Commander Engrame sneered.
"How?!" He was furious. Furious that the girl had, somehow, in some way, escaped his grasp yet again.
Scoutsman Kerl was on his knees, his forehead pressed to the ground. "Forgiveness Commander. I swear that I do not know how. But I shall find her.” He’d been apologizing ever since they had found him unconscious and all the horses gone along with a dead soldier.
Engrame huffed, wiping the sweat from his forehead. After pulling the girl up, staring at her, into those fierce silvery eyes, his heart had all but leapt out of his chest. Finally, after weeks of false leads, dead ends, dead bodies, he could finally go home with prize in hand. That it was tempting to just slit this little bitch's throat after binding her hand and foot and tossing her across the saddle of his horse was palpable. And so easy to do. But the Orom commanded her alive, if only to do the deed himself. The only one condolence he took was at least he would let Engrame watch.
He could finally go home. To his family, to his people. His people, not this dirty, inbred rabble, but men and women of civilization. Intelligence. Order. Obedience. He would be home. Soon.
That was the plan, at least, until they had awoke a few hours ago to find all the horses gone along with a dead soldier.
Clever, insolent little girl. How she had managed to unbind the ropes, and kill one of his men, an armed and armored man of war no less, released all the horses so they could not follow her, and somehow snuck past one of his best trackers without leaving signs of passage was.....unholy, unnatural, and almost impossible. In fact, the more he thought about it, the more he knew that this same meek sounding little girl he’d seen walking along the Merchant Road earlier had somehow done this all on her own, by her own hand, was impossible. Had to be.
Commander?” Phayo said, bowing his head gently. His most trustworthy, and skilled tracker.
“Find her. You have leave to hunt. But I want her alive. If she travels with companions however. Execute them. And make sure she watches."
“Yes, Commander, by your will.” Phayo left the line and ran in the same direction the girl had escaped. Commander Engrame turned his attention back to his scout. The man still had his face buried in the dirt. Groveling and writhing in sheer terror for mercy. But a man who shows mercy shows weakness. A man who shows weakness shows fear. And a man who shows fear is a coward. A liability. A weak link. It was time to make the chain strong again, by removing the weak link.
Engrame stepped behind his scout, tucking his hands behind his back. "Up, Scout Kerl."
Kerl rose, straight-backed, his hands resting on his thighs, but before he could stand, Engrame knelt behind him, thrusting his dagger into the base of the skull, He gripped Kerl by his throat, steadying him as his blade punctured the man's brain, taking demonic delight as he twisted and turned the blade. And as the light in Kerl's eyes slowly faded, Engrame whispered gently in his ear one last time.
"May the Orom forget your name."
He let loose of Kerl's throat, standing as he pulled his dagger from the man's head. With a quick kick, he sent Kerl's lifeless body to slam face first into the dirt. "Let that be your grave," he spat as he turned and headed back to camp.
The heat was unbearable. Sweat was dripping into her eyes, and she blinked furiously to relieve the sting. Even the shade here was no relief from the sun's brutality. Her mind wondered, longed for the cool mountain air of home, but reality settled and she knew that she had no home to return to. She wanted to sleep, but the images of Brigit and Hemi kept flooding her mind. There was Brigit in the center of the field of flowers holding up a bouquet of yellow flowers, a sweet smile on her little face. The light in her brown eyes faded as tears of blood streamed down her face. Her little mouth opening in a silent scream as flames surrounded her, engulfing her.
Sterling wanted to rid herself of the nightmarish images. She was exhausted. She’d been on the run from the Severon for nearly two weeks, hiding and avoiding any village along the way. She’d fled with no weapon, no money, and only the simple clothes she now wore. She had managed to steal food from a few isolated farmhouses along the way, but she hadn’t eaten in almost two days. If she was going to make it to Kai’Vari she needed to eat. And now here she was on the out skirts of Hemrac hiding among the hedgerow that lined the nearly immaculate cobblestone road for any signs of the Severon.
The village sat in a shallow bowl in the land surrounded by fields of wheat and corn. The hedgerow she lay under sat atop one of the rolling hills overlooking and leading to the quite village below. It was perfect for watching the comings and goings of the village inhabitants. She came upon this village last night during a storm and had hidden in one of the outlying barns for safety. She’d risen before the moonset and hid among the hedges before any of the citizens were up for their morning chores. She’d known that riding into any village on a horse branded by the Severon Militia was asking for trouble. Especially one with a saddle that no doubt had the seal of a commander's.
And so she left the horse at a farm and taken another one in its place. There had been no sign of the Severon or any other military patrols in the village since this morning and now that the noon sun had long since passed she felt safe to emerge from hiding. Her body screamed in protest as she stood from her prone position. She itched from not having a proper bath. Wading in streams and rivers was not the same as relaxing in steaming water. She felt the weight of the pouch she’d stolen from a wondering merchant; perhaps she’d treat herself tonight.
She made her way down the winding path until she reached the edge of the village. The main street ran from one end of the village to the other with streets veering off like tentacles. The main street was quite after the long afternoon of bustle. She made her way towards the only pub in the town, the Crow’s Head. She paused before entering taking a look over her shoulder for any followers. Satisfied she was alone Sterling pushed the door open and entered the darkened interior. She’d made a habit of not making a flashy entry, but no matter how quite her entrance she felt all eyes on her as the door swung shut behind her.
Sterling avoided eye contact with the other patrons and scanned the room. A booth in the far corner looked inviting. She walked the perimeter of the room keeping one eye on the pub’s customers as she slid into the booth. Her back was to the wall so she could see the entire pub. The smell of food cooking wafted into the dining room enticing Sterling. She had not eaten a proper meal in three days, not since she’d caught a rabbit with the pilfered bow and arrows she’d stolen
Hemi would have beaten her rear raw if he knew of all the things she’d done since she fled the orphanage. Her eyes lost focus as a thought of Hemi jumped to the fore front of her mind. He’d only been inches from her when he died. She swore that she would bring revenge down upon this Commander tenfold for what he’d done to Hemi. She missed them all so much she felt emptiness in her heart. Just breathing was painful when thoughts of Mother Anwell and Hemi and all the other girls came to her.
She missed Brigit most of all.
“What can I get you, miss?” The waitress words startled Sterling.
“Uh, ale, I suppose, and whatever food you have.” Sterling looked up into the plump face of the waitress. Her eyes were shining, cheeks rosy from the warmth of the pub. Sterling knew the instant the woman saw her silver eyes. The light behind her brown eyes vanished and the smile melted into a frown.
“We don't serve your kind here. I suggest you leave. Before I have you tossed out on your sorry ass”
Frustrated by the woman’s attitude Sterling plunked the bag of gold down on the table, “I have coin for food and bed.”
The wench simply scoffed and sniffed. "You money's no good here. I don't care if you have the Orom's personal gold crowns in there. We. Don't. Serve. Your. Kind. Now get the hell out of OUR pub."
Sterling narrowed her eyes and rose to meet the woman's glare. “I’m not leaving until you serve me.”
“We’ll just see about that” she growled as she pushed stepped back and through the swinging doors of the kitchen. Sterling replaced the pouch of gold back on her belt and stared out into the dining room. She realized then that she’d gained the attention of the other customers. She felt exposed without her hood to conceal her eyes. She averted her gaze to a scare in the wood table and tried to sink into the further in to the darkness.
“A what?!” Sterling jumped at the booming voice that came from the kitchen it was followed by a burly man that pushed through the swinging doors. “I’ll be damned if I serve a Devian in my inn.” Sterling sat up straight her eyes widening at the man that stood before her. He was a mass of blubber, hair and sweat. His white shirt was stained with food and filth. His round face was red from the heat of the kitchen fire. Meaty hands were propped on his rotund waist as he stared down at Sterling.
She stared up into his eyes that were nearly invisible behind the folds fatty skin. She was accustomed to fear and confusion when people looked into her unusual eyes, but this man looked down at her with hatred in his eyes. What had she done to deserve this man’s hate? It was not her fault he was an ignorant fool. Anger seeped into her skin as he looked down at her. She could feel her skin burning with the anger, muscles throbbing with the rising heat.
"What'd you do? Eat the Devian that walked in here?”
Sterling blinked and realized she was on her feet, as the man effortlessly gathered her up one handed by the scuff of her shirt, pulling her up until she was inches from his face. The man snarled. "Yeah, although judgin' by your skin and bone ass, you'll jus' be an appetizer."
"So much for country hospitality."
She turned her head to find a man standing next to her and the fat man. He had his hands pressed between them as trying to separate them. She looked down and felt her checks blush when she saw his warm hand pressed a little too conveniently against her breast. The "cook" spit on the floor and dropped her back into her chair. Great, Sterling thought. Try not to draw too much attention to yourself, oh gods the pub is the perfect place to lay low. Just another face in the crowd. She huffed and blew a stray strand of hair from her forehead.
“I'm not serving a godless Devian," the cook said, wiping his hand on the blood smeared apron that barely fit around his rotund waist.
“Bertrand,” the man had a smooth way of talking, though his accent was not Dueninian, “regardless of where she’s from her money is no different than yours or mine. Didn’t you just say the other day you needed more customers?” He had a smile on his lips as he winked at Sterling. “She’s a customer, so therefore your need her, am I mistaken?”
Bertrand pointed a sausage like finger at Sterling, “I don't care. I'm not taking her money."
The man thumbed a single gold bit at Bertrand. "Then take mine."
Bertrand caught the coin with swift, surprisingly nimble fingers. He huffed and finally nodded. "Fine," he glared down at Sterling, "but if you cause any trouble, my little hors d'oeuvres, I'll be serving you up to the mutts outside.” With a hefty huff he turned and retreated to the bowels of the kitchen.
“May I?” Sterling startled when she realized that the strange man was still standing next to her table. He seemed harmless enough with his blonde hair and blue eyes. She examined him for a moment before answering. She was wary, but he had come to her aid. Mother Anwell would scold her for not returning the favor and offering him a place to sit, but she told herself to be cautious. She motioned to the vacant seat and with a smile he melted his tall frame into the chair. “Name's Kellen, Kellen Leiten.” He seemed almost too cheerful. His blue eyes sparkled in the darkness as if there was some inner light behind them. He had a constant smile on his limps and his teeth were strong and white. Sterling was mesmerized by the aura that surrounded him. He was like a prince that had stepped out of one of Brigit’s fairy tales. His shoulders were broad and the white shirt he wore hung loosely on his muscular frame. He was so completely different than any other Dueninian she’d seen before.
“Hmm?” Sterling shook herself from her daze long enough to say.
“I said, I’m from Berac," he said, smiling slyly. That explained the crisp throaty accent she noticed before. “Though, I’ve been her in Duenin for almost a year now.”
“Why so far from home?” Sterling’s curiosity got the better of her. Berac was to the far west and isolated by the Isanami Mountains. Sterling had only heard stories of Berac and its rolling hills of vineyards and the crystal blue water that ran along the coastline.
“Ah yes. Well my father thought me to take over the family business, and, well, he and I disagreed about that course. So, here I am finding my own way in the great land of Duenin.” He spread his arms wide as if the pub encompassed the entire world. “And you, you are not from around these parts either. What with those strange eyes of yours, I’d say your -”
“New Alden. I’m from New Alden.” She lied. Her heart was racing. She did not want to him finish his words so she cut him off and lied about where she was from.
“A beautiful city indeed and one full of excitement.” He stood when the waitress returned with a platter of food. “Well, I will take my leave then. Perhaps we’ll see each other again.”
“I doubt it.” Sterling said around a mouth full of roast. Mother Anwell would have slapped the food out of her mouth for such atrocious manners, but her stomach was empty and her need of food was far greater than any sense of manners she may have once had. Sterling watched him leave over the rim of her cup as she washed down the roast. He was an odd man indeed. Was he too cheerful? Perhaps that was the way of the Beracians.
She pushed Kellen Leiten out of her mind and focused it on the delicious meal that lay before her. Despite the cooks grotesque appearance he had a talent for food. The platter was filled with roasted beef, carrots, and potatoes. All of it was covered in thick beef gravy that gave off the aroma of rosemary. The portion was huge, enough for a grown man to stuff himself, but she was able to finish off the entire plate along with the bread that came along with the meal. She washed it all down with the tankard of ale the waitress had brought.
The waitress was still wary of her when she returned to take the empty platter, giving Sterling a wide berth and side glances. She jumped when Sterling asked for a room. “There is one available, but it’s the most expensive. It’s the last one on the right at the end of the hall.”
“I’ll take it.” Sterling said without hesitation. She was quietly thanking the rich merchant she pilfered the gold from. “I’d also like a bath brought up with hot water.”
Sterling stood the waitress backed away quickly with fear and confusion in her eyes, “A bath? But I’ve heard that when Devians get wet they turn into beast.”
Sterling couldn’t help but laugh, “First of all I have no idea what a Devian is, but I can assure you that I do not turn into a monster when I bathe, in fact it’s quite the opposite. I turn into one the dirtier I get.” She started towards the stairs that led to the upper rooms.
Sterling found the room the waitress and indicated and opened the door and stood dumbstruck. This was the most expensive? It was nothing more than an old worn out bed and a thread bare rug. There was a small table with a chipped wash basin. It smelled of old body odor along with other aromas that Sterling did not want to identify. Luckily the room had a window. Sterling bypassed the bed and threw up the window. The night was warm, but at least it let in some fresh air. The room over looked the stable yard of the inn and just below a short roof that covered the back porch where the kitchen was located.
There was a sharp rap at the door, “Your bath miss.” She opened the door to two men who brought in a large copper wash tub and two buckets of steaming water. The tub sat in the middle of the room on the threadbare rug and took up the majority of the empty space. The first boy reached into his pocket and handed her a bar of soap wrapped in a thin cloth.
“Thank you.” She said as she handed them each a gold coin. The light in their eyes told Sterling that the fat owner didn’t give them much in the way of wages.
Sterling was so excited she threw off her clothes and shoes as quickly as possible and stepped into the tub. It was large enough for Sterling to sit down and have the water come to her waist, the sides reaching up over her shoulders so just her head was above the rim. The water was hot and soothed her tired muscles. The heavy chain of she wore felt lighter in the water as the pendant that once belonged to her mother lay between her breasts. She lifted the stone out of the water and examined it in the light. Hemi had told her it had once belonged to her mother and that it was precious to her. What was so special about this stone? All it did now was remind her of what she’d lost. She’d thought about selling it for gold, but had stopped herself before going through with it. After all it was the only thing she had left from her old life. She let the stone fall in the water where it slowly sank and lay once again against her heart.
She sat there a minute relaxing for the first time in nearly three weeks. The Severon had dogged her the entire way. If she stayed in one place for too long they would inevitably show up and she’d be on the run again. But she hadn’t see them in three days and with no sign of them riding into Hemrac while she lay hidden in the hedge row she felt confident for the first time that she had finally lost their trail. Before the water started to grow cold she quickly washed the dirt and grime from her travels and dunked her head under the water. She thought about what would happen tomorrow. Where would she go next? She still had a ways to go before she reached Kai’Vari. Would she be able to stay ahead of the Severon? Sterling came up for air and turned her attention to her hair. Using the soap she washed the sweat and dirt from its long strands. Satisfied she dunked her head back under the water to rinse out the suds.
Once again she emerged from the water gasping for air. Soap ran into her eyes and she reached for the bath sheet one of the men had provided earlier. Eyes closed, she fumbled for it. She leaned and finally stood, naked to the world, as she reached and splayed her hands in in the air. She finally brushed up against it, at eye level. She furrowed her brow. Wasn't it on a small stool next to the bath the last time she saw it? She yanked and scrubbed her eyes furiously. And as soon as her eyes cleared and finally opened, it was in that instant she realized she was no longer alone in the room. Kellen Leiten was settled back on the stool, boots propped against the lip of the tub. That sly, handsome grin stretched from ear to ear, like a happy fox that had just gorged itself on the farmer's henhouse.
“What the hell are doing in my room?!” She wrapped the small, oh so small piece of cloth around her body. “How long have you been there?”
There was a knowing smile in his eyes. “Long enough to know you can hold your breath for a very long time.” Sterling could feel her cheeks start to burn.
She tugged at the bath sheet again and crossed her arms. “Show's over. Now get out,” She growled. The smile in his eyes quickly vanished as he advanced on her. Sterling’s heart rate went up a notch as she prepared to defend herself. But when he didn’t attack she was taken off guard. He went passed her and to the door. He opened it just a crack and listened for a moment. When he turned back to her he was a completely different person. His eyes were fierce and the smile was gone. He was no longer the jovial man that had rescued her earlier.
“The Severon are here.”
The words he uttered drained the blood from Sterling’s face. Her body went numb at the mention of the army that had doggedly tracked her like a fox. How had they found her? It had been three days since she last saw them. She’d been so careful to cover her tracks and to stay out of sight not venturing into any villages staying off the main roads.
“Quickly now, get dressed.” She heard his words from a great distance but she couldn’t comprehend what he was saying. She just stood there and watched as he braced the lone chair in the room under the handle on the door. He must have noticed she was not moving and came over to her placing his hands on her bare shoulders, “Sterling.” He gave her a quick shake. Sterling blinked at her name and came out of her fog, “Sterling, quickly now. Get dressed they are just down stairs. We can escape out the window, but you must get dressed.”
“Okay.” Her body started to move on its own. Ignoring the fact that Kellen was there with her she dropped the sheet and quickly pulled on her clothes. She regretted that they were still filthy, she had wanted to wash them as well, but there was nothing she could do about it now as she laced up her trousers and pulled the leather vest on over her white shirt. She sat down and pulled on her boots.
“Are you ready yet?” She could hear the impatience in his voice.
“Yes, I’m ready.”
“Come on.” Kellen left his post at the door and climbed out the window. He held a hand out for her, but Sterling was frozen in place as the handle on the door started to turn. “Sterling.” He whispered forcefully.
When the door failed to open there was a loud knock on the door, “You in there open up.”
“Sterling.” Kellen reached back in the window and grabbed ahold of her arm and yanked her out the window just as the door came crashing in.
They were running towards two horses Kellen had waiting when Sterling heard a familiar voice, “She jumped out the window!” Sterling’s legs stopped on their own accord, she turned and looking out the open window was the man responsible for the death of everyone she loved. Commander Engrame. She felt a fire start in her heart, a fire of hate filled her body and she started to turn back to the inn. She was going to kill that man for what he’d done.
“Sterling!” Kellen rode in front of her blocking her view of the window. “Get on the damn horse!”
She came to her senses and mounted the second horse. As they rode out of the stable yard she took one look back, but the Commander was no longer there.
“Who the hell was that?” Kellen yelled over the pounding hoof beats. Sterling glanced one last time back towards the fading image of the Severon Commander. This Commander Engrame. She finally turned back and whispered in Kellen's ear two simple words.