We started down the trail again when Kenaz had finished with her meal, the child walking between Siofra and myself in the line we had formed during our earlier portion of the trek. We walked for a few hours until we came upon a hill at the edge of the forest. When we arrived at the top, we found ourselves looking down over a fortified town that was surrounded with cleared green fields. Since I had grown up on a farm, I knew right away that the small plants were just the right size for early spring, so it was logical to guess that whatever this world was called at least followed the same time of year that ours did.
A tower stood a good distance beyond the fields; I guessed a couple of miles by the look of things. It was afternoon now, about three, and I was tired from the long walk that was hindered by the long dress that I was wearing.
“I think we should go into town first,” Mac suggested as we all gathered together to discuss our next step. I was still eager to find Joel, but I knew that we had to be careful or risk being caught ourselves, so I stayed silent for the moment.
Siofra nodded in agreement. “Get lodgings for the evening.”
Kenaz informed us that the town was called Grimhaven and the tower beyond was Horsetower, the same structure I had seen in the Fates’ pool when I had dream walked with Siofra. That was where Joel was.
The town had a six-foot tall, wooden wall that encircled it. A shallow river divided to the east of the walls, and encircled them like a moat, coming together just past the walls to the west of the village. Only one bridge crossed the river on the side of the town where we stood, and guards in leather armor stood guard at the wooden gate. There were watchtowers at various points along the wall, and one on either side of the gate. The road we had been traveling all day led straight to the gate.
“We should buy horses and a wagon, more supplies,” Mac said absently as we all studied the town and surrounding area from the top of the hill. “The women can go shopping for clothing, Glenn and I can buy the horses and equipment.”
“I wouldn’t suggest splitting up,” his sister cautioned as she, too, systematically considered the view.
Mac shrugged, turning his head to the west and following the course of the river. “The town doesn’t look that large. Let’s get lodging, and discuss it from there.”
We started down the hill along the path that now widen to look more like a road then it had in the forest. “I know of an inn that you can stay at,” Kanez told us.
Mac turned and looked over his shoulder at the girl, then at Siofra and me. “One outfit for her. We don’t need to be picking up charity cases.”
“I wasn’t thinking about going overboard,” I replied, stifling the thoughts of the cute outfits that I was sure we could find for the little urchin. I wouldn’t dare admit that thinking of clothes we could get her was taking my mind of Joel and the fact that he was only a few miles away.
As we drew closer to the bridge, I was able to get a better look at the guards. They all wore black leather armor and I was able to make out a patch visible on their shoulders that depicted a black snake. They were equipped with swords, guns, and daggers and looked quite capable of using all of them as they watched people pass by them in a lazy way I had seen Mac do when he was covertly assessing someone. Mac donned his cloak to detract attention away from the fact that he was armored better than they were and we continued on.
Using magick, I felt out around to get an idea of how many people there were in the town and surrounding areas. We could see the guards and the farmers in the fields, but I wanted to be sure that there weren’t any large groups of people lurking in the thickets that lay between the forest and the walls of the town that could turn out to be potential antagonists.
Always know your surroundings, Cormac Brennan lesson 101. I didn’t sense anything out of the obvious, so I continued on with the rest of the group in silence.
We had walked along the road for about ten minutes when the thunder of a large group of horses started to ring through the air from behind us. They were approaching us rather quickly, so Mac had made sure that everyone moved off the road by the time they came into view.
Fifty mounted soldiers in rows of three left the forest in a cloud of dust. They all appeared to be wearing the same kind of armor that Mac was, as well as the black tunics that were similar to those of the guards of the town. One if their number carried a black banner that bore the same black snake that looked poised to strike. The same snake was on the middle of the tunics on their chests and backs that I saw after they had sped past us. They were well armed, rifles visible sticking out from the saddles of their mounts. The riders were very well appointed, but dirty from riding.
Kenaz hid her face in Siofra’s skirts and I moved closer to them to make sure the child was completely hidden from the soldiers. I kept my eyes downcast, as a woman of the times should, but also in an effort to keep any of them from remembering me later.
The horses passed by in a roar, but one of the soldiers near the front separated himself and turned to gallop back a few paces as the others thundered past. He was looking our party over expertly, and as the end of the line reached him, he turned back again and urged his mount faster to catch back up to the front of the line. About that time, ten of the number broke off from the main group and headed toward the town while the rest continued on to Horsetower. They rode through the gate without question and disappeared from view.
When we were in visible sight of the town, Mac said something to Gwrhyr, who then disappeared in a blink. I assumed he sent the animal ahead to scout out the city.
“How far is the inn?” Siofra asked the child who had come up to walk beside her now.
“Not far from the gate,” the girl replied.
Siofra looked down at her and smile. “Would you like to stay with us?”
“Why do you want me to stay with you?” Kenaz asked suspiciously.
I could almost see Siofra shrug behind me before she answered. “Because you have no place to stay.”
“I live in the forest,” was the firm answer.
Siofra, however, wasn’t one to give in easily. “Wouldn’t you be much warmer if we got you a new dress and some food and you stayed with us for a couple of days?”
The girl was silent for a few minutes the said, “I guess.” I could hear the reluctance in her voice, but she had agreed.
“It’s all right; you can stay in the room with myself or Corrine. You don’t have to go back to the forest right now. We’ll take care of you.”
There was a bridge over the river where it forked near the town and Mac and Glenn rejoined us so that we approached the settlement in a group with him slightly in front of the rest of us, Eliza on one side and Glenn on the other.
The guards at the gate looked us up and down when we approached. “What business do you have in town?” one of them asked, his tone reminding me of old English in structure, but no yeh’s and thee’s.
Mac took point as leader and spoke for all of us. “We come for supplies and an evening’s rest.”
The guard looked us over again, and then stepped aside to let us pass.
“Good day,” Mac said and started through. As he did Siofra grabbed my arm and pulled me closer to her.
I smiled at the guards as we walked by to cover her sudden action, then glanced over at her questioningly, wondering what she was doing when her voice spoke in my head. “The one on left finds you extremely desirous.”
I looked again just as we were passing them by and found that the man she indicated was leering at me as if he could already see me without clothes on. “Great,” I thought, not sure that she was listening, as I looked down and quickened my pace to get past him.
“What’s the name of the inn?” Siofra asked Kenaz and the child promptly gave it as well as directions to find it.
The village was a fairly clean one I found as we wound our way through the cobblestone streets, following the girls’ instructions. There were trenches down the middle of each street to get rid of the waste that was thrown from the houses and businesses and to my great surprise; the air didn’t smell too bad because of it.
I had taken a world civilization class in my freshman year of college that had described in great detail the workings of medieval style towns as well as the filthy conditions where disease had run rampant because of the unsanitary conditions. All in all it was pretty clean for a town of the time, visible improvements looked to have been made in the last few years and while it was obvious that not everyone was rich, no one was suffering, either.
We found the inn without issue and Mac made arrangements with the innkeeper for two connecting rooms with four beds on the second floor. Mac, Eliza and I would share one room while Glenn, Siofra and Kenaz took the other. The accommodations weren’t big, but comfortable enough for our needs. The innkeeper left us to settle in after telling us what time dinner was served and tips on where to shop, as well as some places to avoid.
“What’s the plan now?” Siofra asked after the door was closed behind us.
Mac answered, “We supply a little bit.”
“Are we going to stay together?”
Mac shrugged. “We can if you want, but we can cover more ground separately.”
We went to the market area of town as a group, and then split up to locate the items from our various lists. Mac and Glenn made up one group that was looking to buy horses and tack, while the rest of us made up the other group that would buy extra clothing and foodstuffs that we might need if we had to suddenly leave town. I was pretty sure that Eliza wanted to stay with Mac, but he made her go with us for ‘protection’.
It took most of the afternoon to complete the shopping, but Eliza, Siofra and myself managed to find everything on our list without trouble. We made sure that Kenaz had a couple of changes of clothing and undergarments, as well as a cloak that matched Siofra’s and Glenn’s so strangers would think that she belonged to them. We also bought her a doll. We had been treated nicely by the owners of the various shops we visited, even though Eliza got some strange looks that I attributed to her male looking attire and the fact that she looked like she would attack anyone who looked at us wrong.
“Take it down a notch, or fifteen,” I told her in a whisper as we made our way back to the inn.
“The reason I came with you guys was to protect you,” she said defensively.
I glanced at her, and then rolled my eyes at the fact that she still thought everyone but her was helpless. “Yes, and while I appreciate that, because I’m so helpless. I can’t possibly take care of myself…”
“I don’t see you wearing leather,” she pointed out as if that made all the difference in the world.
I knew this was an old argument and one that would get me nowhere if I continued to fight it. “So, look over here at this lovely window display,” I said sarcastically to change the subject.
“She’s Mac’s daughter,” she said to Siofra, who grinned at the comment and shook her head in merriment.
“Are you getting a dress?” I countered, deciding that if she was going to continue her protection racket that she was stuffing down my throat that I would make her squirm a little as well.
Eliza blinked like the idea was preposterous. “There’s a dress in my pack. I’m buying men’s clothes.”
I pulled her into the next shop that sold women’s garments and made her by a dress just to make her fidget uncomfortably while Siofra bought a set of clothes that she claimed was for her husband, but I knew they were really for her.
We met Mac and Glenn later on the street to find that they had purchased a wagon and four horses to pull it, along with two more horses for riding. Inside the bed of the wagon was rope and cloth for lean-to’s and the stakes to go with them along with bows and quivers of arrows and various other provisions. Eliza, Siofra and I added our bundles to the rest and we returned to the inn for dinner.
When we arrived back at the inn, the first thing I noticed was the large warhorses that were standing in the stable yard. I was worried that maybe some of the soldiers that we had seen earlier in the day had somehow found out that we were staying at the inn and had come to question us. Worry clouded my brain as we gathered the clothing and food from the wagon and went inside, so I didn’t listen to the conversation the others were having behind me as I made my way.
We headed upstairs to put our things in our rooms and met another guest who was making his way down to the common rooms. He was a handsome man with long, blonde hair and he looked at Kenaz pointedly as we passed him, then gave Eliza a strange look while he pretty much ignored the rest of us. I was relieved when we finally reached our rooms without being stopped and willed myself to quit worrying about the soldiers who were probably just staying at the inn. I remembered seeing another inn in town while we had been shopping, but the one where we were staying was by far the larger and nicer of the two.
An interesting topic came up while we were getting ready for dinner. “I think Eliza should dress more appropriately,” Siofra commented from the doorway to her room. I turned to look at her and she gave me a knowing smile that Mac didn’t see.
“Yes,” I agreed, “in a dress.”
Eliza’s brow shot up in surprise. “That’s what you get for thinking,” she commented.
“So we don’t draw more attention to ourselves then we already do,” Siofra insisted as she moved to fully stand in our room.
I agreed again, liking the idea. “Right. Unless you want to cut off your hair and bind your chest.”
“Look,” she started, but before she could get another word out Mac spoke up.
“Fine, I’ll get out of my armor,” he said as he reached for the straps that held part of the chest pieces together. Apparently he was of the opinion that if he weren’t ready for an all out battle that she wouldn’t feel the need to be as well.
Eliza looked horrified now and I had to fight the grin that was threatening to spread across my lips. “Are you saying that I have to wear the dress?” she asked, clearly panicking at the thought.
He looked at her pointedly. “Yes.” And like that, without another word in argument, she picked up the dress and went behind the screen to change into it.
“We’ve drawn enough attention to ourselves, we should lay low,” Siofra said, openly smiling.
“You can carry a woobie knife,” Mac told Eliza, who was muttering to herself behind the screen.
“I’ll carry more than that, thank you,” she informed him as her tunic was flopped over the top of the screen. “Is the sword going to fit on over this dress?”
“No,” I told her.
“No one else appeared to be armed in the dining room, I think you’ll be all right,” Siofra added.
“He’s the man,” I added, meaning Mac.
Eliza came out from behind the screen and to my surprise she had the dress on properly. “Can I just put my hair up and bind my chest?” she asked, appearing to be pained by the yards of material that now swished around her legs.
“No,” I said again.
Siofra shook her head, as well. “No. It won’t hurt you, Eliza.”
She grumbled about it, but didn’t put up too much of a fight and we went downstairs to eat, sitting together at a big round table that stood in an out of the way in the corner of the dining room. It was nearly twilight and there were candles lit on all the tables as well as the large chandeliers that hung from the high ceiling. A great fire burned warmly in the grate, giving an effect that was comforting and inviting. Not too dark, but enough light where one could see in all the shadows of the room.
The guards, whose horses must have been the ones we saw earlier in the yard, were sitting at a table near the fireplace. Two more stood next to a rather arrogant looking nobleman who seemed like he was attempting to intimidate a dark haired woman who was dining with the man we saw coming down the stairs after we got back from shopping. Kenaz was frightened by all the soldiers in the room and did her best to hide behind Siofra, even after we were all seated.
The waitress soon came to our table to take our food order. After she left, the argument that was beginning between nobleman and the couple seemed to escalate slightly and I used a weave of magick to bring their conversation to my ears so I could hear it. I pulled out a small piece of paper from my pouch so that I could write down their conversation.
“I am neither an elf, nor a witch,” the woman at the table said calmly. I glanced over my shoulder as if I were looking for the waitress and saw that she had lifted her hair for some reason to show the man her ears. “I am a simple woman come to trade in Grimhaven.”
“Simple women do not have Ishonmir’s pet for companions,” the nobleman barked. I didn’t know what an Ishonmir was, but I figured it had to be something these people feared. Supernatural creature maybe?
“I am no pet,” the other man growled in response, telling me that whatever it was, he was the one the other man was talking about.
The woman spoke again as if she were trying to sooth the nobleman at the same time. “I was not aware that Bloodmark forbade them. If that is the case, I can have him wait in the forest.”
“She has not,” the nobleman replied tightly. “Keep your pet on a short leash or I will pen him for you.”
I heard the man growl again, but it was the woman who said, “As you wish, my lord.”
“What are you doing?” Siofra asked as I capped the ink once more and passed the page around table, handing it to Eliza first since she sat next to me.
“Any idea what this Ishonmir’s pet is?” I asked as she started to read my quickly scratched notes.
To which Siofra posed the question, “Do you remember seeing the flying cat?” When I looked at her with a surprised expression she continued, “While we were at the stables, there was a flying jaguar/dragon/cat thing overhead. I think the man may be Ishonmir’s pet, if that’s what that is.”
I nodded in understanding; not knowing for sure if that was the case, but definitely thinking it was a likely possibility. Kenaz sat drinking her mulled wine, having relaxed a little since our arrival, but not confirming or denying that our guess was right. In fact she appeared to be playing with Gwrhyr under the table, who looked like a puppy waiting for a playtime romp instead of the mystic wolfie we had come to think of him.
Suddenly, there was a great deal of movement behind me and I turned to watch as the nobleman and the soldiers stood and left the room together in a mass of leather and muscle, leaving the dining room much quieter in their wake. At the same time our waitress approached the table again with our meals. Mac waited for her to turn slightly to serve Glenn, who sat on his other side, then passed his plate down to Gwrhyr on the floor, after which pretending that the waitress hadn’t brought him one.
“You forgot mine,” he said with a quick grinned that stayed in place while she regarded him with surprise, then apologetically said that she would be back directly with his plate.
The food was decent, not my mom’s or grandmother’s cooking, but palatable as we all dug in hungrily. “Do you think we should maybe start to ask about Joel?” I asked the others at the table. “Maybe not by name, but should we come up with a story of a warrior of some sort that protects the area?”
Mac looked at Glenn and smiled. “I think one of us should go drinking.”
“No,” Siofra and Eliza replied together.
He looked between the two of them questioningly. “Yeah,” he said with another grin.
Siofra shook her head, a look of disbelief on her face that he would even think about drinking in this strange place to get information, much less involve her husband in the scheme as well. “Really, no.”
Mac’s features took on the look that said he was losing his patience with the argument, but I think I was the only one who noticed. “Really, yeah,” he replied tightly.
Unfortunately, he sister was just as stubborn as he was and didn’t back down as quickly as others would. “Um, no,” she countered again, this time leaning forward to meet his hardened gaze with one of her own.
Mac relented slightly and eased back in his chair. “Go find a tavern, hear some stories, where the soldiers are…”
“No,” Siofra said again, Eliza looking panicked, like she wasn’t sure how to talk him out of it.
“Okay,” he said dismissively. “I’m going.”
Siofra clapped her hand on the table beside her to show her frustration. “I think Eliza said no,” she said, looking at the other woman for back up.
“I don’t remember asking,” Mac ground out through clenched teeth.
“You tell her what to do,” Siofra countered.
“She’s the one that listens.”
“Then you should listen, too.”
I was starting to get dizzy from the verbal tennis match they were having when Mac switched tactics. “We came here to gather information and supplies. We have the supplies, we need the information.”
“I’ll go with you,” I volunteered.
“No, you won’t,” Mac and Eliza replied.
Mac held up a finger. “A, ladies are not allowed in taverns,” he pointed out, and then lifted another finger. “B, you’re not allowed in taverns.”
I felt my eyes narrow on him in disbelief. I loved the way he and the rest of the family had selective memory on the fact that I was twenty-one years old and an adult. I understood that they loved me and all, but I didn’t want to be wrapped in tissue and put on a shelf somewhere, only be taken down when they wanted to look at me.
“Some ladies are,” Siofra informed him.
“Those aren’t ladies,” was Mac’s response. “Those are ladies of the night.”
“What kind of information are you looking for?” a female voice asked from behind us.
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