"Would you like a ride, ma'am?" the driver shouted from over the idly stomping horses. One horse left another pile of fresh feces upon the road. And the man curled his whip in both hands.
He looks decent enough, she squinted to see under the edge of the caravan's frontal canopy. Aren't I too young to be called ma'am? She saw the man smiling in the shadows. He had a metallic, toothy grin and a wispy, black goatee. Not too poor with a silver tooth. Probably won't rob me. And yet, the grin remained, twisting sadistically.
This she did not see as her head was bent down, eyes closed, in the customary modest nod of the land. Affirmative, kind sir. And because she was looking down the road and not up the road, the fencer did not yet notice the bleeding cuts and scars upon the behinds of the horses.
"My 'van is rather full," he admitted, "But you can fit neatly in the slit beside my luggage, lass."
Lass. With one leg on the wood-framed floor and an arm on the tarp's tight rope, she hoisted herself onto the corner of the caravan. That's more like it. And surely enough, there was a comfortable slit open between the pile of load and the tenting, upon the edge of the caravan.
A shuffling sound, behind her, in the caravan. And then man coughed, distracting her. Probably just a stowaway shrew.
Soft. She fell back upon an unrolled rug, sheathed sword bouncing lightly against her thigh. Exporting a rug? It was fuzzy, ornate and blood-stained. Comfortable, though unorthodox seating. Seems to be a nice merchant. Seems not as greedy as the last one that picked me up down south.
The man coughed again, cleared phlegm from his throat, and nervously rubbed his whip with one hand. The side of his face that she could see twisted into a polite grin, then, "Y'ready, miss?"
"Yes, I'm mighty comfy," and gratitude hung in her voice. How much should I tip this kind sir for horse feed? Don't expect a man to give an honest answer.
"Giddy'up!" he hollered, flicking his wrist. Just like whippin' that gal in the brothel. The whip fell lightly, grazing over the backs of the three horses. They whinnied as it danced across their backs, and began to tread forward. Plodding along gently, then picking up the pace. And the noise of clip-clopping hooves against dirt and stones embraced the caravan as it sped through the forest.
From the slit, head turned right, she watched their tails curl in the wind. Over and around their muscled bodies, the hairs fell and leaped with grace. And, now looking at the inside of the caravan's thick, muslin tarp; she brought a hand up to touch her own brown hair. Horse hair. All the power and beauty of a steed.
"Ye are headed to t'e Slough Inlet, right ma'am?" he shouted his query, from his bench upon the middle of the caravan's frame.
"Well, yes sir, and then I'm buying a canoe. Takin' to the waters after the Slough!"
Pine and oaks, maples and ferns. Rocks and moss. A stray deer, and the caravan went onward. The sun no longer hung centered at noon, and the afternoon began to mature. The trees began to extend their shadows once again.
Do they call it the Slough because o' the muddy, backwater mire or, she wondered, because of the moral degradation and spiritual dejection?
A red-wing blackbird flew across the path, narrowly escaping the quick-paced horses. It let out a cry of anguish, its epaulets crimson like blood and its body black like that of a carrion bird.
I will find him yet. Her neck had become stiff from looking too long to the right, out the slit. Now facing forward, she closed her eyes as the murky backside of her eyelids were more exciting than the bland fabrics bound by the bamboo arch of the caravan's front. She tried to nap, yet merely day-dreamed instead.
The caravan shook, as it went over a particularly large rock bulging out of the path. Axles fell back, once again more or less perpendicular to gravity. And the wheels kept turning, as wheels are wont to do.
And he will be mine once again, as I will be his. Letter or no letter; ambition cannot contend with my love for you! She saw herself in his pale arms, freckled red like hers in the summer sun. And his moderately brown hair, with a tint of red, inches from her lips. At his neck, sucking away on a petty love mark as young lovers often do. And each whispering words of tender affection in each other's ears.
Again, the caravan shook, and again, the shuffling sound of the presumable shrew.
"My dear, sweet Naieyle," his words echoed in her memory. "Will you bathe a sacred Querystal with me?"
The partnership and mysticism of the matrimonial ceremony, as she had seen it performed many times, stirred her heart. Longing tore at her heart, mind and soul. And nothing, could stop her from fulfilling his proposal. Not even --
Snap! She turned downwardly left, her tense neck snapping. The stowaway, a rat, was groping at the leather wrappings of her boot. Surprised to see the creature, she was far more surprised to see the naked leg of a man across from her own. And as she lifted her legs to let the rat pass along the edge of the caravan's frame, she looked up in awe. After all the teachings of stealth and blade, I've finally let myself get caught unaware. By a man! Not once! Never. Not ever --
Man? No, by an unconscious, naked lad. Not yet a man. He was tanned, probably due to heritage from the far south she reckoned. Though he was tall, taller than she was, she knew he was but youth. For his face, armpits, chest, neck, legs and loins lacked hair. Broad shoulders. Messy hair.
The driver was distracted, humming along to some troubadour's great rondo that was playing in his head. A song of haste and wealth.
Naieyle saw that he was drooling, Perhaps drugged, young giant? She recognized it from her teachings, a green hickey-like mark on his neck. The spider's kiss. Drugged by the stinger of a common -variety upper-Lakeland spider.
And she peeked along, against the canopy's edge of the slit. There were three others. Two young women and an older one. All naked. All bound at their wrists and feet. Perhaps it was the shadow, but their complexions seemed even darker than the slender boy.
A slaver! By the Mines of Mount Crownlake, this merchant is a bleedin' slaver! Am I truly such a fool as to ride amongst the company of a slaver? the fencer's mind whirred in self-criticism. Am I that naive?
The caravan rattled yet again, over a bump in the road, and then came to an abrupt stop. The horses whinnied, and she turned to see them rising up on their hind legs. Their front legs frolicked in confusion, over the debris before them. However, one horse remained calm.
A tree had fallen. They were the first caravan that day, and it seemed the others that had passed had jumped over it - be they on horseback or on foot.
Argh! I must do something quickly. Surely, now he will be the most off-guard. No whip in his hands as he inspects the tree.
And then the caravan began to unsettlingly slip backwards, for a moment, and then came to a halt. The horses, breathing furiously, stood with impatience before the fray of branches and leaves.
My horses are lucky this ain't a conifer. Some prickly mess that'd be if they ran into it. The driver stopped humming with a lengthy, melodramatic groan. And he hopped off the bench, leaving the whip at his side. Then he went around back.
She could hear him rummaging around at the caravan's stern. Now is the time to act! She slid out of the slaver's slit, and ran around to the back of the caravan. However, the tarp was sealed down, and he was nowhere to be seen. And she heard a noise -- Fwack!
A cardinal bird came to rest upon the top of the caravan, its feathers red as blood and its beard as dark as death. And its head came up in a point, like a blade.
Fwack! A hefty axe came down against the tree trunk. And the driver pulled it up again, with minimal effort. It's worth it, for what the nobles will pay me for those three pretties.
A hatchet? Cautiously, Naieyle rounded the corner of the caravan. Her iron rapier gleamed in the dim sunlight that pervaded and penetrated the armour of leaves above. He is but a man, where as I am a Lakeland Forest-Fencer!
Fwack! Again, it struck the rotted wood and almost severed the trunk from the stump. The brothels of Crownlake -- Fwack! -- will surely bid for them tanned beauties! Again, the axe fell, finally severing the fallen trunk from the stump.
Oh! With the final swing of the axe, the cardinal flew off the bamboo frame of the caravan. It was perturbed by the human that dared disturb the tranquil forest.
And then it came, darting downward and then piercing forwardly upward. It was followed, upon his spine, by a trail of blood and fluid.
Where blood had sprayed, she leaned quickly against his backside. The iron blade gleaned once more, now at his throat. Though customarily fought with the pointed tip, its edges were sharp enough to slit skin. And the nails of Naieyle's free arm dug into his lower arm, causing the one hand he had on the axe to drop it with a jerk.
"Next time," the fencer said calmly in his ear, as she drew blood below his wispy facial hair, "Have the courtesy to tell me, first, that you're a slaver so that I may scowl and you may ride along into the distance. Savvy?"
He nodded amidst his paralysis, which sent another drop of blood dripping down his neck. If I die now, at least I can feel a woman's breasts against my back. However, his back then grew numb with his spinal wound.
"Good. Now, you see, the thing is -- I don't know if you'll get a next time!" And with a quick movement, she dug the edge of her slender, one-handed blade into his neck. Die, you bleedin' slaver, die!
And with his eyes bulging out of his balding head, blood running down his chest - the slaver died, thrice a dozen yards from the Slough Inlet. As she pulled the blade away, his body toppled over the thick trunk that he had hoped the horses would pull to the side of the road. His throat was, now, slit.
The fencer, however, was looking thirty-three meters beyond the tree, where a large sign, painted ornately, hung from a tree branch over the road. It read: 'Welcome To The Slough Inlet'. And a shining Qurystal where I may pray off the guilt of this act.
She stepped broadly over the trunk, beside the fallen slaver. One step closer to you, my love.
Chrrrup! Chrrp! The cardinal, back atop caravan, chirped.
Naieyle turned around, to face it, and remembered why she had killed the man before her. She remembered the people within, beneath the tarp. And the imports - probably enough wealth to barter for a modest homestead. For them.
The light had grown even dimmer, now, as if the clouds had gathered to block the heavens.
She leaped back across the log, and looked at the horses. They seemed indifferent. As if they did not recognize the man who lay dead on their path - or simply did not care.
And then, with an odd curiosity, she remembered the boy. The boy so tall though not yet fully bound by manhood.
That was when the rain began to fall, softly. She heard it, long before feeling it, as it pitter-pattered against the needled branches and tender-leafed boughs above.
The cardinal had stopped singing, and flew away in search of a dark hollow as the woods began to drip. The moist air of the forest smelled refreshing.