They had ridden for what seemed like ages, although Liria knew that the ride was only ampliphied by her body's many aches and pains. The fact that Devon's horse appeared to actively despise her didn't help matters at all. While they paused for a quick survey of their immediate surroundings, the animal took the opportunity to turn her head and attempt to bite the leg of her sole occupant. Devon, standing several yards behind them, wouldn't believe Liria's accusations.
"Tyne is extremely good-natured," Devon had said. "She wouldn't attack without provocation."
Liria had taken offense to that suggestion. "How could I provoke her? I was just sitting here. Your horse doesn't like me."
Devon had merely shrugged, leapt back into the saddle, and taken off again. Liria vowed to keep a close eye on that beast. She hadn't much experience with horses, and knew it was quite a feat for a lone woman like Devon to actually be able to afford one of such obvious quality. It made her wonder just where she had come from, and why she'd chosen this type of rootless existence.
"How are those eyes doing?" a gruff voice asked behind her.
Liria blinked in experimentation. She'd hardly noticed the difference because it had been so gradual, but her sight was nearly returned to her. "Almost back to normal," she replied.
"Good, because I'll need you to be at your best right about now."
She nearly turned her head to ask what Devon meant by that when she noticed a change in the road ahead. A group of men appeared to be lounging about the edges of the dirt track. Tyne stopped with a gentle pull at the reins. There were four of them up ahead, but they hadn't seemed to notice the travelers just yet.
"Are they...Rothschild's?" Liria asked, fearful.
"No, unfortunately," Devon answered. Then with a sudden whirl of movement, her supportive weight vanished, and she was gone.
"What--?" Liria sputtered, twisting around. She was alone in the saddle once again. Tyne threw her head back, casting a baleful eye her way, and Liria gulped. "Must be some sort of plan..." she ventured.
A rustling in the trees directly overhead solved the mystery of Devon's disappearance, but not her reasoning behind it. Liria definitely didn't like being left on her own to face that crowd. But she kicked Tyne forward anyway, continuing on their previous course. As she approached, the men stood straight. They seemed relaxed, but almost forcefully so. Liria bit her lip in nervousness.
"Hey there, pretty la--" the first man paused in his greeting when she came close enough to reveal her battered face and shorn hair. He glanced at Tyne suspiciously, then back up at her. "And where are you headed?"
Liria raised her chin defiantly. "That is none of your concern."
He grunted. "That's a very nice looking animal. What do you think, Merrin--stolen?" One of the men behind him scratched his head and grinned at her.
"I don't appreciate your implication," she said. "This horse belongs to me. Now allow me to pass."
Unfortunately, Tyne decided at that moment to stop cooperating. She danced to one side, irritated at Liria's attempts to rein her in. "Stupid horse!" Liria whispered.
"I think you're telling us a falsehood," the man said seriously. He reached out and grabbed for the reins as Tyne moved toward him again.
"Get away!" Liria shouted. When he ignored her demand, she brought up one leg and kicked at him, landing a blow on his chin. "I said, get off!" He reeled away, but recovered quickly.
When he attempted to move forward once more, a dark figure suddenly appeared behind him. "I believe she told you to leave the horse be."
As Devon reached to her side to unsheathe her sword, Liria realized this was the first clear glimpse of the woman she'd gotten since they'd met. She'd known Devon was tall, but it was amazing to see her next to a man. Devon stood a head taller than her immediate opponent, a fact he was sure to find disconcerting. Her black hair was tied back from her face with a small strip of leather, revealing a complexion that had seen many hours under the sun. From this darkness blazed two blue eyes, the color of a wintry lake just about to freeze over.
Although Tyne was a horse of magnificent quality, Devon's armor was seriously lacking. Comprised of toughened leather tied around her torso, it was of two pieces only. The front and back protected her middle yet left her arms and legs vulnerable. A white tunic was all she wore under this, and brown breeches stuffed into short leather boots. Strapped to her wrists and shins were smaller pieces of even lesser quality. She had to be good to have survived so long thusly.
The first man who'd spoken was armed with his own sword, but Devon didn't seem too leery of him as he drew it. She in fact smiled at him, seemingly enjoying herself. Waiting for him to make the first move, she easily avoided his clumsy thrust. Their swords clashed briefly, until suddenly his was launched into the air to land well out of easy reach. Devon jumped at him, smashing the hilt of her sword against his face and knocking him out.
Two of the other three men had already turned tail and run, but the third decided to try his hand at the woman. Devon's brow shot up sardonically at the small dagger he pulled from his belt. Second guessing himself, the man cursed at her and followed his companions up the road.
“That was amazing!” Liria cried. “Where did you learn to fight like that?”
Kneeling over the fallen man, Devon shrugged. “Practice,” she replied.
“What are you going to do to him?” Liria asked.
Pulling a leather purse away from the comatose man, she answered, “Steal his money.”
Devon was flippant, but by the time she reached Tyne again, she appeared angry. “That was stupid of me,” she muttered.
Confused by the rapid change of mood, Liria cringed away from her slightly as she leapt onto the horse. “What was?”
“I should've hidden you. Now we've established a solid trail. We better get moving, and quick.”
Liria groaned quietly as Tyne set off at a steady canter. As long as she didn't fall apart before getting to Woelfel, she'd be fine.
It took merely another hour or so to reach town at the rate they were going. Liria watched for the men who'd stopped them but was unable to spot any of them. She knew they had to be from this place, a town where merchants no longer dared travel. Founded by pirates in some dim history, Woelfel was once a popular port, but the only ships docking there at this point were attempting to escape capture. It had finally been overtaken by the filth that first settled there.
Devon received the most curious glances as they passed through, some admiring, but most merely appraising. The men apparently decided she wasn't worth the risk, and dropped their surreptitious glances immediately.
“Where is the safe house?” Liria asked, feeling uneasy in this place.
“Not far,” Devon responded. She sounded so carefree, it made Liria envious. Of course a woman like her had nothing to fear from any of these people.
Among a group of run down cottages, a tall, bearded man stood in an open doorway to watch their approach. When they came close, he cried, “And from the bowels of Hell comes She!”
“You didn't have to bathe just for me,” was Devon's reply. The man laughed.
“More prisoners absconding with your angelic assistance,” he said, bowing deep from the waist. “Please, come inside.”
Tyne halted, and Devon swung easily down to the ground. “Don't worry,” she assured Liria, reaching for her waist to help her dismount. “This is Laric.”
“I'll bet you didn't know Devon had a ballad written in her honor,” Laric asked, looking her up and down.
Liria blushed at the attention, knowing her appearance was less than desirable. In her thin shift, covered in mud and filth, with short hair springing up in every direction, she must have made a frightening image.
“We can fix you up, if you don't mind seawater,” he said, reading her mind.
Liria smiled faintly. “That would be nice, thank you.”
“Enough with the chatter, already,” Devon said. “I'll board Tyne. You take her inside and get her comfortable.”
Laric bowed again. “Raven-wing hair and eyes of ice,
Devon frowned. “And stop that. I never liked that song,” she murmured to Liria.
As they sat around the hearth at Laric's small cottage later that evening, Liria felt more relaxed than she had in over a month. She was finally clean, and wore a simple gray dress—the origin of which she didn't want to learn. They listened as Laric spouted various poems and stories, Liria paying closer attention than her new companion. Devon's expansive friend was sometimes hard to take, but it was nearly impossible to dislike him. Of course, the fact that she'd already downed three mugs of his special mead probably had a lot to do with her contentment, too.
“Devon didn't stick around much after that, not with her unholy mission still as yet unfulfilled,” Laric said, finishing a long and involved story concerning their first meeting. At Liria's confused expression, he gave a wobbly salute and nodded toward Devon, whose own countenance became decidedly sour. “Sir Devon of Lenchester!”
Liria smiled. “You wanted to be a knight?” she asked.
A pained look crossed the other woman's face for an instant before she composed herself. “Pretty funny, huh?”
Feeling badly over her instant disbelief, Liria shook her head. “No, not really. Why didn't you?”
Laric laughed genially. “Didn't have the balls for it!” he burst.
Devon smirked at him. “Tragically, I've ended up on your side of the law instead.”
“Hey, I wouldn't take such a tone, little missy,” he slurred. Liria was shocked, knowing there couldn't be many people who were able to refer to Devon as such, at least not in her presence. “Just look who's on her side,” he finished, pointing at Liria.
“Rothschild is not on my side,” Liria argued, briefly losing her temper. “If you recall, he tried to have me hanged.” This suddenly struck her as quite funny. Amazingly, a burst of giggles erupted from her after this last comment.
Devon leaned forward. “Uh huh,” she murmured. “You've had enough of this.” She plucked the mug out of Liria's hands. “Besides, you need as much rest as you can get before we lose our anonymity.”
“Never mess with a man's mead,” Laric snapped at her, as though she'd attempted to take his own drink as well. “Wench!” he called, turning toward an imaginary barmaid. Laughing, he said, “More mead here!”
Liria giggled again. “You're drunk.”
He nodded solemnly. “Quite so, little mite.” Taking a long swig, he finished yet another mug.
“Come, Liria,” Devon ordered, gently. Liria did as she was asked, losing her balance when the room started spinning as she got to her feet.
Leaning heavily on the taller woman, she assured Devon, “I think you'd have been a great knight.”
They crossed the room to Laric's bed, where a straw-tick mattress in bad need of restuffing lay covered with a thin woolen blanket. Liria set herself down obediently, staring up at the other woman. “I really mean that,” she said.
“Well, thank you,” Devon finally responded. “Now get some sleep.”
Liria's head fell to the mattress for an instant before jerking back up again. “You were thinking about leaving me here tomorrow,” she accused.
Her back to her, Devon froze for an instant. “Why would you say that?” she asked, still facing the other direction.
“Because it's the truth.” Liria felt the pressure of tears begging to be released. “You can't do it,” she whispered. “I'll die if you leave me alone.”
Devon whirled, clearly angry. “That is unfair!” she snapped. “I've already saved your life. You have no right to ask anything of me.”
“That's fine, but if you believe that, then you should have just left me there at the gallows,” Liria sniped, lying back again. She closed her eyes, refusing to look at the other woman. Finally, Devon's shadow eased away and Liria knew she had returned to the fire.
Perhaps she was forcing Devon's hand, but Liria knew she had no chance of surviving if Rothschild ever found her again. There was little Laric would be able to do, with the deacon's authority and fanaticism. And she had a terrible certainty that the man was following her. She rarely ignored such instinct. Liria had to find a way to keep Devon with her.
Amazingly, she found it easy to sleep that night. With Devon nearby for protection, she drifted off solidly, not even cracking her eyes open again until daylight the next morning. When she did so, it was to a similar bitter light that caused her so much pain the previous day. This time the trauma was self-inflicted. Her head ached from the mead she'd imbibed the night before.
“Ugh,” she moaned. “I'm going to be sick.”
“Well at least hang your head over the edge,” came the curt reply. “Laric would hardly appreciate puke in his bed.”
Liria squinted toward the hearth, where Devon sat eating something out of a wooden bowl. “You have absolutely no sympathy for me, do you?” she asked.
Devon grinned. “Not really.”
She jerked out of bed when Laric came bursting inside, throwing open the door so harshly that it struck the wall behind it. “Let's get dressed, girls,” he said. He was all business this morning.
Devon frowned, setting the bowl aside. “What's wrong?” she asked.
“Well, your friend's in town, for one,” he said. “I retrieved Tyne for you. I think you'd better--“
“Get out of here,” Devon finished for him. Glancing at Liria, she nodded. “I have to say I didn't entirely expect this.” She turned and left the cottage.
Liria hurried outside behind her. She had expected it, but it didn't stop her heart from suddenly pounding in her chest.
Devon spotted Tyne as soon as she left Laric's cottage. Her horse stood idly near the door, awaiting her command. She felt a wave of affection rush over her. Glancing at Laric, she jerked her head toward the smaller woman then continued on her path. She heard Liria sputter behind her as her friend attempted to pull her toward the opposite end of town. She spared the girl a brief chuckle, having to admire her spirit after all that had happened to her.
Rothschild's men weren't difficult to spot. They were the only active people seen on the road. Most of the townsfolk had wisely turned their backs as soon as the strangers appeared. With no immediate sign of profit, they were deaf and dumb. As she continued down the street, she caught sight of the deacon himself as he tried to question a rotund woman outside of a tavern. Apparently, he wasn't getting much information out of her.
“You surprise me, Rothschild,” Devon called.
He quickly turned to face her, a look of fear painted on his face. But he quickly recovered, sneering at her angrily. “You have cuckholded me for the last time,” he vowed.
She raised a brow at him. “Interesting choice of words,” she responded, gratified by the resulting flush rising on his cheeks. “I wonder what the good people of Hoffenshire would think if they knew what you were up to just five years ago.”
He narrowed his eyes at her. “They would rejoice that I turned my back on a life of sin and have joined the ranks of Heaven.”
“Hopefully you'll be joining those ranks fairly quickly, old man.”
When he didn't answer, she watched him carefully to gauge his next move. His eyes shifted over her shoulder, staring at something behind her. Before she was able to turn to see for herself, she heard the sound of a woman's shouts.
Furious, she caught a glimpse of two men darting out from the shelter of nearby homes to join their partners in the center of the street. Laric lie in the dirt, unconscious. Liria was busy attempting to dislodge herself from another man's grasp.
As two of the men held her by the arms, her shouts became more insistent. She twisted and kicked, but was unable to free herself. As Devon moved forward to intercept them, she heard a strange sound overhead. It was as if the wind itself was howling for the girl's release. Yet she felt no movement in the air above. The sound was a chilling one. Then came the sensation of something rushing past her hurriedly. A moment later the two men virtually flew away from the girl, screaming as they crashed into the buildings on either side of the street. Liria had cried out one last time just before they were tossed away from her, and as soon as she was released she lost the strength to stand, sinking slowly onto the ground.
Confused, Devon quickly glanced behind herself to see what Rothschild had made of this. The man still stared at the fallen girl, but Devon could detect a familiar expression on his features. He licked his lips greedily before realizing she was watching him. With a small grin, he turned on his heel and ran in the opposite direction. Cursing, Devon lurched forward to give chase.
Unfortunately, his mount was nearby. Leaping upon the horse's back, he wheeled the animal in a tight circle then harshly kicked it on its way. Devon whistled shrilly, and Tyne was at her side in moments. She leapt into the saddle, and was about to go after Rothschild when she had the distinct urge to glance behind. Liria was still on the ground, obviously weakened after whatever had just happened. Rothschild's men showed no signs of movement. For one tense moment, she honestly had no idea which way she was about to ride. Then the decision clicked, and she bade Tyne turn around.
With Liria moving sluggishly, Devon went to Laric's side first. The man rolled over to his side when she knelt over him. "Are you well?" she asked.
He grunted. "Bastard snuck up behind me," he muttered.
"Are you well?" she repeated. He waved her away impatiently, struggling to rise.
When Devon approached Liria, she felt a small pang of doubt. It wasn't like her to feel such trepidation, and it definitely annoyed her. Still, she paused before kneeling and touching the smaller woman's arm. "We should leave straight away," she said.
Taking a deep breath, Liria nodded. There was a distinct shame in her eyes. Devon guessed this wasn't the first time something like this had happened. Helping the girl onto Tyne's back, she leapt up behind her.
Before they left, Devon looked down at Laric. "Thanks anyway, good friend."
But they'd only ridden a few hard miles before Devon had to stop. The questions were just bursting to be freed from her tongue. She jumped easily to the ground and took several long strides away from Tyne, trying to clear her head. When she turned, Liria had dismounted as well, and was watching her warily.
"So you're the real thing," Devon marveled. "You're a witch."
Silent, Liria shook her head. Then she spoke. "I didn't mean to hurt anyone. It just happened."
"And has anything like this 'just happened' before?" Devon asked.
Shamefully, Liria nodded. Lord, it looked like she was going to cry again, too.
"So Silas Marsters and Rebecca the Miller, what did they--"
Liria interrupted angrily. "Calling Silas a victim is laughable. If only you knew..." her voice trailed off. She seemed unable to continue.
Devon shook her head. "Well, we've got a new problem on our hands now. Rothschild isn't going to let up anymore. Did you see the look on his face? He'd give his eyeteeth to have you. And when something new comes along, he's willing to put everything he has into getting it."
"I don't understand."
Devon sighed. "Rothschild isn't in this for the glory. He speaks one language, and you are the new jewel to be won. He obviously didn't know what he had while in Hoffenshire, but now...we have a little time," she finished, her thoughts sidetracked. "He'll want to do this right, and that means either drawing me out or hiring better help. Either way, we have time."
Liria backed up a step when Devon approached quickly. "Time for what?" she asked.
"I know someone who can help us," she explained patiently.
"Us?" Liria questioned, hope lighting her eyes.
Devon mounted Tyne, then reached down with one hand. "For now. But when I have things figured out, you're on your own, hear me? So don't get too comfortable."
For some reason Liria's expression didn't change at her harsh words. Devon frowned. Damn. Well, the girl better believe it, she thought balefully. Because she had no time to play nursemaid to a fledgling sorceress.
Back to Main
You are Visitor No: