The sturdy wooden table rocked as Stil slammed his mug down. "Let go of her."
The inn grew quiet. The burly innkeeper watched the mercenaries' table closely. Everyone else looked away, not wanting to get involved.
Stil couldn't tell who looked more surprised, Daren or the girl. The girl's face was actually nearly expressionless, but through the dark hair that had fallen into her face, Stil saw her eyes slightly widened, in what he took for fear. The surprise and suspicion on Daren's grizzled face were not nearly so subtle.
Eyeing the bit of ale that had spilled from Stil's mug onto the table, Daren broke the silence first -- not that the girl showed any inclination of saying anything. "What's this about, Stil? We learned our whoring habits from you, friend." He stroked her cheek, none too gently, as a round of agreement went up from the others at the table. Stil sat motionless, and after a pause Daren looked up at him and went on. "What the hell, hired swords are due some game now and again." Leering at the girl, he pulled her face closer to his. She made no move to resist, but Stil had had enough.
The floor creaked beneath him as Stil shoved his chair back and rose slowly. "I said, leave the girl alone."
The moment seemed to stretch. A bead of sweat formed against the scar on Daren's forehead, but otherwise his face was an unreadable mask. He let go of the girl's head, but his grip on her arm did not loosen.
Suddenly his face broke into a broad smirk. "Sure. Fine by me, Stil. You want the easy game, you got her." Egged on by his companions' chuckles, he added, "We'll go after fairer pastures. Find someone who hasn't already bedded everyone in the kingdom."
Roughly, he shoved the girl at Stil. She stumbled, and the tall man had to duck a bit to catch her. He helped her back to her feet, not looking up at his companions as they got up and left the table, their laughter ringing in his ears. He tried not to look at the girl too closely, because there was something about her that bothered him -- was it her fine clothes, that made him wonder why she'd chosen this life? Or just the way her face always seemed so devoid of feeling?
"I'm sorry," he said to her, wondering why as he did so. He was a hardened mercenary and a hard man, had forced himself onto more women than he could count. Why was he now apologizing for Daren? "That little dragon-shit--"
"No," she interrupted. Her soft voice seemed jarring against his harsh tone. He stopped short and looked into her clear blue eyes. "After all," she continued, her face at once hiding nothing and saying nothing, "it's true." She brushed her hand against his arm briefly, sending a flood of memories through his mind. Her touch had been sweet indeed the last time he had been through that town.
He lowered his head, looking away. There was a pause, then he said, "Go. Get out of here."
It wasn't until after she had left the inn that he remembered her name.
Through the dispersing clouds, he could see that the moon was nearly halfway up the sky; Daren would soon be there to take over the post. Stil stared out into the scrub, trying to concentrate on guard duty. He studied the shape of a distant shrub, he listened to the call of the kyla bird, he breathed the still-lingering scent of the morning's rains, but he couldn't keep his attention focused. Not that it mattered. His eyes knew the motions, knew what to watch for, and his mind was free to wander. Not for the first time, it wandered to the tent at the far side of the camp.
He didn't know why Alanya was on the caravan he was guarding, and he didn't care. He wasn't paid enough to care.
There were three hired swords traveling with the merchants. Seemed a bit much; Stil well knew how seldom the fears about bandits were justified, especially in the Soml plains. The bandits and raiders had been cleared out of Soml a generation ago, but still the stupid merchants paid out good money to hire mercenaries. He spit into the grass, a resigned half-smile on his face. Their fear kept him fed, after all.
Daren appeared at his elbow, and Stil unfolded himself from the tree he'd been leaning against and wordlessly headed back into the camp.
He stopped just short of the mercenaries' tent when he saw Alanya. She was standing in front of her own tent, her nightshift fluttering in the breeze. He hesitated for a moment, taking in the sight -- the dark hair against the pale skin and cloth made a striking sight in the moonlight. As he paused, she started toward him, the breeze brushing the dark curls back from her face as she moved. He paused for only a moment more, then began closing the distance himself. The night was a bit chill, and someone to warm his body would not be unwelcome.
She stood very close to him, and he reached out and slipped an arm around her waist. Hearing the brief intake of her breath, he stopped and looked more closely. There was a bruise on her left cheek, and judging from her reaction her side was sore as well. Probably Daren. Stil's eyes darkened.
Then she looked up at him, fixed her eyes on him, those eyes that seemed so open and expressive and yet had nothing to say. Those eyes seemed to swallow him whole.
Shifting his hold to avoid her bruise, he turned and walked with her to her tent.
He held onto her arm as they ran, his grip and quick pace threatening to pull the sleeve from her arm. She wasn't dressed for running -- although he supposed the dress would have been worse -- and she stumbled more than once on the uneven ground. But somehow she managed to keep up.
Stil swore to himself as he ran. The kyla bird's call was seldom heard, and heeded even less. But Stil, of all people, should have known, should have listened. The kyla was of the faeries; it knew. It sang of what was to come.
It sang of death.
He ducked around a jagged rock and into a shallow depression in the ground, pulling her down next to him in the rain-softened earth. Shouting reached his ears as he lay there panting, forcing himself to calm down and ready himself. The instincts of the night were already starting to come back to him. It had been too long.
"Wh--?" she started, but he hastily gestured for her to be silent. In a whisper, he said, "Bandits. Lots of them." He rose to a crouch, peered through the branches of a stunted shrub. Didn't like what he saw.
He let out his breath. Okay. Time to do something. There was a metallic whisper as his sword cleared its sheath, but he remained a moment longer, looking back toward the campsite. Finally he turned to look at Alanya. "You stay here. I'll do what I can." The clouds had obscured the moon; he felt, rather than saw, her eyes widen in the near-darkness. Hastily, he added, "You'll be okay. I know this place, you'll be all right. Trust me."
She started to say something, but then stopped and shook her head. He looked at her for a few moments longer, then started to rise. She started to speak again, this time managed to find something to say. "I can't." At his questioning glance, she added, "Trust you. I can't. I can't trust anyone, I..."
What's so odd about that, he wondered. Everyone treats her like dirt, after all. But something about the way she said it made him pause. She went on, "I can't care, I can't believe in anything, I can't feel. I... I can't trust you, I..." She stopped, not knowing what else to say. Biting her lip, she looked away.
He studied her for a moment, then gave her a wry smile. She couldn't see it, but it was in his voice as well. "Pity you're not a little bigger. You'd make a fine mercenary with that." She glanced up and met his gaze, which was now cold and serious. For a moment, she imagined she could hear a touch of regret in his voice. "To be able to kill... you damn near have to kill yourself inside."
Then he was gone into the night, and she was alone, wishing she could cry. But her eyes held no tears anymore.
The price of a room left a bigger mark on his purse than usual without Daren to split it with. Too bad no smaller rooms were available. Stil wasn't sorry about Daren, though. The sonofabitch deserved what he got for falling asleep on guard duty.
More to it than that, though. That wasn't the only reason Stil wasn't sorry to see him gone.
Lumpy though it was, the bed felt like heaven after sleeping on rocks for four days. The bandits had been thorough; not so much as a bedroll had been left, although there were no merchants left either to bemoan their losses. Maybe, he reflected, the bandits were something to worry about after all. Then again, by the time Stil had finished, there were a dozen fewer bandits to fear. They used the night because they were cowards; they didn't know what it could really do for you. He did.
He caught a flash of white as she pulled off her dress. Then she knelt next to him in the bed and, leaning over him, began rubbing his shoulders, working out the tightness. He reached up to touch her hand, and she paused for a moment, then resumed.
There was so much running through his head, so many unfamiliar feelings. But he pushed them aside. There was too much at stake.
"I leave tomorrow," he said quietly.
Her hands faltered for a moment, then started kneading again as she put the thought from her mind. He turned to look at her face, but her expression was as unreadable as ever. Something passed through him, some feeling he wasn't quite sure what to do with, and he slipped his arms around her and pulled her close. His thoughts seemed at a standstill. He was aware not of her body, only of her closeness. Suddenly it felt so right, holding her close like this -- did he really have to go? But he already knew that answer.
For the first time, her lips sought his. And suddenly his mind was filled with questions -- why would she want him? Why would someone like her, beautiful, dressed in clothes that said she must once have been from a wealthy family, be so alone and so empty? Why did she never struggle when a man tried to take her, or beat her? -- granted, some women didn't fight outwardly, but there was just something about Alanya's eyes that he couldn't understand.
He made no move for her body that night. They fell asleep still embracing, her head resting against his shoulder, his head swimming with things he didn't understand.
"You knew Stil? A... friend... of his?" There was a sardonic smile on the man's face.
Her face burned slightly at the sarcasm in his voice, but her eyes were still bright and eager for news as she nodded.
The man shrugged and said bluntly, "He wanted me to let you know, if he got killed."
Her eyes widened as she stared at him silently. Then she turned away, not wanting him to see the tears that were suddenly welling up in her eyes.
He noticed anyway. Feeling a sudden guilt for being so harsh, he said, "Here, now. I'm... I'm sorry." He glanced around quickly, but no one could hear, so after a brief hesitation, he continued. "I didn't mean to say that so's it would hurt you. I just... I didn't expect, I mean, I didn't think you'd care about him any more than..."
"I know what you meant," she cut in bitterly, not looking up. He sat there uncomfortably for a moment, studying the stains on the table, wishing for something to say. Finally, still staring at the floor, she waved her hand at him in a gesture that would have been almost comical, if she hadn't been crying. "Go," she mumbled. "Get out of here."
"I..." He fumbled for something to say. Abruptly, he shoved his chair back and stood, started to turn away. But he hesitated there, and finally turned back to her.
"Alanya," he said hesitantly. She looked up at him, doing her best to glare. He glanced away, trying to figure out what to say. Finally, he looked back up, meeting her gaze. "I thought you ought to know... he fought the bandits off. Three people on guard duty, but he was the only one paid enough attention to see 'em coming. He damn near fought 'em all off alone."
She tried to laugh. "So you're trying to tell me he died a hero, is that it?"
He looked away for a moment, then nodded.
Her eyes darkened as she stared at him. "You're lying." He looked up in surprise at her words. "You're telling me that just because you think it'll make me feel better. You bastard. You liar!"
Her chair toppled over sideways as she launched herself toward the man. He stumbled backward as she threw herself on him, pounding her fists against his chest. Though he was taken by surprise, it was only a few seconds before he had grabbed her by the wrists. Unable to fight back anymore, she slowly sank to her knees, sobbing. "You're lying," she whispered. "You're lying."
"No," he said quietly. She looked up at him, surprised. "Just ask any of us who were there. He cut down damn near twenty bandits before the rest of us were even awake. If it hadn't been for him, we'd all be long dead by now, and those bandits would still be coming this way." He held his iron grip on her wrists for a moment more. Finally his gaze softened, and he spoke slowly, trying to find words. "He fought like..." He hesitated, then shook his head. Letting go of her hands, he abruptly turned and strode from the room.
The words to the sentence he hadn't finished echoed through his head. Like a man fighting for someone he loved...
She glanced up after a time, and the first thing that caught her eye was the knife. Her meal was mostly untouched, the knife unused. For a split second, she thought of taking the knife and ending it all. The sorrow was more than she could bear.
Once again, she remembered the old woman. Alanya had grown up in a palace, had had everything her heart desired, had always been happy. She had never understood sorrow or pain, had thought it must be someone's own fault if they suffered. She had scoffed when she saw the old woman, shriveled body bent over her walking stick and wailing over the loss of her son.
"You know nothing," the woman spat at her, long ago it now seemed. "You don't know what it was to see him born and hope against hope for what he would become. You don't understand the meaning of sorrow, or hope. And you dare scorn those of us who struggle even to live."
She remembered the curse. Ah, how could she forget? Cursed to understand. To understand by seeing sorrow, and pain, and hope, but feeling none of it. No longer could she hide behind her arrogance, for she had no arrogance left. The old woman had stolen her emotions from her.
Until she could feel sorrow. Until she could steal the heart of a man she knew she would lose.
Tearing her eyes away from the knife, Alanya rose and headed for the door. A man--one she had bedded before? probably--leered and grabbed at her arm as she passed, but she pulled away and slapped him across the face. Startled by this reaction -- especially coming from her -- he backed off, amidst jeers from his companions, and she brushed past.
Smiling faintly -- easy prey, was she? sleep with anyone, would she? -- she traversed the rest of the room without incident. Stepping out into the chill night air, she wrapped her arms around herself and stared at the sky. The beauty of the night was striking. So was the ache in her heart.
She shivered, looking out at the night. The stars looked like frozen teardrops scattered across the sky. She studied the patterns of the moonlight on the distant treetops, the shifting shapes of the clouds. And smelled the bitter dust of the road, and the stench from the alley. She could hear a pair of drunken sailors laughing as they walked down a nearby street; she heard a night bird call somewhere in the distance; she heard shouting from a house just down the road. The night wind tickled her face and wrapped itself around her, and she shivered again.
The bird called again, and suddenly she recognized it, from bards' songs she had heard long ago. The kyla bird. It sang of change and of death, the deaths of heroes. And of the old making way for the new.
She tried to laugh. Just what we need. Had Stil died so that the bandits could live? The old making way for the new -- when the new threatened the kingdom? If they weren't stopped --
And then the kyla's song rose again, achingly lonely, unbearably sweet. For an instant, she could feel Stil's presence again -- and then the night wind rushed past her, and the feeling was gone. But there were words in that wind. Stil's words.
"You'll be all right. Trust me."
She could almost see his dark eyes studying her again, feel his rough hands trying to hold her body gently, sense his unease with what he was feeling. He had come to care about her, as none of the others had. Why should they care about her when she didn't care herself? She thought of how long she had been men's plaything, simply because she never resisted. And she wondered what life would expect of her now that she couldn't bring herself to go back to that. She thought again of the knife. The sorrow was almost more than she could bear.
But at the same time, it was the sweetest thing she had ever felt.