Over the din of the boisterous, drunken patrons of the inn, a single voice cut through the cacophony, ringing off the rafters and echoing off the walls. So loud and forceful was this call that it caused every individual within the room to freeze in place.
“Hold, Damn you!”
Silence immediately descended over what had been a raucous gathering, every eye turned toward the heavily armed man who had given the loud, imperious command. Those who were directly in front of him suddenly shrank back, eyes widening and faces going pale in fear.
Only one individual, his eyesight either naturally dimmed or effected by strong drink, took a step forward to challenge the one who’d dared interrupt their fun. But this imbecile was quickly stopped short by three of his fellows by the simple expedient of grabbing onto his arms and holding on as if life itself depended upon maintaining their grip.
“Do no be a fool, Delf!” one of those restraining his fellow hissed loudly. “Tha’s one o’ them thar gelded warriors!”
The man who had barked the order to “hold” saw red upon hearing those words. He had long before learned to curb his temper when it came to himself. But having his entire guild insulted that way, suggesting that neither he nor his brothers were fully intact, that their oath to a female patron Deity made them unmanly, enraged him. He surged forward, and within a single heartbeat the dagger was free from its sheath, the point dimpling the skin of the neck of the man who’d insulted him. And in a low voice filled with the threat of immediate and brutal violence, he asked, “What did you call me?”
“Peace, good mon!” the peasant to his left pleaded. “Hom meant no dispect! We all sees what you be, and have naught but ’spect for gelded warriors such as yournself!”
The heavily armed individual’s dirk also cleared its sheath, this one in his left hand, the wicked point aimed directly at the eye of the man who had repeated the insult. Though teeth clenched in rage, the man who had been twice insulted growled, “I am Olivero O’ Tamman, Journeyman Third of the Brotherhood of Freeswords! And I will not countenance such insults against my guild!”
“Aye! We knows what ye be!” the third man cried out. “We all recnize the sign o’ your geld! Tha’s wha’ Hom said! You’un belongs to tha’ warrior’s geld!”
The fury which had nearly consumed him only moment before drained away so quickly that it caused a momentary weakness in Olivero’s limbs, one he was barely able to conceal. Damn these backwoods, jerkwater shanty towns, and their strange, barely comprehensible accents and dialects! As quickly as his weapons had been drawn, they were both slammed home in their scabbards.
“My apologies to you, good citizens,” he called out, making certain all patrons could clearly hear him. It grated on him to abase himself before such lowlifes under any circumstances, even if he had been the one at fault. But honor required no less. “My ears are not accustomed to your accents, and they heard insults I now perceive were never intended. My deepest apologizes. Your next round is on me.” He then made certain a hint of malice returned to his visage as he added, “Assuming, that is, you release the wench unharmed!”
The men complied immediately, the woman who had been the cause of the commotion stalked off and out of site, and within heartbeats the noise in the room returned to its previous din. Even the man with blood dripping from his nose began laughing as his companions teased him about having been “thoroughly trounced by that mere slip o’ a girl!”
“Girl?” Truly, they were drunker than he thought!
Before Olivero could reclaim his seat, the barman carefully walked over to him, hands out, palms up, showing he held no weapons. “A moment o’ your time, if ye please, Brother?” the fat man asked.
“Of course, Goodman,” the mercenary replied, figuring the tapsman wanted to see his coin before serving the promised round of drinks. This prompted a barely suppressed sigh. He was low on funds enough as it was. Shelling out even the paltry sum for a couple score of tankards was going to leave him even further in the hole. Why in The Pits had he acted so thoughtlessly and carelessly? For the life of him, he could not figure out how brooding upon his own problems had led him to owing coin he could scarcely afford.
And as he stared at the hands of the barkeep, he silently cursed himself even as he pondered how he had found himself in such a situation in so few heartbeats.
The longer he had sat there, the more difficult it had become to suppress the urge to let out a mournful sigh. When he had first set out to establish himself in his chosen career, boredom had been one thing Olivero believed would never afflict him. Pain, anguish, injury, torture, dismemberment, and death, yes. Those things he had expected. But not this! Not absolute, like a lifetime of overcast winter days, boredom.
And nothing about his current environs hinted at a break in the monotony. Certainly not at that moment, and the foreseeable future didn’t bode much better. He had just finished a full quarter, the last thirty days of Summer and the first ninety days of Autumn, as Captain of the Guard for a merchant train making one last, late-season run to the hinterlands to sell winter provisions to those who lived furthest from the kingdom’s capital. Not exactly a glorious undertaking for one with his abilities and experience. But he’d found himself short on funds, and his dues had to be paid after Turning’s End. The contract fee for his services to the merchant, not counting the promised combat bonuses if they should be set upon by brigands, would enable him, if barely, to meet his financial obligations to the guild.
But it hadn’t exactly worked out that way. The entire journey, half of the days suffering under mist or light rain, the rest enduring mud and muck, had been uneventful. Not a sign or hint of a single bandit, much less an army of marauders which would require him to unsheathe his sword and earn his bonus.
Perhaps, had the Lord Merchant not required him to display his banner at all times, things might have been different. But few bands of lawless men, even that far out in the middle of nowhere, would dare attack a well-maned merchant guard under the leadership of a full-fledged member of The Brotherhood.
A full quarter of a Turning, and the only time his weapons had cleared their scabbards was to examine and oil them as part of his nightly routine.
Now the return trip, the caravan relatively empty save for the coins and gems acquired from the sale of wares, might have been different. Few would risk their life going against one such as the mercenary in order to raid a train of boots, hats, cloaks, mittens, tools, and grains. But the hope of looting strongboxes full of coins and gems as the merchant’s convoy made its way back to civilization would be enough to tempt a few braver souls to try their luck.
But the Lord Merchant had proven to be both foolish and parsimonious. The uneventful out-bound journey had prompted the trader to conclude that the hills, valleys, and plains below were devoid of lawless men and women. It was for this reason he decided to dispense with Olivero’s services as soon as they reached the little mining town known as Coalton Gap.
The mercenary had been paid what he was due, of course. Both for the completed half of the contract, as well as the early severance penalty. After all, no person even remotely in possession of their full faculties would try to dun a member of the Brotherhood! Such was a near-certain path to an early, and painful, grave. But still, what with no bonus and just a little over half the contracted amount he had counted on, Olivero found himself still short on the funds necessary to meet his financial obligations to the guild -- not and still be able to provide food and shelter for himself and his horses for as long as it took to make his way back to more civilized lands and try to find other work.
But that wasn’t the most depressing part. Far from it!
The tavern in which he found himself was the primary cause for the morose brooding afflicting him that evening.
It wasn’t that he had any real distaste for such establishments. The better part of his adult life had seen him living out of his saddlebags. The majority of his nights had been spent under a tent, and sleeping on a bed with a roof over his head, however shoddy, had become a real luxury. Nor was he unaccustomed to passing several candlemarks-worth of time in a taproom, and the course, drunken boisterousness of the average patrons no longer bothered him much. A great deal of business for those of his trade was conducted in places just like that, after all. If one couldn’t learn to stomach or ignore the filth and stench, one would have a hard time paying his bills.
No, the reason for his moody depression came from the realization that this particular inn had become an apt metaphor for his life. The soot-stained ceiling beams, the moldy, debris-strewn rush floor, the drafty walls, the rough-hewn slabs which substituted for tables and benches, the reek of bodies unwashed for who knew how long, and even the chipped, cracked, and leaky stoneware and crockery, were all emblematic of what his life had become.
When he’d first set out to chart his own path in life, eschewing the expectations of his family, he’d eagerly tossed aside the comforts of his upbringing. Instead, he had accepted with relish the long, arduous apprenticeship to the most famous mercenary guild in all the Twelve Nations. His mind and soul had been flushed with the youthful visions of a lifetime of fame and glory, beckoning to him from just over the horizon. With this promise foremost in his mind, the five Turnings of often brutally harsh training seemed to have passed in the blink of an eye.
But now, having reached the age and rank whereby his dreams should have been realized, those aims and ambitions were still just ghostly images, and seemed even further beyond his grasp. And just as that ramshackle inn, which had supposed to have only been a stopping point, had become the end of this road, so too had his ambitions stalled.
Peace had broken out in and between all of the Twelve Nations. Barons were not hiring his brethren to fight in land squabbles with their neighbors. Princes were not bolstering their personal security to fend off the fiendish, fatal designs of their rivals. Kings and queens were not waging war on their brother and sister monarchs over resources, inheritances, or petty, personal insults.
To one who made his living trafficking in violence and death, peace was the bane of his existence. And disgusting, calm, unprofitable peace ruled the lands, and there was nothing he could do about it. Instead of leading companies into glorious battle, earning combat bonuses and collecting loot and spoils, he’d been reduced to commanding paltry caravan guard contingents to protect some fat, effete merchant’s person and property from the occasional, ill-equipped, ill-trained mob of bandits.
And even at that his success was his failure. Since it was only the rare, desperate brigand who deigned to attack a train guarded by someone displaying a banner like his, the peddlers and merchants were increasingly convincing themselves that such threats no longer existed, and they could dispense with the costs and services associated with hiring such as himself.
In short, he was going broke, with little prospect of turning that situation around.
And what was worse, even as dire as his current situation appeared, the thought of returning to the home of his youth, returning to the life he’d been so eager to leave behind, the only option left to him if he withdrew from the Brotherhood, held even less appeal than sitting there in that dank inn, lingering over the watery stew and almost rancid ale, all the while trying to figure out how he was going to make it through the fast-approaching winter.
“Well, that’s new!” came a startling thought as the inn’s single serving wench sashayed through his field of vision. Not her existence, for nearly every such establishment he’d ever patronized had employed at least one individual like her. It was almost an unwritten law that taverns and hostels must have drinks and food served to the patrons by one such as she. Usually it was some fallen local woman who filled the role, one with no other options to earn a living. And on the rare occasion, it was the innkeeper’s wife. But the one persistent, iron-clad rule for nearly all such places was that, aside from passing out victuals and liquids, women like her would augment her income by providing more personal services to one or more of the tavern’s customers before retiring for the evening.
No, her presence itself wasn’t unusual in the least. And he hardly had any desire to utilize her for any purpose beyond bringing him food and drink. But what had captured his attention was that the wench who had just sauntered past was apparently skilled enough in the arts of feminine camouflage that she actually appeared attractive. And more impossibly, youthful.
The half-open lacing on her blouse, exposing an expanse of bosom, was standard for a woman in her line of work. It would be a façade, of course, accomplished by the generous use of supports and padding to disguise the fact that certain portions of her anatomy had already succumbed to the ravages of time and having born children. But to a man used to looking for subtle signs of hidden weapons, such artificial restraints and harnesses around bosom, belly, and hips were immediately noticeable.
Another tactic was to use dyes or bleaches to hide the silver in their hair. But doing so always left the tresses with an unnatural shade or sheen, especially at the scalp.
But try as they might, he’d never seen one who could successfully disguise the age which would inevitably be shown in her face. No amount of paints and powders could fully conceal the lines, wrinkles, and scars that came with a lifetime of being ridden hard and put up wet.
Now, to a man with ale-blurred vision, such attempts at artifice and deception generally tended to suffice. But Olivero had barely touched his drink. And yet, in this particular case, that wench demonstrated sufficient skill in those areas of artifice so as to fool even his professional eye. Looking at her outfit, he could not tell where nature ended and the fraud began. Nor could he tell for certain if her dark hair came from the Gods or a jar. And for the life of him he was unable make out the creases and scars that would tell him her true age.
That left only two possibilities.
The first, of course, was that she was actually as young as she appeared, and that she had managed to disgrace herself to such an extent that none would have her in their home as a daughter or wife, leaving that most ignoble of occupations as her only avenue to put food in her mouth.
The other was that she had managed to escape from some high-end brothel, where such as she were taught the arts of maintaining her youthful appearance so as to prolong her usefulness to the owners of the establishment. In such an instance, she would have be taken in at a very early age, just as her body started to blossom, and trained for a Turning or two in the ways of giving her clients enough pleasure so as to assure their frequent return. Her training would also have included the very arts this woman put to such excellent use, because the whoremasters and madams would wish to squeeze every last coin out of their property. Only after she had put on enough age that no amount of artifice could disguise the truth would she have been put out to pasture, sold from lesser brothel to lesser brothel until, finally, unable to earn her keep, she would have been kicked out on the street to fend for herself. Only then would she have found her way to working in as crude and rough an establishment as that tavern.
But it was also common knowledge that high-end flesh peddlers were very harsh with those who tried to strike out on their own, to employ their learned talents toward earning for themselves instead of their owners. It was said that such pimps and madams had at their disposal several measures and agents which made escape virtually impossible. And the punishments they were reputed to exacted upon any who tried were the stuff of nightmare and legend. And since no decent woman without such a past, or who had any prospects for a meaningful future, would have dared work in such an establishment, Olivero could only guess that the wench who had momentarily caught his eye had been one of the rare and lucky few pleasure slaves to have made good her escape.
Good for her!
Too bad the only places she would be able to hide from her former masters who were probably, even at that very moment, still trying hard to locate and recover their missing property, was somewhere like that fly-speck village in which he found himself. And just as bad was the fact that her only skills, the only trade she knew, the only way she could earn a living, was to continue to offer herself to anyone with enough coin to rent her affections for a time. Very, very few women, so far as he knew, pursued such a profession out of choice.
But the distraction that wench’s passing provided him was momentary and fleeting, and his mind soon returned to dwelling upon his own predicaments. Pleasing to the eye as the wench might be, he had no urge to sample the wares himself. Not even if he’d had the coin to spare. A moment or two of pleasure would, he figured, only leave him that much nearer to being broke, and only make his ennui that much worse.
These ruminations were rudely interrupted a few heartbeats later by a shrill feminine squeal of protest, a chorus of rough, rude laughter, followed by the loud, unmistakable sounds of flesh striking flesh. Olivero looked up yet again, just in time to see the serving wench draw back a small fist and drive it hard into the nose, one which was already dripping blood from a previous blown, of one of the seated locals.
That wasn’t at all normal! A slap or light blow from an unwelcome pinch or grope was to be expected. Women in her line of work didn’t like having the merchandise handled until a price had been agreed upon. But neither would she assault a potential customer to the extent of causing actual injury. Deep in the recesses of his mind, a tiny thought began to percolate that, perhaps, he had made a mistake in his judgement of the situation.
Even as the woman’s second blow struck home, the wounded man’s compatriots leapt to their feet. Two of them grabbing her by the arms and immobilizing her as, with a roar of pain and anger, the man she had assaulted surged drunkenly upright, right arm drawing back to deliver an answering blow. The barman was hurrying from his station at the taps, heavy wooden cudgel raised high in one ham-like fist, but three of the injured rough’s companions intercepted him in mid-flight, preventing him from interceding on the wench’s behalf.
That was also well out of the ordinary. Men like the barkeep, even if he was the owner, only acted if it looked like a real fight was brewing, one which might cause property damage. To immediately try to run to the rescue of a strumpet about to get smacked down for assaulting a patron was completely unknown. Without further conscious thought, the mercenary surged to his own feet, yanking away the glove covering his left hand, upon which was emblazoned the slightly-glowing green glyph of the Patron of his guild.
Chivalry wasn’t his normal mode of operation. Far from it! Men in his chosen field could seldom afford to interject themselves into situations which not only held no profit, but one which could prove costly to them in terms of coin and/or blood. But some primal urge welled from within him, a strange and unaccustomed instinct of protectionism, and he found himself with his uncovered left hand thrust out, palm forward, revealing the identity he had wished to keep hidden, as he bellowed out his command to stop.