After nearly a week’s travel across wilderness that was more remote and barren than Callindra had ever remembered seeing they finally came to something that resembled a road. From what they’d seen by looking at the map that Cronos had, they were only about an hour from the small town of Maple if they managed to keep their current pace.
As their tired band rounded a corner in the road, they could see down a short rise. A traveling carriage was disabled alongside the road, one wheel having come off in a pothole. A pair of guards were straining to lift the wheel while a gowned and coiffed Lady stood to one side, a maid holding a lace parasol over her head. Even at this distance her strident voice was audible, although the words were still indistinct.
“A Lady in trouble.” Vilhylm said, “Perhaps we can offer assistance.”
Callindra sighed and rolled her eyes, but the others seemed eager to help and she didn’t see any reason not to. Nobility were difficult and entitled but fulfilled a necessary role; certainly not one she wanted to fill. They rode toward the struggling men and were caught completely unaware when a dozen misshapen creatures with jaws that dripped glowing green ichor leaped from the trees.
Half of the monsters sprang on the men, slashing with razor sharp claws and biting with wicked fangs. The others landed close enough to Callindra and her friends that they could smell the decaying flesh on their breath.
“Arm yourselves!” Callindra shouted, vaulting from the saddle and swinging Brightfang from his scabbard at the same time, severing the thing’s arm off just above the elbow. She landed, bringing her blade to guard just as one of the monsters tried to remove her head from her shoulders.
Cronos unleashed a burst of flames from his fingertips, but he only managed to kill one of them. The blast knocked him from his horse and onto the dust of the road where he struggled to his feet, cursing like a soldier. While the others attempted to dismount and keep control of their horses, she drove their opponents back with a wall of flashing steel.
“Take heart against these demons from the Abyss!” Tryst said, “Fight and destroy thine enemies!” Callindra felt his magic form around her, bolstering her resolve and her physical strength.
Vilhylm let go of his horse’s bridle and slammed a fist into the midriff of one of the creatures like a hammer, throwing it back into the trees. Ignoring the monsters that threatened his friends, he bounded forward with giant leaps, landing between the Lady and the other group of beasts.
Cronos incanted a spell that made his muscles swell to strain against his armor and drew his hand and a half sword. He swung with the same motion, finishing off the monster Callindra had wounded. They spun and fought back to back, slashing their way through the attacking creatures with a series of coordinated strikes. In spite of the danger she had to smile at how well they fought together.
The first few of the fallen creatures began to swell as though they were rotting from the inside at an incredible rate. The flow of the fight took them away from the fallen and they began to explode one after another, each throwing showers of boiling ichor on anyone unfortunate enough to be close. A few drops spattered on Callindra’s cheek and burned like cinders.
“Pox and rot!” She shouted, “Ware the corpses!”
Even as she spoke, she saw the two guards go down screaming as several more of them exploded. The lady’s maid was already laying in a pool of her own cooling blood but Vilhylm had managed to keep the Lady alive somehow. The horses screamed in pain, one going down thrashing and the other dropping like a poleaxed cow.
As suddenly as it had begun, the attack was over. All the creatures had been killed and then had exploded, some of them had even killed their own kind then their bodies burst. Tryst looked them over swiftly, making sure none had serious injuries before seeing to the horses.
“I will need to heal this mare.” He said, “Her foreleg is broken and this carriage is too large to be pulled by one.”
Callindra approached and helped him calm the animals, something that normally Vilhylm would have done. Vil was occupied with the Lady, she was crying out at his few burns and minor cuts, exclaiming at his bravery and lavishing praise on him.
“You! Boy!” The Lady said, “Get my parasol, I will not risk burning my skin in the heat of the day!”
Callindra waited for the outburst she was sure Cronos would unleash for such treatment, grinning to herself as she loosened the harness of the frightened horse. Tryst was chanting softly under his breath, a glimmer of light emanating from his hands and the shield on his back as he called upon holy powers to heal the wounds of the other animal.
“Boy, I said get my parasol!” The Lady said again, “The Countess Adbar will not be left second to the ministrations of animals!”
Callindra glanced up and saw that the Countess was pointing at her, Cronos having left to gather their own horses. She met the other woman’s gaze levelly, her sea green eyes meeting the Countess’s dark brown.
“I am Callindra Sol’Estin, a warrior who slew monsters that would otherwise have been gleefully dancing upon your corpse at considerable risk to myself.” She said coldly, “I am no boy, nor will I cease tending the beasts that will otherwise be unable to pull your carriage.
“Oooh, you’re a girl.” The Countess said, eyes artfully widening in surprise, “I never would have guessed what with that hair and those clothes. Or that sword. Or that armor.”
Callindra sighed inwardly at the foolish prejudice of the nobility. She had seen as much before, although this particular noble was more direct and rude than most. Instead of rising to the bait she turned her attention back to the horse. Stroking him on the nose, she kept him calm as she unbuckled the last two straps of his harness so he could struggle to his feet. Other than a few scrapes and some small burns he seemed fit enough.
Tryst finished his spell and the other horse shuddered, the sound of the bone setting itself and knitting back together grated in Callindra’s ears. She winced, but the animal didn’t seem to feel the pain. instead, she lurched to her feet and eagerly nudged Tryst’s chest until he rose to his feet and patted her neck reassuringly.
“You’re welcome girl. Humans aren’t the only ones who deserve the attentions and healing I can offer.” He said with a smile.
“If we are going to reach that town before the sun sets we need to get moving.” Cronos said, approaching with their horses.
Now that the adrenaline of the fight had worn off, Callindra was beginning to feel all of the scrapes, cuts and burns she had suffered but not noticed before. With a heavy sigh, she began to buckle the gelding back into his harness while Tryst did the same for the mare.
It was just after sundown when they limped into the small town of Briarwood, the horses as tired as they were. The lights of the tavern were inviting and they were drawn as moths to a candle flame. A boy came to take their horses and Callindra tossed him the reins.
“Careful, she bites if you don’t watch her.” She warned.
Vilhylm was helping the Countess Adbar from her carriage, all bows and smiles. Callindra rolled her eyes; she expected most men to be god rotting predictable, but had imagined her companions were of a different sort. Ah well, she supposed the Lady was pretty enough, if you like soft curves.
They walked into the common room, the light and sound overwhelming at first. A large man in a clean white apron stood behind the bar pulling tankards of dark brown ale and flirtatious barmaids made their way among the patrons, handing out frothy mugs and saucy winks in equal measure.
“Hey hon, what can I getcha?” A wench walked up, swaying her hips invitingly before she noticed that Callindra was a girl. Her eyes stayed on Brightfang’s hilt for a few moments before going back to her face.
“Ale. Dinner. We need rooms and stabling for the night too.” Callindra said smiling and rolling a gold nobel over the back of her hand and flicking it to land in the girl’s hand. “That ought to at least get us started?”
Grinning, the wench bit it and tucked it into her generous cleavage, “Aye that’ll be a good start. Find a table an we’ll getcha sorted out right enough. Good bitter tapped tonight an fresh venison on th spit.”
“I declare, what a quaint place you have brought me to Vilhylm.” Said the Countess, looking around the room with a derisive smile on her lush lips. “Barmaid, you will prepare a bath and your finest room. I will wait here with whatever passes for wine in this town.”
Vilhylm led her to a table and pulled out a chair for her. Callindra sighed and sat down at the table, taking a long pull from the tankard the wench brought. The strong bitter ale washed the road dust from her throat and she felt the annoyance she had at the Lady’s attitude fade. It wasn’t her fault that she’d been born to privilege, and it didn’t make a lot of sense to expect her to change her ways immediately.
The common room resumed some of its noise, but was much subdued compared to how it had been. When their food arrived, a young girl in a brown dress came and nervously informed the Countess that her bath was ready. She rose, handing her cloak to the girl and following her from the room, her silk gown whispering like a bedroom promise.
“I’ll be waiting for you later.” She purred to Vilhylm as she passed him.
Only Callindra was close enough to hear. She ignored the comment, watching Vil over the rim of her tankard. He shifted slightly on his chair, looking as though he was trying to decide if he should run after her or run out the door.
She caught the attention of the wench, “I would like a bath as well I think. To wash the filth of the road and the rest away. Do you offer laundry services?”
“That blood ain’t comin out.” She said, giving Callindra’s stained and much mended clothing a critical look. “But don’t look like you care.”
“It rained on me a few days ago, other than that we’ve had a bad week.” She sniffed herself and winced.
The woman laughed, “I’ll send my boy. He’ll get yer things an have ‘em back for ya th morning. Normal bath’s is just outside an round th back less ya want private?”
“No thank you, I’m not finicky enough to require a private bath.” Callindra said with a chuckle. “As long as it’s hot and the water is clean it’s good enough for me.”
She walked out of the common room and around the corner. The smell of strong soap met her nostrils as she sat in the changing room, first removing her armor and then the sweat crusted padding beneath it. When she was unwinding her breast band, a boy’s voice carried over the half wall that separated the bath by sex.
“Hey. Ma says ya got some clothes needs cleaning? Jest toss ‘em over th wall an I’ll get ‘em done.”
“Thank you.” She said, then frowned, “Can you find me something else to wear in the meantime? A robe or whatever’s fine. We lost most of our gear just over a week ago, honestly I could really use a few spare sets of clothes.”
“Ma can size ‘em an bring ya sommat.” He said as she wrapped her clothes in a bundle and passed them over to him. “Did ya want me ta clean th armor too? I work in th stables so I knows leather care.”
Callindra hesitated, she liked to care for her own gear, but was sadly lacking in supplies and time. “That would be great, thanks. I would gladly pay you for running some errands too if you’d be so kind? But first I need to get clean.”
“I’m th best runner in town.” He boasted, as though this were a city that was big enough to have real errand runners. “If i can’t get it we don’t got it.”
She thought about that for a minute and supposed that finding things in a small town might actually be more difficult than finding them in a big city in some respects. While she was still soaking, allowing the hot water to ease out the aches from days in the saddle, her runner returned.
“I gotcher spares … miss?”
“I’m sorry, my name’s Callindra.” She said lazily, “Can you bring them in here? I’m the only one over here right now so don’t worry about getting into trouble.”
“What?” He squeaked.
“I don’t want them to get wet if you toss them over the wall.” Said Callindra, “It’s no big deal, but I’m sunk into water up to my neck if you’re shy.”
“I ain’t shy!” The boy said defiantly, “I just don’t wanna get my head busted if another girl comes in.”
“I can protect you if that’s your worry.” She said with a chuckle, and he ran in, set down some clothes on a bench and ran out again before she stopped laughing. “What’s your name?”
“Ardie.” He said, “What else ya need?”
Callindra climbed from the bath and toweled off, “I need a couple spare sets of breeches and shirts, a riding cloak, some travel rations, a tent if you can find one, and l really need a whetstone, polishing cloth, oil, and a kit for my armor too… if it’s not too much trouble.”
The clothes he’d left were skirts and a blouse, obviously for a girl much younger than herself. With a sigh of resignation, she put them on. It wouldn’t hurt to wear women’s clothes for a night.
“Ya, I can get it for ya.” He said without hesitating, “Cost ya twenny five silver.”
She put the clothes on, picked up her sheathed sword with her baldric and pouches on it and walked around the screen. Looking at the boy, she decided she liked him and handed him three gold marks without arguing. He stared at them for a moment, then looked back at her with his mouth slightly agape.
“Go on then. I’m paying for swift and efficient service.” She said in a mock stern voice. Before she could smile or show that she wasn’t serious he had run from the room. Callindra sighed and ran her hand through her short brown hair. Maybe she looked more intimidating than she had thought, although she doubted it while wearing skirts.
She wandered through the common room, the minstrel was playing a more lively tune now that the Countess had gone upstairs and more than one man tried to pull her into some kind of a dance before they noticed the sword slung over her back. Instead of heading straight to bed, she walked back to the table where her friends were lingering over their tankards and sat, signalling the wench for her own ale.
“Excuse me – “ Tryst stopped, his cheeks reddening slightly, “Callindra, I hardly recognized you.”
“Ha, you owe me!” Cronos said, pointing a finger at Vilhylm, “You said she’d never wear ‘em!”
Vilhylm passed over a stack of gold coins and Cronos gave one to the serving wench who was bringing Callindra’s ale. She took it and looked at him with a raised eyebrow.
“One for sizing the clothes for her.” He laughed, seeming to be tipsy and focused his attention back on Callindra “I thought that was gold gone sister!”
“Don’t mind him.” Vilhylm said, noting the dark look on her face. “But you really shouldn’t sit like that in skirts.”
“I’m no damn lady.” She snapped, taking a pull from her tankard and ignoring the winds that tugged at her clothes and made the torches dance. “I’ll sit however I want.”
The common room went completely silent as all eyes were drawn to the top of the stairs. The Countess Adbar stood there, clad only in a thin silk robe that did little to hide what lay beneath. One slender finger beckoned and Vilhylm rose as if summoned by magic, even leaving his pack and cloak behind.
Watching him go, Callindra felt nervous. She was surprised to find that she actually distrusted the Countess, although she couldn’t say why. It wasn’t as though she begrudged her friend a tumble, she certainly had no designs in that direction, but it was hard not to dismiss the feeling as simple jealousy.
“Another round on me.” Cronos said, and fixed her with a sloppy grin. “Since you were kind enough to win me some gold and I am feeling a bit generous.”
Rather than give into her feelings of fear and mistrust Callindra gave over to the comfort of good ale, good company and a warm taproom. It had been a long time since they had been able to enjoy themselves and they had all earned it.