s clothing but there were a few dresses that fit them fairly well.  Zalandri also found a pair of boots that had belonged to a twelve year old human noble that fit her just fine.  The soft shoes she had been wearing had been killing her feet.  Now had a clean pair of black boots to walk in.

She found a shirt that was much nicer than what she had been wearing and put it on.  It must have belonged to a merchant’s daughter or lesser noble.  The last thing she put on was the surprisingly comfortable wooden arm.  She couldn’t take her eyes off of it.

“They’re here,” Ishmatan said and opened the door.

A confused Centaur woman and a wary looking Ork woman were entering the clearing.  The Centaur had long red hair done up in two long braids and the Ork had her hair simply parted in the middle.  The lanky, thin Ork held a blunderbuss in her arms and the Centaur held a long rifle in hers.

“I used my servants to guide them here.  I think you will find each others company beneficial,” Ishmatan said.

Chapter 8

Taran Otan looked out over the muddy wasteland that had been today’s battlefield.  Any tree, bush, fence, house or church that had been there two days ago was now leveled and trampled in the mud.  The nearby village was on fire and the smoke from the fires and countless muskets and cannons had created a thick fog over the place.

Nothing moved and it seemed every slight sound was amplified greatly.  The sounds of the soldiers behind him were the only things he heard.  They were starting a fire as the sun started going down.  The day was over and the enemy was scattered.

He should be celebrating but he felt like doing anything but that.  He wondered what the people were doing in the town.  Drawing water from the wells to put out the fire?  Was there anyone still left in the town to do so?

Taran turned back toward his camp.  The dirty, white, canvas tents filled this half of the field.  All over cooking fires were being lit.  There wasn’t any cheering, music or celebrating yet, but once they rested he had no doubt that they’d be up all night, thanking the Creators that they were still alive and they were victorious.

He didn’t feel victorious.

Taran was too tired to take off his armor and sat down on a tree stump.

“What’s wrong Tan?”  Freder asked.

The older mercenary was sprinkling some kind of herb into the pot as he stirred it.  He was their company’s unofficial cook.  He had a shaved head and chin but the largest, bushiest mustache he’s ever seen.  A long thin pipe jetted out from under his impressive facial hair.

His mother used to do the same thing back on the farm.  She would grow her own herbs and everything they ate had the same seasoning.

“Nothing’s wrong.  I’m alive, right?”  Taran said.

“I suppose you are.”

“Damn it Freder.  I was supposed to own my own company by now and here I am, a low rank foot slogger.  What’s the point?  When am I going to realize that I didn’t make it?”

“When you’re dead.  Not before.”

“I thought I would have been rich by now.  What do I have to show for years of trodding through mud, ash and blood?  Some nice scars?  A pain in my knee?”

“All it takes is that one break and you’ll find your fortune.”

“Its not the fortune I wanted.”

“Then what?”

“I don’t know.  I think I wanted the fame…no, that’s not it.  I wanted to be someone.  I wanted my life to mean something, to be important.  Well…okay, I want the fortune as well.”

“Could be worse.  You could be one of those poor sots trying to put out the fires on their houses.”  Freder pointed over to the burning village with his pipe.

Why wasn’t the army helping put out the fires?  Why wasn’t he?  What worried him was that he wasn’t sure that he cared anymore.  For ten years he had been fighting as a mercenary.  He had seen countless people die, friends, enemies, strangers, criminals and innocents.  At what point did a person see too much death?

He sighed and leaned back.  He was sick of it.  All of it.  He was sick of being surrounded by the stink of death.  He was sick of the low pay.  He was sick of the fear before battles.  He was sick of fighting for meaningless battles with no cause and mostly, he was sick of it all.  Everything.

This wasn’t what he wanted.

“You know what, Freder?”

“What?”

“I think I have to admit to myself that I’m just not that good.  Every time I’m put in a leadership position, I’m uninspiring.  I can’t control them.  I fail.  I’m not a leader and if I’m not a leader I can’t be promoted through the ranks.  Maybe if I made up for it with heroic deeds of valor and skill or some other dungheap like that, the commanders would notice me, but I’m always just one of the masses; a name on a roster and nothing more.”

“Sounds like you just need to get drunk and get your mind off things.”

“You mean off of reality?  I should ignore the real world the best I can?  That doesn’t sound like a long term solution.”

“Why do you think I’m always drunk?”

Many mercenaries were in a constant state of inebriation.  He didn’t want to have to live his life like that.

“I wonder how many people I’ve killed today,” Taran said.

“Don’t think about it.  I’ve seen people go crazy thinking about that.”

“I load my musket, march in formation, stand there waiting for the orders to fire and then fire.  There’s the recoil and the smoke and I instantly start reloading.  I don’t know where my shot goes.  I don’t know who I’ve killed or not killed.  I’m a cog in the machine.”

He imagined a huge, gear-filled grinder going through the ranks of the enemy’s army, tearing men to pieces and spewing out the chunks to fall on the battlefield.  The light was getting dim but he could still make out the countless shapes of corpses that were left rotting out in the field.  They had collected their own dead but not that of the enemy.

Taran scratched his face and felt the two day old stubble.  Now that the two days of fighting was over, an officer would be by yelling at everyone to shave and look proper.  They had to look proper for the business of killing people for money.

“Look, Taran.  Why don’t you go back home and take a rest?  Come back when you feel better.”

Home was far away in the Duchies of Canoton.  His Duchy had been mostly humans.  Freder was from the next village over.  Most of their company were humans.

“There’s nothing for me back there.  I haven’t seen it in ten years.  My father doesn’t want to speak to me.”

“Then go to a city.  Find a whore and a large bottle of wine.”

That definitely wasn’t what he wanted.  He didn’t want a hollow, shameful imitation of his dream.  He wanted money so he could afford a good wife and a nice home.  He wanted enough money that he could live comfortably well and look back at his youthful days of adventuring.

Now he wouldn’t want to look back and remember these days.  They were horrible, dirty, grimy, blood soaked days.  He was no hero like he imagined as a child.  There were no grand adventures.

All there was, was marching, formations, roll call, guard duty with late nights, digging trenches and digging latrines.  No glamour, no glory and certainly no meaning.

Taran leaned over and smelled the soup Freder was cooking.

“Not bad,” Taran said.

“An artist is only as good as his tools.  Give me some real ingredients and I’ll have you wanting to stay just to keep eating my food.”

As the night wore on the soldiers grew louder and louder.  Those with lutes, trumpets or other instruments began playing and men started dancing and drinking with the women that followed the camp from place to place.  Most did laundry, worked in the hospital or other common duties.  Many earned money in less honest ways.

Taran ate down his bowl of soup without really tasting it.  He sat there and thought about what his life was supposed to mean and what he was supposed to do with it.  He wanted to be a successful mercenary, but he simply wasn’t good at it.  Any dream he could come up with required money.  He needed money and there was no way around that.

The question was; would he get money if he stayed here and if he left, where else would he get money?

“Maybe the Creators are punishing me because I kill for money and don’t feel bad about it.”

“The Creators don’t reward or punish in this life.  The greediest, worst, murderous bastard can come out of life with a castle, lands and a beautiful wife.  It’s the next life he’ll have to worry about,” Freder said.  He was sucking on his pipe and sitting on a fold out stool he brought with him everywhere.

“Maybe I’m just unlucky.”

Should he feel bad about killing?  He was tired of it, sure, but did he feel bad about it?  Not really. What he did feel bad about was that it was all for no reason.  He wasn’t defending his home or saving people.

Eventually he went back into his tent and laid down.  He lay for a long time before he went to sleep, listening to the merry-makers outside.

In the morning he knew that his mind was made up.  It had been made for a long time but it had taken a while to realize it.

“I’ve seen this coming for a while,” Freder said in the morning.   He was the only person Taran cared to bid farewell.

The other men in the company were rising for the day and packing up their tents.  Cooks were making breakfast and chaplains were walking around praying for people.

“I’m sorry, but I can’t stay.”

“I know.  This isn’t your path anymore and staying will just drive you crazy.  Maybe you’ll clear your head and come back.”

“Maybe.”

They clasped each other on the shoulders and silently said goodbye.

Taran went and collected the last of he meager pay, rested his musket over his shoulder and began walking one way while the army and his company walked the other way.

As he walked he wondered what he was going to do.  There was a city nearby.  Maybe someone there needed someone that was good with a musket or a blade.  Fighting was always something that came naturally to him, but being very good at it wasn’t.  It was one of his few talents, yet he always seemed to come out in the middle somewhere.  He wasn’t terrible, but he wasn’t great and he wanted to be great.

All he knew was that he was empty inside.  The only skills he had were marching, digging stabbing and shooting and playing the lute.  He hadn’t touched a lute in years though.  Maybe he should try his hand at it.  Like fighting he had been mediocre at it.  He knew he’d never have a normal, quiet life, but perhaps he could create something out of the ruins of his life.

*

Zalandri looked up at the tall, lanky Ork woman and noticed the knives and pistols she had hidden under her hooded rain coat.  The rain coat was clasped at the neck and open, revealing her thin form with the giant leather belt and brass buckle.  She had large black boots and thick black gloves.  She also had a simple breastplate under her rain coat that looked very crude with large leather straps.

The Centaur was even taller and her light red hair came down to her waist.  She wore a sleeveless leather vest with many pockets, a backpack and saddlebags.  She had metal plates on her arms, chest, belly and flanks of her horse body.  She had a sort of wild, barbaric look about her as did the Ork.

Selfishly Zalandri thought that the Centaur would be perfect for carrying all the books.

“Where do you travelers come from?”  Ishmatan asked.

The Centaur and Ork looked at each other with unmistakable expressions of confusion.

“We’ve come from many places.  Lately we were with the Imperial Third Army,” the Ork said in a scratchy, but strong voice.  She looked the giant Ogre in the eye as if she weren’t afraid.

Zalandri saw from the corner of her eye one of her spirit companions.  It was the long haired woman.  She was reaching out to the two strangers and smiling.  She saw it for just an instant but she did see it.  The white woman was good and liked good things and good people.  It was a silly thing to trust, but Zalandri knew that the spirit could sense things on a different plane than she could.

“And where might you be heading?”  Ishmatan asked.

“We don’t know that yet, sir.  We were going to get our bearings in whatever city or town we happened on next,” the Centaur said in a surprisingly gentle voice.  She had a strange accent and talked with her hands a great deal.

“You can say our departure from the Third Army was in haste,” the Ork said.

“Yes, they were decisively beaten and were routed,” Ishmatan said.

“How did you hear?  It just happened two days ago,” the Centaur said.

“An Ogre stays very well connected to the events of the world,” Ishmatan said.

“I am Layana,” the Centaur said.  “This is my friend, Matog.”

“I am Ishmatan and these are my guests, Resha, Zalandri and Taka.”

“Ishmatan, sir, you seem to know much about the world.  Could you perhaps direct us to a place where we might be safe and find employment?”  Layana said.

“Why, yes I can do that and much more,” Ishmatan said.  “This war is going to grow and grow until it envelops the whole continent.  The safest place is in Vatasha, though I don’t know how much longer that will be so.”

“Vatasha?  But that’s three months away!”  Matog said, crinkling her nose.

“You asked where you would be safe and prosperous and I gave you an answer,” Ishmatan said.

“That’s too far away.  We’ll never make it,” Matog said, looking up at her companion.

“Own your own, that may be true, but if you escorted these three then your chances are much greater.  I know Vatasha is very far away, but it would be safer and you’re more likely to find a job there.  You don’t travel far and you’re very likely to be caught up in the war again.  I don’t believe that the war will end soon.  I think that this is just the beginning.  It will get worse and you will want to be far from it.  These three are good people and refugees like yourselves.  They’ve lost much and seek peace and quiet.”

Layana furrowed her brow as she thought and Matog scratched her head.

“There’s safety in numbers,” Zalandri said.  “We have weapons.  Five people stand a better chance than two or three.”

“Will you let us discuss this in private?”  Layana asked.

“Of course,” Ishmatan said.

The Centaur and Ork walked a distance away and began whispering.

“How do we know we can trust them?  They might just kill us in our sleep and take our things,” Taka said.  She faced them but her eyes were on the two newcomers.

“I trust them,” Ishmatan said.

“Why?”  Taka asked, putting her hands on her hips.

“I’ve listened in on their conversations.  I’ve watched them through my servants’ eyes.  They are trustworthy.”

“They have a lot of weapons.  Do they know how to use them?”  Taka asked.

“Not any less than you do.”

“I trust them.  Call it an intuition,” Zalandri said.

“Resh?  What do you think?”  Taka asked.

Resha paced around a bit and kicked a stone with her hoof.

“I think I like them.  If they’re good and honest like Ishmatan says, then we can definitely use their help,” Resha said.  She smiled with her wide mouth and large eyes.  When Resha smiled it was always an honest smile and Zalandri liked that very much.  She had grown tired of some of the superficial emotions the students at the University often showed.

“All right then.  They can come,” Taka said.  She threw her hands up in the air but Zalandri felt that Taka was protesting too much.  Taka was trying to act tough.

Layana and Matog walked back up to their group.

“We’ve decided that we’ll join you on your trip to Vatasha,” Matog said.

“Yes, safety in numbers only if your numbers are good people, which we believe you are,” Layana said.

“Excellent.  You all should be leaving soon then.  But first, let me give you a few supplies you might need,” Ishmatan said.   He went back inside and came out carrying a large sack.  From the brown, sackcloth he pulled out several knives, pistols and a purse of money.

“Take these.  They’ll serve to protect you.  The money will help because if there’s one language your races understand, its money.  Also, I’ve filled your packs with provisions and a water purifier stone in Resha’s canteen.  The magic stone will purify any water of disease, plagues or poisons.”

Zalandri was handed a long, skinny musket pistol with ivory handles and gold inlay.  It was delicate, beautiful and lethal.  She recognized ancient Elven writing along the barrel which was in fashion among the elite.

“Thank you so much,” Zalandri said, making a short bow.

“Thank me by staying alive,” the Ogre said.  “Also, if you come across another ogre, tell them you’re friends of Ishmash.”

“We will and thank you master Ishmatan,” Taka said quietly and curtsied a bit.

They got their packs, thanked the giant Ogre again and headed out for the road.

“That was strange,” Matog said once they had gotten far enough away.

“Yeah… strange,” Layana said.

“Strange but honest,” Zalandri said.

“So…um…who are you three?”  Matog asked, looking directly at them with one eyebrow raised.

They each in turn told them their stories.  Zalandri withheld how she was considered dross by her family.  They didn’t need to know that.  But by doing so she wondered what the others were withholding.  She could sense that Taka was only telling a fraction of what she had gone through and by the huge gaps in her story she thought that what she left out must have been pretty awful.

“You’re blind?”  Matog asked after Zalandri had finished her story.

“Yes.  Can’t you see my eyes?”

“I did, but I just thought you had slightly creepier eyes than other Elves.”

“I’m not creepy,” Zalandri said.

“No, you’re not, but many of your kin are I’m afraid.  I’ve seen how some look at others, like they were bugs,” Layana said.

Zalandri couldn’t deny that.  Many of her kin were arrogant enough to believe they were superior to everyone around them.

“Where did you get the armor and guns?”  Resha asked the two newcomers.

“When the army’s off fighting a battle, sometimes the enemy cavalry come by to raid the camp.  So they sometimes give us stuff to defend the camp with,” Layana said.

“And we stole some of it as we left.  Didn’t think with them running for their lives that they’d notice,” Matog said.

“So the Empire’s not doing to great in this war,” Zalandri said.

“No it isn’t.  They’re lucky that the Ferras armies are heading south to occupy Zefuld.  Soon this campaigning season will be over.  Winter will give the Empire some room to breath, but if they don’t straighten up and fix themselves, then they’ll be destroyed by this time next year,” Matog said.

The Empire had never been known for quick solutions or efficiency.  If they couldn’t break out of their lethargy, then she feared she’d have no country to return to.

Chapter 9

Resha could still smell the smoke from the burning farm house they had passed a mile back.  None of them had looked inside to see if there were any bodies.  They didn’t know if it had been done by mercenaries, soldiers or bandits.  She wondered if there was a difference anymore.

“When are we going to be there?”  Taka asked.

“We’ll arrive at Naratha sometime this afternoon.  We’ll come around a large bend in a river and we’ll see it from there,” Matog said.

“You’ve been there before?”  Resha asked.

“Twice.”

“Will a traveling group of women look strange?”  Zalandri asked.

“Maybe, but there’s going to be so many people there that nobody’s going to notice or care,” Matog said.

“From what I hear, I don’t think I’m going to like this place,” Layanda said.

“Nowhere to run.  No fresh air.  No sun,” Matog said.

Naratha was starting to sound like a very unpleasant place.

“I’ve never been to a city like this before,” Resha said.

“Me neither,” Taka said someone embarrassed.

“I don’t think you’re missing much,” Matog said.

“I loved Rotaun.  It was beautiful and there was so much to see and do,” Zalandri said.

“You saw only the rich parts.  The parts we’ll be seeing aren’t going to be like the marble palaces you’re used to,” Matog said.

“I didn’t go into any palaces,” Zalandri said.

“Oh, yeah?  I’ve seen your University from a distance.  Looked like a palace to me,” Matog said.

About two hours after noon the river road they were followed turned around a domed hill and out in the distance on a vast plain was a giant walled city.

As they got closer to the city, more and more tents appeared.  Families huddled together and starving children looked out at them as they passed by.  Refugees, all of them.  A whole tent city surrounded the walled city.

“There’s so many of them,” Taka said.

“How are they supposed to live like this?”  Resha asked.

“I don’t know.  Maybe the city’s feeding them, but how long can that last?”  Matog said.

Resha looked into the faces of the hungry people.  It wasn’t just food that they’ve been lacking.  She could see that they were starving of hope.

“What if they don’t let us into the city?”  Zalandri asked.

“We don’t look like refugees.  We can say that we’re merchants,” Matog said.

“Selling what?  Guns and supplies that have obviously been looted from battlefields?”  Resha asked.

“We’re buying mostly so we can sell up north,” Matog said.

The lanky Ork raised her palms in the air saying that she didn’t know what else to do.

“We could say that we’re passing through, which is true,” Taka said.

“I like that.  I’m not good at lying,” Layana said.

“You’re awful at lying.  I don’t know how she ever lasted before she found me,” Matog said.

“She found you?”  Resha asked.  The Centaur and Ork hadn’t said much about where they were from.

“This was last year when the war first started.  Layana had been separated from her family and hadn’t seen them in months.  They’d come down from Baska to find a new life,” Matog said.

“Our caravan was attacked and scattered.  I couldn’t find them.  I searched all nearby towns,” Layana said.

“Don’t worry, we’ll find them,” Matog said, patting the shoulder of Layana’s horse body.

“I lost my family and I think they’re alive somewhere.  Though I think they may believe me to be dead,” Taka said.

“You’re not alone, Taka.  You have us.  I’m right here,” Resha said.

The Goblin almost smiled.

They soon arrived at the gates of the city where crowds of refugees were trying to get in the city.  Everywhere people were standing around as if waiting in line.

Resha went up to some of them.

“What’s going on?  Why’s everyone crowded around like this?”  Resha asked.

“We’re trying to get into the city but they’re not allowing us,” a haggard man with long messy hair said.

“Why not?”

“They say refugees have to stay outside for sanitation reasons.  They’re lying,” the man said.

She thanked the man and they continued to push and make their way through the crowd to the front.

Near the gate about twenty armed guards stood by with an Elf officer sitting on a horse.  Since he was the officer, he was the only one not doing anything.

The Elf wore a helmet with a red horsetail plume while the soldiers wore tall cylindrical hats with some sort of symbol or crest on the top.  The Elf looked around the crowd with an obvious look of distain and disgust on his face.  His thin, bony features marked him as a little older than most Elves she had seen.  He was older and still just in charge of a handful of men.  She had seen officers like that; bitter and resentful that they hadn’t risen higher in the ranks.  To add to the problem was that he was an arrogant Elf that loathed every other species.

Resha pushed up to the front where a guard was standing.  The guard was trying to tell people to turn back but no one was listening.

“Excuse me!  We’re not refugees!”  Resha shouted out to the guard.

“What?”  The guard asked, craning his neck to hear her.  He was a Satyr like herself.

“We’re not refugees.  We’re merchants that are trying to pass through,” she said.

“Do you have money for the entrance fee?”

“Entrance fee?  Since when is there an entrance fee for entering a city?”

“We need some way to pay for the bread we’re feeding these refugees.”

“How much is it?”

“One silver per person.”

Resha turned back to the others and they huddled up into a circle while she explained to them about the fee.

“A silver per person!  That’s ridiculous,” Taka said.

“How much do we have?”

Resha had hid exactly how much money she had, but now was a good as time as any to tell.  If they were going to stay together they had to trust one another.

“I have eighty five,” Resha said.

“We got twenty five from looting,” Taka said.

“How much will a room at an inn cost?”  Layana asked.

“I can’t say.  They’ve probably raised the prices on everything,” Matog said.

“Making profit off of the lack of necessities,” Zalandri said.  Zalandri wasn’t looking at them.  She was looking at the refugees around them.  She looked pained to see them all.

“I don’t think we have a choice but to pay,” Resha said.

“We need supplies, a map and maybe some information on the safest route to go,” Matog said.  Her black hair was falling down in front of her face and if it weren’t for the amount of equipment she carried, she could easily blend in with the refugees.  She was skinny, not from lack of food, but of so much work.  Her thin gray-green arms were well defined with muscles.  She also noticed for the first time that her eyes weren’t black.  They were actually a very dark red.

“You there!  What’s your business?”  She heard a commanding voice say.

Resha turned and saw the Elf officer pointing at them.  She walked over to picket line of soldiers so she could be heard.

“We’re merchants that are traveling through,” Resha said.

“You don’t look like merchants.  Where’s your caravan and carts?”  The Elf looked angry for some reason.

“We lost most of our things to bandits, but we still have a few items and some coin.  We were hoping to purchase supplies to sell to other places.”

“This is your group?  All women?”  He said “women” as if it were a dirty word.

“Our husbands are all either dead or gone off to fight.  We have to take care of ourselves somehow,” Resha said.

“It’s not proper that women go about armed.  Please hand over your weapons.”

“There’s no law that says we can’t be armed.  Law or not, there are bandits outside the city and inside as well.  We hand them over and we’ll be defenseless.”

“Better defenseless than unseemly,” the Elf officer said.

“Easy to say when you’re surrounded by your own soldiers.”

“Watch your tongue, wench.  You surrender your firearms or you do not pass.”

She was about to say something very rude that would make a drunken mercenary blush, but she held her tongue and walked back to the group to tell them what the officer said.

“No way in Inferno’s hot coals am I giving up my pistol.  What are we supposed to do, ask the bandits politely to please not rob and murder us?”  Matog asked.

“I’d die before I gave up my right to defend myself,” Taka said between clenched teeth.  There was an angry kind of desperation in Taka’s voice that startled Resha.

“Zalandri, do you have any spells that could help?”  Layana asked.

“I don’t see how.  I can light small fires, read an object’s history, mend broken things, heal minor cuts and bruises, move small objects and see things from afar,” Zalandri said.

Resha scratched her hear as she thought.  She looked around trying to see something that could help them.  The guards were all there standing with their muskets in hands and bayonets mounted.  The portcullis of the city’s gate was up.  There were closed barrels and a pile of dry hay near the entrance to the gate house.

“Zalandri, can you set fire to that pile of hay?”  Resha asked.  Zalandri took a second to look through her eyes.

“I think I can, but why?”

“We set ablaze to that and while they’re distracted, we sneak in.  Maybe beg or bribe a guard to let us through.  Just as long as the officer isn’t looking,” Resha said.

She told her plan to the group and they agreed to give it a try.

Zalandri closed her dead eyes and concentrated.  A few moments later a flame appeared on the hay.

“Get ready,” Resha said.

It took only seconds for the haystack to burst into flames.  The first guard to notice it yelled out and several guards, including the officer ran over to the fire.

Resha and the others quickly ran over to one of the nervous looking guards.  She couldn’t blame him for being nervous.  With a distraction like that Resha doubted that they’d be the only ones to try to get through.

“We’re not refugees.  Please let us pass,” Resha said.

“I…I can’t,” the guard said, casting a glance at the officer.

“Please!  We have to get in to sell our stuff!”  Taka said.

“No, I can’t.  I’d get in trouble,” the guard said.

“Would this help?”

Resha held out her good hand with five silvers in it.

The guard quickly took the coins from her hand.

“Hurry!  Go before he sees you,” he said.

With that they rushed passed the guards and into the busy town square that greeted them.  A statue of a hero or king on horseback stood in the middle of the square and shops of all kinds created a circle around the statue.  More people and soldiers walked about than she had ever seen before in one town.  The armies she saw were more, but this was nothing like Tight Water.  She saw shops dedicated to an item that Tight Water’s general store would only have one of.

There was a store given to sell nothing but rolls of cloth.  There was a store just for flowers and another for shoes.  The people that walked about were a mixture of the finest clothes she had seen and the most filthy rags she had seen.  Homeless people begged in the street and the rich in their expensive clothes simply walked by without a moment’s glance.

The buildings in the square were two stories tall, but behind them she saw buildings going to four or even five stories tall.

“I’ve never seen such a large town,” Taka said.  The Goblin was staring out with wide yellow eyes.

The accents Resha heard sounded so strange to her ears.  They were speaking the same language but pronouncing everything so different.

“Where do we go?”  Layana asked.

“We need to find the cheap part of town where we could actually afford to stay,” Matog said.

They began working their way through the narrow, crowded streets.  The further they went into the city, the darker and narrower the streets became.  Perfectly symmetrical paving stones gave way to rough cobblestone and then to dirt.

“Last time I was hear, five years ago, I stayed at this one Inn my father liked.  We’ll go there and see if it’s still in business,” Matog said as she guided their group.

“Hold up!”  Zalandri said.

Their group stopped and Zalandri ran over to a glass front window that had all kinds of trinkets, metal gizmos and other machines.

“What is it?”  Resha asked.

“It’s a magic shop!”  Zalandri said and quickly ran in the door.

Resha followed her in so she could be the Elf’s eyes.

“What is all this stuff?”  Resha asked.

“These are enchanted items.  The sorcerer infuses an item with a particular spell.  See, those are communication stones.  You talk into it and whoever has the other stone can talk back.  There’s a water producing pitcher, a seeing glass and there’s a knife that will never get dull.”

Resha wandered over to the knife and looked at the price.

“Two hundred gold?”  Resha asked.  She couldn’t believe anyone would buy a knife for two hundred gold.  A gold was worth about fifty silvers.  “Why wouldn’t they just save the money and sharpen the knife themselves?”

“It’s about status.  It shows that they can afford such magic trinkets,” Zalandri said.  “Some aren’t so frivolous.  Image a rope that will never wear out or a musket that doesn’t need powder.  The more useful or rare, the more expensive.  Some sorcerers devout all of their study and time to infusing objects with magic.”

“I can see why.  You can get rich quick.  Why don’t you study this?”

“It takes a wizard of great skill and talent.  It would take me years to be able to do that.  Besides, my passion is history, not money.”

“Come on, let’s not waste more time staring at things we can’t afford.”

Zalandri actually pouted as Resha dragged her out of the store.

Eventually they came to a small round plaza that was a dead end.

“There it is,” Matog said, pointing to a building with a large sign hanging over it.  “The Pilgrim’s Promise.”

The inn looked small, dirty and crowded.  Resha kept the Angry Gerbil much neater than this.  As they walked in she saw unscrubbed floors that were sticky with spilt beer and food, soot covered walls and candle wax over all the tables.

“Why are we here?”  Zalandri asked.

“Because its cheap and if you perform you can get a discount or even stay for free,” Matog said.

“Perform?  Do you perform?”  Resha asked.

“I play the Orkish flute.  I know mostly Orkish songs, but I know a few more well known songs.”

“I used to play the flute and I might still be able to play the lute, but what I really know how to do is sing,” Resha said.  She was getting excited at the idea of singing for a crowd.  It had been too long and if she could get a free room, then all the better.

The bottom floor of the inn had a few tables, a fireplace and a small raised platform for performers.  The place was all dark wood made darker smoke from countless fires and pipes.  The place smelled of bacon and tobacco.

The large Ork behind the counter was talking to an old, skinny human.

Matog and she went up to the Ork.

“Excuse me sir, we’re looking for some available rooms,” Resha said in her sweetest voice.

“I got a few.  You got money?”

“We have some.  We also have musical talent.  We’ve been told that you offer discounts for performers.”

“What you got?”  The large Ork asked.

Resha had never seen a fat Ork before.

“Let us show you,” Matog said.

They went to the stage and Matog pulled out a thick, short flute.  They took a few minutes to find a song they both knew.  Matog played a few notes so Resha could get in tune and then they started playing.  It was one of the sadder songs, Resha knew.  Sometimes even she felt like a sad song.

She sung her best and to her credit, Matog was a very good flute player.  When they were done the old human clapped but the owner didn’t look impressed.

“Got anything that doesn’t make me want to kill myself?”  The fat Ork asked.

“I know lots of funny songs.  Can you play along?”  Resha whispered.

“Sure,” Matog said.

“Right, follow along and keep it up beat.”

Resha began singing one of the funny songs she wrote about a love struck Satyr and a lost goat.

As she sang, Zalandri looked appalled but Taka was laughing out loud.  Layana had a slight smirk on her face.

When they finished the fat Ork began clapping.

“Now that was more like it.  You have any others like that?”  The Ork asked.

“I have lots more like that,” Resha said.

“Excellent.  You perform those tonight and the people like you, you’re rooms are free.  How long you looking to stay?”  The Ork asked.

“A day or two,” Resha said.

“Might I persuade you to stay longer?”

She looked at the others.  Taka shrugged, Matog nodded and Layana shook her head.  Zalandri looked like she was thinking.

“It’s possible,” Matog said.

“Do the rooms come with food?”  Resha asked.

“Depends on how good you do,” the Ork said.

Resha thought about it.  If they had free room and board, they could use this time to sell their extra things and maybe do other things to make money.  She wondered how much she could charge for sharing her bed.  She really didn’t want to resort to that, but if the opportunity came up and the money was good, she wondered if she could pass it by.

It worried her and she wondered how desperate she really was.  Money would be very useful and the more money they had, the more money she’d have to help establish herself in Vatasha.

She fell silent and thought about what she should do and how far she should go to get money.  What would the others think of her?  She had done it to get by, but was it necessary now or was it more necessary?  She was technically a prostitute and that was against the Creator’s laws but not the world’s.  What was the right thing to do?  Sell her body for money so she could help her friends or save herself and possibly not have enough money for the journey?

Chapter 10

Taka was surprised that she got a room to herself.  She had never had a room to herself before.  She looked around the tiny room that still managed to feel big to her.  The bed in particular looked huge.  All that space was just for her.  She could fit at least another person there.

There was a small wash bin for bathing, a pitcher with water and even a mirror.  She had never owned a mirror before.  She dropped her things and hurried over to the mirror.

She had seen herself in mirrors before and yet it always seemed to be startling every time.  The Taka looking back at her was far dirtier and haggard than she remembered.  Her clothes were covered in dirt from traveling as was her face and hair.  She was a mess.

Tonight Resha and Matog were going to perform and if they did well, they’d get free rooms and food.  Even if she had to pay she was looking forward to a real dinner.

Then her eyes fell on the wash tub and the bar of soap.  She hadn’t had a bath since the hot springs at the Ogre’s house.  She usually had a bath once a week, but now she would take one whenever she got the chance.  There were few things she loved more than baths; eating and sex.

She went downstairs, grabbed a bucket, asked for the well, filled a bucket of water and placed it over the coals of the fire.  She got it almost to the boiling point.  That would give it time to cool off a bit while she prepared the next bucket.  It took her an hour but by the end of it she had a hot bath ready to go.  She saw Resha and Layana doing the same.  They shared knowing smiles.

Once back in her room she stripped down and got into the hot water.  It was the second most enjoyable experience of her life.  She lay there for a while, soaking in the pleasure.  Maybe hot baths were now her number one pleasure.

After she had relaxed enough she began scrubbing herself down.  She scrubbed behind her pointed ears, between her toes and everywhere else.  Then she washed her hair.

By the end of it, she felt like a newborn Goblin.  The green in her skin was actually noticeable in the mirror now and her hair didn’t look like matted straw.  She put it up in a bun like the women of her village usually did and then put on the new clothes the Ogre had given her.

She had to admit, she was pretty.  She wasn’t the prettiest of her sisters, but she was still easy on the eyes.

Then she wondered if there would be any Goblin, Hobgoblin or curious males that would eye her with the intent for bedding.  That and a fine meal would make her day complete.

When she was ready, Taka went downstairs and found the others already eating.  She hurried over, grabbed a piece of bread and a sausage and began eating.  Resha gave her a large smile that always told Taka that she was happy to see her.  That always made the day just a little easier.

“Taka, you clean up very well,” Matog said.

She looked around at the others and noticed they all looked considerably better.  Matog had her hair in many find braids.  Resha had her hair neatly combed to hang over her dead eye and the rest was in a bun.  Zalandri had her hair parted simply down the middle.  Since they all had their own rooms she guessed Zalandri had to do her own hair without the aid of sight.  Layana had her hair in two neatly done braids.

“You all look good as well.  Now shut up and let me eat,” Taka said.  She could feel a smile on her face.  The others took it as the joke it was and laughed.

She ate sausage, roasted beef and lots of thick bread.  She washed it down with a very sweet mead and the delicious taste of honey lingered in her mouth.

Once Taka was full she leaned back in her chair and patted her stomach.

“When’s the performance?”  Zalandri asked.

“As soon as the place fills up enough,” Resha said.

Already the place was more full than the tiny tavern in her home town.

“I’ve never performed in front of so many people before,” Matog said.

“Don’t worry about it.  Once you get up on that stage, you’ll forget all about your nervousness.  We’ll do great,” Resha said.

Matog gulped and looked around with wide eyes.  Taka had to stifle a laugh.  She would never have imagined Matog being afraid of something like this.  She always seemed so confident and tough.

Resha, on the other hand, looked as cheerful and calm as she usually did.  She must have some magic cast over her to stay so positive all the time.  It was as if no matter how bad the world got, she remained unscathed, like a magic shield.

An hour later the tavern was almost packed.  The owner waved over Resha and Matog and the three of them talked for a bit.

“I love listening to Matog’s flute.  The Orkish flute has such a harsh, hard sound, but it’s so beautiful,” Layana said.  “She would play for the soldiers in camp all the time.”

“Resha’s hilarious.  You should hear her joke about the Dark Cultist,” Taka said.

“What’s the joke?”  Zalandri asked.

“She’d tell it much better than I could,” Taka said.

Zalandri and Layana looked disappointed but it was better to have them wait than to butcher a great joke.

Then Resha and Matog began playing.  She recognized the tune and knew she had heard this song before.  As Resha sung, Taka watched the audiences and the owner’s reactions.  It took a few moments for them to warm up but by the end of the song the whole tavern was laughing.

It wasn’t just that the song was funny, it was Resha’s personality that sold it.  She would improve jokes as she thought of them, even right in the middle of a song.  She would point out people in the audience and make jokes about them.  Even her little mannerisms would change.  Resha was a performer.

Matog did very well and added an almost eerie beauty to the whole thing that at first Taka wasn’t sure would fit, but she quickly grew to love it.  Layana was right, the Orkish flute was beautiful in a haunting sort of way.

Between songs someone brought two mugs of beer for them.  Resha and Matog thanked the admiring man and drank before going on to the next song.

As the night wore and they continued to play, Taka began looking around the room for any prey.  She saw a few Goblins and Hobgoblins and tried to catch their eye.

She eventually got a Hobgoblin in a military uniform to look at her.  She made eye contact with him a few times, hoping he’d come over to her and take the bait.

When he finally did, he came with a bottle of wine in his hand.

“Perhaps we can drink that in private?”  Taka asked.

“I think that’s a great idea,” the tall Hobgoblin said.

She took him up to her room where he stayed until late at night.

She was sitting up in bed with the bottle while he started getting dressed.  Maybe this was better than the bath?

“Why leave so early?”  She asked.

“I’d love to stay, but if I’m not back for my turn at watch, my captain will kill me,” the Hobgoblin said.  She hadn’t even bothered to get his name.

“You’re captain’s hard on you?”

“Not usually, but today there’s a visiting cavalry commander and he’s a demon in disguise.  He’s a Hobgoblin like me, but he must be half Troll because he’s tall and has a cruel side larger than Rognok Mountain.”

He bent over, grabbed her small but perky breast and kissed her before leaving.

“I’ll be here tomorrow night!”  She called out as he left.

She lay back and soaked in the feel of a perfect evening.

Taka felt hungry after her wild ride and put on her overcoat and went out into the hall.  She was about to go downstairs when she saw that Resha’s door was open.  She heard talking coming from inside.

“How much do I owe you then?”  The man asked.

“Six silvers,” Resha’s voice said.

“Here you go.”

Then a human male left the room with an untucked military shirt and officer’s coat and hat.

Had Resha just been paid for bedding him?  That didn’t seem right.  As the man walked away the more certain it became.

Taka was far from a saint, but she hadn’t resorted to prostitution.  Resha was one of the kindest, sweetest, happiest people she had ever met.  How could she be a prostitute?  Was what Resha showed them a lie?  A performance like her stage act?

No, whatever else, Taka had to remember that Resha was kind.  When Taka had nowhere else to go and nowhere to turn to, Resha offered her a place by her side.  She didn’t have to.  Resha saw a person in need and helped.  That was who Resha was.

However, this didn’t make sense.  Resha couldn’t be a prostitute.  Taka had looked up to her as someone who had managed to stay above all the world’s wickedness.

Taka felt disappointed.  Her hero was flawed after all.  It shouldn’t be surprising, but it was.

No longer hungry, she went back to her room and went to sleep.

In the morning she had a hard time meeting Resha’s gaze.  It just didn’t feel right.  It made her wonder if she even knew who Resha was.

“The owner wants us to stay two more nights at least.  He’ll give us free rooms and food,” Resha said.

“We could stay longer,” Matog said.

“We have to get to Vatasha as soon as possible,” Zalandri said.

“For your books?”  Matog asked.

“Yes.  I have to get them to the library there.  My professors will be there waiting.”

“Why don’t we just sell them and stay here?”  Matog asked.

“Because the war will spread here.  The Ferras armies are heading south and they’ll be here soon enough,” Resha said.

“I’ll never sell those books,” Zalandri said.

“Alright then.  We’re carrying gold in the packs but won’t sell it,” Matog said.

“Some things are worth more than money.  For Zalandri, those books are worth more than her life,” Resha said.

Taka wondered at how this Resha who cared more about honor was selling herself for money.

“That said, we need more money,” Resha said.

“Why?” Zalandri asked.

“For food. We have two months to make it to Vatasha before winter hits.  If we get caught in winter, we can’t travel and we’ll need money to survive,” Resha said.

“But we’ll be going to my parent’s estate after this.  It’s only two days away,” Zalandri said.

“Your bargain was with me.  You promised enough money to help me out.  We now have three others.  If we get caught in winter, we’ll use that money for food and will have nothing when we arrive in Vatasha.  If we do make it in time, wonderful.  If not, we need a back up plan or we’ll wind up as homeless beggers in the street,” Resha said.

“You’ve been thinking about this, haven’t you?”  Matog asked.

“I have.  No matter how I do the math, it always comes out as we need more money,” Resha said.

Was that her intention?  Was she selling herself so she could help support them?  It was wrong, but it would fit into what she knew of the Saytr.

Taka felt very sad for Resha.  She probably thought she was doing the right thing.  She shouldn’t do that for them.

After breakfast Taka went out by herself.  She didn’t want to think about Resha or talk to anyone.

Everywhere she looked she saw dirty, desperate, poor people.  How did these people survive the winters?  To her the city felt more like a death trap.  She couldn’t imagine being locked in here like a prisoner, unable to get food or fuel.  At least out in the country she could go into the woods, lay traps, hunt or find berries, mushrooms and fish.

Then her eyes saw what looked like a large map in the window.  She walked over and examined at it, leaning in close to get a better look.  It was a map of the continent.  She saw Vatasha, the mountains they’d have to cross and all the cities, towns and road in between.  It was a big map and she wondered if they had a smaller version.

She went inside and a few minutes later she came out with a more portable version.  Excited, she hurried back to the tavern and showed the others.  They were all still there, talking and drinking.  Matog already had one empty mug beside her.

“With this, we can plan out our route exactly,” Taka said.

They all leaned over the map.

“Looks like there are two main roads that go to Vatasha.  One goes through Zefuld and the other goes around through the Karsta Dukedom,” Layana said, tracing her finger along the paths.

“The shortest rout goes through Zefuld and the mountain passes,” Matog said.

“Shortest path wins?”  Resha asked.

“You don’t want to go through Zefuld,” some human at the bar said.

They all turned to the man.  He wore armor, pistols and a rifle leaning against the bar.  He had a shaved head, broken nose and some minor scars on his check and side of his head.  He looked like someone that would tear the head off of a manticore with his bare hands.

“Why’s that?”  Resha asked.

“The Karsta Dukedom is occupying Zefuld.  The locals aren’t happy and are asking for Ferras and Teron to step in and help them.  It’s going to get very messy around there,” the man said in a low but clear voice.  She would think someone as large and rough as him to have a voice like a rock quarry.

“What about the other rout?”  Resha asked.

“The Teroshian Empire will be invading Karsta and that road will be filled with armies going either way,” the man said.  He put down his beer and turned to face him.  He had a leather bandolier with four pistols crossing his chest.  He didn’t look friendly.

“So, what would you have us do?”  Matog asked, clearly annoyed.

“I wouldn’t travel.  The armies on the move will be foraging for supplies and will suck up every scrap of food and fuel they can find.  Aside from lack of food, it will be dangerous.”

“We have to get to Vatasha,” Zalandri said.

“I’d find a place to stay and wait it out,” he said.

“Well, this city isn’t the place.  We stay here we’ll be right in the middle of the war,” Resha said.

“You’re right.  Here isn’t a place to stay,” the man said.

This human was getting very annoying.

“Hey, human.  We’re going to Vatasha.  We’re not a group of helpless little girls.  We can take care of ourselves,” Taka said.  She pointed one of her long fingers at him.

“Have it your way, but I’m telling you, its dangerous.  You should hire a guard or go with a caravan or something.”

“We can take care of ourselves,” Matog said.

“Maybe.  Even if you could though, you’re a group of women with no men.  It will draw out people that wouldn’t normally be aggressive.  They’ll think you’re weak and attack.  You may defend yourselves, but it would be better to not have the confrontation,” he said.

“What are you saying?”  Resha asked.

“I’m saying, that if you look tough, fewer people will try to hurt you,” the human said.

“And we need a mercenary escort for this?”  Resha asked.

“Or something,” he said.

“And where can we find a mercenary?”  Taka asked.

“I’m one, but there’s no way in the Creators’ Blue Heaven I’m going all the way to Vatasha.”

Taka looked down at the map.  If what he said was true, then the road would be a very dangerous place.  Looking weak would invite trouble.  That much she knew was true.

“Why wouldn’t you go to Vatasha?”  Resha asked.

“Too far to walk and I don’t have a horse,” the man said.

“How much would you ask to escort someone to Vatasha?”  Resha asked.

“Who cares?  He doesn’t want to do it.  We’ll be fine on our own,” Matog said.

“No, he’s right.  Looking weak will make cowards feel bolder,” Taka said.

“Look, I’m not going anywhere.  The war’s coming here and if I stay, maybe I can earn some money defending this place or some caravan or something.”

“We’ll think about what you said,” Resha said.

They turned back to the map and the human turned back to his beer.

“What do you think?”  Resha asked.

“I think he’s a brutish thug that doesn’t know anything other than how to break bones,” Matog said.

“I think he’s right,” Taka said.

“I think we can trust him,” Zalandri said.

“We can’t trust him.  Humans are warlike brutes,” Layana said.

“And all Centaurs are simple laborers good for nothing more than hauling heavy things?”  Zalandri asked.

Layana scowled but nodded her head.

“Okay, there are good humans, but look at him.  He’s a mercenary.  He kills people for money.”

“I trust him,” Zalandri said.

“Why?”  Matog asked.

Zalandri retreated back into her chair.

“I just have a feeling,” Zalandri said.

“We have to have more than your feeling,” Matog said.

“I think we need a guard, a tough looking one and I don’t think we’re going to get the cream of society no matter who we pick.  But we do need one,” Taka said.  “Look at me.  I’m a scrawny Goblin.  I come up to his chest?  I’m not going to scare off anyone no matter how tough I think I am.”

“I’m with Taka in that I think we might need a guard, but how are we supposed to afford him?  We don’t have enough money as it is,” Resha said.

“Zalandri, do you think there’s some kind of award awaiting for you when we get to Vatasha?”  Taka asked.

“No.  We left with only what we could carry.  I think once all of us scholars are there, we’ll have to survive on the charity of the Vatasha University,” Zalandri said.

Taka saw that Resha kept looking back at the human.  She could tell that Resha was thinking something.  Resha must have understood the need for protection as much as she did.

Chapter 11

Taran went back to his beer.  He had tried to talk sense into the group of women.  If was up to them if they listened or not.  It was a shame that he didn’t have any easy answers for them.  They wanted to go to Vatasha and he told them that unless they hired protection, they shouldn’t try.

The Ork woman looked like she wanted to try just to prove she could.  The Goblin, Elf and Saytr seemed to understand.

The Saytr especially looked as though she had had a hard time.  The wooden hand she had was very well made, but it was still and wooden hand.  She combed her long brown hair over her eye to hide the scar and dead eye, but he noticed.  She had been hurt and he imagined that she didn’t want to be hurt again.

Alone on the road, those woman weren’t going to last long.  They may be tough, but tough was no replacement for trained.  Every day more people deserted from their armies and turned to banditry.  Those were now well trained and somewhat disciplined bandits.  Attitude couldn’t make up for a loss of experience and skill.

He had experience and skill, but he wasn’t walking all the way to Vatasha.  He was tired of walking.  The town guard liked staying in one place.  He could see himself doing that.  If he was going to guard caravans, he’d need a horse.  The worst ride was better than the best walk.

“Hey, how much for a room?”  Taran asked.

“Four silvers a night,” the fat Ork said.

“Alright, I’ll take one,” Taran said.

“Wait until this evening.  That Saytr there knows how to sing.  She’s hilarious,” the Ork said.

Taran turned back to the Saytr and saw that she was looking at him.  She quickly looked away.  He had to admit that despite her injuries, she was a beautiful woman.  Her long dark hair looked shiny and soft.  Her dark eye looking at him held a hundred thoughts and emotions at once in a way he seldom saw.  Most people’s eyes were simple, dull and lifeless.  Not hers.  She had a simple but beautiful face.  Her ears were large and stuck out like a goat’s and her horns were long and curved back in a gentle angle.

She felt sorry for them.  They were on their own trying to get to a city that was far away.  What was there that was so important that they’d risk their lives?  They risked their lives anywhere, so why go through the hardships of traveling?

The group of women got up and left the tavern and for some reason he felt confused.

Then he thought of something; what if they had a real reason?  What if they had a purpose; something important?  Wasn’t that what he had wanted?  He had wanted something worth risking his life for.  It seemed that they had such a purpose.

“They’ll be back later, right?”  He asked.

“That’s right.  Be here around sunset.  You’ll love the show.  I’m going to try to talk them into staying a little longer.  That Saytr and her singing sells more beer than anything I’ve tried.”

Taran picked up his pack and rifle and went to his room to rest.  He had been traveling for days and every muscle and bone he had ached.  When he lay down it was like his body finally decided to surrender and he fell asleep almost instantly.

He was awakened by the sound of knocking.  It took him a moment to remember where he was and what was going on.

“Yeah?”  He managed to say.  All his muscles still hurt but now it was like a low simmering pain instead of a hard boil.

“It’s me from the bar.  We talked about needing a mercenary,” a female’s voice said through the door.  He recognized it as the Saytr girl.

“Hold on.”

He got up and stiffly went to the door.  When he opened it the Saytr girl was standing there, looking up at him with her hands folded in front of her.

“I need to talk to you.  May I come in?”  She asked.

He waved her in and closed the door behind her.  She stood but he collapsed back onto his bed in a sitting position.

“What is it you need?”  He asked.

“How much would it cost to hire your services?”  She asked.

“I already said I aint walking halfway across the continent.  I don’t care how much you pay me.”

“We’ll pay you when we arrive in Vatasha.  You’ll have food.  Also, You can have me whenever you want.  I know I’m not in pristine condition, but I offer myself as payment in addition to money.”

Did he just hear that correctly?  He took a moment and shook his head and rubbed his eyes.

“So, you’re saying that you can pay me money when we get there and during the trip I can sleep with you whenever I want?”

“That’s correct.”

He looked her over.  She was very pretty, that couldn’t be denied.  Thoughts of all the things he would like to do with her entered his mind.  However, at the moment he was more interested in why this was so important that she’d offer herself to a stranger and a seemingly ruthless mercenary.

“Why?”  He asked.

“Why what?”

“Why is it so damned important you get to Vatasha?”

“We can find a new home there.  It’s away from the war.”

“There’s more to it, isn’t there?”

“Zalandri, the Elf, she has to deliver books from her old University library.  She’s willing to sacrifice everything to preserve them.  I want to make sure that she makes it.”

“What’s in it for you?  A new life in Vatasha?”

“Yes.  I want to be safe.”

“And for that you’ll sleep with a barbaric, thuggish human mercenary?”

“If that’s what it takes.  Yes.”

He didn’t see any hesitation in her eyes.  She looked square at him and didn’t turn away.  He was good with body language.  When in a fist fight or on the battlefield, he had to be able to read and predict the movements and thoughts of the other person.  He was pretty good at it.  Her body language told him that she would indeed do anything to get to Vatasha and help her friend.

She had what he didn’t, a reason to fight.  He didn’t care about some dusty old books, but he cared about the people that cared.  They had passion beyond the next pay day.

That sort of passion and idealism deserved to be protected.  He didn’t want to see them murdered along side the road by highway robbers because they were the only people he had met that actually deserved more than that.  They had a dream and that was a rare thing these days.  That deserved to be protected and he couldn’t sit by and do nothing.

“How much money?”  He asked.  He didn’t want to appear to give in too easily.  That would make him seem weak or cause her to doubt his intentions.  Everyone knew that mercenaries only cared about money so that was the language he would speak.

“I honestly don’t know.  It depends on how much Zalandri can get from her parents or how much we can earn along the road.”

“That’s not very reassuring.”

“I’m guaranteed.”

He wasn’t sure what to think about such an offer.  He admired her determination for making such an offer, but it didn’t seem right that she offered it.  He certainly wanted to plow her fields, very much so, but it felt like that would be taking advantage of her.  She deserved more respect than that.  It would feel almost…sacrilegious.

However, if he turned down the offer, she would question his motivations and the less they knew of him, the better.  They didn’t need to know that he really wasn’t all that good at war.  They were going through what could be dangerous territory and he didn’t know if he could protect them.  It could be that he was short changing them.

“Do the others know about your offer here?”  He asked.

“No, and they can’t know.”

“Should I just tell them that I was heading that way anyway?”

“Sure.  You received important news or…”

“My uncle passed away and I’m set to possibly inherit his house,” he offered.

“Yes, that would be good.  So, do you accept the job?”

“I must be crazy.”  That part was at least true.  “But yes, I’ll take the job.”

She smiled for a brief moment and he saw the relief on her soft, angled face.

“Thank you…what should I call you?”

“Taran.”

“I’m Resha.  Would you like your first payment now?”  She asked.  She reached with her good hand to her front button.  He had to find an out.

“Not right now, please.  I’ve very tired and I would like to rest as much as I can before we head out,” he said.

“Very well,” Resha said.  Her face was an unreadable mask.

“I’ll see your performance tonight,” he said.

She smiled a hollow smile and left the room.

He lay back on the bed too tired to worry about if he had just made a monumental mistake.  Taran went back to sleep and probably snored but he didn’t care.  He needed rest and not just the physical.  After so long in the military camps and battlefields, it felt strange to simply lay about and not get yelled at for doing so.

It was a strange sense of personal freedom that he hadn’t had before.  He could go to the bathroom without asking permission.  He could get a drink of water whenever he wanted to and if he felt hungry, he could simply go down stairs and order whatever he wanted.

After waking up he lay in bed glorying in how wonderful it was to simply do nothing and worry about nothing.

If wouldn’t last long though.  As soon as they chose, they would head out of the city and start a long journey to Vatasha and his rest would be over.

Vatasha was supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in the world.  Maybe that would make a good retirement city.  That would be a long walk and he didn’t look forward to that at all.

When his hunger finally won over his fatigue, he went down stairs and sat at the only empty table he could find.  It was in the back, farthest from the stage.  He heard one Troll talk about how funny the singer was from last night and hoped that she’d be there again.

The table with Resha’s friends was near the stage.  When Resha and the Ork finally took the stage the crowd started cheering and clapping.

“Welcome everyone!  Welcome to the Pilgrim’s promise where we promise you there won’t be a pilgrim here tonight.  If there is a pilgrim here, I apologize and ask that he cover his ears for the more rowdy parts…basically my entire show,” Resha said.

She acted very differently on stage.  The Resha he met was serious, focused and intelligent.  She was putting on an act and a very convincing one.

As advertised, her show indeed very funny.  She was witty, her timing was perfect and she was indeed rowdy and didn’t shy away from topics that sailors would hesitate with.  It wasn’t all just base, crude humor.  She also had very clever social satire woven into her songs that wasn’t as obvious as some of the humor.

He couldn’t take her eyes off her.  She was always doing some thing interesting, even if it was just a slight raise of the eyebrow or lip.  Even more so was her singing.  She was actually very good and was better than the majority of tavern singers he had seen.

Taran also saw a lute sitting up against the wall.  It had been a long time since he played and wanted one.  He was pretty good at it and it always helped to impress the ladies but he enjoyed it for the music.  He liked the concentration and focus on skill.  Perhaps he’d have to buy one soon.

Taran ordered chicken stew with bread and ate while he watched the rest of the performance.  It went on late into the night and eventually there were few people left in the bar.

“Okay, folks, I’ve had enough.  I’m turning in for the night,” Resha said.

“Thank you all for coming,” the Ork woman with the thick flute said.

None of Resha’s friends really looked at him and he doubted that she had told them of their deal.  He noticed the Goblin girl wander off with a Hobgoblin soldier.

Then an army officer came in.  He was a tall Hobgoblin but a much fancier uniform than the soldier that went off with the Goblin girl.  The tall, yellowish Hobgoblin looked around the tavern in disgust and marched to the bar.

“Has anyone seen a Hobgoblin soldier here?”  The officer asked in a decidedly aristocratic accent.  He was taller than most Hobgoblins he had seen and his face seemed to be in a permanent scowl.

Taran automatically disliked him.

When no one answered, the officer marched around and Taran got a good look at his rank.  A general no less!  What was a general doing looking for lost soldiers?

“Someone speak up!  I know the soldier was here and I demand that you tell me where he is!”  The general said.

“Why you looking for him?”  Taran asked.

The Hobgoblin spun around to face him.  His perfect uniform jingled with the pretentious meddles that covered his chest.  He would actually believe that he earned them if he had been awarded them for being an ass.

“I am deathly tired off the amorality and lasciviousness that runs rampant through the army.  Look what we have here, women performing on stage.  Utter trash.  I don’t want my soldiers being affected by these vermin.  It is my personal mission to show what is to be done.”

He wanted to stand up and demand that he apologize, but didn’t think he could win in a duel if the General felt disrespected.  A duel was something to be feared.  On the battlefield he had hundreds of soldiers to watch his flank or help if he got in trouble.  Here he was alone.  He wasn’t good enough with a sword to attempt a duel and he wasn’t sure he was fast or accurate enough with the pistol.

So, he held his tongue and didn’t offer any reason to start a fight.  It wasn’t cowardly, he just knew he couldn’t win.  He wasn’t going to fight when he couldn’t win.  His first goal was to stay alive.  He wanted a cause, but he didn’t want to die for one.

“I haven’t seen any soldiers here.  I saw a Hobgoblin earlier, but he was old and fat.  I doubt he’s your man,” Taran said.

Taran had more respect for the common soldier than some aristocratic ass like this general.  One way Taran knew he wasn’t a good general was because he was doing this personally.  Something like this should be left to the soldier’s officer or NCO.  It showed that he had to get his hands in everyone’s soup.  It made for a bad cook.

“I’ve heard he was here last night,” the general said.

“That was last night.  Not tonight.  I wasn’t here last night so I can’t tell you about that.  But I know I didn’t see any soldiers here tonight.”

The general glared at him as if he were supposed to magically change reality to fit his desires.  Granted, he was lying, but the general had no way of knowing that.

The Hobgoblin general looked around the room before storming out like a spoiled child.  The table of Resha’s friends looked over to him.

“Why did you defend the soldier?”  The fiery Ork asked.  Her skull-like face wasn’t as harsh as some Orks he had seen and he liked her temperamental attitude.  He wasn’t a respecter of passive and submissive women.

“Because the officer was an ass.  The soldier’s just a common guy trying to get by,” he said.  “Also, I figured I should play nice considering I’m going to be traveling with you.”

“What?”  The Ork asked.  The other women looked equally confused.

“It turns out my uncle in Vatasha has died and I might inherit his house.  Me and Resha talked briefly but she said I had to get you alls opinion first.  Will you let me travel with you?”

They all looked to Resha who was still on the stage.

“Um…yes, we talked.  He’s agreed to escort us for a small some.  I think we should hire him.  We need protection,” Resha said.

“I say we bring him,” the Elf said.

“I know Taka would say yes,” Resha said.

Taka must be the Goblin that was currently occupied.

“How much money we talking about here and how do we know he’s any good?”  The Ork asked.

“I’m working for cheap not because I’m not good but because I’m heading that way anyway.  Fifty silvers plus whatever expenses come up along the way,” Taran said.

He was grossly under charging them and he hoped they wouldn’t realize it.

“I can get that from my parents,” Zalandri said but she didn’t sound very sure of herself.

“One lonely mercenary among so many women?”  The Centaur asked.  “I’ve seen how your kind behave in military camps.  I’m not impressed.”

“There’s more of you and you’re armed.  I won’t and couldn’t try anything,” he said.  He was glad that they weren’t so accepting of him.  If they were that would show them to be somewhat foolish.

“You have to be on your best behavior,” the Centaur said.

“I will be.  You have my word,” he said.

“The word of a Human mercenary?”  The Ork laughed.

“Listen, I’m traveling that way regardless.  Wouldn’t you want me there in case something happens?  I can talk to guards on a level you can’t.  I know things about how soldiers act that you don’t.  I know how to survive and I’m offering you this for very cheap.  I can’t do anything you don’t like because you have more guns than I do.  It’s simple like that.  Let me come and I can help you,” he said.

He noticed that Resha looked stunned.  Maybe she thought she would have been the one doing the convincing.

“Do you have any jokes or stories?”  The Ork asked.  With that he knew he had won.

“I do, but I’m not a good story teller,” he said.

“What are you good at?”  The Ork asked.

“Reloading quickly and aiming accurately,” he said.   That was true as well.  He was one of the better shots in the company but not the best.  There were a few people that were better.  However there was more to soldiering than being a marksman.

“Let us discuss this,” the Centaur said.

Their group leaned in around the table and began whispering.  A few moments later Resha came over and held out her hand.

“Welcome to our little band,” Resha said.

He shook her hand.

“I’ll do what I can to make sure you arrive in Vatasha.”

“Thank you,” she whispered into his ear.

Chapter 12

Zalandri couldn’t sleep that night.  For some reason the spirits around her were being more active than usual.  It wasn’t just the two that clung to her, it was the native spirits that stayed around the tavern for whatever reasons.  She would hear whisperings that would awaken her, crying and even what sounded like conversations.

She had to remember her training and block them from her mind.  It was working until her door opened seemingly by itself.  She pulled the blanket up to her chin.  No one was around so she could see but she certainly didn’t hear any footsteps by the door.

“Hello?”  She whispered.

No one answered.

She chanted the litany of Brenishan in her mind.  They said that spirits were more active if there was a storm coming or if there was a full moon.  As she was blind she couldn’t check up on either of those things.

Zalandri hated being along, but going to someone else for help against spirits was weak and she could imagine her father mocking her for it.  So she stayed in her bed and did the best she could.

She didn’t sleep much that night and when she got up in the morning she heard the rain outside.  So, it had been a storm.

Then her mind picked up the sight from Matog.  She was just beginning to wake up.  The window in her room showed a dark, rainy morning, the kind she used to love but now feared traveling in.

She got up, got dressed and made her way downstairs.  She hated lying in bed.  If she could see she would be reading her books.  There was so much to learn from them.  She hated sleeping in and she hated doing nothing.

She caught the sight of the owner and walked to the bar.  She looked tired, her hair was a mess and she had bags under her eyes.

“What’s for breakfast?”  She asked.

“Eggs, sausage, sweet bread,” the Ork said.

“Breakfast please,” she said.

“Coming up.”

The Ork went into the back room to tell his Goblin cooks to start making breakfasts.

“You don’t have a spur in your bottom like other Elves.  I think that’s the first time I heard an Elf say please.”

“Yes, well, my kind aren’t taught politeness as children,” she said.

“You aint kidding.”

Then she caught the sight of the mercenary.  He walked down the stairs and saw her.

“Good morning,” he said.

She felt her woman in white approach the mercenary.  She liked him.

“Come have a seat,” she said.

“Thank you.”

He sat down and leaned back in his chair.

“I see you’re an early riser,” she said.

“It’s a bad habit I’m trying to work on,” he said.

Through his eyes she adjusted herself so she wouldn’t look timid or weak.  She still looked tired like she hadn’t slept though.

“My name’s Zalandri,” she said and held out her hand.

He took it but she couldn’t see if he smiled.

“Talan.”

“Are you a good man?”  She asked.  The woman in white thought he was, but she wondered what he thought of himself.

“A good man?  That’s not an easy question.  I think I’ve killed too many people to ever be considered a good man.”

“Is that your only sin?”

“I wish it were.  My commanding officer always said pride was my worst trait.”

“You’re trying to use humor as a shield.”

“Well, sometimes people need shields.”

“You prefer guns though.”

“You know how to shoot?”

“Only at close range.  I’m sort of blind.”

She explained how her sight worked and he accepted it as perfectly normal.  At least he was adaptable.

“I know what you need.  You need a blunderbuss.  It shoots small pellets that spread out over a wide area.  It will make it harder to miss.”

“Really?  I think I would like to try that.”

“You won’t even have to see with that, just listen for your target and fire in the general direction.”

“We have weapons to trade and sell.  Do you know where I can get one of these?”

“I know a place.  Let’s go after breakfast.”

They ate and left before anyone else had come down.  Matog must have gone back to sleep.

She grabbed a pistol and rifle and followed him closely through the streets.

“Taran, have you been to many places?”  She asked as they made their way to the gun store.  She was almost pressed against his back to be kept from being swept away by all the morning shoppers buying fresh fruits and vegetables for the day.

“I have, but I can’t say I’ve experienced them.  I’ve seen some of the great cities of the continent, but mostly from outside the walls.  Sometimes the places I’ve seen we were attacking and destroying,” he said.

“That’s sad.”

“It is.  Can you see from back there?”

“I’m seeing through your eyes, remember?”

“Oh yeah.  Why don’t you come up front?”

“No thanks.  I’m small and I’ll get pushed around.”

“Hold on then.”

He reached back and took her by the hand.  At first she didn’t want him to but realized that he was trying to lead her though.  It was actually helpful.  She had never had anyone hold her hand like that before.  It was strangely comforting.

They reached the gun store that had a simple, wordless sign with a carving of a musket on it.  He walked in and she saw a simple room with racks of all manner of weapons on the walls.  There was a table with used weapons in the middle.  Behind the counter were military flags, weapons and some armor.  The Troll behind the counter was working on a disassembled musket.  He had a magnifying monocle in his eye.

“We’re looking in to trading in for a blunderbuss,” Taran said.

The Troll looked up.  In a way he looked like a Goblin.  He had a large, pointy nose, large pointed ears and greenish skin, but instead of being short and scrawny, the Troll was large and muscular.  This one had a shaved head marking the he probably had served in the military.

“Blunderbuss, eh?”  The Troll stood up and limped over to the back wall and picked up what looked like a musket, but shorter and the barrel flared out a bit.  The Troll handed it over to Taran who began to look it over and test the weight.

“Good wood on this.  The mechanism is smooth, but not worn.  How much?”  Taran asked.

“One fifty,” the Troll said.

“I got a musket rifle here and a pistol.”

“I’ll trade you straight across for the rifle,” the Troll said.

“Fair enough,” Taran said.

He handed the troll the rifle and then traded the pistol for balls and powder.

Once they were back on the streets she tugged on his sleeve.

“How did we do?  Did we get ripped off?”

“Ripped off?  No.  Not at all.  The Troll was actually fair with us.  I thought he would have wanted the rifle and the pistol, but he traded evenly and fairly.  Don’t expect that too often.”

“So, this is mine now?”

“Absolutely.  Once we get outside of town I’ll teach you how to use it.”

“Thank you, Taran.”

He merely grunted as a way of saying ‘thank you.’  She understood that he had to keep up his appearance of not caring.

When they got back to the tavern the others were up and eating breakfast.  For a little woman, Taka could out eat all of them.

“There you are!  We were worried about you,” Resha said.

“You went off alone with him?”  Matog asked.

“We traded a rifle for a blunderbuss.  He says it will help me hit much easier,” Zalandri said.

“I’m going to teach her how to use it and as many as you that care to learn, I’ll teach you how to use your weapons for fighting,” he said.

They sat down with the rest and Resha took out the map again.

“So, what path are we taking?”  Resha asked.

“I was thinking we take the easier route,” he said.  We head east and then south until we get to the Karsta Dukedom.  That way we’ll avoid Zefuld and all the problems that come with occupation by foreign powers.  We’ll avoid the high mountains but there’ll still be some mountains we have to cross.”

“So, what’s the down side?”  Matog asked.

“The downside is that war between Karsta and the Empire might brake out any day.  We don’t want to get caught between two enemy armies, even if they aren’t fighting,” he said.

“Let’s avoid that, please,” Resha said.

“We’re heading east then,” Layana said.

“Yes.  We’ll want to avoid the mountain passes.  Too many polls and too many bandits,” Taran said.

They talked about the route, possible dangers and how much supplies they’d need.  Taran wasn’t like how she had imagined a killer mercenary to be.  He didn’t seem to want to take over or be in charge.  He was perfectly content to voice his opinion and let them decide.

That night was Resha’s last performance.  The owner tried to talk them into staying longer but Resha was eager to get back on the road.  Zalandri didn’t really care to watch, it wasn’t her sort of music and especially wasn’t her sort of humor.  She would have preferred to read, but because no one else was going to help her, she couldn’t.

For someone raised on being strong and independent, she hated having to rely on everyone else.

So, she sat there at the table and watched the performance.  It was different every time because Resha made it up as she went.  Matog played the flute beautifully and she at least enjoyed her music.  She loved Resha, but didn’t love her foul mouth.  It seemed that everyone else did though.

After the performance they sat around the table, enjoying the last real food and drink they’d have in a while.  A part of her wished that she could stay here and enjoy life like this.  It would be so easy to do so.

However, every day that passed the more she worried about the books and her colleagues.  She wanted to know if they were safe and she knew they’d want to know that she was safe.

They got up early in the morning and assembled downstairs.  Resha had helped her pack and she had helped Resha.  She needed Resha’s eyes and Resha needed her hands.  There were just some things a person couldn’t do with only one hand.

She hated the feeling of the pack on her shoulders.  At least Layana was carrying most of them now.  Zalandri carried some of the extra blankets and medical supplies.  Slung diagonally across her chest was a leather strap she had attached her blunderbuss too.  Taran had said to name her weapon and when Resha sang a song while Matog took a break, she got the name.  A cappella.

At first she had wanted to name it after an ancient queen, but nobody but her would understand the reference.

Once they were all assembled, they left the tavern with its good food and warm beds and began walking.  The sun wasn’t up yet and the streets were still empty.

The sun was coming up by the time they left the eastern gate.  Taran let Taka take the lead so she could set the pace.  With her being the shortest, she would be the slowest.  Taran was wrong about that.  Taka could outpace her any day.  Zalandri had to struggle to keep up and if she didn’t pay attention she would fall behind.

When they stopped for lunch she dropped to the ground and laid there until she caught her breath.

“We have to slow down,” Zalandri said.

“I agree.  It’s kind of fast,” Resha said.  “We’ll wear ourselves out in a few days.”

“Alright.  Zalandri, would you like to set the pace?”  Taran asked.

“I would like that,” Zalandri said.

She took out an apple from her pack and lay on her back while she ate.  She thought of what Vatasha was going to be like.  She couldn’t wait to smell the salt of the ocean.

After lunch Zalandri walked at her own pace and it was much more enjoyable.  She needed to hurry but it wouldn’t be any faster if she killed herself from pushing too hard.

The plains around the city spread out as far as they could see.  It was a sea of grass with small farms spread out all around.  It was actually very beautiful and she was thankful to the Creators that she was able to see it.

“So, Resha, we hear you have a joke for us,” Matog said.

“Which one?”  Resha asked.

“The one about the cultists.”

“Oh.  Alright.  Hold on…So, this cultist was taking a clueless victim to a secret spot in the woods where he going to sacrifice her.  It’s late at night and its storming with lightening and all kinds of noises in the woods.  She turns to him and says “I’m scared!”  Then he says “hey, what about me?  I have to walk back through this alone.”

There was a slight pause before people started laughing.  Layana seemed embarrassed that she was laughing and Taka was shaking her head.  Taran was in front and she couldn’t see what his reaction was.

“That’s horrible,” Matog said while still chuckling.

Then she heard a deep, low laugh coming from Taran.  At first she didn’t know what it was, but the sound kept building until it became a roaring laugh.  He never made any comment, he just laughed as he walked.

At night there was no grove of trees, farm house or rock to call shelter so they camped out in the open, along side the road in a field of grass.  The tall grass when bent over actually made a pretty comfortable bed.

They sat or lay there, talking and joking while she remained silent, content to just listen in.  They’re talk was very different than the scholars and students at the University.  The little group here never brought up the names of philosophers, historians or kings.  It was simpler but more honest at the same time.

“Alright.  Get some sleep now.  I’ll take first watch,” Taran said.

“Is that really necessary?  We’re not in the army,” Matog said.

“True, but I’d like to stay awake a little longer and make sure no one’s coming after us.”

“Alright, but I don’t think its necessary.  At least not yet.  Maybe when we’re near an army,” Matog said.

Resha looked as if she were about to say something, but she looked back to the ground.

Zalandri tried to sleep but she could hear the whispering of the two spirits that were always around her.  As everyone went to sleep, the only eyes she could see from were Taran’s.  He was looking out over the fields of grass but would occasionally look back at the sleeping camp.  He noticed that his gaze lingered on Resha far more often than the others.

She knew that many Humans considered Elves to be beautiful, but she didn’t know what they thought about Saytrs.  She really didn’t know which races liked which races.   What did Goblins think of Humans?  What did Humans think of Orks?  She thought Matog was pretty in her own way.  If she were a man she wouldn’t mind keeping company with her.

She had never had time or inclination for romantic distractions.  She had had to work twice as hard to accomplish the same as all the others.  However, that didn’t mean that she didn’t think about it.  She had wondered what it would be like.

Zalandri had heard her friends talking about their romances.  She had heard things she had never imagined.  The aristocratic Elven society didn’t allow talk of such things in front of women.  Men talked about and did horrid things, but talk of such things was considered very rude behavior.  It was one of many hypocrisies that her culture had.

Her friends at the University never had fear of talking about romance and all that went with it.  The stories and ideas she heard still stayed with her.  She thought about what it would be like to share a bed with Taran.  He was large, muscular and kinder than he let on.  She didn’t think the others realized what sort of man Taran really was, but she saw it.

She went to sleep with dreams of Taran holding her tightly and from behind.

Chapter 13

Resha awoke in the morning and realized that Taran hadn’t come to her in the night.  She had expected to be shaken on the shoulder at any moment.  But there he was, sleeping on his side with his rifle within reach.

She sat up and found she was the first one awake.  Zalandri slept quietly with a large, tight-lipped smile.  Taka was curled into a ball and Matog was sprawled out with limbs everywhere.  Layana slept on her side and she imagined that it wasn’t entirely easy for her to get up from that position.

Why didn’t Taran take her?  Was it because he didn’t find her attractive?  If that was the case, why didn’t he reject her offer?  Perhaps he was merely tired and too exhausted to care about such things.  Maybe he was just looking for a place with more privacy.

She got up and stretched.  Then she took a cloth, wetted it on the dew on the grass and wiped down her face, horns and hooves.  Why she was cleaning her hooves, she didn’t know.  She had a lot of walking to go.

Lastly she put on her wooden hand that the Ogre had made for her.  She didn’t want Taran to see her without it even though he knew what it was.

The sun was rising above the plains and the sky was a brilliant purple like she had never seen before.  She stopped and watched it as it slowly faded into pale blue.  She wondered if the Creators were artists.

What did the Creators have planned for her and her friends?  She knelt, held up both hands, palms up and prayed silently that they would guide and protect them.  She seldom got the opportunity to go to the temple, but she prayed when she could.

She hurried and finished the prayer as she heard Zalandri stir.

“Good morning, Resha,” Zalandri said with a smile.

“Sleep well?”

“Oh yes.  I had a wonderful dream.  And you?”

“I slept well.”

She ate some dried fruit as the other woke up and got ready for the day.  They stretched, ate and relieved themselves in the grass far from the camp.

“Everyone, grab your weapon. We’re going to do a little training,” Taran said as he strapped on his breastplate.

They all grabbed their rifles and Zalandri grabbed her blunderbuss.  He had them practice loading and firing at a rock he found along the road.  None of them hit it.  He taught them about breathing and firing after letting their breath out.  He taught them how to squeeze the trigger and he had them practice pulling the trigger without jerking the rifle.

The training didn’t last long because they had to get back on the road.  Even when they had made mistakes, Taran had not raised his voice or even got frustrated.  He either didn’t care or he had patience.  She didn’t believe that he didn’t care or he wouldn’t bother training them.

As they walked she came up along side Taran.

“How was your night?”  She asked.

“Peaceful.”

Then she whispered but tried not to look like she was talking because she didn’t want the others listening in.

“I noticed.  I thought you would have pulled me away for some privacy.”

“Are you so eager to have me consummate our deal?”

He looked right at her with a stone face she couldn’t read.  She suddenly felt somewhat embarrassed and a bit foolish.  She wasn’t eager to consummate anything.

“Not eager, no.  I guess…I’m curious is all.”

“Then don’t worry about it right now.”

“But…”

He would take her in his own time, whenever that was.

As she walked she looked over his armor.  He had plates with large leather straps, pouches and pistols all over.  She didn’t understand what some of it was, but she recognized most of it as being all the things he would need during a fight.  There were even pouches on his thighs and upper arms.  She would never have thought about such things but he clearly had.

“Do you have family?”  She asked.

“They’re all back home, far away.  I haven’t seen or heard from them in years.”

“Why?”

“My father wanted me to be a farmer.  I didn’t want that.  He said that if I left I could never come back.  What about you?”

“I never knew my father and my mother died a few years ago.  If I have any other family, I’ve never heard of them.”

“What did you do before all this?”

“I worked at a tavern.”

“Did you like working there?”

“I suppose.  It’s not what I wanted, but it’s what I had.”

“What did you want?”

“I don’t know.  Maybe a family.  Children.  A nice house.”

Taran nodded and didn’t ask any more questions.

About two hours later Taran held his hand up for them to stop.

“What is it?”

“I saw a glint of something shiny down the road.”

He then took them all aside and into the grass away from the road.

“What did you see?”  Resha whispered.

“It could be a merchant caravan or an army patrol.  I don’t know but I’d rather not be seen.”

They stayed hidden until whatever it was coming down the road came into view.  It was a column of soldiers.  They had Centaurs and horses pulling large wheeled cannons.

“Artillery regiment.  Everyone stay down,” Taran whispered.

Resha watched the regiment pass by.  The cannons had bright, shiny barrels that looked brand new.  The soldiers’ uniforms were all neat and spotless.  These were fresh troops being brought up to the front lines.

She was lying on her stomach, head slightly tilted back so her horns wouldn’t stick up too far.  She watched the soldiers until they were out of side.  They started moving again but stayed in the grass for another half hour before getting back on the road.

“Where do you think they’re heading?”  Matog asked.

“Further north somewhere.  Maybe they’re going to take back Rotaun,” Taran said.

“Another battle there?  They already destroyed the Library.  What more damage can they cause?”  Zalandri said.

“There’s much more in the city than just the library.  A common person’s home is more important to them than your Library,” Taran said.

“Oh, well, yes.  Of course,” Zalandri said.

“They were fresh looking,” Resha said.

“Probably a new volunteer unit.  They were too eager looking,” Taran said.

“Zalandri, did you have anyone at the university?”  Taka asked.

“Of course.  I had my professors, my room mate, my reading tutor,” Zalandri said.

Matog began laughing.

“What’s so funny?”  Zalandri asked.  Her eyes narrowed and her lips tightened.

“You were very busy there.  Amazing you had time to study at all,” Matog said.

Taka began laughing and Resha did her best to stifle her own.

“I don’t think that’s what she meant,” Layana said.  “She wanted to know if you had anyone special to you…in a romantic way.”

“Oh!  No.  I had no one like that,” Zalandri said.

“What about you, Matog?”  Taka asked.

“I shared my time with a few soldiers, but there was one in particular I was sweeter with.  He was an Ork.  Tall, lean and very quiet.  It took a lot of effort to get him to talk about what he was thinking, but it was always worth that effort.  Smartest Ork I’ve ever met.”

“What happened?”  Taka asked.

“I looked for him after the last battle, but everyone was so busy running away that no one could tell me where he was.  With the Ferras army coming closer, I didn’t have a lot of time to look for him.”

“Maybe you’ll find him one day,” Zalandri said.

“I doubt it,” Matog said.

“What about you Resha?  Were you in love?”  Zalandri asked.

“No.  I don’t see the point in love.  People get together because they’re lonely and think they need someone to rely on.  Its physical attraction, loneliness and convenience.  I’ve seen nothing from men other than simple, animal attraction,” Resha said.

“That’s not true.  People fall in love all the time,” Zalandri said.

“Really?  Who?”

“Students at the University.”

“And how long did their true love last?  A month?  Two?”

“Well…”

“You saw physical attraction and loneliness.  True love only exists in the books you read,” Resha said.

“You don’t love anyone?”

“I loved my mother.  I love people, but not in this mystical, connection way you talk of.”

Resha didn’t want to sound so harsh to Zalandri, but the idea of love was always annoying to her.  It was something she wanted so badly.  She wished it were true.  She wanted the kind of love she heard in stories.  Ever since she was a little girl she had wanted that kind of love, but every year that passed she saw less and less evidence of it.

She saw people who had been happily married for years have affairs.  She saw the perfect couples fall apart into bickering enemies.  All the examples of what love should have been never lasted long as love.

“What about you, Taran?”  Taka asked.

She had wanted to ask the question herself but felt too embarrassed to do so.

“Never been in love,” he said.

“Do you believe in it?”  Taka asked.

“Yes.”

Taka’s yellow eyes went wide and she smiled.

“Really?  I wouldn’t have guessed.  Sweet, kind Resha doesn’t believe in it but the hired killer does,” Taka said.

“I just haven’t seen it yet,” Resha said.

“But you’re not opposed to the idea,” Zalandri said.

“I suppose not,” Resha said.

“I’ve seen it,” Taran said.

“Where?”  Taka asked.

“My parents,” Taran said.

“What about you, Layana?”  Taka asked.

“I was in love once.  But when my family left, I went with them and will never see him again.  I’ll find another love,” Layana said.

“You’ve asked all the questions, Taka.  Your turn,” Taran said.

“There was someone in my village, but I doubt it was love.  I liked him well enough, but I think it was more lust on my part.  I think he liked me more than I liked him.”

They talked about nothing in particular the rest of the day.  The flat expanse of the plains offered nothing to see except the scattered clouds in the sky.  Even the farm houses had disappeared.

“How long until we get to the next village?”  Matog asked.

“Two weeks,” Resha said.  She had studied the map and their route fairly well and was confident she knew the way.  “Three weeks until we get to the next city.  Roughly two and a half weeks to get to the next city and then three and a half weeks to arrive in Vatasha.”

“That’s coming awfully close to winter,” Matog said.

“It will be getting cold by the time we arrive.  That’s if we stay on schedule,” Resha said.

“We’ll be at my estate this evening,” Zalandri said.  “We’ll get the money we need.”

Resha couldn’t imagine aristocratic Elves giving money for anything, even their own daughter.  She was hoping to be pleasantly surprised.  Even Elves could be good.

They came to a small fork in the road with a sign that had letters too faded to read.

“We’re almost there.  I think I can see the smoke from the chimney,” Zalandri said.

Zalandri picked up the pace as she turned left, down the small dirt road.  Resha could see a grove of trees up ahead and she guessed the manor house was behind them.

The closer she got, the more worried she became.  That seemed like an awful lot of smoke for a chimney.  The road had a lot of hoof marks going up and down it.

Resha looked over to Taran and saw that he was unslinging his rifle.  He was worried as well.

Then, Resha could see through the trees and didn’t see a house.  Instead she saw a pile of smoldering, burnt wood.

Zalandri came to a stop and stood there, motionless.  Her arms fell down to her sides and her face was blank.

Everyone fell silent and looked out at the ruined house.  They couldn’t see much of it, but they could see enough of it.

“I’m sorry, Zalandri,” Resha whispered.

“What happened?”  Zalandri asked.

She began to walk forward and Resha came up beside her.  They walked up the path, through the tunnel of trees and to the ruins of the house.  Half of the house stood, though badly burned.

“Stay here,” Taran said.

He slung his rifle and pulled out a pistol as he walked towards the house.  Resha ignored his order and ran to catch up to him.

“If there are bodies, I don’t want her to see them,” he whispered.

She nodded that she understood.  Resha knew what it was like to find her home destroyed.

They walked up to the burnt ruins.

“Two days ago, maybe one,” Taran said.  She assumed that he had seen enough burnt buildings to know the difference.

The house must have been impressive when it was standing.  The ruins were at least twice as big as the Angry Hamster.  She didn’t see any bodies, but she saw a lot of footprints.  He led her inside what used to be the front door.  Blackened wood filled the area of the house, but a few larger support beams still stood.

She watched as Taran began looking through the rubble.  She used her hooves to knock wood out of the way.  She saw burnt pieces of furniture, vases, the frames of paintings and destroyed rugs.

“I don’t see any bodies,” he said.

“Me neither.”

“Let’s look in the other part of the house.”  He pointed with his pistol to the part of the house that was still standing.

The place was burnt and everything was ruined.  Again there were no bodies.

“They must have left before the army came through,” Taran said.

“Which army?”

“I assume, Ferras.  Scouting party maybe?”

“Wait, they’ve come this far east?”

“That is a problem.  That means they’re preparing to assault Narasha.  I didn’t think they’d move this quickly.”

“Can they still be around?”

“It’s likely.”

Taran then looked out a window with no glass.  He instantly got down and she quickly followed his example.

“What’s wrong?”  She asked.  She moved over closer to him and looked out the window as well.

In the distance she could make out three horsemen riding hard toward the house.

“They must have been waiting for someone,” Taran said.

“Why?”

“To get information.”

“What do we do?”

“We ambush them.  Wait until they get closer, make sure they are who I think they are and then we shoot them when they come into range.”

“Sounds simple.”

“Simple, but not easy.”

“What do we tell Zalandri?”

“The truth.  We didn’t find bodies.  Those scouts were waiting for someone to show up.  Her family’s still alive.”

“This also means no money.  Without that money, we can’t make it.  What are we supposed to do once we get there?  I’ll be in a strange city with no money.”

“I think we have more immediate problems.”

“So what if we kill them?  We can’t go back to Narasha because they’ll be under attack soon.  If we make it to Vatasha, we’ll be coinless.  Where are we supposed to go?”

This was horrible.  Everything she had been planning on had vanished into nothing.

Taran grabbed her by the shoulders and looked her in the eye.

“Resha, I need you to focus.  Think about the problem at hand.  We’ll deal with all that later.  We’ll find a way.  It’ll be good.  You’ll see.”

She closed her eyes and tried to calm down.  He was right.  She had to focus and live through the day.  As long as she stayed alive she had hope.

“Stay alive,” she whispered to herself.

“Yes, stay alive.  Understood?  We’re alive so we’re in good shape.”

“Right.”

“Now listen, do as I say and we won’t have any problems.  You’re tough and smart.  You want to help Zalandri, right?”

“Of course.”

“Then we will.  It won’t be easy, but we’ll manage.  For now, let’s kill these Ferras scouts.  Understood?”

“Understood,” she said.  She felt a little better.  He had a way of reassuring her.  As they ran back to the others she thought about how Taran had taken the time to calm her down and get her mind fixed.  It showed kindness and patience.  He was a man who earned a living by killing other people, a human nonetheless, and yet he showed the Light of the Creators within him.

She wanted to know more about him.

Chapter 14

Taka gripped her pistol as she listened to Taran explain to them how to do the ambush.  Zalandri was quiet, but she wasn’t frantic or even crying.  Taka remembered when she saw her home being burned down.  She had cried.

“They’re coming fast and we only have a few moments.  I need someone to act as bait,” Taran said.  Me and the others will be hidden.  They’ll come around the corner and see our bait.  That’ll distract them enough for us to kill them.”

“I’ll do it,” Taka said before she even thought about it.  If she thought about it, she wouldn’t have done it.  It was a brief, but powerful desire to be useful.  It sounded dangerous and if she could keep Resha out of danger, then that would be a step toward repaying her for her kindness.

“Alright, Taka, go stand by the trees.  When they come into view, make sure they see you and then act like you’re hiding.  They’ll come after you and give us clear shots.”

“I’m having second thoughts,” Taka said.  Her heart was beating and it was becoming harder to breathe.

“You’ll be fine.  Hurry and get into position,”

Taran put one hand on her shoulder while pointing to the trees.  She took a deep breath and then ran to the trees, wondering when she had turned crazy.

She reached the trees in time to turn around and see three riders with shiny breastplates and short rifles coming from around the ruined house.  They definitely saw her.  She swore and quickly hid behind one of the large trees.  She looked out from behind to see what was going to happen.  If one of the scouts made it to her, she wanted to know.

The scouts changed course and began riding straight at her.  Taran and the others were waiting, pressed against one of the remaining wall sections.  They fired at the same time and a cloud of gray smoke erupted from their raised guns.  Two scouts were knocked instantly off their horses and one held on for a moment before falling over.

Taka pulled out her pistol and ran over to the three scouts.  Taran ran out and pointed his pistol at one of them.  She ran up to the nearest one and saw that the Ork was staring up at the sky with unblinking eyes.

Layan ran after the horses and gathered them up.

“This one’s alive,” Matog said.  She was pointing her pistol at the scout.

Taka hurried over and they all huddled around the wounded Hobgoblin.

“What happened here?” Taran asked the wounded scout.  He had blood coming out of his mouth and definitely didn’t look to be in good shape.

“Piss off!”  The Hobgoblin said.

“What happened to my family?”  Zalandri asked.

“I’m not telling,” the scout said.

Without warning, Zalandri pulled out her knife and plunged it into the scout’s leg.  He screamed in pain.  Zalandri bent down and looked him in the eye as she twisted the knife.  He screamed more.

“The pain will end when you tell me what happened to the people that live here,” Zalandri said.

“We came and demanded money and food.  They refused so we came back later that day.  They were gone so we waited in the grass,” the scout said, gasping between sentences.

“Where’s your army?”  Taran asked.

“They’ll be encircling Narasha by tomorrow,” the Hobgoblin laughed.

Zalandri twisted the knife again, making the scout scream.  Taka had no idea Zalandri was capable of cruelty.  It seemed as natural for the Elf as reading her books or quoting a dead historian.

Then Taka saw Taran give a strange look to Resha and Zalandri.  Before she even realized what happened, Taran had taken a knife and slit the scout’s throat.

“Why did you do that?”  Layana asked, horrified.

“I didn’t want him to tell his friends to look for us.  We don’t need a price on our heads,” Taran said.

“He also burned down my home,” Zalandri said.

“At least your parents are alright,” Layana said.

“I’m more concerned about the money right now.  With out that money I can’t pay you.  You’ll leave me at the next city and I’ll be on my own.”

Resha knelt down beside Zalandri.

“I’m not leaving.  I’ll get you to Vatasha no matter what,” Resha said.

“Really?  Why would you do that?”  Zalandri asked.

“We’re friends.”

Zalandri smiled and wrapped her arms around Resha’s neck.

Taka thought about that.  She had joined because Resha had promised her a chance at a new life in Vatasha.  Now that didn’t seem likely.  She could stay at the next town or city, but with the Ferras army so close, she wanted to get some more distance first.

“I guess it’s a good thing I’m heading to Vatasha anyway,” Taran said.

Taka couldn’t believe it.  The mercenary was going to stay?  He had to be up to something.  He was probably going to demand something else in payment, like time in their beds.  She didn’t find humans terribly attractive but this one wasn’t too bad.  However, she wasn’t going to use herself as currency even though Resha was willing.

Then a thought came across her mind.  Was that why the merc had agreed to so low a payment?  Was Resha paying him with her bed?  Couldn’t be.  Still, she would watch.

If that were the case, why was she doing it?  Did she want protection that bad?  She might be doing it to protect everyone else.  If that was the case, then she was being too selfless.  She would have to find out more.

By the looks of everyone else’s faces, they were as surprised about the mercenary as she was.

Taka thought about leaving at the next town.  She would be left there alone, far from home and with no job.  At least with Resha and Zalandri she had friends.  Vatasha was as good as anywhere else to start over and at least she would be with people.

“I’m with you all the way to Vatasha,” Taka said.

Resha wasn’t surprised but Zalandri was.

“Thank you, Taka.”

“We’ll stick around for a while,” Matog said.

“At least until we get away from these armies,” Layana said.

“Thank you,” Zalandri said.

Then Taka saw one of those fancy short rifles the scout had.  She picked it up and brushed it off.  It was lighter, shorter and perfect for her smaller body.

“I’m keeping this,” Taka said.

“So, you’ve found the carbine.  That should fit you much nicer than those rifles.”

“Considering I couldn’t really hold the stupid thing, I’d agree,” Taka said.

She tested the weight and feel of the carbine and checked the mechanism.

“This is prettier than the others,” Taka said.

“Cavalry is a pass time for the rich.  They can afford the prettier guns and the fancier uniforms.  They get all the glory without having to walk anywhere,” Taran said.

“I’m going to look through my house and see if there’s anything I can find,” Zalandri said.  Then her and Resha went into the ruined house and began looking around.

“We’ll make camp here for the night,” Taran said.

“Good a spot as any,” Matog said.

While they began resting, she went over to the bodies and began searching them.  They had fancy pistols, money, rations, and some useful equipment.  What she liked best though, were the horses.  There wasn’t enough of them, but at least they could take turns and get off their feet for a while.

When Zalandri and Resha came back, they showed a small silver bowl they had managed to find.  At least that would be worth something.

Taka watched Resha and Taran that night, but there didn’t seem to be anything going on between them.  Taran made no move or even gesture towards her.  She noticed that Resha kept looking over to him though, but that could be anything.

In the morning Taran took her aside and taught her how to use the carbine.  She liked the personal attention.  She liked it when he reached around her in order to show her something.  He was a human, but if he ever made any advances toward her, she’d probably let him.

“You’re a natural shot,” Taran said after she had managed to hit the target almost directly in the middle.  They were using a piece of wood from the house with a chalk circle on it.

“My father was the best hunter in the village.  I must get it from him,” Taka said.

“You must because that’s some fine shooting.”

“Are you trying to flatter me?”

“Only a little.”

They continued walking and Taka noticed that Zalandri had picked up the pace a bit more.  Everyone knew that this wasn’t going to be easy, but now they were starting to realize how hard it was actually going to be.  Without Zalandri’s money, they might not make it.

They talked about their favorite foods and favorite songs.  Taran stayed quiet mostly.  She didn’t know if he didn’t care about what they were talking about or if he was content to just listen.

Zalandri had just lost her house and family, yet she seemed more concerned about the house and the money.  Taka couldn’t understand how a family could fall so low and still be called a family.  They had burned her village, but she was worried about her family.  They had escaped and she was fairly sure that they were safe, but she wondered if she’d ever see them again.

Here she was, going south when her family was probably up north or east.  Every day she got further and further from them, but she didn’t have a choice.  She had keep safe and staying with these people and going to Vatasha was safer than most places.

Taka could see that Resha had grown a bit more sullen.  It was as if she were constantly lost in thought.  Resha was concerned about the money.  Taka wasn’t concerned.  They didn’t have enough so they’d have to find other way of doing things.  They’d have to hunt and cure the meat.  She was used to that.  Her family never had money and they lived.

That evening, before the sun set, she took Zalandri’s blunderbuss and went out into the fields to hunt.  She didn’t find anything.  It wouldn’t have mattered what it was, gopher, bird, snake, dog; she would have shot it.  If only they could come across a herd of deer.  Deer meat was good eating.

The next day Layana told them stories from Baska.  Most of her stories involve the rolling plains of Baska and the endless expanses.

“You must feel at home here,” Taka said.

“It reminds me of Baska, but my home had more hills, like a rolling sea,” Layana said.

“Is it as spread out and vacant as here?”  Zalandri asked.

“More so.  In Baska, if you don’t have a horse, you aren’t going anywhere.  Battles are usually only between cavalry and villages are much more spread out.  We also have nomads.  The further north you go, the more nomadic the people become.  It’s fairly wild up there,” Layana said.

The next few days went on like that, walking, talking and sometimes laughing.  On the fifth day she managed to shoot a wild hog.  It wasn’t very large which was a good thing because the large ones would take more than one shot to bring down.  They had roasted hog that night, their first hot meal in days.

With her belly full, she lay down near Resha and relaxed.

“Thank you for the meal,” Resha said.

“No problem.  Good to see you smiling again.”

“I’ve been doing a lot of thinking.”

“About the money right?  You’re wondering how we’re going to make it.”

“That’s about right.”

“Don’t worry about it.  We’ll come up with something one way or another.”

“I hope so.”

Around noon the next day, they saw a pillar of smoke far off in the distance.  It looked to be directly in front of them.  There was no telling how far away though.

“What do you think that is?”  Resha asked.

“Could be anything.  Farmers burning the chaff, clearing a field,” Taka said.  She didn’t want to say what the negative possibilities were.

They kept walking for another hour and the smoke didn’t go away.

“I think I see someone coming,” Layana said.

Without hesitation they all hid in the tall grass.  Layana was the most difficult to hide.  She had to lie on her side and cover herself a bit more with grass.

Only a few minutes later ten cavalry scouts raced by.  They wore green and yellow uniforms.

“Who were they?”  Taka asked.

“They’re from the Korsta Dukedom,” Taran said.

“What are they doing so far north?  We’re still within Emperial territory,” Resha said.

“My guess is that Ferras and Korsta are attacking the Empire,” Taran said.

“Doesn’t the Empire have any allies?”  Matog asked.

“The Duchies of Canoton.  My guess is that Ferras is trying to knock the Empire out of the fight before it can be smashed between the two of them.  My hometown isn’t far from the Ferras boarder.”

“So, that smoke…” Zalandri started to say.

“It probably isn’t anything good,” Taran said.

“I think we should get further from the road,” Resha said.

“Probably a good idea,” Taran said.

They moved much further from the road and kept on walking.  It was slower because of the tall grass and sometimes her feet would get tangled on it.  Resha didn’t seem to have a problem with that though.

Near dusk they came into view of the source of the smoke.  It was a village that had been set on fire.  All the houses were either burning or had already burnt.  The Korstan army was encamped all around.  They couldn’t see much else because they couldn’t risk getting closer.

“What do we do?”  Taka asked.

“We wait here during the night and leave in the morning before they see us,” Taran said.

“What happened to the people?”  Zalandri asked.

“I don’t know.  I can’t see from here,” Taran said.

“I can wait until night and go take a closer look,” Taka said.

“Too dangerous,” Taran said.

“I’ll go with her,” Resha said.

“Me too,” Matog said.

“Hold on.  Two people at most,” Taran said.

“Taka’s our best shot and she’s smaller,” Resha said.

“Alright, me and Taka go and see what we can find.  The rest of you stay hidden.  No matter what happens, don’t come looking for us.  If we’re not back before dawn, move on without us.”

“No, we’ll come find you,” Resha said.

“Don’t.  If we don’t come back it will be because we’re captured and they’ll be on alert, looking for any more of us.”

Resha scowled but Taran ignored it as he turned towards Taka.

“We’ll head out two hours after dark.”

“Right.”

Everyone stayed silent as they camped out about a half mile from the Korstan camp.

“You ready?” He asked once it was late enough.

Taka nodded.

They took just their weapons and began crawling through the grass toward the camp.  The closer they got the more she could hear.  She heard laughter, music and saw the individual camp fires.

She still didn’t see any sign of the villagers so they crept closer.  Then she saw them.  They were all huddled up in the middle of the town square with guards standing all around them.

She was about to tell Taran that they were all right, but then she saw the pile of bodies.  There were almost as many dead ones as live ones.

“There they are,” She whispered.

“Looks like they’ve done executions.  I’ve seen this before.   If the town resists, they’ll execute any male of fighting age as an example for the other towns.”

“Animals,” she spat.

Taka began looking for the girls.  If this army was anything like the one that destroyed her life then she knew the girls were in trouble.  A sick feeling began sinking in as the memories of what happened to her reemerged.  She had done well so far in keeping them down.   She wanted to get as many good experiences with sex in order to erase the bad one.  Whatever happened, she didn’t want the same to happen to anyone else.

She saw that there were a few young women and girls, but they were in the center of the group, as if that would protect them.  Most of the villagers were still awake and many were crying.

“There’s nothing we can do here,” he said.

Taka stayed and watched to make sure nothing would happen to the girls.  If a soldier tried to even touch one of the girls, she would shoot him.  It would be a far shot, but she could do it.  She didn’t even care if it would cost her own life.  If she could keep one girl safer than she had been, then the cost would be worth it.

She watched for a while, but after most had gone to sleep, she followed Taran back to their own camp.  Taran gave his report and they all agreed that there was nothing to be done.

They slept for a few hours and then, before dawn, they snuck around the town and the army camp that surrounded it and continued following along side the road.  Taka kept looking back at the smoke that still rose from the town and whished she could have done something.  Everything she thought of however would either accomplish nothing or end in her certain death.  The latter was more acceptable than the former.

Chapter 15

Resha tried not to think about what was going to happen once she got to Vatasha.  Zalandri and her books would be safe, but what was she supposed to do?  She wasn’t about to trust in the generosity of the scholars.  They were refugees as well.  Even if they were inclined to help her, she doubted that they’d be able to.

Maybe Taka would stay with her, but what could a farm girl and a tavern worker do?  Thoughts of selling herself came to mind but she quickly brushed them away.  That wasn’t how she wanted to live.  She wanted better than that.  It was a miracle that she had avoided pregnancy or disease so far and she didn’t want to keep rolling the bone dice for that.

She had to remain positive and have faith in the Creators that all would work out somehow.  The Creators made this world and all the different races found in it.  Each race was supposed to represent some kind of divine attribute, but she forgot what most of them were.  She knew that the Saytrs represented happiness, laughing and dancing and Centaurs represented speed and courage.  Orks were perhaps strength and tirelessness.  Humans had something to do with war, but she couldn’t remember.

Resha looked over to Zalandri as they walked and for a second she thought someone was walking beside her.  She saw it only from the corner of her eye and only briefly, but it looked like a woman dressed all in white.

“Zalandri, I think I saw one of your spirits,” Resha said.

“That’s rare that someone can see them.  If I had my own eyes I could train them to see them.  Which one did you see?”

“A woman dressed in white.”

“Ah, yes.  She’s the more outgoing of the two.”

“How many spirits did your professors have?”

“One of them had thirty.  He had so many active spirits that people saw them surrounding him all the time.  I always heard whispering around him.”

“That sounds too eerie for me,” Resha said.

Zalandri laughed quietly.

“Eerie doesn’t quite describe it.  If you don’t follow the training, the spirits can make you go insane,” Zalandri said.

“I think I’d like to avoid that,” Resha said.

“Me too.”

Then Resha looked over to Taran.  It had been many days and he hadn’t so much as squeezed her butt.  Was there something wrong with him or did he think there was something wrong with her?  It was getting irritating.  She knew men and she knew that unless there was a very strong reason, they would always give in to lust.

She was starting to distrust him a little.  If sex and money weren’t motivating him, then what was?  Many people could find noble motivations, but a male human?  He was playing some kind of game.  He had to be or otherwise he would be bedding her every night.

Were her injuries really that off-putting?  She knew she wasn’t ugly.  Any male in his right mind would want to share his bed with her and even some females had wanted her.  She was going to have to get the answer from him one way or another.

That night, as the others fell asleep, she silently crawled over to Taran.  He rolled over to see who was approaching.

“Will you like me to keep your bed warm tonight?”  Resha asked.

“Not tonight.”

“Not any night apparently.”

“Not tonight.”

“Then when?”

“When I feel like it.”

She wanted call him impotent or a man lover.  She wanted to shout at him and hit his face, but she held her tongue.  All that a show of anger would do would be to let Taran know that she was upset about the whole thing.  It didn’t feel right that he wasn’t accepting pay.  She had fully expected him to leave once they found Zalandri’s house, but for some reason he stayed.  It also didn’t feel right that he was refusing her.

Resha couldn’t figure Taran out.  Normally she knew what males wanted but he had her completely confused.

“If that’s what you wish,” she said and crawled back to her bedding.

The next few days went on without incident.  She began making up stories and telling them as if they were historical epics, but she made the heroes ignorant, naïve, and plain moronic.  It got the others to chuckle so she was happy about that.  She made the stupidest hero have a striking resemblance to Taran.

More trees began to appear and soon the land began to grow hilly.  Layan complained about feeling closed in, but Resha liked the trees.  It gave them plenty of places to hide.

They made camp two days from Potta city.  Taka talked on and on about having baths, good food and men, usually all at the same time.  Zalandri didn’t talk about her parents or her family.  Matog told stories she had seen in the army camps.  She had learned a lot about the military from her time among them.  She told her stories simply and without theatrics.  But she was a simple and untheatrical person.

In the middle of the night she was awakened by gentle pushing on her shoulder.  She woke up to see Taran kneeling over her.  Finally.  He had come to his senses or broke down to temptation or whatever it was.  It was strange, but she was actually looking forward to it.  Taran wasn’t bad looking.  He was lean, fit, intelligent and patient.

“I hear something in the woods,” he whispered.

She rubbed her face as if to get rid of sleep because she knew her face would show her annoyance and disappointment.

“What kind of noise?”  She asked while looking away, searching for her pistol as an excuse to not look him in the face.

“Footsteps maybe.”

Then he went over and woke Taka and Matog.  They woke Zalandri and Layana.  They stayed quiet and pretended to sleep.

Why had he awakened her first?

She cocked her pistol and followed him into the woods.  Apparently he had left Taka to take care of the camp.  She was careful not to step on anything that made noise.

Then she heard a faint voice, like someone was whispering.  Taran must have heard it as well because he froze.  They continued to listen for a while and eventually heard it again.

He pointed in the direction she guessed the voice was coming from and she nodded in agreement.

Very slowly and as quietly as they could, they crept closer to the sound.  The closer they got the more she could make out.  It sounded like a female voice, maybe a Saytr.  The voice had a kind of music to it that Humans, Orks or most other races lacked.

Resha could make out a shadow in the dark.  It was a figure kneeling beside something.

Taran held up his hand to her and began counting down on his fingers from five.  When all fingers went down he stood up and pointed the pistol at the dark figure.  Resha had no idea what he had planned and scrambled to follow his lead.  It was like playing improve music with someone that played completely different kinds of music.

“Hold it right there.  Don’t make a move,” Taran said.

The figure screamed and fell over backwards.

“Please!  Don’t hurt us!”  The woman whimpered.

Resha came up beside Taran and saw that the woman was a Harpy.  She couldn’t tell what color her wings and feathers were, but in the night they all looked black.  Her arms were out in front of her for protection and her eagle talons were up as if to fight.  She had long messy black hair.  There was a smaller person, maybe a child wrapped in blankets.

“Who are you and why are you spying on us?”  Taran asked.

“Please, sir.  I’m not spying.  In the morning I was going to ask if you had any food to spare.  Me and my sister need help,” the Harpy said.

“What kind of help?”  Resha asked.

“My sister’s sick.  We escaped Potta during a rain storm and she fell ill.  We’ve been hiding in the woods for two weeks.”

“Who are you hiding from?”  Taran asked.

“Haven’t you heard?  The Korsta army has surrounded Potta.  It’s under siege.”

That wasn’t good news.  They had been counting on Potta for rest and supplies.  Also, the entire Korsta army was going to make them travel far out of the way.

“What’s wrong with your sister?”  Resha asked.

“She has a bad fever,” the Harpy girl said.  She didn’t look more than sixteen.

Resha looked down at the girl in the blankets and saw that she wasn’t older than twelve.  The poor thing.  There had to be something they could do.  Maybe Zalandri had a spell that could help.

“Where are your parents?”  Resha asked.

“My parents are traveling musicians on tour in Ishana.  I was living with my uncle, but he was caught when we tried to escape,” the Harpy said.

“What’s your name?”  Taran asked in a softer voice as he put away his pistol.

“I’m Aria and my sister is Sonata.”

“Let’s take you to our camp and see what we can do for Sonata,” Taran said.

He bent down and picked up the bundled Sonata.  The four of them walked back to camp.  Resha put her hand on Aria’s shoulder.

“Don’t worry.  She’ll be alright,” Resha said.

“We’re coming back!  Don’t shoot!”  Taran called out.

They stepped into the small clearing where they had made camp and Taka ran up to them with the butt of her carbine against her shoulder but barrel pointing to the ground.

“What happened?  Who are they?”  Taka asked.

“They’re refugees from Potta.  It’s under siege by Korsta,” Taran said.

Matog let out a few choice curse words.

“The Korsta army is here?  Already?”  Taka asked.

“It would appear so,” Taran said.  “Zalandri, get a fire going.  Taka, get some food for our guests.”

Zalandri collected some branches and held out her hand towards the wood.  Her dead eyes stared out at nothing as she concentrated.  A flame erupted and a few seconds later there was a nice fire going.  Taran placed Sonata by the fire.  Taka gave them some dried fruit and water.

“Zalandri, can you do something to help the girl?”  Resha asked.

Zalandri shook her head.

“I can heal only the most basic injuries.  I’ve never tried to heal an illness before,” Zalandri said.

“Please try,” Resha said.

She saw that Taka was knelt down beside Sonata and stroking the girl’s hair.  She then began singing a lullaby in the Goblin dialect.  Resha could only make out a few words of it but the melody was very pretty.  Taka didn’t have a pretty singing voice but the emotion made her singing pretty.

Resha introduced everyone to Aria.  Sonata was still asleep.

“Where are all you going?”  Aria asked.

“We’re heading to Vatasha.”

“Is it safe there?”  Aria asked.

“We hope so,” Resha said.

Zalandri was sitting next to Sonata with her hands over her as if she were warming herself by the fire.  Resha went over to her and knelt down beside Sonata.

“How’s she doing?”  Resha asked.

“Honestly, I don’t know.  I’m using what healing techniques I know, but I don’t know how much it will help.”

“Do your best,” Resha said and patted Zalandri on the shoulder.

“Thank you all for helping me,” Aria said.

“You’re welcome,” Resha said.

“Do you know how big of an army Korsta had?”  Matog asked.

“I don’t know, but I heard some say that it was very big.  It looked big to me as I flew over it.  They had the whole city surrounded,” Aria said.

“That’s pretty big,” Matog said.

“Are they attacking?”  Taka asked.

“They’re bombarding the walls with their cannons every day.  If they get through they’ll wipe out our city guard without much of a fight,” Aria said.

“They don’t have time to wait around and starve the people out,” Taran said.

“Be careful.  They have patrols all over,” Aria said.

“How many in a patrol?”  Taran asked.

“I’ve seen foot patrols with about thirty people and cavalry with about ten.”

Resha knew that was too many to face.  They had to stay hidden and out of sight if they were going to live.

Then Resha thought of Sonata.  What if Zalandri couldn’t heal her and she remained sick?  How long would it take for her to get better?  Whatever the case, they couldn’t leave Aria and Sonata by themselves.  They had to help them.  That would delay their arrival at Vatasha, but it couldn’t be helped.  She wasn’t going to leave these two girls to fend for themselves.

She began thinking of the money and supply situation.  Without Potta to purchase more supplies, they’ll be run out sooner and now they had two more mouths to feed.  She began going through the numbers and trying to decide the soonest they could get to Vatasha.

Resha looked over and saw Taran sitting next to Aria on a log and holding a canteen of water for her.  He was talking quietly with her.  His hand was on Aria’s shoulder.  He had never put his hand on her shoulder before.  Why would he touch Aria, but not her?

She went back to sleep and in the morning Sonata was awake, but not feeling any better.  She was pale and had dark rings around her eyes.  Aria hovered around her and wouldn’t get more than ten feet away.

Resha then took Zalandri aside.

“We have to help them but they’re going to slow us down,” Resha said.

“How much of a leeway do we have for getting there before winter?”  Zalandri asked.

“Not long.  A few weeks at most if it’s a late winter.  If its early, we’ll be traveling in the cold for the last leg.”

Zalandri nodded and thought about it.  It was strange to have Zalandri look directly at her with those sightless eyes.  She was looking through Resha’s eyes at herself.  That had to be strange.  It was, however, all Zalandri knew of sight.

“Do any of your books have anything that could help your magic healing?”  Resha asked.

“Unfortunately, all I brought were history books.”

“Damn.”

“I’m going to get back to work and try to heal the girl,” Zalandri said.

“Please do.  And thank you.”

Zalandri smiled that stiff, closed lip smile of hers and went back to where Sonata lay.

Matog was sharpening a large knife that was as long as her forearm while Layana cleaned the barrel of her rifle.  Resha wandered over to them and sat down.

“If this slows us down too much, we might not make it to Vatasha,” Resha said.

“We figured as much,” Matog said.

“There’s nothing we can do about it.  We’ll make it if we can.  If not, we’ll find another way,” Layana said.

“Just thought you should know,” Resha said.

“We appreciate it, but we want to get far from this war as possible.  Vatasha sounds like a great place,” Matog said.

“We’re not leaving that easy,” Layana said.

“Why?”  Resha asked.

“Because you are all we have?  Where else would we go?  A small town that distrusts strangers?  What kind of life could we make there?  A big city where we know no one and have no source of income?  With you we have safety, comfort, companionship and a larger skillset” Matog said.

“We’re being practical,” Layana said.

“Is that all?”  Resha asked.

“That’s all.  We have no other options,” Matog said.

“I guess I’ll take what I can get.”

Matog then motioned for her to draw closer.

“Let me see your eye,” Matog said.

“Why?”

“I want to see the scar.”

A little uncomfortable, she leaned in closer while Matog moved her hair out of her face.

“With the right herbs I think I can heal those scars a lot nicer than that,” Matog said.

“It won’t get my eye back, but if you think it’ll help, I’ll try it.”

“Yeah, sorry.  Nothing I can do about that.  I’ll start looking for the herbs.”

“Thanks.”

“Hey, isn’t there some spell to give you your eye back?”  Layana asked.

“I believe so, but sorcerers cost more money than I’ll ever have,” Resha said.

“Suppose you’re right.  I heard of a man who lost an arm and paid a thousand gold for a sorcerer to get him a new one.”

“A new one?  How?”

“Well, they made a wooden one and enchanted it so it would act like a natural arm.”

“I wonder if Zalandri knows anyone that could do that,” Resha said.

“Maybe, but would they is the question,” Matog said.

The lanky Ork held up the knife she had been sharpening and ran her thumb along the side of the blade.

“You’re an artist,” Layana said.

“You can shave with this now,” Matog said.

They stayed there all day but Sonata didn’t get worse or better.  They couldn’t move far with the girl in that condition.  Taka and Taran took the opportunity to go hunting.  She watched them go and wondered why he would take Taka hunting but came to her first when he heard a noise.  The more she couldn’t figure him out, the more she wanted to.

Chapter 16

Taran saw something move in the bushes and motioned for Taka to stay still.  She looked at him with that impatient “what’s going on?” look that only she could give.  She held her carbine up to her shoulder but pointed at the ground like he had taught her.  That way, in case there was an accidental fire, she would shoot the ground or at most, her foot.

He pointed to the bushes up ahead.  It was about fifty yards away.  She raised her black eyebrows and scowled.  She didn’t see anything apparently.

Then the bush moved and a young deer walked out.  It didn’t see or smell them.  Not a very bright deer.  Nature had a way of disposing of the less clever ones and he hoped nature was on their side today.

He raised his rifle, placed the sights over the deer’s heart, let out his breath in a long steady exhale and slowly squeezed the trigger.  The musket fired and there was a flash of smoke that momentarily blocked his view.

He quickly stepped through the smoke and saw the deer floundering on the ground.  The bullet would was just two inches high of where he wanted it.  He pulled out his large knife and ran over to the deer.  Then he slid the knife into the deer’s heart and ended its pain.

“You got it!”  Taka said.

“Of course,” he said sounding more confident than he was.

“Fresh meat.”

“I love deer meat.”

She helped get the deer up on his back so he could carry it back to camp.  She carried his rifle.

“Next kill is mine,” Taka said.

“I’ll give you the next shot.”

“I’ll hold you to that.”

He was sure that she would.

They got back to camp and he dumped the deer beside the fire.

“You got one!  Lovely,” Zalandri said with a rare smile.

He had to admit that the Elf was very pretty.  She had a slender, graceful figure, striking, yet delicate features and large eyes.  Most of the time she was extraordinarily kind towards others, but he had seen what happens when she encounters an enemy.  She was as ruthless as any other Elf.  Kind to friends and ruthless towards enemies wasn’t a bad way to be.

As stunning as Zalandri was, he liked looking at Resha more.  She had that tan skin, dark hair and dark eyes that he liked.  Her face was pleasant and plain with a touch of exotic.  Not too pretty and not too plain.

He wished she would stop offering herself.  He wanted to take her up on that more and more, but while he thought she was doing it just as a part of a deal he would not agree.  If he couldn’t have her because she wanted him, he wouldn’t have her at all.

Taran didn’t think that was going to happen.  No one else seemed to notice but the brunt of Resha’s comedic tales were usually a character that resembled him.  He didn’t think that it was coincidence.

Taka seemed to eye him up on occasion but he assumed it was just a rare, physical lust with her.  She was a lustful thing, but he sensed something else there, almost like it was some kind of comfort or defense with her.  He didn’t want to pry and so wasn’t about to ask about it.

Zalandri, like all Elves, was cold, dispassionate and unreadable.  Elves usually thought humans were “too fat.” Compared to their twig figures, anything else was, though Taka came closest to the Elf’s skinniness.

The others didn’t seem too impressed with him.  They didn’t trust him yet.  He had been up front and honest with them, but he suspected that was the problem.  They expected a Human male to be greedy, selfish and brutish.  Because he didn’t fit in with what they thought a Human mercenary should be like, they didn’t trust his intentions.  There wasn’t much he could do about it because he wasn’t about to start acting like an oaf just to impress them.

Matog kept her physical and social distance.  For someone who had been around solidiers so much, he would have thought she’d be more open to him.  Like all Orks, her face was fairly ugly.  She had a thin but muscular body and she cared about her appearance.  She was as tough as any soldier, but she always kept her face and hands clean and always made sure her hair was in order.

Layana was quiet and kept to herself mostly.  When she did speak, it was usually with Matog.  They were best friends and had been through a lot together.  He had always pictured Boshka nomads to be cruder and more barbaric.

Matog and Taka began working on the kill.  Taka was being careful to preserve the skin.  He would offer to cook but he had been told many times that he was the worst cook in the company.  All the other mercenaries had forbid him from cooking.  He didn’t think his food was that bad.

He sat back on his sleeping roll and lay down.  They weren’t going anywhere that day so he might as well get some rest.

Taran woke to the smell of cooking meat.  He hadn’t noticed that he had gone to sleep.

Everyone was circled around the fire, waiting for the hot meal.  Aria sat beside her little sister.  He didn’t envy her.  At times he would have liked to have his family with him, but in times of danger he was glad that they were far away.  It would make everything far more difficult if he had to worry about his family being hurt.  Sometimes being alone was a good thing.

The Harpy had an angled, sharp face, with large brown eyes.  She was young and pretty and that wasn’t necessarily a good thing if she were on her own.  He was just thankful that they found the Harpies and not bandits or rogue soldiers.  At least she had a chance for safety.

Resha tried to cheer the Harpies up with some funny songs but it didn’t seem to work very well.  While Resha and Matog performed their act for their guests, he took Zalandri off to the side.

“What can you tell me about Sonata?  Is she going to live?”  He asked.

“I have no idea.  I can sense that there’s something wrong with her, but I don’t know how to fix it.  With wounds I can see the problem and focus on that.  Here the problem is all over and I’m not sure exactly what it is.  I can only keep my spell going for so long.  It’s more tiring than you think,” she said without looking at him.  He suspected she was looking through Layana’s eyes because she was still near Sonata.

“The important thing is to keep her warm, fed and watered.  Her body needs all its strength to fight this.  Make sure she eats even if she isn’t hungry.”

“I will.”

“Taran?”

“Yes?”

“What do you think our chances are?  Can we make it to Vatasha?”

“If Sonata gets well soon, then yes.  If we leave them here, yes.  If she lingers and we stay, then we won’t make it before winter.  If we get caught in winter and we find shelter and food, we can go in the spring.  If we don’t find shelter and food, then we won’t live to see spring.”

Zalandri’s brows furrowed in the middle in a look of worry.  She clenched her fists up by her chest.

“Don’t worry.  I won’t let that happen.  Even if we don’t make it by winter, we’ll be alright.  We’ll find a place to stay and we’ll find food.  I’ve survived tougher situations than this.”

“Really?”

“Living through a siege isn’t very pleasant.  We’ll make it.”

“Thank you for coming with us.  I know you didn’t have to come with us and you could have left.  I don’t know why you stay but I am thankful that you do.”

“I’m just doing what I can.”

“Which is more than most.”

She touched his shoulder and smiled in a rare show of any sort of affection and then went back to be beside Sonata.  He liked Zalandri.  She was an intellectual who was usually wrapped up in her own thoughts, but she did have a heart in there somewhere.

They ate freshly cooked deer and it tasted wonderful.  Layana supervised the cooking and she was very good at it.  He went to bed with a full stomach.  Normally that would be enough to make him happy, but he had Sonata to worry about and the coming winter.  How was he supposed to keep them alive in winter?  Further south was Korsta and none of them spoke Korstian.  He doubted that refugees speaking Imperial would find much help in Korsta.

He spoke Canoton, but that wouldn’t get him any sympathy either.  Now that Korsta was invading the southern provinces of the Empire, they wouldn’t find much support here either.  This complicated things greatly.  Even if they had gone through Zefuld, they’d still have to cross Korstan territory.  The war was spreading quicker than he had imagined and now he felt trapped by it all.

The first thing he did when he woke in the morning was check on Sonata.  She was awake and looking slightly better.  Maybe Zalandri’s healing was having an affect?

Zalandri was the only other person awake and she was talking quietly to Sonata.  Taran walked over and sat down.  The little Harpy girl looked so fragile.  She was a pretty little thing and reminded him of his own little sister.  The last time he had seen her she was only ten.  He wondered if he’d ever see her again.

“How are you feeling?”  He asked.

“Not good,” Sonata said in a weak voice.

“You look a little better,” he said.

“I feel better but anything’s an improvement.” Sonata gave a brief smile.

“You’ll be on your feet soon.”

The others soon began to wake up.  Leaving the Harpies there was a choice, but it wasn’t one he was ever going to take.  If they wanted Sonata to get better, they were going to have to find some shelter before it rained next.

Taka came over next and began talking to Sonata.  Taka had a much softer way about her when she talked to Sonata.  She had left family behind as well and he imagined that felt connected to the girl as if she were her family.

Then Taran heard a noise in the woods.  He froze and listened.  The only other one that stopped was Zalandri.  She had heard it as well.

“Ssshhhh!”  He whispered to everyone.

They all froze in place and listened.  Then he heard it again.  Something was moving through the trees.  He looked the direction the noise was coming from.  He could make out the form of someone walking towards their position.  It was big whatever it was.

“Get ready,” he whispered to the others.

They all got their guns and took up positions.  Aria grabbed Sonata and hid behind a tree.  He raised his musket and took aim.

Behind the large figure he could make out the shapes of several other figures.  They were going slow.  They could be trackers.

Then the figure came into view.  Light from a break in the tree canopy illuminated the figure of a giant Minotaur.  He wore the ivy green jacket of a Korsta soldier.  He also had a polished breast plate and leg and arm armor.  He head had a polished helmet with a blue horse hair plume.  He carried a pistol that looked like a small cannon and a large saber.  He had impressively large bull horns, a short muzzle filled with sharp teeth and hooves.  Its arms were massive and hung down to its knees.  They were most deadly race second only to Trolls.

The figures behind him were Death Legion, animated corpses created as shock troops.  Deserters and traitors were condemned to continue serving the military.

The Minotaur saw them about the same time.  He raised his saber and shouted.

“Forward!  Attack!”  The Minotaur bellowed.

The shambling corpses broke out into a clumsy, awkward run.

Taran fired at the horned soldier.  His shot hit the thickened breastplate and bounced off.  It had been a direct hit.  Normally that would have been enough to penetrate, but a Minotaur was capable of carrying much heavier armor.  Unless he hit an unprotected place such as the groin, armpit or face, he wasn’t going to hurt the brute.

The Minotaur then began charging forward with all the power of an avalanche.  He broke through small trees and bushes as if they were illusions.  His “blood rush” surged through his body as it did every battle.  Everything focused down to what was immediately important, almost as if time slowed.

Taran picked up another rifle and fired.  This time his shot the Minotaur’s hip.  He jerked and stumbled, but didn’t stop.  It raised its giant pistol and fired.  Scatter shot flew out and tore up trees and limbs that were in the way.  It didn’t seem as if the Minotaur had been aiming at him.

The dead were almost on top of them.  The others fired at the quickly approaching dead.  Zalandri fired her blunderbuss and tore apart the shoulder of one of the dead.  The arm hung from some skin and tendons but the creature kept coming forward.  Resha fired her musket and hit one of the dead square in the chest.  The bullet passed through and didn’t even slow it down.  She quickly pulled out a pistol and fired.  This time she hit it in the head, blowing away an entire eye socket.  But still, the creature ran forward.

One of the savage corpses was coming straight at him.  He pulled out his pistol and fired at its hip.  He had fought them before.  It didn’t matter what you shot on them, they’d keep coming.  He had seen one whose head had been cleanly blown off still running.  It was blind and deaf, but it had lashed around with its arms, trying to find something to kill.

The only way to stop them was to destroy their means of movement.  They were magic weapons but they still relied on bones and muscle to move them.

His bullet shattered the creatures hip and it fell down.  The hips were vitally important for walking and running.  Destroy that and it simply couldn’t walk.  The creature kept crawling but it gave him time.

“Shoot their legs and hips!”   He called out.

He could hear the loud thumping of the Minotaur’s hooves as it grew closer.  Taran pulled out two pistols, one in each hand.  He aimed for the face and fired.  The bullet ricocheted off its helmet.  He fired again and the bullet hit the horned soldier in the neck.  There was a spurt of blood but it didn’t even slow him down.

The Minotaur was then on top of him, swinging his giant cutlass downward.  He barely had time to draw his own sword and blocked.  The force of the Minotaur’s blow knocked him backward against a tree.

This foe was simply too powerful to fight.  There was no way he could beat it.  He had to run.  If he stayed and fought it, he would die.  He just wasn’t strong or skilled enough to fight it.  He wasn’t good enough to protect everyone.

Taran looked at the others.  Matog was fending off a corpse with her giant knife and Resha using her rifle as a club.

Zalandri had magic, but nothing useful.  All she could do was light fires.

The Minotaur kicked at him, but he dodged out of the way jus tin time.  The giant’s hoof smashed and splintered the tree he had been leaning against.

The Minotaur laughed and turned to him.  It was a deep, slow laugh.  He said something in Korstian but Taran didn’t understand.  It put his giant pistol back into its belt.  His belt was covered in large pouches of powder cartridges.

Fire.

“Zalandri!  Look through my eyes!  Do you see the Minotaur’s pouches?”

“I see them!”  Zalandri called out from outside of his view.

“Set them on fire!”

A second later a flame appeared on the one of the Minotaur’s pouches.  In a flash there was an explosion that caused several other smaller explosions.  The Minotaur reeled backwards, staggering.  He was hunched over, covering the smoking spot over his side.  The explosion had been over an area unprotected by armor.  He saw blood begin to pour out.

Taran pulled out his last loaded pistol and took aim between the giant’s eyes.  He fired and his bullet found its mark.  The horned giant staggered a bit more, then fell backwards.

The savage corpses instantly stopped attacking and began milling about.  With his sword he began chopping their arms and heads off.  Matog and Taka helped and soon the corpses were in unmoving pieces.

“Is anyone hurt?”

“Over here!”  Aria called out.

He ran over and found Aria kneeling beside Layana.  There were two bloody holes in the front shoulder of her horse body.  She was lying on the ground grimacing in pain.

Taran quickly knelt down beside her and examined the wound.

“The Minotaur’s cannon,” Layana said between clenched teeth.

He had seen more bullet wounds than sunrises.  He knew what to do.  He had Resha grab the medical supplies and began dressing the wounds.

“Zalandri, start doing what you can,” Taran said.

“Of course.”

Zalandri knelt down beside the wounded Centaur and held her hands over the wounds.

“I’ve never dealt with wounds this serious before,” Zalandri said.

“I know you can do it,” Resha said.

“Anyone else hurt?”  Taran called out.

Thankfully no one else was.  He was still breathing hard and feeling the “blood rush” going through his body.  That burst of energy and perception when battle came was something he found familiar and comforting.  He loved the feel of heightened senses.  Some people he knew had grown addicted to it, like it was wine.  He understood the desire.

After an hour Zalandri had to take a break.  Layana’s bleeding had stopped but the wounds were still there.  Resha helped her over and sat her down, leaning against a tree.  He went over and sat down beside them.

“How’s it coming?”  He asked.

“I’ve stopped the bleeding, but it will take a while to heal.  She’s still in danger.  I’ll save her but It will take a long time before she’s up and about again,” Zalandri said.  She was obviously tired and worn out from using so much magic.

“That was a good job you did with the fire.  You saved my life,” he said.

“It was your idea,” Zalandri said with a smile.

“How long until Layana can walk?”  Resha asked.

“I don’t know,” Zalandri said.

“Wounds like that, in the shoulder will take a long time.  It might be a month before she’s walking right,” Taran said.

“A month?”  Resha asked, horrified.

“We have to look at this realistically.  We have a sick girl and a wounded Centaur.  We won’t leave them.  We’re not going to make it to Vatasha before winter,” he said.  He looked right at Resha.

Resha looked more than worried.  There was anger, sadness and fear as well.  Getting to Vatasha with money to start a life meant a lot to Resha.  He understood.  However, it just wasn’t possible right now.

“I’m sorry, Resha,” he said.

She sniffed and rubbed her nose.

“It’s alright.  We’ll make it, right?”  She managed a smile, but it was a weak, untruthful smile.

Chapter 17

Zalandri had no idea what she was doing.  The largest wound she had ever healed was when one of the other students had cut her hand while making dinner.  This was completely different and she felt as if the most she was able to give was a placebo.

Layana’s wounds were much more complex than she was used to.  All the torn muscles, ligaments and skin had to be put back together.  Zalandri had to feel every fiber of muscle and will them back together.  It was slow and exhausting and after several hours she had made very little progress.  Splitting her attention between two wounds made it that much worse.

She took a break and sat down with her back against a tree.  She was exhausted.  The power her magic consumed was draining.

She looked up at the tree.  They said that long ago her ancestors were forest dwellers, but she didn’t feel any connection to the trees.  It was just a big, dumb plant.  She looked around the forest and felt nothing for it.  If the stories were true then they had been too long out of the forest.

Watching Taran removed the bullets was horrible enough, but then she had to try to repair the damage that had caused.  It started the bleeding again but it didn’t last as long.  Still, Layana had lost a lot of blood.

With Layana having two gunshot wounds, she couldn’t do anything for Sonata.  She wasn’t capable of handling all of this.  The poor girl deserved so much more than this.  Layana was a gentle soul and the thought of her dying of violence seemed like such an injustice.  Saying it was “unfair” made her sound like a petulant child, but that was how she felt.  None of this was right.

Zalandri looked over to Resha.  She sat by the fire with her head resting in her hands.  She was staring at the flames with a blank expression.  Zalandri knew Resha had wanted to get to Vatasha before winter, but that was impossible now.

“What was this Minotaur doing in the forest?”  Taka asked, pointing her knife at the large corpse.

“I think he was tracking something, possibly Aria and Sonata,” Taran said.

“Will they send others to look for him?”  Taka asked.

“Almost definitely,” Taran said.

“Wait…they’ll send more soldiers here,” Taka said.

“They will.”

Resha stood up and looked around.

“We have to get out of here,” Resha said.

“We do, but we have some time before the patrol is reported missing and they organize another one to search for them.  In the meantime, me and a volunteer will go look for someplace we can hide.”

“I’ll go,” Taka said.

“Alright.  Let’s hurry.”

They took rifles and pistols and left off into the woods.

Matog came over with some water for Layana.

“How you doing, sister?”  Matog asked.

“I’ve been better,” Layana said.

“Don’t worry.  Zalandri will have you fixed up soon,” Matog said.

“Alright, I’ll take first watch.  We don’t want anyone else sneaking up on us,” Resha said.  She picked up a musket and began loading it.

“How are we going to move Layana?”  Matog asked.

“We can put blankets under her and drag her,” Zalandri said.

“That might take all of us,” Matog said.

“We’ll need to cover the tracks.  Also, we should move this bodies,” Resha said.

“I’ll help with that,” Matog said.

“Me too,” Zalandri said.

“No, we need you to rest and heal Layana,” Resha said.

Zalandri wasn’t going to argue.

“Aria, why were they after you?”  Matog asked as she stood up.

“I have no idea,” Aria said.

“We don’t know that they were after them.  Maybe they found a trail and just followed it,” Resha said.

“What was your uncle?”  Matog asked.

“He was a merchant.  He made watches.  No one important,” Aria said.

“What were those things?”  Aria asked.

“Animated corpses.  Only government sorcerers can use such dark magic.  It’s forbidden to scholars like me,” Zalandri said.

“I’ve never seen anything so horrible,” Aria said.

“It’s always amazing what people can do to other people,” Resha said.

Zalandri rested while Resha and Matog began dragging bodies away.  They couldn’t budge the Minotaur’s corpse though.

“You studied at the University?”  Aria asked.

“That’s right,” Zalandri said.

“I had an aunt on my mother’s side go there.  She graduated four years ago.  I think she’s in the capitol.”

“She should be safe there,” Zalandri said.

“Safer than any of us.”

Three hours later Taran and Taka came back.  Those two seemed to have an easy camaraderie about them.  It was almost like they had known each other for a long time and felt perfectly relaxed in each other’s company.  She was much shorter and scrawnier than he was, but they seemed alike somehow.

However, it wasn’t Taka that Taran looked at the most.  By seeing through others’ eyes, Zalandri knew a great deal about what they thought about.  Taran looked at Resha a great deal when she wasn’t looking.  In turn, Resha looked at him when he wasn’t looking.  She wished he looked at her more.

She knew other women had techniques and tricks to get men to look at them.  She wished she had bothered to learn some of them.  If she could get him to look at her more, maybe she could… No.  That was a useless line of thinking.

“We found the ruins of an old watch tower,” Taran said.

“How far away?”  Resha asked.

“An hour south of here,” Taka said.

“An hour?  How are we supposed to move Layana that far?”  Matog asked.

“We have to try.  There’s plenty of space there.  The roof is still intact and if we need to, we can defend it easier than here,” Taran said.

“She’s in pain just lying there.  What’s moving her that far going to do to her?”  Matog asked.

“Also, we have to move Sonata,” Resha said.

“I’ll help pull Layana.  Matog, you can carry Sonata.  The rest will take turns dragging,” Taran said.

“We’ll need to cover our tracks,” Taka said.

“I’ve moved the corpses back in the direction they came from, but I couldn’t move the Minotaur.  I figured if we cover their tracks from there, they won’t find our campsite and follow us,” Resha said.

“Good thinking, Resha.  I’ll help you move the Minotaur.”

“Give me another hour to heal Layana.  Every bit will help,” Zalandri said.

While they worked on hiding the site of the attack, she kneeled over Layana and tried her best to heal her.  There was very little she could do in an hour.

When it was time, Resha, Taka and Taran began dragging Layana slowly.  Taran took one corner of the blanket and Resha and Taka took the other.  It was slow going because they didn’t want to jostle Layana too much and they tried to cover their tracks as they went.

Matog carried Sonata in her arms while Aria was in charge of covering the tracks.  Zalandri was still worn out from using so much magic and was barely able to keep up.  She had never used so much magic before and had never been this drained.

Zalandri thought she heard someone behind her but no one else was looking backwards so she couldn’t see anything.  It was strange, but she felt a presence behind her.  It was a large angry presence.

It took them almost the entire rest of the day to get to the tower.  They had to stop and take frequent breaks and the going was just so slow.  She sometimes had to cover her ears to keep from hearing Layana’s groans of pain.  She hated seeing her suffer like that.  The agonizingly slow pace made the four hour trip feel like a week.  She could see that Matog was struggling to keep a hold of Sonata, but she never once complained.  Taka probably wasn’t much use in dragging Layana, but a little help was better than none.  Aria remained silent the whole time.

When they finally got to the guard tower, they all collapsed to the ground exhausted.  She lay there for maybe a half hour before she had the strength or will to get back up.

The old guard tower had a round tower with a conical roof covered in moss and other small plants.  There was a small square building attached to it that had a rotten wooden door that had fallen off its rusty hinges.  Ivy covered an entire side of the building.

When Zalandri looked in the square building she saw that the floor was covered in dirt, dead leaves and animal droppings.  However, the roof was intact.  An open doorway led to the tower.  She could see that the stairs were rotten, but she doubted how sound they were.  There was an iron stove in the middle of the room with a metal tube for ventilation.  They’d be able to cook on it and keep the place warm in winter.  She hoped that they wouldn’t be there that long.  However, no remains of furniture or anything else.

“Sparse, but livable,” Zalandri said.  It was certainly better than camping outside.  She hated being outside.  She hated being beaten down by the sun, wind and rain.  She hated sleeping on the ground and waking up to find dirt inside her clothing.

Her family would have never called this hovel “livable.”  They would have rather stayed outside than stay in there.  She wondered where they were.  They were probably in one of their town houses in a nearby city, perhaps Potta.  Or maybe they were guests of one of their many acquaintances.  Either way it didn’t matter.  Except for getting money from them, she really didn’t care if she didn’t see them again.  Resha, Taka, Taran and the others were more of a family than they had ever been.

They rested outside for a while before going in and trying to clean the place out.  Resha used a blanket to sweep the place out before getting Layana and Sonata inside.

“If I had some tools I could fix this place up nice and cozy,” Taka said.

“You know woodworking?”  Zalandri asked.

“Where I come from, you have to know how to do a little of everything.  Unlike you scholars, we learn how to do more useful things.”

“I’ve been healing Sonata and Layana,” Zalandri said.

That shut the Goblin up.  Taka looked down at her feet.

“I’m sorry,” Taka said.

“Old habit, right?”

“Something like that.”

They got inside and began setting their beds up.  The square room as actually somewhat spacious and there was plenty of room for everyone.  Layana and Sonata got the spots next to the fireplace.

“We got two rooms, I say the ladies get some privacy and Taran can sleep in the tower room,” Matog said.

“That’s not a bad idea,” Taka said.

“I get a room to myself?  Very nice,” Taran said.

“It’ll also be the storage room,” Resha said, smiling.

“I get the closet, then,” Taran said.

“Don’t make me laugh.  It’ll hurt,” Layana said.

“You all get yourselves set up here.  I’m going to go scout the area out.  If someone’s coming to look for us, I want to see them coming,” Taran said.

“I’m coming with you,” Taka said.

Taran paused as if he were about to object, but then turned towards the door.

“Let’s get going,” Taran said.

They grabbed their guns and canteens and went out the door.  Taka had a natural inclination for the more militant activities.  Zalandri didn’t think she was bloodthirsty, just that she liked the challenge and thrill of the hunt.

Zalandri didn’t care for thrills or challenges like that.  If someone needed punishing or removal from her way, then she would do it without hesitation.  It was better if a wicked man die that he go off and make the world a much worse place.

While the others began setting up their personal spaces, she went over to Layana and began trying to heal her again.  She was still tired from the hike, but she had to keep going.

She reached out her hands over Layana and began feeling for the torn muscles and blood vessels.  She sensed the light, thin energy of the nerves and began repairing those.  The healing she was doing was on such a small scale that it would take her weeks to make a visual difference.  Some masters were able to heal wounds like this in minutes.  How such things were possible, she had no idea.

The bone of the shoulder blade had stopped the two shot pellets, but they had cracked the bone and she had to deal with that as well.  Bone was easier for her.  The rigidness made more sense in her mind so she had an easier time repairing it.

“I’ll go collect firewood,” Matog said.

“Make sure to take a musket,” Resha said.

“Yes, mother,” Matog said.

Matog left with a musket slung over her shoulder.

“We’ll need supplies if we’re going to stay here for a while,” Resha said.

“You can’t get into the city for that,” Aria said.

“Anywhere else?  Small towns?  Farms?”

“Yes, there are plenty of farms around and even some manors.  The nearest town is a day there walking.  I can flay a bit quicker though,” Aria said.

“Maybe we can trade with the farmers or make trips to the town,” Resha said.

“How long are we going to be here?”  Zalandri asked as she took a brief break.

“That depends on how long it takes them to heal,” Resha said.

“Maybe a month?  Perhaps less,” Zalandri said.

“That’ll give us a month to travel before winter.”

It sounded more like Resha was thinking out loud.

“Who is Taran?”  Aria asked.

“He’s a mercenary we sort of hired,” Resha said.

“Sort of?”  Aria asked.

“He claims he was heading our way anyways so offered to help us for practically free.”

“That was kind of him,” Zalandri said.

“I hope it was kindness.  I don’t know his intentions,” Resha said.

“A kind Human?”  Aria said.

“I thin he is,” Zalandri said.

“Maybe you didn’t have any Humans at the University, but every Human I’ve met has been a cold hearted killer,” Resha said.

“I’ve known plenty of Humans at the University and they were just as kind, cruel or selfish as any other race.  What were the Humans you’ve met; mercenaries passing through?  That’s not exactly a good variety to judge their race by,” Zalandri said.

“I still don’t trust him,” Resha said.

“He’s shown us to be trustworthy on many occasions.  When he learned that he might not be paid, he stayed.  Why would he do that?”  Zalandri asked.

Resha thought about it for a few moments.

“I don’t know.  That’s why I don’t trust him.”

“So, he’s not sweet on anyone here?”  Aria asked.

“No,” Resha said too quickly.

Why would Resha be upset about that?  Did Resha desire Taran?  She hadn’t seen any signs that indicated that.  But did she?  She hoped not because she wanted him.  At least, sometimes she did.  She thought about it at times, but she didn’t know how serious she really was.  Perhaps it was a mixture of loneliness and curiosity.

All her life her parents had taught her to use sex as a way of gaining power.  It was a tool, a weapon to be used for her own gain.  Even procreation was a tool to increase a family’s standing.  Secondly it was for recreation as long as scandal wasn’t involved that could bring shame to the family.

Yet at the University she had learned that sex was a way of expressing love.  Some used it for recreation but Zalandri wasn’t sure she agreed with that.  Ranatal, the closest thing to a friend she had, had spoken of sex as the ultimate expression of intimacy that was only to be used once married.  Zalandri liked that idea the most.  It was something so special and powerful that it was reserved for only the closest of relationships.  It made it mean something.

Still, she really wanted to know what it was like.

Break over she went back to healing Layana.

Eventually Matog came back in carrying an armful of branches.

“I think we’re going to need an axe,” Matog said.

“And if we’re going to make a door, we’ll need a saw, nails and hinges.  We can go to the town for those.  I doubt the army has stamped their heal down on such a place,” Resha said.

“Well, there’ll be soldiers there to be sure, but I doubt they’ll bother us,” Matog said.

“We’re going to need supplies and healthier food than these rations,” Resha said.

“I can make traps for squirrels and birds,” Matog said.

“We need to gather what we can and store up for winter,” Resha said.

“About that…I was thinking that maybe we should just spend the winter here,” Matog said.

“Why?”  Resha asked.

“Why leave here just to travel a month and have to find another place to hole up?  We have a safe, secure, comfortable place here.  It’s not ideal but it’ll be the best we can find.  We wait for spring and make the journey without stopping,” Matog said.

Zalandri thought it made sense.  And though Resha shook her head, she could tell that she was thinking about it.

“It makes sense, Resha,” Zalandri said.

Resha looked angry and kicked her backpack.

Chapter 18

Taka did her best to walk silently through the woods.  She kept track of which direction the wind was going.  She had wished she had Zalandri’s blunderbuss in case she saw any squirrels or birds.  She just wasn’t good enough with a musket to hit it with one shot.  The scatter effect of the blunderbuss made hitting so much easier.

“So, Taran, do you think we’re doomed?”  Taka whispered.

“How do you mean?”

“Do you think we’ll ever get to Vatasha?”

“Of course we will.  We just won’t get there this year.  In the spring we will.”

“We have to make it through winter though.  Are we going to stay here?”

“That would be the most reasonable choice.”

“I guess I need to start getting used to this place then.”

She looked over at the Human.  He was larger than any Goblin and only the tallest Hobgoblins reached that height.  He wasn’t as cute as most Goblins, but he had a different sort of charm.  He was also the only male around that wouldn’t try to kill or capture her.

She wanted to be close to him.  She knew she’d feel safe, secure and warm in his arms.  He would make her forget those horrible three days.  With him she wouldn’t have to worry about being hurt ever again.  It was that security she wanted.  He would make her safe and that was what she wanted.

Taka had heard that Humans generally didn’t consider Goblins attractive.  She knew she was and knew he had to see it as well.

“Taran, you wouldn’t ever hurt me, right?”

“Of course not,” he said matter-of-factly.

“I’m safe with you.”

“I hope so.  I’m not perfect.  I can fail.  I’ll do everything I can to protect you, but I didn’t take out that Minotaur.  Zalandri did.  Without her I’d be dead.”

“But you would do all you can.”

“I would.”

That was all she wanted to hear.  As long as he was breathing, she knew he would never allow anyone to harm her.  Even more important, she knew he would never harm her.

She noticed that the clouds above them were quickly growing dark.

“Looks like it’s going to rain,” he said.

She was hoping for an opportunity to get him alone long enough to get close to him.  The quiet woods would be a good place for a roll-around.  Of course, there were possibly enemy scouts out there looking for them.

“Good.  The rain will help cover our tracks,” he said.

“I don’t want uninvited visitors.”

“Invaders are always rude like that.”

“They have no manners.”

It had started to rain by the time they got back to the watch tower.  They were both soaked.  She got inside and stood there dripping, causing a puddle on the ground.  Fortunately they had a fire going to cook some of the rations.  It was summer and normally she wouldn’t want the fire inside, but right now she just wanted to get dry.

“Let’s get you out of those wet things,” Resha said.

Matog ushered Taran out of the room and into his guard tower.  She stood guard to make sure he didn’t peek while she stripped out of her clothes.

“You know, I wouldn’t mind if you peeked a little!”  Taka called out.

Resha and Matog laughed.  Zalandri didn’t look as if she had even heard it and Aria looked scandalized.

“Can I?”  He asked from the other room.  There was no door and if it weren’t for Matog standing guard, he could have easily peeked.

“No,” Matog said.

Once out of her wet things, Resha threw a blanket over her and sat her down by the fire.  Her wet hair clung to her face and was very annoying.  She was naked but very warm under the blanket.

Then it was Taran’s turn to strip down.  He came out of his room also in nothing but a blanket.  He put his clothes and armor beside the stove to dry them off.  Then he sat beside her.  Both of them huddled up together.  She wished they were under the same blanket.

She didn’t know if he would accept her offer.  He might not find her attractive.  It could be that she was like a little sister to him.  If that were the case, she’d have to find comfort somewhere else.

“The rain will keep scouts away for a while,” Resha said.

“I think we’re far enough away to not be found,” Matog said.

“It’s an hour by foot from where we were and several hours from the city,” Zalandri said.

“I doubt they’d venture too far from camp,” Taran said.

“But there’s no guarantee,” Resha said.

“There never is,” Taran said.

“That’s why I believe the Minotaur was tracking Aria,” Taran said.

“Why would they?”  Resha asked.

They all looked to Aria.

“I don’t know!  I told you I’m a nobody.  Maybe they didn’t want word being spread that they were attacking Potta?”  Aria said.

“Possible,” Taran said.

Taka looked over to where the Elf was working on Layana.  Layana didn’t look any better.  Sonata was sleeping but she didn’t look better either.  Aria clung by her sister’s side, as if afraid to leave it.

Aria was left to worry about her sister, fearing that death could come claim her at any time.  She wondered what it was like to be on that side of the fence.  When the soldiers came to her home, it had been her getting hurt.  She wondered which was worse, being hurt or knowing someone she loved was being hurt.

Taka suspected that it was knowing a loved one was being hurt and not being able to do anything about it.  She couldn’t imagine watching what happened to her happen to one of her sisters.  Her family had to assume that she was dead.  The last time they saw her she was being dragged away by soldiers.  She had to be dead in their eyes.

“I wish I could do more, but I’m only one step up from being completely useless,” Zalandri said as she crawled away from Layana to take a break.

“You’re helping a great deal.  I can feel a difference,” Layana said weakly.

“You are being kind, but you don’t need to fib,” Zalandri said.

“I’m not fibbing.”

The room grew quiet and Taka listened to the patter of the rain on the wooden roof above.  Occasionally there was the distant roll of thunder somewhere in the distance.  It was peaceful and Taka closed her eyes to feel the sounds.

There hadn’t been much peace in her life lately and she took to time to enjoy it.

Just that morning she had come face to face with an animated corpse that had tried to kill her.  If she had fought one ounce less than she could, she would have died.  It would have been so easy.  All she had to do was let go and she would be dead.  It was so close.

At the time she hadn’t felt scared.  She was more angry that some disgusting thing was trying to kill her.  It happened so quick that she didn’t have time to be scared.  She had to admit that there was a thrill to it that she secretly enjoyed.

Matog began to hum as she stoked the fire.  Taka opened her eyes and saw the look of contentment on Matog’s face.  Like her, Matog was accustomed to a hard life of simplicity.  Just having a fire and a roof was a blessing.  When Matog smiled she showed her sharp teeth.  Ork’s teeth were larger than Goblin teeth.  Taka preferred her smaller teeth.  They looked more feminine.

“Resha, do you have any more stories or songs?”  Zalandri asked.

“You’ve heard them all,” Resha said.

“Oh.”

“What about your books?  Can we read them?”  Taka asked.

“Aren’t they just a bunch of dull history books?”  Matog asked.

“They’re not dull.  They tell great stories of the people that came before us.  The world we live in now is the ones they shaped.  We can’t understand what’s going on unless we understand what has already happened,” Zalandri said.

“What?  You understand this war?”  Matog asked.

“In a way, yes.  Though I admit that I don’t understand the cruelty to the innocent,” Zalandri said.

“Alright then, explain what this war is about.  I’ve been around soldiers for the past year and I have yet to hear a good excuse for all this craziness,” Matog said.

“These countries were all once part of the great Elvish Thoriani Empire,” Zalandri said.   “Humans were their army, Harpies and Fairies were scouts, Satyrs were the artists and actors and so on and so on.  Then, out of the north, hordes of Orks, Centaurs, Minotaurs and other races poured into the empire in a war that lasted three hundred years.  In the end the nomadic races were defeated, but the Empire no longer had the strength to carry on and everything fell into chaos.  From that chaos the different kingdoms we know today arose.  Each one claimed the inheritance of the Empire; the right to rule.”

“So, it’s a big cock fight over who gets more power?  That’s all it is?  I was expecting something more grand, not what I see everyday in the taverns,” Matog said.

“It does sound rather base, doesn’t it?”  Zalandri said.

“Sounds pointless,” Resha said.

“It is pointless because the only people that gain anything are the nobles,” Taka said.  She understood well enough that the common people suffer when nobles go to war.

“Where are the books?”  Resha asked.

“Over there,” Matog said, pointing to the corner.  Resha went over and dug through the bag.

“Get, the Shorian Account of the Late Empire,” Zalandri said.

Resha dug through the bag until she found it.  She crawled back over to her spot and opened the book.

As Resha began reading, Taka curled up in her blanket and looked out the open doorway into the rain.  There was something almost musical about Resha’s voice and Taka loved listening to her.  It didn’t matter what Resha was saying, she made it sound interesting.  Although the book was dry and hard to follow, she listened because Resha’s voice kept her attention.

When she looked over she saw Taran sitting in his doorway listening in on Resha’s reading.  Like her, he was covered in a blanket.  She saw his bare feet and head.  Everything else was unfortunately covered by the large gray blanket.  He had a silver canteen that he was drinking from.  She guessed that it wasn’t water.

Resha read on for a long while.  She didn’t put the book down until it got too dark to read.  The fire in the stove was too dim.  They could have made it bigger but the weather was too hot.

“Thank you, Resha for reading that,” Zalandri said.

“You’re welcome,” Resha said.

“That was actually…interesting,” Matog said.

“Glad you like it,” Zalandri said.

Taka heard a smile with Zalandri’s words, but she didn’t smile with her mouth.  She wasn’t arrogant and aloof, she was just reserved.  She was harder to read than most, but once she got to know the Elf, she saw that she wasn’t so bad.

One by one they all went to sleep.  Even Taran went back into his room and went to bed.  He staggered on his way there almost tripping.  He was clearly drunk.

She couldn’t sleep so she lay awake listening to the rain.

It was bright and sunny when the army came to her village and destroyed everything.  She could still see her father’s face as she was pulled away from them.  The last image she had of him was him screaming out her name.

She felt so weak, pathetic and filthy.  She hated it and blocked those thoughts out as much as she could.  She ignored then and pretended all that had happened to someone else.

Taran was there.  He was asleep and definitely drunk.  Now might not be a better time.  She knew Humans usually didn’t consider Goblins attractive, but they were just like Elves, except greenish, sharp teeth and large noses.  That couldn’t be so off-putting for Humans, right?

Once she was sure they were all asleep, Taka got up and silently crept to Taran’s room.  He was lying on his bedding, lying on his side.  She let her blanket drop and crawled in under his.  She wrapped an arm around him and draped a leg over his.

He woke up as she pressed herself against him.  She had her nose touching his and she could feel his breath on her face.  He was so warm.

Taran didn’t move.  She caressed his face and then gently moved her hand down his neck, his shoulder and his chest.  She lightly kissed him on the lips as she pressed even closer to him.

He moved his hand to her hip and kissed back.  She knew she had him then.  Even if he wanted to refuse, it was too late now.  Maybe it was wrong to do this while he was inebriated, but she really didn’t care at the moment.

His arms encircled her and his hands moved slowly up and down her back.  Taka could feel them getting into a rhythm as they kissed and caressed.  She moved her body with the rhythm.

Neither of them could make a sound, not even a whisper.  They moved slowly so as not to make any sudden sounds.  It was like dancing with a partner that knew exactly how to lead and how to move with her.

He stroked the hair from his face and kissed her.  She playfully bit him lightly on the ear.  His hands went down to her bottom and she cupped his face in her hands.  He had a playful way about it that she loved.  It was so different from the rapid, selfish way the other men had.

This was how it was supposed to be.  Tenderness, gentleness, care, safety and security.

As they began to make love she covered her mouth with her hand to keep from making noise.  She closed her eyes and enjoyed every second of it.

It was strange to be so close to Taran.  She wasn’t in love with him, but he made her feel safe.  He was sure he hadn’t thought of her in this way and she hoped it wouldn’t ruin what they already had; trust and respect.

When they finished, she felt more satisfied than if she had eaten a feast at a king’s table.  She caressed and kissed him for a while before sneaking back to her own bed.  She looked and made sure everyone was still asleep.  They were all sleeping peacefully.

She crawled back into her own bedding and blanket, happier than she had been in quite a while.  She went to sleep completely content.

Taka woke up to the sounds of people talking.  Resha and Zalandri were talking about the history lesson from last night.  Matog was cleaning the bore of a musket and Layana was still sleeping.  Aria was feeding Sonata some dried fruit.

“Good morning, Taka,” Resha said.

“You slept in,” Matog said.

“I was tired,” Taka said.

“We don’t have much of a breakfast, but hopefully we’ll have some dinner,” Matog said.

“Dinner?”  Taka asked.

“Yes, as in, you and Taran need to go out and shoot something we can eat,” Matog said.

She thought of last night and hoped Taran wouldn’t be awkward or upset with her.  She wanted him to remain her friend and brother.  It was just that sometimes she needed a little more.

Taka took a handful of dried apples and was chewing on them when Taran finally emerged.  He was fully dressed with his musket slung on his back.

“I want something beside dry fruit for dinner.  I’m going to go hunting.  Taka, you coming?”  He said with a smile.

She had to fight to contain her own smile.  It was strange looking at him now.  She had been very intimate with him, touched him and kissed him.  Taka hid her amusement, grabbed Zalandri’s blunderbuss and followed Taran out the door.

“Good luck!”  Resha called out to them.

They marched off into the woods and for a while neither of them said anything.

“About last night,” he said.  She readied herself for anything from an admission that it was the best night ever to him saying that he utterly hated her.

“Yes?”  She said, cringing.

“I don’t remember everything of it, but I remember enough.  I was drunk as I’m sure you knew.  I might not have agreed to it but what happened, happened and we shouldn’t pretend it didn’t.  I hope you won’t feel awkward or think less of me.”

She laughed.  He had every right to be angry with her, but it sounded as if he were the one apologizing.

“Taran, I don’t feel awkward at all.  We’re friends, right?”

“For my part, yes.”

“Then let’s continue to be so.”

“Would you like to try is while sober?”  She asked.

“We have too much work to do.  It’s not just tonight’s dinner we have to worry about, but the whole winter.  We have to store as much meat as we can.  It’ll be dried, cured meat, but it will be something.  The skins we’ll use for bedding and such.  What I’m saying is that we have no time to waste.”

“Are you sure?  When I’m not trying to hide I can be very…lively.”

He smiled and shook his head.

“I have no doubts of that,” Taran said.

“We can have a little roll around right here in the leaves.  I won’t tell.”  She wanted one time when he wasn’t drunk.  She wanted to feel him one more time because once wasn’t enough.

“Taka, we can’t.  I was serious about having a lot of work to do.  Also, I don’t want to complicate things.  We have a whole winter to get through.”

“Please.  Just one more time and I won’t ask you again.  Then we can go back to being normal friends.  You’re like a brother.”

“A brother you want to have incest with, huh?”

“Something like that,” she said smiling.

“You have a sick sense of humor.”

“Well?”

He laughed.

“You are persistent, aren’t you?”

“It’s one of my virtues.”

“I don’t want… a relationship like that.  However, you’re a good friend and a good person.  If you promise me that things will go back to how they used to be, then I agree.”

“I promise.”

She tied her hair up into a bun and then jumped into his arms, wrapping her legs around him.  They made love on the dried leaves of the forest.  It was even better than the night before.  He was more in control and they talked, laughed and joked the entire time.  It was fun, pleasurable, gentle, rough and amazing.  He was usually so quiet, but he had a great sense of humor that only amplified everything.

When they finally finished, Taka lay panting on the ground, staring up into the trees above.

“I had no idea so many curse words existed,” he said.

“Neither did I.”

She waited a good while to regain her strength before finally getting up and picking up her blunderbuss.

“Let’s go hunt,” she said.

Chapter 19

Resha watched Taran and Taka go off to hunt.  She wished them luck and they probably assumed that it was for killing dinner, but she really meant to wish them a safe return.

However, she didn’t want Taran to think she actually cared about him so she chose a less thoughtful thing to say.  She couldn’t care about someone that constantly refused her.  It still didn’t make any sense.

She turned away from the door and looked around the room that would be her home for the next few months.  It was a large room with plenty of space, so at least she could be thankful for that.

Resha hated herself for being so selfish.  All she could think about was getting to Vatasha with money to spare, but Layana lay in her bed in pain.  Zalandri was selflessly exhausting herself, trying to heal the Centaur.

What did Resha have to offer?  She wasn’t a leader.  She wasn’t a hunter, fighter, healer or even smart.  She offered nothing except an extra, unskilled musket to the fight.

“Tomorrow I’m going to the town to trade for things we need,” Resha said.

“What do we need?”  Matog asked.

“A saw, nails, hinges, grain, maybe some winter clothes,” Resha said.

“What do we have for trade?”  Zalandri asked.  She was healing Layana and had her eyes closed.

“Several pistols, knives, belts, a pair of boots that are too big, and several flint and tender kits that we obviously don’t need,” Resha said.

“I hope that’s enough,” Matog said.

“It might not be.  Remember, we have to survive through the whole winter,” Resha said.

“Let’s pray that Taran can kill enough animals,” Matog said.

“I would come with you, but I have to stay and watch Sonata,” Aria said.

“Of course,” Resha said.

“I’ll go with you,” Matog said.

“I would go but I have to stay here and heal Layana,” Zalandri said.

“You’re doing a great job.  Thank you,” Resha said.

“I’m not doing enough.  If I was halfway competent, we’d be leaving in time to reach Vatasha,” Zalandri said.

“Don’t worry about it.  You’re doing great.  We’ll get to Vatasha eventually,” Resha said.  She had to force herself to smile.  She didn’t want Zalandri to see how upset she really was.

Resha helped Matog clean all the muskets and knives.  A rusty pistol would sell or trade for less.  As she cleaned she kept looking out the window for Taran and Taka to return.  Those two seemed to get along.

Why would he be friends with Taka and not her?  Did he know that she sometimes sold herself?  If he knew that and didn’t want her, why would he accept the job and if he knew that afterwards, why would he stay?

“I think we can make this place nice and cozy,” Matog said.

“We have an axe, but if we had a few more carpenter tools, we could really make this place a home,” Aria said.

“I know how to work wood,” Matog said.

“Where’d you learn that?”

“My father was a carpenter…sometimes.  He also did some blacksmithing,” Matog said.

After they cleaned the weapons and gear, there wasn’t much else to do.  Resha picked up the book she had been reading the night before and continued reading aloud.  It was a boring, dry history book, but in a way it was telling a story just as anyone in a tavern would do.  The more she read the more of the story she began to see.  The author made sure to emphasize certain points and deemphasize others.  It made her wonder how much was true, how much was left out and how much was slanted.

Taran and Taka didn’t return until near sundown.  Taran carried a deer on his back and Taka carried several squirrels tied on a rope.  Taka had a giant smile on her face.  She apparently liked hunting a great deal.

“Thank the Creators.  Meat!”  Matog said.

Matog grabbed her knife and hurried out to meet them.  She took the deer off of Taran’s shoulders and took it inside where she began skinning it.  Matog butchered the animal wish such speed and precision that Resha wondered if her father had been a butcher as well.

“Taran, me and Matog are going to go to the town nearby so we can do some trading,” Resha said.

“Excellent.  We’ll need a lot of things.  I’m sure you already have a list made up,” Taran said.

“In a way, yes.”

“You make sure you keep your eyes and ears open.  Don’t let anyone surprise you.  I trust you’ll be alright,” he said.

“Right.”

Why did he have such faith in her?  He didn’t even ask what she was trading for.  She could have been trading for honey candy for all he knew.

“I’m going out hunting as much as I can.  The more food we get now, the more we can store for winter.  It’s not going to be easy,” he said.

“I know.  I’m also going to try to get grain,” she said.

“What about chickens for eggs, goats for milk or even a cow?”  Aria asked.

“A cow will eat too much, but the goat and chickens isn’t a bad idea,” Resha said.

“Fresh eggs,” Matog said, licking her sharp teeth.

Resha went to bed, curled up in her corner of the room.  She could hear Taran snoring quietly in the other room.  Was he a monster, waiting to strike?  Could he trust her girls around him when she was gone?  She had to remind herself that he was a Human mercenary after all.

What was she supposed to do once she got to Vatasha?  Zalandri would be safe and sound at the university there, but once she and her books were delivered, would she be left coinless in the streets?  How was that better than what she had here?”

In the morning, she got her pack and everything they were going to trade.  As Matog and she were preparing, Taran and Taka were preparing as well.  They were going out to continue hunting.  Resha wondered how many animals there were around the tower.  They might have to venture further and further out each day.  That could get dangerous.

As they left the tower Taran stopped and turned toward them.

“You two be careful.  Whatever happens, don’t risk your life.  Play it safe and come back.  Whatever you might loose can be replaced.  You can’t.  Understood?”  Taran said.

Slightly stunned by his sincerity and care, Resha could only nod her head.

“We will,” Matog said.

She watched Taran and Taka trek off into the woods.  Then she turned and followed Matog all the while thinking of how much she didn’t understand of Taran.

The forest was rather beautiful and quiet except the crunching of the leaves under their feet.  She could smell the moss and the bark of the trees.  She never really spent much time in the woods.  It seemed most of her life had been spent inside the tavern and no where else.  She had never seen the vast plains before and eventually the snow capped mountains she had heard so much of.   She couldn’t wait.

Most of all, she wanted to see Vatasha, the most beautiful city in the world.  A sparkling paradise on the water’s edge.  It sounded too good to be true, yet everyone said it was no idle story.

“I hope Layana will be alright,” Matog said after a while.

“She will be.  Zalandri’s there to help her.”

“But Zalandri’s magic isn’t enough.  If her wounds had been worse, she would have been dead.”

“Without her magic, Layana might never have been able to walk at all.  With luck, she’ll be walking in only a month.  That’s nothing to dismiss lightly.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Matog, what do you think of Taran?  You’ve been around a lot of soldiers.  Can we trust him?”

“Trust Taran?  I don’t know.  He’s not like any soldier I’ve met.  He doesn’t have the same air about him.  Either he’s the cleverest viper in a kindly guise, or he’s legitimately honest.  He’s quiet, but not the kind that you have to worry about.  If I had to place money down, I’d say he’s real.  That said, I still don’t understand him one bit.  I don’t know what motivates him and if I don’t know his motivations, I don’t know him.”

“You’re saying that if I knew his motivation, I’d understand him?”

“That’s about right.”

“Have any clues to his motivation?”

“None.”

“Wonderful.”

They walked all day, talking about music and where they learned to play.  Matog told her how her parents were the village’s musicians and she learned from them.  She could play more than the flute, but it was the easiest to carry around.

“I used to play the lute, but I’m afraid that I’ll never really play again,” Resha said.

“You can, in a certain way.  You’ll only be able to strum, but you can still do it,” Matog said.

“I’ll have to see about that.”

“Maybe we’ll find a lute in town.”

“We can’t afford resources for something like that.”

“For me, music is as important as food.  I need both to survive.”

Resha couldn’t argue against that.  She was the same.

They didn’t see the town until a little while before dusk.  They stood at the edge of the woods looking out at the fields that surrounded the town.  She noticed that the fields were now trampled squares of mud.  Some of the outlying farms were charred and skeletal.

Niether of them said the obvious.  The Korsta army had passed through.  They made their way through the muddy field to the main gate of the town.  The gate was closed but two Korsta soldiers stood by.

As they approached one of the soldiers held a hand up.

“Hold on.  Where you go?”  The soldier asked in poor Imperial.

“We’ve come to purchase a saw and tools.  Our farm needs to be fixed up.  We have money,” Resha said.

“Farm?  Where?”

“Two days that way.”  Resha pointed in the wrong direction.

“Money, ka?  Two silver to enter,” the guard said.

Resha doubted very much that it was two silver to enter, but they had the power and so she couldn’t argue.

They paid and were let in.  It was fortunate that they didn’t search their packs.  Looted military equipment would be hard to explain.

There were a few soldiers sitting around a camp fire near the entrance.  They had tents set up.  They were the permanent garrison to remind the town that they were occupied.  The soldiers were laughing and talking in Korstian and Resha couldn’t understand a word of it.

She tried not to make eye contact as she walked by.  She wanted to look as dirty and disheveled as she could.  Looking pretty around enemy soldiers was never a good thing.

They made it past the soldiers and into the main town square.  All the shops were closing and she didn’t want to spend the money for a tavern.

“We need to find a place to sleep,” Resha said.

“Tavern,” Matog said, pointing to a building with light, music and talking coming from it.

“Too much money,” Resha said.

Matog huffed but didn’t argue.

If Resha decided to fall back on selling herself, they could stay in the tavern and eat well, but she didn’t want to resort to that unless she had to.  That might occur sooner than she’d like.  Winters were long and money was short.  If she ever got to Vatasha, she’d have to sing and sell herself for a living.  That was one of several reasons she had hoped to get there with extra money.  That wouldn’t happen now.

Why prolong the inevitable?  She was going to have to eventually, why not just start now and earn as much as she could.

In a way it felt as if she were giving up, like she had lost already.  It didn’t feel right but what else was she supposed to do?

“Very well.  It wouldn’t hurt to sleep there one night,” Resha said.

Matog smiled and hurried to the tavern.  Inside looked like nothing more than a few locals and a table of Korsta soldiers.  The soldiers would probably have more money than the local farmers.

She eyed the soldiers as they walked to the bar to rent a room.  They were drinking and that was good.

Matog ordered a room and two meals.  They chose a table and sat down.

“Tomorrow, when we start doing business, we need to look around for someplace free we can sleep for the next time we come back.  I think that we’ll be here often,” Resha said.

“Yeah, you’re right.  We’ll be trading here for food,” Matog said.

“That’s something I’m a bit worried about.  Did you see those trampled fields?  These people might end up as hungry as us.”

“We’ll just go to the next city over.”

“That would be Potta and its under siege.  They’re probably eating their food storage up as we speak.  They won’t have food either.”

“Right, so we’ll look for farms and villages off the main highway.”

Resha thought about this.  It was worth a try.  There were only eight of them so their needs wouldn’t strain the smaller farms and villages.

After eating they went up to their room and Matog went to sleep.  Resha quietly left the room and went downstairs to where the soldiers were.  She asked if any of them were bored.  It turned out that they were.  Being assigned to this town was an unwanted assignment.  Apparently there was nothing to do there.  She changed that.

Two hours later she had enough silver to pay for their room and food and ten silvers left over.

As Resha climbed back up the stairs to her room, she felt awful.  It wasn’t just physically, she felt sick, as if her soul had been drained right out of her.  The money wasn’t worth it, yet they needed as much of it as they could get.

She climbed into bed, wanting to forget the humiliation and the foul feelings.

Resha was awakened by Matog.

“Get up.  We can’t sleep away the whole day.  We need to do our business as fast as we can and get on the road.  With luck we’ll be back at the tower before midnight,” Matog said.

Resha rolled out of bed and got dressed.  They went to the one store in town.  The shop owner was impressed by the normal stuff but when they got to the weapons he quickly covered them up.

“Are you crazy?  Don’t you know they’ve prohibited all weapons?  If you get caught with these they’ll throw you in prison at best,” the shopkeeper said.

“Really?  I’m sure lots of people here would want them.  The danger we had in bringing them here will make them expensive.  You’re going to make a profit if you can find anyone brave enough to buy it,” Resha said.

“They searched our houses, but with these…where did you get them?”  The Saytr asked.

“Different places.  Some of the owners won’t be missing them,” Resha said.

The owner scratched his beard and thought.

“These are the only firearms in town not in possession of the Korstians.   They’ll fetch a high price.  What do you want for them?”

“Grain.  Tools, food and winter clothing,” Matog said.

It took them another hour to sort through everything they needed and finally agreed on what the pistols were worth.

They came out with everything they needed and then some.  The owner tried to ask specifics about where they came from, but they never gave him a straight answer.

When they finished, they left the town as quickly as they could.  She didn’t want to be stopped by soldiers or have the store owner change his mind or turn them in for some kind of reward.  It was best to leave as quickly as possible.

“Maybe I should have gotten something for Zalandri.  Without her Layana wouldn’t have stood a chance.  Zalandri saved her life and I owe her for that,” Matog said.

“You take care of Layana, don’t you.”

“I try to.  When I first came upon her she was so gullible and ignorant.  I’m surprised she had lasted that long on her own.  I stepped in and taught her how to survive.”

“I bet its nice to have someone to care about.”

“You don’t have anyone?”

“Except for you all, no, not sense my mother died a few years ago.  No friends, no family.  Just me.”

“You should find Taka’s family.  She has plenty to share.  What about Taran?  You could get close to him I’m sure.”

“Taran?  He’s a greedy mercenary.”

“You don’t believe that.”

“I don’t, but I still don’t know what he is.  Besides, I don’t believe he thinks very highly of me.  He hardly ever talks to me.”

“He hardly ever talks to anyone.  He does look at you though.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“I’m not.  Don’t believe me if you want, but I’m telling the truth.”

She didn’t believe her.  If he really did find her attractive he would have done something by now.  An open invitation wasn’t something to be ignored if you like the person.  Maybe he disliked her or didn’t trust her.  Maybe he thought she was a whore.

She was though.  If he thought ill of her it was only because it was true.  She wasn’t a good person.  She tried to think well of others, but she couldn’t think well of herself.

The walk home was long and they didn’t get there until shortly before midnight.  Everyone was asleep except for Aria who silently welcomed them back.  Resha collapsed onto her bed and quickly fell asleep.

The sun was up into mid morning when she awoke.  Everyone was up, even Matog.  She looked around but saw that Taran and Taka had already left.  She was disappointed.  She wanted to see what his reaction would be.

As a group they sat in a circle and inventoried everything they had brought.  After that, the first order of business was to build doors, shelves, cupboards and anything else the building needed.

Resha actually started to feel excited about it.  They were turning this hollow building into a real place to live.  If they could get enough food, they could pass the winter here in actual comfort.  It wasn’t as good as going to Vatasha, but it was still going to be alright.

Taran and Taka came back that evening with squirrels, birds and a rabbit.  Taka greeted her with a hug but Taran welcomed them back politely.

“Glad you came back safe,” he said with no hint of emotion.

She didn’t notice him looking at her at all.  He came in, greeted them and then went to his room.

Maybe Matog was seeing things.  She didn’t see any sign that Taran cared one bit for her.  If anything, it seemed like he was avoiding her.

She wasn’t going to worry about it.  If he found out what she did, he’d hate her.  No one wanted a prostitute like herself.  He was probably wise not getting near her.  She was, after all, a horrible person.

Chapter 20

Zalandri noticed that Resha wasn’t acting like her usual self since returning from town.  She was quiet and kept to her self.  She seldom looked up from the ground where she was lost in thought.  However, judging by her dark expression, her thoughts weren’t very pleasant.

Something was wrong with Resha and Zalandri wished she knew what it was.  She couldn’t help if she didn’t know what was wrong.

At least she was able to help Layana.  It felt like it was getting easier.  The healing was coming faster though it was still incredibly slow.  Layana’s pain was now just a deep soreness and not a piercing, sharp pain.

Everyone else got to go out and hunt, fix up the building or go to town, but she was stuck there healing Layana.

Sonata was getting better and from what Zalandri could sense, she was out of danger.  That was good because she just didn’t have the ability to heal two people at once.

Then there was Taka.

Zalandri had seen her that night when she snuck into Taran’s room.  Zalandri saw through their eyes and heard the sounds.  Taran had been inebriated but that shouldn’t be an excuse.  Taka had none.  She had seduced a drunken man.

It wasn’t right on either of their parts and Zalandri wanted to yell at them for being so stupid.  She also wanted to know what Taka had that she didn’t.  Was it just because they spent more time together?  If that was it, then she’d never talk to Taran because she was always healing Layana.

What did she get for her selfless healing?  Nothing.  In fact, because of the sick and wounded, she’d have to wait until spring to get to Vatasha.

However, the thought of not helping Layana and Sonata was much worse.  As bad as she wanted to get to Vatasha and see her mentors, she couldn’t abandon people that needed her help.  Her professors had always said that there was no use in learning if she didn’t use it to help others.

She sighed and crawled over to her bed to take a break.  The others were outside.  They had cut down a tree and were now using the saw to cut long strips to make into a door.  Without a door and window covers, they’d freeze in the winter.

“You look sad,” Layana said.

“I do?”

“Yes.  Shouldn’t I be the sad one?  I got shot after all.  What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.  At least with me.”

“You’re sad that we couldn’t make it?”

“No.  Well, I’m not happy about that, but its not the worst thing to ever happen.  I’m not sad for myself.  I’m sad….I’m sad for other people.”

“What other people?”

She was thinking mostly of Resha, Taran and Taka, but it was more than that.

“Everyone.  Everyone I see is in confusion, pain and are suffering.  Everyone’s lost something or are lost.  So many people’s lives have been ruined.  People that deserve happiness aren’t happy.  I keep looking for signs of divine justice, of good always overcoming evil, but I haven’t seen any of that.”

“Who says good always overcomes evil?”

“My professors.”

“They need to get out of their classrooms more often.  That world isn’t like that.  Evil does win.  Good people suffer.  It’s the way the world is.  We’re meant to suffer and only after this life will we find happiness.”

“Is that what you nomads believe?”

“Yes.  Suffering is what defines this world.  We’re not here to be happy all the time.  We’re here to learn loss and pain.”

“What for?”

“Only if we experience such things for ourselves will we understand the plight of others.”

“Seems to me that suffering just leads to more suffering.  I can’t believe we were put here to suffer.”

“Believe it or not, but that’s what happens.”  Layana shrugged her human shoulders.

Zalandri looked out the window and saw Resha.  She was slowly sawing at a piece of wood while she stared off into nothing.  Something happened in town to disturb Resha.

When Resha took a break from sawing, Zalandri hurried out side and walked over to her.

“Can we talk?”  Zalandri asked.

“Of course.”

Zalandri led her a short distance from the tower.

“What’s wrong, Resha?”

“Nothing’s wrong.”

“Don’t say that.  I can see something’s wrong and I’m worried.”

“There’s no need to worry.  I’ll be fine.”

“What’s wrong?  You can tell me.  I’m your friend.”

Resha looked down and took a deep breath.

“I’ve done things that I’m not proud of, Zalandri.  Things I don’t want to talk about.  I’m not the good person you think I am.”

“That’s nonsense.  I don’t know what you’ve done, but I know you’re a good person.”

“I’m not and you’re going to have to trust me on that.  I want to change, but I don’t know how.  Life used to be so simple.  Now I don’t know what’s going on anymore.  Nothing makes sense.  I just feel lonely and angry all the time.”

“Angry at what?”

“At the world, at the armies, the aristocracy that caused all this and myself.  Everything.”

Zalandri wasn’t sure what normal people did at times like this.  She had seen others put their hands on each other’s shoulders, so she tried that.  She reached out and put a hand on Resha’s shoulder and suddenly Resha started crying.

Confused, Zalandri didn’t know what to do so she just left her hand there.

“I’m sorry,” Resha said after gaining some control back and wiping the tears from her cheeks with her good hand.

“It’s…it’s alright,” Zalandri said.  She had no clue what to say to her.

“How do you do it?”  Resha asked.

“How do you spend all your time thinking of others?  You’ve been at Layana’s side for days without a word of complaint.  I wish I was like that, but no matter what happens, I always think of myself first.”

“I don’t believe that.”

“Believe it.”

What was she supposed to say?  She had no experience with this sort of situation.

“The philosopher king, Andritis said that we are at our core, beings of light, truth and goodness.  I believe that.  I think you need to stop looking at the dark and look more at the light.  Besides, I thought you were supposed to be the optimist.”

“Even I have my bad days.”

“Is there anything I can do?”

“See?  There you go, being selfless again.”

“You’re my friend.  I have no doubt that you’d do the same for me.”

Resha then actually smiled.

“I would for you.  Whatever it was, I’d do it for you.”

“See?  You’re not so bad.  Whatever it is that’s bothering you, ignore it.  Don’t think about it and try to be happy,” Zalandri said.

Resha nodded and smiled a little.

Zalandri then went back to healing while the others continued working on the house.  In the evening they all stopped for the day.  They had both doors finished.  Tomorrow they’d work on shelves and any other comfort they could think of.  Zalandri thought an outhouse would be nice.

When Taran and Taka came back, they only had a few birds and squirrels.  They were impressed at the door and Taka seemed disappointed about the door to Taran’s room.  She probably just wanted to sneak in there more for late night rendezvous.

Resha read more out of the history book while Matog and Taka prepared the kills.  She liked it when Resha read.  She had a distinctive, theatrical voice that added to the reading.  Perhaps that could be a way to earn money once they got to Vatasha.

They all eventually fell into sleep.

Something woke her in the middle of the night.  It sounded like footsteps and heavy breathing.  She sat up and looked around.  Everyone was asleep because she couldn’t get any sight.  She turned her head, listening for might have made a sound.

Nothing.

Then she heard it again.  Footsteps, heavy ones coming from outside the house.  She listened as the footsteps slowly came around the house.  She could hear the leaves crunching and twigs snapping.  They were dull, ‘thunks’ like hooves.

The intruder circled around to the front of the building where the door was and stopped.  She listened for a while and didn’t hear anything more.

Had she imagined it?  No one else was waking up so maybe she had been having auditory hallucinations.

Then the door slammed open and the intruder was there.  She couldn’t see it because she was blind, but she knew it was there all the same.  Zalandri could feel dark presence of the Minotaur’s spirit.  She could feel its anger and hatred.

It stood in the doorway, breathing heavily and looking around.

“Get out!”  Zalandri shouted.  “Get out and leave us alone!”

The Minotaur spirit let out a long, hollow moan and slowly began backing away from the door.

The others woke up when they heard her screaming.  Resha ran over and grabbed Zalandri by the shoulders.

“The Minotaur!  He was here,” Zalandri said.

“It’s just the wind.  A storm’s coming.  That’s all,” Resha said.

“No, his spirit was here.  He followed us.  He was angry and full of rage.  My healing gives him the strength to stay in this world.  I’m not crazy.”

“I know you’re not.  Don’t worry about him.  We’ll protect you.”

Resha went to sleep next to Zalandri.  It was strange but nice to have someone so near.

As the others went back to sleep, she couldn’t.  She could still hear the angry spirit walking around outside.  Zalandri took a few deep breaths and began repeating the chant over and over in her mind until she felt calm.  She pushed the spirit’s sound to the back of her mind where she could ignore it.

In the morning she couldn’t feel the spirit anymore.  It had gone off to wherever spirits go when they weren’t haunting her.

It was raining lightly outside and she could feel a definite chill to the air.  Soon the leaves would be falling.  Some of them were already starting to turn yellow.

“I guess I’m not going hunting today,” Taka said.  She sounded mildly disappointed.

“We don’t want to work with wet wood either,” Matog said.

“If it’s not raining tomorrow, I want to go to the farms and plantations and see if I can trade for some animals.  We can build a pen for them,” Resha said.

“Let’s build an outhouse first,” Taran said as he entered the room.

“I fully agree,” Zalandri said.

They sat around most of day while Resha read or Matog played the flute.  She continued to do her best to heal Layana.  However, she was growing crazy.  She couldn’t take it much longer.

“Resha, tomorrow can I go with you to town or to the farms?”  Zalandri asked.

“I’d like to come too,” Aria said. “I want to see if I can get any news about what’s going on in Potta.”

“Very well,” Resha said.

“I’ll watch your sister,” Matog said.

“Thank you,” Aria said.

“We don’t much left to trade with,” Resha said.  “I don’t want to trade away any more weapons.”

“Goats and chickens should be cheap,” Aria said.

That night she heard the Minotaur’s spirit walking around the house, but she ignored it and went to sleep.

The next morning they packed up and the three of them headed out.  By mid day she began to wonder if she should have just stayed home.  Her feet remembered how to walk, but her mind remembered how much she didn’t like it.  Aria flew overhead most of the time.  Zalandri knew that physically Harpies, Fairies and other flying races shouldn’t be able to fly, but somehow they had magic in them that allowed it.

Home.  Already she was thinking of that stone watchtower as home.

They made good time and got to the gates shortly before nightfall.  The gates were closed and the guards didn’t look happy.

“Looky here!  I remember you,” one of the guards said to Resha.

“We’ve come to trade,” Resha said flatly.

“That all?”  One of the guards said.

“Depends on what she’s trading, eh?”

“Maybe you’ve come for the executions?”  A guard asked.

“Executions?  Who’s being executed?”  Aria asked.

“We found one of our patrols dead.  It didn’t take long to find the culprits.  Our captain’s come to oversee the whole thing,” the head guard said.

“Don’t they realize when they’ve been beat?”  Another guard said.

“Maybe later you can stop buy our tents?”  A guard said.

Zalandri saw how they all looked at Resha and how Resha avoided their eyes.  Something had happened.  It wasn’t fear or hatred in Resha’s expression, but shame and despair.

The guards let them past and they went to barn that Resha knew about from her last visit.  They snuck in through a loose board and curled up in the hay at the back of the barn, far from any casual observer.  They had to be quiet though.

“What were they talking about?”  Zalandri whispered.

“Nothing,” Resha said and turned away.

Clearly Resha wasn’t prepared to talk about it then.  Zalandri would get her answers one way or another.

Zalandri was somewhat naive, but she wasn’t a fool.  She had a few guesses about what had happened and she didn’t like any of them.  Resha wouldn’t do something like that, would she?  She knew poor people led very different lives, but could poverty corrupt someone as pure as Resha?

The idea that Resha had sold herself both angered and saddened her.  She wanted to yell at Resha and ask her how she could do such a thing, but at the same time she pitied her and knew she could never understand the kind of hopeless life other lived.  She was in no position to judge.

In the morning they snuck out of the barn before the owner came in.  It was early but already they saw people wandering toward the town square.

“There’s many more soldiers here this time,” Resha said.

“They’re going to execute some partisans,” Aria said.

“Let’s go see what this is all about,” Zalandri said.

They followed the flow of the crowd until they got to the town square.  There were at least thirty soldiers milling about with rifles but she didn’t see any officers or prisoners.

A half hour later the officers appeared.  The one in the fanciest uniform with the shiniest breast plate was a Troll.  The green, lanky giant stood up with perfect posture and looked down at everyone literally and figuratively.  Zalandri didn’t like how he looked so superior to everyone, like the common people were mere trash.

The Troll’s thick, black hair was meticulously done into a long pony tail down his back.  Despite his bestial, long clawed arms, he had the neatest and most professional appearance of all the soldiers.  The Trolls small, red eyes surveyed the crowd before he spoke.

“Attention!  I, Captain Gornaton, have come here to inform your village about the realities of living under Korstian occupation,” the Troll said in an almost flawless Imperial accent.

“Two days ago, some of your men fired upon and killed some of my soldiers.  This cannot be tolerated.  We are here and we will not be leaving.  It will be in your best interest to do as we say.  You obey, you won’t be punished.  We’re here to free you of your nation’s tyrannical hold on your minds.  They say that freedom comes from the right to choose what religion you practice.  This is actually slavery at its most devious.

“Freedom comes from Truth.  Instead of clouding your minds with multiple lies disguised as religions, we present to you the One True Religion, the Religion of the Void.  The idea that there is some benevolent being out there is foolishness.  The entire universe is God.  Everything we see is a piece of God.  As such, God isn’t a person, but a force that surrounds and fills us.  We can no more pray to it than we can to a rock or tree.  Our purpose here is to bring the Way of the Onement.  We must learn to connect ourselves to God and feel its power.  Once we are in harmony, we can join with it.

“However, these men were willing to deprive you of your Way.”

The Troll waved his long clawed hand and the four prisoners were brought out by ten soldiers.

“I know some of you will see this and still have notions of bravery.  You’ll willingly risk your life to cast us out.  However, its not your life you’re risking.”

The Troll officer waved again and the prisoners’ families were also brought out.

“I don’t want to watch this,” Aria said.

“Neither do I,” Resha said.

They turned and walked away.  A few moments later they heard musket fire followed by screams and yelling.

Chapter 21

Taran went into his room after a long day of unprofitable hunting.  Nothing.  No deer, no squirrel, birds; nothing.  He sat down and rested his feet.

The weather was starting to get chilly and the leaves were beginning to change.  Soon the nights would be deathly cold.  As soon as they were done fixing the place up they’d need to start using that axe for firewood.

His door was open and he could hear Matog and Sonata talking.  Sonata was a sweet girl and it looked like she was getting better.  Layana was carving a bowl out of wood.  She was handy with a knife.

Taka was in a cheerful mood despite their lack of success that day.  She sat beside Matog and began talking while cleaning her musket.  It was strange to think that they had slept together.  She was his friend and comrade and one of the best natural shots he had seen.  She was funny, clever and full of life.  She was like a less annoying little sister.  Yet they had been intimate.  He didn’t regret it, but he did question if it had been the right thing to do.

Regardless, it had happened.  Taka had actually felt very good in his arms.  She wasn’t the prettiest thing in the world, but again he liked that life in her.  That was worth protecting.

He had slept with women before, but usually they were ones he would never see again or were camp followers.  They weren’t women he would spend all winter with, locked up in a tiny building.

Matog and Layana had been camp followers.  They said that they cooked and did laundry, but the only camp followers he had seen that weren’t prostitutes were the ones too old and ugly.  This hard life of this world made people to questionable things.

He was far from innocent.  It was better to be a camp follower than kill people for money.  He was less innocent than any of them.

They had a small dinner of dried meat and he went to sleep.  He could hear Matog softly playing her flute.  It was comforting and helped him get his mind off of things so he could rest.

Sometime in the middle of the night he heard Resha, Zalandri and Aria return.  They came in, threw their things down and fell into their beds.  He was relieved.  He had been worried.  The last thing he wanted was something happening to Resha.

She didn’t seem to care much for him, but he respected her.  He wanted her to be happy.

Was that enough to stay here though?  He wanted a cause, something to believe in, but was this worth it?  They would live without him.

The next morning he was the last to wake up.  Even Sonata was awake and talking quietly to Layana.  Despite her sickness, she always seemed to have a warm smile on her face.

Taran walked into the main room and sat down on the floor.  He was about to suggest that they make some furniture when he realized that Taka and Zalandri were having some kind of argument.  He had spent years as a soldier of fortune waking up early and yet he still wasn’t used to it.  It took him a moment to focus on the conversation.

“This is nothing like being poor,” Taka said.  “We have food, firewood, places to sleep.”

“Poor people have that as well.  Most of the time,” Zalandri said.

“Yes, but we also have guns.  This is something the poor seldom have.  We have freedom and power.  There’s no tax man to come and steal every cent we have.  We can protect ourselves from bandits or thugs.   You just don’t undertand the powerlessness of being poor,” Taka said.

“I understand powerlessness quite well, Taka.  You don’t have to be poor to know what its like to not be in control of your life or to not be important,” Zalandri said.

Taran looked at the others in the room.  They all looked to be ignoring the conversation and trying to stay out of it.

“It takes more than being blind to be powerless,” Taka said.

“You know nothing of it,” Zalandir said.

“Because I’m just a dumb, ignorant peasant?”  Taka said.

“That’s not what I meant?”

“You’re an arrogant, spoiled, little rich Elf girl who thinks they’re better than everyone else!  You don’t care about anyone here but yourself.  Oh, actually I stand corrected. You care more about those damned books than us!”  Taka said.

“That’s not true.”

“You rich nobles think you own everything and that everyone owes you.”

“That’s enough, Taka,” Zalandri said.  She had closed her eyes and he could tell that she was trying to remain calm.

“No, it’s not enough.  All my life people like you did your best to take away what little I had.  You’re parasites!”  Taka said.

“I’m not the one that seduced a drunken man,” Zalandri said through clenched teeth.

Taran could feel a wave of trouble crashing against him.  He instantly knew this wasn’t going to be good.  Taka had too much of a temper.  This wasn’t going to end well.  Even worse, Resha would find out what kind of a man he was; one not worthy of her respect.

Strangely he felt more resignation than anything else.  It was inevitable that they’d find out.

Everyone’s eyes shot between him and Taka.  Most people looked surprised but Resha’s face was the worst.  She had an expression of confusion and anger.  Then she looked over at Taka with a look of disappointment on her face.

Taka stood silent for a moment.

“Taka?  Is this true?  You really did that?”  Resha asked with some anger showing through.

“Oh, please, Resha.  Don’t pretend you’re some paragon of virtue.  I least I didn’t charge money for it.”

Resha covered her mouth with her hand and all eyes focused on her.  Resha’s eyes looked around at everyone’s faces as they began to tear up.

Taka looked away from everyone.

“What?  What does she mean?”  Zalandri asked.

“Resha, is this true?” Matog asked.

Then Resha glanced over to him.  They looked each other in the eyes for only a moment but in that moment he saw complete and utter shame on her face.  At that moment he knew that she cared a great deal about what he thought.

He wasn’t proud either but he wasn’t going to run away from his problems.

Resha looked away and covered her face.

Zalandri moved over to her and put a hand on her shoulder.

“Resha, is this true?”  Zalandri asked.

Resha nodded as she began to cry.

Taran was surprised and never would have imagined in a thousand lifetimes that she was a prostitute.  She seemed so…pure.  None of that really mattered at the moment.  He was more concerned at how much pain she was in.

“I’m going hunting,” Taka said as she grabbed her musket and left, slamming the wooden door behind her.  It wasn’t a good idea to wander off on her own but he felt it would have been a worse idea to try to stop her.

The sound of Resha crying was too much.  He knew there wouldn’t be anything he could say or do to help her now so he went to his room and closed the door.

He had just woken up and already today was turning out to be a bad day.  Through the door he could hear soft crying and quiet words.

Out of boredom and a desire to just get away, he went up the rickety wooden stairs to the top of the tower.  Some boards felt as if they were going to give out, but they held.  Still, he held on to the railings with each step.  The wooden floor of the lookout area was sturdy enough.

The large open ports looked out over the green and yellow forest.  The cold wind was much more noticeable up there.  At least it was peaceful.  From up there he saw an ocean of trees and he couldn’t see a road, town or anything.  What was the point of a tower here if it couldn’t see anything?

There was a small stone bench built into the inside of the rotunda so he sat down and rested while he looked out over the constantly moving forest.

Taran sat up there for a long time.  It wasn’t often he got to be alone.  In the mercenary camps he was never alone.  On the farm he was never alone.  At least here he could close a door and climb up to the tower and be by himself.

Why did everything have to be so complicated?  He wondered if he had ruined everything with the women.  Did they not trust him now?  Did they think he was just another lustful animal?

Resha probably didn’t realize that he didn’t care about her past.  He had done things he wasn’t proud of.  Most people have.  What she did simply didn’t matter.  He liked her for who she was.

Unfortunately there was no real way to tell her that in a believable way.  If he were to say that to her, she’d think he was lying and distrust him even more.  The truth was always a good thing but sometimes the delivery mattered just as much as what was being said.

Maybe the battlefield was better.  Things were far simpler there.  People were far simpler there.  The ones beside you and behind you, you could trust your life with.  The ones in front of you, you could trust to take your life.  Things were seldom easy, but they were always simple.

Then he heard the door open below him.  He looked down the small trap door and saw Zalandri carefully making her way up the stairs.  Taran took her hand and helped her up through the narrow door.

“I didn’t know you could get up here,” Zalandri said.

“Turns out, you can.”

Zalandri sat on the other side of the bench while she looked out over the forest.  She had a simple elegance to her.  Every move she made was carefully calculated and deliberate.  Her long, straight, white hair blew around her face with the breeze but she ignored it.

He quickly took his eyes off of her even though it was difficult to do so.  He had seldom seen a more beautiful creature.  However, she saw through his eyes and she would know if he kept staring at her.

Taka was wrong, Zalandri did care.  She didn’t make it obvious, but she had as much if not more feeling than anyone else.

He waited, but Zalandri didn’t say anything.  Perhaps she liked the quiet as well.  So the two of them sat there for a long time, neither of them saying anything.  He broke first.

“How’s Resha?”  He asked.

“Upset.”

“Why can’t things be simple?”

“I was thinking the very same thing.  Sometimes I don’t understand the world.”

“I thought I understood.”

“Everything made more sense at the University.”

They were quiet again for a long time.  This time she spoke first.

“I’m sorry for what I said,” Zalandri said.

“Taka pushed you so you used the one weapon you had.”

“Doesn’t mean I should have.  It was wrong of me.  I was only thinking of myself.”

“I only wish I could deny it.  Life has a way of constantly showing you how weak you really are.”

Zalandri nodded.

“I am sorry though,” she said after a while.

“You don’t need to apologize to me.”

“I do.”

“Well, we’re friends.  Things like this happen.”

“We’re friends,” Zalandri said with a smile and a nod.

“Think I should go find Taka and try to calm her down?”

“I believe talking to her right now wouldn’t be the wisest option,” she said.

“You’re probably right.”

“Taran, why are you coming with us?  You could leave and go find a place for yourself and start a life.  Stay with us and we can’t promise you any money or safety.”

“That’s not different from where I came from.  The only difference now is that I have something beyond myself to fight for.  I’m going to tell you the truth.  I came because I was tired of fighting and killing for nothing other than my own personal profit.  I envied those fools we killed that had fought for some kind of cause.

“When I saw you ladies in need of help, I knew I could do something.  No one else would so I stepped up.”

Zalandri nodded and thought for a moment.

“You think we’re worth dying over?”  She asked.

“Absolutely.  Any one of your lives is worth far more than mine.  Also, believe it or not, I do understand the importance of those books.  However, I consider your lives far more valuable.”

“These books are worth more than me,” she said.

“No, they’re not.”

She stopped and looked right at him.  He couldn’t tell what she was thinking but the intensity in her eyes was unmistakable.  She let out a long breath from where she had been holding it in and turned away.

“I’ve never been important to anyone,” she said.  “My parents considered me a burden.  To my professors I was just a student and beneath their notice.  To the other students I was a social pariah with no friends.  I had to sit in the Library by myself and look through other’s eyes without them knowing it just so I could read.  I had to pay people to act as my eyes when I needed to study.  I’ve been worthless all my life.  How can you say I’m worth more than all that knowledge?”

“Because you’re a strong, intelligent, caring person.  There’s no one else like you.  You’re beautiful.  You care more about others than yourself and you have a great sense of….no, I can’t say that.  You’re completely humorless.”

She smiled and almost laughed.

“What?  You almost laughed.  Maybe by the end of winter we’ll have you up to a giggle.”

“Stop it before I loose my composure,” she said.

“Wait…was that a joke?  Did Zal make a joke?”

“I never make jokes. That’s very much beneath me,” she said with a hint of a smile.

“By the Creators’ light.  There is a sense of humor down there.”

“Don’t tell anyone.”

“It’ll be our secret.”

Zalandri got up and went to the trap door.

“Thank you, Taran.  I enjoyed our talk.”

“Me too.”

“Matog’s making deer stew.  You should come down and have some.”

“I’ll be there soon.”

When he finally went back down, the room was quiet.  Resha was sitting in the corner holding a book that she wasn’t reading.  She didn’t look at him.

“Taran, I made some stew,” Matog said.

“Thanks,” he said as he took the bowl she offered.  It was a hand carved bowl.  Layana had been busy.

He sat down beside Zalandri who was silently eating her stew.  She sat very proper and dignified as she ate.

“It’s good.  Eat up,” Zalandri said.

He looked around and saw that Taka hadn’t returned.  He thought about going to go look for her, however she would probably get angry at him and consider it an insult.

Taka eventually did come back shortly before sunset.  Not even her anger would let her be out alone at night.  She came in without looking at anyone and crawled into her bed.

He had a feeling that it would be a long time before things got back to anything close to “normal.”

Sometime at night, when everyone else was asleep, he heard someone moving about outside.  He grabbed his pistol and silently made his way to the door.  It was open.  He looked out and saw Resha standing outside with a blanket wrapped around her.  All he saw of her was her shadowy silhouette but he could make out her long horns clearly.

Taran tucked the pistol away and walked up to her.

“How you doing?”  He asked.

She didn’t look at him.

“Well,” she said with little honesty.

“I’m sorry about everything that happened.  You must think I’m a weak, lecherous fool.”

She didn’t answer.

“You prefer Taka over me?”

“We’re friends, that’s all.”

“That’s all?  I don’t think so.  Why would a human go with a Goblin over me?  Do you despise me that much?  Is it my shabby, mutilated form you hate?”

“What are you talking about?  I don’t hate you.  Actually I –“

But she cut him off before he could finish.

“I offer myself and you reject me yet you sleep with Taka,” Resha said, almost laughing.  I don’t know why you’re here but I don’t trust you.  If you don’t take gold or flesh, I don’t know what else a Human cares for.”

“I see.  Because I’m a Human I can’t desire anything beyond women and coin.  I’m just a warlike animal, is that right?”

“Yes.”

“You have faith in the goodness of everyone, but me.  Because want something else, you don’t trust me.  After everything I’ve given up to help you, you still don’t trust me.  What must I do?  Will I have to actually die before you trust me?  After all, I’ve given up everything else.  All that’s left is my body.  I had no idea you held me with so little regard.”

He turned around and went back inside.  She called out to him but she had nothing else he wanted to hear.

So, that explained it then.  He had suspected it, but now he knew why she didn’t like him.  To her he was just a brutish beast with only base desires.  It didn’t matter that he wanted to do the right thing because she wouldn’t trust him no matter what he did.

That was one thing he had had in his free company.  Trust.  He trusted the men next to him to watch his back.  They all knew what each other was capable on and off the battlefield.

Taran went back to his bed and crawled under his blanket.

The worst part was that he still wanted Resha’s respect.  He no longer thought he cold earn it, but he still wanted it.  It would have been easier if he didn’t.  It would have been easier if he could have just written her off and forgotten about her.  But inside, he knew he couldn’t do that.

Chapter 22

Resha couldn’t believe she said such horrible things to Taran.  She never would have said such things.  What was wrong with her?

She knew she was angry.  She was angry at everything.  She was angry that he took Taka instead of her.  She felt stupid, useless and ugly.  On top of that everyone knew she was a whore and would never think well of her again.  The only exception was Zalandri who seemed to accept her anyway.  Every other friendship was now ruined.

This was going to be a long winter.

Perhaps she should have just died back in the tavern.  Everyone would have been better off.

Resha rubbed her eyes.  She knew this was her anger and sadness doing this to her.  Life was still good.  She at least had one friend and she was thankful for that.  What happened to the old Resha; the one that always smiled and only saw the best?

Things would get better eventually.  Even if it took until next spring, they would get to Vatasha and she would start a new life there.  She had to have faith in that.

Resha went back inside and curled up in her blankets.  It was cold outside and it felt good to feel the warmth of the stove.

The next month passed slowly and uneventfully.  Layana and Sonata were both feeling better.  Sonata could walk around outside for a little bit and Layana was starting to stand up for short periods of time.

The snow hadn’t fallen but the biting cold had arrived.  No one left the guard tower without being fully bundled up.  The skies were gray and sunless and the wind found every crack and open spot to enter.

She had lost track of the days and all the days seemed to blend in to one long confused mess.  All she knew was that she woke up to a cold, gray day.  Everyone else was still asleep, curled up in their multiple blankets.  She slept with very little clothing on so her body heat would warm the blankets.

Resha crawled over and opened the stove.  There were still a few embers left and she grabbed some kindling to get the flames back up.  As the flames grew she had larger pieces of wood until she had a full, roaring fire going.  She sat there with the blanket around her shoulders feeling the warmth of the flames.

Taka rolled over, saw that it was her and rolled back.  They hadn’t really talked in a month.  Zalandri hadn’t wavered in her friendship and the others acted friendly, but she could tell that things weren’t the same.  They knew what she was and though they pretended to still be her friend, she knew they couldn’t be.

Taran still went out hunting with Taka.  Ever since that night when she said such horrible things to him he hadn’t spoken to her much either.  He didn’t speak to hardly anyone though.  He was quiet and kept his own company.

Matog and Taka and made wooden benches and a small table.  The outhouse was great but it still required going out into the cold.  This place felt as much as a home as the Angery Hamster had.  Comfortable, but very little warmth.

Out of habit she ran her hand up her horn and touched the sharp tip with her finger.  She had started doing it after she was wounded.  Perhaps she did it to reassure herself that all her pieces were still there.

The two goats she had brought back from town were tied up in a little pen behind the building and the chickens had their own little shack.  Shelves held all their pots, pans, bowls and everything else.  Everyone had their own personal space for all their things.

Resha wondered what happened to the old happy Resha.  She wanted that Resha back.  She used to tell herself that happiness didn’t come from the things around her, but from her own heart.  Had those been hollow words?

Sonata stirred and looked up.  She smiled when she saw Resha.  Somehow she always managed those large, warm and genuine smiles.

“Good morning,” Sonata whispered.

The skinny, little harpy with the large nose crawled over to her near the fire.

“How are you feeling today?”  Resha asked.

“A little better.  How about you?”

“I’m well.”

“When do you think it will snow?”

“I have no idea.  You’re the native.  Why ask?  Do you like the snow?”

“I do.  It’s so pretty.”

Resha had to agree with that.

“It is pretty.”

“I can’t wait.  Then I’ll go up into the tower and look at the whole forest.”

“When do you think you’ll be strong enough to fly?”

“Soon, I hope.”

Sonata never complained.  She was how Resha used to be.  She had lost her home and had been bed ridden for over a month, but she never once showed that it bothered her.

“Taran says he’ll teach me to shoot once I’m well enough.  If the Empire ever comes to retake Potta, I want to be there.  I want to kick these Korstians back to where they came from.  I heard the Army is always in need of scouts.  A Harpy would make a good scout, right?”

“That they would but I wouldn’t be too eager to get into combat.  It’s not pretty.”

“Oh, I know.  But I would rather die fighting than roll over and let those pigs take my home.”

Resha looked at the sweet girl.  She meant what she was saying.  She was happy and smiling, but she was willing to fight for her country.  Resha hadn’t ever considered fighting for the Empire.  Her one concern was herself and finding a place where she could make a safe living.

Zalandri thought more of the books than herself.  She cared about the knowledge they contained and how they’d help society in the long run.  She spent hours every day working hard to heal Layana.

Taran…She still didn’t know what he thought but it didn’t appear to be selfish.  He hasn’t done anything other than teach and protect them.  He could have been in a city, enjoying the pleasures of the taverns and living comfortably.  Instead, he was here.

It seemed everyone else thought of others.  Was she really that selfish?

“I was thinking we should make one more trip to town before the snows fall.  Is there anything you might want?”

“A flute!  Matog says she can teach me how to play,” Sonata said.

“I used to play the flute.  At least I still have my voice.”

“And its such a beautiful voice.”

“Thank you.  If I see a flute, I’ll get it for you.”

Then she heard what sounded like thunder, rolling in the far distance.  Only she knew that it wasn’t thunder.  She knew that sound very well.  When it was followed by several more she knew it was the sounds of cannons.

“What’s that?”  Sonata asked.

“A battle,” Resha said.

From the tower she could tell where the battle was.

Resha quickly threw on her dress and boots, wrapped the blanket around her and opened Taran’s door.  He was awake and sitting up.

“You hear that?”  She asked.

“Cannons,” he said.

He quickly got up and the three of them went up to the tower’s cupola.  They listened until they could tell where the shots were coming from.

“There,” Taran said.  He pointed to a spot far off in the distance where a faint trace of smoke could be seen.

“That’s the direction of the town,” she said.

“The Empire must finally be taking the offense to reclaim their territory.  About time, but its very late in the season for any campaigning.  They must be desperate,” he said.

“But we could do some good scavenging,” Resha said.

“The trick would be to not get caught up in the battle, but if we wait too late, they’ll secure it and we couldn’t get anything,” he said.

“Let’s go so we can be ready to grab what we can.”

“Agreed.”

They rushed downstairs and began waking up the others.

“Get dressed and ready to go.  There’s a battle going on and we’re going to go see what we can pick up,” Resha said.

“I’m going,” a groggy Zalandri said.

“Get your things.  Hurry,” Resha said.

“Me and Taka will stay behind to guard here,” Matog said.

“I’ll go,” Aria said.

As soon as they had their winter clothes on and their backpacks and weapons, they left the guard tower and began marching at a quick pace.  Taran was in front and went very fast.  She knew Zalandri was going to have a hard time keeping up.  Aria couldn’t walk fast on her bird feet so she flew above the trees.

Nobody talked.  It was tiring enough without having to waste breathing on talking.

Her first impression that the battle was near the town proved inaccurate.  It was west of the town on some farmland near the main road, several hours from the town.  The Korstian Army was probably stopping the Imperial Army from getting to Potta.  Did that mean that Potta had fallen?

They eventually got to a small hill in the afternoon.  The forest ended and looked out over the battlefield.  Two armies were still fighting though it was no longer in neat orderly lines.  There were pockets of fighting spread all over the place.  The cannons had fallen silent due to the chaos of not knowing where one army started and another began.

Resha saw one square of riflemen almost surrounded by enemy.  There were cavalry riding around all over the place.  Flying creatures above the battlefield and larger creatures on the ground.  Most of the battlefield was covered in the gray smoke of gunpowder and the kicked up dust of countless boots and hooves.  It cast the whole battle in a dense fog that only let them see a little of it.

“The generals have lost control,” Taran said.  “Its up to firepower and manpower now.  This is where the quality of your lesser officers come into play.”

“Can you tell who’s winning?”  Resha asked.

“No.  Too much fog.  But I suspect it will be over soon.  The rate of fire is dying down.”

She listened for a while and found that the shots were becoming less frequent.

“Look, I see harpies!”  Aria said.  She pointed to where a group of five harpies with rifles were flying and shooting down at the rear lines of their enemy.

“I see a banner.  That’s an Imperial unit there,” Taran said.

“It’s running away,” Resha said.

As they watched they saw more Imperial units retreating hastily from the battlefield.  Some were outright fleeing and others were withdrawing in an orderly manner, still firing back at the Korstian forces.

“They lost,” Resha said.

“I can’t believe it.  They lost again,” Aria said.

“But Korsta isn’t following,” Zalandri said.

She was right.  The Imperials were fleeing but no one was pursuing.

“Korsta was too beat up in the fight.  They don’t have enough firepower or control to organize a pursuit,” Taran said.

This was the most she had spoken to Taran in the past month.  She had to admit that he was professional.  He wasn’t letting his personal feelings interfere with their purpose.  He acted as if talking to her was the most normal thing in the world.

“What’s our plan?”  Zalandri asked.

“We wait until Korsta starts calling back its forces.  They’ll pull them back to get reorganized and make an account of how badly mauled they were.  While they do that, we go in.  Watch for waving flags, retreating units and listen for horns or drums.”

They waited a half hour before horns began to sound.  Through the thick mist she could see blocks of infantry turning around and heading back to the rear.  Cavalry squadrons wheeled about and retreated.

“Now,” Taran said.

Staying low and using every bit of cover they could, they began to make their way to the battle field.  The fog offered them concealment and the closer they got the more broken wagons and dead horses they found.

The field was now strangely quiet.  She couldn’t hear the horns or shouting of the Korsta forces.  Occasionally she would hear the moan of a wounded soldier crying out for help, water or their mother.

They spread out, keeping low to the ground.

“Ten minutes and go back to the hill,” Taran whispered.  But due to the fog and the silence his voice was clear.

Resha crawled near one soldier who reached out a hand to her.  He wore the green uniform of a Korstian, but he was just a young Hobgoblin, not more than eighteen.  He pleaded for her in his language but she didn’t understand.  Then she saw that he was pointing to a canteen lying nearby.

He was a soldier of the enemy, but he was just a young kid.  From a distance she wanted to kill all the Korstian troops, but when she him like this, she only saw a young man whose life might end.

Resha hurried over to the canteen and gave it to him.  He smiled and then took a drink.  Then his eyes rolled back in his head and a long, shallow breath left his lungs.  She had seen his death rattle.

She had seen people die before and she had even killed a man before, but this was different.  This wasn’t in a sudden flash of musket fire.  This was someone’s son who was far from home.  Some poor farmer’s son trying to make a better life for himself.

Resha sat there and looked at the vacant face that no longer had any life it in.  He was the enemy but she was glad that she had given his last moments some happiness.  Maybe his spirit would be free to go back to the Creators.

She passed over his body and began grabbing things from other corpses.  She found several rifles, pistols and ball and powder patches.  She also grabbed knives and rations.

As Resha was stuffing things into her backpack she looked up and saw a vague figure slowly walking toward them.

“Pssst!  Taran,” she whispered.

He looked up from where he was and looked where she was pointing.  He instantly got out his rifle and ducked down lower.

Zalandri and Aria were working together and they both froze in place.

The large, slow figure kept walking forward.  It looked like it carried a musket with a bayonet at the end.

The figure came into view.  At first Resha thought it was an Troll in uniform because of its massive figure.  What she saw only loosely resembled a soldier.  The head and torso were roughly carved stone made to resemble a soldier complete with tall cylindrical hat and a buttoned jacket.  The face was a mere impression of a human face.  The arms and legs looked like jumbled up rock and stone in the loose form of limbs.

“Golem!  Run!”  Taran said.

They bolted up and they followed Taran as he ran.  She looked back and saw that the stone golem was lumbering after them in a loose, but long gait.  The impassive stone face held no emotion but she knew that the thing meant to kill them.

She had heard soldiers tell stories of battle golems but never imagined that she’d be the target of one.  The thing was slower than them, but it would get tired.

Resha pulled out her pistol and fired.  Her shot bounced off the stone chest and the golem didn’t even notice.

“Shooting it won’t do any good!”  Taran yelled out.

They kept running.  Unfortunately they weren’t running back to the woods.  It didn’t matter where they’d run because this mindless golem would chase after them forever unless ordered by its master to do otherwise.

She was tired already from the long march and now she was getting even more tired.  She wouldn’t be able to keep up this pace for long and then the golem would catch her and kill her.

They had pulled away from the golem and now only barely saw it.  So they kept running.  Her lungs were hurting and her legs were starting to feel weak.  Still, she had to keep running.  Every soldier that spoke of golems did so in hushed, scared voices.  Now she understood why.  There simply wasn’t anything they could do to stop it.  It was going to keep coming at them no matter what they did.

“Hurry!  It’s up this way!”  Taran said.

“What is?”  She asked, but he didn’t answer.

They came up a hill where dozens of wooden carts were.  Some were destroyed.  Others were still burning lending their smoke to the thick fog.

“There!”  Taran said.

He was pointing to a cannon.  She didn’t have time or energy to question so she followed him to the cannon, completely out of breath.

“Resha, grab that powder charge there!”  Taran said.  He pointed to what looked like a cylinder grain sack.  She ran over and picked it up.

“Shove it down the barrel,” he said.

She stumbled over to the cannon and put the sack into it.  Taran then picked up one of the scattered cannonballs that were lying around and hefted it into the barrel.

“Hurry!  It’s coming!”  Aria said.

Resha looked and saw the jogging figure of the stone golem coming right at them.  Its bayonet mounted rifle was level as if charging.

“We only have one shot with this,” Taran said.

Him and Zalandri picked up the cannon and did their best to aim it at the golem that was now coming up the hill.  She was amazed at how such a heavy thing could move so quickly for so long.  From what Zalandri had told her, it must have been a very powerful sorcerer that could create something like that.

“Everyone behind the cannon,” Taran said.

She quickly obeyed and ran behind him.

“Zalandir, when I say, use your magic to put light the fuse,” he said.

A few seconds later the charging golem came into view as it ran up the hill right at them.  The unthinking construct didn’t even try to move to the side.  It just ran right at them, going the shortest distance to get to them.

“Now!”  Taran said.

Zalandri stretched out her hand and the barely visible fuse burst into flame.  The golem can right at them.  Then it began to turn to the side as the cannon fired.  There was an ear shattering report and a huge cloud of smoke.

The cannon ball struck the golem in the shoulder shattering half its chest and arm.  Pieces of broken stone went flying in all directions and the golem was knocked off its feet and back down the hill.

“Run!  It won’t be able to track us,” Taran said.

She didn’t bother to go check if the golem had gotten up, she just ran.  Despite her painful fatigue, they circled around and went back into the woods.  Once in the woods they slowed down to catch their breath.

She was resting her hands on her knees and leaning against a tree while she tried to slow her breathing down.  She looked over to Taran who had a smile on his face.  He looked at her.

“You did good,” he said.

Those three words made her smile more than she had that entire month.

Chapter 23

Zalandri walked outside by herself.  Everyone else was inside huddled by the fire while Matog taught Sonata how to play the flute and Resha taught Aria how to sing.  It was all lovely but she felt no connection to it.  She liked music but had never had an aptitude for it.

Because no one else was around she was completely blind outside, but it didn’t bother her.  She stood still and felt the wind on her face and smelled the dead leaves on the ground.

She couldn’t help but wonder if she had somehow failed in life.  Had she failed her professors?  Were they waiting for her or had they counted her as dead?  She had tried to get to Vatasha but failed.  Logically, she would just try in the spring, but her heart told her that she’d never get there.  She was doomed to a life of…this.  Poverty.  Barely making a living.  Always watching out for danger.

Then she felt the tingling sensation of someone else’s vision coming into range.  She opened her third eye and saw that someone was walking up behind her.  She could tell by the gait and height that it was Taran.

“Coming to check on me?”  She asked.

“Am I bothering you?”  He asked.

“No, I wasn’t thinking about anything important.”

“I was thinking.  If we didn’t want to go unnoticed and we didn’t care about not being tracked, we could take the horses and me and you just ride hard to Vatasha.”

“There’s not enough rations or money.  Besides, I’ve never ridden a horse like that before.  It’ll be winter and we’d just get trapped somewhere by the snow.  It’s too late.  For better or worse…most likely worse, we’re stuck here for the winter.  I also don’t think anyone’s looking for us.  It’s been a long time and we haven’t seen anyone.  Maybe they never found the Minotaur.  Maybe they really weren’t looking for the Harpies.”

“That’s a lot of maybe’s.”

“You like to keep things simple, don’t you.”

“There’s nothing wrong with simplicity.”

“Our situation between you, Taka and Resha isn’t simple.”

“I don’t understand.  I thought they were friends.”

“They are, they’ve just forgotten that.”

“I’m sorry if I’ve disappointed you.  I always do foolish things when I’m drunk.”

“You don’t need to apologize to me.  I realize just as much as anyone else that nobody’s perfect.”

“Me least of all.”

“I don’t think you’re as flawed as you believe yourself to be.”

“Maybe you don’t know me that well.”

“Then let me know you.”

He looked down at his feet and then up to her face.  She saw her face as flat and expressionless.  Her large, gray eyes looked at him, waiting for a reply.

“Zalandri, you have to realize that the life of a mercenary isn’t one of nobility, high morals or goodness.  I’ve done many things I’m not proud of.”

“That’s why you’re here, isn’t it?  You want to do something you’re proud of.”

“That’s about right.”

“For the longest time all I wanted was to make my parents proud.  Eventually I realized that no matter what I did, I’d never make them proud.  I wasn’t cruel, petty and ambitious like they were.  I didn’t matter what I accomplished at the University, they thought of it as a joke and a way to be rid of me.”

“You learned to live for yourself.”

“That’s an apt way of putting it.”

“I guess that’s why I left my company.  I wanted to live for myself.”

“Did you find what you were looking for with us?”

“I’ll let you know.”

She let herself smile.  It wouldn’t hurt to show that she was amused.

“I think its safe to use the horses again,” he said.

“You think so?”

“I think so.  Would you like to go to town?”

“I think I would love to but I don’t know how to ride really.”

“I’ll guide your horse.  All you’ll have to do is sit down.”

“What’s our excuse?”

“We need information on what’s going on.  We know nothing of that battle we saw yesterday.”

“We did more than see it.  That golem came right after us.”

“But we do need information.  I’ll go explain it to them.”

She followed him back to the house.  She listened in the closed doorway while he explained his plan to seek out information about the battle.  He claimed to bring her because of her magic.  Her fire starting ability could catch an enemy’s powder on fire or create a fire in the woods to block a path.  It sounded like a weak excuse but she was happy that he was making it for her.

After they packed and she put on her fur lined coat that Resha had made from materials bought in town, they headed out.  She rode just behind and to the side of him.

He talked about his simple life growing up on a farm and she told how her parents did everything they could to hide her from the other nobles.  They didn’t want to be known to have a weak child.

“One thing’s for certain; you’re not weak now.”

“How am I not?”

“You saved me from that Minotaur and you were able to light the cannon fuse.  Without you we’d be dead.  Layana would be dead for certain.  You’ve saved all our lives.  That is absolutely certain.”

She hadn’t thought of it like that.  She had just done what she was told.  But now that he pointed it out to her, he was right.  Without her they wouldn’t have stopped the Minotaur and golem.

“I did save you, didn’t I?”  She said quietly.

“You did.”

“Does this mean you owe me?”

“That’s part of the reason I wanted to go to town.  You’ve worked harder than any of us and its time you enjoyed yourself.  What do you want to do once you’re in town?”

“I haven’t really thought of it.  Can one buy paper there?”

“I’d assume so.”

“I’d like paper, pen and ink.  I’d like to start writing my own book.  A contemporary account of this war and our travels.”

“That would be a great idea.  If that’s what the lady wants, that’s what the lady gets.”

“Please, let’s not spend much on me.  We have more important concerns.”

“Your happiness isn’t important?”

“Not any more than anyone else’s.”

“Like I said.  You work harder and you’ve saved our lives.  No more complaining or trying to talk me out of it.  Also, I just needed to get out of there a while.”

“Oh?”

“I feel trapped there sometimes.  I hate seeing Resha and Taka so angry at each other.  I feel that its my fault.  Resha hates me but I have nothing but admiration for her.”

“Have you told her this?”

“It wouldn’t do any good.  She wouldn’t believe me.”

Zalandri wasn’t sure that that was true.  She also wasn’t sure that Resha hated him.  She kept her distance and was cold to him, but she suspected that it was because she didn’t understand him.  She was a person that liked to have some level of control and if she didn’t understand him, she couldn’t have any control.

Zalandri thought Taran was fairly easy to understand.

“I think Resha likes everyone but Resha,” Zalandri said.

“I believe she likes you just fine.”

He laughed.  Clearly he didn’t believe her.

“Taran?”

“Huh?”

“Why are you doing this?”

“Because I think that like me, you needed to get out and do something.”

“Do you believe that because we’re alike?”

“I don’t have large pointy ears.”

“But you do keep your emotions well hidden and you don’t volunteer what you’re thinking or feeling.”

“Perhaps I don’t.”

“You don’t and neither do I.”

“Then what are you thinking”

“I’m thinking that for some reason you admire Resha more than is normal.  A crush perhaps.  I was also wondering if you were taking me into town to seduce me.”

“You think I would do that?  You think I’m just a desire driven beast?”

“No, not at all.  However, I know that a lone man with several women can be a bit tempting.  Humans often find Elves attractive.  Do you find me attractive?”

“Very much so.”

“Then do you deny that you didn’t bring me here to get me alone?”

“I do deny that.  It wasn’t my intention.  I only wanted you to have some fun.”

“What if having you seduce me would be fun?”

“I believe my indiscretions have caused enough problems.”

She wondered if she were joking or serious.  A part of her definitely wanted him to take her.  Yet the other part wanted to remain who she was, a virtuous, honest scholar.  Her parents thought of sex as a tool or weapon.  She had wanted it to mean something and if she slept with Taran, it would be for fun.  That wasn’t what she wanted.

“Don’t worry, Taran.  I don’t want to be seduced.”

“You were playing with me?”

“I do have a cruel streak.”

She played it off as if she was joking, but inside she wanted him to take her very badly.

She thought about what she really wanted in life as they rode toward town.  Before all she had wanted was to graduate and become a teacher at the University.  She hadn’t cared about the other students around her.  Her professors were replacements for her parents.  All she had wanted was to please them.

Now here she was, wondering what it was that she wanted.  She no longer placed pleasing others as her goal.  She didn’t want to please herself as a goal because it was selfish and ultimately self destructive.

She didn’t want to please others for some kind of acknowledgement of her worth, but she wanted to help others so they could be happy.  That was what she wanted.

“Taran, what would make you happy?”

He didn’t answer that question for a while.

“Being important.  I don’t mean in an arrogant, self serving way.  I mean important to other people.  I want to help people and do something good that will be remembered.  I don’t care if I’m remembered, but I’d like to be apart of something that would be remembered.”

“You’re important to me.  I love Resha, but at times I don’t think she understands me.  She’s not a philosopher or scholar.  I think you understand me and that makes you important.  Also, without you, we’d all be dead.  It was your idea to use my flame to hurt the Minotaur and light the fuse.  Don’t overlook your own accomplishments.”

“Thank you, Zal.”

“I just wanted to make sure you know that…you’re important to me.”

She saw through his eyes as she turned around and looked at her.

“You’re not like your parents, Zal.  You’re kind and you actually care about others.  I admire you.”

Despite her insistence on not wanting to sleep with him, it was all she could think about the rest of the trip.  Would they sleep in a barn or would he pay for a tavern room?  Two rooms would be expensive.

They got into town two hours before dark.  He took their horses to the tavern and there he took her inside to one of the tables.

“Roasted chicken, please,” he told the tavern wench.

It was strange to think that Resha had been a tavern wench not unlike this one.  She had seen Resha perform, but not serve like this.

The meal was wonderful and he even ordered two pints.  Compared to her father’s vintage wine, the tavern’s ale was weak.  They sat there and talked about their lives.  He told stories of his days as a mercenary and she told stories of her days in the University.  They took their time and didn’t rush.  There was no need to.  It was like a hot bath.  She simply soaked in the comfort of a good conversation.

For being a brutish, killer human, he was actually a thoughtful and perceptive conversationalist.  He philosophized without being obvious about it.  It wasn’t until she sat back and thought about it that she realized he had posed several fundamental questions about the nature of morality.  Was something always wrong or were there times when something wrong was the right thing to do?

“Many say that the rules of behavior are different during war,” he said.

“And what do you say?”

“I say that I don’t know.  The battlefield is a very simple place, but sometimes it’s not so easy to tell where the battlefield begins.  At those times we have to be extra careful to protect our lives, but sometimes that requires the ruthlessness of the battlefield.”

“It’s not easy, is it?”

“It’s not and sometimes my decisions still haunt me.”

“My decisions haunt me, but in a more literal sense.”

He got the joke and laughed.  He seldom laughed out loud and most of the time it was a mere chuckle.  But she accepted his chuckle for what it meant.

As the night grew late she began to wonder more about where they would be sleeping.

“What are we doing for beds?”  She asked.

“I was thinking of renting two rooms.”

“That’s too much coin.”

“Well…”

“Don’t be foolish.  We’ll rent one room.”

“I’ll sleep on the floor.”

“No, you’ll sleep in the bed.”

She went with him and made sure he rented one room.  Then they went up and found that their room and the bed were smaller than she thought they’d be.

What was she doing?

Zalandri placed her saddlebag down and went to the bed.

“Close your eyes.  Believe me, I’ll know if you peek,” she said.

He did and she stripped down to her underclothes, and crawled into bed.

“You can open them.  Get in as well if you promise not to try anything,” she said.

“I guess I can’t exactly ask you to close your eyes.”

“Just don’t look at yourself and we’ll be fine.”

He stripped down without looking at himself and got into bed.  It was a small bed and he was pressed against her.  She could feel the warmth from his body.

“This is different,” he said.

“It’s nice.”

She had to make a decision.  Would sleeping with him be worth going against what she believed in?

No.  All her life she had tried to hold on to a better way than her parents had taught her.  She couldn’t cave in now.

“I’m not going to sleep with you.  I’ve promised myself that I wouldn’t do that unless I was certain that I was in love with the other person.”

“I see.  Believe me, I’m not going to try anything.  The last thing I need are more complications.”

“But…if I can ask a favor.”

“Anything.  Just ask.”

“It would mean a great deal to me if you would kiss me.”

It had come out before her rational self could stop it.  Her heart was beating; pounding in her chest.  She had trouble breathing and her palms were sweating.  She had never done anything like this before.  Had she gone crazy?  This wasn’t like her.  She had brought a book and had planned to have him read it for her, but her mind was in no state to think of reading.

“That’s the most formal request I’ve ever gotten but yes.  I think I would like that.”

She braced herself with closed eyes as he moved over her.  She could feel his weight pressing down on her.  His hand brushed her hair aside and then he leaned in.

They began kissing and she found that it came more natural than she would have guessed.  She let herself relax and enjoy it.  Her hand came up and gently stroked his hair.

They kissed for a long time.  She didn’t know how long because everything felt different.  His hand held her waist and she held caressed his face, neck and chest.

Eventually she got tired and broke off.  It was her first kiss and it was wonderful.  She understood now the temptation that such things held.

“That was amazing,” she said, slightly out of breath.

She went to sleep with his arms around her and she loved it.

After breakfast they went out into the town to look for someplace that sold paper.  There was only one store in town beside’s the blacksmith’s, the tailor, apothecary and shoes.

Taran was friendly to the clerk and asked about paper.  He said that he could order some from Potta now that it wasn’t in a siege anymore.

“Korsta finally got in?”  Taran asked.

“The city surrendered and let them in.  I heard it was because they were running low on supplies and didn’t want to risk starvation in the winter,” the old Saytr said.

“What was that battle two days ago?  We tried to take back our city?”

“Our army tried, but they were sent running.  The captain here isn’t too pleased with it though.  The garrison here went to fight and came back with only half their men.”

“That’s a good thing though.”

“It is but I wouldn’t say that too loud.  If the captain even thinks don’t want him here he’ll execute you as a rebel.”

“Wouldn’t rebel imply that we owe them some sort of loyalty?”

“A person would think so, but not him.  He assumes that we take his word at everything.”

“What about Narasha?  Last I heard the city fell to Ferras.”

“I think our boys took it back.  The city is worse for he wear if you know what I mean.  We had some refugees come through.  Normally we’d offer them more hospitality but Captain Gornaton said they were spies and insurgents.”

“What did he do with them?”  Zalandri asked.

“One young Ork argued with him and he stabbed him right through the heart, in front of everyone.  Some are in jail and others are going to be hauled off to Korsta to be sold as slaves.”

“Korsta still has slavery?”  Zalandri asked.  She didn’t know anyone still had that barbaric practice.

“Well, I don’t think they’re technically slaves.  They’re calling it a relocation program.  They claim its to help them but the way he describes it, it just sounds like a work camp to me,” the old Saytr said.

“I’ve seen work camps before.  It’s not pretty.  Where are these refugees now?”  Taran asked.

“They’re being held in the old cattle pen.”

“They’re not even given shelter?” Zalandri couldn’t believe the cruelty of some people.

Taran ordered the paper which would arrive in two weeks and then they left to go find the cattle pen.  What they found was about fifty people huddled together, wrapped in blankets trying to stay warm.  Guards surrounded the pen.  Most of the people were families.

“We have to help them,” she said.

“I would like to, but how?  There’s only two of us.  We can’t fight them.  We don’t have enough coin to bribe the guards.”

“We have a few pistols, canteens and other things, but no soldier is going to take that as a bribe.  An officer might be interested in the pistols, but…”

“We can’t do nothing.”

“I’m open to suggestions.”

Zalandri walked up to the pen and a guard approached.

“You got no business here,” the Ork said with a thick accent.

“I understand you’re taking them south.  My farm is in need of some workers.  Is there any way I can convince you to sell me some of them?”  Zalandri asked.

“I’d have to ask the captain about that,” the soldier said.  “Wait here.”

The Ork walked off while other guards glared at her.

“Captain?  As in Gornaton?”  She whispered to Taran.

“I believe so.”

Ten minutes later the large form of Captain Gornaton came out of the nearby town hall.  He stomped over to him with his immaculately neat uniform.  He towered over her like a tree.

“You wish to purchase the release of some of these workers?”  Gornaton asked in his deep, booming voice.

“Yes.  My farm is in desperate need of workers and I can’t afford wage laborers,” Zalandri said.

“Fifty silvers for one and you can take your pick,” Gornaton said.

“Fifty silvers?  Isn’t that steep for a simple servant?  I can hire an actual gardener for less!”

“Then go hire one.  Fifty silvers is the refugee tax.  Someone has to pay the tax.  Either you do or they do in the fields,” Gornaton said.

“Let me think about it for a second,” she said.

“I’ll give you three minutes.”

“Thank you captain.”

She turned to Taran.

“Follow me,” she ordered.

He had a confused look on his face but he followed her out of earshot from the Troll captain.

“Sorry for being rude.  He has to think you’re my servant,” she said.

“What do we do?  We don’t have fifty silver to spend.”

“But we do have fifty silvers, don’t we?”

“That’s all our money.  We need to eat.”

“We can make things to sell to earn money but I can’t stand here with money and not help.  Do we have anything else that might be worth…my book.  I can trade my book.”

“I thought that you have to take it to Vatasha!  Those books are important.”

“Not more important than a person’s life.  I’m willing to die for them but I don’t ask anyone else to.  Can you please get the book out of my pack?”

Grudgingly, he took her pack off and dug through it until he found her book.

“Are you sure?”  He asked.

“Very sure.  I’ve read it.  I know what knowledge it has.  At least Garaton might sell it to someone who would appreciate it.”

She quickly took the book from his hands and marched back to Garaton who was barking orders at a soldier that had come up to him with a check list.

“Captain, I have a book here that is worth at least a hundred silvers.”

Garaton raised an eyebrow.

“Let me see.”

She placed the small leather bound book in his massive green hand.  He examined it and flipped through the pages.

“I’ll let you take one worker for this.”

“But its worth two!”  Zalandri said.

“This isn’t exactly coin, Elf.”

“My name is not Elf, Captain.  I’m Lady Zalandri Kryyshti.”

“Your title means nothing here.  This land is now under Korsta dominance.  The only nobility we recognize is our own.  And one worker for one book.”

She wanted to slap the Troll and stab his eyes with her knife.  However, if she wanted to save someone, she had to play by his tyrannical rules.

Zalandri looked into the pen at the people there.

“Is anyone here alone and by themselves?”  She called out.  She didn’t want to split up any families.  A few older people raised their hands.

Then she saw a ragged, thin form of what first looked like a young girl.  She couldn’t see the girl’s face but she had long, messy, blue-black hair.  Her clothing looked like it was stitched together from bits of everything else.  She had a belt made of roped together metal pieces such as bits of armor, a part of a door lock, a hinge, and even some coins.  She had a bag over her shoulder that also looked stitched together.

It wasn’t until the girl stood up and Zalandri saw the bright red cap that she knew what it was.  The girl turned around and Zalandri knew she was looking at a “Red Cap.”  They were distantly related to goblins and some said they had fairy blood in them.   She had Goblin features such as point ears, big nose and sharp teeth.  Instead of green her skin was a pale gray.  She had small red eyes.  The difference was that Red Caps looked a bit more like humans and were extremely fast.  The legend of them having fairy blood was from their terrific speed.

Zalandri had known a Red Cap in the University.  He had been a very talented sorcerer.  Magic seemed to come easy for races with fairy blood in them.  Even Elves were supposed to have the magical blood deep in their past.

Red Caps also had a notorious reputation for stealing, causing trouble and being very violent.  They were nomads that drifted place to place and were unwanted wherever they went.

“Captain Gornaton, how about we make a deal.  You take the rare book and I’ll take one worker and also take that Red Cap off of your hands,” Zalandri said.

Gornaton paused and she could tell that he was thinking about it.

“Think about it.  One Red Cap can cause a great deal of trouble,” Zalandri said.

“Fine!  Take the Red Cap for free.  You deal with her.  And the other one?”

She looked until she saw a girl on her own.

“That one,” she said, pointing to a blue Nixie.

The Nixie was a water Fairy with pale, light blue skin and dark blue shoulder length hair.  She was no taller than a thirteen year old Elf, but for all she knew the Nixie was full grown.  She had never met one and didn’t know much about them.

“Take them.  Now get out of my sight.”

The guards let the scowling Red Cap and the frightened Nixie out of the pen and Taran and her escorted them away.

Chapter 24

Taran took the snarling Red Cap by her clawed hand and dragged her away from the pen and the soldiers.  Zalandri had it easier with the Nixie.  The wingless blue Fairy looked too scared to resist.

All the sewn in bits of metal in the Red Cap’s clothing were jingling and the bells around one of her ankles wasn’t helping them go unnoticed either.

“Where are you taking me?”  The Red Cap hissed, struggling to get free.

“Hold on a second.  We’re getting you out of here,” Taran said.

“Why?” She punctuated her question with a hard yank that almost made him loose his grip.

“Because we’re trying to rescue you from being taken to a work camp,” Taran said.

“Why?”

“Because we don’t want to see you treated as a slave,” he said.

“You bought my freedom so you can turn me into your own slave.  I heard the Elf talking to the Troll.”

“That was an excuse.”

They went behind a barn and out of sight.  He released the Red Cap’s hand.

“I’m Taran and this is Zalandri.”

“What do you want with us?”  The Nixie asked in a quiet, frightened voice.  She didn’t look more than fourteen, but he knew that Fairies’ ages were very deceptive.

“We just want to help,” Zalandri said.

“Nobody helps people without a price.  What is it you want?  I have nothing of value,” the Red Cap said.

“Alright, here’s the deal,” Taran said.  “You’re free to go.  You can take off and never have to see us again.  However, if you have no where to go, we have food, shelter and a safe place to hide from the war.”

“Thanks for getting me out of there, but I don’t need your help,” the Red Cap said.  Her cap was pulled down almost to her eyes and her hair hung straight down from under the cap.  She was short but he knew Red Caps were very fast, strong for their size and had very sharp claws.

“What are your name’s?”  Zalandri asked.

“I’m Ossia,” the Nixie said.

“Kira,” the Red Cap said.

“Well, Ossia, Kira, you’re free to go.  You owe us nothing and we ask nothing.  However, if you don’t have anywhere to go, we can offer you safety.  Think it over,” he said.

He took Zalandri and stepped away so they could think or talk in private.  Ossia and Kira didn’t talk.  Kira scratched her chin and walked around in circles.  She wore heavy metal boots that looked too big for her; probably scavenged from a battlefield.  Red Caps were notorious scavengers.  Ossia stood there with her hands clasped together and looking down at her feet.

“When they broke through the gates, the enemy soldiers began stealing everything and shooting anyone they saw,” Ossia said.  “When my father’s servant tried to stop a soldier from stealing my grandfather’s old sword, they shot him and my father.  I don’t know anyone.”

“You’re more than welcome to come with us,” Zalandri said.

“I don’t need your help.  I’m better on my own,” Kira said.  She thumped her chest with her fist in a move that was supposed to be intimidating.  Taran wasn’t intimidated.

“Then you’re free to go.  Keep in mind that we’re offering food and shelter.  That’s hard to find around here.  Also, keep in mind that winter’s here.”

“I’ll be fine on my own,” Kira said.

“Very well.  May the Creators smile upon you,” Zalandri said.

“Creators.  Ha!”

With that, Kira turned around and stomped away in her big metal boots.  He had hoped that she would have chosen wiser, but at least she wasn’t being packed away to a Korstian work camp.  He had heard Red Caps were temperamental and for once the stories weren’t exaggerated.  Maybe with luck she’ll annoy the Korstians into leaving Imperial territory.

The Nixie was wearing a simple one piece, sleeveless dress that looked more like a night gown and a thin jacket with holes in it.  The sleeveless dress was dirty but looked as if it had been expensive.  Her boots were stylish riding boots.  That, coupled with her father having servants told him that she had been a rich girl.

She had her arms folded around her and she looked cold.

He dug a blanket out of Zalandri’s pack and threw it around Ossia.

“Let’s get back home” he said.

They took the Nixie to the tavern and saddled up their horses.  He put her up in front of Zalandri.

“We’re going to be riding harder and faster than we did last time.  You’re going to have to hang on,” he said.

“We’ll be fine,” Zalandri said.

“Where is your home?”  Ossia asked.

“It’s about a day from here, deep in the woods and away from patrolling armies,” Zalandri said.

“You wear the clothing of a scholar.  Are you from the University?”  Ossia asked.

“I was.  It’s burned down now.”

“So I heard,” Ossia said.  “I also heard one of our armies was defeated two days ago.  The Korstians were talking about it.  Is that true?”

“I’m afraid it is,” Taran said as he strapped everything into place.

“I was hoping they were telling stories to impress us.  They threatened us.  They said they were going to do horrible things to us,” Ossia said.

“It’s okay, you’re out of there.  They won’t hurt you now,” Zalandri said.

“On the march here, an old man fell to the side.  They bayoneted him right in front of everyone,” Ossia said.

“Don’t think about it.  You’re safe and that’s all that matters.”

Taran listened as Zalandri continued to comfort Ossia.  If anyone had any doubts that Zalandri cared about people, they needed to see her now.  She didn’t show it to the world but she had a kind soul.

He led the horses to the general store and bought a few extra blankets to use for Ossia’s bedding.  They also got her some suitable winter clothes.  They were children’s clothes for medium sized races such as Humans, Orks and Elves, but they fit Ossia well enough.

He mounted up and rode to the town gate.  The guards didn’t even glance up from their dice game.  Taran wouldn’t want to be them if the Captain found them gambling.  The professional government armies didn’t allow gambling and sometimes drinking.  That didn’t stop them, it just meant they got into more trouble.

Then he stopped the horses.  Standing in the road in front of them was Kira.  She had her clawed hands on her hips and she was tapping her foot.

“You said you have a warm place to stay and food?”  Kira asked.

“We do.  It’s also safe,” Taran said.

“How many people?”  Kira asked.

“There’s nine of us, counting Ossia here.  It’s a small building, but there’s plenty of room.”

“How many males?”

“Just me.”

Kira thought about it and kicked a rock.

“Alright,” Kira said.  She looked up at him with her red eyes.  He could see the resemblance to a Goblin, only she was shorter, pale gray and much meaner looking.  Whereas a Goblin looked like a green, sharp toothed Elf, a Red Cap was definitely something else.  They looked more human than Elf.

“Welcome aboard,” he said.  “You can ride with me,” he said.

“I’ll be fine on foot.”

“Are you sure?  We’re going to be traveling pretty fast.”

“Don’t worry about me,” Kira said.  It sounded more like a command than a suggestion.

He shrugged and they continued on their way in a quick, rhythmic gait that was fast but wouldn’t wear the horses out.  Kira ran beside the horse while holding the straps to her patchwork backpack.  He was amazed at how fast she ran and that she didn’t seem to tire.  Maybe they did have Fairy blood in them after all.

Sometime around noon they took a short break and let the horses walk at a slow pace.  Kira was breathing a little harder than usual, but she didn’t seem worse for the wear.

“Ossia, Nixie’s are Fairy-kin, right?”  He asked.

“Yes,” Ossia said.

“You don’t have wings.  Do you do anything else?”

“We can hold our breath for about a half hour and swim as fast as fish,” Ossia said.

“Sounds like fun,” Zalandri said.

“I was born on the shore of a lake.  My father owned a mill along the river that flowed into the lake.  He had water powered looms.  I miss that lake.”

“Come spring, we’re heading to Vatasha.  It’s along the water.  You might like it there,” Taran said.

Ossia didn’t smile, but she did nod her head.

“Vatasha?  That’s where you’re heading?”  Kira asked.

“That’s right.”

“I’ve been there before.  Lots and lots of people.  Too crowded.  Lots of money, though.”

“Lots of money?”  Zalandri asked.

“Merchants everywhere.  The merchants are the nobility, the middle class and the poor.  Even their President earns his money from trade.  Great place if you have hungry fingers,” Kira said.

“Hungry fingers?”  Zalandri asked.

“Pick pocketing,” Taran translated.

“Oh.”

They made it to the tower just after sunset.

“This is it?”  Kira asked.

“Not what you expected?”  Taran asked.

“It’s more than I expected,” Kira said.

She must have had low expectations.

Resha came out with a musket and he saw the surprised look on her face.

He watched Resha carefully, taking in every detail of her face and hair in the dim light.  She was beautiful and stood there with the poise and regality of a princess.

“Who are they?”  Resha asked.

“Refugees that were being sent to work camps in Korsta.  I traded a book for their freedom,” Zalandri said.

Resha thought for a moment as she took it in.

“I couldn’t let them go off as slaves.  There’re many more of them,” Zalandri said.

“They’ll be moved out in four days,” Ossia said.

“Four days?  Do you know how many guards will be escorting them?”  Zalandri asked.

“Hold on, Zal.  We can’t risk an open fight with military forces,” Taran said.

“And we can’t let those people go off as slaves.  They’re Imperials, just like me,” Zalandri said.

“They’re people and they need help,” Resha said.

“You all are insane,” Kira said.

“I think they said ten or twelve guards,” Ossia said.

“That’s too many.  There’s only ten of us and some of us don’t know how to fight,” Taran said.  “look, I know you want to help them, but from a military perspective, I don’t see how we can.”

“You’re the military expert.  Think of something.  Some kind of ambush or something,” Resha said.

“Wait, now, let’s hear what the others have to say,” Taran said.  “It’ll be a group effort so the group needs to decide.”

“That’s not very military of you,” Resha said.

“I’m not the leader here.  If I were, then I could give orders.”

“Why haven’t you tried to become leader?”

“I don’t want to be a leader.”

He was content to follow and so he followed Resha into the house where they introduced everyone.  Ossia shied away from Matog and Taka and Kira looked unimpressed.

Resha told everyone the situation and how she wanted to do something about it.

“What does our general say?”  Matog asked.

“I say its too dangerous because we don’t have enough skilled people.  Maybe if you were all expert enough to guarantee a hit the first time,” he said.

“Who’s our best shooters?”  Resha asked.

“Me,” Taran said.  “Taka, you, and Matog.”

“Can’t we do a hit and run deal and take them out one by one?”  Taka asked.

“I’m good at hitting and running,” Kira said.

The Red Cap was indeed good at running.

“What if we have someone fire from cover, then Kira jumps up and runs away. They’ll never catch her and they’ll think she was the shooter.”

“I aint being no bait for them to shoot at,” Kira said.

“You get to hurt people, steal their stuff and then be called a hero for it,” Taran said.

He saw Kira’s little red eyes grow wide.

“Oh…” Kira said.

“I’m going!”  Aria said.

“Me too!”  Sonata said.

“Zalandri, is she well enough to go?”  Resha asked.

“Well enough, perhaps, but isn’t she too young?”  Zalandri said.

“I’m going.  If you’re going out to hurt Korstians, I’m going no matter what,” Sonata said.

“We can put the Harpies up in the trees.  People seldom look up,” Taran said.

“What about you, Layana?”  Resha asked.

“I think I can walk but I won’t be able to walk fast,” Layana said.

Taran turned to Ossia.

“You’re not trained how to fight.  I assume you’ll want to stay out of it,” he said.

“Safe assumption.  I don’t know how to shoot a gun,” Ossia said.

“Alright, Ossia, you stay here with Layana.”

“Gladly,” Ossia said.

The more Taran thought about it, the more he thought it was possible.  If he, Taka, Matog and Resha had several pre-loaded rifles and the others drew the soldiers’ attention, it could be done.  He wondered how well trained and disciplined the soldiers were.

“Standard procedure says that when you’re ambushed, you counter attack into the ambush.  Depending on their training they might do this in an orderly fashion.  If not, they’ll charge recklessly.  That way we can set up a secondary ambush.”

He began laying out plans and contingency plans.  He drew a map in the dirt and showed everyone the complexities of an ambush.

“All this time I thought you just line people up on either side of the road and shoot,” Resha said.

“Not quite, unless you want to shoot your own guys.  A properly done Ambush can be very lethal but its also very easy to mess up.  We can’t afford to mess this up because it will mean people’s deaths,” Taran said.

The plan was very plausible, but it was also still very dangerous.  He didn’t want this to happen because he would be leading them into combat and if one or more didn’t make it out, he knew he’d have to blame himself.

But when he looked into Zalandri’s and Resha’s eyes, he knew he wasn’t going to be able to talk them out of it.  The strange thing was, he wasn’t sure he wanted to talk them out of it.   He didn’t want those people carted off to work camps.  It was worth dying for, he just didn’t want any of his girls dying for it.

They began packing and they took all their muskets so the shooters would have as many rapid shots as possible.  They took blankets and food because they didn’t know how long they’d be out there.

Once everyone was ready, they began walking.  It felt strange to know he was going into combat with barely trained women and that he was leading them.  He didn’t want to lead, but he was the leader of this mission by default.  Even Resha looked to him.

“Maybe the captain will be with them and I can get my book back,” Zalandri said.

“What about repercussions?  The last time someone killed their troops, they killed civilians in return,” Resha said.

“We’re going to do it far away from the town and they won’t expect them back for a long time if ever.  We’ll just have to hide all evidence that it happened.”

“Can we do this?”  Resha whispered.

“Of course.  But the thing about combat that you have to remember is that no matter how much you train and prepare, there’s always going to be luck involved.  You can’t escape it.  It will either be on your side or against you.”

“That’s not very reassuring.”

“It wasn’t meant to be.  It was meant to make sure you stay safe and keep your head down.”

“Don’t tell me you’re actually worried about me,” she said with a laugh that was meant to be a joke.

“I am,” he said with no hint of humor in his voice.

Chapter 25

Taka marched alongside Matog.  She wanted to march beside Taran but he was talking to Zalandri and Resha.  The more she looked, the more she saw that he was sweet on the Saytr.

Taran didn’t do anything obvious, but it was the little things that could easily go unnoticed.  He wouldn’t look at her as much when he talked and when he spoke to her his voice was softer some how.

“You’ve fought in a battle, before,” Taka said to Matog.

“So have you.  Minotaurs and Death Legion are no small matter.”

“Yeah, but you’ve fought in an actual battle with trained soldiers and muskets.”

“Yes.  They attacked the camp and we were left to defend it.”

“What should I expect?”

“Lots of people shooting at you.  You’re going to be scared but remember what they taught you, aim and squeeze the trigger.  Don’t expose yourself to much.  Stay hidden as best you can.  Also, be aware of the difference between cover and concealment.  Cover will protect you from musket balls, concealment will hide you but won’t protect you.  Some wood is concealment.  Make sure that what’s in front of you will actually stop a bullet.”

Taka listened and grew scared.  When the Death Legion attacked, it had been so sudden that she didn’t really have time to think.  Now she was going to have a few days to dread it.  Anticipation was worse than surprise.

They didn’t go far that night before they stopped for camp.  She made sure to set up next to Taran.  Zalandri started a fire and they gathered around and ate and talked.  Resha told one of her stories and Matog asked Kira about her life.  It turned out that Kira was almost a good a story teller as Resha.

Most of Kira’s stories were about some implausible thing she had done.  Taka hadn’t known much about Red Caps because they usually stuck to themselves.  Red Caps had appointed times and places to meet together.  When Red Caps got together it was usually to discuss where they could steal the most.  They looted battlefields, abandoned houses, mansions where the owner was gone and even churches and tombs.

Taka couldn’t understand how they could spend so much time alone and away from their family.  If it weren’t for everyone here, Taka would be alone and very sad.

If it weren’t for Resha, she wouldn’t have been here at all.  She looked across the fire at Resha who was smiling a sad, small smile while talking to Aria.  She had to make things right with her.  Resha had done so much to help her.  She didn’t want things to continue between them when there was a battle up ahead. She couldn’t die and have Resha think ill of her.

“Taran?”  She asked quietly.

“Yes?”

“I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

“For everything that’s happened.”

“Don’t be.”

“But if I hadn’t come to you when you were drunk…”

“But remember, afterwards when I was sober?”

She smiled when she remembered that.

“I’m not some innocent victim in this,” he said.

“Still, I regret how things turned out.”

“Me too.”

“I’ve seen how you look at Resha.”

“How do I look at Resha?”

“You know very well how you look at her.  Admit it, you like her.”

“I respect her.”

“Fine.  If you don’t want to tell me, that’s your choice.”

She waited until Resha left the fire circle, probably to relieve herself.  Taka quickly got up and hurried after her.

“Resha, hold up for a second,” Taka said.

Resha stopped and turned around.

“Anything wrong, Taka?”  Resha asked.

Taka could see a mixture of emotions on Resha’s face.  Mostly, she looked nervous.

“Resha, I just wanted to tell you thank you for everything that you’ve done for me and that I’m sorry.  I know I can be difficult and that I’m not the nicest person at times.  I’m sorry for what I said.”

Resha stood there for a few moments looking at her and the anticipation was killing her.  She didn’t know if she could survive Resha telling her that she hated her.

Resha’s hand came up and stroked Taka’s cheek.

“You’re my sister.  I’ll be your friend no matter what,” Resha said.

A wave of relief and love swept through Taka’s body and she wanted to cry and laugh at the same time.

She threw her arms around Resha and Resha embraced her as well.

“I’m sorry,” Taka said.

“Me too.  I’m far from perfect.  I wish I could be a better friend and sister to you.”

“You’re better than anyone.  You’re the best.”

“I wish that were true.  Everything you said about me was true.  I have no honor.”

“Yes you do.  Everything you do, you do for others.”

“No, I’m very selfish.”

“Your selfish is another woman’s saint.”

Resha kissed Taka on the forehead.

Taka went back to the fire with a huge smile on her face.

“It went well?”  Taran asked.

“Did what go well?”

“I saw you talking to Resha.”

“Oh, yeah.  We’re good now.”

“Glad to hear it.  It’s a rough thing to go into battle with anger towards your brother or sister.”

“I had to get it out before it poisoned me.”

“Believe me, I know the feeling.”

She curled up next to him as they all went to sleep.  They had to keep the fire going or they’d freeze.

Because they wanted to get far from the town, they traveled the day to the town and then another half day past it on the only road that led to Korstan.  There were a lot of hills and a lot of woods, perfect for what they had planned.

Taran took a little while to look the place over and then began giving orders and explaining where people would be setting up.

“I’ll be here with a few loaded muskets.  Kira, you’re with me.  We’ll need a way to block the road and cause an “L” shaped ambush.  We brought saws and axes.  We can down a tree and block the road with that.”

Taran pointed to where his position was going to be.

“I’ll fire the first shot from there.  Kira will then run away, drawing their attention.  Then the shooters from the front will open fire.  Hopefully this will keep them from getting organized properly.”

“Where will it be the most dangerous?”  Resha asked.

“Where I’ll be,” Taran said.

“What about the prisoners?”  Zalandri asked.

“Most likely, they’ll have a group of guards in front and back.  I’ll be covering the ones in the rear.  You all take the ones in front,” Taran said.

“Wouldn’t they have more people in the rear?”  Resha said.

“Good thinking.  They might,” he said.

“I’ll be on the side,” Taka said.

“It’s going to be dangerous,” he said.

“And I’m the second best shot.  If they’re going to be more in the rear, you’ll need me there,” Taka said.

Taran clearly didn’t like it, but he agreed.

“How long until they get here?”  Aria asked.

“A day, maybe two,” Kira said.

“We should start chopping,” Resha said.

Resha and she began chopping down some trees to form a roadblock.  Matog helped pull the trees into position.  The Harpies flew up into the trees to find a spot.

Once everything was put into position, Taran spent the rest of the day with musket training.  First he had them practice pulling the trigger with unloaded guns.  He was checking to make sure they weren’t jerking the guns with over zealous trigger pulls.  Only after he was satisfied with their trigger control did he move them to life fire.  They couldn’t spend too much powder and ball on practice.

They set up camp a good distance from the road and out of sight.  Again she set up beside Taran.

“I think you should go talk to Resha,” Taka said.

“About what?”  He asked.

“About everything.”

“That’s a lot to talk about.”

“You know what I’m talking about.”

He groaned and rolled over to face away from her.

“You can’t run away from me that easy,” Taka said.

“I can try.”

“Go.  Now.”

Taran said something she took to be a curse word and got up.  He walked over to where Resha was sitting.  The two of them walked off together.  She could see their shadows in the woods.  They talked for a few minutes and then he came back over to sit with her.

“Did you tell her what you thought?”  Taka asked.

“Sure.”

“Sure?  That isn’t an answer.  You didn’t tell her, did you.”

“I talked about the ambush.”

“I should’ve guessed.”

*

Resha looked over the camp fire at Taran and Taka.  They were talking in hushed whispers.  Taran had approached her and for a second she had hoped it was because he just wanted to talk to her, but it turned out that he only talked about the ambush.

He was a professional.  He was probably thinking about the upcoming ambush and nothing else.

She picked up one of her pistols and looked it over.  She had to have several pistols because it was too hard to reload in combat with one hand.  Resha had to think of something else.  The last thing she wanted to do was feel sorry for herself.

She had a short sword, but it wouldn’t do much good because she didn’t have depth perception with only one eye.  She couldn’t play lute or flute and she couldn’t fight very well.  She was a good shot, but beyond that she was practically useless.

“Don’t worry, Resha.  We’ll kill them all,” Matog said.

“Do I look worried?”

“Very much so.”

“If we don’t do this right, some of us can get hurt or worse.  It would be much easier if the refugees weren’t there.”

“But that’s why we’re here, isn’t it?”

“It is.”

She lay back and tried not to think about how pathetic her life was or how it could end in the ambush.

The next morning they were in their positions, waiting silently.  The two Harpies were their lookouts and would give the signal.

Resha was hidden behind the fallen trees in the road.  It was a dangerous place to be but all the spots were going to be dangerous.  Zalandri was beside her with her blunderbuss.  The spreading shot was the only thing that allowed her to hit, but it also was a danger for the refugees.  Matog had her rifle with the bayonet mounted and her hand was fidgeting on the handle of her short sword.

It was cold and they couldn’t have a fire for obvious reasons.  She had on her blanket around her shoulders but the cold from the ground was starting to seep through to her bones.

As the day wore on she began to think that the soldiers were never coming.  The forest was quiet and everything was still.  She hated waiting like this because it only gave her mind more time to wander and think of horrible things that could happen.

Sometime during mid afternoon Aria made the sound of some bird.  Resha froze and listened.  She didn’t dare look out for the chance of being spotted.  It wasn’t for several minutes until she heard the sound of marching and the wheels of a wagon.

This was it.  They were coming and in a few moments she would be fighting for her lives and the lives of others.  She didn’t want this.  She wanted to live a quiet, normal life free from danger.  What had gone wrong with the world that she had to do this?  It shouldn’t be like this.

She looked over and saw that Zalandri looked terrified.  She was clutching her blunderbuss with both hands.  Her lips were moving rapidly as if she was speaking, but nothing came out.

Then, in an instant, it started.  She heard Taran’s first shot quickly followed by a second.  How did he have to courage to begin something he knew would end with people dying?  She knew he wasn’t a heartless killer like Humans were supposed to be.

Several more shots range out.

“Now!”  Matog whispered.

Resha nodded and all three of them came up over the top of the barricade.  She saw a group of four soldiers who had turned towards Taran’s location and were raising their muskets.  Only one of them saw her and she aimed at him first.  She aimed right at the buckle at the center of his chest where his “X” shaped back pack straps met.

She fired and the musket kicked against her shoulder.  There was the sudden cloud of smoke and the soldier fell backwards.  Matog fired and dropped another one.

Zalandri stayed behind cover.  The group of refugees, some walking, some on carts were directly behind the soldiers.  If they missed or if Zalandri fired that blunderbuss, they’d be hit.

“Get down!”  Resha shouted as she pulled out her pistol.

Many of the civilians did get down in a hurry, but a few stood there, confused and frightened.

Zalandri must have thought it safe enough because she stood up and fired.  She hit one of the soldiers in the arm and he stumbled backwards.  The remaining soldier raised his musket.  She quickly ducked down as the shot struck one of the thin trees she was hiding behind.  The musket ball passed through the wood sending splinters tearing into her shoulder.

She was about to come back up but the soldier had charged the barricade and was up on top.  The Ork soldier was thrusting downward with his bayonet.  Resha managed to duck in time but he was already lunging with another strike.

Resha quickly fired her pistol without aiming.  Her shot struck the soldier in the hip and he tumbled forward, falling from the barricade and onto the ground.  She then clubbed him in the head with her pistol to make sure he wouldn’t get back up.

When she looked she saw that Taran and Taka was continuing to fire down at the troops.  She knew he couldn’t have many more shots left.  They were already down to their pistols.

Resha pulled out a pistol with her good hand and crawled over the barricade to get a good shot at the soldiers.  There were still five left.  Matog and Zalandri were still reloading.

She ran to the cover of one of the wagons.  The frightened refugees looked at her with wide eyes and dirty faces.

“Stay down!  We’re trying to rescue you,” Resha said.

Three of the soldiers were reloading and two were aiming, looking for Taran or Taka to pop back up.

A shot from above struck one of the aiming soldiers in the top of his head.  There was a red mess as he dropped to the ground instantly.  She wanted to look up and see which Harpy had done that but she was too occupied.

Two of the soldiers finished reloading and together with the other one that was ready, charged up the hill.  She didn’t hear any gunfire coming from Taran and Taka.  They were out.

She came out of cover and fired at one of the charging soldiers.  She barely missed and she dropped that pistol and took out her last one.  Then she took aim, remembering her breathing and trigger squeeze.  This time her shot struck the Human right in the back.

The remaining soldier hadn’t finished reloading but he leveled his bayonet at her and charged.  She tossed the pistol in the air and grabbed it by the barrel like a club.  She batted the bayonet away but the soldier then struck her in the side of the head with the butt of his musket.

The world went white and she found herself face down in the mud.  The soldier stood over her and she had time to look up at him as he raised his bayonet.

Suddenly the soldier’s chest exploded as several pellets of shot tore into him.  He fell backwards and Zalandri rushed up to her.

“You alright?”  Zalandri asked.

“I’m fine.”

She looked over at where Taran and Taka were.  Taran was clubbing the last soldier with his musket.

Matog helped her to her feet.  Her head hurt and felt warm and wet.  She reached up and her hand came away with blood.

“Let me fix that,” Zalandri said.

“Not right now.”

Resha ran up the hill to where Taran was.  Taran was crouched down beside Taka.  Resha then noticed the large bloody hole in Taka’s stomach.

“No!”  Resha shouted as she ran over and kneeled beside her.

“I’m sorry,” Taka said in a weak voice.

“Hold still,” Taran said.

“I’m not moving anywhere,” Taka said.

Resha took out some bandages from one of her looted pouches and pressed it against Taka’s wound.  Blood was coming out and soaking the bandages through.

Zalandri came and stood there staring at Taka without actually looking at her.

“Zal, do something!”  Resha said.

“Resha, I…”

“Just try!”

Zalandri knelt down and put her hands on Taka’s belly.  Resha could see the hopelessness in Zalandri’s eyes.  Just looking at the wound Resha knew it was mortal.  Already Taka’s face was pale and her breathing shallow.

The Harpy sisters flew down and gathered around.  Matog was trying to calm the refugees down.  Aria covered her sister’s eyes with her hand.

Then Taka’s eyes rolled back in her head and she grew limp.  Her head rolled to the side and a long breath escaped her lungs.

“Taka?”  Resha shook her and quickly looked for a pulse.

“She’s gone,” Taran said.

Resha began to sob and the only thing she was aware of was that Taran’s arms wrapped around her.

Chapter 26

Taran carried Taka’s body to the wagon and wrapped her in a blanket.  Matog was holding Resha who continued to cry.  The sound of her crying was like a continuous condemnation of what he had done.

He had led them here into combat and Taka was now dead because of it.  He had seen friends die before, but they had been fellow mercenaries, men that really understood the risk.

“We’ll bury her back at the tower,” Taran said.

“Maybe if I learned more about healing…” Zalandri said.

“Even the best healers couldn’t have saved her.  There’s nothing you could have done,” he said.

“But still…”

Zalandri closed her mouth and faced away from the wagon.  He could tell that she was beating herself up, but she had no guilt in this; he did.  He should have done more to talk them out of this.

Even worse was Resha.  She had already lost so much and now she had lost her friend.  She deserved to be happy and yet all she found was grief.  He suspect that like him, she wished it had been her instead of Taka.

It had happened so fast and was done before he even realized it.  There wasn’t anything he could think that he could have done differently except to not come at all.  He knew he had felt something wrong but they all had seemed so sure of it.

Taran looked over to all the refugees.  Matog was talking to their leader and looking at a map the Korstian officer had.

Aria and Sonata were gathering everything useful from the bodies.  One of the carts had all of the group’s supplies including food and blankets.

“What’s going to happen to them?”  Zalandri asked.  She didn’t look in their direction.  Her face was to the ground and he couldn’t tell whose eyes she was looking out of.

“They want to head north to Banan City.  They say it hasn’t been attacked yet,” he said.

“How far away is that?”

“Two weeks maybe.  Hard to tell seeing as how winter’s coming.  It’s going to be hard but if they push hard they can make it.”

“It’s getting awfully cold.  What if they run into more trouble?”

Again, Zalandri was thinking of others.  She was in terrible pain because of the loss of Taka and yet she was thinking of the refugees.

“They might.  We’re technically behind enemy lines.”

“Maybe one of us should go with them?”  Zalandri asked.

“It’s possible.”

Aria came up to them.

“I can go with them.  I know Banan City.  I know the way,” Aria said.

“It’s going to be dangerous.  Not just enemy soldiers, but the cold,” he said.

“I know.  But with my wings I can fly and scout for trouble.”

Taran didn’t like it.  It was dangerous and he had already lost too much.  Yet if the refugees didn’t have help their chances of success were much less.

Matog approached them holding the map.

“Taran?”  Matog asked.

“Yeah?”

“I need to go with these people,” Matog said.

“We were just discussing that.  Aria wants to go as well.”

“Good.  That’ll increase our chances,” Matog said.

“But how long will you be gone?”  Zalandri asked.

“Two weeks to get there, but the snow will be falling by then.  I might not be able to come back until spring,” Matog said.

“Spring?  So long,” Zalandri said.

“I know some friends of my parents there.  Maybe they can help us,” Aria said.

“Maybe they know of your parents’ whereabouts,” Taran said.

“I was thinking that as well.  Sonata will want to come, but I want her to stay here,” Aria said.

“We’ll keep her here,” Zalandri said.

Kira walked up caring a new pistol tucked into her noisy belt.

“How we dividing all this up?”  Kira asked.

For a second he was angry at Kira for bringing up something so trivial.  But then he realized that the supplies for the refugees was important and needed to be sorted out as soon as possible so they could be on their way.  The sooner they left the better.

They gave the refugees all the food and blankets and most of everything else.  All Taran took were a few guns, balls and powder.

“Be careful, Matog,” he said.

“I will.  We have a map and most of them are locals.  I won’t put us in any needless risk,” Matog said.  Then she leaned in close and whispered.  “Take care of Resha.  She needs help.  Also, I’m sorry that Taka died.  She was my friend as much as anybody’s, but this fight was worth it.  Look at all these people that would have been sold into slavery.  Keep that in mind and I’ll see you in the spring.”

He looked at the faces of the refugees.  He saw fathers and mothers holding children.  He saw families that now had a chance at life.  There were a lot of them and Taka died to help them.  Matog was right.  He had to keep that in mind.

Matog went over to where Resha and Sonata were.  Resha was huddled up by a tree and Sonata was trying to comfort her.  Matog said goodbye and went to the head of the column.  Aria said goodbye to her sister and promised to do everything she could to find their parents.

Then like that, they were gone.  Matog, Aria and the column of refugees were heading down the road and soon they were out of sight.

“Come on, let’s clean up,” Taran said.

With Resha in dispose, it only left Zalandri, Sonata and Kira to help him.  None of them were terribly strong though Kira was strong for her size.  They hauled bodies off into the woods and buried them.  They went over the ambush sight and erased every trace that a battle took place.  It took the rest of the day.

At sunset they went back to their camp and Zalandri lit a fire for them.  None of them said much.

He went to sleep in his bedroll, painfully aware of the empty space beside him.  Taka had been his friend.  She was funny, playful, aggressive and a decent person.  She his her sadness well but he had seen that she missed her family greatly.  Now she would never see them until the next life.

In the middle of the night he woke up to hear Resha sobbing again.  He crawled and went over to her.  She was sitting up with her good hand over her face.  He sat down beside her and wrapped an arm around her.

“It’s all my fault,” she whispered.

“No its not.  Why would you say that?”

“I insisted that we come here.  If it weren’t for me, she’d still be alive.”

“And those fifty people would be on their way to a life of slavery.  She knew what was at risk and she wanted to come.  She died protecting others.”

“But she still died!  She left me.  Everyone leaves me.  You’ll leave me eventually.”

“No I won’t.  I’m right here and I’m not going anywhere.”

“I loose everything.  Now I lost my friend.”

“You didn’t loose her, she was taken.  Those soldiers killed her, not you.”

“I miss her already.”  She lowered her face and her hair fell down covering it.

He pulled her in closely and to his surprise she rested her head on his shoulder.  She had to angle her head to avoid gouging him with her horns which made her look up at him.

“I’m sorry you’ve lost so much, Resha.  I wish I could do more.  You deserve to be happy but I… never mind.”

“I used to be happy.  I tried to maintain it, but everything keeps beating down on me, like I was trying to ignore reality.”

“No, you being happy was the reality.”

“What do I possibly have to be happy about?”

“You have friends.  You have a warm home, food.  That’s more than many people have, including those people we saved.”

“But I keep loosing everything.”

“Not everything.  You’re still alive and that’s what counts.”

“Is that all I have to look forward to; being alive?”

“No, but being alive allows possibilities.  If you’re dead then you don’t have a chance.  Alive you do.  Who’s to say that next year won’t be the best year of your life?  You never know until it happens.”

“I don’t think I have a best year of my life.  It just seems to get progressively worse with each passing year.”

“Next year will be better.”

“How?”

“We’ll be in Vatasha or someplace safe.”

“But I’ll be poor and I won’t have anything by the time I get there.”

“Like I said, you have friends.  If you have friends then you always have hope.”

“Are you my friend?”

“I’ve always been your friend, even when you didn’t realize it.”

“Tell me, why did you accept this job when you have no intention of sleeping with me?”

“Because I saw an opportunity to do something worthwhile.  I was also impressed by your character and wanted to get to know you.”

“Impressed by my character?  You’ve heard what I am.  I know I offered myself.”

“You did it to help your friends.  That impressed me.  I saw a strength and intelligence I seldom see.”

“You’re lying.  I’m nothing special, just a crippled tavern wench.”

He wished he could make her see herself how she really was and not covered by all her negative perceptions.  Taran didn’t know what else to say so he held her there until she went to sleep.

In the morning he woke up with her still in his arms.  She was curled up facing him.  He could feel the rise and fall of her chest and feel her warmth.

Kira walked over and stood over him.

“About time you woke up.  Stop holding hands and let’s get moving,” Kira said.

Kira then went over and kicked Zalandri awake.

“I’d be carefully, Zalandri’s a sorceress,” he said.

“I have more magic in my left foot than she has in her whole scrawny body,” Kira said.

They broke camp and he pulled the cart.  Sonata flew overhead to scout for trouble.  Pulling the cart made the trip much slower but it was necessary.  Taka was going to be buried by the tower.  She was going to have a proper headstone so it could be found and people that came by it would know who was buried there and that she had been important.  He also felt that Resha needed a real funeral.

They stopped for the night and set up camp.  He set up his sleeping roll beside Resha.

“Do you think Matog and Aria will come back?”  Resha asked.

“Of course.”

“Do you think we’ll make it through the winter?”

“Definitely.  We’ll need to hunt and I need someone to come with me.  Would you like to?  You’re now the best shot besides me.”

He instantly regretted saying that.  He didn’t want to bring up Taka and remind Resha of her loss.

“I’ll go with you,” she said, not sounding disturbed.

“Excellent.”

They went to sleep and the next day they continued on their way home.  He looked for the landmarks and the turn in the road that lead to the small deer trail they followed until they got to the large boulder.  Then it was a matter of following a stream.

They arrived at the tower before noon.  Layana and Ossia came out to greet them.  Layana didn’t cry at seeing Taka’s covered body.  He could tell that she wanted to but her Nomadic upbringing had taught her not to cry.  She smiled a little at hearing that Matog left with the refugees.

“I’m not surprised.  She’s kinder than she gives herself credit for,” Layana said.

Kira, Zalandri and Resha began unloading the cart.  He took the shovel and walked a good distance from the tower to find a spot for Taka’s resting place.  He found a clear spot that was almost encircled by trees and still well within sight of the tower.

Silently and alone he began digging.  The ground was cold and hard.  He wasn’t going to make a shallow grave for Taka.  She deserved more than that.  It took him two hours to get the grave ready.

When he was done he stood there for a while, looking into the hole.  Grave.  There were few things as permanent as the word “grave.”  As he looked down into the hole it sunk in that he would never talk to Taka again.  He would never hunt with her, listen to her silly jokes or see that mischievous smile.

Did he actually believe in an afterlife?  He talked about the Creators, but he didn’t know if he actually believed in them.  It was nice to think that she was happy in the Creator’s City of Paradise, but was that all it was; a pleasant thought?

He stuck the shovel in the dirt and went back to the tower where everyone was gathered around Taka’s body.  Her body looked so small wrapped up in the blanket.  He had been close to that body.  Taka and he had shared moments that he wouldn’t forget, moments that only he remembered now.

He picked up the body and the procession went to the grave site.  He climbed in the hole and placed her gently into the ground.  For a long time nobody said anything.

“Should we pray?”  Zalandri asked.

“I don’t know any prayers,” Taran said.

“I think I know one that would work,” Zalandri said.  She stepped forward and raised her hands, palms outward.  “Creators of the heavens and the earth, we call thee to hear our humble prayer.  We send this woman to thy care.  Let her find peace and happiness in thy halls.  Let her find her loved ones so she will not be alone.  We know that though art kind and caring Lords and we know that our sadness is thy sadness.  However, though knowest that Taka is now in a home of joy where sorrow has no place.  Please, let her know that she is missed and that she had true friends here.  Comfort us in our grief and let us remember that we will one day meet her again.”

Zalandri lowered her hands and stepped back from the grave.  Resha was crying again as was Sonata.  Zalandri had her stone face, but by the small motions of her gestures, he could tell that she was struggling to maintain composure.

“I can sing something,” Resha said.

“Please do,” he said.

She stepped forward with her good hand clasping her wooden one in front of her.  She cleared her throat and began singing.  Unlike all the other songs he had heard from her, this one was soft, quiet and had an overwhelming feeling of sorrow and loss.  He didn’t recognize the language but the emotion was undeniable.  It was beautiful.

When Resha finished, she stepped back.  He picked up the shovel, such a common tool for something like this.  Taran then began to fill in the grave.  Zalandri held Resha while she began to sob.

Once that was done their group went into the house and had some squirrel stew that Ossia had been making.  They sat on their bed rolls and ate quietly.

Taran sat on the two steps that led up to the door to his room.  It was his customary spot.  Taka’s space was painfully vacant.  Kira took up the spot where Matog used to be and Ossia had a spot by his door.

Once he was done with his stew, he went up to the top of his tower so he could be alone.  It was cold and windy up there, but the view and solitude was worth it.

An hour later Zalandri came up.  She didn’t look at him or say anything.  She sat on the bench silently.

“Could you look a little to your left?”  Zalandri said after a long time.

“Of course.”

“Sorry, but there’s a cloud there that is particularly beautiful.”

They fell back into silence.

After a half hour or so, Zalandri moved over and sat down next to him.

“Is war always like this?”  She asked.

“There’s always a price to pay.  Even the greatest victories you read about in history were paid with a high price.  You don’t read about the common soldiers who lost their best friend in the great victory.  You only read about the generals and their pomp and importance.  They count our deaths as small sacrifices.”

“There’s nothing small about it,” she said.

“No, there isn’t.”

“You’ve lost friends before.  How do you cope?”

“By living my life.  I enjoy what I have.  I remember them and honor their memories.  I have to move though or I’ll be weighed down by their memories.”

“At least Taka will have no more suffering.  She didn’t have the happiest of lives.  I’m glad she’s found joy.”

“You believe in the City of Paradise?”

“Of course.  The Creators watch over us and guide us to their home.”

“I wish I did.”

“How do you make it through so much death without believing?”

“I put it in the recesses of my mind and try not to think about it.”

“I’m sad that Taka’s gone, but I know I’ll see her again.”

“I wish I could believe that.”

“You can, but it takes work.  Believing isn’t always as easy as it looks.”

“Many things aren’t as easy as they look.”

“You’re a good man, Taran.”

“Better than some, but that isn’t saying much.”

“No, you are a good man.  You’re trying to fight back against the darkness.  Whether you realize it or not, you’re a weapon of the Creators.”

“They’d use a sinner like me?”

“Everyone sins.  Even the Great Prophets sinned.  If we were perfect, we’d be Creators by now.  I sin.  During the ambush, I cam across a wounded soldier.  He was begging me to help him.  I reached down and slit his throat like he was an animal.  I should have offered him mercy like the Creators say to, but all I could think about was how they were causing so much suffering.”

“You did the right thing.  If we let any survivors live, we’d be put in danger.  The refugees would be put in danger.”

“I know that, but that wasn’t what was going through my mind.  If I had done it for the reasons you said, it might not have been a sin, but my intentions were not so pure.”

“Even the Great Prophets sinned.”

She smiled and moved onto his lap and kissed him.

Chapter 27

Resha brushed the snow off of Taka’s grave stone.  Layana had carved it and she did a beautiful job.  Everything was covered in the wet, white stuff.  It was pretty in a stark, harsh sort of way. The trees were all barren of leaves and all that was left were dark columns in the snow.

She walked back to the house and grabbed her ammunition belt and slung her musket over her shoulder.

“I’m ready,” she said to Taran.

He nodded and she followed him out of the warm building and into the cold forest.  Her narrow hooves sunk into the snow more than his broad feet and she had to struggle to keep up.

It seemed that they hiked for hours before they ever saw anything.

Taran stopped and pointed to a tree.  A small squirrel was out on one of the branches.

He slung his musket and unslung the blunderbuss.  He took careful aim and fired.  The shot tore up the branch and the squirrel fell off dead.

“Excellent!”  Resha said and waded through the knee high snow to get the squirrel.  She held it up for him to see.

“That should go nicely in the pot,” he said.

“I hope so.  We’re running out of things to throw in the pot.”

“I know.  We have to find more. Let’s keep going.”

“Taran, I’ve been thinking,” she said after a while.

“That’s a good habit.”

“I was thinking about what to do once we get to Vatasha.”

“And what are we going to do once we get to Vatasha?”

“Um…well, I didn’t mean you and me specifically, I meant whoever wants to come along.”

“I get it.  What’s your plan?”

“I was thinking of starting my own tavern.  One that will be known for good music every night.”

“Sounds interesting.  Will you merely run it or will you perform as well?”

“I’ll perform on special nights.  You should stop by sometime.”

“When you get it up and running, I’ll be sure to stop by.”

He didn’t sound terribly excited about it.  In fact he had suddenly become quiet and closed off.  He spoke but his voice and posture told the real story.  She tried to think back on what she might have said to upset him.

Then they came to a clearing.  It was a beautiful place full of snow and a large flat rock in the center.  There was something different about this place.  It felt as if something were alive in the air.

“Do you feel that?”  She asked.

“Magic,” he said.

“How do you know?”

“Two years ago we were assaulting a temple and the priests there had some kind of protective magic to keep us out.  It felt like this.”

“It feels alive almost.”

Then a large shadow shot past them.  She looked up to see a winged creature flying over head.  She began to unsling her musket, but he put out a hand to stop her.

“Don’t do that.  If this magic is like what I saw before, it’ll kill anyone that makes a hostile move.”

The winged creature was larger than a horse and looked almost like a lion.  She wanted to run away as fast as she could.

“We should run,” she said.

“It can’t attack us while we’re in the circle.”

“I hope you’re right.”

The creature glided down and landed on the rock with the gracefulness of a dancer.  The creature had an enormous lion body, large dragon wings and a scorpion tail.  The head looked like a human’s but it had rows of triangular sharp teeth.

“Manticore,” he whispered.

“I assume it’s dangerous.”

“Very.”

The golden-brown Manticore looked at them with its head slightly cocked.  She didn’t know if it was looking at them like they were food or if it was just curious.  Even from that distance she could see its massive muscles, razor claws and the black scorpion stinger the size of a sword.

“What are you doing here in my forest?”  The Manticore said in a soft, but loud voice.

“We’re hunting for food.  We live in a watch tower not far from here,” Taran said.  She was glad he answered because she doubted that she’d be able to speak.

“You’re hunting my animals in my forest,” the Manticore said.

She wanted to recoil away.  If that beast was angry at them she didn’t think their small guns would slow it down.  If it wanted to, the Manticore could kill them without any problems.  She didn’t doubt that the Manticore knew that as well.

“I apologize.  We didn’t know this was your forest.  If we had any other way, we would do it.  But we have lost our homes and families and we needed a safe place away from the war where we could pass the winter.  If we don’t hunt for food, we die,” he said.

“I know.  I’ve been watching your little group for some time.  If I let you hunt in my woods, I will need payment,” the Manticore said.

“What sort of payment?”  He asked.

“I’ve heard the Saytr here sing beautiful songs.  As payment I demand that she sing for me whenever I wish.  In return not only will I allow you to hunt, I will share any news I have.”

“That is very generous,” Taran said.

“I know.”

The Manticore crawled off his rock and slowly walked over to them with a regal stride.  He towered over them and looked down at each of them in turn.

“You should realize that you are not alone in this forest.  You share this forest with others,” the Manticore said.

“We just want to do what’s right.  We want to live through winter and leave in the spring,” Resha said.

“So, you can speak as well as sing,” the Manticore said.

“Um…well, yes.”

The Manticore’s golden eyes looked right at her and she could feel his intense scrutiny, as if he saw every flaw within her soul.  She wanted to look away but knew if she did, she’d look weak and pathetic. So she stared back into its hard eyes.

“Usually, you choose not to, but I know you can sing beautiful songs.  Sing me something beautiful.”

“Yes, sir.”

She thought for a moment until she remembered a good song.  It was an old song, a love ballad about two lovers torn apart and their journeys to find each other again.  Some of the words were old and seldom used, but it was still a beautiful song.

Resha nervously cleared her throat and began to sing.  Once she started the nervousness went away.  She focused on her voice and sung the song better than she ever had.  She tried not to look at the Manticore but when she glanced at him, she saw that he was sitting down, resting one paw over the other.  Taran stood there, looking at her but not at her.  There was a sad smile on his face.

When she finished there was a brief silence. Then, the unthinkable happened; the Manticore smiled.

“Well done, miss.  Well done!”  The Manticore said.

“Thank you,” Resha said.

“You have a voice that can be put to much better use than singing tavern songs,” the Manticore said.  “I am Eneros and it is honestly a pleasure to meet you.”

“I’m Resha and this is Taran.”

“Next time I will bring a friend or two.  They must hear your singing,” Eneros said.

“Please do.  It will be my pleasure,” Resha said.

“Wait here.  I’ll be right back,” Eneros said.  Then he leapt into the air and flew off out of sight.

“That was lovely,” Taran said.

“Thank you.”

“Eneros is right.  You can do more with your voice.  When we get to Vatasha, I think you can make a good living for yourself.”

“I hope so.”

It felt strange to be complimented by him.  He was never very free with his compliments or much of anything else.  He was so reserved, like a locked safe, yet sometimes he opened the door wide and free of charge.

When Eneros came back, he held a dead deer in its claws.

“A reward for a beautiful song,” Eneros said.

“Thank you, sir,” Resha said.

“We will meet again.  Farewell,” Eneros said and flew off again.

“That was…unusual,” Taran said after the Manticore had gone.

“He liked my singing,” Resha said.

“Of course he did.  It would be impossible not to.”

“You’re exaggerating.”

“I’m not.  I don’t exaggerate compliments and I don’t give them out for nothing.  You are an amazing singer, perhaps the best I’ve heard.”

“I doubt that greatly, but it did get us dinner.”

“I wouldn’t have thought your voice was a better hunting tool than my musket.”

She helped get the deer up on his shoulders and together they began walking back to the house.

Resha was feeling rather good about herself.  Even more important than the Manticore’s approval and gift, was Taran’s complement.  He liked her singing and trusted her enough to go hunting with her, but his opinion of her was so hidden that she couldn’t even guess.

She was feeling a little bold from her performance and figured that now that they were along, this would be a good time to finally come out and ask.

“Taran, why don’t you take me up on my offer?  You agreed to it, but you don’t take advantage of it.”

“I didn’t agree because you offered yourself.  I agreed because I saw a chance to do something good and meaningful.”

“But why don’t you accept my offer?  You slept with Taka. Am I that unappealing to you?”

He stopped and looked at her.  There was slight confusion on his face.

“Unapealing?  Not at all.  In fact I think you’re very beautiful.  The reason I don’t take your offer is because I respect you too much for that.  I wouldn’t sleep with you unless I thought it was because you had feelings for me.”

Then he turned around and continued walking.

She stood there for a moment, stunned and unable to think clearly.  All that time he had refused her, not because he didn’t care for her, but because he respected her?  What did he see in her that warranted respect?

She hurried to catch up.  As they walked she thought back through all the conversations they had and all the times they spoke.  It was as if everything she had thought was true was a lie.  She had been blind.

It was an hour before she gathered the courage to speak again.

“Why would you respect me?”  She asked.

“Because you’re intelligent.  You’re funny and unafraid to show it.  You have an amazing talent and you care so much about your friends and other people that you’d do anything for them.  You’re loyal, kind and brave and those are rare things in this world.”

He actually thought that about her?  What did he see that she didn’t?

Then he said something that felt like a musket ball to her chest.

“Well, you’re kind to everyone but me,” Taran said.

“What?”

“It’s no secret you don’t like me.  That’s alright.  My respect for you isn’t on the condition of you liking me.”

“No, but…”

“Resha, don’t worry about it.  It is what it is.  When you talked about opening your tavern in Vatasha, you didn’t have to specify that you didn’t mean me.  I assumed that already.”

Again, she didn’t know what to say.  She went back over all her conversations with him, but this time looking for reasons he would believe that.  Only now did she see why.  She had been cold towards him.  The more he rejected her, the more distance she drew between them.  She hadn’t thought that it would keep him away from her.

The entire rest of the walk she felt miserable.  It was her own foolishness that had led to her sadness.  The reason she had been sad for so long was because she was continually being rejected by the one male she cared for.  It was a marvelous revelation that he actually cared for he, but just as terrible was the knowledge that she was to blame for keeping him away.

No wonder he went with Taka.  Taka was honest and warm and made no effort to hide her feelings.  Resha knew that she had always hid her emotions behind a smile and a song.

She hadn’t thought of anything to say by the time they arrived at the tower.  The others were happy about the deer and Taran and Kira began skinning it out front.  She went to the back of the building and began to feed the goats and horses.

She listened to the others’ laughter while she thought.  She was stunned at how big of a fool she was.  In her infinite lack of wisdom, she had misinterpreted everything.

Resha looked down at her unmoving wooden hand.  Of course a man like Taran wouldn’t care about something like that.  She had allowed herself to feel sorry for herself.  It had slipped in quietly, but it had gotten in.

When she finally went in, Taran was telling the story of the Manticore.  She sat back and listened.  She watched him and listened to every word and how he said it.  She was congratulated by the others and for once it felt awkward to be the center of attention.  She just wanted to disappear and hide for a long time.

Ossia, Sonata and Layana prepared the stew while she sat back and cleaned the knife she had taken hunting.  It had dropped in the snow and she didn’t want it to rust up.

This was a strange life.  She hunted, had many close friends and lived a boring, violent life.  It was very different than anything she had known.  It wasn’t like the tales the bards sang or the books Zalandri had her read.

There were no magic swords, no dark overlords and no daring moments of valor.  It was just life.  War put her in extraordinary circumstances, but they were terrible with no honor or glory.  Right now their concern was having enough food to survive the winter.  That wasn’t in Zalandri’s stories.

She closed her eyes and thought about what her life in Vatasha could be like.  If she were really as good as Taran said, she could make a living from singing.  That was what she wanted; to live doing the things she loved to do.

The stew was hot and delicious and afterwards she read from one of Zalandri’s books.  They all listened silently, including Kira who claimed to not care about books.

At night she lay in her bedding beside Zalandri.

“Something’s bothering you,” Zalandri whispered.

“You can tell?”

“I can tell when something’s bothering you.  I’m blind but I can still see.”

“When I asked Taran to join us, I offered him little money, but I also offered myself.  He accepted but then never took me up on the offer.  He even turned me down.  I never understood why.  But then today, I asked him.  It wasn’t the answer I expected.”

“What did he say?”

“He said that he respected me too much.  He respects me.  I don’t see how or why.  All this time, I thought he cared nothing for me.”

“Why does this have you bothered?”

“Because he then said that he knew I didn’t care for him.  It took me a while to understand why.  I’m amazed at how foolish I’ve been.”

“Things are always unclear to those involved.  I can see that you really care for him.  I can also see that he cares for you.  He’s always been gentler and more restrained with you.”

“Has he?”

“He has.”

“I feel like a moron.”

“None of us are perfect.”

“You come awfully close.”

“Not as close as you think.  Besides, if I were perfect, I wouldn’t have failed my professors.  I would be in Vatasha by now with the books in a safe place.”

“There was no time limit set.  We’ll get there.”

“Also, if I were perfect, I wouldn’t have broken my promise to you.  As it is, I won’t have any money to give you.”

“That wasn’t your fault.  Your house was burned and your family had fled.  Don’t worry about me.  I’ll find a living in Vatasha one way or another.”

“I hate seeing you worry about it all because I know that you wouldn’t be in this mess if it weren’t for me.”

“I chose to come.  You didn’t force me.”

“But you wouldn’t have come if I hadn’t asked.”

“Where would I be then?  Starving in a city under siege?  A Korstian work camp?  Dead?  Coming along with you may have saved my life.”

“Resha, are you thinking positively again?”

“Maybe I am.”

 

 

Chapter 28

 

 

Taran lay in his bed thinking that he had said too much to Resha.  She didn’t need to know so much.  He hadn’t told her everything but he had told her more than enough.  He felt foolish for doing so, but regretting it wouldn’t help the situation.

Things were much simpler in the free company.

The tower was sealed up to keep the cold out.  He wanted to go up to the top and look out, but it was now too cold to go out at night.  The view was beautiful, but not worth freezing to death for.

During the night he thought he heard someone walking around outside, but every time he checked he couldn’t find anything.

When he woke up the only other person that was awake was Ossia.  She was silently reading one of Zalandri’s books at the table Layana had made.  She was sitting with perfect posture.

“Good morning,” she said with a smile.  It was the kind of smile that was highly contagious.

“Good morning.”

“Are you going hunting again today?”

“I believe so.”

“My father used to go hunting with his business partners, but it was never to put food on the table.”

“In the military we’d send scouts to hunt all the time.  I went with them when I could spare the time.  The art of the hunt is fascinating.  There’s so much more that goes into it than you’d realize.”

“I can imagine.  I’d hear my father and his friends share stories of it afterwards and it always sounded like an adventure.”

“It’s not exciting in the way you’d normally imagine it.  But I do love the skill that’s involved.”

“I like the food that’s involved!” Kira said, rolling over in her bed.

“I like that as well.  Layana knows how to cook deer like no other,” Ossia said.

“What’s your favorite food?”  He asked.

“Fish, definitely.  It’s the traditional food for my kind for a reason.  Nothing tastes quite like it.”

“Next time we’re in town I’ll see if there’s any fish.  I’d go fishing but the stream is frozen over right now.”

“Don’t worry yourself over it.  I’ll be fine.  Though I would love to go swimming.  My kind usually live much further south, usually along the coasts.  I can’t stand not swimming for almost half the year,” Ossia said.  She held up her webbed hands.

“I just hate the cold,” Kira said.

“Where are your kind from?”  Ossia asked, turning towards Kira.

“The Northern Mountains and Moors.  Now we’re everywhere,” Kira said.

Zalandri woke up and rubbed her eyes.

“Good morning!”  Ossia said.

“Huh?  Oh, good morning,” Zalandri said.

“Kira, why do you wear those big heavy boots and how do you run so fast in them?”  Ossia asked.

“That’s a Red Cap secret,” Kira said.

“They’re enchanted, aren’t they?  You don’t run fast naturally, its your boots,” Zalandri said.

Kira scowled for a second.

“How do you know?”  Kira asked.

“I can feel it.  Your kind can bind spells onto objects.  How do you do it?”

“Red Cap secret,” Kira said.

“Please!”  Zalandri pleaded.

No matter how Zalandri asked or what she offered, Kira refused to tell.

Eventually everyone woke up.  Zalandri continued healing Layana and Aria bundled up to go outside to milk the goats and get eggs from the chickens.

“You up for hunting?”  He asked Resha.

“I was thinking that perhaps we should go to town.  There are a few things we need.  Food mostly,” Resha said.

“Our supplies aren’t getting thin, but there are a few things that would go a long way to adding variety,” Layana said.

“Very well, we’ll take the horses and ride fast, get our shopping done before nightfall and ride back tomorrow,” Taran said.

“Sounds good,” Resha said.

He watched as Resha put on her coat with the large fur collar and a fur wrap around her head.  Horns made hats difficult at best.

Once they were ready they went out, saddled the horses under the makeshift roof they made and road out.

They traveled a little out of the way to get to the road but once they got to the snowless road, they more than made up for the time.  They didn’t meet anyone one the road which was expected.  Few people traveled far in the winter.  As the rose in the sky, the ground thawed enough to turn into mud.  If there was one thing he hated more than snow, it was mud.  Whenever he saw mud, all he could think about were long marches and muddy camp sites.

They both had scarves over their faces so all that was exposed to the biting wind were their eyes.  It was a cold five hour ride to the town and they got there with plenty of time to look around.  They tied their horses by the tavern and began to look around.

The Korstian soldiers wouldn’t have realized that their squad was missing and none of them seemed on any kind of alert.  They looked bored and lazy.

They went to the general store and she began looking in their limited food section while he wandered around the small but cramped store.

Then he saw something he knew he had to have.  Hanging on the wall was a well used lute.  He hadn’t played in a long time and he knew he had to have it.

One thing he hadn’t told Resha or any of the others was that he had a sizable amount of money ha had been saving up.  Buying the lute wouldn’t be a problem.  He grabbed it from the hooks and brought it up front.

Resha walked up with a basket of jarred honey and jarred vegetables.  Those were more expensive but it was all they had left besides dried meats and fruits.

“A lute?”  Resha asked, stopping in her tracks.  “Why are you buying a lute?”

“So I can play it.  It’s been a while and I’m probably out of practice.”

“I had no idea you can play.”

She seemed almost shocked.

“Yes, I can play.  Fairly well, might I add.”

“Why haven’t you mentioned this before?”

“Because we didn’t have a lute.”

She was still so stunned that he had to finish the transaction.  She didn’t noticed that he used his own money for it.  He also bought her a small piece of chocolate.

“Here you go, try this,” he said.

“What is it?”

“Chocolate.”

“I’ve never had it before.”

“What?  No traveling merchant ever stopped by your tavern with some to sell?”

“Well, I’ve seen it before but I’ve never bought it.”

“Try it and tell me what you think.”

She took the small cube from his hand and put it in her mouth.  She slowly began to chew while looking up towards the ceiling.  It was her ‘thoughtful’ expression.  Then her eyes went wide.

“This is really good!  I think this is the best thing I’ve ever put in my mouth.”

“Glad you like it.”

“I love it.”

“We need to get some for the others.”

“It’s expensive.  I don’t think we have enough funds for that.”

“Maybe when we get to Vatasha.”

With their newly purchased things, they went to the tavern and rented a room and bought a decent dinner.  As they ate he noticed that she was being strangely silent.  It seemed her mind was deep in some wandering path.  When he did try to talk to her, she sounded preoccupied and a little nervous.  He could never tell what was going through that woman’s head.

After the silent dinner, they went up to the bedroom.  He picked up the lute and sat on the bed.

“How about I play you something?”  He asked.

“I’d love that.”

He tuned the lute and then began playing a song that most people seemed to like.  It wasn’t something people could dance to but it was a tune to make people remember.  What they remembered was up to the listener.  It always reminded him of back home where the village had the annual Bountiful Harvest festival.

Resha sat on the edge of the bed listening.  She was focused on him like he had never seen before.  It worried him.

“Was there something wrong?”  He asked at the end of the song.

“No, nothing’s wrong.  Nothing’s wrong at all.”

Resha then crawled over and knelt beside him.  She reached over and took the lute from his hands and placed it gently on the ground.  She placed a soft hand on his cheek and leaned in.

“Do you want me?”  She whispered.

He looked her in the eye.

“Yes.  Very much.”

Then she kissed him.  Never had he experienced a kiss so soft, yet so strong at the same time.  She sat on his lap, legs on either side of him and wrapped her arms around his neck.  His hands came up to her back and they sat like that for a long time, kissing and holding each other.

All this time he had wondered what it was like and now he knew.  It was wonderful.  She was so warm and soft and every subtle movement she did made him more crazy for her.  She was mostly silent but the tiny gasps for air or little purrs she did were the most beautiful sounds he had ever heard.

He lay back further until she was on top of him.  His hands moved from her back to her bottom and her kissing grew more intense.

“Taran,” she said after biting his ear.

“Huh?”

“I’m sorry I’ve been a fool.”

“I haven’t exactly been the wisest man ever.”

“I know, but all this time I’ve been miserable because I thought I couldn’t have you.  I’ve wanted you for so long.”

“And I’ve wanted you since the first time I saw you.  I knew you were someone special.  I’m here, traveling with the group because of you.  I saw you and knew I had to protect you.”

“I don’t understand what you ever saw in me.  I’m nobody.”

“There you go being a fool again.  You underestimate yourself.  You’re one of those rare people that can do anything if you put your mind to it.  You’re sharp, quick, intelligent and hilarious.”

“My performances are funny, I’m not.”

“Well, there hasn’t been a lot to be happy about lately.  Times will change and we’ll be happy.”

“I’m happy right now.”

She renewed kissing him.  She shimmied out of her clothes and stripped him of his.  Just as they were about to start making love she whispered in his ear.

“Don’t be gentle.”

*

Resha awoke in Taran’s arms.  The sun was already up and she could hear him quietly sleeping.  She had been with many people before, but never had it mean anything close to this.

When he started playing the lute, she knew she couldn’t resist.  She had wanted him and she finally had enough courage to do something about it.  Never had a man cared about her wants and needs while love making.  It was as if he cared more about her than himself.

This was how it was supposed to be.  She lay on her back and basked in the feeling of perfection.  She could still feel his kisses on her lips and feel his warmth.  For some reason he liked grabbing her horns and if that’s what he wanted then she was happy to let him.

She was tired from lack of sleep but she had never felt better.  After a couple of minutes of silence, she shook him awake.

“Let’s get breakfast,” she said once his eyes opened.

“Breakfast?  Who could think about breakfast?”

Then he pulled her back down to him and they made love again.

They left the town a bit later than they had planned but she didn’t mind at all.   So this was what it was like to be in love.  She had never really imagined it before.  If she knew that it would be this amazing, she would have looked harder.  But, no one had ever caught her attention like Taran had.  Like her, he understood what it was like to have darkness in the soul.  He knew that life could be harsh and that sometimes survival required harsh measures.  However, like her, he understood that it was important to maintain who you were and not be swallowed by the darkness.

“I’ve never seen you smile so big,” he said as they rode back home.

“Don’t tease me,” she laughed.

“I’m not teasing.  I’m just making an observation.”

“Well, don’t make observations.”

“What can I make?”

“Silence and love.”

“I’m to be your silent partner, following every one of your commands?”

“That’s correct.”

“I can’t be silent and make love at the same time.  The same goes doubly for you.  I think they heard you in Vatasha.”

“Taran!  Please don’t joke like this in front of the others.”

“Are you blushing?  You’re actually blushing!”

“I am not.”

“Oh, yes you are.  I wish I had a witness here to see this.”

He rode up beside her, took her hand and kissed it.

“We should hurry,” she said, still blushing.

They sped up and got back to the house an hour before dark.  Layana had already made stew and bread.  Squirrel and carrots.  The bread was the dark, hard stuff that she liked.  When she presented the honey, Ossia’s eyes widened.

“I know an excellent recipe for honey rolls!”  Ossia said.

“Then we’ll have to have some!”  Resha said.

“You’re in a remarkably good mood,” Zalandri said.

“Well, I’ve seen the error of my ways and I’m back to my old self,” Resha said.

“That’s good to hear.  I’m glad you’re feeling better,” Zalandri said.

After dinner Taran played his lute while she sang.  She loved it.  It was as if it had always been this way.  It felt so natural.  Taran was good at improvisation and he was able to read her cues quickly.  He was very good at the lute.

As they all began to turn in for the night she prepared herself for embarrassment, picked up her bedding and carried it into Taran’s room.  She had hoped it wouldn’t be a big deal but everyone in the house gasped and instantly began asking questions.

“It’s about time!”  Zalandri called out.

“What?  When did this happen?”  Sonata asked.

“What happened at the village?”  Layana asked.

“They’re not going to…are they?”  Ossia asked.

Sonata looked more shocked or horrified than anything.

She fumbled for words and eventually settled for something less than satisfactory.

“You all be quiet!”  She said with a huge grin.  Then she closed the door behind her.

Taran was sitting on his bedding plucking at the lute.

“That wasn’t embarrassing at all,” she said.

“Was it worth it?”  He asked.

“Absolutely.”

They put their bedding together, undressed and they crawled under the blankets.  It felt so good to be there with him, knowing that he was there because he cared for her and not to fill some lusty desire.  She wasn’t there because she was getting paid or to secure some favor.  She was there because she wanted to be with him.

“Matog will be surprised when she gets back,” Taran said.

“I suspect it will be the first thing Sonata says to Aria.  You should have seen the scandalized face on the poor girl.  Ossia just looked confused.”

“They’ll get over it.  Things would be different if we were in a more civilized situation.”

She sat up and looked at him.  Was he here because he was being ‘uncivilized?’

“What do you mean, different?”  She asked.

“I just mean that…how do I say this?  What I mean is that I would have courted you properly.  Flowers, gifts, maybe eventually your hand…never mind.”

“Wait a moment, were you about to say that you’d ask for my hand in marriage?”

“I said eventually.”

She couldn’t think of any she’d rather be with for the rest of her life.  Times were different now.  Before, such things took much more time, but now, with life being such an uncertainty, they had to take what happiness and opportunity they could get.

“Then eventually I’d accept,” she said, lying back down and putting an arm around him.  “And eventually, you’d grow tired of me and kick me out and find a younger Saytr.  I know you’re with me because you happen to have a soft spot for Saytrs.”

She kissed him as a punctuation to her teasing.

“Oh, you know that, huh?”

“I know with complete certainty.”

“Well, you are a remarkable specimen of your species.  Or any other species for that matter.”

“Except Troll.  I don’t think I’d make a good troll.”

“You do have horns, so you could be a small Minotaur.”

“True, but not Troll.  I don’t look good in green.”

“I would still love you as a Troll, though I’d miss those horns.”

“I thought you didn’t like women taller than yourself.  But you do like my horns, don’t you?”

“I like everything about you.”

He took her wooden hand and kissed it.  He moved up her arm and to her face.

 

 

 

Chapter 29

 

 

Zalandri covered her ears with her hands.  She hated listening to Taran and Resha make wild love in the other room.  They were trying to be quiet but years of blindness had led to good ears.

If that was all, she wouldn’t complain.  However, the Minotaur’s spirit pacing around outside also helped keep her up at night.  She still hadn’t seen him like the others, but she could feel him stronger than the rest.  She could feel his presence through the walls as he walked around the house, crunching snow beneath his phantom hooves.

She crawled over to the stove and put another log in.  She blew on the warm coals until the log caught fire.  She hated being cold and if it were up to her she’d keep the place much warmer than the others seemed to like.

The Minotaur snorted at the door.  The woman in white shot to the corner and huddled in fear.  The woman felt very different than the Minotaur.  She felt more fragile, lighter and gentler than the heavy, forceful and powerful Minotaur.  Her other spirit companion was hiding where she couldn’t feel him.

“It’s alright.  He won’t hurt you.  It’s me and my friends he’s angry at,” Zalandri told the spirit.

She could feel the spirit’s presence look at her and relax slightly.

“Why don’t you come over by the fire,” Zalandri said.

“He scares me,” the woman in white said.  It was the first time she had ever heard the spirit speak and even then it was a faint, barely perceptible voice in the back of her mind.

“No need to be afraid.  If he gets out of control, there are ways of dealing with him.  What’s your name?”

“Victoria.”

“I wish I could see you, but I’m blind right now.  In my mind’s eye though, you’re very pretty.”

“Thank you.  You’re pretty too.”

“You feel like an Elf.  Are you?”

“Yes.”

She sat there in the darkness talking to the spirit of Victoria.  She figured that she should know something about the spirit that would be following her around for what could possibly be the rest of her life.  The Minotaur however, she wanted nothing to do with.

There was a thump at the door where the Minotaur struck it.  He wasn’t strong enough to effect anything more than that.  One day though, he could be.

Eventually she managed to get back to sleep but all too soon the others were up and about, moving around and making noise.

She noticed that Resha seemed like her old self.  She was smiling, laughing and joking with everyone.  She even managed to get Kira to smile sometimes.

When Kira went out to take her turn feeding the goats, Zalandri went out with her.

“Kira, can we talk?”

The short, scrawny Red Cap shrugged and went on feeding the goats.

“I know you say it’s a secret, but if you teach me how to enchant objects like that, we can be set for life.  You’d never have to steal or starve again.  We can live lives of comfort and ease in Vatasha.”

Kira turned her small red eyes to Zalandri.  The black hair falling down from under her cap almost obscured her face.

“It’s not about money, Elf.”

Zalandri had thought that money was all Red Caps thought about.

“Then what is it about?”

“We don’t steal because we need money.  We steal for the act of stealing.  Humans fight to show who’s better, we steal.  If we did care about money, we’d all be rich with how easy some folks are to steal from.  We have no desire to live lives like pampered queens.”  She waved her hand dismissively.

“Then teach me how to enchant.  I’ll do anything you want.”

“You have nothing I want.  It’s a Red Cap secret known only to us.  I don’t know if Elves can even learn it.”

“Why?”

“Can’t tell you.”

“Please, if I had this knowledge, I could use it to help my friends.  If we ever get to Vatasha, we’ll be poor without a coin in our pockets.”

“Then you find a way to make more coin.  I can’t teach you.  It would break law of my people.”

Zalandri realized that it was pointless to continue trying.  Red Caps were notoriously stubborn and this one wasn’t proving to be the exception.

She went back inside where Ossia was breaking eggs into a pan.

“Back home, my servants did everything for me, but I still liked to cook.  My mother didn’t know how to cook but this old Human woman could cook like you wouldn’t believe.  She taught me how.  Most girls my age took up knitting or poetry, but cooking was my art,” Ossia said.

“I never learned.  I grew up with servants and a father that wouldn’t let me do anything,” Zalandri said.

“He let you go to the University.”

“Only to be rid of me.”

“That can’t be true.  I’m sure he loved you,” Ossia said.

“No, I overheard him tell my mother that.  He told her and she agreed.  A deficient daughter was one that wouldn’t fetch a high dowry if any at all.  Elves demand perfection and I was far from it.”

“That’s horrible.  My father would never do that to me.”

“Well, thank the Creators that you weren’t born an Elf.”

Then she heard Taran begin to play the lute.  Everyone quieted down and turned to listen.  As he played Resha and Sonata began to sing in harmony.  Sonata’s voice was much higher, but the two voices blended together perfectly.

“That was an Elvish song,” Zalandri said once they had finished.

“Yes it was.  I learned it from a traveling Elf singer,” Resha said.

“It was beautiful,” Layana said.

“Thanks, we’re practicing for the next time the Manticore stops by.  He loves a good song,” Resha said.

“He’s got good taste too,” Taran said.

“Just because he likes my singing doesn’t mean he has good taste,” Resha said.

“That’s exactly what it means,” Taran said.

The day was cold but they were warm inside.  Every day their food supply shrunk and their portions grew smaller.

When Resha stepped out to run to the outhouse, Zalandri approached Taran.

“Are we going to make it for food?”  She whispered.

“I think so, though we may loose some weight.  Unless we get very lucky with hunting, we’re going to be hungry a lot.”

“But everything is hibernating.”

“I’ve noticed.  I’ve seen deer tracks so I’ll keep trying though.”

“Do we have anything to trade?”

“Yes, but they don’t have any food to sell.  The army is eating whatever supply the town had.”

“Then let’s go somewhere that has a supply.”

“Too far away.”

“I hope Matog and Aria have food.”

“Matog’s smart and knows what to do.  She’ll be find.”

“What about us?”

“We’ll be fine too, especially if we can decrease the number of mouths to feed here.”

“What do you mean?”

“I’ve been thinking.  What if two or so of us ride hard to Vatasha with the books.  We’ll be able to buy food, deliver the books or sell them and hopefully get paid.  Riding hard on horses we can make it there much faster than walking.  We can be there and back in less than half the time.”

“It’ll be cold and dangerous.”

“But we can bring back food for the others.  Also, we can scout out the city and see if it’s a place we can settle in.  If its too flooded with refugees then we’ll have problems.”

Zalandri thought about it.  There was a chance she could get help there.  A reward such as a place to live would help the others as well.  She could sell a book and rent a house so that the others would have a place stay when they arrive.  It sounded like the trip would be miserable, but it also sounded more practical.

“Count me in,” Zalandri said.

“Me and you, riding on horses.  We’ll take the roads and go fast.”

“We’ll have to bundle up nice and warm.  Resha won’t be happy about this.”

“I’m not happy about it either.”

When Resha came back in, Taran talked to her in private.  Zalandri looked through Taran’s eyes to gauge her reaction.  She seemed to take it well.  Resha didn’t smile, but she did kiss him.  That was a good sign.

She felt a little twinge of jealousy about the kiss but knew it was foolish.  She had kissed Taran a few times and she knew it would never have gone beyond that.  He loved Resha, simple as that.

“When should we go?”  Zalandri asked when Taran and Resha emerged from their room.

“As soon as we can,” he said.

“That soon?”  Resha asked.

“I’m afraid so,” he said.  “Resha, you have to stay here and hunt what you can and protect the others.  We only have two horses so only two of us can go.  I’m sure Kira has no desire to go and it’ll be too cold for Sonata to fly all covered in furs and such.  If Layana was back up to a hundred percent she could, but she’s not so she won’t.”

“Wait, what’s going on?”  Sonata asked.

Taran laid out the plan for them and gave them a few moments to consider it.  They all agreed though Layana didn’t like it.  She thought it was too dangerous.

“What about bandits, army patrols, checkpoints?”  Layana asked.

“We’ll use Zalandri’s prestige as a scholar to get through the check points and count on luck and marksmanship to deal with any bandits.  With so many troops going up and down the main highways I doubt there’ll be much bandit trouble.  Cold and hunger will be our bigger threats,” Taran said.

“I think I’d rather face bandits,” Zalandri said.

“Cold and hunger won’t care how many we are.  With bandits, two of us won’t be enough.  We’ll have to relay on speed.”

Everyone began helping them pack and before she knew it, she was saying her goodbyes.

It felt strange.  She had gotten used to the idea of spending the rest of winter in that small building.  It was warm at least.  On the road they’d be sleeping outside with only a fire to warm them.  The closer the time came to leaving, the more nervous she grew.

She also hated riding horses.  Since she couldn’t use her own eyes it felt more like holding on for her life than riding.

They loaded the saddle bags with the books, tied her blankets and rations on and she hugged everyone.  Taran and Resha kissed and then they were off.

When Taran made up his mind there was no hesitation.  She would have waited until the morning so she could have at least one more night in a warm bed.

Her blunderbuss strapped on her back tightly so it wouldn’t move around while riding and had a buckle that could quickly be loosened in case it was needed in a hurry.  She wore several layers and she barely felt the weapon.

It felt like several hours before they reached the road but it was probably only one hour.  This was going to be a long journey.

 

*

 

Resha watched her lover and best friend ride off into the freezing winter.  She didn’t want them to leave but if they succeeded they’d bring back food and have a place for them to live when they got to Vatasha.

“They’ll be back,” Layana said.

“So will Matog.”

“I’m not worried about her.  She’s tougher than most.”

“That she is.”

They went back inside and huddled around the stove.

“What’s for dinner?”  Sonata asked.

“Root and mushroom soup,” Ossia said.

“That doesn’t sound very appetizing,” Sonata said.

“It’s not, but it’ll keep us warm and fed,” Ossia said.

“I can make traps,” Kira said.

“Please do.  I’m hungry for meat that isn’t dried,” Resha said.

Resha went to Taran’s room and pulled her bed back into the main room to be with the others.  She saw Taran’s lute sitting up in the corner.  It had been a long time since she had touched a lute.  Now would be a good time to see what she could do.

She picked the instrument up.  Her good hand went over the frets and felt the strings.   Her wooden hand couldn’t pick or do anything remotely dexterous, but she could still strum.

She sat down on Taran’s now empty bed and began to experiment.  Within the hour she found that she could still play a number of songs, but some of her favorites required techniques she just couldn’t do any more.  Still, she could play music.

After dinner, Sonata sung while Resha played the lute.  The Manticore would like it.

Eneros showed up the next day.  With him he had what she at first thought was a smaller Manticore.  But when she went outside she saw that it had bird wings instead of bat wings and didn’t have a scorpion tail.  It was female sphinx and she was perhaps the most beautiful creature she had ever seen.  Her dark, almond eyes were enough to capture her attention.  She had gold jewelry in her ears, nose, lips, neck, writsts and her thin braids ended in tiny gold caps.  She was poised like a predator but also like a thoughtful judge.  She knew this sphinx was powerful and intelligent in a way she’d never be.

“I saw two of you riding away yesterday.  They’re going to the town?”  Eneros asked.

“They’re going to Vatasha to get what they can and prepare things for our arrival,” Resha said.

“In this cold, that won’t be easy,” Eneros said.

“Zalandri can use magic to create fire.  They’ll be fine,” Resha said, more to convince herself.

“This is my friend Nesatopha.  I told her about your musical abilities and she decided to come listen for herself,” Eneros said.

“She’s more than welcome!”  Resha said.

She grabbed the lute and they played outside for their guests.  She played mostly pretty songs but she also did a funny of the lighter, funnier songs.  She saw Nesatopha laughing a few times.

When they finished the two feline creatures beat their wings to show their approval.

“Well done!  Very good,” Nesatopha said.

“See?  I wasn’t exaggerating, was I?”  Eneros said.

“Not at all.  This Saytr has a voice like I’ve never heard before.  It isn’t perfect, but that rawness adds to the beauty.  It’s a beauty where being perfect isn’t desirable.  I must bring a gift next time,” Nesatopha said.

“Why aren’t you in one of the great cities earning much wealth and fame?”  Eneros asked.

“We’re trying to get to a city and that is my plan.  I don’t know about wealth and face, but I’d be happy with a warm bed and enough to eat,” Resha said.

“And so modest,” Nesatopha said.

“Please tell me you write your own songs,” Eneros said.

“I do, though probably not as often as I should.”

“Work on it.  It’s not like you much else to do,” he said.

“That’s true.”

“And you play with only one hand.  That’s amazing.  I think…” Then Nesatopha’s eyes grew large.  “Yes, I think I know the perfect gift.  I won’t be able to get it until spring, but it will be worth it.”

“It’s not necessary,” Resha said.

“There’s that modesty again,” Nesatopha said.  “Don’t be so modest.  You have a gift and a wonderful one at that.  You’re good, tell people so and let them know.”

“Oh…alright.”

She didn’t think she was that good, but people kept telling her she was.  Was her modesty holding her back?

They thanked them and flew off, promising to return soon.

It felt good to have a little company.  It made her feel less lonely.  Once back inside though, the empty spaces where Taran and Zalandri had been were only too obvious.

Even more painful was the empty space where Taka had been.

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