Talon sat in a corner of the roadhouse, a combination of brothel, brewery and bed’n’breakfast so long as you weren’t counting on breakfast.
Dimly lit by a few foul smelling tallow candles, he relaxed with three of his favorite tavern wenches who happily helped him spend the wages he had earned from his last contract. Lisl massaged his sword-arm while Annavette poured the surprisingly good rum down his throat. All while Malla, ahhh….Malla the sexiest little minx he’d ever known, sat on his shoulders with her back against the wall and pressed herself into the back of his head. Cunning little wench KNEW that drove him crazy and that she would wind up with most of his coin before the night was through.
He was a tall, rangy man. Broad in the shoulder and narrow in the hip. Long limbed with thick wrists, cabled forearms with numerous slash and puncture scars visible. His face had a fierce look to it at all times with his dark blue eyes and drooping black mustache. To look at him, one might think he was angry but it was just the natural set of his face. He was fine with that as it had settled many an argument all on its own. The most striking thing of his face, however, was the large scar that curved along his right cheekbone. It was shaped exactly like an eagle’s talon and made him easy to spot in a crowd.
Talon had just started considering a move to one of the cribs in back with Malla and any combination of the three girls when she walked in from the hot and dusty street and the temperature inside the roadhouse seemed to drop somewhat, as if by magic. Which was ridiculous because everyone knew magic was just sleight of hand. And he should know because he’d trained with some of the best. Talon appraised her immediately because he sensed the...dangerousness of her. She moved as one who had undergone years of training in the martial arts. Then his libido kicked in. She was tall, taller than most women in these lands but with curves in all the appropriate places. Long blonde hair like a cascading waterfall. A delicate spray of freckles along the bridge of her nose and below her eyes. Strongly defined arms, legs and abdomen but he determined that she was as yet unblooded judging by the lack of any visible scars on that perfect skin. Her clothes had seen better days but were of obvious quality and cut to fit her body perfectly. Unlike most women, her only piece of jewelry was a curious, four banded ring with a bright yellow sunstone the size of a fingernail set into it.
Aside from all that, it was her eyes that caught his attention most. A blue/gray mix full of intelligence, determination and something more...something was haunting her.
It was then that she turned her gaze to Talon, she stared directly at him like an Elysian bloodhawk and then licked her lips. Likely only because of the extreme heat she had just left but the effect on Talon was profound and made itself known by sending the rum to his lungs instead of his belly.
Talon started gasping and coughing, struggling to breathe while Malla fell forward over the low table in front of them, Lisl started pounding on his back and Annavette, sweet but simple-minded Annavette, saw only that he had no air in his lungs and sought to fix it the only way she could. She firmly clamped her lips over Talon’s and BLEW!
When he finally was able to breathe again and disentangle the confusing amount of limbs, she was standing in front of him with an amused half smile on those damned distractingly full lips.
“I need you.”
He said, unthinkingly. Damn it to all the hells, why did he just say that? A very poor way to open negotiations, that. Why does this woman leave him so unarmed and wrong-footed? Well, like his Sword Master taught him, “if you find yourself on treacherous footing you can either step back onto familiar ground or embrace the danger and step forward. Let your instinct guide you on this.” Right now his instinct was pointing him to the backroom cribs.
Her half smile became a full on noon-bright dazzler. “Funny you should say that. If you are indeed Talon then I wish to hire you.” Yeah, at a now sharply discounted rate, he thought.
“Vanna. Vanna von Alten.”
“Look Lanna, I’m tired, drunk and sore and I still have some celebrating to do before I can sleep. Whatever it is, it will wait until morning. Meet me here and we’ll discuss whatever you like.”
Vanna dropped a fist sized bag of gold coin onto the table. Talon brushed aside the tavern girls thrusting arms. “It’s important that we get moving right away. There’s another bag like that if you’ll just…..untangle yourself from your friends and come with me.”
Talon stood up, saying “I’ve said my piece and now I’m going to get a little peace... and quiet. See you in the morning.” He said with a lascivious wink. And with that, Talon and the three girls moved to the back rooms, although not without some longing glances at the bag of gold coins from Malla. One thing seemed out of place to Talon as he moved through the crowd...the two strangers at the opposite end of the hall, now that he noticed it they were dressed similarly to Vanna. One with a long, forked beard and the other was as bald as a riverstone. Why did they seem so interested in the conversation he just had?
“Aaaaaaaaaargh”, cough cough. “I’m never drinking again.” said Talon. Again.
He, again, untangled himself from the confusing amount of limbs and made for the bar. He’d heard Finn, the proprietor, rustling around, probably finishing up cleaning from the previous night.
Talon reached across the bar for a mug of ale that Finn had poured once he’d heard Talon moving his way. “My thanks, this should clear my head of the swarm of bees currently filling it.” Finn said nothing, just held out his one good hand. Talon dropped a coin in it. Finn didn’t speak much if at all but managed to be a fairly good friend for Talon. He mainly just brewed the beer, distilled the rum and left customer service to the hired help.
FOUR YEARS AGO…..
Finn galloped his sorrel mare into camp. Their advance patrol consisted of Finn, Talon and six more Devil-Riders. “Orders from Bloodstone, boys. We move out before first light to reconnoiter the western ridge and a day’s ride beyond it.”
“But for now, put that nag away and help us finish this ale!” shouted Talon. Finn happily did so as he’d been riding hard all day to bring these orders. “Is it true, Finn? Are you leaving us at the end of this?” asked Talon. “Damned right I am, I’ve enough saved up to buy a tavern in Thannisport and my young boy is getting to that age where he needs his father around more.” replied Finn. “Well, we’ll just have to drop in from time to time and check the quality of your wares!” exclaimed Talon. “But for now, let’s finish this barrel and get some rest, I’ve a feeling the next few days are going to be rough.”
As always, Talon was up and moving out before dawn. In this advance party of scouts, he was their advance, advance scout. He carefully moved up and along the ridge that separated the local King’s land and that claimed by the local Marauder tribe. He moved parallel with and just below the actual ridge line to avoid highlighting himself. This particular morning he was feeling the affects of too much ale from the night before and he cursed himself for doing that, again. Later, he would have cause to truly regret not being at his best. For as he moved around one hillside, he did not notice the party of Marauders that scampered over the ridge line behind him, silent as the night.
The first he knew of the trouble happening behind him was the emergency bugle that one of his troopers was blowing. The notes he blew signaled “surrounded, help required”. Talon turned Hotshot around and galloped back the way he came at their utmost top speed. When he broke into their previous night’s camp he saw a group of twenty Marauders surrounding his seven, no six now, troopers. They hadn’t even had time to saddle up and were standing in a rough circle trying to fend off three times their number. Furious at himself for having let this happen, Talon simply charged into the nearest group. Hotshot literally ran over two of their number and Talon decapitated another’s head before they galloped clear of the fight. The remaining troopers exploited that hole and killed several more. Another pass on the opposite side by Talon and Hotshot killed two more and that turned the tide. The remaining Marauders, having seen their surprise attack fail, turned and scattered. Talon ordered four of the troopers to pursue while the rest saw to Finn, who was lying on the ground unconscious. Not only had he received a brutal blow to the head, but someone had also cleanly cut off his hand at the wrist. They dressed his wounds and rigged a travois for him. Talon then assigned two troopers to return Finn to the base camp where he could receive better medical treatment. With that taken care of, Talon and Jodlin, the remaining trooper, set off to find their scattered patrol and complete the orders they’d been given. Finn knew it was the “luck of War” and Talon agreed but still, he always felt responsible.
“Did you happen to see a tall blonde last night, Finn?” Finn pointed to the corner of the hall that Talon had occupied last night and held two hands together to the side of his tilted head, miming a sleeping person. Evidently, she had slept the whole night at that table. And now there in the corner she sat, scowling at Talon.
Talon asked for a second mug and made his way over to Vanna. Sitting down across the low table from her, he pushed the second mug across to her. “Breakfast!” he exclaimed cheerfully. Without acknowledging the ale, she got right to the point.
“Get all of your oh-so-important revelry out of the way, big man? Because there are lives at risk right now. Important lives.”
“Lady, there are ALWAYS lives at risk, or worse. Every single day.”
“Well, this one belongs to my young sister and time is short. Are you ready to take on a job or are your wenches making too much of a demand on your time?”
“I told you before, my name is Vanna.”
“Very well, Shanna. First things first...what’s the pay?” Vanna threw down the fist-sized bag of gold coin from last night. “Wasn’t there supposed to be another one of these?” asked Talon.
“There was…. if we could have left last night.” she replied archly. Damn, he KNEW he was going to pay for that stupid remark last night. Still, that amount of gold would allow him to live in a bit of comfort for a few months. Maybe, just maybe even pay off some old gambling debts as well. Maybe.
“Alright La..., I mean Vanna. What are the particulars of this very important life that needs saving.”
“Like I said, she’s my little sister. Also, she’s the only one of my family that remains alive.” He studied her face very carefully at that, noting that while her body movements and language were very stoic, there were barely noticeable tremors in the inflection of her voice. It was enough to convince him that she was telling the truth.
She continued, “My father was ruler of the Dukedom of Sanviar in the North. His chief priest somehow learned magic...” Talon coughed up the ale he’d been drinking. Damn! Just when he thought for sure that this was a legitimate job.
“Vanna, please don’t waste my time with this magic gibberish. Magic is nothing but faster-than-the-eye tricks and sleight of hand. Nothing but children’s stories and tales told to make unruly kids behave. If you’re going to have me believe there is some sort of wizard involved, then…. My price is doubled.” The other bag of gold coins dropped to the table with a satisfying thud.
“I don’t care what you believe but if you take this job, I think you’re going to come away with a change of heart regarding magic. In any event, Bolgur, the priest, learned a powerfully destructive magic to destroy my family and take power for himself. But in his own twisted mind, he believes that taking my sister as his virgin bride will complete what he needs to rise to another even more powerful level of magic. He believes he must take her, and by “take” I mean “rape to death and use her blood”, she’s 12 years old now and her first woman’s blood can come to her at any time now.”
“Whatever you say La…, Vanna. What is it, 3 weeks to Sanviar?” He’d heard of the region but had not as yet ever worked or traveled through the place. It was north of the main Trade Routes and sort of tucked up out of the way in a mountainous region.
“By horse, it should take us approximately 20 days.” she answered. Arrgh. 20 days out, 1 day rescuing young sister, 20 days back. I’m going to miss the entire Autumn Bacchanalia, he thought. Hmmm, being gone 41 days should cool off a few debtors, though. “Alright, Vanna. The two bags here plus whatever I find and wish to keep. That’s the price.”
That irritating full-lipped half-smile came back and he knew he was in trouble. “Agreed”, she replied. “Now I strongly suggest you gather your gear and bathe. Quickly. You really stink and I don’t want to smell the….” she trailed off, unsure of exactly how to describe the smells.
“Sex, Vanna. Sex and sweat and rum.” Talon interrupted. “It just so happens that I do bathe on a fairly regular basis, and this is the day for it. How much time do you need to gather your gear and meet me outside?”
“Not long, my room is on the second floor across the market square. Get squared away and wait outside, I’ll be watching for you from my window.”
“Very well” Talon replied I’ll see you outside. Soon.”
He watched her leave, once again admiring the way she moved and even more the way she was trying to look in every direction at once without appearing to do so. Yup, that girl was definitely being pursued by someone and she knew it. Going to have to keep a sharp eye on our backtrail, he thought.
He stood up from the low bench and stifled a groan. The rum from last night was going to make itself felt throughout the day. “I really hate starting a job with a hangover” he thought to himself as he made his way over to Finn. “Finn! I have a job for Fergus, would you call him down?” he asked, hoping to make Finn speak just once. Instead of calling for his son, Finn pulled a rope attached to a bell upstairs. And grinned at Talon. Damn! One of these days, I’ll win that bet, thought Talon.
Fergus came running down the stairs behind the bar and his face lit up upon seeing Talon. “Talon! How’ve you been! Do you have any new stories from your latest voyage?” inquired the youth.
“You better believe it! Did I tell you about the giant octopus that attacked the ship I was on?”
“NO!” replied a wide-eyed Fergus, “what happened?”
“Well, Fergus, this giant and evil beast came up from the depths of the ocean with murder in mind. It reached the surface and saw our ship. I guess it figured it would make a meal out of us because it began wrapping its huge tentacles all around the ship and coiling them around the sailors. Then those poor men went into the deep. And then, it started crushing the ship and knocking over the sails. Men were running everywhere, cutting and slashing at the beast. And then...”
“And then what happened?” asked Fergus.
“And then it ate us” deadpanned Talon. Fergus blinked once. Twice. Then it dawned on him that he’d been had.
“Not funny!” yelled Fergus.
“Hah! Should’ve seen the look on your face kid! But seriously, right now I have to leave again.” said Talon while handing a coin over to Fergus. “Would you mind getting Hotshot saddled and brought out front?” Fergus went from upbeat to downcast in the time it took for Talon to ask the question.
“Do I really have to? You remember what happened last time, don’t you?”
“You’re right, Fergus. Here, I’ll double your payment because it’s important I get moving right away and I have a couple other things to take care of while you’re doing that. Oh, Finn? Hand me that clean bar rag there, would you? Thanks. Ok Fergus, if he draws blood this time, wrap this around the wound.” And with that, Talon made his way quickly out of the roadhouse and over to his own, nearby room.
The roadhouse occupied a prime location in Thannisport. The town itself was situated at the juncture of several trading routes, both land and sea. It was on the edge of an almost-desert and boasted a fine harbor that could accommodate fifty trading vessels at a time. Couple that with the land-based trading routes and you had a thriving town of several thousand. Lots of shipwrights, laborers, warehousemen, tanners, thatchers, carpenters, traders and hostlers. All of which were usually thirsty and usually had coin to spend. Finn just might have the right idea, Talon mused as he walked to his room.
First, a lukewarm bath with water drawn from the rooftop tanks. There, that ought to quiet her complaints a bit. Then a change into his traveling clothes. He reasoned there’d be no need for armor just yet, so he left it stacked in pieces in one of his two chests. Loose fitting breeches, leather riding boots, his multi-pocketed, specially made vest whose pockets both hidden and visible contained a variety of useful things for the itinerant warrior. Plus, he’d taken extra precautions when he oversaw the construction of the vest. Precautions like four lengths of chain sewn into vertical, padded pockets down the back of the vest. Two lengths ran parallel to his spine with the other two paralleling those. He’d seen men with their spines severed and it was definitely not a good way to go, even for those few who survived. Finally, he pulled on his baldric belt that hung both about his waist and then diagonally across his back and chest. The back side of the belt held a horizontally sheathed heavy bladed camp knife while the diagonal strap across his back held a sheath for his Eastern yaiba sword. The length across his chest was lined with pockets of different sizes, as well the belt that ran around his waist.
Talon watched everyone carefully on his walk back to the roadhouse but everyone he saw looked to be about their own business and looked to be locals, not like the two men he’d seen last night. Everything seemed to be in place, dogs fought over last night’s scraps, cats chased rats and barn-birds flew in swarms overhead.
Fergus was out front with Hotshot when he arrived. Hotshot was a very large horse, taller than most men at the shoulder. Dapple gray in color with a long white mane and tail. Like Talon, scars were prevalent on his body. Fergus looked pained with his right arm wrapped in the now bloody bar rag.
“Did my damned flea-bitten cart pony bite you?” asked Talon. Fergus looked up with a trembling lip and nodded his head. “Here, Fergus. I’m very sorry he did that to you.” said Talon while handing the boy another coin. With that Fergus handed over the reins and walked towards the door. He walked inside and then immediately came back out, holding the bloody bar rag and waving his right arm at Talon. His uninjured right arm! Fergus smiled broadly and tossed the wadded-up bar rag to Talon, who caught it.
“Thanks again, Talon!” exclaimed Fergus while licking the ‘blood’ off his arm. “What in hells is this?” thought Talon while sniffing the bar rag. Tomato sauce! The kid had tricked him! “Enjoy it while you can, you little rat, I won’t fall for that twice!” Talon yelled back at the now empty doorway.
While all this was going on, two men on horseback were approaching Talon. When he turned back to his horse he saw them, Forkbeard and Riverstone from last night. Forkbeard had a sheathed sword while Riverstone was holding a spear. Hotshot’s ears swiveled, turned directly to the men and their horses. His nostrils flared as he sniffed the air. Sniffed again to be sure and then let out a bellowing whinny which was immediately answered by first one mare and then the other. “Oh no”, thought Talon “oh no no no, not now, not here!” He swung up into the saddle and placed his left hand on Hotshot’s neck which seemed to help control the stud a little better. Talon knew things were about to get…. interesting.
“You there,” said Forkbeard.
“Not interested.” responded Talon.
“Might you be having plans of traveling North with a young lady?” asked Forkbeard.
“What I do is my business” replied Talon.
“We’ve been sent by the ruler of Sanviar to um…. escort the young lady back home” said Forkbeard “we’d rather do it quietly and without spilling your blood in the doing of it. So, take my advice, forget you ever saw her and go somewhere else. Anywhere but North.” Hotshot was getting very impatient now, nickering and play-biting with the two mares when Riverstone decided to speak up.
“Might you be the same Talon that rode with the Devil-Riders on the eastern Steppes?”
“Yes, I did spend some time with them a few years back” replied Talon.
“My cousin, Eivar talked to me of you. Said you were a good man and one he trusted at his back. So out of respect for my cousin I’m telling you...get out of here now and you’ll live. Stay, and we’ll feed your guts to that annoying nag you’re riding.”
“I remember Eivar and I see he must have inherited all the decency in your family. So out of respect for him, I’ll tell you this… YOU leave now, and I won’t turn this annoying nag loose on you.” During this interchange, Forkbeard slowly made his way around to the opposite side of Talon, boxing him in between himself and Riverstone. Talon was aware of this and knew this conversation was going to come to an end very soon. It was boring, anyway.
“Enough talk!” yelled Forkbeard while he swung his sabre at Talon’s back. Expecting that, Talon quickly lowered himself over Hotshot’s right shoulder, out of the sabre’s path. And saw the one thing he really hoped he wouldn’t. A fully engorged Hotshot. Riverstone’s spear then cut a thin gash across the back of Talon’s head and the chest of Hotshot. The stud didn’t notice it, however, he had more important things in mind. Riverstone’s mare then chose that moment to squeal, turn around to present her rear to Hotshot and sprayed a mixture of urine and mucous into the air. Which also hit Talon’s face, eyes and mouth. The sudden movement unsettled Riverstone and he focused all his attention on regaining control of the now love-struck mare. Gagging, trying not to puke, trying to clear his vision, Talon stood back up in the saddle and drew his own sword from its resting place on his back baldric. Transferring it to his left hand he swung out in the general direction of Forkbeard but found nothing but air. Forkbeard had moved yet again, attempting to stay in Talon’s blind spot, He struck again, directly across Talon’s back. While the blow did not have the result Forkbeard had anticipated it was enough to knock Talon out of the saddle and into the dusty street below. Riverstone’s mare danced and squealed, turned in circles, raised her tail and winked at Hotshot. But it wasn’t her eyes that winked at the stud. Freed from Talon’s control, the stud issued forth a devastatingly loud whinny and charged the mare in front of him. Riverstone’s mare. The mare he still rode. It’s a generally accepted rule of nature that two physical things can’t occupy the same space at the same time. Something’s gotta give. In this case, Riverstone. Hotshot mounted the mare, bit down on the juncture of Riverstone’s neck and shoulder which broke several bones and then with a toss of his head, threw Riverstone off to the left. Hotshot proceeded to service the mare. As they are wont to do, the mare continued to spin around in circles while Hotshot kept pace. Even when it meant trampling Riverstone who received several hoof stomps to the chest and head.
Meanwhile, Talon had tucked into a shoulder roll, continued the roll to put some distance between himself and Forkbeard and finally managed to clear his vision in one eye. It would have to do. He pulled a sharply pointed, leaden throwing spike from a pocket of his vest and threw it at the face of the charging Forkbeard. The heavy spike hit true and embedded itself nearly it’s entire length into Forkbeard’s right eye which caused his body to spasm and tumble out of the saddle. Freed from her rider’s control the mare turned suddenly to avoid the crouching Talon and ran towards the far corner of the market square. Hotshot finished with his mare, dismounted and ran after mare number two.
At this moment, Vanna walked up to Talon and coolly appraised the situation. She said “Oh, that has got to be your horse. The two of you are just alike.” Talon said nothing, just stood up and stared at her while a huge grin slowly spread across his face. “Not like that!” she said hurriedly. “I mean, you both have one thing on your mind!” The grin grew even larger. “Never mind, I thought you were going to bathe. You stink.”