"Morning Lynn" I greeted as I entered the marketplace. To my surprise and delight, the usual curt nod had been replaced by a smile and a quiet word of greeting. Lynn wasn't the only exception either, as I made my way around the bustling area I received waves, more smiles, and even the occasional handshake.
The last several weeks had seen a change settle over myself and the men who had fought the fae alongside the Hawks. Most of us had found that we preferred acceptance and respect over fear and hatred during our stay with the mysterious females of the forest. I personally found it an excellent distraction from the deep longing that had plagued me since leaving, though I made little show of it in an attempt to set some kind of an example for my men. I did a pretty good job I think, though it was obvious to most that I wasn't as over everything as I let on.
I had increased the patrols around the areas that were most frequented by Kate and her band, making sure to load those patrols with soldiers who I knew wouldn't do anything rash. It meant more work for most of them, but not a one complained, in fact there was a general sentiment of gratitude among them, for they, like myself, were hoping to catch some glimpse of the benevolent thieves, even more so than before, though for very different reason. Yet for all our activity, we had seen next to nothing from the Hawks, and that wasn't due to any incompetence on the part of my men.
The forest-dwellers were simply nowhere to be found.
It was a bittersweet situation, for while I desperately wished to see some sign of Kate, my strained relations with the Sheriff had mended somewhat. Following our return the Sheriff had been more suspicious and watchful than ever, and a surplus of raids would most definitely have secured my termination, either figuratively or literally.
For the umpteenth time, the thought crossed my mind that either would have been preferable to my current situation. Being fired would have given me the excuse I was looking for to defect.
A fact I was sure the Sheriff knew all too well.
For the umpteenth time I followed up my previous thought with the suspicion that keeping me instated as Marshall was not out of benevolence or respect for my abilities, but the last and worst kind of punishment that the Sheriff could inflict on myself and my men. Those who had joined me in supporting the Hawks claimed nearly a third of our forces. Losing that many would have been devastating in any case, but it was no secret that every single one of them would immediately make their way into the forest to join with our "enemies."
As my rounds came to end, a commotion broke out in the middle of the gathered crowd. Backed by my men, all of whom were part of the force that had sided with the Hawks, which, in lieu of the events had taken to calling themselves "The Falcons," I moved to investigate. The scene I happened upon, was one which I had been dreading since my return. Several soldiers, none of them Falcons, were harassing a village women. I stood on the fringe of the circle that had gathered around the spectacle, an inner conflict waging itself within me. Heads turned towards my contingent. They numbered only a few at first, but within seconds nearly every face in the crowd was staring expectantly at me, and in that instant, the inner battle was decided.
"Enough!" I shouted, pushing the thin barrier separating me from the circle within the circle. The soldiers, taken a back, turned to regard me incredulously.
"Having a change of heart Twynam?" one of them mocked, and I promptly punched him in the jaw.
"You may refer to me as 'Marshall,' soldier. I will allow you and your compatriots ten seconds to make your way back to the barracks before I break you."
"She is not a Hawk" I said calmly, "And beating on her proves nothing, save that you are a coward who cannot hold his own against a worthy opponent. You have seven seconds."
The guard turned back to his friends, who briefly considered resisting, but my own men filtered through the crowd to stand behind me, squashing any thought of rebellion. The man spat at me before abruptly turning, and shoving his way through the crowd., muttering "Sheriff'll hear about this."
In the silence that followed, I moved to help the female victim to her feet, my hand going to my belt to retrieve a few coins, which I pressed into her palm. "For the trouble they caused you. You have my apologies," I whispered. With a discreet gesture to my entourage, approval showing in each of their faces, we began to wade back through the crowd, in the direction of castle. We had nearly made it out of the marketplace when the sound of applause brought my men and I to a surprised halt.
Not knowing what else to do, we turned to face the crowd for a moment, basking in the admiration that erased any doubts about whether I had made the right choice. As we turned once more to leave, a cloaked figure standing in the crowd caught my eye. I did a double-take, but whoever it was, had been lost in the sea of people.
My men and I marched back to the castle in silence, and with a rueful grin I found myself wishing that the elusive Hawks would strike soon, if only to know that they hadn't left us here with torn hearts and empty lives.