This story is copyright © 1998 Samuel Marshall. All rights reserved. May not be distributed without permission of the author.
* * *
"Buy ush a drink, luv?"
Caleb glanced over to see who the drunkard was pestering, then blinked and paused in his work. Looking through the kitchen doorway, he had a clear view of the woman standing at the bar, and it was an impressive sight. She was tall, taller than most men, and her skin was a shade of dark brown. She wore unremarkable clothing, save perhaps for the short sleeves of her tunic - unusual in this climate, even in summer - and her dark hair was tied straight back away from a smooth, pretty face. Around each wrist was a circlet that looked to be gold; was she a noble, wandered into the wrong kind of establishment? She didn't look soft and pampered; quite the reverse. Her brown eyes glinted coldly and her mouth set a hard line as she turned to look at the drunk. Struck by a sense of tension, Caleb came forward and stood in the kitchen doorway, to get a better view.
The woman paused. By this time, the whole establishment was watching, anticipating some kind of confrontation. Everything had gone quiet.
She paused some more. Stretched the silence out, until it seemed ready to snap; long enough that everyone knew she was in control of the situation.
Then she smiled sweetly, fully aware of the attention, and let it break. "An ale," she said to the barkeep - Jacob, Caleb's father. "And get rid of that idiot, 'fore I lose my temper."
Caleb expected his father to complain at being told how to run the inn, but evidently the woman's manner had made an impression; Jacob signaled and the big, burly cook who also handled trouble-customers "assisted" the drunkard to the door. The woman got her ale and sat at a bar-stool, ignoring the many stares directed at her back; eventually the inn's normal conversation level resumed and talk had passed to other matters. Caleb himself went back to rinsing out tankards and jugs, but his mind was on the strange woman.
She cannot be a noble, he thought. Surely, she must be some kind of hero, who makes a living by her sword and her wits. Caleb dreamed often of a life like that; when such people stayed at the inn, he would listen to their stories in awe. Twice he had asked to go with a group, but they had laughed and refused him. He was too young, he was unskilled, he would be no use, they said. It was true - he had little time to learn swordplay (let alone magecraft) while working in his father's inn. Now he had almost given up hope of becoming anything other than an innkeeper.
He finished his cleaning, and put the tankards in their place. Then he picked up a tray of food that was waiting for him to carry out. "It's for that woman and the man she's with," the cook said. "They're on the back table at the right."
Perking up immediately, Caleb nodded. Maybe he could find out more about the strange woman; or maybe the man who'd joined her was just as interesting. Carrying the tray - bread and two bowls of hot stew, good enough but plain fare for one who could afford golden bracelets - he made his way into the inn's main room. With practiced ease, he stepped around those who stood near the bar and threaded his way between the tightly packed tables, towards the back right of the inn.
He spotted the woman instantly - she was hard to miss - but her companion, sitting opposite and talking animatedly, was fairly nondescript. The man was of average height, but looked short in comparison, and his skin was pale as normal for the area. A roughly-trimmed beard was the most obvious feature of his face; his dark hair, also, was untidily cut short. He wore a tunic of poor cloth and the cloak spread over the back of his chair, though serviceable, was rough. Only the longsword propped against the wall behind - within easy reach - and the bow next to that marked him as anything special. Perhaps, Caleb though, she was a noblewoman after all and this was her bodyguard? But she'd seemed too strong to need such protection...
The pair hadn't yet noticed Caleb, and he slowed unobtrusively so as to overhear their conversation.
"Okay, okay, I agreed to this. So where do we start?" the woman was saying.
The bearded man shrugged, grinned wryly. "Don't tell the Duke, but I figure we wait and let it happen again. Then we get out and look, see if we can find anything."
Caleb tensed, excited. Could it be that these two were sent by Duke Ottuka from the city, charged with putting a stop to the recent banditry? Half-a-dozen times in the past few weeks the wagons of merchants traveling near this town had been stopped; the driver was killed, the valuables were taken, and the wagon burnt. It had become so regular an event that townspeople no longer bothered going to look at the aftermath; and doubtless the traders who used this route had petitioned the Duke to take action.
With his sudden thoughts he'd stopped walking, and the cessation of movement had caught the man's eye. "That for us, kid?"
Caleb nodded (a little annoyed at being called "kid", when he was almost a grown man) and held the tray nearer the table, lifting the food off to place in front of the two. As he did so, he gathered courage, and finally managed to ask, "Are you here to deal with the bandits?"
The man fingered his beard and finally shrugged. "Yeah. I guess it's no secret. What of it?"
"Well," Caleb said, "I know this area pretty good and I think I could maybe help you out if-"
Glancing at him for the first time, the tall woman must have recognized his face from earlier. She laughed aloud. "Stick to the kitchens, boy. We're being paid to bring back a head on a plate, not to help out with babysitting."
"Shiya could have put it more politely," the man said, scowling warningly at his companion, "but I'm afraid she's right. There's no place for a boy in a manhunt, and-"
He stopped, eyes flicking to the door, through which somebody had just burst in. Caleb turned to see the man - a regular, the blacksmith from the next street - exclaim to his curious audience, "There's been another one! Something's burning on the trade road, near Gussy Corner!"
As Caleb had expected, there was a heightened buzz of conversation at the news, but nobody got up. Nobody except for the two at this table; both stood instantly and the bearded man picked up the bow from behind his chair, throwing it to the woman - Shiya - who slung it across her shoulder with an attached carrying strap. The man then grabbed the sword for himself, and looked around - clearly frustrated that none of the inn's regulars seemed to be heading out, so he had no crowd to follow.
"Where's that, kid?" Shiya said, grabbing Caleb's shoulder so he had to face her. "Which way on the road?"
"South," he said, shrinking away slightly from her too-strong grip. He took a deep breath, summoning his nerve. "But I'll show you the fastest way."
"Kid, this isn't a game," the man warned. He turned to Shiya. "We can't drag him into this - we'll just follow the flames."
"They'll be visible all through town?" the tall woman said sardonically. "Don't say to follow the smoke, not on a night like this. Come on, kid, get a move on."
She gave Caleb a little shove - her version of a little shove, anyway, which near knocked him over - and willingly he rushed towards the way out, the tall dark-skinned woman following right behind. Swinging the wooden door aside, he dashed through into a gust of icy wind, and the street. Here, the cobbles were illuminated by brightness from the inn's windows; further away, they shaded into inky darkness, the night's heavy clouds obscuring moon and starlight. Caleb paused as the other two followed him from the inn, ignoring his own cold - he'd forgotten he wasn't wearing a cloak, too late for that now - but unsure about the lighting.
"Have you got a lantern?" he asked, "Only it's too-"
Shiya held up her arms, apart from her body. He stopped, awed, as her golden wrist-circlets began to gleam and then glow with a blue-tinged, soft light. It lined the edges of damp cobbles in the road with a strange, eldritch glow. "How did..."
"Come on!" she shouted at him, sounding at least halfway to seriously exasperated. Intimidated, he tried not to think about anything, except the quickest way to Gussy Corner.
He started at a run once more, heading right, and then right again down a smaller side-road. The weird illumination made it easy to avoid the worst puddles and helped keep Caleb from slipping on the mud. Soon they reached the edge of the town, where a small track led across a narrow band of meadows and into woodland. The light from Shiya's wrists created strange, twisting patterns of blue-green shadow from the tree branches as they hurried along the path; outside its range, the woods were pitch-black.
"Sure this is the way, kid?" It was the man speaking, sounding hardly strained. "Doesn't look much like the trade road."
"It's a short-cut, remember?" Caleb's voice was not so smooth, punctuated by quick breaths; he wasn't used to running this far. "We go downhill steeper than the road would."
The path turned again, bending right a little and - as he'd said - sloping quite steeply downhill. It zigzagged from side to side, making hurrying more difficult, and the mud underfoot was still damp and slippery from yesterday's rain. The trees were left behind apart from a few stragglers that survived on the steep slope; in daytime, there would have been a clear view from this point.
"See that?" the man asked, pointing ahead and down. Caleb squinted in the direction indicated - and yes, there was a faint orange glow that could be dying embers of some fire. He tried to make out the shape, see if it was the remains of a wagon... and then he tripped over a wiry branch from a bramble plant. Balance lost, he felt himself falling forward. He realized that on ground this steep he'd probably roll all the way down, and panicked, reaching out frantically to grab something...
...Then he found himself caught by the scruff of the neck, yanked back up and onto the path. Regaining his balance, he turned, to have eyes dazzled by the glow around Shiya's hand.
"Thanks," he said, rather shakily.
The tall woman shrugged. "Next time, watch your step. Let's get going again."
They started with renewed vigor and, in Caleb's case, care. It took a few minutes to negotiate the steep downhill path, but eventually the slope smoothed out and they were able to run once more. Bracken either side of the trail would have made it difficult to take another direction, but as it happened the path was headed almost directly towards the orange gleam.
As they got close enough for Shiya's light to reach it, their target became clear; burnt remains of a wooden wagon. The back part appeared blackened and charred but relatively little damaged, and still held its original shape - over a flat base, curving ribs supported tattered fragments of a cloth roof and sides. One of the back wheels was undamaged, too, but the other seemed to have succumbed to the flames; the wagon's rear was leaning sideways at a crazy angle as well as forward. The front of the covered cart had been almost totally destroyed, stubby remainders of the ribs at the base being all that remained of the upper part. The base itself was little more than a few charred and split planks of wood.
"Fire-oil," the man said from just behind Caleb's shoulder, as they stood still to take in the scene. "Clumsily done; they must have missed the back part altogether."
"Yeah," Shiya agreed. "Where's the driver? And the horses? They don't seem to have been burnt." She held her arms high to spread the light further, looking around.
Caleb spotted an odd-shaped lump a few yards off in some short grass. He pointed. "What's that, there?"
The three of them moved closer to the "lump"; Caleb was getting a bad feeling in his stomach... As they got close enough to see, it was clear that they'd found the driver. He was lying face-down on the grass, clothes ragged and sliced in a few places to reveal bloody cuts in the flesh beneath. Around his head was a stain of dark liquid on the ground. Nearby lay the dagger that he'd evidently used in an attempt to defend himself.
Caleb looked, thinking incredulously, that used to be a person. He felt ill, all of a sudden, imagining a living and breathing and talking and thinking man, reduced to that.
Shiya kicked the body morosely, resulting in a squelchy thud that made Caleb cringe. "There's our merchant. Not much use for leading us to the bandit." She bent down and grabbed the shoulders, turning over the corpse. "Throat cut, see?" The light from her wrists shone brightly on half-dried blood that centered in a single thick blotch on the neck and was smeared over the driver's face, chest, and clothes. Little rivulets of still-wet liquid dribbled down to the sides.
Caleb must have made some inarticulate noise, because Shiya turned to him and grinned nastily. "Never seen a body before? This is nothing. Wait until you find a rotted one, crawling with maggots, and the smell..."
He tried not to think of it, but that was enough to bring the picture to mind; he span round and staggered a few steps away, managing to kneel before vomiting over the ground. When he was done, he stayed there, breathing heavily and trying not to think about anything.
After a while, somebody tapped him on the shoulder. It was the bearded man, and he held out a water-bottle. "Sorry 'bout that, kid. Shiya's attitude is kind of an acquired taste. Rinse your mouth out, huh?"
Caleb took the bottle and did as he was told, feeling slightly better afterwards. He stood up and handed the water back. "Thanks."
"No problem. What's your name, anyway?"
"Okay. I'm Hugh." He held out a hand to shake. "Nice to meet you, or something."
"Finished mollycoddling the brat yet?" the tall woman asked, approaching the two. "Only I think you should check for tracks."
"On the trade road?" Hugh said. "I can already tell you, lots of people have been through here."
"Funny. I meant at the sides, in case our bandits left the road right away. And near the wagon, might be some hints there."
Hugh nodded and followed the woman first around the wagon and then to the side of the road, where Shiya held her wrists near the ground and the man inspected it carefully. This took some time, and Caleb got bored with watching. He wandered over to the remains of the wagon, and looked inside through the back, to find a lot of charred and damaged cloth remnants. And, underneath some folds of fabric, there was something sticking out; the edge of a small sack which looked undamaged. He pulled it out, expecting the material to break apart in his hands, but it didn't; the bag was blackened but seemed whole and firm. And it was quite heavy... He called the other two over to look.
Shiya squinted at the sack, paused a few seconds. "It's not magic-trapped, kid. Should be safe to open."
He hadn't even thought of that... and how did she know anyway? Regardless, he loosened the drawstrings around the top of the bag, looked inside, and gasped. Coins, copper and silver and gold, and quite a few of them. He was probably holding the equivalent of a week's takings at his father's busy inn, before the staff had been paid.
"Not bad, kid," the tall woman said appreciatively, taking the sack and examining its contents. "I guess you'll have to get a fair cut of this."
"Shouldn't it go to his wife or children or something?" Caleb asked. He thought with a pang of sympathy about the merchant's relatives, finding out he'd died, and for what?
"They'll assume the brigands took it," Shiya theorized. "We won't even have to mention it. After all, what kind of bandit would raid a merchant's wagon and kill the driver, just to burn the goods and leave the takings in the fire?"
"The boy's right, Shiya," Hugh said. "Have some sympathy for the wife... wait a moment."
"Okay, okay," the dark-skinned warrior griped, scowling. "If the woman turns up, we'll give her the thrice-cursed money. I just hope he wasn't married."
The bearded man was staring into space, hardly listening. After a few moments' pause, he looked at the woman. "What you said... what kind of bandit...?"
Shiya paused. "You're right. That's kind of weird. I guess maybe he was interrupted and had to leave before finding the coin." She laughed softly. "That's one good thing about tonight; the outlaw didn't do any better than us."
"Oh-oh." Hugh was looking to the north-east. "Company coming." A small group of lights was visible, some distance along the road.
Caleb had been listening quietly; now he spoke up. "They'll have set off just after we did, but using the normal route. I guess somebody from town must've been interested after all."
"It's that much slower?" Hugh asked. At Caleb's nod, he shrugged. "I guess you were pretty useful after all. Maybe next time we need to go someplace, we'll ask you."
An hour ago, the boy would have been elated to hear that comment. Now, after seeing what he'd seen, he wasn't sure. He had a feeling he was going to have nightmares tonight, as it was; did he really want to see sights that would create more? But he couldn't back down, so he nodded again.
"It's her," Shiya said abruptly, her voice sounding somehow tight. At Hugh's raised eyebrows, she elaborated. "The wife, I can feel it from here. Of all the cursed luck, she must live in Strathold."
She threw the bag of coins to Hugh; there was a muffled jingle as he caught it. "Give her the damned money, if you must. I'll take the boy back - it won't help to have me or him around. C'mon, kid."
A little confused, Caleb followed the tall, striking woman back along the path that led towards the town. He glanced behind just as the pool of light from Shiya's bracelets left Hugh, seeming to abandon him to the darkness.
Shiya didn't speak again until half an hour later when they were back outside the inn. The gentle radiance of her wrist-bands faded and disappeared, leaving them to see by the yellow, flickering light from the windows of the inn. "Guess the innkeep won't be too angry," the tall dark woman said. "You're back in time to clear up for the evening." With that, and a smirk, she pushed open the inn door and entered. Caleb was left to trail behind.
* * *
"Hey, boy," Hugh said, as Caleb came over to the table with a tray of steaming porridge-bowls. "We heard there was another wagon attacked last night, further out to the north. Want to come and look with us? Should be perfectly safe this long after."
Caleb paused, tempted but also squeamish, and feeling silly for being so. "Was the driver...?"
"Killed? Yeah, sword wounds and then a slit throat, like the other," Hugh finished. Figuring what Caleb - wincing at the description - really wanted to know, he added, "They took the body away to the churchyard last night, to prepare it for burial."
The boy nodded. "Sure, I'll come. I can leave right after breakfast, if I make it all right with my father." He distributed porridge to Hugh and Shiya and then went on to the last group of guests, three priests bound for the abbey southwards.
Twenty minutes later everybody had finished the meal and the bowls were cleared away. Caleb climbed the stairs to his tiny room - it was a converted cupboard - and took his cloak from the peg on the back of the door. Although the worst of the clouds had blown over by this morning, there was still a thin layer, and the spate of chill weather looked set to continue another day. And this was supposed to be summer, Caleb griped to himself.
He made his way back downstairs and into the inn's main room, where Hugh and Shiya were waiting. They, too, were more prepared for the outdoors than they'd been last night; Shiya wore a heavy, shapeless sleeved cloak that made her look almost unremarkable, and Hugh carried a small pack on his back.
"I got some bread and cheese from the cook," the bearded man explained. "We'll need something to eat - it takes most of the day to get there and back. Unless you know any more shortcuts?"
Caleb shook his head. "Northward, the road goes pretty much straight."
Hugh shrugged. "Let's go, then."
They left the inn and followed the main street through the town, which joined the north-south trade route a few hundred yards after passing the last of Strathold's buildings. Turning north on the road, they walked along its edges to avoid the muddy, rutted mess of cart-tracks nearer the center. The track sloped down slightly, passing between fields of crops on either side which were part of the few farms that surrounded the town. Gradually the fields dropped behind them; after half an hour's travel, they were passing through wide-open plains, criss-crossed by small streams.
Hugh had occasionally made some comment about the surroundings or the weather - a cool breeze negated any effects of the thin sun that trickled through the cloud layer, and Caleb was glad of his cloak - but Shiya had said nothing, at least in the boy's hearing, all morning. Perhaps she had a headache; this seemed to fit, since a few times when he or Hugh had been talking, she'd winced and turned away. It was odd, though, since she hadn't been drinking last night. Anyone else, Caleb would have asked about it, but he didn't fancy incurring the unpredictable woman's wrath - or even her sharp tongue - so he kept quiet.
It was another four hours before they reached their destination. The ground had grown progressively rockier, and hillier, and now the road went into a narrow valley - an ancient streambed that still held a trickle of water in its center, but also provided room enough for the road between steep grassy slopes on either side.
"Perfect place for an ambush," Hugh commented grimly. Caleb noticed that the two warriors were keeping a careful eye on the upper slopes, even though - presumably - the only likely target for such an attack would be a merchant with his goods.
A few hundred yards in, the valley cornered tightly - and just round that corner they could see the remains of the wagon. This one was more thoroughly burnt; a few charred planks of wood were all that remained of the main structure. One wheel and a board of some sort had apparently fallen off during the burning, and were mostly undamaged. The whole pile of debris had been shifted off to one side of the road - a pile of ashes in the center revealed its original location - presumably because it had blocked the way of other traffic.
"I'll check the slopes for tracks," Hugh said. "Surely the bandit must've come down that way to attack the wagon." They continued along to the remnants of wagon and Hugh started examining the grass slopes nearby, while Shiya and Caleb stood and - it being after midday - ate the food they'd taken. Hugh grabbed a few bites, too, while he was working.
Having finished his meal, Caleb looked at the pile of debris, but could see nothing of interest. The wheel was just a wheel to him, and the board just a slightly charred piece of wood. Suddenly, though, he wondered what the board had been, that it would fall off the wagon while burning. He reached down and lifted it up, turning it over to expose the reverse side. That revealed it as a sign, which had presumably once been attached to the vehicle's side; smoke-blackened but still visible lettering read "Ananda Preval & company". Smaller print beneath claimed, "Fine goods from far and wide".
The placard was tickling something in Caleb's mind, something he'd almost thought of but couldn't quite retrieve... and then there was a call from Hugh.
Caleb followed Shiya over to the bearded man, who was pointing at a particular spot on the turf that covered the valley slopes. The boy bent to peer at it closely; it still looked just like grass to him, but obviously Hugh could see something there. Carefully, the tracker began to climb the slope on hands and knees, scanning the ground in front of him, until eventually they reached the top. Here the trail led on a few more yards, before Hugh stopped near a tree.
"He must've kept a horse tied to this tree," the bearded man explained, indicating depressions in the ground which this time Caleb could recognize as hoofprints. Following the trail of the mounted rider was easier and quicker, and it only took them a few minutes to discover that it led back southward along the top of the ridge. Then it curved around, meeting the trade road a short distance before the hills rose up either side to form the valley entrance.
"Damn," Hugh commented. "I was hoping this'd lead us back to his hideout or something. Now, all we get is that he was on the road, and he could've left it anywhere else along the way."
"Hold on," Caleb said. "I think I remember this place... up on the sides of that valley. I've been there once before, there's this old guy that lives in a shack near there. He keeps goats or something."
"And he might have seen our bandit? Well then - lead on."
Caleb led the other two up again onto the hills that edged the valley. It had been a few years since he'd last come here, when the old man had sent word that he was ill; the boy had been sent with the town healer, helping her to carry the potions and herbs and bowls she needed for her work. Then, the man had been down with a fever - nothing serious, it turned out in the end - but he had still seemed reasonably sane and normal, nothing like you'd expect from such a hermit.
They headed out across the rolling hills a little way, following Caleb's memory of the route. It turned out good, and they could soon see a little hut with a nearby pen that held a few goats. As they approached, an old, lined face with scraggly white beard appeared at one window, peering out at them. Evidently deciding they were not an immediate threat, the aged hermit disappeared from the opening, unbolted his door, and stepped outside to meet them.
"Wha'd'ye want, strangers?" he asked. "And ye'self, young Caleb."
The boy's impression of the old man went up a few notches; he remembered Caleb's name after they'd met only once, when ill? Clearly he still had his wits.
"We're looking for the bandit who preys on traders in these parts," Hugh said. "Late yesterday afternoon or evening he rode a horse nearby, above the valley that the road follows. The boy here suggested you might've seen him."
"Aye, that I did," the old hermit nodded, lines on his face patterning differently with the movement. "Or saw a rider, at any rate. Thought that was an odd business, him going northwards and then back."
"Did you see where he went?" Hugh asked eagerly.
"Afraid not, young whoever-ye-are."
"I'm Hugh," the bearded man said awkwardly, filling in the introductions he'd forgotten earlier. "This is Shiya. We've been sent by the Duke to deal with this."
"Caleb too?" the old man asked, grinning at the other's confusion.
"Uh, no. He's helping us find our way around here. But, anyway, what did this rider look like?"
"Tall," the hermit responded, without hesitation. "In middle age, and a little plump, but still gave a quite formidable impression. Clean-shaven, and dark-haired. He carried a longsword, and I think he was wearing some kind of leather armor."
Hugh blinked. "You remember all that? Well, thanks. Is there anything else about him we should know?"
The old man shook his head. "Good luck finding him. I don't know why, but I didn't like the look of the fellow at all..." And with that, he went back into the hut, closing the door firmly.
Shiya shrugged slightly and started walking back to the road, and the others followed. Hugh rubbed his beard thoughtfully. "Clean-shaven... it isn't like an outlaw to be clean-shaven. Far too much trouble, especially if you're living out of the way. Most of these people are young, too, and don't eat enough to get 'a little plump'. I wonder if we're dealing with somebody other than an ordinary bandit here, maybe even somebody who lives in the town."
He looked at Caleb for an opinion, to see if the boy knew any possible murderers and brigands, and suddenly something clicked in Caleb's head. He did know, or at least, he had this feeling...
"What were the attacked wagons carrying?" he asked. "And do you have a list of the owners?"
Hugh looked at him oddly. "Right here." He slung the pack off his shoulders and rummaged through a pouch inside, finally extracting a sheet of parchment. On it, tidy ink calligraphy gave a list of seven company names and cargoes of the wagons; a charcoal scrawl that followed was presumably Hugh's addition of the details from last night.
"They were all carrying some kind of cloth," Caleb pointed out.
"And?" Hugh asked. "Most of the trade through here is cloth."
"Eight out of eight? And what kind of outlaw would target cloth merchants alone?"
Hugh nodded slightly, acknowledging the point. "Where's this leading?"
"Look at the company names."
The bearded man complied, looking over the list. "The same company got hit a couple times, but they're a big firm. Other than that, just little suppliers. I don't see anything special."
"That's because what I'm thinking of isn't on your list," Caleb said. "When I saw the name-board at the last burnt wagon, it reminded me of a similar sign. There's a large cloth merchant that works through this area, probably the biggest, and it isn't on your list at all."
"What are you saying?"
"I'm saying that the owner of that firm lives here. In Strathold."
Hugh looked at Caleb briefly, glanced over to Shiya. "Let's get back to town. We're gonna pay a visit."
* * *
Twilight was shading to dusk as they approached the town again. Caleb was pretty tired from traveling most of the day, but the other two seemed well, even energized from the possibility that their task's end was in sight. Even Shiya had ended her self-imposed silence some hours ago.
"Run it by me one more time," Hugh said. "Let's be sure."
"Ferner's middle-aged, like the hermit told us," Caleb said, "and when he was younger he worked as a mercenary soldier - that would account for his skill with the sword."
Shiya spat on the ground. "Never liked mercenaries."
Hugh laughed incredulously. "Coming from you...! Anyway, Caleb; why'd he do this? Trying to destroy the competition?"
Caleb nodded, one part of his mind noticing with pride that for once the bearded man had actually used his given name. "If his competitors can't get much cloth through to the city, then he can increase the price, too. Maybe his company's running into trouble, there could be debts or something."
"It all makes sense to me," Hugh said, as they turned into the main street. "Let's see what the man has to say. Which is his house?"
The youth pointed out a large stone-built town-house, prominently placed just down the street from the inn. As they neared its entrance, Hugh put a hand tight on his longsword, ready to grab it from the scabbard. Shiya was similarly prepared with the shortsword that hung from her belt, and she'd already strung her bow.
"Kid," Hugh warned, "from this point, we go first, and you stay well back."
Caleb nodded agreement - a little disappointed at being demoted to 'kid' again, but seeing the point - and with that, Hugh knocked firmly on the thick wooden door.
After a few moments, it swung inwards, opened by a young uniformed woman - clearly a maid.
"Yes?" she asked doubtfully, obviously a little taken aback by the two unfamiliar faces.
"We're looking for Ferner, the cloth merchant," Hugh told her. "Is he home?"
She shook her head. "He's at the inn just across the street, though. Maybe you could catch him there."
The bearded man nodded. "Okay, we'll do that. While we're here, though, do you know where he was last night?"
"Last night?" She blinked. "He was out until late, but...?"
Another voice interrupted the maid's confusion. "Perhaps I can help, gentlemen - and lady, I'm sorry, I didn't notice you there. Won't you come in?"
It was Ferner's wife, a pretty though somewhat distant middle-aged woman whose name Caleb didn't know. She waved the servant aside with a hand and indicated that the three of them should enter.
Doubtfully, Hugh stepped inside. "Well, I'm not sure you can help, unless you know what your husband was doing last night."
"He was checking on one of our wagons, in repair at the stables," the wife said. Caleb thought he saw some kind of glint in her eyes, but he wasn't sure...
"Uh-huh." Hugh wasn't convinced. "Three nights before that?"
She waved them through a doorway into what looked like a lounge. "Three nights before that, he was-"
And mid-sentence she stopped, quick as a flash pulling a dagger from her belt and slashing at Hugh's throat, as he stepped across the room's threshold. He would have gone down, but Shiya had obviously been paying rather closer attention than either Caleb or Ferner's wife had thought; the tall dark woman launched herself forward and crashed into the would-be assassin, sending the dagger harmlessly short of its mark. After a brief struggle on the floor, Shiya had hold of the woman's arm and was twisting it back; there was an audible crunching sound and the merchant's wife released her dagger with a scream.
"Whadda we do with this one?" Shiya asked, through heavy breaths from her effort. She knelt up, still holding the other woman pinned to the floor.
"I haven't any rope," Hugh said a little shakily, clearly still shocked from the sudden attack. "Think she's going anywhere?"
"With an arm like that?" Shiya snorted. "She's passed out. And the way that hurts if she moves, she'll stay still a month."
"Come on, then." Playing safe, Hugh picked up the wife's dagger, and led the way back out of the house.
As they left, the maidservant was still looking on with open mouth. Shiya looked over her shoulder. "Grab some valuables and get out of here," she advised the young woman. That said, she shut the door behind the three of them and they crossed the street to the inn.
Caleb was still stunned from the action, and entering the inn's main room was like a physical shock; it looked exactly the same now as normal, busy with people eating and drinking and talking and laughing. And there, sitting at a table near the bar, was Ferner himself; the tall middle-aged ex-mercenary, now merchant and, it seemed, murderer.
Not too fast, trying not to attract any particular attention, Shiya and Hugh made their way towards the bar and indirectly to Ferner, Caleb following them a little way back. They were part-way there when there was an incoherent scream from behind and all eyes turned to the door. Standing there, one arm cradling the other in an odd position, was Ferner's wife. Frantically, she nodded her head at the dark-skinned woman and her companion - a message which totally confused the vast majority of the crowd, but got through right away to her husband, who jumped from his seat and looked around wildly for an exit.
"Don't move, Ferner!" Shiya called out. Her bow was out, an arrow nocked and ready, and she kept the point trained on the merchant.
Hugh stood by Shiya, guarding the dark-skinned woman's back with his longsword in case any should mistake her for the enemy. "Everybody else, scatter!"
Confused and frightened but able to see which way the arrow pointed, those around the ex-mercenary jumped to the sides and left a clear ring around him - except one. Caleb's younger sister, working as a barmaid, was standing right by the merchant, and she seemed to have frozen in shock and fear. Seizing his chance, the man grabbed the girl tightly with one arm. The dagger in his other hand, he held to her throat.
"Drop the bow, or she dies," Ferner said, tense but controlled.
Caleb stared in numbed horror. His sister... sure, they fought... but to die? Her a corpse just like the poor trader he'd seen last night? Never to laugh or cry again? Almost unconsciously, he worked his way around the perimeter of the empty circle that surrounded Ferner, to stand as close as possible to the side of the man and the hostage. All the way, he willed Shiya; drop the bow, do what he says, you can get this man later anyway.
"Go on!" Ferner shouted. "I said drop it!" His voice was edging towards hysteria, but the tall, dark woman held the arrow-point firm, her mouth in a hard line.
Caleb looked at Shiya, really looked at her, saw her eyes. The deep brown glinted with some emotion - or whatever the Shiya-equivalent was - and suddenly he knew that she was about to fire, could tell the exact moment. With a cry he launched himself forwards just as she released the arrow, trying to grab the ex-mercenary's hand away from the reflex action that could kill his sister.
They collapsed to the floor in a huddle, the three of them. Caleb, panting with exertion and fear; his sister, still frozen and confused but alive; and Ferner, lying on his back with an arrow in one eye, the dagger-arm deflected by Caleb's grasp.
For a moment, there was a pause, a fraction of a second where everybody took stock. Shiya still stood where she'd been like some goddess of death, and Caleb looked up at her, his eyes accusing; you didn't know I would jump like that, you shot him when it would've probably killed my sister, you didn't care.
And all she said was to the dead man. "Next time, pick somebody taller to hide behind."
* * *
Later, after all the bystanders and well-wishers had left, Caleb sat at a table in the inn, morosely considering the day's events. Sure, everything had ended well, but there were so many things that nearly didn't, so many risks that were taken. His sister might have died because (partly) of his actions, he might have died, earlier Hugh might have died. And even when the right people died, it didn't seem like something to cheer about. He'd seen the real consequences of the kind of life Shiya and Hugh led, the truth behind the glamour, and it should be enough to put him off the idea for ever.
Hugh came over, took a chair opposite him. "Your arm okay?"
Caleb looked down at his right arm; he'd picked up a cut from Ferner's dagger while grabbing the man's arm, without realizing it at the time. Hugh had cleaned and bound the wound, saying he knew how to handle that sort of thing.
"Yeah, like you said, it's shallow. Hurts a little, that's all."
The bearded man nodded. "You still won't talk to Shiya?"
Caleb shook his head stubbornly; he hadn't forgiven the warrior-woman her cavalier disregard for life, yet, if he ever would.
"She likes you, you know. Puts you in a pretty exclusive group." Hugh shrugged. "And you haven't changed your mind about coming with us? We could use a mind like yours."
"No. I've seen enough violence in the last two days to last me a lifetime."
The other man rummaged in a pouch, coming out with a tiny scrap of parchment - probably sliced off the sheet listing attacks - which he passed over the table. On it, scrawled in charcoal, was an address; a street in the Duke's city that Caleb didn't recognize. "If you change your mind, ask for us there. We might not be around, but somebody'll know how to get in touch."
"You people are leaving, then?"
"Tomorrow morning, well before breakfast. So... goodbye. And from Shiya, too."
"Goodbye," Caleb said, and watched the bearded man climb upstairs towards a room and sleep. He wondered how Hugh managed it; for him and Shiya, every other day must be like this one, filled with danger and pain.
Recent events should have been enough to put him off that life forever. But he knew, in his heart, that they hadn't. Carefully, he put the slip of parchment in a pocket and stood up, making his way to bed.
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