By: The Birch Twins
“Where did you get that,” asked Skarr, her face a mixture of anger and surprise.”
If regular readers will recall, I had just returned, barely with my life intact, from an encounter with a hibernating beast in a Dwarven ruin. This time, for once, it was not Skarr, my hearty warrior companion that had killed the thing with a blow from her blade, but me. Inept, apprentice apothecary Elina Greypepper, the writer of this narrative. Not only that, it had been me that had grabbed two dwarven artifacts from within the ice-covered ruin. Dwarven artifacts were so rare that we were sure to get a good price in one of the reputable dealers in the Imperial city. It was the first of those items that Skarr was looking at, turning it over and over in her hand.
It was a heavy brass and steel slave collar, with a complicated internal lock typical of the dwarven people. Their chosen slaves, Skarr’s Norther people, were strong and ingenious, and collars and restraints applied to them had to be as inescapable as possible. The one I had stolen was quite ornate in design, and had several engravings and writings on the sides, none of which either of us could decipher. Inset in the front and sides were ornate jewels.
“Why would you want such a thing,” she asked as we walked away from the town of Monsk where we had spent the night, “it is drenched in the sweat and shame of my people.”
“We’re not exactly wealthy,” I replied, “consider the sum we’d get for this in the empire, in one of the antique markets. Dwarven artifacts are rare.”
“What else have you in that bag,” she asked, snatching it from me, “let me see, Dushka.”
She pulled out several brass tools, made from the same polished brass and steel.
“Instruments of slavery are only celebrated by the pigs that live in the empire,” she remarked, handing the things back to me.
“I know,” I said placing a hand on her shoulder, “I understand. But we must eat. And sleep. With funds from these artifacts, we could eat for a year. I do wonder how they worked though. The collar closes, but there doesn’t seem to be a way for it to lock. And I suppose it had to lock.”
Skarr didn’t seem to know, and so I put the things away, and stashed them as safely as I could in my pack. We were on the road that led from Monsk in the Norther lands down through the eastern highlands where we would eventually drop down into a town somewhat laughably called Gloomfell. A journey on foot might take us days, and be dangerous, though we were hopeful of a carriage or two that might make the journey easier and faster.
A little way down the road we came to a small farm, with a carriage outside. Skarr was walking by, but I noticed a woman turn as we passed.
“Need a hand,” I asked as I watched her struggle with a crate of live chickens, “loading this must be hard work for one?”
“Aye, I’d be grateful,” she said, “Old Pew is blind now. Barely hanging onto this farm. He can’t even help loading up now, divines bless him.”
Together, my new found friend and I struggled with the crate of chickens, and turned to load more produce.
“These are not heavy,” said Skarr who had appeared behind me with a heavy sack under each arm, “it is likely you who are weak.”
“Apologies for my friend,” I said quickly, for I wanted a lift in the carriage, “her manners leave a lot to be desired.”
“Think nothing of it,” she said, tuning to Skarr, “my father and other were Norther people. Abrupt, to the point and fiercely independent, “I am glad to meet your acquaintance. I am Leonida.”
“You are of the mountains,” asked Skarr, turning, “what is your family name?”
“No, “she said, “my parents left the mountains as children. They had a smallholding on the outskirts of Monsk. Their clan was Badendoch. I came here after I married Aljean. We had the only carriage company in these parts.”
“I am Skarr,” she said, nodding curtly. They know me in the mountains as Cock o the North.”
“Aye,” said Leonida, “I have heard of you. Your army was betrayed at Black Wolf Fell. Or so they said.”
“My friend here,” she said pointing to me struggling with a sack of carrots, “is tired, and would no doubt appreciate a ride in your husband’s carriage, if indeed you are going to Gloomfell.”
“I am,” she said, putting up the sides of the carriage, “but it’s my carriage, not Aljean’s. My former husband decided to take up with an outfit called The Black Hand a few years ago. Said there was more to be made in banditry. So he left me the carriage, and the house. Some empire folks won’t trust a carriage driven by a woman, but the Northmen use it well enough. We’ll be in Gloomfell before nightfall. I’ll shout you a room at the inn for some help unloading?”
“We have an accord,” she said, ”hopefully there is an inn at Gloomfell that sells decent ale.”
“Try The Blind Monkey,” said Leonida, “it’s not too bad. I’ll show you when we get there. Avoid The White Horse inn, pull of empire folks and the drink there is piss-swill.”
We nodded, and climbed into the carriage. Skarr was quiet for a time. I was exhausted with all the heavy lifting, not being used to manual labor like the loading of a cart, and Skarr, because I suspect she had met a fellow Norther.
“I have grown soft in the empire,” she said dolefully, “Norther warriors run up and down these hills. Now I ride in a carriage like a soft puta.”
“Maybe it’s your age, “I said quietly, ducking as she reached to cuff me behind the head.
“I need a fight,” she said, a Norther needs to fight to feel alive. We should not be riding in carriages and loading them. Leonida and I should be charging our enemies, swords drawn.”
Less than an hour later, our carriage rocked violently and came to a shuddering halt. Noises and shouting came from outside, and, as I was gathering my wits, Skarr was already out, one hand on Doomsayer, that greatsword of hers. I made to exit the carriage after her, but an unseen hand pulled me backwards. Dragging me from the carriage from the other door, I idly wondered why there were no shouts from Skarr, and why everything was so quiet. Then I was out of the carriage and face first in the dirt, a knee on my back.
“I have another one here,” said the owner of the knee, “drag the bitch with the others.”
I was grabbed and bodily shoved around the front of the carriage. The first sight that met my eyes was Skarr’s blade, Doomsayer, discarded on the ground near a cart that had been blocking the road.
Panicking, I looked around in case the warrior had been somehow felled. But she was stood quietly with Leonida, both of them having had their wrists fastened in shackles. Leonida was shaking her head in fury.
“Quickly,” said a voice, and I looked up to see one of the bandits, his arm around a small child, a dagger to her throat, “one move, mage, and I kill her. Stand with the others. You give us your valuables and none of you get hurt. Lucky this little one was passing with the milk, or we might not have got you to stop.”
I looked at Skarr. She was silent, but a grim expression placed across her face, and I could hear a low growl in her throat.”
The bandits heard it too, and once I had been marshaled with the others, one turned to her.
“Yeah,” he said, coming nose to nose with her, “you’d like to, wouldn’t you, big girl. I’ve skinned a dozen Norther warriors like you, back in the war. We just staked them out and cut their hides off. Left them to the jackals. All you dogs are fit for, too.”
“Knock it off, Nijal,” said the man who had stuck his knee into my back, “let’s keep it nice and friendly. I fought with these people, remember. We just want their money, we don’t want any violence from this big beauty, do we darling. Get something out of the case, will you? Something for our big girl’s pretty legs. Don’t worry, sweetheart, Aljean will look after you.”
Skarr went to move, but the bandit with the small girl pressed his knife deeper into the child’s throat. She whimpered slightly, and Skarr relaxed her body.
I watched Nijal fetch manacles from a trunk. Aljean? I remembered that name and looked at Leonida.
“That’s it, big girl, “said Nijal, nice and easy. Get the manacles on her, Aljean. This one’s a feisty one, aren’t you, beauty.”
I watched Aljean drop the manacles at Skarr’s feet, before kneeling and locking them on her ankles.
“Don’t worry gorgeous,” he said stroking the inside of her thigh, “soon as we have your trinkets, we’ll unlock you.”
“Aye, we’re thieves, not murderers. Honorable thieves, sweet ladies. You have the pleasure of being robbed by none other than the Black Hand.”
“A pox on you, you bastard, “shouted Leonida, “honor, Aljean? How, by the divines do you know anything about it? Left me with a baby in my belly and one in the ground? Now every week you stop my carriage and threaten my friends? By the gods I’d see you hang?”
“I think she’s a little bit mad,” laughed Nijal, “I told you that wives need whipping to keep them in line.”
Skarr growled again, testing the strength of her shackles, but they seemed to hold her firm.
“Aye my big beauty,” he said, turning to her, snarling, “I’d soon bring you to heel with the lash between your shoulders. Warm you nicely and get you in the mood for spending the night in my bed.”
“What did I tell you,” laughed Aljean, “we just want their gold, and their trinkets. That’s all. Just a bit of fun from two lovable rogues of the road is all. Leonida, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I’m not the standup honorable Norther that you want me to be. I told you I was half inclined to be a rogue when first we met. You women always only hear what you want to hear. I’m with the Black Hand now.”
“Four times in a month, Aljean,” said Leonida, “at this rate I’ll be out of business. Who feeds young Gerta then?”
“You could always come in with us,” laughed Aljean, “I need something pretty to look at. Old Nijal is handy with that little blade of his, but he’s not as pleasant to share a bed with as you were.”
Come on,” said Nijal, “before this big bitch decides she doesn’t like being chained like the dog she is.”
“The little girl,” I said, turning to the whimpering child, still with a knife to her throat, “let the girl go.”
The girl started to smile. At first I thought she was worried, but then a dawning horror crept over me.
“She gets it,” the girl laughed, turning to Aljean, “the mage gets it. We’ve done them. Come on my hearties, let’s leave them. I told you I could whimper when I needed to.”
I watched as the little girl, laughing, joined the bandits who saddled up their horses. Aljean, having frightened away our own horses, reached into his pouch.
“I promised you the keys to your shackles,” he said laughing, tossing the keys into the heavy underbrush down the hillside, “here you go.”
And then they were gone, as was our transport and any chances of reaching civilization before nightfall. Skarr shouted a curse but they were out of earshot.
“You have to get me out of these,” she said tugging at her restraints, “there are wolveen here after dark, and marauders. The keys are down the hill somewhere. Look.”
“It’s fine,” I said, “I’ll go then. You just stay here.”
She shot me a look, and continued to tug at her shackles.
Night was falling, and Skarr sat dolefully with Leonida while I searched for the keys that would unlock their restraints.
“Curse the bastard,” said Leonida, “he keeps doing this to me. Stops the carriage and robs the gold and valuables that I’m taking to Gloomfell. He worked this carriage with me, you see. He knows when I’ll be down here. Tricked me into stopping well enough with that kid, though.”
“I wish you’d have said,” I remarked, “Skarr could have rode up top with you. They even took that dwarven slave collar and those tools that we were going to sell. That’ll fetch a pretty decent price in the Antique markets of the city.”
It is too late for that, Dushka, “ said Skarr, obviously frustrated, “We have a more pressing concern. Search faster. I can hear Wolveen. Pah to these irons. I should be able to break them.”
But despite her tugging and smashing her fetters into rocks, they would not give up their grip on her, and she was just as securely shackled as before, and mostly helpless. Finally, I had to give up, the night was drawing in and searching in the dark for a tiny key was quite useless.
I came back up the hillside, and sat where Skarr was still perched with Leonida.
“You will find the key at first light,” she said in that way she had, “it will not be a pleasurable fight should a pack of wolveen find us, and I am manacled hand and foot.”
I fully imagined that, despite her efforts, we would be slaughtered, though I said nothing. At this present time, there was little I could do. With my companions securely chained and fettered, and darkness falling, all we could do is shelter in the carriage until daybreak. I heard Wolveen howling in the distance, and Skarr and I exchanged grim looks. As darkness fell, I reflected on the end of the day. I reflected, as I watched Skarr shift uncomfortably in her manacles.
The wolveen were outside the carriage. We could both hear and smell the creatures as they snarled, the scent of fresh meat in the air. Skarr writhed and struggled, but her restraints held her securely. No amount of tugging would persuade them to loose their grip on either her wrists or her ankles. One wolveen threw itself against the door and it began to splinter.
“Divines preserve us,” Leonida, “we’re done for.”
“Pah,” said Skarr, struggling to reach for her knife, “open the door a crack, Dushka, I will kill them.”
“How can you,” I said, you’re not exactly free to move.”
“You may assist me this once,” she said, “with fireballs. Try not to set fire to me, or soil yourself as last time.”
I nodded, and to the horror of Leonida, Skarr flung herself bodily from the carriage. Immediately the wolveen rounded on her, snarling. Bringing her chained wrists above her head, she planted her feet and held the blade. Instantly one of the wolveen pounced. I flung myself from the carriage and watched as she pivoted and slashed with the blade across the wolveen’s throat. The other one pounced, and ducking low, she slashed a fatal blow with the blade again, both hands close together. The third wolveen turned to stare at me, and as a defense I attempted to force a fireball.
“Pivarra, pute giravva,” Skarr shouted and the wolveen turned its head. Skarr growled low in her throat and it pounced. My fireball wouldn’t come, and Skarr forgetting for a moment that her ankles were chained, moved to pivot her feet. The chain held her firm and forced her ankles together, tripping her. Instantly the wolveen was on her, with its jaws sinking deep into her leg. I tried to force another fireball, but again it wouldn’t come. Skarr shrieked and struggled in her chains as the wolveen jaws bit deeper. Skarr rolled over, and the wolveen opened its mouth. Struggling to back away, her chains clanked and impeded her. Finally my fireball flew and hit a nearby tree, which exploded in a shower of sparks. The familiar warm wetness filled my clothes, and I collapsed in a small heap. The wolveen was now astride Skarr, and the next bite would be at her throat. It growled low and deep and went in to bite. I did the only thing I could do. From my seated prone position, I threw a rock. It bounced easily from the beast’s back, but it did enough to distract it from tearing out Skarr’s throat. It bounded for me, and in an instant, the barbarian had rolled onto her knees, wincing with the pain, and threw the dagger. It narrowly missed killing the thing, but the beast was dealt enough of a blow for it to be stopped in its tracks. She crawled on her knees to where it stood, dazed, and wrapped her shackled wrists around its throat, tugging the chain tight.
We sat for a while on the ground, before I went over to her.
“I told you that we needed a fight to warm us,” she said with a tired laugh, “curse these chains. Let us hope the wind is eastwards otherwise more will come.”
“I need to heal you,” I said, “I know you dislike magic, but considering we need you in good health to survive the night, I do think you might let me use magic, instead of a poultice.”
“Do as you wish,” she said with a sigh, “I shall be glad to get rid of these cursed fetters at first light. I had hoped the fire spell might have been of more use, Dushka? You have soiled yourself again.”
“I’m only an apothecary,” I said, and a healer. I never claimed to be a battlemage.”
“With that attitude, you never shall be.”
“It takes time,” I replied pressing both hands to close the wound, “I feel certain that even Argathorn of the palace at one time wet his pants when flinging a magic arrow spell.”
“I feel certain he didn’t soil himself as often as you, Dushka.”
The morning after, poultice applied to finish her healing, Skarr was mostly recovered. Gloomfell lived up to its name, as today the sky was dark and forbidding, as I searched for the key to the shackles of my companions in the rain. It was well past mid-day when I finally found the key hidden in a small hole. I scrambled up the hill, hollering for all I was worth.
“Finally,” Skarr said, “It is not natural to keep Northers in chains so. I shall be glad to have a good fight and stretch out my limbs.”
I shook with the key, as I inserted into the lock that held the manacle around Skarr’s left ankle. It wouldn’t turn. I tried again, but nothing. It didn’t seem to go in enough, and the manacle remained silently locked.
“What are you doing, Dushka,” she said, frustrated, “unlock me. My limbs need to stretch. A norther warrior cannot be held in chains.”
I tried the key in her wrist irons, noting the red marks that had appeared on her wrists underneath the metal. Nothing. The key didn’t fit. She tugged at the chains in frustration, but they still held her firm.
“Here, “said Leonida, “maybe they fit mine. Try me, Elina.”
The key fitted, and turned with a heavy clunk, releasing Leonida from her shackles.”
“That’s such a relief,” she said rubbing her wrists before seeing Skarr’s glowering face, “Oh. I’m sorry. Aljean always was such a joker. There’s a blacksmith in Gloomfell, but it looks like we’ll have to walk.”
I had often been of the opinion, during my travels with my barbarian companion, that, whenever we were in a fix, that things often couldn’t get any worse. In this instance, since our ambushing by bandits four days prior, things had definitely got worse. Skarr, Leonida and I had eventually made it Gloomfell, soaked through, exhausted and with my companion’s gait restricted by her chains. Eventually, we managed to find a blacksmith, who removed the manacles in short order.
We followed Leonida to the Blind Monkey tavern. Having made her apologies in order to arrange the recovery of her carriage from the side of the road where we’d left it, we shoved our way inside the busy tavern, arranged a room and Skarr drank several pints of ale.
“What do you keep looking around for,” I shouted above the din, watching her constantly turn around to glare at some inebriated patron of the busy establishment, “are you looking for someone?”
“They do not keep a Norther warrior in chains,” she said, “I will separate their heads from their shoulders with Doomsayer.”
The blade at her side crackled with purple sparks and magical energy. Several patrons had noticed it, but none chose to tackle her. At that moment she rose form her seat at the bar and strode over to a table with four laborers arguing drunkenly.
“I’m telling you, “one of the men was loudly saying, “pigs are the ones that taste most like humans, “our cousin’s kid can read. He read a book once.”
“Its dogs, “said another.
“I am looking,” said Skarr approaching the table, “for a man named Aljean. A bandit.”
“Divines,” said one, looking up at her, “these whores are getting better, look at this big beauty.”
“Get your tits our, bonny wench,” said a drunk, approaching, and placing both hands squarely on Skarr’s buttocks.
I cringed at the violence which I suspected was to follow. Unbeknown of the danger of his situation, the drunk that had hold of Skarr’s buttocks gave them a cheeky little squeeze.
“Get your titties out, love,” he said again, “we have gold. We can pay if you can dance.”
Mercifully, she kept Doomsayer sheathed. Spinning on the balls of her feet, she planted the palm of her hand in his chin, felling the man instantly. The other four were on their feet instantly.”
“Poor Marty, he was only being friendly.”
“Let’s strip the bitch.”
“Bend the wench over the table.”
The long dagger slammed down hard and fast into the center of the wooden table, and the tavern was silent instantly.
I was over and at Skarr’s side.
“We were wondering,” I said, rather too politely, “If any of you might know the whereabouts of a man named Aljean. He robbed a good friend of ours.”
“If we can’t screw the big bitch,” one of the drunks muttered, “then what about her mage friend. Get them skirts up, gorgeous, let’s see those legs.”
I tried to meet Skarr’s eye. I tried to get her before she enacted the violence that I knew was coming. But she was far too fast for me. She pulled the dagger from the table and threw it across the room at the sound of the voice. At first the whole room thought the warrior had missed her mark. So did the owner of the voice. Then he looked down at the sudden stabbing pain in his foot, and saw the long nagger neatly pinning it to the floorboards.
“One of you will tell us where I can find this Aljean,” Skarr roared, picking up a flailing drunk with both hands.
That might have been when the fight broke out. In truth I wasn’t sure. Normally, I cringe away from any violence, but an apprentice apothecary must usually supplement her income by any manner of means, and I was no stranger to tavern work, and could hold my own. For Skarr, it was a degree of stress relief. The tavern was in uproar and she fought only with her feet and fists, and not blades.
In fact, the entire Blind Monkey tavern might have been wrecked were it not for the arrival of three burly town guardsmen, resplendent in their chainmail.
The tavern fell quiet, and all eyes turned to my warrior companion.
“I am looking, “she said releasing her grip on the lapels of a big burly man, “for two men named Aljean and Nijal.”
“And I’m looking,” said the guard Sergeant, “for two women criminals who came trotting through our city gate two hours ago with Leonida the coach driver. They intimidated the blacksmith into removing the big blonde one’s chains. Then they went to ground somewhere in town. Looks like you popped up again.”
“Our carriage was held up,” I said, hastily stepping between Skarr and the Sergeant, “we were robbed and my friend here was chained to prevent her from capturing our assailants. We were looking for them.”
“You men are town guards,” Skarr said shoving me aside, “and yet you know nothing of the bandits who prey on the coach driver four times a month. It should not be hard, even for your tiny Imperial brains. One is Aljean, a Norther vagabond, and the other is Nijal, an eastern Medjuel by the looks of him. Aljean was married to the coach driver. I will find him one way or another. We yet have business, and he stole some valuables form my companion here.”
“Yeah,” said the Captain, “I know of them. But as far as I know, you two are criminals wandered in here threatening the gentle peaceful people of Gloomfell.”
“Leonida will confirm our story.”
“Conveniently, Leonida is out on the road recovering her carriage. She may confirm that you are victims of robbery, or that you two are in fact troublemakers. Judging by the mess here I’m inclined to believe the latter. We’ll ask Leonida when she returns. Until then, it’s back to our local friendly blacksmith. He has some chains that need refitting onto your big friend there.”
Skarr growled, low in her throat, but nodded. We left with the guards.
“If I’d have thought you’d have gotten into trouble less than an hour after coming here,” said Leonida, “then I’d have stayed to square things.”
“I shouldn’t worry,” I replied as we walked through the Gloomfell town square, “it’s not the first time we’ve fallen afoul of the law. Skarr will hold a grudge against Aljean for a long time. She needs to get it out of her system.”
“Of course I’ll square things with the Sergeant,” she said, “but…I don’t know, Elina. He’s still my husband. If she could get your things back and not kill him, that’d be the best solution. Do you think she might be persuaded?”
I really didn’t know, and was silent. She hadn’t been in the best of moods anyway, and then finding herself marched back to the blacksmith and refitted with the shackles that had only been struck off two hours previously. And then, if that hadn’t been enough, to spend the night in a tiny cell with straw for a bed, while I lived it up in relative luxury at The Blind Monkey. I doubted she could be placated.
“I’ll try,” I promised.
“Well,” I suppose I don’t have to tell you where their hideout is. I mean, I’m not sure it actually is where I think it is, but I know Aljean, and I know who his mind works. If I thought me telling you was going to get him killed, then I don’t know if I want to tell you.”
“I can only ask,” I said, sighing, “but to be honest if nobody tells her where Aljean and Nijal are hiding out, then she’s likely to scorch the whole earth looking for them.”
Neither Skarr nor the Sergeant was amenable at first to my companion’s release. But some assurances from Leonida that Skarr and I had helped her loading the carriage saw him begrudgingly have her released, and her shackles struck off for the second time, with the promise that they would be instantly refitted if we were to cause a further nuisance.
“You should not have promised on my behalf, Dushka,” she said as we walked through the city gates, “I will find these men and bring them to justice.”
“I was hoping that we might find out lost valuables too,” I added, keeping a fair step away.
The barbarian had been rather irritable since her imprisonment and finding that I’d spent the night in relative luxury at The Blind Monkey had made her more so. She was quite able to strike me if she thought I deserved it.
“Typical of you empire dwellers,” she muttered as we found the southern path that led around Gloomfell and into the rocky hills that lay beyond, “right and wrong mean nothing to you, as long as you have your shiny things. Pah.”
“Those same shiny things will feed us for weeks,” I added, following on behind as we followed the path to where Leonida had said the old farmhouse was located.
“A little hunger and hardship is a worthy price to pay for a warrior’s morals,” she said.
“I daresay a little hunger won’t do us any harm” I agreed, “we might even lose a few pounds. Some of us certainly need to.”
She ignored my barb, and we continued along the path.
“Must be all this riding around in carriages,” I said, “made us fat.”
“Is this not what I said yesterday, Dushka?”
“Maybe you’re right,” I agreed, growing bolder and reassured by her somewhat cheery mood, “after all, I don’t want to be seen traipsing around the land after a fat Norther warrior, do I”
Normally, after I had goaded her, I had enough reflexes to duck when she struck me. Not that she ever meant to hurt me seriously, just enough to still my tongue. This time, she was far too fast for me. Skarr spun on the spot, and facing me, twisted my arm around the back of my body, holding it with the elbow. I squirmed, but when I did so, she just pulled the arm tighter.
“So you wish to goad me into violence, Dushka,” she said making me squeal as she pushed my arm further, “ You wish to play with the wolveen by poking it?”
“What,” I said through the pain, “no. Not at all. I wasn’t goading you.”
“So you consider me fat and lazy,” she said, scrutinizing me closely.
Now, a casual reader of my tales may consider me to, at this point, be in the direst peril. In reality, she was likely bored and stiff form her night in prison, and needed some stress relief with me. This was how Northers played, and over the long time Skarr and I had travelled together, she had taught me basic means which to defend myself. In truth, while I couldn’t wrestle as well as her, I could certainly hold my own.
“I wouldn’t say lazy exactly,” I replied, wincing with the pain as she held me, waiting for an answer, “but you’re definitely putting weight on around those hips. Probably all that ale.”
I watched her eyes narrow, and with my free hand, stuffed both fingers up her nostrils, and forced her head back. I kicked out with my feet, and we stumbled into some brambles. My elbow was free.
“Hmm,” she said, dusting herself down, “the more we play in the forests, the less likely we are to find Aljean and Nijal.”
“I suppose so,” I replied, taking the offered hand. Skarr assisted me to rise, and, when my guard had completely dropped, she took a piece of my flesh and twisted it hard.
“Ouch, damn you,” I said twisting in her grip, “you stupid cheating fat …”
Finally she let go, and I rubbed the bruise that was appearing.
“The bruise will remind you, Dushka, to never turn down your guard with a Norther warrior.”
Knowing she had maimed me cheered her spirits, and we continued on our way. I rubbed my elbow and my wrist where she had pinched it. As we walked to where the old farmhouse was supposed to be, the rocky wooded terrain leveled out giving way to overgrown pastures that had at one time been used for livestock grazing. The distant fells faded in the heat haze of the morning sun and for once, we were quite warm. Once or twice, I made a grab for her arm, hoping to catch it and pinch a nice dark bruise on her skin in return for mine. But each time she was too fast.
“Once more,” she said in a warning tone as we passed a ruined farm building, “and I shall lash your wrists behind your back, little Dushka. Play with the wolveen long enough and it will tear out your throat.”
I was about to make another grab for the wrist, when she stopped suddenly around the side of the old farm building and fell quiet. I was silent. Suddenly, I heard footsteps, and Skarr was running across the front of the building and after their source. I followed at a safe distance. They ran behind the old building.
“By the gods,” came a voice, “somebody get her off. Bitch is a lunatic.”
I arrived to see Skarr sat astride a fellow dressed in dirty leather armor, surrounded by the remnants of an old wooden fence.
“Where is Aljean,” said Skarr, drawing her small blade, “tell us where he is.”
“I don’t know,” said the man, “I…I’ve never heard of him. Who is he?”
Skarr took the knife and placed it under the man’s nose.
“The next answer you give me will be the location of Aljean and Nijal. If not, then the first thing I shall cut off will be your nose.”
I stood back, nervous.
“I don’t know,” he said, squirming, “I swear. I haven’t seen either of them.”
I tuned away as Skarr began to press a little harder with the blade, slicing the knife into the man’s nostril. He felt the blade slide into his flesh, and screamed.
“Wait, wait. Ok, damn you. Divines, you’re strong for a woman. Over the rise there, in the old farm house. The one next to that tree. We were to leave today, after counting the loot. Too risky, so he said. There were people after him. Thought it was just the city watch. The bastard never said it was someone like you.”
“I’ll fetch a rope,” I said, turning to the barn, “we’ll truss him so he cannot warn his friends.”
He squirmed, as Skarr took the dagger from his nose, and placed his hand on the ground to help him stand. I backed away, having realized what she might do. He met her eyes, and then he knew it to, but before he could think to move his hand, she had grabbed one of the wooden fence poles that they were sitting on, and plunged it down into his hand, p[inning him to the earth. He screamed in pain, and twisted. Like lightning, she pivoted on the spot and brought another broken fence pole down into the other hand, pinning the man securely. He writhed in pain, unable to free himself.
“Now we have no need for a rope, Dushka,” said Skarr as we walked away, “and one of the Black Hand bandits will be a long time before he is able to cut purses again.”
We hurried away, leaving him screaming.
“I had hoped,” said Aljean as soon as we found him inside the farm house, “that you might have brought sweet Leonida with you. I suppose she betrayed me. It wounds me to my heart.”
“She tried to get us to promise not to kill you,” I said backing against the door in case it was a trap. After all, we’d just wandered in here without any kind of reception.
Skarr paced up and down, Doomsayer drawn.
If you return my Dushka’s sack of Dwarven artifacts,” she said, “then you may have your life. You will accompany us to the city watch. Their jail is quite comfortable.”
“I see you slipped your chains, big girl,” he said laughing, “never mind, we can soon fix you back up. Never let it be said that the Black Hand gang are not generous. Do me a favor and put that giant pig sticker down before you hurt yourself.”
She snarled and raised the blade.
“I heard you growling the first time. Put that sword down, sweetheart, before you do yourself an injury. Give me a second and I’ll tell Nijal that our big beauty is back and in need of fixing you in some new shackles.”
“Give me the sack of artifacts and the gold, otherwise I’ll decorate this cabin with your blood.”
“That’s the trouble with you Norther warriors,” he said coming closer to her, “So much anger, all pent up. That comes from running about with that pig sticker of yours. Big gorgeous bitches like you are far better naked and in chains, knelt at the foot of my bed. Ask Leonida. She probably still has her chains. I’m surprised she didn’t come with you. I guess I made a mistake in thinking she still loved a handsome rogue like me.
“You made a mistake in chaining a warrior,” said Skarr grimly.
“I’m not sure it was a mistake,” he said laughing, slapping her on the back, “I think we all felt safer with a big Norther bitch like you safe in her shackles. I love to see the big strong girls struggling, and then the realization that they’re not getting loose.”
“Give me the things, and I won’t have to kill you. Nobody will get harmed. Please”
“See, little one,” he said looking over to me, “the big bitch has manners after all. There’s hope for her yet.”
At that moment, Nijal burst in, with another younger man behind him.
“Hey, look who joined the fun,” said Aljean, “Look who’s back, Nijal, she wants us to chain her up again.”
Skarr whirled with doomsayer, her eyes narrowing. She severed several of the timbers of the farmhouse roof with the blade. Nijal stepped back, missing the blow and drew his own sword.
“I made no promise, “she said snarling, “not to kill you, you fetid Puta.”
“Norther whore,” he shouted back at her, his own blade drawn, “I’ll soon have you stripped and whimpering like the rest of the bitches during the war. Couple of rounds with the lash and you all soon know when to part your legs.”
Furniture splintered as Skarr swung Doomsayer into Nijal’s shield, splintering it in two. The younger man parried and moved to the side of Skarr. She was aware of him, and with her free hand, drew a small finger blade. Nijal was fast with his foil, and parried her blows, ducking under the heavy greatsword. The other man swung at her. Skarr ducked and defended with the blade. Nijal was as fast as she, and, discarding the foil, he drew a short blade and stroked it along the barbarian’s skin on her thigh, causing a deep wound as the strip of skin came away. She yelped in pain and anger, and thrust with the small dagger again. Again Nijal ducked back. Parrying a blow from the other man with Doomsayer, Nijal struck again on the same thigh, only higher up, in a flat stroking motion. Karr grunted with pain, and stepped back.
“Hold the mage, Aljean,” he shouted, make her watch. I’ve peeled the skin off Norther bitches before. Nice bit of salt rubbed in and the whores beg me for death.
“You were at Black dyke fell,” she said quietly, with surprise, “during the battle for Greymayne tower. The dead there…”
I shouted to her, as she suddenly lowered Doomsayer. Taking advantage of her surprise, he stroked the flat blade against the skin on her other thigh, removing a large patch of her skin. She fell onto her knees, eyes closed against the pain.
“Aye,” he said, “me and some Black Hand boys were paid plenty to finish you Northers off on Black Dyke fell. We peeled their skin off like I’m peeling yours off now. Stupid bitches. They begged for mercy even when we cut their throats.”
She was silent and didn’t move from her knees. He grabbed her wrist, and, unresisting, she watched as he ran the flat bladed knife harshly along her forearm, neatly slicing a patch of skin from her arm.
“I wanted to die that day,” she said, “to enter the hall of heroes with my brothers and sisters. To sup with Varnarok and be with my friend Tomas.
She stood suddenly, swaying, drenched in her own blood. Both men stepped back.
“I questioned Varnarok,” she said, her voice unusually light, “why would he torture me to wander the world as a failed warrior, while my brothers died as heroes.”
“That’s enough,” said Nijal to his companion, “get the bitches head off.
I squirmed in Aljean’s grip, and he released me suddenly. Nijal’s young companion aimed a blow at Skarr’s neck, and at first I thought this was where I would see her die. But then, I saw the glint in the corner of her eye. I heard Doomsayer move before I saw it. I heard the steel cleave the air, and the next thing I knew, the young man’s severed head, still bearing a surprised expression, thudded down at my feet.
“That’s enough, Nijal,” said Aljean, “I didn’t sign on for this. I fought on their side at Black Dyke fell. Don’t forget that.”
“Then you share their fate,” he said catching Skarr again on the leg with the flat bladed knife.
She didn’t even notice. Discarding Doomsayer on the ground with a heavy clang, she strode towards Nijal.
“This is for Tomas,” she said as Nijal feinted with the flat blade, “and this is for Mikal.”
He backed away, and, fast as lightning, she grabbed the flat blade by the sharp end. I saw it dig into her flesh, but she didn’t flesh. Taking it off him, she threw it to the floor.
“This is for the Borderers, and the Fellsmen,” she said, tears beginning to fill her eyes as she backed him against the door.
“Mercy, warrior,” he said, sinking to his knees.
“This is for the Tarn Hows,” she said taking hold of his head, “this is for the Connaughts, all five of them.”
“Aljean,” he screamed, for the divines sake, help me.”
“Nay Nijal. You’ve earned this reckoning. May the Northmen who died at Black Dyke Fell rest easy with the knowledge of your death.
I turned away as Skarr slowly pressed her thumbs into Nijal’s eyes. He screamed again, and Aljean shielded me from the sight.
Covered in her own blood, she stood cradling Nijal’s motionless head for a long while, until finally she discarded Nijal’s corspe on the ground.
“Niqarra al vashoika,” she said in her own tongue, “Nivarra palla alahrma.”
Aljean released me, and went to her.
“Ehmara,” he said in Norther.
It was much later. Skarr and Aljean had entertained us with tales of Norther adventures. I had healed Skarr’s wounds, and, I suspect, some of her old wounds from Black Dkye fell had been healed today.
As we fell quiet, Aljean rose.
“I’ll just be…I better make tracks…”
“But I thought,” I began, “I thought we…that you might come back to Leonida? To face the music.”
“It’s not in my nature, sweet mage,” he said touching my arm, “I’m not a killer, or a fighter, and I’m not a farmer, I’m a …”
“He is a convict, dushka,” said Skarr, quietly, sitting as she was on top of a barrel, “or son to be one.”
“I do rather think that we can all be friends,” I said, “£especially now Nijal is…”
“I promised I would not kill him, and I shall not. Not because of any promise, but because he is Norther, and knows the ways of my people. But he will return to his wife, and he will return your things.”
“You warriors are all the same,” he said, laughing, “so much anger, you big gorgeous bitch. Let’s eat, drink the rest of this and part as friends. I give you your sack of treasures, and be on my way. Maybe someday you two end up in my bed. At least you will do in my dreams.”
“Leonida needs her husband,” replied Skarr, “you made an oath.”
“She forced me to make that oath, gorgeous. Look at me? Do I strike you as the sort to keep an oath?”
“You will keep this one.”
“Here’s what happens, my big beauty,” he said walking to the end of the room and unlocking a chest, “You get the sack of treasure, and as a bonus, you get fixed back up in your chains all nice and snug and secure. I can make a good safe getaway with those big strong limbs of yours locked back in shackles where they belong.”
“I will not be chained.”
“Then I guess you don’t get the goodies,” he said, dropping a set of manacles at Skarr’s feet, ”maybe I trigger a trap in here and put you to sleep. You two wake up in an hour in those same chains that you’re resisting now. Either way, my big beautiful bitch, you’re being locked up in these again. I’ll make it fun for you. I’ll leave the key in the underbrush outside somewhere. Like last time.”
Skarr watched him intently.
“You’re so conflicted, aren’t you, beautiful,” he said, laughing, “part of you knows I’m an irrepressible Norther rogue who respects the old ways and plays hard with beautiful warrior bitches like you, and the other part of you hates me with every fiber of your being.”
She remained silent.
“Trouble is, I’ve been dealing with big norther bitches like you for years. Running rings around strong heads like Leonida for a long time. I’m not one of your empire putas. I’m a norther, and a rogue to be granted. In fact, that’s the one thing I can be relied upon for. To be an underhanded lovable rogue. Modest too.”
“Then give us the valuables and be on your way,” said Skarr, “Leonida can do better.
“Aye,” he said, “I’ve no time for dwarven antiquities to be honest with you. But…and I’m not saying I don’t trust you, but I really don’t. I fully expect two lovely things like your good selves to come running after me a soon as I’m gone to drag me back to Leonida. I aim to fix it so you can’t.”
He motioned to the set of shackles at Skarr’s feet.
Skarr, still watching him, sheathed her sword.
“You may chain me,” she said, “we get the valuables, you get to depart.”
“And the correct key for these, “I said motioning to the shackles.”
“We have an accord,” he said bowing with a laugh, Come little Elina, your warrior is asking for her chains. I don’t trust her enough not to hurt me, but she won’t hurt you. You put them on her. ”
“Elina,” laughed Aljean, “oblige the lady. Fasten up those big beautiful limbs of hers.”
I knelt, and squirming under her steely gaze, I fastened her wrists and ankles in the heavy steel fetters. Aljean delicately took the key from me.
“Your things,” he said producing a small sack, “everything is there. I’ll be on my way. Goodbye, my big beautiful warrior. Someday I hope to find you in my bed.”
Then he was gone.
“Leave the keys,” I shouted, but it was too late. At least we had the gold, and the sack of dwarven antiquities. We were both, more or less, alive and well. Skarr was once again in the manacles that had plagued her for several days, and we would endure a painfully slow, shuffling walk back to the blacksmith to have them struck off again. And we had the dwarven collar in our possession again. Leonida was disappointed in her husband once again, but hardly surprised. She recompensed us for our troubles, as did the guard Sergeant when we had informed him of the bandit Nijal’s death. I suspected he was grateful when at last we left Gloomfell, bound once again for the Imperial City, and its antique district. Of the little girl who had tricked Leonida’s cart into stopping we neither saw nor heard of her again. The Sergeant wasn’t surprised. The Black Hand recruited many small children for its nefarious needs, and was second only to the Path of Whispers for its utter secrecy and employ of local farmers and children. Doubtless we would come up against them again.