Chapter I: Beginnings

Good things never come of getting drunk. I know this, but still I sit at my corner and order another spiced and heated tankard of the swill they call whiskey in this flea-ridden hellhole. Tonight, I wanna get drunk: black out, piss faced, dead to the world drunk. We finished the last job one week ago and got the fuck out of that bog-ridden land where it’s so moist the mold grows in your lungs. I cough again, a racking shudder rolls through my body. I’ve what Evals calls a cold. I’ve never had one before and I’m pissed I do now. Around the table, the other members of the group suppress smiles. I’m a pain in the ass when I don’t feel well, this I do know and have experienced before. When you’re a mercenary there is a certain amount of recovery time to be expected. It’s just usually from sword wounds or arrow holes, but not from a gods damned cold. My nose hasn’t stopped streamin for days. My new tankard arrives steaming and smelling like the tears of angels. I

Rellik snorts in laughter as I hang my face over the whiskey’s steam. I glare at him and then take a long drink, the whiskey coating my throat. The spices and heat make my eyes water, but I can breathe through my nose and I’ve no urge to cough, at least for the moment. Rellik smirks and I flip a lude gesture his way.

His smirk turns into a full blown smile, teeth startlingly white against his skin. “Any time my love, any time.”

Nessa twirls a knife on the table, its point boring into the scarred wood and creating a delicate pile of shavings. “We need a new job. We’ll go mad in this gods damned place if we stay much longer.”

Lataf nods, “Aye, we do. Been on the docks the last day or so. Heard a few of the sailors talkin’. Seems there’s a bit of a tiff goin’ on down in some big desert kingdom. Tryin’ to eradicate some old tribes or something. The big kingdom’s been hirin’ troops, sendin’ out recruiters for mercenaries. There’s a recruiter here in Valport right now. Guess they figured there’d be soldiers for hire when this last melee settled down.”

“They guessed right. Well, we can find him in the morning.” The whiskey feels warm in my belly and I signal a harried bar maid over. “Dinner?”

She rolls her eyes in exasperation, “Whatcha be wantin’ now?”

“I thought ‘dinner’ was somewhat self explanatory.”

She glares at me and I swear I hear her mutter something about wishing the black lung on me. If my cold gets worse I’ll come back and slit her greasy little throat. Behind the bar a sweating fat man yells for the maid. With a shout back to him she turns to us, “We’ve sheep stew an biscuits. The stew’s alright, an so are tha biscuits if ya soak em in tha stew for a while, otherwise ya may bust a tooth.”

Lataf watches as she sashays away. As bar maids go she’s pretty average with a bitchy attitude to top it off. But Lataf loves women of all shapes and sizes and kinds. And the gods know he can usually have pick of the litter when he wants to. It tends to cause trouble with the locals on a fairly regular basis. Thankfully, we rarely stay in one place very long.

After a few more tankards, our food finally arrives. At this point I’m fairly well sloshing with spiced whiskey so a little food to sop it up is likely in everyone’s best interests. I dig in and thank the whiskey for numbing my sense of taste because stew is a generous term. Slop would be more like it.

Finally full and about as drunk as I can get without retching, I stand with the intent of going to bed. We’ve been unnoticed for a few hours. But the bar has filled in that time and now the other patrons are at least as drunk as me and their sense of survival has been numbed a bit. I make it past four tables before someone grabs my leather clad ass and attempts to pull me into their lap. It probably isn’t pretty, and it definitely isn’t as fast as I usually am, but I still manage to shock the hell out of the man and his friends when I pin his hand to the scarred table with a knife and my hands sprout a gleaming sword. The boisterous bar noise fades and as I weave a little on my feet, other men start to egg the offending table of assholes on. I look back at my table. Rellik is leaned back against the wall wearing a smile of anticipation, Evals is watching while eating the rest of Lataf’s food, Lataf is fondling the bar maid that has been sitting in his lap for the last twenty minutes and Nessa is playing with one of her knives. I sigh, and with a concerted effort force the spiced whiskey relaxation away and refocus on the table before me.

Two of the men start to stand and then freeze as I stand my sword upright on the table and lean against it. “I’ve always wondered, why men seem ta go for women with swords? I mean, a plump bar maid has gotta be a lot easier than someone like me, right?” I pull my knife from the first man’s offending hand and wipe it clean on his shirt as he moans and holds the bleeding limb. I yawn widely, and then smile. I feel the scar that runs down the left side of my face stretch and twist. Rellik tells me my smile can freeze the suns when I want it to, but I don’t look in a mirror often. It seems he’s right tonight for the men all ease back into their seats and I head for the stairs amidst a very quiet bar. I make it halfway up the stairs before I hear conversation roar back to life and I smile as I lean against the sad wall. Only five more stairs and half of a hallway before I reach my bed.

aðb

Rellik jerks the thin curtain back from the hole in the wall that serves as a window to let the suns shine in and I moan my protest. Except the moan hurts my head almost as much as the light does. I hear him chuckle and promise I’ll pay him back at some point in the near future. This is why I only get drunk a few times a year. It hurts too bloody much the next day. I swing my legs off the bed mat and hang my head between my knees before rising. The sheets tangle around my waist and I thank the gods for Rellik’s cursed sense of organization because my clothes are neatly folded and stacked by my swords. I dress like an old crone ready to die, my whole body hurts. Finally clothed, I turn to find Rellik leaning against the far wall. He looks a bit peaked as well.

“You look a little worse for wear this morning too.”

His slow smile spreads, “Well, ya haven’t seen yourself this morning Sheal. And I look worse for wear ‘cause you insisted on having your way with me last night, multiple times.” He saunters out like a content cat.

“Huh.” It isn’t the first time, but still it’d be nice to have an ordered memory of the night.

He pops his head back in through the curtained doorway, “By the way, the recruiter Lataf mentioned last night is waitin’ below.”

I groan, nothing like a hangover and a job interview to complicate a morning. So much for sleepin’ in. At least it will get me out of this over-treed, swampy, snow and mountain riddled hellhole I’m in now.

Three days later horses, Lataf’s eagle, my stonedog and the five of us say goodbye to Valport and the Merenish hill tribes led by their new king. I’m no longer happy to be leaving, I’d rather stay, but I’ve been outvoted and we’re taking the piss soaked job. The job is for the Kingdom of Miron against the nomadic dessert tribes preventing Miron from mining the desert mountains containing gold and gems. They need a way to bring the Ohadi tribes to their knees, and we can provide that. We can provide it on our skill alone. An added bonus the recruiter doesn’t know is I’m sort of Ohadi royalty, bastard royalty, but still royalty. I grimace to myself, it might come in handy.

aðb

I sit at the stern of the ship named the Slias. My strides carry me around the ship’s deck, like a leopard pacing its cage, but I don’t care, I hate ships. Salty wind snaps, reddening my face. I welcome the faint sting; it’s better than the fog and mist I’ve been in for the last months. Behind me, the men scrabble on the deck with dice. I hear Rellik curse in disgust and smile; he must be losing yet again. The luckless ghosts of the men he’s killed haunt him endlessly when he touches the dice. Far ahead the suns sinks, scarlet against the moody turquoise water. A few hundred feet off to the port side, a trio of fins cut through the surface of the bottomless sea on the hunt for food. I picture the jagged rows of merciless teeth lurking in those cold depths. I respect the pure carnal strength under those leather tough skins, but it’s hard to fear anything when you’ve seen as many devils as I have.

Turning, I look at the group playing dice. We mercenaries stand out from the pirates, in the way the sharks alongside the vessel stand apart from other water creatures. Rellik sits tall and dark despite his hunched posture. He looks lean like the glimmering scimitar riding his back, yet he’s deceptively large. Rellik carries his honed body like his sword, quiet but ready to lash out at any moment. He hitches the scabbard uncomfortably, easing it on his shoulders and glances at me with a slow smile. The air heats a little as I remember the roll of our weights against each other in the night. The scratches he bears on his back surely itch in the fading sun. His mahogany brown eyes flicker with understated amusement, his thoughts following mine. He possesses the lean look of something incredibly dangerous, yet exceedingly controlled. Admittedly, part of the fun of being with him, is seeing how much he can take until you break his restraints. Then you see the animal beneath, I like the animal.

The whistle of disturbed air causes me to turn sharply. A panicked seagull barrel-rolls past me in a desperate attempt to escape the merciless eagle behind it. I grin, Nolat entertains us with his acrobatic destruction of the birds he despises. An explosion of white and gray feathers immediately follows the fly-by. The injured bird flails on the deck, but Nolat’s piercing talons and ripping beak ends the struggle. I watched as Nolat bristles his feathers and widens his wings towards the stonedog inching closer to Nolat’s kill. The stonedog stares at the eagle, before she drops her gaze and returns to the shady crevasse she emerged from.

Lataf’s grin over his eagle’s victory crawls across his face. Gypsy fingers fiddle with the gem-studded hilt of his desert scimitar. His chopped speech calls out to me, “Your cat will nevah win. Not against my huntah.” I’m unoffended by his insolence and don’t waste a reply. Somedays it’s best not to encourage Lataf into an argument. Besides, Nolat the eagle, and Raef the stonedog, are different beasts of different lands, as are we all.

Another round of cursing follows Lataf’s third consecutive win. I know his nimble fingers have likely switched the original dice with weighted ones. I smile, we all have our talents. Bored with my study, I cross the deck and descend into the ship’s bowels in search of food. The stonedog rises with a heavy sigh, and follows. Raef always lurks in the shadows near me. I don’t understand what inspired her loyalty; but who am I to understand the mind of a stonedog.

From a hidden stash in the galley, I pull a week old piece of hard tack. I’ve been hungry and I don’t like the feeling, so I always have food of some sort stashed away. On the return to the deck, movement catches my attention. I peer down through the slots in the worn wood stairs, and grin in amusement. Bodies move in the dark below, no doubt it is Nessa and some pirate working off their boredom together. Small and fair, Nessa handles knives and bows like extensions of her natural body. Nessa’s honey blonde hair has brought us more trouble than I can likely remember. The lengthy mass always sweeps across her shoulders in a thick braid falling to her belt. Rich indigo tattoos swirl around her temples, the corners of her eyes, and sweep up her arms in intricate patterns designed to confuse and defeat the eye. The combination of hair and tattoos inevitably draws the attention of every arrogant and obnoxious male within a 3-mile radius. Her size gives men the deceiving idea they can take advantage of her. I smile at the thought while my feet continue up towards daylight. I excel at many things, but Nessa makes me look like an awkward babe in regards to assassinations.

I try to turn the mirror onto myself, but it is always easier to look outward than inward. I don’t possess Nessa’s beauty. Rellik tells me I’m like a leopard, all long muscle and curve, but then he’s a man with an agenda ruled by his dominant brain. Our appearances vary widely yet I know one thing ties us together, our scars. Scars are a part of the job. Every time we hire out, we finish the job with new scars. A harsh existence of kill or be killed doles out no immunity to life. Ghosts haunt our pasts, and show on our faces. When you only know how to wage war, the path to death rushes towards you and all you can do is bare your teeth and refuse to die.

I shake my head; retrospection doesn’t change a thing so why bother with it. On deck, I join Esor at the helm. Her red hair flames around her, making her look as though she’s burning alive. She eyes my food, “Thievin’ from the galley’s a whippin’ offense.”

I, put as much insolence into my scar mangled smile as I can, “Find a man tha can whip me and I might actually enjoy it.”

Her booming laugh rolls out across the ship’s deck. “I’m guessin’ that lean hawk of a man you bed with every night might come damn close.”

“A lady never tells.”

“A lady!” Her laugh booms out again, “You’re a lot of things my darling,’ a lady ain’t ever been one of ‘em.”

I shrug carelessly, “I’ve fallen short in a few of my aspirations.”

“I doubt tha Sheal, I doubt tha quite a bit. But we’ve all got our own beliefs, aye? We should make Havennesse by eve tomorrow. Nothin’ like home sweet home eh?”

The red headed bitch knows that will shut me up, and she loves having the last word. It took three weeks of travel from Valport for us to reach a port where Esor was docked but some things are worth the hunt. She and her crew have a fast ship that other pirates don’t bother. We pay her well and mouths stay shut when people come hunting us. The setback of frequently using Esor for transportation is she knows enough about us to push a few sore spots now and then. She’s won this round so I retreat from the field of battle.

aðb

There’s something about night that I love. Maybe it’s the silence or the sheer majesty of the wheeling stars. The moons replaces the suns, glowing pale yellow, the pitted oceans in full view on their sides. Stars in glorious abundance keep them silent company. Together they watch over the world and everything in it. In silence I watch the sky as the Slias slices through blackened water. A mouse scurries across a heavy coil of line, then precariously works its way up into the rigging, cautious due to Nolat’s incessant persecution. The glistening water runs off the drab black outer hull, the signature of a pirate vessel. In the hull beneath the wind-filled sails, a horse stomps impatiently. Above the horses the men sleep, pirates and mercenaries together. A healthy respect from both sides keeps us amiable. They are men who live on the edge of the world as we do. Such people know the reputations of others, not by interest but by a quest for survival. I hear the water lap against the hull; the ropes and sails shift against the wind and I find my peace. I don’t find it often, it’s an elusive thing peace so I take it while I can and won’t worry when it fades.

The morning suns greet us with intensity and I bask in the warmth. My cold has faded completely and I’ve had no need for the heavy coats we wore in Meren. At the bow of the ship, I watch the jagged rock coastline flow past. The coast abruptly gives way to a large harbor sheltered on both sides by high cliffs and protected by a bottlenecked mouth. The Slias slides into port to dock with ease. The ship’s heavy ramp slaps down in the fine sand of Havenesse, raising a cloud of dust and I’m home for the first time in 15 years.

Nessa leads the way into the ship’s belly, retrieving gear and horses before returning topside. I stare at the town then our horses and the waiting ship crew, then sigh. “Let’s get this done. I want a drink.”

Rellik’s laughter rings out, “Gods Sheal, you’re gonna kill yourself if you go on a drinking spree again this soon.”

I try to glare. He’s right, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. So, I shrug and curse the gods I don’t really believe in. With adept hands we saddle our horses, and then swing aboard. Momentary silence ensues before the horses, restive from two weeks at sea, explode. Lataf’s dapple bogs down, then the lanky stud proceeds to transform into the devil, with a hive of bees up his ass. Gray hide flashes with gold earrings and gaudy robes. I find myself too busy with my own roan stud to care. My demented beast leaves the ground going two different ways at once, and comes down going three different directions. I finally bring him to a heaving standstill. Rellik’s bay is still taking huge buck jumping lunges while emitting bellows no living thing should produce. The bay changes tactics and attempts to throw himself over backwards before he finally gives up. From behind us applause and whistles ring out from the Slias’s crew. Lataf turns his dapple and makes an elaborate bow, ringed fingers flashing in the sun.

Evals and Nessa say nothing from their comfortable seats on un-moving horses. Nessa purses her lips and shakes her head before nudging her palomino down the street. Evals follows on his sedate gelding. In their wake Rellik, Lataf and I contain our mounts to an undignified walk. We deposit them into stalls that will likely be gnawed and broken by morning, and then make our way towards the end of town catering to human occupants.

Nessa quickly and efficiently books us rooms at the Silver Dancer. Dancers yes, silver definitely not. Scantily clad barmaids unquestionably have other jobs that men appreciate in due course. Lataf should love the place. Paying with gold coins causes a raised brow from the barkeep, but Nessa’s withering gaze brooks no questions. The sea breeze refuses to enter the three misshapen windows, leaving the air thick with sweat, booze, and smoke. We cluster together at the scarred corner table and eye the half-cooked meat with extreme dubiousness.

Rellik looks at me sideways as I pick at the food with the spoon. “I’ll eat it, I just hope to the gods I never find out what it really is.”

Evals chuckles and digs in. I swear the man can eat anything and like it.

Dinner done, I slide from the table to take in a breathe of fresh air. The odor of the inn behind me fades away; a breeze sweeps down the street and over its nightlife. I smell the acrid aroma of sand and heat on the wind. I know somewhere out on the desert a windstorm rages. I close my eyes and breathe deeply of the smells; acrid desert sand blown in from the north, the tang of booze from behind, and the crisp salt from the sea. The raucous laugh of whores, ship crews, and amiable fights punctuates the night air. Home sweet home. I turn to walk inside and spot a hawk-faced man who stares at me from the alley. His eyes are wide in his dark, ring-filled face; I smile and knuckle my left hand to my forehead in desert greeting. He spins and fades into the night.

I duck through the squat door of the Silver Dancer and pause as I see Nessa come to an abrupt halt on her way back to our table. I smile and lean against the doorway in anticipation of the show. A mid-sized man blocks her path. His leer and the smell of booze are all Nessa needs to see. His hand reaches for her and her foot moves. The vicious kick results in a satisfying groan and a loud thud follows it as the drunk makes a rapid collapse to the filthy floor.

Slowly four men stand from the table the drunkard originated from. The skinniest of the four slurs out a challenge, “Thas my brother and no woman ges away with tha.”

Her eyes rolled in exasperation. “Drunks are so cute.” The circle of men around her collapse inward, but only for a brief moment. I watch as Nessa kicks a barstool into the path of the largest, who goes down in a tangle of legs and curses. The other three advance with grins now fading. She reaches and grabs one of the hefty wooden bowls from a table near her and throws, releasing the awkward object with the same force she would a knife. It strikes the skinny man between his bloodshot eyes, and sends him wilting to the floor. Nessa grabs another barstool sends it hurtling at the remaining brothers. They stumble backwards, crashing into a table of booze and pirates. The small melee instantly becomes a brawl between locals and pirates. I pick my way through the fight, wincing as dirt sifts down from the ceiling above. I slide back onto my stool and wait for the brawl to wrap up. With distaste, Nessa brushes her shoulder free from the dusty mixture and reclaims her seat with a satisfied smile.

Lataf shakes his head in disappointment, “Can we na take ya women anywhere?”

I laugh and raise my hands in mock dismay. “It’s the men tha are the assholes, especially here.” We finish our dinner then return to the stalls, bedding down with the horses.

In the morning we’ll head into the desert to start a new beginning, to earn our pay. For now, we sleep, while the world spins through the night.

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