“This job is barely safe any more, what with all the stuff that’s been going on lately.”
“I know. But what else can we do?”
“Find a nice village, settle down…”
“Starve to death through lack of money. Thanks, I’ll pass.”
The sun was hidden from view by thick clouds, but it would probably have been high in the sky. The long road was dusty and almost deserted, apart from the odd traveller and, of course, the pair who were steadily progressing along, talking.
“Is that preferable? We’d die either way. Let’s just keep on as we are, this is fine.” The second speaker plucked at a pouch hanging from her fine belt; there was the ‘chink’ noise usually associated with coins. She shrugged. “We have enough to be going on with.”
The other, a boy, sighed, and adjusted the black leather patch which covered his left eye. “I just think we should be careful.”
“Yes, yes…” The girl skipped on ahead, jingling. This was not due only to the money pouch; small bells hung from her wrists, ankles and belt, and strings of the things were threaded through her curly brown hair. As if this was not attention grabbing enough, her clothes left no question as to where people would be looking as she passed them. Close-fitting, in bright reds, yellows and oranges, the young woman whirled along like a rogue flame, her gauzy skirt flying around her in a way that only reinforced the image.
“Sarski, don’t run off,” called the boy, following more sedately. Next to her, he faded into the background. A blue tunic and loose indigo trousers were pale next to the swirling inferno. His face was gentle and slightly distant; the eye-patch, which might have looked menacing on someone else, simply served to distance him further.
“I’m not running off,” sighed Sarski, pausing. “I’m tired of this road. I want to get to the next town so I can wash. Look, I’m covered in dust!” Making a face, she lifted one bare foot from the dusty ground and poked it. “Don’t you want to rest, Danny?”
He sighed, giving up, and smiled at her. “Well… I suppose it would be nice.”
“Let’s have a song, at least,” said the dancing girl, falling into step next to him. “It’s too quiet.”
Danny smiled again widely, and pulled a set of pipes from a pocket. Putting them to his lips, he took a breath and began to play.
The beginning of a melody was cut off abruptly as the heavens opened, sending both of them running, laughing and squealing, towards the town in the distance.
By the time they reached it, they were soaking wet. Consoling themselves with the thought of dry clothes – their belongings were protected in the waxed canvas bag on Danny’s back – they found an inn and paid for a room.
“’The Bloody Axe’, nice name,” remarked Danny, closing the door behind him.
“Look away, I’m getting changed,” Sarski told him, and he whirled around, blushing. “Very nice name, let’s hope it doesn’t foretell anything.”
“Axe attacks while we sleep… lovely thought. So, what are we going to do?”
“No dancing until my stuff dries off.” Sarski pulled a plain white dress over her head. Danny nodded; his eyes were tightly shut. “I’m dressed,” she added.
There was a knock on the door, and Sarski twirled over to open it. The innkeeper smiled apologetically up at her; he was a tiny man, who looked as if he would faint if a bloody axe was put anywhere near him.
“I’m terribly sorry, miss, but you won’t be able to stay the night here,” he mumbled, looking fixedly at the ceiling above her head.
Frowning, Sarski glanced at Danny, who was pulling a dry shirt over his head. “Why?”
“There are a regiment of new recruits on their way to Bienth.” The innkeeper radiated apologies. “I have your money here – I’m very sorry about the inconvenience. You’ll have to leave the room as soon as possible, but feel free to rest downstairs – the chairs are very comfortable.”
“Do you know of any inns nearby?” asked Danny from above Sarski’s head. The man shrugged.
“None here will have space. There’s a village nearby, though – they’d have room. It’s a few miles away, but the mail cart leaves in a few hours, and you could catch that.” The helpful innkeeper even gave them a free drink and meal in apology.
Idly eavesdropping on those around her, Sarski found that the main topic of conversation was the recent attacks. She could see why – they were like nothing she’d ever known.
The first had been about three weeks ago, when a small settlement on the outskirts of the Laston Kingdom, had been completely decimated. Razed to the ground, not a single building left standing, it was hardly surprising that no-one had survived. Laston, thinking it was under attack, had sent flying scouts – bird-men, members of the Arket village in the nearby forest – to look for the perpetrators. Expecting an army of some sort, they had searched the whole area. They had found nothing.
A few days later, another town, miles away from Laston, had been destroyed similarly. Once again, there were no survivors, and only smoking ruins were left of the thriving market town. The perpetrators remained unknown.
Over the next few days, six more settlements joined the list. And still, no trace of the guilty party had been found. The sites were leagues apart. Unwilling to suffer the same fate , soldiers were being posted at every town, village and city in the vicinity. Whether they would help would be another matter entirely.