“Oh no, this stink is all yours, sweetness. Tell me, do you recognize these two idiots on the ground? Once you ignore all the spikes and hoof marks, that is. They were here looking for you and warning me off. What’s more, you KNEW they were after you. But you didn’t think it important enough to mention.”
“Yes, you’re right and I do apologize. I suspected they were nearby but I thought we would be out of town before they arrived. If you had left when I asked, we would have.”
“Wrong again, princess. They were in the tavern last night at the same time you were. Which tells me that they were not just looking to grab you but also to deal with whoever you hired. Me. And there’s something else that’s bothering me. You say there’s a Wizard. You say there’s magic involved. Well, there’s not a damned thing magical about these two idiots here, dead on the ground.”
Vanna blew an exasperated breath, “We’re too far away, it’s that simple. As we move closer to him his power will become apparent. Believe me.”
Talon knelt down, placing his knee on Forkbeard’s forehead. He grabbed the spike and pulled, hard. The spike came out with an audible sucking sound and Vanna fought to keep her face impassive.
“I’ll believe it when I see it, Vanna. Look, I’ve traveled farther than most, seen many incredible sights. Some that can’t be explained but I’ve never once seen anything that could be described as 'magic'. I have a strong suspicion that this Bolgur character has pulled some sort of trick on you people. He obviously has some influence, to arrange for these two idiots to track and follow you this far. Tells me he’s dangerous, I’ll grant you that much. For dangerous types, I need the rest of my gear and I need to notify the Watch Commander of just what happened here. Follow me.”
With that, he retrieved the now sweaty, tired Hotshot and began the walk back to his room. Now that the morning’s excitement was over, life in the town returned to normal. Dogs growled, cats chased and barn-birds flew overhead. All except one. One turned away from his fellows and, all alone, flew directly North.
The short journey was made in silence as they both ruminated on the morning’s events. Although she held it beneath her cool composure she was actually shocked that Bolgur’s two men had been so close to her and she hadn’t noticed. Castle life had afforded her many opportunities and taught her much about life but it was becoming painfully, almost fatally, obvious that there was a lot she still needed to learn. She also resolved to play it straight with Talon in the future. He was right, she should have told him that she was being pursued. Plus, seeing him angry left her feeling like she had let him down. She was surprised that the thought bothered her as much as it did.
Meanwhile, Talon was mentally running through a revised list of items that he should now bring. What he first thought would be a simple rescue was now becoming apparent as something more. They reached the inn where he kept a room year-round even though he only spent a few months of the year in this town. Summers were just too damned hot for him. He figured if he was going to be sweating all the time then it’s best to do so with female company. Much as he might like to spend all his time doing that, it just wasn’t possible. Gotta make the coin to spend the coin.
“Stay here with Hotshot, Vanna. I’ll be back soon. He’s a bit wore out just now, so he probably won’t be much trouble for you.” She wondered why he made the request, was he hiding something? Ashamed of something? Seventeen tavern wenches couldn’t fit in a single room, right? She reached out to scratch Hotshot’s ear and nearly lost her fingers when he viciously bit at her hand. “Damned surly horse” she grumbled.
Talon entered his room and unlocked a large chest. From the chest he pulled his strong, but lightweight leather armor. Bracers for his forearms, shin guards, and a boiled leather cuirass that covered most of his torso. This he would bring along but wear only if the situation demanded it. He preferred mobility overall. Then, the special hand-axes. The two hand-axes each had a blade about the width of a man’s hand. The opposite side had a spike the length of a man’s index finger and the short handles ended with a tight loop of leather and a square mass of metal that was useful for either hammering or breaking bones. These he suspended from sheaths attached to his belt. A light flannel scarf he wrapped around his neck. Dark gray in color, it served a variety of functions. Finally, a long-coiled whip that he draped over his torso, opposite of the baldric so that a large ‘X’ was formed over his chest and back. Finally, a long sword, his recurve horse bow, bow quiver and arrows. These he would attach to Hotshot’s saddle.
Her curiosity quickly overcame her. With slow and deliberate movements, always keeping an eye on the horse, she tied off Hotshot and quietly followed Talon to his room. Peeking inside, she was shocked to see a clean, tidy room. A room that was organized and orderly. No piles of empty rum bottles, no bed littered with tavern wenches. Just a washbasin, cloaks on wall pegs, two locked chests and a bed barely large enough to fit one person. She was surprised, to say the least.
“Seen enough?” asked Talon while he faced away from her. Jumping at the suddenness of being caught out and feeling like a child caught sneaking sweets from the kitchen, she quickly made her way back to Hotshot.
Without a word, Talon exited the Inn and retrieved Hotshot’s reins. He began walking towards the local horse merchant to find a pack horse, figuring he’d talk to the Watch Commander along the way.
Vanna felt she had to say something, the silence was bothering her. “Look, I’m sor-”
Talon interrupted, “Forget it Vanna, I would have been surprised if you had actually done as I asked.” In an instant, Vanna went from apologetic to angry.
“OH? And just why is that?” she asked.
“It’s simple, really. You’re a woman.” Talon answered. Now she was really mad.
“That’s right! I am a woman, not some tavern wench you can throw coins at and expect to obey your every command! In fact, I am the one paying YOU to do what I command!”
Talon stopped so fast that she literally walked into him and nearly fell over. Talon was reaching into his pockets, retrieving the two bags of gold she had given him earlier. “Alright, Lady. Here’s your gold. Good luck and goodbye.” Vanna quickly realized she had overstepped. Once again, castle life was proving to be a poor learning environment when it came to frontier life.
“Wait, I’m sorry. I really am. Like you, I’m tired, on-edge and quite frankly I’m out of my depth here. And that’s the truth. My brother told me to find you and now he’s dead like the rest of my family and I’m on my own and I don’t know what I’m doing and I...” with that, she leaned against Hotshot’s saddle and began sobbing. Once more at a loss for what to do with this woman, Talon awkwardly placed a hand on her shoulder. He knew it wasn’t enough. He knew his usual “Pull yer head outta your ass and get back into the fight” speech he used with other men was not going to work here. So, he laid his right hand onto her shoulder in the gentlest manner he knew and squeezed, just a little bit. He was aiming for a comradely, brotherly type of squeeze and hoping he got it right. This girl obviously had been through something terrible, and she would need a bit of time to tell the stories he needed to hear if he was going to get the whole picture.
She felt ashamed. She felt tired and overwhelmed and couldn’t believe she was breaking down like this, in public and in front of this man. Then, she felt his hand on her shoulder and she suddenly felt…. warmer. Calmer. Breathing came easier, tears dried up.
Sensing that she was regrouping, Talon said “We’d better get moving, there’s still a couple things we need to do before we begin moving North.”
First, an explanation to the Watch Commander which went well because there had been several witnesses and it took but a short span of time. Next, the horse merchant where he had Vanna purchase a stout pack horse and its accompanying equipment. Then the various merchants that sold lanterns, dried fruit, jerky, flour, nuts, extra ropes, blankets and water skins. While Vanna was retrieving her horse, Talon made his final stop with a merchant that sold something fairly new. Small papers that were soft and especially useful when conducting your morning business. He was as battle-hardened and well-traveled as a man could probably get but damn, those little papers sure made life on the trail a lot easier!
Vanna retrieved the black gelding she’d ridden for the last few weeks and met Talon as he finished up loading the pack horse. He noticed that a crossbow was hanging off the saddle and asked to take a closer look. She was happy to oblige as her Uncle had made it for her and she was proud of it. Whistling low, Talon held it up and admired the craftsmanship of it. He liked crossbows but they just didn’t suit his manner at all. They took far too long to load, and a lot can happen during that time. Still, he could appreciate a fine weapon when he saw it. Handing the crossbow back to her, he said “It’s about mid-day, I would have liked to have left earlier but we can still make it a ways out of town before nightfall.” She was glad to hear this as she wanted, needed to get back as soon as possible.
“We’ll travel for a while after dusk and camp at a good spot I know,” said Talon. “After that, it’ll be another full day of travel to the next settlement.” Like usual, the first day’s travel involved some reshuffling of gear, tightening straps there, loosening straps here. He noticed that Vanna took to this fairly well, better than he had expected from a castle-raised woman. There’s more backbone to this girl than most, he realized. The only thing concerning him now was her obviously burning desire to reach Sanviar just as soon as possible. Understandable, but it could lead her to cut corners and he resolved to keep a careful eye out for such behavior. Getting there fast was good, getting there in good shape was better.
The first night was a cold camp as it was near midnight when they finally stopped. Vanna tied off her gelding and pack horse then quickly pulled the saddles, packs and bridles. A quick but thorough brush down for both animals and she was done. She turned around to see Talon laying on a blanket and propped up against Hotshot’s saddle, who was nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s your horse!” she exclaimed excitedly. Losing your horse out here could only mean you were in for a long walk.
“Don’t worry about him, he’s out wandering around and looking for trouble.” said Talon.
“But what if something happens to him? What if someone takes him? Why aren’t you worried about him?” Talon shook his head and grinned at the rapid-fire questions. Women!
“Alright, in order…. something ALWAYS happens to him, he guarantees it. People have tried to take him before and some are still alive. That horse hates everyone, even me half the time. And... I learned a long time ago that worrying about that stud is a waste of time. Again, don’t worry and get some sleep, gonna be a short night.” With that he rolled over onto his side, pulled a blanket over himself and was soon snoring.
Men! Thought Vanna. So cavalier, so reckless, so irresponsible. Caring only for their most basic wants. Well, he was right about the short night, and she quickly prepared her own blankets for sleep. But sleep was hard to find, that first night.
They were up and moving when the first light of dawn hit their camp and true to Talon’s prediction, there was Hotshot. Snoozing on his feet on the other side of her pack horse. She couldn’t see any blood or fresh cuts on his body, so she figured he didn’t find any trouble the previous night. Talon simply went about the routine of cleaning up camp, resaddling his horse and helping her with the pack horse and gelding. Very soon they were back on the trail.
The second day passed peacefully and quietly as they made their way north across the barren scrub lands. There was little in the way of natural vegetation for the horses to eat so they made do with the oats that were carried on the pack horse. High winds made for difficult conversation as it blew the dust around. So, they wrapped scarves around faces, tucked their heads down and made the best speed they could manage. Talon shot a couple of prairie birds which made for a tasty supper when they camped for the night. Again, simply turning the horse loose to wander as he pleased, Talon then went to bed immediately after eating.
She sat across the campfire from him and listened to him as he snored softly. What kind of man was this, Brigand or Hero? He looked the brigand. He acted the brigand but (according to her brother) he did heroic things. She’d seen him be kind to those who could offer him nothing. He was polite to strangers and always cheerful. But in the space of a heartbeat, he became Death on Two Legs. And that frightened her. To make so sudden a change was something she just wasn’t used to seeing in anyone.
Growing up in the castle she had been exposed to many people, many men. Her father had tried for years to find a potential suitor but to no avail. He loved his daughter far too much to just marry her off and he respected her wishes when she, each and every time, found reason to not pursue marriage with any of the suitors. It wasn’t that she was particularly fussy or that she had set the bar unreasonably high. She just knew that in all her 20 years she hadn’t yet met the right man.
Talon stopped snoring but his eyes remained closed. With a deliberate movement, he reached his right hand into one of his pockets. A few heartbeats later, Hotshot walked into the firelight and startled Vanna because she had heard nothing but the crackle of the fire and Talon’s snoring. Hotshot walked past her and straight to Talon who now held his arm up with a biscuit made of oats and molasses in his open palm. The horse eagerly ate the biscuit, raining crumbs down onto Talon’s shaggy hair. He nuzzled Talon’s open palm and that same shaggy mane of hair. He then continued his walk towards Vanna’s gelding. Talon left his outstretched hand up in the air, the back of his hand and fingers trailing along Hotshot’s left leg, ribs, belly and finally his rear left leg. A swish of the tail and the arm came back down. Talon was snoring again before the horse had moved eight steps away.
With a start, she realized that she had just witnessed the first genuine moment she had ever seen from this man. No bluster, no juvenile behavior, no heroics. She had just seen an actual conversation between man and beast, between partners. Between friends. A conversation born of trust and respect which was conducted in total silence. She imagined she could decipher the meaning: “Hello Talon, I’m back from establishing my dominance with the local herd.” And then Talon, “Evening, partner. Here’s a treat that you like. Thanks for coming back.”
Then Hotshot bit Vanna’s gelding and claimed the space the gelding had previously occupied.