By the Bluedragon
Houcense was a large village on the outskirts of two territories, ours and that of a people called the Poulantie. The Poulantie were peaceful and traded regularly with us. Otherwise, they kept to themselves. They catered to travelers in a reserved but polite manner.
Our one disadvantage was that we knew not how the slavers were transporting the abducted women. We had not seen wagon trails. We were left to assume horses were transporting the women. The villagers surely would have noticed wagons. Women on horseback would be more difficult to remember, unless they were bound.
"Since we are here, we should check the tavern for news and food that will not kill us." Sal suggested as we turned the horses onto the village's only road.
"Good plan. Someone had to see or hear something." I agreed.
We tied the horse up to a post outside the tavern. I had only been there once, several seasons ago when my father allowed me to join him. We delivered a horse to one of the local traders. Sal had never been to Houcense.
The tavern was dark and smoky. It smelled of unwashed farmers and stale port. We chose a table, though neither of us would have called it that, near the back of the establishment. We were hard pressed to sit both of us facing the crowd. Sal took the seat facing me, leaving her back exposed to the small crowd.
Slaver coinage bought us a round of port and what we believed was lamb stew. The most I can say about the substance they served us was it was edible. My grandfather's stew was much better. I could not wait to taste it again.
When the tavern wench returned for the used utensils, we inquired of the one man I knew in the village. He had a stall in the beast market and was known to me by my father. The wench knew of him, and informed us of his whereabouts.
We left the horses at the tavern. No beasts except those for sale were allowed inside the market. The market was really rows of tents and stalls. Everything from clothing to fresh food was sold in those stalls nearest the entrance. We located the rows of beasts mainly by smell. The man we were looking for was the proprietor of the last stall in the market.
"Can I interest you in a fine beast?" The man at the stall asked.
"We are looking for Thaneel." I could not ascertain which of the men around the stall was the man for which we were searching. Several seasons had passed since I saw him last.
"I am Thaneel. Would you like to see a very special beast?" A dusky man separated himself from the crowd at the stall.
"We have heard your beast are without equal." Sal told him. The older man grinned and waved us to a pasture behind the market. We walked with one hand near our sword hilts. Though we did not expect trouble, it was a habit deeply ingrained.
The old man took us inside the corral. He whistled and several horses came to him. I was impressed with their training. They were beautiful beasts.
"This one is fit for a prince." Thaneel choose a horse the near equal of my own. "But I think that is not what brought two kirgeurs here to market. Especially not one with a renowned breeder for a father."
"You are correct, misayla." I used the term of respect common amongst our people. "We seek information, not beasts."
"And what information do you need?" He lifted the horse's foreleg to show us the hooves.
"Slavers attacked my village two days ago. We have reason to believe that some of them passed through here on their way to the Jilhsaed's court. We must know if it is true. They were carrying women from my village."
"Family?" Thaneel set the hoof down and let us examine the horse's mouth. It was a well-kept beast.
"We are all family in our tribes." Sal answered for me. "It is our duty as kirgeurs."
"Granted. Then I shall tell you what I know under the guise of bargaining for this horse." He kept us away from the others at the market. "Slavers were here last night. They rented a room at the inn and with them were several young maidens. They left at dawn this morning after buying supplies here at market. One bought a pack beast from my neighbor."
"What direction were they heading?" I was grateful to this man. So grateful, I was tempted to buy the horse.
"South toward the Jilhsaed." He whispered. "Would you like the beast? A bargain at the price."
"No misayla, but have you saddles? My beast is old and weary, but I have not the coinage for one such as yours." I told the man under pretense. However, I was serious about the saddle. Mine was not fashioned for long journeys or hunting. The one I had for those occasions had been trapped in our house when it burned.
"Saddles I have and plenty. Come this way, and I shall show you all I have." He seemed grateful for the custom. It was a small price to pay for his confirmation of our assumption.
The saddles were well made. I found one quickly to my liking. It was a deep reddish brown that would contrast Kier's coat nicely. It looked comfortable and had plenty of snaps and other places I could store my accouterments. We haggled on a price; he gave me a deal in lieu of my father. He added a nice pair of saddlebags. It sweetened the deal. Slaver gold paid for it.
Sal and I made our way back to the tavern. The horses were glad to see us. I decided to change Kier's saddle on the outskirts of the village. We did not need tarry long, but riding holding one saddle was not easy.
The new saddle looked as good on Kier as I had imagined. She was a dark brown, almost black mare, and the reddish tint of the new saddle looked poetical. The new saddlebags had more room than the old as well. Everything I carried fit into both with room to spare. Sal did not begrudge the expense. We left my old saddle for whoever could put it to use.
"If they were at the village last night, we have no hopes of catching them." Sal echoed what I had been thinking. "What do you plan?"
"Let us keep following for now. We can formulate a plan at camp." I was not eager to stop and talk.
She followed my suggestion. We rode until dusk when we found a stream. It made for a good campsite and we were able to replenish our store of water. The horses also enjoyed the advantages the stream offered us. After we took off their saddles, they rolled in the shallow part. It felt good to laugh at their antics.
"They have the right idea of it, I think." Sal nodded to our beasts. "I wish food first. What they passed off as stew did not last long as fuel."
"Agreed. Shall I hunt or shall we see what the rations will bring us?" I was reluctant to do either. We still had four days of travel ahead of us, and I could not predict what we might need in the land of the Jilhsaed.
"I shall hunt if you tend the fire." Sal strung her bow.
"Agreed." I foraged for plants as soon as she had left. I found several edible varieties and laid them by the fire I had started.
The stream kept this area rich in vegetation. I did not have to gather browse for the horses, they were able to find plenty on their own. All I was required to do was tether them in reach of the small bushes and grass. They were content with the arrangement.
"The gods have smiled again." Sal came back into camp carrying three small rabbits. She sat by the fire and began skinning them. I took one and assisted.
We placed the rabbits on stakes as we had done the previous night with squirrels. As they cooked, we laid out our bedrolls and attended to numerous other small tasks; basically, sharpening swords and checking equipment. We soon learned that life on the trail was not exciting.
"I for a swim, a bath and while I am at it I am going to cleanse my clothes." Sal announced as she finished her meal.
"Mind if I join you?" Even among the kirgeurs, some women were body shy.
"It is large for a stream." She said in answer. "Think you to bring or borrow cleanser?"
"I did not. I did not count on being on trail long." I excused my oversight.
"We can use rocks and sand if there is any." Sal began to take off her boots. She waited until she was at the streambed before removing her apparel.
The moon was at the peak of its brilliance. We had no trouble finding our way to the water. I sat on the shore and removed my boots, leaving them and my sword on the beach. It was practice to keep a weapon always within reach.
I was in the water before Sal. As a result, I was blessed with the sight of her dive into the deeper part of the stream. It was deeper than we had guessed, and her dive was a vision. I attempted to shake the thoughts away. Common sense dictated that two active kirgeurs made bad lovers. We had a duty. Kierian and the others had to be rescued.
Sal swam back to the shore and collected her clothing. We used what sand we could find to work the sweat out of the fabric. Neither of us wanted to cleanse the leathers. Those would wait until we encountered a village with a laundress. I think we both hoped we would find the slavers before it came to that.
I had been taught as a child to swim, but I must confess I was not very skilled at the act. I could keep myself from meeting a watery death, but that was the extent of my abilities. Sal was very talented. She moved through the water with the grace of clouds chasing the sun after a storm. The moon tracked her movements and I was left breathless by the sight of her slim form gliding through the darkened water.
"I should be able to dream easily now." Sal smiled and walked to the shore. The moon's light illuminated the drops of water running from her breast, shoulders and the rest of her.
"I will sit first watch." I volunteered. Suddenly I was not tired.
I dressed in the clothes my mother had commissioned for me upon my return to the village. It was the first time I had worn them, though I left the black shirt at the bottom of my saddlebag. I added fuel to the fire and checked on the horses. It seemed as if I were filled with a restless energy.
Before I had left for Kayla's school, my mother's father had taught me an art. He carved intricate designs into the smallest pieces of wood. It was something I had not time for during my study. It felt good to be involved in such a homely task. It allowed my mind to concentrate on the carving and my surroundings. My thoughts did not drift far. I kept them close by my task. The quest was heavy on my thoughts and my heart. I needed relief from it.
By the time I woke Sal, I had finished most of my design. It was easy to enter the plain of dreams after that. For the first time since my first battle, the path of dreams ran smooth.
"Tor." I heard the voice echo through my dream. "Torienne, wake. Dawn comes."
"I am awake." I rolled out from under my blanket.
"Break your fast. I have prepared the morning meal." Sal handed me a plate of fish and berries. I was looking forward to returning home.
"My gratitude." I took the plate from her hands. The fish was surprisingly good. I was not partial to the taste of water creatures.
"What is our next move?" She began repacking her saddlebags.
"We can track them to Marlkina or we can return and let someone else attempt the rescue." I spoke calmly. I did not wish to influence her decision. I was prepared to go alone. I knew those taken and not rescued would be marked as lost. We were their only chance at freedom.
"Those are our two options, aight. What have you planned?" She saw through my attempt.
"I am going to track them. The slavers do not deserve to be rewarded for their acts." I let my anger creep into my voice. "What have you planned? Do you return or continue?"
"I shall continue. I doubt not that this adventure will more interesting than returning home." Sal smiled. "There is hope yet I may find my sister."
"Then shall we ride?" I asked. I had repacked everything but my bedroll before lying down to dream.
"Until we find those who we have lost." Sal agreed.
We were on the trail moments after we cleansed the area of our presence. Even the horses seemed eager to depart. They had quickly adapted to the chase. We had as well.
It was shortly after we had begun the second full day of our journey when we encountered our first problem. The skies opened above us and we were drenched within moments. Wordlessly we continued to ride; there was no shelter in the immediate vicinity.
After midday, we found ourselves outside another village. Neither of us had been so far from our homeland. We knew not what to expect. We agreed to treat the natives as slightly hostile. We became wary of everything and walked with hands near to the hilts of our swords.
Through discreet questioning we found an inn that catered to travelers. The outside appearance did not raise our hopes. We were dripping with rainwater. It possessed a roof. It would suffice. Even the horses had begun to suffer the effects of the storm.
"Stabling and a room?" I asked Sal. The storm showed no signs of lifting.
"Aight. I'll handle the rooms and inquire if the inn has a tavern. I could use an ale."
"Agreed." I remained on my horse but accepted the reins to her steed.
The stable was located behind the inn down an alleyway. It seemed cleanse and smelled of hay. Several horses were in stalls and appeared to be dosing. I took that as a good sign. Animals had stronger instincts than most humans when it came to danger.
"Boy, how much for stabling two horses for one night?" I asked the child brushing one of the horses.
"Four coppers." He scrambled off his stool and came to take the reins.
"Here." Once I was on the ground, I handed him a silver. The slaver coinage was running thin. I would soon have to use my own. I reckoned we had enough to see us to Marlkina. After that I could not predict the outcome.
"Peace, warrior, my gratitude." The urchin scurried to collect both horse's reins.
I liberated the saddlebags. The mares were trained enough not to let anyone touch our saddles. They would not stop an attack, but they had wicked teeth. Those teeth would make any but the most determined think twice about robbery. I felt comfortable leaving them there.
I pulled my collar against the rain and wind. The inn seemed an inconvenient distance from the stables. It was logical. Not many guests would want the smell of stabled horses permeating the building. Those of us farm bred would ignore it.
Sal was waiting at a table in the inn's tavern. She waved me over when I walked in the door. It took my eyes several moments to adjust to the dim interior. They depended on the sun's light to illuminate the room. The candles they had lit did not dismiss the shadows. It seemed sinister though it smelled only of ale and sweat.
"I think we stand out in our attire." Sal said when I approached the table. It allowed us both to face the other patrons. "Ale?" She handed me a glass.
"The horses are stabled. Four coppers for the night." I lowered my voice. It was not wise to speak of certain matters where the patrons of the inn could hear.
"More than the room. They only had one room. We are allowed usage of the bathing chamber outside. It was included."
"Bathing chamber?" I laughed. "I think we are fairly cleanse after the storm. Do they have a laundress at least?"
"Aight, one building over. And, Tor." I could tell she struggled not to laugh. "You smell like a horse, you are not staying in my room like that."
The arrival of our food quelled my argument. The bowls placed in front of us smelled inviting. We tasted it at once and found the texture to be pleasing. It was infinitely better than the last meal we had been served at a tavern. Obviously the tavern was better than it looked. At the least, the cook was well trained.
"What now?" I asked after we had finished our meal.
"Find the laundress. Though, if the storm has passed, we should get something else to wear." Sal was obviously worried about our attire. "Then the baths."
"Agreed." I surrendered without a fight. She was correct about our clothing. We were a conspicuous. We knew not yet if it was a non-hostile village. Kirgeurs are not welcomed everywhere.
We made our way outside the tavern. The rain had slowed its descent. The market in the distance was ringing its bells. It was again opened for business. We headed for it before the laundress. We required something to change into before we could launder our clothing.
"What do we wish to be?" Sal asked as we searched through the stalls selling apparel.
"Non descript travelers I think. We have need of attire comfortable and practical. It should not be anything that draws undue attention to us." We continued our search.
Finally we found a stall that sold what we felt would serve us. Staying as close to my uniform as possible, I chose a pair of brown pants and a full-length shirt with a tunic that matched the pants. Sal chose a corresponding outfit in a dark green. She commented that it matched her eyes in such a way no one would believe she knew which end of a sword to use. In truth, she did appear a farmer's daughter.
We found a deserted stall. One of us changed while the other kept watch. I noticed we both kept our bracers. Sal had surprises in her pair as well. They did not point to our marks. The brand of the kirgeur would have been recognized within several days ride of our borders. We had no wish to dispel our illusion through carelessness.
What leather we had, the clothes we had cleansed the night before, as well as what we had been wearing was taken to the laundress. The lady was an older, matronly woman and promised to have our clothes cleansed shortly before dawn. We had given up hope of catching the slavers. We had an idea where they were heading, and were content at the moment to follow. We were as content as we could be with the situation.
When we returned to the inn, we took our saddlebags to the room. The room had a lock, which we appreciated. We claimed rough woolen towels from the inn's proprietor. The bathing chamber was on a natural spring. We could taste the metallic tint in the air. I locked the door behind us. I had no wish to thwart those with amorous encounters in their thoughts. The bathing chamber was for use by any guest who desired it.
There was one sunken pool in the bathing chamber. It was obviously for washing and soaking. It had a hole in the center where the water bubbled up and several channels that took the overflow away. Loath though I was to be immersed in more water, I reckoned Sal would make good on her threat. I did not wish to alienate my one ally by smelling like a horse.
Sal and I both took off our new apparel. We piled our clothing and towels on one of the benches surrounding the pool. Both of us were careful not to watch the other. Cleanser had been left on the side of the rough stone and slightly wet clumps of wool were placed around it as headrest.
We climbed in opposite ends. It placed us facing one another. It was not all that unpleasant a situation. The pool was easily large enough for ten or more. I carefully avoided looking at my traveling companion as we washed. I have no idea if she did likewise. It was a mark of our upbringing. Decency dictated privacy for cleansing.
We enjoyed relaxing in the pool. It definitely coaxed the soreness from my abused self. Sal gave a very throaty groan and rested her head against one of the makeshift pillows. I followed her example. It was wonderful.
"I may sleep here tonight." She murmured.
"I agree, though I believe we are about to lose the privilege of bathing alone." I told her while rising from the pool. "I hear horses at the stable."
"Dagthen." She too rose from the pool.
With hurried movements, we dried ourselves and dressed. We had left even our boots, minus the daggers, at the laundress and had bought new ones. Wet feet and new boots are not a comfortable combination. We survived the walk to the small courtyard in front of the stables. We heard several men talking, though we could not ascertain if they were the slavers we had been hunting.
"If they are stabling here, then they must be staying here." I whispered to my companion. "We can check them in the tavern. I shall even buy you an ale."
"My gratitude. It may rain again at any moment." Sal made casual conversation as we walked to the inn. The distance did not seem as great this time.
The table we had used previously was unoccupied. We claimed it and watched the door. Finally the men we had overheard at the stables entered. To our disappointment, they were merchants attired in robes made from trade silk. It was the one mark of a merchant.
"Back to the beginning then." Sal said as she waived over the ubiquitous wench.
The half dressed youngster was not quite a woman, but not a childster either. However, she negotiated the distance with practiced ease and brought two large mugs of port. It was not quite what I had contemplated asking for, but it would work regardless. Neither of us was in condition to complain.
"Should we ask?" Sal whispered over her port.
"Nothen. It could cause more problems. We shall maintain the plan." I answered her the same way.
By the evening meal, we had slowly consumed two mugs of port. We ate an indefinable substance for that meal. It was a combination pie and full course meal. It was ingenious as well as appetizing.
Dicing and cards seemed to be the nightly entertainment. Several farmers joined the other patrons after the evening meal. They were soon either drawn into or duping others into games of chance. Even the prosperous merchants we had overheard at the stables joined the gaming. Sal and I were the only ones not participating.
"Shall we?" I asked. As students we had learned the art of games of chance. Information was often available through that course.
"I was hoping you would ask." Sal gave what I could only term a feral grin. "Do you wish the dart and hoops or the cards?"
"Dart and hoops." I grinned. My aim had been the best of my siblings. It had won plaudits at the school as well. "Two hours and then we meet in the room."
"Agreed." Sal made her way over to a riotous card table. I knew I did not need remind her of the rules. Kayla had let her shehala hammer those into us. Chelstea was a master of such games.
I began my endeavor wagering on others. Several young men and one or two young females were tossing blunted daggers through rolling circles of metal in an attempt to stop them. The real version of the game was to pin the hoop to the ground with spears, but many tavern keepers did not want their precious tables damaged.
I chose randomly, or made it seem as if I were not using logic. I had actually marked one of the women and the youngest boy there as the real contenders of the match. I lost or won on each toss they made. I made sure I won more than lost by betting on my two competitors. They did not fail me, though I did change the routine enough to keep anyone from becoming suspicious.
Finally, the contestants were tired. The boy was crowned the winner. Many grumbled; one of the young merchandisers was among them. He complained loudly enough to attract his master's attention. It was the perfect time to gather information.
Feigning a drunken swagger, I told the boy I would give him three silvers if he could hit four out of nine tosses. He accepted readily. Apprentices are not given much coinage, and only bronze when they are given any. His master had just arrived to hear the challenge.
"I'll bet three golden you fail to hit that many." He seemed confident of his superiority. Whether it was as a male or as a master of a trade I cared not. It was the response I had been angling for when I made the challenge.
"Three goldens, faelida?" I used the term of respect prevalent in the Jilhsaed's territory. I was not going to give myself away so easily. "You must have had a prosperous journey."
"My journey is not your concern, girl." His disdain was audible. "Are you going to accept the challenge?"
"With pleasure, faelida, but only if the boy here plays as well. I have money riding on him."
"Where did you get money?"
"I sold my father's horse, though that is not your concern." I nettled him a little. It entertained me.
I walked up to the line after handing the tavern keeper the three silvers. He had been the impartial bystander all evening. I knew he would be honest. He was too proud of his establishment and did not want it destroyed in a riot, and he cared not for the outcome as long as everyone bought his ale and port.
The apprentice joined me at the line. It was a roughly drawn hallway demarked by chalk on the floor. All the spectators had to stand to the side and watch over a partition. They were far enough away to hear only the words we wanted them to catch. It was an ideal situation.
"Are you in need of a horse?" I asked as I took my first shot. I calculated it to be a fraction too late to the hoop. I heard the negative remarks and the laugh of the merchant.
"We are to be well paid when we get to Marlkina." He took careful aim. His throw missed as well. "I will get one there so I can be released on horseback and not on foot. We are not allowed to have horses before we are released."
"Ah, Marlkina has good horse flesh. My father was planning a journey there in the next season." My second aim was true and made it successfully through the hoop. The crowd either voiced their disdain or their approval.
"He should go soon. In two moons, Soliumant comes of age and is presented with his own court. It is why we are journeying there." His second throw was also true. His master's voice was the loudest among the cheers.
At last I had my answers. I had much to discuss with Sal. I still had three more marks to make before I would be three goldens richer. I hit the next but missed the fourth and fifth. The sixth and seventh were marks in my favor and I missed on the eighth. I had my required four. I claimed the ninth for spite. The boy hit his four.
The tavern keeper handed me the three goldens and the boy his three silver. I hoped his master would not take them from him. He had earned them and earned them well. The master was upset though; loss of coinage often angers merchants. I thought it best to depart the scene quickly. I waited until another boasted of his skill and took the opportunity to climb the stairs to our room.
"I saw you leave." Sal came up behind me and unlocked the door. Her drunken weaving was not feigned. "Had to drink more, not used to port." She explained at my questioning look. None of us from the plains were accustomed to large quantities of port, even as watered down as that we had consumed.
"Any see me leave?" I asked as I sat on the bed and removed my boots.
"None. The merchant was already involved in the game again. One of his fellows goaded him to the line." Sal was slumped against the door. "Remind me to avoid port."
"I shall." I promised. "Soliumant is coming of age in two moons."
"I know, the Jilhsaed is sponsoring a festival for the occasion." She pushed herself from the door and stumbled to the bed. "Are we attending?"
"I think we should. I love festivals." I grinned.
"As do I." She pulled her boots off before lying across the bed. "Perhaps we shall find our lost ones there. They were meant for presents." She suggested. Her eyes were dropping and her speech was slurring, it was time for her to dream.
"Perhaps." I answered. I took one of the pillows and a blanket and claimed a clean spot of floor. "May your dreams be free of danger." It was the traditional evening greeting.
"And yours, Tor." She mumbled into the mattress.
A rostick's call woke me that morning. I had learned to hate the breed in my village. They were uncomfortable reminders of dawn. However, I had cause to be grateful to this one. Its call woke Sal. I was content not to hunt it down and cook it as a result.
"I hear drums pounding in my head." Sal complained when she opened her eyes. "Tell me they are real."
"They are not. They are merely the byproduct of too much port." I rolled to my feet and pulled on my boots. "We need to collect our clothing and be gone soon." I ruthlessly reminded her of our duty.
"I am over hung." She said when she crawled to a sitting position. "What did you sleep on the floor for?" She was confused still.
"More room." I briskly answered. I knew from my own experience how restless port could make dream paths. "Shall we dine here?"
"I have no desire for food." She said as she pulled on her boots. Her motions were slow as if her entire body hurt. "If you wish to eat here, by all means do. I can go collect our clothing."
"Agreed." I hefted my almost empty saddlebags to my shoulder. Sal did the same.
We made our way down the stairs and into the tavern. Sal continued out the door as I found a table and waited for a serving wench. I did not wait long. No others were in the area. I was the morning's only patron.
I asked for the morning meal and two mugs of port. It would do Sal good to partake to the substance again. Perhaps it would ease her aching head. The wench was a different version of the ubiquitous breed than the one from the previous night. She returned with the food and drinks before Sal arrived with our clothing.
"We now have towels." Sal handed me a wrapped package. I opened the woolen bundle to find my clothing. The wrapping must have been the towel she mentioned. She sat my boots on the floor by the table.
"My gratitude. I took the liberty of asking you a port. I thought it might help silence those drums." I slid the mug across the table.
"Perhaps it will." She took a sip of the port. She looked thoughtful but did share her thoughts.
"Would ye be staying another night?" The wench must not have known it was impolite to answer while eating.
"We have not decided as of yet." Sal looked suspicious. "Is our room not available for another night?"
"Nothen, it is available, the keeper bid me ask." She hurried off back into the room's darkness.
"I think now would be a good time to leave." We both attempted to keep our movements casual. "I would like to see that one stall we did not have time to see yesterday."
"As would I, I believe father would appreciate the carvings we spotted." Sal caught the hint. Though I am not sure anyone would mistake us for siblings. Her hair was too red to have come from my father, his first wife or my mother.
"I believe you are correct." We exited the door still enacting our charade.
Once outside the inn, we strode down the roadway in the direction of the market. After we passed the laundress, we turned down an alleyway. We followed the crowded, loosely packed dirt track until it met another. We took the way back to the inn via the new alley. We passed several disreputable looking creatures, but none stirred as we walked by them. They stunk worse than Sal must have felt.
The stables were easy to access from the alley. We crept inside and located the horses. The stable boy was nowhere to be found. We saddled our mounts quickly. We had no way of knowing if we were in trouble or not. It was the wisest course of action to assume we were watched.
The horses were anxious. They could have echoed our nerves. We led them to the courtyard on foot. We mounted quickly once we were outside the stable yard. One look was all we shared before we spurred the horses into motion and pointed them to the nearest way out of the village. We rode with haste past the market and south to the edge of town.
"I can not tell if anyone is following." Sal turned back to the trail in front of us.
"We should have bought a distance viewer at the market."
"Should have, would have, could have, you know what Kayla would say." Sal slowed her horse.
"I know it well." I forestalled her completion of our instructor's statement. I could hear Kayla repeat it in my head. Should have, would have, could have. Do not quibble; make it so.
We continued on the trail at an easier pace than we had begun. The horses appreciated it as much as we did. We were several leagues away when we halted our progress. We had encountered a river this time. Trees and grass vied for life around it.
"We need to think this through." Sal dismounted from her horse. Sighing, I followed. "Have you a plan?"
"Well." I was not prepared to inform her I had no plan. "I thought we would buy them back if necessary." It sounded naïve even to my ears.
"How much do you think a slave goes for? Tor, we have no plan. We cannot calmly walk into a festival for a prince and ask for Kierian and the others returned." Sal seemed to be reaching her level of frustration.
"I am not saying we are going to calmly walk in and ask. I thought." I sat down. "I know not what I thought. I was hoping we would have been able to rescue them before this. I was not planning on following the slavers all the way to Marlkina. Do you know how far that is?"
"I do. It is a two week ride at the least." Sal sat down opposite me. "Tor, what is the real reason you want to go after them?"
I hesitated. I was saved from my answer, however. The horses became nervous and laid their ears back. They were facing the village in the distance behind us. That was not a good sign.
"Seems as if we are about to have company." I motioned Sal to stand.
We took our horses and loosely tied them hidden in the trees. We cleansed the area of our presence, hoping our followers would pass by without noticing we had stopped. This area saw much traffic, and it was our intention to make them think our hoof prints had been mixed in with the others.
Sal and I chose trees and used the higher vantage to see who was following. For some time, we could not see past the dust cloud the riders were causing to appear. As they neared our hiding spot, they slowed. Three men on horseback stopped not far from us. They were dressed in the same style clothing I remembered seeing on the merchant the previous evening.
"They had to have passed by here. Look around you thongnacious, thick skulled pleebs." The leader was the same merchant from whom I had won the three goldens.
I caught Sal's eye, and we swung down from the branches. They were taken by surprise. I assumed they had never seen two women swing from trees and draw swords before. We must have looked menacing with the twigs and leaves stuck in our hair and clothing.
"Were you looking for someone?" I asked the merchant.
"You cheated me out of three gold pieces. I want them back." I reckoned he would not be pleased with the loss. I proved myself correct.
"Nothen, faelida, I won them." I kept to my chosen role.
"Nonsense. Did you think one such as I could not recognize two riacuas kirgeurs from that barbarian tribe to the north?" To prove his point, he insulted us in our own tongue. The two men with him leered at Sal. Obviously they had evil plans for us.
"We care not what you recognized. It was a fair contest, accept that and leave." I was polite in my demand.
"Or stay and die. If you know us as kirgeurs, than you know we are ruthless and without mercy." Sal quoted the current ways foreigners viewed those of our calling. It sparked an idea within me.
"I know you as cowards. You shall get no mercy from us." The merchant drew his sword. He was reckless for a merchant. Most of his ilk did not carry steel. They did not have the time to learn the sword. They depended on others to fight for them.
The two men with him drew as well. It was a fair fight, two of us to three of them. However, they should have brought more men with them. Sal defended her self against the silent two as I engaged the merchant in battle.
He was well taught, I give him that, but most of what he knew was fancy sword tricks. Catching a sword in the air means little if it gives the opponent time for a stab to a vital area. The poor man made that mistake. He tossed his sword from his left to his right hand, and presented me with an opening. I did not hesitate. He was my fourteenth kill since I had earned my brand.
I turned and found Sal battling with her remaining adversary. The first she had rendered unconscious. I watched as she quickly disarmed and then dispatched the remaining one.
"Shall we wake him?" I asked mildly as I tied his hands behind his back.
"Could be he knows something." Sal emptied her flask on his face. He sputtered back to the world of reality. "What is the real reason you came after us?"
"Faelida wanted his money. He felt you had wounded his pride." The man stuttered his reply. Neither of us believed him.
"Merchants suffer wounded pride on a daily basis. What made this time special?" I asked. We had been taught the subtle art of interrogation, but I was loath to use it.
"I know not."
"I think we should do some fishing for lunch." Sal calmly interjected. "What part of him should be used as bait?"
"The human tongue is considered a delicacy." I pulled the knife from my belt. "Perhaps fish prefer it as well."
"Dagthen, I was planning on having that for a meal, but." She sighed
dramatically. "I suppose we could sacrifice it for perch." She tilted
his head back. I was half way to his mouth with the knife before he started
sputtering and pleading for his life.
"It seems as if he has another usage for it." I told my companion. "Shall we hear him?"
"Might as well, we have nothing better to do." She released her hold.
"All right, he reckoned you as kirgeurs after the match last night. His brother is a trader in the slave market. He figured you two were here to catch his brother and free the girls. He saw no other reason for two kirgeurs to be in the village at the same time we were."
"Where are the girls?" Sal asked.
"I know not. We were to meet them two weeks hence." She resumed her former position and held his head back. "We were to meet them outside of Creasinda and then ride with them to the festival."
"Do you deal in slaves?" I was ready to kill him if he answered with an affirmative.
"No, we peddle wares not flesh. I speak the truth, but my master was once a slave trader. He was caught and heavily fined in the northern regions."
I looked at Sal for confirmation. She nodded and struck the man on the back of his head with the pommel of her sword. He was soon unconscious again.
"He was telling the truth. Look." I pointed to his pants with my sword. He had lost full control in his fear.
"Guess this means we go to Creasinda." Sal grinned and wiped her sword cleanse on her opponent's tunic.
"It seems we do. What do you want to do about these three?" I took great pleasure in using the merchant's tunic to cleanse my sword.
"Leave them. We can untie the talkative one before we depart."
"Good plan. That was a good tactic." I laughed. "I find it hard to believe they think we eat human tongues."
"It makes me wonder what else they say about us." Sal laughed as well. She ignored my compliment. Any true kirgeur would have.
We searched the merchant and his deceased companion. Our coinage had grown exponentially after claiming their purses. We stripped all three horses of saddles, but left the reins on them. We were pleased to see they were unmarked. Few breeders marked their horses as my father did. The saddles were marked. We could not take them with us. It would have cause trouble if we were required to sell one.
"Shall we keep the beasts?" Sal asked as I untied our horses from the trees.
"We should. We might have need of them." Horses were always in ready
demand. "We can load the saddlebags from the poor departed on one of them."
In truth, I was not sorry for loss of the merchant's life. It was the way of
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