Mikki Finn – Maiden Voyage

A.C. Higgins

Being the collected adventures of Michela Finnegan Gallagher O’Rourke, Amazon, as recounted by her Guide in Beginner/Intermediate Magic Realm 6 [Yellow], A.C. Higgins.

With grateful appreciation to Dan IV and all the other players, especially Hrolf’s guide for the retelling of the pathologically violent Berserker’s tales.

And so we begin…

Michela Finnegan Gallagher O'Rourke - Amazon

<Days 1 & 2>

Mikki sat quietly sipping at a crockery mug of ale at the end of one of the inn’s trestle tables, observing the collection of characters populating the premises of the Blood & Iron. She had arrived early this morning, but the tavern was already doing brisk business as she strode through the door.

An aged gent, robed in graying white stood at the end of on table, haranguing the gathered crowd.

“I, Xelvonar the Aged, holder of the Sacred Gem of Tarthrendil, Initiate of the 7th Circle, have heard of the need of many of a guide to this dangerous and unfamiliar realm. I have studied many of the ancient scrolls concerning this region, and have unearthed many of its secrets. I am interested in continuing my studies in person and am looking for companions (preferable some skilled with weapons as my advanced age prevents me from using much besides my trusted oaken staff). I have some skill in providing light in dark places, and, in a pinch, can produce powerful flames capable of destoying many a foul beast.

“If any are seeking help such as mine, please say so postehaste.”

“Consid’rable number o’ words and little t’ say,” she thought. Mikki evaluated the ancient’s offer, weighing his advertised arcane abilities and knowledge against his aged and obviously frail constitution.

A gravelly voice rose from the middle of the seated group, “Magic? Pah! Who needs magic when you've got a BIG AXE!?? Help yourself, old man!

The hulking figure resumed his seat, back to the wall, hunched over a plate and tankard. Wiry red hair sprung unruly from beneath a steel-banded leather helmet, and his red beard seemed to bear one too many twigs. A tattered mail byrnie covered shoulders wide enough for two men. Below he wore a leather kilt, and his legs rose like tree trunks from wolfskin boots. A long-handled battleaxe leaned against the table, its blade diligently cared for.

Those who looked too closely into those bloodshot eyes quickly looked away, repulsed by their nervous, darting movement. It was as though a fire coursed through his veins. Even at rest, his muscles rippled and blood pulsed in the vein at his temple. Mikki sensed a volcanic temper, a barely leashed fury only waiting its chance to explode into lethal violence.

The barbarian behemoth picked at an early morning repast of dried fruit and spider jerky as he warily eyed his erstwhile companions. Apart from the ever-present Rogues who made this inn their home, there were three other travelers the Barbarian eyed with particular interest.

One, a flamboyant young man who laughed too much.

Two, a serene white-robed figure with a faraway look in his eyes.

Three, an elf.

As if some inner mechanism had suddenly engaged, triggering a need for instant action, the giant Northman shook his head and bellowed to the room at large,

Rrraaa AAAA Aaaaagghhh!!!!”

In an abrupt burst of activity he gathered up the remains of his breakfast, drained the tankard of goat's milk and rummaged hurriedly through the bottom of his pack. The war-axe leapt into his ham-like hand, which twirled the hefty weapon like a child’s toy, and then he burst through the doorway of the inn, disturbing the bevy of squawking, flapping chickens in the yard. Breathing more heavily than was necessary, the warrior raised his axe in benediction.

"Come, Bergthora," he growled. "We have things to kill."

He jogged off down the road, holding his axe at the ready, towards the Hinterland as the chickens regrouped to resume pecking at his footsteps.

Mikki raised her eyes whithout lifting her head and studied the bearded, saturnine figure across from her from beneath finely arched brows. Even seated, the man was a head taller than anyone else there, except for the thin figure at the end. That one, too, was taller than most, but neither was possessed of the Northman’s girth or musculature.

“’Scuse me, there, friend,” she ventured, ”It seems we’ve collected a lot of company here at the Blood and Iron Inn and getting from point A to point B in a hurry will pay premium dividends – as my former general once said, ‘Get thar fustest with the mostest.’

“So, since even I c’n see that having a spell thrower along might be useful, and th’ old gaffer seems t’ be already gone, I’m willing t’ partner up, give a fair share of th’ booty and speed up our travels – and a couple o’ ponies from yer pals, th’ Bashkars, if we find ‘em, wouldn’t hurt, either.

“Oh, yeah, had a disagreement with a coupla’ townies day ‘fore yestiddy - some fat guy sat on my bow and snapped it clean in two, so I’ll be lookin’ fer a replacement. C’n you believe it, all they had between them was a lousy ten gold? Just barely enough to cover the damages.

“And Ledges, Cliff or High Pass – don’t make no never-mind to me, so long as we’re movin’out front of everybody else.

“Oh, name’s Michela Finnegan Gallagher O’Rourke - folks call me Mikki Finn.”

The dark eyes deeply socketed in the bronzed face appraised her coolly for a moment. Then Jafar spoke, “Well met, Mickey Finn. I too would also like to speed our journey. All the known world knows of the well deserved reputation of the Amazon peoples as unsurpassed fighters and horseman. Speaking of which, there seems to be more than a few of the animals kept by this rabble of rogues. I aim to bargain badly with them until they insult me and then relieve them of both their miserable lives and their horses. While my powers are formidable, one or two of the rabble may well survive my first attack. If you would join with me we could help ourselves to not only the horses but whatever other trinkets they formerly possessed. Upon horseback we could assault the mountain passes with a speed unmatched by any! “

“Another wordy bookworm,” thought Mikki after listening to the wizard’s introduction, “And a flatterer t’ boot.” Then aloud, “Jafar, I have t’ check on somethin’. Will y’ be all right by y’self f’r just a minute?” The sorcerer nodded.

Mickey lifted herself from the bench and moved to the post at the end of the table. A small shelf supported a glass-lensed iron lamp cage. Pinned to the shelf’s edge was an irregular shred of yellowed parchment.

She’d seen them before, you know how they look... Multi layered, some blotting each other from sight, crowded, dogeared... She’d seen hundreds of them hung on tent poles and fences in market towns. All held up by the flimsiest of tacks, sometimes even humble rose thorns. Those messages that people write their hopes and desperation on, trying to eke some gold out of their belongings because hard times may have hit...FOR SALE (one reads) - New Oxcart...Low Miles...One owner (Little Ol' Lady from Mullberry Valley)... she knew what they looked like. The one that caught her eye though was stuck to the post between the table and the doorway of the place she was about to depart... stapled there with a dagger. Curiosity aroused, she perused the note:

Wanted: Any assorted magical artifacts or old books. To be used for educational purposes. Funding is limited, but valuable services and future gold can be assured. Honest and friendly arcane student needs research material. Non-aggression guaranteed.

Please see

Ricky J., Student Magician/Apprentice

It struck Mickey that the dagger was intended as a show of pacifistic intent. How could a Magician – a guild known to carry only small knives for defense - attack when his dagger was here? His intentions seemed sincere... A seeker of knowledge... And who knows when a remedy might be needed...

Another voice came from the second table in the room, almost musical in timbre, carrying an eerily seductive quality, “The woods are treacherous; Feanor, the Great Elf, knows their secret ways.” The elf smiled mildly, imagining the uncouth Barbarian with his axe trampling through those ancient woods, his way lost amidst the trees. He never had much faith in people with great axes - big talk, but rather lumbering than fighting.

Feanor exited the bar and approached a pair who had moved outside and were now standing together in the yard:

One, a flamboyant young man who laughed too much.

Two, a serene white-robed figure with a faraway look in his eyes.

"What road are the two of you taking.... ?"

Mikki turned from the door and returned her attention to the gloomy figure still seated at the table. “Greets & sals, Jafar. Let’s see…,” her voice lowered conspiratorially, “Yer plan is to take the eight Rogues, loot their stuff, grab the horses and flee into the night.

“All this without anyone else in the place catching on?

“Ah, who cares what they think. Just got two questions: one, can you take out the two heavy-lookin’ guys right off, and two, don’t it seem to you that our odds were better with another blade at my back? Like maybe the Swordsman-With-No-Name, over there. We can afford to give another share (that’s two horses each, my figgerin’.)

“But even if it’s just the’ two o’ us, there’s definitely a small chance that we’ll survive. Sounds like a plan; I’m excited to be a part of it; let’s do it. Lemme know when to duck yer magical lightnin’ bolt.”

The black-bearded sorcerer considered the offer briefly, not sharing the knowledge that he had readied his magics before coming down from his rooms to the common area. Only he seemed aware of the eldritch energies crawling along his nerve paths. It prompted him to jump and twitch about in unseemly ways – urges which he steadfastly resisted, knowing that the time to release those energies would come soon enough.

Mikki continued her parochially accented monologue, “Jafar, Old Boy, getting’ on wit’ th’ plan, I’ll just hide around the’corner of th’ Inn while you pick th’ fight. Don’t worry, I’ll be here when things get hot.

“As my old Sergeant once said, ‘Oh, sure, I’ve watered th’ wine before sellin’ it, and I’ve even sold lotus liquor t’ Brythunians, but there is one thing I have never done – and that’s gulled a Partner. Because there’s one thing that’s sacred, even t’ low scuff like me, and that’s a girl’s partner.’

“So, when you need a shieldmaiden t’ cover fer ya while ya wiggle yer fingers, I’ll be there. And if we survive, I’ll be sure you get yer fair share o’ th’ gold. – And Partner, I’ll trade purses wit’ ya any time you ask.

“Speakin’ of fair shares, providin’ there’s just th’ two of us, that’s three horses each, one treasure each and split th’ bounty for th’ whole kit and caboodle of thieves 50-50 – that comes to 8 gold apiece. I know, it’s yer spell that gets most of ‘em (an’ if it don’t we got BIG trouble), but it’s my cute li’l self out there on th’ front line, swingin’ steel and takin’ the blows (which, beggin’ yer pardon, might be more’n you c’n handle.)”

Jafar’s mind had been wandering, Mikki’s prattle no longer holding his attention. He turned to Mikki, interrupting her monologue, “Wouldn't you know it, I turn around for just a moment, and that useless Witch is gone! She has probably scampered off after her cat -- or is it the other way around? Ah, well there's no point in wasting further time idling about, waiting to see whether she's coming back.”

Then, in lowered tones, he spoke to the young Amazon, “The splitting of the possessions of these fools will be a pleasure, but first we must attain them.

“In my travels to this place I've noticed an oddity about the local folk. While they willingly witness any type of altercation, they will neither participate in nor abide what they perceive as an unprovoked attack. It seems as if a ritual of insults and challenges must be made by both parties before blood can be shed. And while the locals are less then the dust beneath my feet, the sheer number of them must be taken into account. So I aim to bargain so badly with that pack of rouges over there that a challenge will be made, thus freeing me from the burden of the wrath of the common rabble. My powers will send most to their well-deserved death quickly and those that escape will not find me without other recourses.

“As to our partnership, I know not what Gods your people serve but in my far off land we have our own oaths. And I, Jafar - called The Exalted One - will be the death and vengeance of those who Mickey Finn call enemy!”

Mikki waited with barely concealed impatience for the mage’s lengthy, formality-laden diatribe to conclude. “Yeah, okay – Let’s hope y’ c’n rile ‘em up enough so yer cavalry - meaning me - c’n show up ‘n’ save th’ day.”

Jafar unfolded from the chair and strode to the corner occupied by the scruffy-looking crowd of locals. Mikki watched, observing the individuals with a trained warrior’s eye, estimating which presented the greatest threat. Obviously, the crossbowman, closely followed by the axe-wielding twins at the near end of the table.

A lively discussion ensued, punctuated by much arm waving and protestations of poverty and denials of wrongful intent. No one was taken in by any of it.

Suddenly, the door swung open, admitting a crowd of armed and uniformed citizenry. Mikki tensed when she recognized one of their number. There had been, well, this unavoidable incident the previous night…

“We come lookin’ for a young Amazon”, the leader announced. All eyes turned toward Mikki.

The seat was empty.

Mikki slipped through the kitchen, unnoticed by the company that had just entered. Once there, she hurried through to the woodshed and out into the snow-covered yard. “Why, surely, y’ couldn’t mean yers truly?” she queried beneath her breath, sarcasm dripping from the rhetorical question. Her brows knitted into a frown. Why couldn’t that case of testosterone poisoning have just let well enough alone? Did he think every girl…well, never mind, the harm was done, now – but he had looked pretty comical, lying on the floor with both hands between his thighs.

A sepulchrous voice sounded at her shoulder, whirling her around with a start, weapon at the ready. She relaxed only slightly when she saw it was Willie, King of Witches.

Willie, The Witch-King

“So now, Mickey, do you still wish to travel with His Eminence? I might have thought you would be more comfortable with the, er, other humans. Which way are you planning to go? To the north are the Great Woods and Pinnacle, later doubling back southeast a bit to head for the Cliff, or south, to the Ledges and Hidden Mines?

“It is too bad you are rather corpulent for my broomstick, otherwise you could have the honour and privilege of flying with me! I am unused to traveling without it, but I can make do.”

She shuddered involuntarily; this guy was creepy. Just standing within arm’s length of him felt like crawling into a used coffin. It struck her that he was outside because of something – or someone – inside.

“Just watch who yer callin’ fat.”

The thin swordsman she had seen inside rounded the corner leading a packhorse, obviously surprised to find a reception committee. Mikki guessed that they were all gathered outside for similar reasons.

“Well, well, well, ain’t this interestin’; I count five of us an’ fifteen natives, if the girl from the forest tribe is still around. Now, If Willie ‘n’ I keep quiet here behind th’ Inn, nobody gets hurt…”

Voices rose within the building. Mikki could only make out broken phrases of the shouted accusations.

An aged crone hobbled into view from the other end of the structure. The Inn’s back yard was getting crowded.

“Hey, Granny, what’d that red-suited rube say ‘ bout it’s bein’ cold as an Amazon’s …WHAT?!!” Mikki’s rage was incensed by the reply. “Y’know, that just frosts my Aunt Susie’s brass bra…” She turned to the swordsman.

“Well, followin’ th’ festivities, that comes to one horse each and th’ one you already bought.”

Kabats gave Mikki a quizzical look. It hadn’t occurred to him that she expected him to take part. Who did the girl think she was, anyway?

“Don’t say much, do ya?. Swordsman, I know yer friends wit these Rogue guys, an’ they just sold ya a horse ‘n’ all, but does yer greed ever compel ya t’ do things ya might otherwise not consider? We’ve got three (count ‘em three) magical types here. An’ I just know they ain’t standin’ ‘round admirin’ th’ scen’ry. ‘F ya help me cover fer th’ unholy trio whilst their readyin’ whatever they’ve got up their collective sleeves, I’ll make sure ya get another horse fer yerself, plus a share o’ th’ loot.”

The Swordsman paused before speaking, lips pursed, nodding slightly, “Hmmm.... what exactly are you saying? That I distract a few guys and they'll be killed by the mages?”

Wielding the command style she had grown up with in the legions of her sisters, she addressed each of the others in turn.

” Y’know, Granny, we could all use somthin’ t’ ride, an’ I just know ya didn’t stick around here fer th’ scintillatin’ conversation. So, if I c’n get th’ rest o’ these (ahem) MEN t’ make a little EFFORT, well, everybody gets outa here wit’ a horse and a couple ‘o golds.

“Course, I’ll undertand if yer unwillin’ to put yer pet’s meal ticket on th’ line and that’s okay. The other four o’ us’ll just have to get along…

“Willie!” the Amazon addressed the corpse-like figure next to her, “I wasn’t countin’ on yer bein’ around– with apologies, o’ course. Looks like it’s up ta you ‘n’ me to start th’ dance. Given th’ numbers, however, Yer Eminence, that magical spell o’ yers might be real handy ‘bout now. So would th’ Swordsman’s not ridin’ off inta th’ sunset on that 10-piece horse o’ his. ‘Course, ‘f yer not int’rested ‘n garnerin’ a bit o’ plunder. Jes’ lemme know, an’ we’ll all slip away real quiet-like ‘round dawn tomorrow…

 “Otherwise, what wit’ Jafar - and Granny backing us up - I’d say Swordsman ‘n’ I c’n hold off th’ few survivors o’ Jafar’s opening blast whilst you ‘n’ Granny ‘n’ Jafar whip up some sort o’ arcane mayhem to finish off this pack o’ hyenas.”

The hump-backed crone with the rosy cheeks and toothless smile turned to Kabats, “Well, it's no matter ta me what ya do with those rascally Rogues. On th' other hand, I'm rather fond o' the boys in the Company meself. It's like havin' a whole pack o' nephews. Can come in real handy if ya finder yerself in a pinch, or ya got a few extra trinkets ya want ta be rid of. I'd hate ta see a simple misunderstandin' come ta blows.”

Kabats disagreed with the old woman, “Didn't much like the Red clan anyway... and my blade is thirsty... but there's 15 of them... are you sure the mages can take out most? I'm up for trying.”

“As fer old Granny,” the old woman’s voice grated , “I'm jest here ta do a little sweepin' up before I head out in the next couple o' days.”

Mikki took a deep breath, readying herself for what promised to be a trial of her skills. Her fellow conspirator was inside, seeking a fight with the Prince of Thieves, which the rest of the group would join; she dared not rush in or call out to him to call it off, for fear of the posse that had recently arrived, hunting her hide “How was I t’ know he was th’ burgomeister’s nephew?” she thought, chagrined.

“Well, here’s hopin’. Oh yeah, anybody else who lends a hand deserves a share – whaddaya think?”

The discussion within alternated between posturing rhetoric, vile accusations and outright slander. His outward mien contorted in a rage he actually felt - thanks to the arcane forces he held in check - Jafar retained his studied, murderous, composure within.

“The fates will always do as they please,” he mused inwardly, all the while berating the highwayman as a feminine fop and a thief, to boot. “My plan worked exactly as anticipated, these fools don't yet realize they talked themselves into my trap. But the appearance of the mercenary band has complicated things. Either from a summons from their mistress the witch, or an opportunistic sense of employment, their arrival could not have come at a better moment - for them.”

He was, himself, caught in a web of his own design. How could he have known the Amazon was the object of a local lynch mob? Now she was outside and he was inside face-to-face with the sinister, devil-may-care leader of the local thieve’s bazaar. The man’s cocky attitude was hardly to be borne. Jafar’s agile mind hit upon a solution. Hoping his partner would somehow follow his lead, he reached out with his thoughts.

“Think Mickey Finn! That company of fighters for hire is a friend to all (except to you - mayhap the idea of women warriors affronts them) and will gladly sell their services to the first bidder! The horses! What company of fighting man would turn down steeds! Whosoever first offers the horses (which were formally held by the rouges) to the leader of that band will surely guarantee their employment! We have both been witness to the speed and glib tongue of the ‘No Name Swordsman’ as you have called him, he does not seem to be one who would waste the opportunity of benefiting from this situation. And that witch, the way the members of that company idolize her she may well have bore them all!

“Perhaps you could reason with the others,” the thoughts raced hopefully across his consciousness. Then reality returned; realizing that his feminine accomplice lacked the necessary training to read the subtleties of his astral expression, he conceded to himself, “But from my point of view the death of the rogues benefits me, us, least. That being said, it is still too much of an opportunity to waste. I shall kill the rouges and we shall see what transpires next.”

Willie had been sneaking peeks over the window ledge, keeping watch on what transpired within. “These Rogues are really starting to bother me... I think it's time we teach them to show us some respect. Who's with me? I can blast them low, Jafar can blast them high, and Granny can concentrate on the rest. Others will have to lure them away from me. Any other ideas?”

Granny spoke up quietly, “Well, no, I personally don't have no particular dislike for them Roguish fellas, so I'm really not inclined ta be helpin' in bringin' about their deaths. If the rest o' ya want ta have at it, yer welcome to it.”

“Good plan,” commented Mikki, “Except that I don't recall that you have a spell prepped and ready .”

“Item th' second: Soon's I step out onto th' field, th' Company comes down on me like white on rice. I'll be expectin' some help, there, too.

“Way I see it, prepped and ready's gonna take th’ field, covered by Swordsman ‘n’ me, and by th’ time you get anything fired up, th’ show may already be over, but yer welcome t’ join in th’ mop-up operations. Don't be expectin' no bokays fer comin' in late, tho'.”

Kabats’s head jerked up as if he had suddenly awoken, “Whoa. Let's rethink this... The Swordsman can't do anything until the fight’s already underway, since I’m friendly with those guys. The Swordsman doesn't want grudges... does grudges linger; will their cousins from the rest of the realm come after me?

“If so, I'm definitely out... If not, I'll be here after you start to help. I'd like to - but don't have to - restrict my attacks to the Rogues, they shafted me on the deal with horse... and I spent quite a bit of time kissing up to them and they still shafted me!” His rancor at being on the short end surfaced.

Mikki responded, “Okay, yer out. Wimp!”

She looked around; the farmyard had emptied in the space of time it took for her last sentences. Only she and the King of witches remained.

Jafar flickered his eyes towards the barnyard window. Mikki stood alone within its frame; their eyes locked momentarily and the tall brunette shrugged, weaving a slow, hypnotically lethal pattern in the air with the point of her sword.

Mikki mouthed the words silently, “Well, then, Jafar, looks like yer the only one ‘ceptin’ yers truly come ready fer a fight. Good fer you!”

She kept her concerns to herself, “How many ya think ya c’n get right off? Th’ sword guy ‘n’ I – if he’were of a mind to stick around for th’ festivities – would be able to keep ‘em at bay whilst you getcher second package o’ party favors ready fer delivery, but th’ skinny bastard’s disappeared.”

A grim smile creased the mage’s lean features. ”Well, Mickey Finn,” he reflected, silently, “It seems that after all this posturing it comes down to the two of us. Surely destiny has brought us together for a purpose! And while the Rogues have surprisingly shown much foresight by slinking away from our combined might, this mercenary company was foolish enough to give insult and will now taste the wrath of Jafar!”

A banshee scream stormed into the room only just in front of the mail-clad, raven-tressed demon who expressed it. Mikki’s first swing hit nothing, but cleared a space before the sorcerer who stepped back, raising his hands to shoulder height, palms concealed.

“It’s her!” shouted one of the posse, pointing in Mikki’s direction. The announcement proved redundant, the other members of his group having already set hands to weapons. Some thought of killing, others of capturing her. None anticipated what happened next.

Jafar’s wrists rotated to bring his palms to face the blue-clad group and extended his arms in a pushing gesture. It looked almost harmless. The effect on exposed skin was gruesome. Flesh sagged from the underlying bone, melting like wax in a pottery kiln. The victim’s didn’t have time to scream; they simply collapsed to the floor, clothes smoldering, liquefied entrails dissolving into puddles, oozing across the wooden planks.

The Witch King appeared from behind Jafar’s right shoulder, hands likewise raised in similar pantomime.

Mikki’s eyes widened in awe. The rogues had each recovered from the initial shock and now were individually scrambling like ants trapped on a cooking griddle for escape routes. Mikki stood frozen in her tracks; the threat she had charged in prepared to meet had evaporated like a candle in a windstorm. Her stance relaxed while her breath caught in her throat.

A second wave of eldritch force coursed through the inn, this one stronger than the last, thanks to the Witch-King’s added ministrations. Eight thieves and the remaining members of the local constabulary joined their comrades, seeping through the cracks between the floorboards.

Jafar remained standing, but visibly strained. He reached an unsteady hand behind himself, taking hold of the edge of a table and lowered himself to its bench. A sigh escaped him.

“My boys! You killed my boys!” the scratching rasp came from behind him. Granny, the ancient crone from the village, arced a bony, knife-wielding arm across the table top, missing Jafar by inches as he lurched forward, out of her reach. An ugly-looking khris buried its point into the oaken slab and, deprived of her weapon, the old witch scuttled almost comically for the door.

The Battle of the Blood and Iron Inn was over in less than thirty seconds.

Mickey swallowed shakily, and turned slowly to face Jafar, stunned by the display of power wielded by her new-found companion.

“Umm…WOW! Very impressive. I waltzed out o’ this without a scratch! Sorry I wasn’t payin’ attention after the party ended, ‘r I’d ‘a’ kept Ol’ Granny off yer…

“We do make a good pair in a fight, don’t we? Too bad about th’ mounts, tho’.”

“Well done my friends!” Jafar leaned back against the edge of the trestle table, elbows resting on its edge. “Let this realm tremble at the sound of our names!”

“Mickey Finn, it seems the Fates have decried our partnership to be! I daresay the insult to your honor has been satisfied! Your plan to lure the departed company to battle, and your negotiations with the magical golem that calls itself Willie to also bring the band of rogues to the field was masterful! The reputation of the Amazon people as warriors is legendary and now all the Realm knows why!

“For our partnership to continue I must need make use yet again of your prowess! The expending of magiks has left me vulnerable, indeed even that old woman is a danger to me now! I must rest and study in solitude so that my powers are restored and our travels continue! Pray to keep guard over me!”

Mikki circuited the room, peering out each of the windows in turn. “No one in sight,” she reported.

“Could one of you kind gents oblige me with a horse tomorrow?” Willie forwarded his request. “I'm suspecting one or both of you will have a spare or two. These eyes aren't what they used to be, back when I was alive.”

“’Fore I do anything else,” Mikki growled a threat, “ I’ve got a score t’ settle with th’ Witch…,” then to Jafar, “Will y’be okay sittin’ here with Willie ‘n’ restin’ up whilst I be exactin’ justice fer that stab in th’ back?

“Next time, I’ll be partic’lar careful t’ look out fer uninvited party crashers.

“So now, you rest awhilst, ‘n’ when I finish with Granny, I start lootin’ this pile o’ stuff. Y’ c’n help when yer feelin’ more yerself. After we invn’t’ry all th’ junk, we c’n divvy it up. Say, Willie, wants a horse – I say we give ‘em one right off, eh?”

Mikki mulled the choices now open to her. Either Granny would make good her escape or not; Mikki had seen her vanish up the trail into the surrounding woods.

Should she follow Granny Weatherwax and wait for evening, when all could be made right with but a single stroke…or stay and gather as much loot as could be carried?

“That Old Woman is now officially in DEEP DO-DO,” the Amazon vowed. “Knife my partner in th’ back, huh?! I don’t think so,” her muttering trailed off; there was an impressive lot of material scattered about.

She swore in frustration. “The ol’ hag’ll prob’ly get away no matter what I do. Might’s well stay ‘n’ take care o’ business here, first.” And with that, she began rifling through the stained, stinking remains of clothing, collecting coins.

An hour later, under Jafar’s watchful eye, she had a collection of weapons spread across the table, a remuda of horses tethered outside and two equal stacks of gold coins sitting between the now-refilled pair of drinking jacks.

Mikki smiled. “I’ve had worse days, m’ friend,” she observed.

Jafar smiled back. “And you’ll have better,” he predicted, “So will we all.”

<Day 3>

Midmorning. Clear and cold in the clearing housing the Blood and Iron. Kabats dismounted at the edge of the woods, unsheathed his sword and led the animal forward by the bridle. An almost eerie stillness emanated from the structure sitting beside the road. Where were they? He eased cautiously forward, nerves taut, sweat trickling down the furrow between his shoulder blades.

Willie turned from the window, both his companions were sleeping, and he didn’t begrudge them the rest – especially the sorcerer, Jafar. Willie understood the strain of spell casting better than most; it was his own ignorance of the consequences years ago that had brought him to his present condition. Not really dead, exactly, but not alive, either, Willie lived in a limbo separated from the solid world by a gauze curtain.

Kabats’ entry into the clearing before the inn had not gone unnoticed. Gliding wraith-like from the window, Willie eased to the Amazon’s side, knelt and whispered into her exposed ear.

The warrior awoke with a start, right hand automatically swinging her short sword to a defensive position before her face, then instantly relaxing when she recognized the Witch-King.

“Damn, Willie. You scare hell out o’ me when I’m awake.” Willie raised a finger to his lips, pointed to the open window, and sidled across the room to rouse Jafar. Mikki slipped to the window and raised her eyes above the sill.

“Oh,” she murmured. “Breakfast company. Come late t’ th’ party, ‘n’ all th’ good wine’s gone. Too bad.”

Even appraised of the situation, Jafar refused to do more than rise to a sitting position on the rough wooden floor. The previous evening’s exertions had drained him even more deeply than he had admitted to himself.

“I’ve not adequate reserves to confront him this day,” the sorcerer groaned. “Mayhap he’ll just pass through. Mayhap not, but Jafar cannot stay his progress today. Willie, as Mikki seems best suited to seeing to the division of our spoils, are you able to scare him off?”

“Eh, not really. As much as I dislike the idea of this Swordsman looting our treasure, Willie's in more need of rest than even you! All he has is required to hold together the vapors of his body.

“I'm inclined to let the Swordsman take what he will. If he makes any more trouble, Willie will make him pay...”

The sorcerer nodded, “Ah, I keep forgetting that tomorrow is another day. But still, Jafar will not block the Swordsman.”

Mikki spoke up, “Where I come from, you don’t run from th’ fight and then sneak back afterward t’ pick over th’ bodies of th’ dead. It’s dishon’rable’. Let them as won it, keep it. Pervided they c’n hold it. And I mean t’ hold it.” She strode out the door and into the clearing beyond before the others could stop her.

“Hey!”

Kabats whirled, ready for the attack. Mikki’s sword came up in matching defensive stance. The two glared across the twenty feet separating them, assessing one another.

“She’s quick, but not so quick as I,” thought Kabats. “But she is well armored, and her grip shows she knows the feel of her blade.”

“Wimp,” Mikki squinted, lip curling in distaste. “This whining snake ran out on us last night and he thinks he c’n come back ‘n’ steal our stuff? Speed he’s got, but no real strength behind his arm. I c’n cut ‘im in half wit’ one blow.”

“Get on yer horse ‘n’ keep movin’, she ordered, swordpoint tracing ominous patterns in the air. It reminded Kabats of a cobra, hypnotizing its prey, preparing for the fatal strike.

“You good enough to run me off?” Kabats responded to the challenge. His blade whipped through a display, slicing the air between them into razor-thin parts. Mikki’s eyes narrowed; the man would fight like a mongoose, cut and dodge.

“Yer good, ‘n’ yer fast, but I’m armored ‘n’ stronger. I c’n absorb consid’rable punishment. How lucky d’you feel?” Mikki smiled grimly, holding the swordsman’s eye with her own, daring him to offer the first attack, exuding confidence in the outcome of the coming battle.

Kabats backed up, sliding beneath the horse’s neck. Once opposite Mikki’s threat, he sprang into the saddle and, putting spurs to his mount’s flanks, bolted for the opening where the path led from the clearing into the woods.

Mikki straightened, face split by an ear-to-ear grin. “You guys c’n come out, now,” she laughed, “Boogeyman’s run off t’his mommy.” Jafar and Willie sidled through the inn door into the sunlight, two pairs of eyes scanning the surrounding woods.

A feminine contralto rose from the woods to the east, “I address the villainous inhabitants of the Blood and Iron Inn.” The trio faced outward, covering one another’s flanks. Whoever it was, and however many there were, they would find the three comrades ready.

The musical voice continued, teasingly, “First, you ravage hordes of defenseless natives who did you no harm, and now you block peaceful travelers who only want to be along their way? Three of you, armed and armored, picking on a little guy like that, you should be ashamed.

“No more, I tell you, no more.

“In the woods, where I come from, we don't treat each other that way, and we don't permit others to behave so poorly. So now I am bringing good manners to so called ‘civilization’. Be warned.”

Mikki bridled at the unfounded accusation. “Well, my little sister - wherever yer hidin’ - in my country, when yer family’s insulted, ye step up ‘n’ remind folks that they oughtta show respect.

“Now there’re two o’ ye come back here t’ th’ clearin’ – after th’ fight. ‘Scuse my suspicious nature, but when it has feathers, waddles ‘n’ quacks, my cousin Matilda calls it a duck. Ye weren’t around f’ th’ work, so y’ shouldn’t be surprised that we don’t feel partic’l’r generous here at reward time.

“Get lost, an’ y’ know what’s good fer ye.

“And you, Swordsman; if y’ been list’nin’, same goes fer you. You’d be wise to be movin’ on at yer next available opportunity.

“You don’t want t’ try me on this. Even with yer speed, I’m armored ‘n’ yer not. Remember, you only have t’ be unlucky once, and I’ll be sendin’ kindest regards t’ yer agin’ Mother.”

And then, whispering to her companions, “I say, grab a bunch o’ stuff ‘n’ run.”

Willie voted softly, “So, Jafar... are you going to beat a hasty retreat? I think this Woods Girl knows better than to attack me, so I'm not too worried.”

Jafar thought aloud in muffled tones, “While the intent of the Swordsman may have been murky, the maid lying in ambush has announced her resolve in no uncertain terms. And while I escaped the clumsy attempt of the old woman with her puny knife, the maid is yet another matter. Mayhap parley will soothe our situation.”

He turned to address the empty clearing, in loud, clear tones.

“Mistress of the Woods, a few words with you if I may. My name is Jafar, called The Exaulted One! I know not if yon Swordsman is a colleague of yours but he did not announce his intentions ere he came upon us. My warrior friend here feels naked without a horse under her and was loathe to let these mounts, which she did put herself in mortal danger for, from those so called ‘defenseless natives’, be taken without a challenge. Time is slipping away from us! We would like to begone from this place! If you wish gold I have some 20 pieces, if you wish some small service then let us bargin, and if you wish combat then so be it! I personally have no desire for hostilites as it again is a waste of time but nor will I shy away from it either! What say you?”

The unmistakable accents of the woods tribes sounded from a copse of saplings, “Bold words called out in a quavering voice. The Swordsman is my traveling companion. Speak not of how time presses. If you wish to be gone - go! If you wished horses, today would have been more profitably spent searching for them. He came to search for horses, I came to cover him in case hostilities presented themselves. You threw down the first gauntlet. Now run, or stay and back it up.”

The Witch-King’s patience was at an end; he vented his frustration at the waste of the day, “Pwah!! No one speaks to Willie that way! Be off and play elsewhere in your woods, girl; this is no place for you. Otherwise, you shall face the wrath of WILLIE!!”

Jafar attempted yet again to provide a voice of reason, “Mistress, I will not belabor the point that the acquisition of the horses were exactly what my companions and I were doing until the arrival of your Swordsman. And that no hostilities are in the making, upon challenge your Swordsman simply galloped away. Had he but reassured us with a promise of non interference, or an offer of his assistance in corralling the beasts, we would all now be sharing our evening meal together in peace. So I again repeat my offer - gold, service or combat. Let the choice be yours.”

Mikki winced at the thinly veiled threat. “Diplomacy ain’t my strong point, either,” she muttered, “But Jafar’s presentation would piss off the Pope, himself. Not to mention there’s company comin’ from just th’ next clearing over. Th’ Captain ‘n’ his boy’ll likely be showin’ up here at first light tomorrow – an’ unlike th’ Swordsman, they don’t look like a couple o’ featherweights that’re gonna scare easy when I start rattlin’ this iron toothpick.”

She rasped out of the corner of her mouth to her left, “Jafar, I realize it doesn’t cost y’ anything, but I’m getting’ th’ feelin’ yer palaverin’ isn’t goin’ to have th’ posit’ve result we’re all hopin’ fer. Woodsy just seems determined t’ taunt us from th’ cover o’ those bushes, over there. Just th’ same, lemme have a try.

“But, all things considered, since she does show nerve enough to stick around, I wouldn’t object to bringin’ her on as a member o’ th’ team. She might be a real plus to have on our side if th’ Captain shows up all belligerent. Let’s see if we c’n convince ‘er.

“Woodsy, my little sister,” Mikki called to the surroundings, “Since y’ show more backbone than yer erstwhile travelin’ companion, I think we girls c’n come t’ an understandin’. ‘Specially since I get th’ feelin’ that yer buddy isn’t comin’ back while I’m standin’ here. Where’s that coyote, th’ Swordsman-With-No-Name, when y’ c’n use his help? I’ll stand by y’ when things get dicey – just ask my friends Willie ‘n’ Jafar, here. Join up, ‘n’ take a share, instead o’ wastin’ time ‘n breath tradin’ hollow threats back ‘n’ forth.”

Mikki suddenly found herself surrounded by a dense mist... a ghostly figure appeared in the murk and approached...

“Mikki,” a voice breathed, “A deal I propose: kill Willie, so I may assume his form on the morrow. In return, I ask for your continued help for but a few days; perhaps less. There are promising hunting grounds for me; if I'm lucky, I could strike out on my own in but a couple of days. Or, if you prefer to continue travelling together, I'm willing.”

The Woods Girl’s reply tinkled back, breaking through the fog, sweetly denying the malevolent threat within, “Darling Mikki, I can no more abandon my companion than you can yours. The Swordsman has my pledge. The choice not to share the pile was yours. The choice not to put up with that is ours. Time for all of us to live with the consequences of our actions.”

Mikki shook her head, clearing cobwebs. “Umm… say, Willie, d’y’ hear voices ‘r somethin’? There’s this buzzin’ in my left ear – somethin’ ‘bout yer evil twin wantin’ t’ cash yer ticket in?

“Who knows? Maybe I am goin’ crazy…{mumble}..hearin’ voices..,” her voice subsided in a mumbled query, then rose again, just loud enough for her companions to hear.

“But I’m still not stupid. We don’t have enough time t’ get rested up fer a dance with th’ Captain ‘n’ his hired gun. An’ that hyena th’ Swordsman’ll probably come back and spoil yer beauty sleep again. An’ if she don’t turn t’ th’ Dark Side ‘n’ join us, Woodsy’ll still be hidin’ here in th’ shrubs. I can’t handle ‘em all Lone Ranger-like. Unless th’ two o’ you got more up yer sleeves than I think, you likely won’t survive th’ fight, an’ then I’ll be all by myself again.

“Even if th’ Wood Girl pays lip service to comin’ over t’ our side, I don’t have much trust in anybody who changes allegiance so easily. She might just turn on us at th’ first sign of a fight, ‘n’ there we’d be, on the short end o’ long odds.

“Th’ prospects aren’t promisin’. An’ since yer only a short time alive, an’ a very long time dead, here’s a plan fer survival… much as I deplore th’ idea o’ leavin’ all this plunder behind…

“I vote fer escaping t’ th’ house at th’ next waypoint on this road, figgerin’ th’ other four’ll get caught up greedy, here, rootin’ through our treasure pile, restin’ up for a day ‘n’ comin’ back with enough fuel in th’ furnace fer two o’ those Death Blasts, while I cover fer y’ again. I’ll do better this time. We c’n hide, sneak back here, an’ then I’ll attack from hidin’ first ‘n’ after I’ve got every body’s attention, you two smoke ‘em.

“That’ll get th’ Swordsman, Woods Girl, th Captain and th’ hired gun off our backs once & fer all ‘n’ we’ll be able t pick over th treasure pile at our leisure – an’ it’ll be a bigger pile, too. An’ if they root through th’ pile ‘n’ take off before we get back, there’ll still be plenty left fer us t’ split up. An’ then we c’n go after ‘em, if yer of a mind.”

Before either could reply, a shaft fletched in gray goose feathers sprouted from Jafar’s chest. The mage looked down, surprised, then turned to stare accusingly at Mikki. His knees buckled slowly beneath him and he crumpled to lie on his side on the snowy ground, a crimson pool pulsing rapidly into the surrounding white.

Mikki crouched, raising the shield in the direction the shot had come from her to ward off the next missile. She glanced to her right. Willie had vanished.

“Damn!” Mikki turned to face the feathered death issuing from the woods.

  • * *

Atalanta – Woods Girl

<Day 4>

Atalanta’s tones rang from the woods again.

“Well, things have gone differently than I anticipated. I never expected either Jafar or Willie to stick around for even one round of the battle, or that we'd have a protracted battle with Mikki over the pile at the Inn.

“We've met, we've conflicted, and I think we've all established that we can interrupt each other's plans.

“Here's what I'd like to propose: “1. The pile at the Inn is public domain. First come, first served. “2. There's peace between us for a period of a week. I'll stop my attacks tonight, and we all agree not to attack, charge, or block each other for seven days after that. After that time we let circumstances guide us.

“Does that sit well with you?”

Mikki straightened slowly from her ready stance, tension uncoiling from every muscle. The furrows over her finely arched eyebrows relaxed.

“Sounds like sweet music, Little Sister,” she called to the general direction of the voice issuing from the thicket, “You ‘n yer partner have nothin’ t’ fear from me. An’ I trust y’ c’n speak reliably fer – what’s ‘is name? Katz-something-or-other? Kabatz? Yeah, that’s it – Kabatz.

“I accept yer offer o’ truce an’ invite ye to share in th’ swag. ‘Specially since th’ alternative would require one o’ us to be buryin’ th’ other this time termorrer. That’s a task I’d not relish bein’ on either end of.

“If you ‘n’ Kabatz’d like, I’ll buy th’ first round to seal th’ bargain.” She guided the point of her short sword into the scabbard using her left thumb and forefinger, while her eyes continued to scan the woods and the trails leading from the clearing. “Come on out ‘n’ let’s share a drink while we wait fer yer partner to return. While we’re waitin,’ I’d like t’ get a nice medium weight bow and a coupla horses outta this pile o’ stuff. Fer th’ rest, I’ve no preference – first come, first served is agreeable.”

“Last thing – ‘n’ we c’n talk about this, it ain’t a non-negotiable condition ‘r anything like – whadderya wanna do with Captain Horatio when he shows up?”

  • * *

<Day 5>

Meanwhile, in a different part of the Realm, another traveler wove the tale of his own exploits…

<Hrolf, The Psychopathically Violent>

Hrolf staggered and wiped a bloody arm across his face, dropping the twisted hunk of metal that had once been a stout iron-banded helmet. The battle with the trolls had been hard, but he had come through in the end. Exhausted, he collapsed to the ground and reviewed the events of the day.

He had spent almost all day looking for the blasted Vault that Pwyll had said was there, without success. Towards evening, after tearing apart a thicket of scrubby bushes, he returned in frustration to the clearing, to find that the hapless Druid had discovered what had happened to the missing trolls.

There were three of them - probably a family grouping. As the tracks had indicated, one very large troll and two smaller ones. Even the smaller trolls were large, heavy beasts, snarling and growling at the Druid, who looked tiny against their mighty frames. Bergthora quivered in his grimy, sweaty hand. It was troll blood she desired.

Quietly, without attracting the trolls' attention, Hrolf reached for the carefully-wrapped mushrooms in the bottom of his pouch. Two should do it. He put them in his mouth, chewed and swallowed, careful not to let any of the precious magic juice spill out the side of his mouth.

As soon as they mushrooms hit his stomach, Hrolf's vision began to fade. His heart began to pump harder. His muscles swelled. The red mist descended. Bergthora hummed with pleasure as he jogged slowly, but with increasing speed, towards the largest of the trolls. Dimly he was aware of Pwyll trying to run, but stumbling and tripping almost at the feet of the gigantic beast that was menacing him.

A battle cry burst from Hrolf's lips as he broke into a full charge.

The largest troll was taken by surprise as Bergthora cleaved easily through its skull. He turned his limited attention to the other two trolls, which were trying to pursue the Druid Pwyll, who had foolhardily tried to scratch one with his dagger. He leapt on one, but the other came from behind and smacked him to the ground. Infuriated, Hrolf realised that the troll had smashed his precious helmet. Blood ran unheeded down his face. He swung at the troll, but missed.

Again the dance began. Hrolf was already weary, but kept on attacking. They were fast, and he had to be swift to duck under their attacks. One, two blows missed, then he felt the dull burning of a claw across his side, tearing the mail of his byrnie and drawing more blood. But Bergthora drank for a second time, and the troll dropped like a stone.

Eyeing one another across the clearing, the last troll and Hrolf circled warily. The blood pumped in his veins, enhanced by the magical mushrooms he had consumed, but his wounds flowed freely. If this wasn't finished soon, Hrolf would drop and Bergthora would have to find a new master.

Finally, after several more exchanges, the axe Bergthora drank troll blood for a final time. Hrolf was exhausted, bleeding heavily, but he was alive. There was no sign of Pwyll, alive or dead. So he had managed to get away. As the red mist slowly dissipated, he picked up the useless remains of his helmet.

Rrraaa AAAA Aaaaagghhh!!!!

  • * *

The preceding evening had ended badly for Mikki. Friends gone or dead, thieve’s truce with the two murdering snakes who had brought her to this pass, disgusted with herself for her powerlessness, she sat forlornly on a fallen tree trunk, attending in desultory fashion to Atalanta’s lecture on the finer points of civilized behavior.

The moment was interrupted by a basso profundo voice, “Willie is a fair and wise Wraith: he has been promised a horse; if the fine markswoman or her erstwhile companion is willing to give Willie one, I shall agree to your terms.”

Atalanta spoke up, “I've gotten responses from each of you agreeing to the peace, yet each claiming a horse. That's not what we're offering. We're offering peace and open access to the treasure pile to all. Whoever gets horses out of it, gets horses. If that's not acceptable, that's ok, no hard feelings. But if it's not acceptable, combat goes on, and we're shutting this clearing down to anyone else looting it.

“We're willing to extend peace to all of you, or any one individually; all we ask is the same thing in return.

“Does this work for you?”

“Per’haps I’ve not made m’self clear,” Mikki replied, tiredly. “I wasn’t claimin’ a horse, jus’ expressin’ my fondest wish to own one. I’m certainly willin’ t’ trade fer one, if th’ luck o’ th’ draw don’t bring one my way. Sorry if my intent was muddied, it’s not been m’ best day, as y’ c’n see.

“It’s my observation that yer an essentially hon’rable pers’n, and reliable t’ yer word. That said, I take yer promise, “…we're shutting this clearing down to anyone else looting it,” to only be effective if “…combat continues.

“So, three o’ us (soon t’ be four, with Willie, ‘n’ I don’t miss my guess) ‘re just lettin’ anybody come in ‘n’ take whatever they c’n scavenge? Well, yer in position t’ be steerin’ th’ wagon, here, so I’ll follow yer lead, much as it rankles t’ let vultures wander in ‘n’ pick over yer fresh kill.

“Some days,” she reflected silently, “it just don’t seem like yer reward is comme’surate with all th’ effort. Then again, we’re lookin’ a four-way split, chance allowin’, which, in this pile is near indistinguishable from a three-way split.”

Aloud, she resigned herself to the inevitable, “All, right, open season on the spoils. Odds ‘re not bad I’ll get what I’m after without attachin’ conditions t’ the truce - which ain’t what was intended in th’ first place, anyhow.

“Do we let Johnny-come-latelies in on th’ redistribution o’ th’ wealth, ‘r not? Yer call.”

“Done!” the green-clad archeress agreed.

Kabatz, breaking his silence at last, offered, “I'm glad we were thinking along the same lines. I too wish a horse- these shoes are good for sprints but are just inadequate for long distances. Sorry if I was needlessly confused. I must confess that my woodsy upbringing is somewhat sheltered and your accent is unfamiliar to me.

“Tonight we drink, tomorrow we all loot!

“How you wish to treat the Captain is your affair. I certainly don't intend to cause him any grief. Furthermore, I suspect he is on his way South to oversee his lackeys.”

“I love when a plan comes together,” the Amazon murmured, glumly resting her chin in her hands.

Willie’s low voice resounded one last time as his collection of disembodied vapors wafted out of the clearing, “Very well. I will certainly not mind taking your belongings from your corpses, if that's the way you would have it. You shall rue the day you crossed Willie!”

Mikki looked up, hurt, “Umm, Willie, is this directed at me? If so, I don't feel it's justified. Let's review th' case...

“Li'l ol' me stayed t' fight when Jafar got shot from hiding by Atalanta. I guess she was surprised t' see anyone stay, 'cause negotiations ensued - of which I kept y’ apprised.

“I feel like I did th' best that could be done, considerin' th' circumstances - specifically, she was still in hidin' with that bow and I was still out in the open in th’ clearin' - she coulda shot me anytime she chose 'n' little I coulda done about it.

“I kinda wonder if Atalanta 'n' Kabatz (or whatever 'is name is) woulda split anything with anybody if I hadn't stayed behind, but we'll never know.

“Yer now the reapin' th' rewards o' all this activity, an' no hard feelin's or questions asked.

“An’ if I end up with a spare horse, I'll make sure you wind up with one...

“Finn, “ the slender swordsman stood before Mikki, imperiously demanding her attention, “How about a strong horse for a treasure?”

“Kabats speaks! Geez, I was beginnin’ t’ think you were related t’ Ramses the Silent” Mikki’s caustic venom was lost on the childishly posturing fencer. She sighed, resigning herself. Her purposes would be better served befriending him.

“First, lemme apologize fer scarin’ y’ outta th’ clearin’ back then – ‘r that may ha’ been yer ‘n’ ‘Lanta’s plan in th’ first place. Y’know, if y’ were a bit more communicative, things mighta not come t’ blows th’ way they did – but no matter, past is past.

“We’ve, all three o’ us, pulled some good stuff outta this pile. Well, so far I haven’t got th’ horse I was hopin’ fer. Now, I’ve got a boots treasure - lightweight Shoes of Stealth - ‘Sneakers’, where I come from - that you’ll have more use fer’n I will – I’ll trade y’ straight up yer spare horse – deal?

Mikki sat on a stump, elbows on knees, holding out the Stealth Slippers.

"They're yers fer the spare horse, Kabatz. It's a good deal fer yers truly.”

Kabatz led the horse over, placed the reins in Mikki’s empty hand, simultaneously lifting the slippers from the other.

Mikki nodded her satisfaction. “Now, don't ever'body go runnin' off just yet - there's still these two remainin' mounts.

"'N' if either o’ you picked up th’ medium bow that I thought I saw ‘round here, would y’ be willin’ t’ part with it in return fer, say th’ basic price o’ eight gold? I know that both o' y' bein' lightweight characters - no offense -, 'n' not built fer heavy liftin', you'll have limited use fer th' thing - 'specially you, "Lanta, 'cause yer already equipped with archery gear. Aside from bein' courageous to th' point o' foolish, I c'n be a good hand in a fight, 'n' seein' as Willie seems t’ be a bit shy 'bout returnin' - although I wouldn't be surprised if 'e did come back, him bein' so desperate fer a horse 'n' all - maybe we c'n be of some mutual service - a service I'd be more able t' render with a longer range weapon than this toothpick."

Mikki patted the pommel of the scabbarded short sword and looked from one erstwhile companion to the other, "Yer odds 're near always better trav'lin' in a group 'round this neck o' th' woods, I hear - bigger group, better odds.

“How 'bout it?”

<Day 6>

Mikki’s luck had held with Kabatz’ selection from the string of horses – a stocky chestnut mare. She wouldn’t be fast, but Mikki liked the shape of her and sensed the stamina within the mare’s rounded muscles.

Her offer of companionship engendered no response from either of her acquaintances, so after dividing up the remaining spoils, they parted company. Mikki inventoried her share – one horse, one set of panpipes – turned the horse’s head and rode down the trail, not looking back.

  • * *

That evening, seated on a fallen tree trunk before her campfire, Mikki turned the panpipe over in her hand, studying the curious carvings etched into the varnished surface.

“It’s elfscript, an’ I don’t miss my guess,” she thought. One eyebrow went up and she raised the pipes, twisting so the firelight illuminated the fine script from over her shoulder. “Aunt Bert taught me how t’ decipher these scratchin’s when I was a kid. Now, the next couple lines…”

Long into the night she tediously translated the lettering from the instrument onto a flattened piece of bark using charcoaled twigs from the fire.

<Day 7>

Mikki awoke in pre-dawn semi-darkness, listening for motion before opening her eyes, first slitted, then scanning side-to-side without moving her head. When she felt certain she was still the only living thing in the clearing, she moved quickly to a crouch and turned to survey the area. "Mmm...hmm. No visitors in the night, either." It was starting off as a better day. "Rumor is, there's a pool 'r a cave 'r some valuables strongbox somewhere not far down th' road. Might be a good place to head f’r aft'r br'kfast. Could still use a bow. First, thing, tho', let's pick up th' toys."

With that, she gathered up her sleeping roll, tied her meager belongings into a bundle and tied the pack to the back of the saddle. She hoisted the saddle onto the mare's back, cinched the belly strap tightly, hung the wide sheepskin brassard across her torso from right shoulder to left hip, sheathed the sword, buckled the pipes into the brassard’s breast pocket and rode off down the trail, picking fruit from the surrounding trees as she went.

This would not be a day for those who dallied over their morning preparations.

<Day 10 >

Mikki awoke chilled. The bedroll felt damp, leaching the warmth from her. Her eyes slitted open and scanned left to right without moving her head. A heavy snow had fallen in the night, soaking her blankets.

“Derketa’s teats!” The amazon swore, “Miserable way t’ wake up, wet.” She unfolded herself from the bedroll, stretched a line over the remains of the fire and hung the blanket. Then she relit the fire using dry birch bark, flint and iron retrieved from her belt pouch. The blanket would take an hour to dry, meanwhile she would see to the horse.

Yesterday had been a long ride, but the animal seemed up to the uneven trail and the extra two hours, and she didn’t seem any the worse for wear.

“Y’ don’t seem t’ feel ‘ny strain carryin’ me all that way,” Mikki murmured to her mount. “Today y’ won’t have so much work t’ do, as I’ll be lookin’ fer a shortcut route to’ th’ top o’ th’ cliff.”

The saddle blanket was soaked. "Well, I can't very well outfit y' in this," Mikki spoke softly to the horse. She untied the oiled leather roll from the saddle cantle, folded it and spread it over the horse’s back. "At least this'll be drier. And warmer." Thirty minutes later, she had finished her morning tea and impatiently repacked the still damp sleeping blanket. After packing the horse blanket – likewise not quite dry - on the saddle, she hoisted the kit and cinched the saddle beneath the mare’s belly.

She saddled up and mounted and clucking her tongue, patted the animal on the neck. “Let’s get on with it, girl. We don’t need t’ let any o’ the other o’ this gang o’ thieves ‘n’ cutthroats catch up to us. ‘Cept maybe our partner, Wille. I c’n feel ‘im ‘round here, somehow – he just brings a cold breeze with’im wherever ‘e goes.” The mare lifted her head and, responding to the lay of the rein on the right side of her neck, turned left and trotted up the rising path, heading out of the woods and towards to base of the escarpment.

As they broke from the shelter of the evergreens, wind drove the snow horizontally and rasped like sandpaper on Mikki's exposed flesh. She reached behind the saddle, untied the horse blanket and wrapped herself its clammy folds. "Better'n nothin' - once it warms up." She shivered uncontrollably as her body heat evaporated into the clammy folds of the blanket. "G-g-good thing 'bout w-w-wool, it'll keep y' warm even when it's w-w-wet." After fifteen wretched minutes, the blanket had warmed to the point where her shaking gradually subsided.

The snowfall thickened and the wind increased the further upward they trudged. Progress slowed as the horse fumbled blindly for footing in snow now up to her knees. Mikki sat bowed forward in the saddle, huddling beneath the moist wool blanket and blinking driven snow from her long eyelashes. The wind in her face forced her to squint to see even two paces ahead.

“Damn miserable weather,” she swore, “Just when I get clear o’ that pair o’ thievin’ murderers, Kabatz ‘n’ Atalanta, th’ biggest blizzard o’ th’ last fifty year comes in. Some days…” The thought terminated abruptly as the horse slipped and foundered in a belly-deep drift.

“Whoa, whoa, Missie. Take it easy.” Mikki swayed side-to-side, regaining her seat as her mount regained footing and stood still, breathing hard. “My fault, I shoulda got down sooner.” The horse whickered its displeasure, tossing her head. With that Mikki swung her right leg over the pommel and dropped waist-deep into a drift. Cursing her own folly and now wet feet, she slipped the reins over the horse’s ears and struggled upward to lead on what she hoped was still the rocky trail beneath the thick, white blanket.

A half-mile further on, amid a bolder-strewn scree field, a darker shade of grey separated itself from the leaden sky. Fifty yards farther, the grey shadow took on a formidable solidity and twenty yards beyond that, she reached the cliff.

Mikki’s spirits dropped into her soggy leather boots. Her feet were cold and wet; the inner skin of her thighs was sore from straddling the wet saddle half the day; her legs had taken an hour of physical beating wading, sliding and stumbling through hip-deep snow over the uneven, unseen, slippery stones that she could only hope were the trail. And it all dead-ended here.

She permitted herself two seconds of self-pity, then knitted her brows and swore again, this time at the cliff face ten feet before her. It was either find a path upward, or abandon her horse and go on alone. Securing the reins to a large stone but still leaving the horse slack enough to move a bit should need arise, she patted the mare’s neck, “I’ll be back ‘fore y’ get thirsty.” The horse shook her head and twitched her withers, showering melted droplets into the surrounding white cover. The tiny craters disappeared instantly under the onslaught of wind-driven snow.

Mikki’s vocabulary for the next hour and a half would have reddened the cheeks of a stevedore as she struggled resolutely southward along the top of the scree pile, seeking a route up. Or around.

“Even a cave to get out o’ this storm, start a fire, and brew some tea.” Mikki’s thoughts turned to cozy blankets and warm hearths – a mental discipline she’d studied under the tutelage of her great-aunt Clemmie – Clementine, to those not in the family. Now there was a woman whose personal aura would warm the heart of Pluto, himself!

“And not just his heart,” she mused. The memory turned the corners of her mouth up – not into a smile, yet, but at least out of a frown. “And not just her charming personality, either.” Now a slight smile creased her features. The physical abuse she inflicted on her body didn’t decrease, but her attitude about it mellowed. Imaginary warmth, starting in the pit of her stomach and radiating outwards, spread through her limbs. Her footing improved, the stones felt more even here.

Through the swirling snow, she made out a house-sized stone slab tilted against the cliff-face. Was there enough room beneath for both of them? Her pace quickened, only to find the path rising as she neared the crevice. By the time the narrow trail disappeared under the stone, the opening was so low she had to stoop to pass through.

The sound of flowing water came to her as she squeezed through the opening. She stumbled, splashing her foot into a pool. Pool? No, it was a stream, running along the far side of the tilted boulder, hidden to her approach by the rock itself. The cliff retreated here, leaving the tilting stone as a sentinel at the corner of a shelf of rock beneath a broad overhang. She traced the running water to its source.

“Here’s hopin’ there’s no residents – or if there ‘re, maybe they’re good eatin’.” Mikki recognized a fortuitous opportunity when she found one; she waded up the streambed and climbed the last few feet out of the stone bank up to the level of the shelf. On her left, the stream gurgled away towards its source, cat-ice rimming its edges. The balance of the opening ascended slightly into dark recesses shrouded in gloom. “Wit’ some wood, this’d be just th’ place to stop f’r th’ day.” Her survival instincts urged her to seek out fuel for a fire, but her intellect insisted she insure the security of her new domain and see to the health of her transportation.

She slid the sword from its sheath and, senses alert, moved at the ready up the sloped floor to investigate the shadowy reaches of the cave.

“Wolves. Wolves ‘a’ been here.” The evidence of gnawed and broken bones was scattered carelessly about – typical of lupine housekeeping. “Not very recently, tho’.” Thirty minutes of searching uncovered no predators-in-residence and she sheathed her weapon and exited her temporary quarters to retrieve her horse.

The animal remained where she had been tethered and whickered a greeting as Mikki’s two-legged form solidified out of the obscuring wind-blown snow.

“Yeah, glad to see you, too,” came the reply. “I think you’ll like this evenin’s accommodations better’n last. At least it’s dry.” Mikki led her steed carefully back, retracing her path to the stone shelter. She kept an eye out along the way – downhill, this time - trying to discern tell-tale broken tree limbs poking up beneath the snow slightly below her. Scree fields were usually places where avalanches cleared broad swaths through the local vegetation during the winter months; any trees that had been swept from the cliff-face would end up there.

And there it was, a snow-ghost, one of those lonely sentinel pines covered in rime and now newly-fallen snow, looking for all the world like a gigantic inverted cone, standing just fifty feet below her. Despite the stinging snow whipping her face, she grinned. “Maybe,” she murmured, “This isn’t going t’ be such a shabby day, after all.” Hacking through the six-inch trunk with her short sword took forty oath-filled, knuckle-skinning, frustrating minutes.

She looked up at the horse, still standing patiently where she had been left, once again tied to a rock. Mikki frowned up at her. “Why don’t you do something t’ help me?” she asked beneath her breath. “Oh, right, because y’ have no brains.” Damn! Horses could be ‘bout the stupidest animals ever put on this Earth. She took a firm grip on the lowest limb and pulled. Step-by-step she dragged the tree back up the fifty feet to the trail. She arrived beside the horse breathing heavily, legs rubbery and shaking from the exertion.

“Okay, yer turn, yer Highness,” She addressed her companion while sliding the tree across the saddle and securing it with the pack thongs.

Twenty minutes later, the pair reached the lip of the opening. The mare balked at entering.

“Smell th’ wolves, do y’? Well, not t’ worry, I checked, an’ they’re all gone.” She set to work turning the tree into firewood. Normally, green wood wouldn’t burn – except evergreens. The pitch, once ignited, made a hot, smoky fire. Tonight, Mikki didn’t care about the smoke. She extracted the tinder, flint and pyrite from its pouch in the saddle, gathered a pile of small twigs and struck a spark.

Fifteen minutes later, she sat upwind of the smoke, basking her icy feet and hands and chewing on a stick of spicy smoked deer meat. The mare stood nearby, munching oats from an open sack on the floor. Mikki’s boots, clothes and sleeping roll and the horse’s saddle blanket were supported on frames formed from pine boughs and steam rose from the leather and cloth.

Once warmed, she made certain her things were far enough from the flames to avoid ignition and rose to her feet, the firelight reflecting off the curves of her muscles as she moved, adding to the glow of life already in her skin. “Time fer a more thorough survey,” she announced, the horse being the only audience, “Let’s just see where those tunnels in th’ back go.” She lit a brand from the fire and strode, sword in one hand, torch in the other, towards the rear of the cave.

Within an hour, she had determined that only one of the minor sub-rooms amounted to anything more than an alcove. But that one had evidently been a watercourse in some distant geological past, as it wound steadily upward into the mountain, smooth-bottomed and decorated occasionally by dripping stalactites with their companion stalagmites or columns where some pairs had, in the fullness of time, wed.

Her instincts proved correct, as she emerged high up on the mountain’s west face after an hour’s steady upward hiking, walking erect from the tunnel entrance in the shadow of a large fallen tree. She stood naked in the icy wind, her hair streaming in the gale.

“Weather’s worse up here ‘n down there.” In just minutes, the skin of her extremities was taking on a blue tinge. “Must be colder’n The Pits of Niffleheim up here.” Having established that the path would, indeed, suffice for her and her mount to reach the peak range, she turned and stepped back into the shelter of the tunnel, heading to her overnight encampment. Three steps later, he bare foot slipped on a smooth, frosted patch of rock and she dropped unceremoniously onto her rump.

“Ouch!” More in surprise than pain. She sat up, wrapping her arms around her knees. “Wouldn’t y’ just know it! At last, a chance t’get a good night’s sleep, an’ I’m gonna have a big ol’ bruise too tender t’ lie on! Her gaze rose toward the cave roof. “Grandmere Tina, if you’re responsible fer this, I’ll gonna have Grandmere Althea come over ‘n’ haunt y’ fer th’ next fifty years.”

When she arrived, limping slightly, at the campsite in the cave, things were as she had left them, except the bag of oats was empty. “Pig,” she chided her horse. The mare snorted. She placed three larger pieces of the pine trunk and some smaller branches into the remains of the fire and blew on the embers, waiting until she was certain the new fuel would catch. Then she felt the material of her sleeping roll and, finding it dry and warmed by the fire, stretched it, fur up, on a pile of smaller, springy pine boughs left behind by the afternoon’s trimming.

She slid the sword into the pine mattress and sat. A grimace and wince escaped her as her weight found the tender, purpling area and she rolled gingerly onto her side. Her fingers found the hilt of the sword under her head and with her free hand, she curled the remaining flap of the sheepskin over herself. She was asleep before her skin had warmed the covers.

<Day 13>

It was shortly before dawn, and grey light filtered through the icicles suspended across the cave entrance. Mikki woke in her usual fashion – fully alert, but silent and motionless while her senses swept her surroundings. Her fingers curled around the haft of the sword.

“Still there, still all alone, an’ all’s right with th’ world,” she thought. She rose to one elbow and there was her horse, still tethered to the stone where she had been left. Mikki rose and after shivering for several minutes while splashing water over herself from the pool standing to one side of the cave, dressed and moved to the cave’s broad entrance to view the weather.

“God of Storms, does it always snow in this winter paradise?” The mouth of the cave was now three feet deep in drifts and more on the way. “Looks like we’re headed out the back door,” she informed the horse.

She warmed a brief breakfast over a fire renewed from last night’s embers, then lit a torch selected from the pine knots. She rolled up her sleeping fur, tied it to the back of the saddle, and grasping the reins, led the animal up into the tunnel she had reconnoitered the previous evening. Thirty minutes later, she neared the tunnel’s terminus near the ridgetop – and found, to her dismay, drifts of snow had filtered down from above, obstructing her exit and worse yet, obscuring the footing. She would have to move carefully herself and create a passable way for the horse.

Leaving the horse tied to a stalagmite Mikki made the round trip back to her campsite to fetch several sturdy pine boughs. They helped with the task of sweeping snow down from the path, but could not prevent more from sliding in as the way was cleared.

“Two steps for’ard ‘n’ one back,” Mikki complained. A rumbling sounded, dully at first, from above, then louder until the tunnel seemed filled with a solid, impenetrable wall. Mikki covered her freezing ears and lowered her head. The roaring stopped and she looked up. What had been discernable as an opening some distance ahead was no longer. The way was darker – the avalanche had buried he tunnel’s upper entrance.

“C’rect that,” she muttered. “Three back. I had a feelin’ this wasn’t goin t’ be m’ best day.”

Mikki started up the tunnel towards the now-buried end. How deep could the new snowslide layer be? Two feet? Twenty? She could either begin digging or turn around and retrace her path to the forest. She began scooping at the snow with the edge of her shield. This would be a long morning.

As the hours wore on, the snow ahead began allowing more light through, but whether this was due to her approaching the surface, or the angle of the sun changing through the day, she couldn’t tell. Doggedly, she scooped up snow in the shield, carried it back down to below where her horse waited patiently, dumped the load and returned for more. Once, on her passage by the animal, she spoke, “Betcher appreciatin’ th’ day off, aren’cha?”

The mare said nothing. As the shield bit into the steadily lightening front of the tunnel and she pulled back, a cold draft ruffled her hair. “Well, well, there’s daylight ahead – or what passes fer ‘t in this weather.” She saluted the end of her labors with a wry grin and a chaw of deer jerky cut from her supply and set to widening and enlarging the passage to allow for the horse’s passage while she gnawed at the tough, salty meat.

By the time she led her mount out of the new exit, the slightly less dark spot that was the meager sun had reached the false horizon. Shadows were already deep in the canyon below her and it was still snowing, but less fiercely. The fallen tree that had marked the entrance was gone, swept away in the morning’s avalanche – now the jagged knife of the ridge loomed above bare of snow – a forbidding piece of grey rock.

“Looks like another night in th’ cave, - Y’know, you need a name,” she addressed the horse. “Well, maybe one’ll come t’y’ overnight.” She turned the horse around and slipped back down the hard-won passage. “Looks like the snowslide took all th’ loose stuff down th’ mountain. Hope it don’t pile up ag’n.”

She moved back from the entrance to a distance not exposed to the wind. After tethering her horse, she swung her sleeping fur, hammock-like, between two pinnacle-like stalagmites to one side of the natural stone tunnel and slid into the cocoon to sleep. Another day lost.

<Day 17>

Sunup in the mountains comes first to the snow-capped peaks, illuminating those on the eastern horizon like so many twinkling jewels, lighting up first one and then another until the disk of the sun finally intrudes on the display and washes everything to utter sameness. It was on such a sunrise that Mikki fixed her attention, exulting in the opportunity to be on her way into the unexplored regions east and north of her.

Not that travel would be easy up here along the crest of Long Mountain Ridge. Snow lay deep enough in places for her horse to founder and even with the snowshoes she had fashioned from bent, twisted pine boughs woven through with twigs, her own progress would be arduous, indeed.

Still, she faced the day with uplifted spirit, buoyed by the prospect of relief from the miserably wet and wind-driven snow infiltrating into everything she owned, everything she wore. Cold? Hah! She had grown up in a land where it wasn’t considered cold until the huskies’ tails straightened. She grinned her morning devotion to the sun, bowed in greeting and stretched her lean, muscled limbs to absorb the rays’ warmth, standing on tiptoe, as if to get that much closer to this source of warmth.

A lone pine poked its top through the blanket of white – a pine of some considerable height, the greatest part of which stood concealed. On its sunny side, a small bird lit, announcing his status as master of all he surveyed and daring others of his gender and species to come near – singly or in groups, he cared not.

“What brings y’ up here, small bird?” Mikki asked, lowering her voice to barely above a whisper. “Lost? Blown of yer course by yest’d’y’s winds?” The creature tilted its head at her quizzically, chirped once, and catapulted itself into the thin air, freeing a small shower of snow from its perch. Mikki followed its course down towards the valley below.

“Why, I do b’lieve there’s th’ Inn where I lost m’ friend Jafar,” she recognized the reddish slate of the roof tiles even at this distance. Then wryly, “I wonder if they’ve done much business since our visit.” Jafar had really been more a business partner/acquaintance, but she regretted losing any ally, even those of less than sterling reputation. “Ah, well, past is past,” she observed as her attention turned to the activities ahead.

She trudged down from the ridgetop to where she had earlier tied the horse to the top of another pine, also poking its extreme tip above the snow cover. “C’mon Flint, let’s go.” The mare moved obediently into Mikki’s wake and the pair moved off to the north and east.

The bright sun reflected painfully brilliant off the glistening white surfaces spread around her. She sliced a strip of fur into a headband, cut two slits through it and fastened it around her eyes, letting the fur hang before her face, limiting the intensity of light and bringing some relief from the constant squint which, she knew was only a precursor the very real danger of glare-blindness – an affliction she could well do without.

The blizzard of the previous week had left precious little to identify a trail, so much time was invested in picking their way along, looking for the best (sometimes the only) footing, the most level ground, the infrequent spots where the mountain winds had already scoured the stones bare of cover, often to leave a glistening coat of ice. The sun rose, approached and then passed its zenith. Their shadows grew shorter as the warmth of midday came, then lengthened as the sun arced westward and the temperature dropped perceptibly. A wind began to whip loose snow into mare’s tales cascading over the edge of the ridge, only to dissolve into glistening clouds and drift lazily down into the bowl-shaped canyon once they passed the crest.

The scattered clouds took on an orange hue heralding the coming dusk as Mikki and Flint neared the end of the high ridge. Mikki paused, entranced by the view from the edge of the precipice. To the southwest lay the area locals called the Borderlands, a greenwood that local legends claimed hid the ruins of the White Duke’s Dungeon. Mikki’s gaze held there for a time as she recalled tales written in the histories of her matronage. There had, indeed, been a great city there once; the meticulously recorded lore of her clan listed the terms and salaries of mercenary warriors (including her several-times-great grandmother) hired into the ruling family’s service nearly a millennium before. Atypically, the last such entries mentioned only the departures of several cadres of condotierre from their homeland, failing to note the time of their return.

A reflected glint from distant water to the east caught Mikki’s eye.

“Hmm…big lake,’ she murmured, “Some clearings ‘round the shore, too. Wonder ‘f it’s inhabit’d?,,,No signs o’ life ‘nywhere ‘round…strange.” She shielded her gaze against the glare and concentrated her attention on the nearest opening in the wood surrounding the sapphire pool. “Can’t seem t’ make out a thing.” She shifted her line of sight, trying to discern anything out of the ordinary on the opposite shore…

<Day 18>

Mikki looked forward to another day of travel, hoping to make better time on the descent stages of the trek than she had in the mountains. Her scan of the surrounding terrain revealed nothing of particular interest. She packed her kit, saddled, mounted and turned Flint northward, off the shoulder of the massif and down into the valley below.

The horse skidded down the mushy trail almost on her haunches, forelegs extended stiffly, attempting to brake her progress. Mikki allowed the animal her head and moved her own weight back, one hand gripping the cantle of the saddle, the other loosely holding the reins.

“Snow’s clearin’ off as we get farther off th’ ridge. It’ll be easier when th’ trail levels out.” Mikki encouraged the horse. Almost on cue, the path slipped between two stone pillars and flattened out somewhat, sloping downward into a broad valley. Off to her left, Mikki caught a glimpse of the red roof of the Inn. Smoke drifted lazily upward from the chimney. “Well, well, well – new guests at th’ Inn.”

  • * *

<Day 19>

She had been investigating the dimly lit recesses of the cave and discovered a passage leading deeper into the limestone-walled labyrinth. Her left hand held aloft a pine-knot torch while the short sword swung relaxed but firmly held in her right. The trail sloped downwards along a trickle of water.

Then she noticed the smell.

“Like sump’n died in here – three days ago.” Her nose wrinkled in distaste and she reflexively drew breath through her mouth. It made no difference to her gag reflex, which pushed up into her throat, anyway. She fought it down, blinking and swallowing. Then came the sound of footsteps – unshod footsteps – approaching from the darkness beyond the puddle of illumination cast by the torch.

“Discretion bein’ th’ better part of valor…” She let the muttered cliché fade to an unfinished end, crushed the torch out with one quick stab into a nearby rock outcrop, and turned, running tiptoe up the path, soundless as a ghost.

When she regained the open space just within the entrance, she grabbed Flint’s rein and ushered the animal outside, admonishing her to wait, but not tying the mare. Mikki saw no cause in restraining the horse from making an escape if she herself failed to do so. She waited for several seconds at the entrance to the cave, listening for movement within. Greeted by only silence, her courage buoyed and she slipped back inside the dark coolness, climbing upward to her right to gain the relative safety of the shelf along the cave’s east wall.

So where were they? By now, she was certain the scorched remains of the brand had been discovered, announcing to the local denizens that a human (or some other Toolmaker) was in the area. Abruptly, the answer came from the passage at the rear of the cave, in the muffled slap of bare feet padding along flat rocks.

Crouching behind the boulder, Mikki straightened slowly until her line of sight encompassed the floor of the narrow cave below. The shuffling continued, growing more distinct as it neared.

Trolls!

“Oh, Minerva,” she breathed, “Two of ‘em. I didn’t know they traveled in pairs.” She lowered herself to crouch back to the shelf and duck-walked her way silently toward the cave entrance, trying to remain in position to intercept the trolls should they go after her horse.

“Not that they’re all that attracted t’ sunlight – or so I’m told,” she thought. “And I’d sooner have them facing th’ sun in th’ entrance t’ this place than me.”

  • * *

The road (and in the valley it was wide enough to be a road) had led north and east toward an area of limestone cliffs coursed by running streams and pocked with small, ice-covered lakes. It was easy travel and Flint had made good time, aided by a steady downward slope. As afternoon shadows lengthened, the pair had stopped to refresh themselves at one of the many ponds.

“Not such a bad day, eh?” Mikki called to the horse from her bathing spot in the pool. It felt good to shed the travel-stained clothing, wash it, hang it by the fire to dry and rinse the lived-in smell out of her armor. The leather liner for her steel helm lay upturned on a stone, likewise baking dry in the fire’s radiant heat.

It was even more gratifying to plunge from the bank herself, exhilarating in the cold tingle of the spring-fed pond against her skin. She submerged until her lungs begged for air, then catapulted herself off the bottom, rising out of the water’s surface momentarily exposing her entire torso to the frigid air, then splashing back like a breaching dolphin. Her head popped back above the surface; she giggled.

“Don’t you like t’ swim?” Mikki invited the horse. Flint spent several seconds staring at her mistress, lost in what passes for equine thought. She thought better of the opportunity to immerse herself in the near-freezing waters of the lake and turned back to munching dead, dried grass from the spot she had cleared near the bank.

Mikki’s enthusiasm for her bath wore out as her extremities turned blue and she emerged, shivering, to wrap herself in the now warmed sleeping fur. She sat on a log beside the fire, warming and drying herself and running her fingers through her hair, separating out the snarls.

“Wish I had a comb,” she thought. She dressed, tying the fur about her shoulders, skewered a strip from her store of smoked meat, and nestled the blunt end of the stick between two rocks, warming her dinner. After eating, she saddled the horse.

“Time to find a place f’r th’ night, Flint.” The mare moved off down the trail, shortly arriving at the opening into the hillside toward which they had been progressing all day. Mikki dismounted and, grasping the reins in her left hand led the way in, holding aloft a pine-knot torch in her right. The mare balked at the entrance. “Somethin’ in there?” Mikki asked. She dropped the reins, shifted the torch to her left hand and drew her sword, changing her attitude from relaxed to watchful and moved cautiously forward to probe the gloom …

  • * *

The pair of grey cave-trolls paused almost beneath her perch, searching about for the source of the tantalizing smell. Live meat was here, or had been here recently, and instinct drove them to find it. Mikki peeked down from her position, prone on the wide ledge, and then slipped back from the edge to raise herself back into a crouch and ease silently towards the cave entrance.

The horse whickered outside, unable to refrain from expressing her disquiet at smelling the predators. Two pairs of beady eyes turned instantly toward the cave entrance, squinting against the reddish sunset beyond. The trolls sprang, one slightly in front of the other, towards the opening.

Now! Mikki’s warrior reflexes took hold and she vaulted over the edge of the drop, still between the trolls and the cave entrance. The monsters’ heavily-muscled frames and scaly skin had told her all she needed to know about her chances should they catch up to her, but little fear of that, as the trolls’ awkward, ape-like gait hindered their running ability. Mikki dashed for the crimson slash of light that was her escape route, opening a progressively widening gap between herself and her pursuers until she broke into the clearing outside. She leapt astride Flint almost without breaking stride and kicked the horse in the ribs with her heels.

 “Time t’ be leavin’, now,” she announced; Flint responded by launching into a gallop, heading up the trail into the woods. Several minutes later, Mikki slowed the animal to a walk, listening for pursuit. The forest replied silently. Mikki was chagrined with herself for running, but, “I’m awfully fond o’ breathin’.” Maintaining the horse’s slow pace while she waited for the animal to cool down from the panicky flight, Mikki maintained her vigilance on the surrounding wood, lest the trolls overcome their distaste for the outdoors. Night was falling; it was quite probable the cave trolls were cave-dwellers only because they were nocturnal. 

“Or maybe they just don’t like leavin’ the cave.” Her personal knowledge of the habits of cave-trolls was limited to the past five minutes. “But ‘t might be they don’t like sunlight – and that means defense by distance ‘s in order, here.” She urged her mount into a relaxed canter, heading away from the cave. She would have to find another way.

<Day 20>

<Mikki’s Luck>

The flight from the cave trolls left her spent – more emotionally than physically. She had been raised and trained to fight, not retreat. “But there’s diff’rences ‘tween courageous ‘n’ stupid,” she reasoned, “Dead warrior’s no good t’ her captain.” The trolls may have been vulnerable singly and taken by surprise, but not together.

Flint trotted up a rise in the road and Mikki reined her to a stop, raising herself in the stirrups to improve her view. A rabbit bolted from the trailside to move deeper into the concealing brush. Mikki watched the trail of the white creature lengthen in rapid, jerky fits, marking its passage across the snow-covered meadow in prints a blind man could find. A smile moved across her lips, “We’re all runnin’ fr’m somethin’.” The mirth abruptly faded as the mental image of the trolls returned. Her head came up to view the road ahead as she brought her focus back to the situation at hand. She scanned her surroundings, starting at the far horizon and sweeping progressively nearer. A trail presented itself, at the edge of the valley through which she now passed, rising gradually to the north.

“Well, that’s a direction I haven’t been in yet.” Mikki didn’t fear the unknown. Her fatalistic attitude about war, death and dying allowed her to sleep well on the night before a battle. Once she had honed her weapons and readied her spectral self for possible entry into the afterlife, she had done all she could do; there was no point in fretting over things that would come to pass in their own due time.

“But with a bow in my hand and breath in my breast,” she thought, “I’ll not lay down ‘n’ let ‘em run over me.” And with this heartening consideration restoring her spirits, she moved the horse toward the road junction ahead.

It neared high noon by time she arrived, “That rabbit’s lucky I wasn’t thinkin’ ahead,” she grumbled. “Or he’d be lunch now.” She derided herself for her preoccupation with the close call in the troll-cave. Failure to maintain concentration on the here-and-now had cost her a meal during the hard winter months – a time when food could be hard to come by. She surveyed her usually lean frame, frowning at what she perceived as unwelcome gauntness. “I’ve got ribs showin’ ‘n’ I ferget t’ hunt. Grendel! What am I coming to?” Then, after some reflection, “This is not turning out to be the walk in the park I was anticipatin’.”

Her trail led northward until the path vanished into a cavern in a cliffside. “Not another one,” she moaned. “I am getting’ so tired o’ bein’ underground!” She slid to the ground, pulled the reins over the horse’s ears and turned them twice quickly around a low branch. The sword slid out of its sheath and in less than two minutes, a stout pine stump was stripped of twigs. She had a small fire started in five more, and while that grew to engage some larger dry deadfall she had collected and broken against a rock, she used the sword to split the end of the pine stick several times, releasing the gooey tar. She held the torch over the fire. In the short time it took that one to light, she prepared another and, holding the reins and the torch together in one hand and her sword in the other, she moved forward into the cave.

This time, Flint showed no trace of the reluctance she had displayed earlier. Mikki moved forward more confidently. “Yer startin’ t’ earn yer keep,” she commended her mount, “Maybe y’ won’t wind up as dinner, after all.” She teased the animal softly, knowing that Flint reacted only to the tone of her voice and not the words. Before long, daylight illuminated the rock walls ahead, giving notice that this route through the mountains actually led somewhere. Her luck at finding her way was holding.

But so was her fortune at locating creatures. As the tunnel turned east and she exited into the blinding sunlight reflecting off the snowfields before her, she squinted. After a few seconds her pupils adjusted and she saw, rising before her a torturously winding trail slanting upward and marked by cairns of loose stones piled atop one another. Her neck craned and she arched backward as her gaze rose to the peak almost immediately before her.

There was the motion of a shadow just at the summit above.

<Day 21>

Mikki turned from the cave exit, angry dismay etching furrows between her slender, arched eyebrows. The telltale wisp of smoke trailing upward in the thin, cold air above the tor was barely discernable against the clear sky background – regular puffs, separated by regular intervals; something on Pinnacle Peak was breathing fire. “Dragon! I c’n just imagine how that’ll work out.” She caught herself, straightened her shoulders and loosed a sigh. “If ‘t wasn’t fer bad luck, I wouldn’t have none a’ tall.”

Mikki trudged back through the tunnels, gloomy darkness mirroring her own thoughts. The fingers of her left hand looped through Flint’s halter, those of her right curled around a pine-knot torch. She had just traversed this section of the underground labyrinth and, finding no inhabitants, felt secure enough to sheath her sword for the return trip. The horse’s acute hearing would give adequate warning, if warning were needed.

“This trip has been a boil on my butt,” Mikki growled to herself. She struck up a carping conversation with Flint. “First, I have t’ shovel my way out of a tunnel blocked by ‘n avalanche. Then, I spend two days climbin’ along that ridge and get t’ th’ caves, wantin’ t’ poke about fer some treasure – but, NOO - a pair o’ cave trolls show up ‘n’ run me out ‘o there. Then, I take a peek around in some more caves and find nothin’. I can’t go up ‘n’ visit Pinnacle Peak ‘cause there’s a big dragon there who’ll prob’ly considers horsemeat his second favorite lunchtime delicacy.” She glanced into the horse’s muzzle. “Guess what’s first.” Flint plodded along beside, seeming not to hear, or at least, care.

She exited the southern extension of the caves at midmorning, almost exactly a day after she had entered the same hole, mounted and continued south. As the trail dipped into the valley, She hooded her eyes with her hand and peered westward, toward the smoldering Forge of Vulcan. “Another place I can’t go,” she groused. The volcano smoked ominously. “Smoke looks thicker t’day than yest’d’y. Prob’ly some damn dragon holed up there, too.” She turned the horse east and moved down the gentle grade of the trail towards the caves housing the twin trolls. “As Granny Swanthold says, ‘Better th’ devil y’ know, than th’ one y’ don’t.’” She would take her chances trying to slip past the trolls and make for Archimede’s Fault, the great chasm dividing the northern portion of the map between East and West.

  • * *

<Day 22>

“Like a messenger pigeon t’ its roost, I’m back again,” Mikki’s frustration with her travels thus far was evident in her muttered curse. “One blames th’ gods for everything, but rarely gives ‘em credit,” the old saw came to her mind. “Thank, you Grandma Ruth,” she breathed, looking skyward. She reined the horse to a halt outside the cave she had exited two days earlier. “Now let’s see ‘f those trolls ‘r’ still here.” She slid the short sword out of its sheath and, holding it waist high, tip up, slid silently forward in a low crouch, hugging the left wall of the cavern entrance.

No sound greeted her at first. She paused, allowing her eyes to adjust to the dimness before continuing down. Still nothing. She padded across the cave and climbed to the ledge, peering surreptitiously over the edge to make sure it was empty before pulling herself up and rising to move along it, deeper into the gloom.

Then came the sounds of beasts sharing a kill. Mikki moved from the main room along a side passage, toward the sounds of grunting, interspersed with an occasional snarling growl. The ledge passed through an archway and Mikki’s progress halted as the dining pair came, at last, into view.

The twin cave trolls were dismantling the carcass of a deer they had evidently dragged in from the forest the night before. Bloody shreds of skin and fractured bones lay scattered about. One troll sat on it haunches, back against the rock wall, a leg joint grasped in its grotesquely huge hands, its pointed incisors scissoring gory chunks from the bone. Its partner squatted next to the carcass, using its claws to tear away sections of the hide before dipping its head to pull strips of the deer’s meaty flank away, swallowing them almost without chewing.

“All in all, pretty repulsive table manners, “ Mikki opined voicelessly. “Better get Flint and get by while they’re busy.”

Once back outside, she pulled the fur from her bedroll and cut four square patches, each about four times the size of her hand. These she wrapped, fur in, around Flint’s hooves, securing the padding with rawhide thongs. She wrapped the remainder of the blanket around her mount’s muzzle and holding it in place and using it for a lead, led the animal forward.

Flint balked at the smell of the trolls within, but made no sound with her jaws held shut. At her mistress’s insistence, the horse walked nervously forward, Mikki’s free hand stroking her muzzle soothingly. Her muffled hooves passed down the main trail as soundlessly as could be expected from a horse; what little sound there was drowned by the tinkle of the small stream running alongside.

The pair passed by the tunnel leading to the trolls’ dining room and Mikki breathed a sigh of relief. From here, she need only find her way to the exit at the east end of the maze. If the trolls came after her now, she and Flint could outrun them – provided they didn’t get lost.

Lost! In the darkness, Mikki had strayed from the main way. The sound of the stream trickling alongside was gone, as if the water had been absorbed by the stones. She stopped, guiding herself by hearing. No clue to the path outward resounded from the cave walls. She could only retrace her steps. “Auntie Noulie, what would you do?” Mikki’s thought turned to another of her warrior-instructors from training days. Noulie’s remembered voice rasped in Mikki’s ear.

“Creatures have better sense than humans do ‘bout some things,” the words echoed in her mind. “Follow yer dog home, an ye be at loss i’ th’ forest.”

“Hope this works with horses,” Mikki turned to Flint and loosened the muzzle. “Let’s go home, girl,” she whispered. The horse turned slowly in the darkness and made her way cautiously up the trail. She passed a large limestone column and stopped, her ears twitching.

“Uh-oh,” Mikki unsheathed her sword yet again and prepared to defend herself and her mount against whatever threat appeared. Moments passed, stretching into minutes. Flint shook her mane and stamped her foot, anxious to get moving again, but unsure of the way. Then the reason for the horse’s unease became apparent. The pad of footsteps reverberated from somewhere above them in the cave.

Mikki put her shoulder against Flint’s flank and shoved to get the horse moving again. Desperate to get moving away from the approaching nightmare, she urged the horse into a fast walk. She could never outrun the trolls in the dark. Flint slipped and stumbled on the muddy floor, not quite going to her knees. “Get up ‘n’ keep movin’,” Mikki ordered in a low voice, “Or you’ll be next fer dinner.”

It became a race, the Amazon and her horse descending in panic through the inky tunnels, the hunting trolls lumbering in pursuit. The woman and the horse, guided solely by the instinct to escape, tripped over unseen stones in the path, stumbled into pits and potholes filled with water and slipped across patches of moist algae, falling and sliding, their downward whirl arrested by unforgiving stone pillars, leaving bruises and scrapes. Any attempt at stealth forgotten, the fear of the hunted pushing them on, they tore at suicidal pace downward through the stygian dark. The mare stumbled to her knees and Mikki moved into the lead, more sure-footed in the dark than the horse’s still-padded hooves.

The chase lasted for hours, it seemed. She could run no further; even Mikki’s iron vitality was being exhausted. She moved the horse against the cave wall and positioned herself between the animal and the vast open room in which they now found themselves, sword extended low before her, knees bent, ears straining to catch the sound of her pursuers above the sound of her own gasping breath and the trip-hammer thud of her pulse in her ears.

Nothing. Mikki willed her breathing slower to the point where she could make out sounds in the blackness beyond between shuddering gasps. Her heartbeat slowed. Still no sound echoed from the vast room. Were they alone; had the trolls given up the chase? Flint stood by, flanks heaving, legs quivering with fatigue. The hoof pads had fallen away or been torn to ribbons by the wild run across the stone floors. Minutes passed and still no sign of pursuit. Mikki’s stance relaxed slightly, without relaxing her vigilance.

More minutes passed and it was evident now that their pursuers had vanished. Mikki’s perception that hours had passed was correct, several hours had passed. What Mikki could not know was that, in fact, midnight had come and gone and with the change to the new day, a wash of eldritch force had altered the layout of the caves, causing the noise of their passing to rebound from new surfaces and confusing the trolls’ ability to track them in the dark. They would be safe for hours, although they could not know this yet. Fear drove the pair to start walking again, following the sound of moving water and hoping it led to a way out.

Mikki knelt to refresh herself; cold water moved across her hand telling her that they had been moving upward, for how long, she could not say. When she had drunk her fill, she stood and Flint, who had instinctively remained alertly head up, took her turn, sucking up water in a single deep draught.

“We’re both tired,” Mikki spoke to the mare, ”We’ll stop here.” They had run for miles and were now thoroughly lost, blindly following the sounds of running water, hoping it led to the surface. They had reached a large room, judging by the echoing of their own footsteps. “Take a nap, girl,” Mikki offered, “I’ll take the first watch.” Flint’s slow, even breathing sounded quietly in the dark. Mikki took a perch cross-legged atop a boulder, staring into the ebon vastness.

  • * *

<Day 23>

Mikki spent a night that seemed longer than it was resting wide awake atop her vantage point in the eastern regions of the caves. Short, because the terrifying race through the tunnels had taken more than half the night; long because she found herself having to stand watch while Flint slept.

“Doesn’t exactly make fer a restful ev’nin’,” she mused, arching her chin upwards and spreading her arms. She tensed and then relaxed the muscles of her arms and upper back, listening to the cracking of tendons drawn tautly over the underlying skeleton. She felt better than she had upon arriving at their bivouac, but her eyes were rimmed red from sleeplessness and she ached in every joint and muscle from the beating inflicted by the caves during their flight. “Time t’ get outta here. No one wants to end up as lunch.” Her legs uncoiled, driving her to a standing pose; she slid almost soundlessly to the cave floor.

The horse’s even breathing was interrupted by a muffled snort in response to Mikki’s tickling of the animal’s ear. Mikki scratched again; Flint reflexively shook her head, waking herself. Mikki sensed her mount’s displeasure at being aroused. “You’d care to wind up breakfast fer our two lumpy grey friends?” Mikki’s whisper broke the silence. She took the horse’s halter and led upward along the streambed, pausing at irregular intervals to listen for the sounds of pursuit, or worse, tracking.

The way led through the dark in a more or less straight line steadily upwards. In time, a dim grey glow appeared to float in the air ahead. The spot grew. After several more minutes, the roughness of the cave walls became discernable as shadows of darker against lighter black. Hallelujah! It was, as her circadian sense had predicted, day outside. Mikki stopped for a last listen, then forced her aching limbs forward, Flint trailing in her wake at the end of the tether.

They emerged from the mouth of yet another cave, facing east across the desolation leading up to Archimede’s Fault. The trail stopped at the edge of a pool, from which the stream they had been following ran back into the cave. Some distance to the north her squinting eyes, shielded by her palm, could make out a narrow ribbon stretched drooping from one side of the gorge to the other. Mikki’s shoulders sagged as she released yet another profane imprecation against the Fates. Things were not going to get easier.

“I know good and well this I’n’t gonna be a dead end,” Mikki screwed up her determination, “There’s a trail here somewhere, and I’m gonna find it.” She set out searching the perimeter of the clearing at the cave entrance with an energy born of frustrated anger, her temper shortened by the lack of sleep, only to have the adrenalin charge wear off after a few brief minutes. She sat down heavily on the dusty ground, a frown creasing her soft features.

Flint sauntered over to stand beside, inquiring as to her health. The horse snuffed the air around her, and, satisfied that nothing was seriously amiss, raised her head, ears twitching, to indicate she was prepared to remain vigilant while Mikki cared for her own needs. Mikki’s mood was broken by her four-footed partner’s concern.

“Okay, okay,” she resigned, “Water first, then let’s tend to those scratches.” Mikki patted the horse on the upper foreleg, only to have her steed flinch and shy away. “Tender spot? Sorry,” she apologized. She rose from her seat, unpacked her bedroll and soaked a corner of it in the pool. Using the dripping wet fur, she wiped the bloody smears from the horses legs, Flint’s muscles twitching occasionally as Mikki’s ministrations found a particularly sensitive spot. Mikki cooed at the horse, comforting and calming while nursing her abrasions. She took the opportunity to give Flint a thorough checkup during the process, noting gratefully that, while there were bruises and some torn skin, the horse had suffered no debilitating injury. At the end of thirty minutes, Flint looked much better. Mikki pressed her own cheek affectionately against the horse’s and patted the other side of her steed’s head.

“S’all right, baby,” she murmured, “Now ‘t’s m’ turn.” She pulled the baldric over her head, gripped the hem of the platelet mail and raised it over her hips, then her shoulders and shaking her tresses loose from the neck, letting it fall jingling to the ground. The one-piece doeskin undergarment followed and Mikki, arms out, stretched her chest toward the warm sunlight. Her arms moved in twin arcs to bring her hands together before her in an attitude of prayer.

“Ah Life-Bringer,” she breathed, bobbing her head respectfully, “It’s good to see you again. Especially considerin’ the alternative.” It was her own droll, abbreviated version of the Day Salute taught by the Mavens of the Gods in the temples of her home province. It reminded her that once again, she had escaped yet another danger with body and soul intact. She grinned widely, and without further ado, plunged into the depths of the cool waters. The trail would still be there after her bath.

Mikki surfaced with an explosive exhalation and shook her golden locks, scattering a rainbow of droplets around herself. Flint stood untethered at the pond’s edge and turned to the sound unconcernedly, merely to confirm that her mistress was only playing, not drowning. Mikki pulled herself to a spot where she could sit half-submerged, letting her buoyancy lighten the pressure on her bruised buttocks. The weak warmth of the sun on her shoulders did little to counter the cold of the water, but it enabled her to remain long enough to allow the grime and gore from the previous night to soak away. Mikki ducked beneath the surface and scratched her scalp vigorously, running her fingers repeatedly through her hair until forced to come up for air. Once again, a fountain of droplets scattered in all directions. This time she stood, unfolding her athletically lean frame as rivulets cascaded down.

She stretched out full length on a large stone shelf, basking in the wan sun, sheltered from the wind by the ravine walls. A draft exuded from the cave entrance, less cold than the winter air. It was midday, but still the air held a bitter chill. Shortly, she yielded to the elements and donned her doeskin and mail. She could feel the need for sleep overwhelming even her tenacious endurance; before long, Morpheus would prevail. She wrapped herself in the fur, took a cross-legged seat with her back nestled into a small niche in a rock and laid the short sword across her knees, right hand on the hilt. Her head drooped until her chin rested on her breastbone and sleep overtook her.

Flint’s ears twitched, turning this way and that to catch any hint of approaching predators. The mare would remain alert, her herd instinct to maintain watch playing to her mistress’s need of the moment.

Mikki awoke late in the afternoon, still stiff, but nonetheless rested. Flint stood nearby, chewing a mouthful of browse she had picked up who-knew-where and swiveling her head from side to side in slow, irregular arcs. The mare’s ears twitched. Mikki unfolded from her seat, rising to her feet and, beginning with her wrists and hands, carefully and thoroughly limbered her joints, exercising her lean, wiry musculature until a sheen of sweat reflected from her skin, bringing gooseflesh in the cold air. She mopped her brow with the still-damp corner of the fur and cast it over the horse’s back.

The brief, fruitless search earlier in the day was now replaced by a more thorough circuit of the ravine. On the east side, opposite the cave, there was a rise in the rocky floor. Mikki’s sense fixed on that as being the most likely direction for a path, but when she worked her way around to that point, she found only a steep bluff and no evidence of a path. She continued counter-clockwise around the ravine floor. Eureka! A small break in the stony surrounding walls appeared. She called to the horse, whose head lifted. Flint watched Mikki’s form vanish behind a rock; the mare followed and found a narrow cleft leading to a steep, narrow path heading north. A few hundred yards further along the trail, the slope angled downwards and the rock walls fell away from either side, revealing a landing of sorts anchoring the end of a rope suspension bridge. Mikki dismounted, dropping the reins to the ground and walked over for a closer inspection of the flimsy-looking structure.

“This can’t be less’n a hundred years old,” she guessed, “Great-Aunt Lucy’s grandmother prob’ly built it.” The lines supporting the short cross planks were secured to the stone landing by a pair of cleats chiseled into the stone. Above these was mounted a log A-frame, from the crossbar of which two strands stretched waist-high across the abyss. The hand-ropes continued beyond the frames to their own chiseled cleats. At regular spaces along the hundred yards of suspended rope and wood, ties held the hand-lines to the flooring supports. Grasping the hand-lines, Mick stepped cautiously onto the first plank. When it held, she sprang lightly, testing the bridge’s strength. It held beneath her one hundred and thirty-four pounds, but would it hold the horse?

Flint didn’t think so. Mikki’s mare balked and refused to be moved onto the narrow, swaying planking. Even blindfolded with the sleeping fur wrapped around her eyes, she stopped and backed up, snorting and neighing protest when she felt the board move beneath her hoof.

“Chickenshit!” Mikki chided. The blindfold removed, Flint eyed her mistress reproachfully, whickering and snorting her dismay at Mikki’s deceit. There would be no placing life and limb at risk for this mother of foals – not today, in any event.

“Come on, it’s perfectly safe,” Mikki started across the wooden planks, both hands grasping lines, when a frigid gust swirled her hair about her face. She freed one hand to clear her vision. The bridge bucked in the wind, and Mikki felt herself thrown sideways, to dangle over the chasm whose depths disappeared into the mists far below.

Mikki’s surprised cry was cut short as her heart jumped to her throat, adrenalin latching her hold as she fought to prevent the swinging of her body from breaking her death-grip on the madly swaying rope. She swung her free hand futilely at the line once, twice, three times and finally stopped, swinging in slow arcs, hanging from the line by one hand. Her rational mind regained control over her hindbrain, and she forced her breathing to subside in a series of deep, calming gasps.

“Oh, oh,” she was beyond her usual articulate wise-cracking, not yet able to conceive a rational plan, but no longer panicked at the prospect of falling. The wind tore at her. “Maybe,” she admitted, “This is not such a good idea.” She looked between her feet into the abyss below and swallowed. Her face turned upward, looking for a means to bring her body after. Now that the immediate shock effect was over, she needed a scheme to extricate herself from this mess.

“Dangerous, not hopeless,” she reflected. Looking at her right hand clutching the rope, she brought the left up to grasp the wrist and pulled herself up until her crown touched the line. She raised her left leg, hooked the heel over the rope, then worked the rope behind her knee. She curled the other leg over the rope, moved her left hand to grasp the line, and relaxed with a sigh. She took a handful of breaths.

“Well, can’t stay here all day,” her feet were toward her original starting point, so she would be moving uphill and backward, “But it feels better than down,” her heart still thudded in her chest, the initial adrenaline rush not yet completely in check.

Five minutes of laborious hand-over-hand, foot-over-foot later, she pulled herself up the leg of the bridge’s supporting frame and sagged against it, breathing heavily. Inventory showed her store of possessions remained intact. She cast an accusing look at her horse, “Well, why didn’t you tell me?” Then, remembering Flint’s unwillingness, she dropped her gaze, walked over to the horse and mounted up.

The path north from the bridge led to a wood of dark reddish boles, leafless in the grey winter cold. After the terrifying moments over the gorge, Mikki needed a warm, soothing drink. They stopped; starting a small, smokeless fire with her flint, the warrior brewed tea while talking reassuringly to Flint. The mare looked her way occasionally, as if to assure herself that she was still not alone.

The break from their travels was brief. After emptying the bowl, Mikki straightened the blanket across the animal’s withers, then sprang aboard. “Let’s go,” she urged. Flint moved obediently down the path into the woods. Afternoon shadows lengthened as they passed through a small clearing and turned northeast. The woods ended at the foot of a rocky slope.

“Mountains and caves, caves and mountains,” Mikki mumbled. She called upon the gods to sentence whoever made either or both to the deepest pits of Hell, and began leading Flint up the stony slope. Hopefully, there would be someplace to encamp near the top.

< Day 26>

The ground rose again as she approached the mountain range – actually less a range than an isolated geological abnormality in the land’s surface. The fingers of Teewinot Spire stretched upward from the surrounding wooded plains, standing sentinel over the northern extremity of Archimedes’ Fault. This was territory known to her clan from the records of their condotierri. She had read the tale of her ancestors’ escape from an untenable siege some generations ago via a rough path leading down the north side of the mountain. The exact location of the pass had long since faded, but if it had been there five hundred years earlier – well, the rocky landscape took a long time to change.

Flint plodded steadily upward through the pine forest under a darkening sky. Storm clouds scudded over the western horizon, rapidly filling the sky. As Flint’s progress brought the pair to treeline, a freezing mist cloaked the foothills, soaking through the fur wrapped around Mikki’s shoulders.

“Blizzards ‘n’ sleet,” she grumbled, “Don’t this place ever get decent weather?” There was no condition so demoralizing to a field soldier as cold and wet. Clay clung to Flint’s hooves. The trail turned abruptly to the west, then bent gradually around again, skirting the base of the steep slope as it continued upward.

At length, the trail ended atop a mesa on the north side of Teewinot. A saddle separated the tabletop from the steep slopes of the spire, with no evident traverse. Mikki dismounted, looking for a way to reach the north face. No help. The wind bore a clammy chill as it swirled off the mountain.

“Old legend’s prob’ly just a fairy tale, anyway,” Mikki sighed. “Ooh, I am such a sucker!” Arms akimbo, she glared at the peak above, directing her frustration at the stone, which did not care. She lowered her gaze and kicked a loose stone over the mesa’s lip, listening to it clatter down, bouncing from boulder to boulder. “I’ve had just about enough o’ this.” Her patience, never her strong point, was near an end.

“What’s this?” A collection of rocks seemed out of place, too close together to appear natural. Her brow furrowed, narrowing her eyes as she focused her attention. She approached, head cocked to one side, for a closer look. Standing in the midst of the scattered mass, it struck her that these stones had once been piled atop one another, then the pile slid into disorganization by some natural event – earthquake, landslide, avalanche, or simply the freeze/thaw cycle of years – Years! Yes, this had been a marker – a cairn placed here ages ago, since demolished by wind and weather, but still performing its assigned mission – But what mission?

“What’re you tryin’ t’ tell me?” Mikki asked. The long dead travelers responsible for the sign didn’t answer. A gust of wind whipped her blond tresses across her face and caused mail platelets to click against each other. She cleared the hair from her vision with one hand, raising and shaking her head to do so. Her eyes fell on the mountain.

There was a glimpse of something moving – so momentary she wasn’t certain it wasn’t her imagination. Again her eyes squinted, trying to confirm what she thought she might have seen. An oath whistled between her clenched teeth.

“Another one!” Mikki cursed her both luck and her matron. It wasn’t fair, it just wasn’t fair. “Her I am, scoutin’ the most remote territory possible, and all I find are dragons! Damnation!” Another stone was launched over the edge of the mesa. Mikki stalked in a circle, pacing angrily, fists on hips. She glared up along the saddle to a ledge below the mountain’s namesake steeple. Yes, there! Silhouetted against the sky, a sleek reptilian shape, head adorned with a feathery leather crest.

“Well, that puts the mountain peak out of reach.” Disgusted, she plopped down on a rock and rested her head in her hands, elbows on knees. Her head turned to confirm her findings one final time. She swore again. In triplicate.

After a time, she sighed resignedly and raising her head from her hands, turned her attention up the mountain again, hoping against hope that the dragon had been an hallucination. Nope, her senses were not playing tricks. She rose to her feet, moved to where Flint stood patiently regarding her mistress, grasped the reins and began leading the mare back the way they had come.

“Gods’ gotta run outta lizards sometime. I hope.” They passed a recently familiar outcropping. Mikki mounted up and the pair continued down the trail.

Life was officially unfair.

<Day 26, cont’d>

The trail wound downward, back to the clearing at the foot of the mountain, where it turned south back into the woods. Flint slowed to a halt as Mikki stood in the stirrups in an effort to see further along the mountain trail exiting the clearing’s eastern perimeter. Glancing over her left shoulder, up the mountain face, she found her decision made for her – the dragon was craning its neck, looking south expectantly. The sounds of approaching people issued from the wood. “Townsfolk. Can’t go anywhere without wakin’ th’ dead.” Mikki guided Flint east, around a bend in the trail, then setting a large stone on the ends of the reins, crept back to observe the approaching group from a vantage point concealed atop a boulder. She looked up to check on the dragon.

By and by half a dozen people emerged from the shade of the wood. Two pairs bore hand-barrows laden with butchered meat while the remaining two carried swords nervously at the ready as if anticipating highwaymen to pounce at any moment. Mikki found the effect rather comical. These certainly weren’t warriors. A smirk betrayed her amusement as she stood up.

“Ho, my boys,” she called. The swordbearers started, wheeling around to seek her out and, having taken several seconds to find her, raised their swordpoints in her general direction. Mikki smiled down from her perch, arms crossed. “Where might y’ be takin’ all these fine vittles?”

Another several seconds passed before the swordsman farthest from her recovered enough to respond. “To the Worm,” he spoke loudly enough to make himself heard by a deaf woman.

Mikki found this even more amusing. These people were paying tribute! And to a thieving dragon! “And just what service does this Worm perform that he should be so well-rewarded?”

“Well, ‘e don’t eat us’ns,” replied a barrow bearer. This one was thin, but wiry-looking, and seemed to suffer no strain carrying his portion of the load. “Nor our kine.”

The lead swordsman summoned enough courage to ask, “And who might you be, lass?” He cocked his head to one side as if inspecting a piece of livestock at the county fair. “And what might be your business here?”

The Amazon’s self-assured posture changed not a whit. “Mikki Finn, Soldier-for-hire.” This engendered some muffled conversation among the group, from which Mikki could make out the words “Shieldmistress” and “mercenary”. The conference broke up having achieved some sort of consensus.

A deafening inhuman shriek pierced the air from above the clearing. Seven pairs of eyes jerked northward as a monstrous scaled shape skidded into the open space. The meat-bearers and their guard dropped their burdens and ran. The short sword appeared in Mikki’s right hand and arced across the space before her tracking the course of the dragon scuttling across the clearing to collect its booty. Intent on its appetite and fearing nothing, the dragon completely ignored the Amazon’s presence.

“Well, I like that,” she pouted, “How insultin’!” She reversed the hilt in her hand and placed fists on hips, suspending the blade along her right thigh. “Not so much as a how-de-do or a by-your-leave.” Her feigned offense lasted only long enough to assure that if the locals looked back, they would not see her fleeing in panic, and then she slipped down the east side of the rock and ran for Flint.

The horse seemed willing enough to distance herself from the smell of the dragon and trotted briskly along the rising trail. Her pace slowed as the incline increased until it reduced to a walk. Mikki turned in the saddle, checking for pursuit. None appeared.

“Well, I guess we c’n slow down, now,” she agreed. She dismounted and led her mount upwards. In time, the pair crossed the plateau at the top of the trail and started down towards the woods on the east side. Darkness would soon be upon them; it was time to find a campsite. And hope that dragons were not nocturnal.

  • * *

The pair spent the night camped on the east side of the mountain, trusting in the villagers’ largess to keep hungry dragons at bay. The group had seemed accustomed to their task, for all that they were scared to death. Mikki chuckled inwardly and smiled at their temerity. Six men – if they were any kinds of swordsmen, there were enough of them to take on a dragon – but that took nerve and trust. Untrained townsfolk couldn’t be counted on to place themselves in danger to save your butt. And therein lay the difference between soldiers and civilians. Professional soldiering was a sisterhood (or brotherhood, if you would).

Flint paid little attention while Mikki performed her daily obeisance to the rising sun. The horse stood comfortably to accept the blanket and saddle. She felt the saddlebags drop across her rump, followed shortly by the accustomed weight of her rider. She was looking forward to getting on their way, as she did every morning. This human knew her way around horses and treated them as the valuable servants they were, always making sure that wherever they stopped, Flint had forage and water. Periodically, Mikki inspected the mare’s hooves for signs of rough use, loose shoes, stones, cracking or other evidence of ill-keeping. The woman did not carry curry brushes, and Flint would have relished a thorough combing, but maybe someday…

<Day 27>

The path through the evergreen forest wound steadily downward, leaving the clean smell of the pines behind as it descended into a rather desolate-looking valley. Mikki sensed something familiar and looked around, turning first one way in the saddle, then the other. The clearing around her was empty. Her inspection moved closer in, concentrated on the ground, until she noticed water gathering in dewdrops on the outside of one saddlebag.

“Hmm? What’s this?” She opened the covering flap and peered inside. The panpipes appeared coated in frost and the interior of the bag felt ice-cold to her hand as she reached inside to retrieve it. Of course! This valley, like Archimede’s Fault earlier, was infused with some eldritch force that caused the artifact to respond. The Poison spell, which would enhance her short sword’s menace, would be active.

A tune from her boot camp days started up in her head, brought to mind by the sight greeting her as the fading half-light of the late afternoon sun brought an end to the day’s travels.

There’s a Red House over yonder,

	That’s where my lover stays,

There’s a Red House over yonder,

	That’s where my lover stays,

I haven’t seen my lover,

	In ninety-nine ‘n’ one-half days.

She grinned to herself, her volatile mood improving from yesterday’s chagrin at being again frustrated by the Fates. The cottage was roofed in red tiles, nearly identical to the roofing of the Blood and Iron Inn visited three weeks and a lifetime ago. A light shone from inside and shadows moved across the windows. Tall, broad-shouldered shadows. Mikki’s mind began turning over. Allies? Perhaps for a price. With enough help, she could return to Teewinot and take on its resident guardian.

She tied Flint to a low-hanging tree branch and removed the saddle. Carrying it on one hand, saddlebags slung over her shoulder, she marched up to the doorway and shoved, throwing the door wide. Four startled soldiers within snapped their collective attention toward the now-gaping doorway. The sergeant’s hand leapt to his sword-hilt, then relaxed as he recognized no threat – it was a girl.

But a unique young woman, he observed. His shrewd assessment took less than seconds. Yes, here was a different kind of girl – an Amazon – that ancient caste of woman warriors. Known to be fearsome foes and loyal allies. Trustworthy. And unlikely to start a fight without provocation, although little enough provocation would be needed, or so their reputation ran.

“Hold, men’” he ordered, freezing his troopers’ reactions. Then, to Mikki, “Bonne Eve, Little One. Join us for meat?” Mikki bridled at the diminutive, but she checked her tongue, inferring the greeting’s friendly intent. She grinned. Maybe this wouldn’t be such a sucky day, after all.

“Thankee, sir,” she nodded, offering more deference than she felt. It never hurt to be polite – even to one’s foes. And these were not foes – at least not yet. And she needed them as allies. “Yer certain y’have t’ spare?”

“Assuredly, your appetite will be no imposition,” the officer returned, rising from his bench before the fire. He shifted the flagon to his left hand and extended his right. Mikki took him by the wrist, her grasp reciprocated. Here was a man familiar with the ways of Amazons.

“Greetings, sir, I go by Mikki Finn. And I see you’ve met my sisters.” She alluded to the proffered greeting, soldier-to-soldier, rather than the deferential male-to-female formalities.

“Not had the honor,” he replied, “But your sisterhood’s reputation precedes you. I understand you prefer to be addressed as warriors, not damsels.”

“Right enough.” Mikki grinned, warming to the man’s charm. Here was a man who had probably seen his share of fights; he displayed none of the empty braggadocio of inexperienced recruits. A seasoned veteran, respected by his peers and looked up to by the men he led, candid and straightforward.

Mikki was ushered to a seat by the hearth and offered a cut of the mid-size antelope roasting on a spit in the fireplace. Behind her, the three younger men shared sidelong glances and raised eyebrows, appreciative of the young Amazon’s form and obvious athletic grace. She unsheathed her dagger, thanked her hosts and set to with a will, taking bite-size pieces between her teeth and slicing them off as she held the steak in her free hand.

The elder warrior handed her a cup filled with beer. “My name is Renault – Sergeant of Foot,” he offered. “It’s a rare day we get visitors out here in the wilderness,” he prompted, politely waiting for an explanation of her presence in the woods. Mikki swallowed and followed with a pull at the beer.

“Ah, that’s good. Good beer,” She raised the mug, saluting first the sergeant and then the trio of youngsters, set it down on the hewn floor and cut another mouthful of venison. The soldiers returned to their conversion and their dinner, idling the time away, waiting for their guest’s appetite to give way to social grace.

At length, somewhat to the amusement of the younger three, who were unused to witnessing an Amazon at board, Mikki took a deep breath, exhaled and graced the house with a polite belch, patting her belly with her free hand. She took another sip from the mug. “Thank, you sirs, for your hospitality. Most kind.”

“Nothing at all,” Renault dismissed the politeness in correctly modest fashion and moved directly to the point as he poured himself another flagon from a pitcher, offering to fill Mikki’s as well. She accepted. “How do you happen to find yourself in these woods, far from any settlement – or battlefield, for that?”

This prompt launched Mikki on a recounting of her travels over the past three weeks. One of the soldiers – Ahred, by name – remarked that Jafar probably deserved what he got and found himself withering under the glares of both Mikki, because of her loyalty, and Renault, for lack of hospitality. The moment passed. “I’m afraid I have to apologize for my man’s rudeness,” Renault began.

“No need, I’m sure he meant no offense,” Mikki interrupted. Both were polite lies; neither fooled the other. Renault was less concerned with offending Mikki’s sensibilities than interrupting her tale – which could be true or not, he knew, but he cared less about the veracity of the story than about the teller’s manner as a gauge of her character. Mikki, for her part, could see the youth’s stumbling effort to make an impression and enter into the conversation and chuckled inwardly at his ineptness. Oh, well, he’d probably learn as he got older. And a good-looking boy, too. Probably break a few hearts before he settled down. Mikki continued to recount her misadventures.

For his part, Renault was intrigued. An Amazon, one of the legendary warrior-women. He’d never expected to meet one face-to-face. Known not only for their military prowess, but also for their joie-de-vivre. They lived in camp and laughed with men, drank with men and fought alongside the men. Well, she was certainly showing her ability to laugh and drink tonight. Her tale had grown more entertaining as the evening wore on and the pitcher refilled from the tun in the corner.

And Renault had heard what they lacked in pure physical strength was made up for with skill and guile. Legends held that some went into battle naked from the waist up, using their opponents’ momentary distraction to gain a crucial split-second and get in the fatal blow. And he could see for himself the stories were not true about removing the left breast to improve their archery.

And she was beautiful. Objectively beautiful. She would stand out in a crowd of the Queen’s chambermaids. And not just because her height challenged his own six feet; she was proportioned to go with her height – no excess flesh, a fact which appealed to Renault, no matter that it was presently unfashionable. Scars showed white against the tan of her limbs, attesting to her fighting experience, and Renault could only surmise that there were others concealed beneath the doeskin under her mail.

“…I could see th’ dragon was th’ invited dinner guest and ‘tho it seemed impolite of ‘im not t’ offer t’ share, I held my tongue – well, I’m adventurous, but not stupid,” she finished. The soldiers laughed at this self-assessment and the conversation turned to trading tales and jokes. The night lengthened, the tun grew lighter. One by one the three younger men moved away from the fire to wrap in their blankets on the racks along the cottage’s west wall. The conversation grew quieter.

Once again Mikki’s cup tilted upward to drain, and once again Renault held the pitcher out. Mikki maneuvered the mug beneath its lip and Renault tilted. Maybe just a bit too far, maybe Mikki’s hand moved, but the cup overfilled and a small puddle splashed to the floor.

“Oh. Oops, sorry,” Mikki apologized. “This will be the last drink for me tonight.” She thought. “Any more could be more fun than I need.” That thought amused her and a smile came to her lips. She raised the cup to Renault and saw her own glassy expression reflected in his. She winked, her smile broadening.

“Listen,” she said, sweeping her free arm to indicate the men in the bunks and their weaponry leaning against the bedsteads or nearby walls. “Maybe we can work something out. You have better weapons than yers truly - and stronger arms. And I know where there’s a fortune t’ be had. C’n we strike a deal?” Renault stroked his chin between thumb and forefinger, considering. Was she telling the truth? Most probably she believed every word she said. Could he abandon his post to go traipsing across the countryside in search of mythical riches? Only at risk of the displeasure of his commander, who was not above taking a head now and again to set an example. On the other hand, his command was charged with maintaining the King’s peace - and that allowed him a certain leeway with regard to traveling about to investigate reports of wandering highwaymen, wild beasts and strange travelers about on unexplained business. And he now had report of a dragon ravaging the countryside. And this Amazon certainly qualified as an unusual traveler. Maybe he could stretch the interpretation of his orders just enough to cover a brief absence from this out-of-the-way post in the woods.

And, being a veteran keeper of the King’s peace, he also knew how his bread was buttered. No fees were imposed on the locals for the performance of the King’s soldiers’ duty, but farmers and townsfolk alike customarily treated the Sergeant and his company to a hearty meal to show appreciation for the completion of some particular errand. Here he was being asked to assist this - drifter, for want of a less pejorative term - in a somewhat irregular venture not strictly sanctioned by his official orders.

Mikki could almost hear the thoughts. She needed to entice him further. “I c’n trade fer yer services t’start,” she offered. “I’ve a spare breastplate that one o’ yer boys could use.” And a horse, she thought. Although she’d be loathe to let her steed go, “Necessity causes bad bargains,” as Granny Swanthold used to say.

Renault mulled that over, thinking that Ahred wasn’t so fast at defense that he’d not appreciate a bit of armor.

“Let me think on’t,” he demurred. “For now, let’s get some sleep.” Three of the four bunks were occupied. Mikki would have to bed down on the floor. Not particularly uncomfortable – it was warm and dry – but her experiences in bazaars had taught her that successful sales often depended on keeping the mark – er, customer – off balance – not allowing him time for careful consideration.

And Mikki wasn’t about to let the additional sword-arms slip away. Sergeant Renault was interested, but careful, she could see. Not one to run off taking rash chances. “A pack-horse?” she raised the ante. Renault’s head lifted from his curled fingers. “Ah!” thought Mikki, “That caught him.” Renault’s father had been a blacksmith; he had worked at the forge as a boy, pumping bellows, fetching water and carrying casting molds. The hardness in his musculature bore evidence of his early hard work and had served him well in his military career.

She moved her face closer to his, pressing this new advantage. Renault’s pupils widened slightly. It struck Mikki that the tall soldier’s attention was slightly distracted from strict consideration of the horse. She smiled.

“Care to come look at the horse?” She rose slowly, keeping her eyes on his and extending her hand, palm upward. “She’s just outside.” Mikki turned and strode for the door, turning when she got there to give him a questioning look.

“I have to piss, first,” he replied. She laughed, swung the door open and stumbled into the clearing, catching herself from falling and then wandering toward the shelter of some shrubbery to conceal herself as she attended to her toilet. Renault strolled away in the opposite direction and relieved himself against a tree on the far side of the house.

He was standing, legs set in a wide stance, hands clasped behind his back, staring into the heavens when she returned, wearing only the doeskin, carrying her mail. She followed his gaze upward.

Renault’s gaze lowered to meet hers, “All right, let’s have a look at this mount of yours.” Flint stood in the shadows of an oak centered in the moonlit clearing before the house, breath fogging in the brisk night air. Mikki wrapped an arm through one of Renault’s and led him across the open space.

“See, a healthy young animal. And I’ve taken particular’ good care ‘f her while she was mine, too.” Mikki extolled the mare’s virtues as Renault untied the reins and led Flint out of the shadows. Once in the moonlight, he moved to the horse’s head, inspected her teeth, eyes, and ears and then, patting her reassuringly on the neck, moved to lift first one forefoot and then the other, checking for signs of lameness.

“Needs shoes,” he noted. “When did she last see a smith?” Renault could see the horse was cared for, but by an owner who hadn’t much in the way of resources. Mikki took the question as rhetorical – which she knew it wasn’t – and said nothing.

Mikki watched with interest the expertise Renault displayed inspecting the horse. The man knew what he was looking at. She moved closer as he bent to lift one of Flint’s rear hooves and placed a hand lightly on his shoulder. He straightened, holding the hoof in one hand and felt around the fetlock with the other. Smooth surfaces, no wetness, just a slight overgrowth between hoof and shoe. Her hand remained on his shoulder as he bit of overgrowth where the hoof met the shoe. He released the mare’s leg and raised himself to full height.

“Seems sound enough,” he offered. The woman’s fingers slid higher along the top of his shoulder to touch the bare skin above his collarbone. He swallowed briefly and turned to meet her eyes. Her gaze held his. Her moving hand went to the back of his neck and she slipped closer, her gaze mesmerizing.

“She could be yours,” Mikki murmured, still moving slowly, tilting her head up as she pressed into him.

  • * *

Mikki stretched with a feline tensing of muscles as she lay on the saddle blanket, exposed to the chill night air. She didn’t feel particularly discomfited by the temperature, she was relishing the afterglow rising from within. The moon was well past its zenith. A smile culminated in a stifled giggle as she thought, “That was some horse-bargaining.”

“Hmm?” The baritone voice intoned into her right ear.

“Nothing, nothing.” Well, now she’d added whoring to her long line of sins. Ah, well, satisfied customers made the best offers. That’s what Granny Swanthold preached. She giggled again at the egregiously bad pun and rolled onto her side, propping her head on one hand and tickling the hair on Renault’s chest with the fingers of the other.

“Stop that,” he complained, catching her hand. He faced her, smiling at her playful energy. He rolled onto his side, supporting himself on one elbow, maintaining his grip on her hand. “You could cause a lot of trouble with that,” he warned. She grinned devilishly, then lowered her lashes, falsely demure.

“I’m sorry, sire,” she apologized, “T’was th’ demon in me.”

“Demon indeed.” After a pause, he spoke again.

“Good weather tomorrow,“ he predicted, pointing to the heavens. “See? - The Maiden’s Arms hold the cauldron upright.” She caught the gist without recognizing the constellation by name. Different countries, different astrologers. More likely the cloudless sky bespoke no threat of foul weather and the blacksmith’s son was entertaining her with old wives’ tales.

“Uh-huh,” she agreed. Ignoring his attempt at small talk, she moved her freed hand down his chest and across his rippled belly. He offered no resistance and her gentle tug brought them into physical contact again. The rough scratchy wool of the horse blanket made the bare skin of her back itch, but she noticed little and cared not at all.

  • * *

They rose and dressed shortly before dawn. “G’night Renault,” she ambled past him into the little house, untied her sleeping fur and curled up in it on the wooden floor.

Renault remained outside for a time, staring into the brightening sky and turning the girl’s offer over. There were obvious risks and unknown rewards. Damn! If she ever married, her husband’d best be young and strong . He grinned a farewell to the fleeing morning stars. He would try not to allow her charms to affect his judgment.


Concluded in Part II