Eight Years Later
Slane Donovan dismounted in front of a small shop and tethered his black warhorse to a nearby tree. Woodland Hills was a simple town. There was only one shop to buy supplies in and this was it. The sign hanging from a weather-worn wooden pole jutting out from the building’s thatched roof creaked as it swayed in the easy breeze. He glanced up at the charred words burned into the wood.
A prickling at the back of his neck caused him to look away from the sign toward the shop’s open door. A small girl stood in the doorway, watching him with large brown eyes. Slane grinned and patted her head as he entered the shop.
The interior was dark except for the area lit by the flaming hearth burning to his left and the entranceway lit by the sun behind him. After his eyes adjusted to the gloom, Slane noticed a man sweeping the floor near the rear of the shop. When he heard Slane enter, the man stopped his work and looked up, clutching the broom handle with both hands. “Good day, sir,” he greeted. “What can I do for you?”
“You must be Benjamin.”
Benjamin nodded. “That I am. Are you needing supplies?”
Slane glanced around at the various tables that filled the room. Piles of dull-edged daggers, rusted knives, maces with chipped handles, and numerous other weapons filled several tabletops. Other tables held cooking utensils or farming tools. Shelves lining the wall held foodstuffs of all kinds, dirt-caked vegetables, trenchers, a few strips of salted meat. “I just need some information,” Slane said.
Benjamin began sweeping again. “Nothing comes cheap these days, sir.”
Slane sighed and pulled out a gold piece from the pouch at his waist. “I’m looking for a ring,” he said. “Two swords crossed, and an S on it.”
The man’s eyes lit up at the sight of the coin. He reached for it, but Slane pulled it back.
“Have you seen it?”
“Yes,” Benjamin said eagerly. “Not two days ago. A woman wore it.”
“Did you see which way the woman went?” Slane asked.
“She rode off to the west. Near as I can guess, she was heading toward Fulton.”
Slane nodded and handed the man the coin. Benjamin greedily snatched it from Slane’s fingers. Fulton. That was only a day’s ride. He turned and moved to the doorway.
He caught the small girl staring at him and her eyes went wide before she quickly pulled back out of the doorway. Slane grinned. He strolled out the door and moved toward his horse.
The soft tread of a child’s footsteps followed him. “Did she do something bad?”
The girl’s small voice caused Slane to turn. “No,” he told her.
“Then how come you want to find her?” she asked.
Slane smiled and knelt down to the child’s level. Her eyes were large and brown and innocent. “I’m looking for the ring.”
Slane ruffled her hair and turned back to his horse. He swung himself up into the saddle.
“Like those other men this morning?”
Slane froze. “What other men?”
“Some other men were asking about the ring and the lady this morning,” she said. “One of them was real mean, the one with the hair on his lip. I didn’t like him.”
“Corydon,” Slane hissed, staring off down the road. When Corydon had won lands that bordered Donovan and Sullivan lands five years ago, Slane himself had approached him in peace, seeking to secure friendship with his neighbor. But Corydon had scoffed at his efforts and attacked his party. Two good men had been killed that day. Slane could still hear Corydon’s laughter burning in his ears.
And now Corydon had actively begun to accumulate an army of men. Enough men to lay siege to a castle. Slane knew he had precious little time to complete his mission. Corydon’s appetite for new lands was insatiable.
Slane returned his gaze to the small girl. She couldn’t have been more than four, but she was obviously smart beyond her years. He bestowed on her one of his most beguiling smiles. “Thank you, m’lady,” he said. “You’ve been very helpful.”
She put her small hands to her mouth and giggled.
Slane spurred his horse and the large animal fell into a trot and then a full-out gallop. With Corydon so close, he knew there was no more time to waste. He needed help. He needed experienced trackers.
The arm slammed heavily down upon the table. Cheers broke out around the room, echoed by groans and finally, what Taylor liked to hear the most, coins clinking together. She watched Jared rise from the table, a victory smile on his bearded face. His brigandine armor shifted with his movement, the leather shining dully in the fire of the hearth as he reached his full height. Taylor looked at the fire for a moment, at the snaking, whipping flames, then she quickly turned away.
Jared’s opponent in the arm wrestling match, a taller and heavier man, rose from his seat rubbing his arm. Taylor froze for an instant, her hand moving inconspicuously to the hilt of her sword, but when she saw the defeated man’s shoulders slump slightly and his head hang she took her fingers away from her weapon. A smile curved the corner of her lips. He would be no trouble. There had been many a time when she and Jared had to leave an inn fighting. Most men were not easily parted from their hard-earned coin.
Jared clasped a few arms and slapped a few backs.
Most of the gambling men found it distasteful to give up their coin to a woman, and Jared was busy speaking with the patrons and his opponent, so Taylor and Jared had found it best to employ a man to collect their winnings. Taylor leaned against a wall at the rear of the tavern, scanning the room for the shady little creature. She had found it best to remain discreetly separate from the patrons, keeping an eye on Jared’s back. She spotted Irwin slithering from person to person in the dark room, collecting the coins that glinted in the torchlight when they fell into his open palm. The way he held his hands curled into his chest, the way he scurried, reminded her of a rat. Keeping her gaze on him, she reached down to the table before her and grabbed her ale. Irwin held out his hand to the next man, who deposited two coins into his open palm with a grimace and moved away. Taylor lifted the mug to her lips, but paused as she watched Irwin’s eyes shift left and then right. She knew what he was going to do even before his small hand dipped into his pocket and came up empty. Her green eyes narrowed and she threw back her head to drain the mug of ale.
By the time Irwin finally scurried up to her, Taylor was on her second ale. A grin spread across his rodent-like face as he produced the coin-filled pouch, chuckling gleefully, “We emptied their pockets!” He dropped it onto the table and the coins clanked heavily as they hit the wooden surface.
Taylor scooped up the pouch. She weighed it in her hand for a moment and was gratified to see Irwin’s smile slip a notch. She tied the strings around her belt, watching him. “Nice doing business with you, Irwin,” she said and took a step past him.
Irwin moved to block her path.
Her gaze slowly shifted to him.
“My payment,” he whined. He extended his hand, palm up.
“You know, Irwin, as I see it, you have two choices. You can try to get your payment from Jared, but he’s a smart man and all he would have to do is look in your eyes to see how you cheated him.” She watched Irwin’s face turn from gray to white. But he recovered quickly.
“Cheated him? I am a man of morals. I would never –”
“I saw you, Irwin.”
He sputtered for a moment, his hands twitching nervously. “It was a mistake, a misunderstanding!”
Taylor nodded. “I know. And I sympathize with you. But I’m afraid that Jared is not the forgiving type. Do you know what he did to the last man he caught with his hand in our moneybag?”
Irwin shook his head, his black eyes wide, anxiously awaiting the answer.
“He followed him out into an alley and — well, the poor soul was never seen again. My guess is rat food.”
“Rat food?” Irwin echoed.
Taylor nodded. “Not the forgiving type.”
“You — you said I had two choices.”
“Well, yes. You can take what you have… and disappear.”
Irwin did not move for a long moment. Taylor was sure that she saw his little nose twitch. “But…” he finally protested weakly.
Taylor held up a finger, halting his objection. “Rat food,” she reminded him.
Irwin shuffled his feet. “I see your point.”
“And next time,” Taylor murmured, leaning toward Irwin, “be sure that no one is looking when you steal.”
“Sully!” Jared called.
Taylor turned to see Jared making his way through the crowd of well-wishers. He stood a foot above her, his bald head shining in the torch light.
“The ale is on me tonight!” he called out to her.
Taylor nodded. “I thought as much. Irwin here—“ Taylor turned to Irwin, only to find him gone. A smile lit her face. “They don’t like to get caught.”
“God’s right hand! Another one?” Jared roared. “Good help is hard to find these days. How much did he take?”
“Not enough to make a dent in the profits you brought in.” Taylor hefted the bag in her palm. “It looks as though we’ll sleep in a bed tonight!”
Jared dropped his head, seriousness washing over him. He took Taylor’s arm and steered her to a private corner of the common room. “We can’t keep on like this, Sully,” he murmured. “We have to find work. A few coins from wagering won’t see us past a night.”
“You worry too much, my friend. I’m sure the morning will bring better luck and a paying fare. Just watch.” She turned to move back into the crowd, but Jared caught her arm.
“If nothing comes on the morrow, we move north. Agreed?”
Taylor sighed. She didn’t want to go north in search of employment. It was too close. Too close to what she had been avoiding all these years. She clenched her teeth and pushed away the unpleasant memories that threatened to take hold of her senses.
Jared shook her arm. “Agreed?”
Taylor pulled free of his grip. “Agreed,” she reluctantly assented, then turned and barreled through the rowdy patrons and out into the night air.
North. She glanced up at the stars and suddenly their glistening brilliance shimmered, transporting her back in time. Flames roared before her eyes. A horrible scream filled her ears. She quickly shook her head and marched around a corner. She paused to take a deep drink of ale. It slid over her tongue and down her throat, washing away the memories.
“It’s dangerous for a woman to walk these streets alone,” a voice called out.
Taylor groaned, immediately recognizing the voice. Usually when she told the vermin to stay away, they did. But it looked as if Irwin wasn’t as bright as the rest. “Irwin,” Taylor murmured and spun. “I told you to take what you have –” Her voice faded. The firelight shining through the tavern window illuminated three men standing in the alley before her: Irwin and two burly others. So, Taylor thought, our little rat has friends. She leaned against a crate that lined the dark road.
“I’m not satisfied with the payment I received,” Irwin said.
“I could have guessed,” Taylor murmured, lifting the mug to her lips.
“And now I want it all.”
Taylor swallowed the ale in a surprised gulp. “All? Aren’t we getting a little greedy, Irwin?”
He shrugged his scrawny shoulders. “If I have to get my fair payment this way, I might as well take it all.”
Taylor dropped her chin to her chest, sighing. “I suppose I can’t talk you out of this.” Part of her didn’t want to. Her hands itched for a little swordplay.
“Oh, your tongue is witty, but you’ll need more than that to change my mind.”
Taylor set her mug down on the crate, careful not to spill its contents. Then she straightened up and faced Irwin. “All right.”
Irwin’s beady black eyes widened. “You will give us the bag?”
Taylor chuckled in disbelief. “Not a chance, Irwin,” she said. “If you want the bag, you’re going to have to take it.”
Irwin’s companions laughed lasciviously.
The half moon that lit the sky cast a bluish glow over the alley, allowing Taylor to see her opponents as they approached. They were both big men dressed in soiled breeches and ragged tunics — one with a long, dark, unkempt beard that reached almost down to his stomach, the other missing two teeth. They moved slowly and laboriously. Taylor was certain that their bulk would be more hindrance than help in their actual fighting.
“Get her,” Irwin ground out between his teeth.
“Tsk-tsk, Irwin,” Taylor admonished. “You’re not the one doing the dirty work. Give them a moment to think. Here, gentlemen. Let me make this easy on you. One of you go to my right, the other to my left. Try to surround me.”
The two men cast speculative glances at each other before doing what Taylor told them.
“What an ingenious plot!” Taylor laughed. She continued to face Irwin, keeping the two men in her peripheral vision. Suddenly, the men acted. The one with the beard rushed her from her right while the other man charged from her left.
Taylor feinted back and then stepped forward. The two men knocked shoulders, the man without the teeth falling onto his buttocks. Taylor whirled in time to see the man with the beard stomping toward her. She heard a movement behind her and brought her elbow back sharply into Irwin’s ribs, then danced two steps out of the bearded man’s path.
“If this is the best you’ve got, you might as well leave now,” she scoffed.
She stood two steps from the wall, able to see all the men. The man with two missing teeth climbed to his feet. Irwin stood beside the bearded man, his arm wrapped around his stomach.
The man with two missing teeth drew a small dagger.
All the amusement Taylor felt up until now disappeared. When weapons were drawn, it was no longer a game. Now, it was a fight for her life. She eased her sword from its sheath.
The men halted for a long moment.
“She’s a woman! She doesn’t know how to use it,” Irwin reassured the men. “It’s just for show.”
“Then you come and get it, Irwin,” Taylor invited. “I’ll put on a show for you.”
Irwin swallowed hard. “This is what I’m paying you for,” he said to the men. “There are two of you… and one of her.”
The man with the missing teeth came forward, rage in his dark eyes. She had somehow insulted him and his anger was burning. He would fight irrationally. Every instinct told her to fight her way free and flee. But painful memories still lingered like a glowing ember inside her. She needed to bury them again. She needed a fight.
The gap-toothed man approached steadily. Taylor did not move back until he lashed out at her. She ducked and whirled away, but he followed her, dogging her steps. She caught one of his swings with her sword, and the dagger bounced harmlessly off her blade. He kept at her, and she moved carefully within the small space of the alley, biding her time. Finally, he foolishly waved his weapon by her face and she took advantage of the moment. She reared her head back from the sharp edge of the dagger as it swept just beneath her chin—and thrust forward with her blade at the same time. She had meant to wound him enough to scare him, but the idiot stepped into her swing. The sword hit flesh and for a moment everything froze.
The gap-toothed man’s dark eyes went round with surprise; his mouth went slack with shock. His dagger slipped from his fingers and it clattered against the ground.
Taylor pulled her sword from his torso and turned.
The fist that slammed into her face sent her reeling to the ground! Her head spun fiercely for a moment and her cheek throbbed with a pulsing, biting pain. A kick to her side spun her over onto her back. She lay with her eyes open, gasping for a breath, unsure whether the white blotches that flared before her eyes were stars in the night sky or patches of pain clouding her vision.
A dark, twisted face suddenly appeared above her, a face covered with dirty hair and picked-at scabs. She felt hands shaking her shoulders. She saw lips moving and heard unintelligible sounds. Then two savage punches knocked her head back and this time she knew the flashes of white filling her vision didn’t come from the heavens above.
She lay still for a long moment, her cheek pressing against the dust and dirt of the road. Slowly, the stars swimming before her eyes faded and the world came back into focus. She saw a splash of moonlight washing over her mug, which had overturned in the battle. Her eyes followed the thin stream of ale as it dripped down to the puddle below.
The bearded man’s words cut through her fogginess. “Had enough?”
“You spilled my ale,” Taylor groaned. She was rewarded with a brutal kick to her abdomen.
As she lifted a limp hand to ward off any more blows, she heard laughter.
“You were right,” Irwin whispered in her ear. “That was a good show.”
Their shrill laughter faded into the distance.
Taylor lay in the road for a long time, watching the growing pool of ale on the ground, wishing the pounding in her head would stop. She tasted blood in her mouth; her tongue traced a gash on her lip. She forced herself onto her back and lifted a hand to her throbbing left cheek. She knew it would swell and bruise before the morning. She closed her eyes, taking stock of her injuries. Stomach, side, but mostly her face. Her left cheek was by far the worst. The right cheek stung, but the ache was nowhere near as intense as the biting pain on the left side. Already she felt puffiness ringing her left eye. At least she didn’t think anything was broken.
Her head pounded savagely behind her eyes and she rubbed her forehead with the tips of her fingers, unsuccessfully willing the pain to go away. She opened her eyes to contemplate the heavens and the God that had delivered her to such a fate.
That was when she noticed that her ring was gone! Her mother’s ring! They had pried it from her fingers!
She tried to push herself up off the ground, but didn’t make it past her hands and knees. “Damn it,” she whispered, groaning as pain shot through every muscle in her body. She was in no condition to pursue the thieves, but she vowed she would have the ring back. Whatever it took.
She quickly scanned the alley, hoping they hadn’t taken everything. The man with the missing teeth lay sprawled not five feet from her. Her gaze shot past him, past her spilled ale, up the alley. Where was her sword? It wasn’t what they had been after. Had they taken it to sell it?
She spotted her blade lying in the shadows against the wall of the tavern and breathed a sigh of relief.
The sudden clattering of hooves made her freeze. She crawled into the shadows of the tavern, hoping that whomever it was would not look into this dirty alley — and that it wasn’t some wretched God-loving knight with a penchant for doing good. She was in enough trouble in plenty of towns as it was.
The horses continued past the alley without stopping. Taylor eased out of the shadows and took another look at the body only a few feet from her. The toothless man was definitely dead, his chest still and lifeless. Not the first man she had killed, and probably not the last. Unless, of course, she was caught here with his blood on her blade.
The dripping of her trickling ale caught her attention and she turned her head. Her mug rested on its side on the crate beside her. She reached up and grabbed it, then crawled over to her sword and took hold of it with trembling fingers. Kneeling, she resheathed the weapon, taking four tries to get it back into its scabbard.
She pulled herself to her feet, using the wall as support. Mustering as much determination as she could, she willed the pain away and straightened only enough to walk toward the tavern. Each step was agony; each footfall pounded through her entire body.
Finally, the open doorway of the tavern loomed before her. She stepped into the entryway and halted, leaning heavily against the wooden frame and closing her eyes against the throbbing pain that pierced every muscle in her body.
When Taylor opened her eyes, she saw Jared sitting across the room between two buxom serving wenches. He jumped up and rushed to her side. Relief washed over her so completely her shoulders sagged and her entire body started to go limp.
Taylor raised the empty mug. “I need a refill,” she grunted before collapsing into Jared’s arms.
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