A Big Shiny Blue Marble Ch. 04byTaLtos6©
***I suppose that I ought to mention that there are several parts to this, and they're widely separated in geographical terms -- though there is interaction between them. The heads up -- to avoid confusion is that I tell you what you're looking at right after my notes to you, the reader. So that's what's happening here; we're leaving the group on the mountain for a little while as I introduce Selena -- a slightly troubled young woman struggling to stay alive in a shady business, though she'd tell you that it has its moments. 0_o
Book of the Merren Part 1
Selena sat at the bar of the inn feeling the slight tension that comes when one trusts no one and is in a place where anything could happen and likely does on an almost regular basis. She knew that she was being given the once-over time and time again by most of the rough-looking males who might give a thought to getting lucky as they sat in boisterous groups at the tables of the inn's common room.
Which was to say almost everyone in the place, she thought.
All of that was fine, she supposed, but her interest only extended to the members of one particular group of them, and what she had in mind didn't involve pleasure on their part.
She looked around a little furtively at the rough human and half-goblin men in the place. A lot of them were obviously thinking of trying their luck and were considering which approach might work. Selena found the thought a little absurd, since the majority of them weren't sharp enough to be able to have more than possibly two, neither one of which included an offer of dinner, and likely only one involved a question.
And of course, the stable smelled better.
She was also aware that there were others watching her as well. The barman wasn't looking all that friendly, since if anyone was actually successful in an attempt to pick her up, all the barman could expect to gain from it was the rental of one of his rooms instead of getting a cut from one of the wenches and the room fee into the bargain. He couldn't even be sure that she'd want a room at all for it. She might have her own place but he didn't think so. He hadn't seen her here before and wondered a little why -- if she were here to pick up a john -- she was still wearing that long dark cloak.
Selena wanted to smirk, but held her face to a very slightly interested expression. The men and the barman weren't the only ones looking, and the men didn't count for the moment. Their interest was at least understandable at first glance. The barman wasn't pleased, and for the wrong reason, since he was making the assumption that she was here to freelance. The bar wenches held the same assumption, thought they were a little more of a problem, some of them being more inclined to take matters into their own hands with regard to discouraging the competition that they saw in Selena.
She supposed that it was a little tough to make a living here as a female if you didn't have a marketable skill that was wanted and you had no man to protect you -- if you needed protection.
The place obviously was just a drinking hole masquerading as an inn.
An inn on the edge of a rough and tumble settlement with the equivalency of a pimple on the ass-cheek of the world, she thought.
She wasn't terribly concerned. The first thing that she'd done when she'd walked in and chosen her place at the bar was to cast her eye around the room to make sure that the ones that she was after were here in the crowd. The second thing was the slow and purposeful way that she'd gotten herself seated.
She hadn't been obvious about it, but she'd pulled back on her long cloak just enough to allow a little freedom of movement as she sat herself down. Really, it had also given her the chance to show a little of her long thighs and the high boots below them. This had the unwanted side-effect of annoying the real whores in the place.
But it was the third thing that she'd done then which had given them all pause and it was done to keep all but the boldest -- or the most drunkenly foolish -- away from her for a little while because she wanted them to make up their dim minds before she started anything.
She'd pulled out a long and cruel-looking dagger and laid it on the bar in front of her. It was working, obviously, since no one had tried to sit down on the stools to either side of her.
There were rough rules to this game.
They had to have been given the barest sort of warning, and that was what the dagger was for, so that they'd be able to catch the hint that this was five feet four inches, and one hundred twenty pounds of fireball and not just a slick fake-out girl playing the game.
She'd gotten her first pint and it was gone now, finding its calling in washing a little of the blowing frozen dust from the cold streets here down. She'd been through here before long ago in winter and it never seemed to snow much. The horse's hooves dislodged some of the frozen dirt and the wind just blew that around.
Conveniently, the oldest-looking and most porcine of the wenches walked over to take her order.
She indicated the barman with a toss of her chins, "Jack there keeps girls here for what you're thinking of trying," she said, looking Selena over dismissively, "The men here like a girl with a bit of meat to her, you see."
"You're confused about a few things," Selena replied quietly, knowing now that she was addressing one of the part-timers at least, "The men here, as mostly anywhere, like a girl period, though a lot of these ones here would take a sow if she was all there was handy and she knew how to hold still, when to squeal and when not to. I'm not here for that. I'd like another pint of the dark ale, if you please."
Selena noted that her reply was going to need a little time to sink in to the wench's brain, so she waited.
"Pay first," the sullen wench said, and then she looked startled as she found the coins in her palm before she'd really gotten it open. She sniffed and turned away.
Selena watched as the barmaids gathered at the taps to discuss what had transpired. Apparently, unescorted females were a rarity in here and the only plausible reason that came to their minds was freelancing. Somewhere just after the pour, the large woman turned her back to Selena for a moment before walking back around the front of the bar this time. The movement was intended to be covert, but the rogue caught it.
"Here ye be," the barmaid said with a more friendly expression as she set the mug down on the bar. Selena placed another pair of coins next to the mug.
"What's this for?" the woman asked, "You've already paid."
"I want another," Selena smiled, "but this time, I want it without the Death's Horn juice in the tankard."
A statement like that carried severe repercussions in these out of the way places. Selena knew this and was aware of the response that she'd likely get from the wench. A customer who suspected an attempt at poisoning him or her was well within their rights to ask that the server drink some of the suspect liquid.
As the wench began to deny it loudly, she gasped and froze in place from the pressure of the other dagger that Selena now held to her ribcage on the side away from most of the room and under the edge of the bar on the other.
"Let's just consider it as a tip from me for the fine service," Selena smiled, "Since it's not poisoned, as you said, I think you ought to have some -- and I'm not asking."
She pressed the point a little more so that the other woman could barely breathe. The tip was already through her clothing and against her flesh.
"Anyway," the rogue said as she smiled downward between them, "You know that Death's Horn is only effective well under a quarter of the time. You have to be allergic to it to be in danger. Since I saw that you squeezed the fruit to put it in and your hand hasn't reacted, you ought to be fine. I'm only insisting so that you won't try anything like this again. It might make you a little sick, but I doubt it."
"Then I won't drink it," the barwench hissed, the sweat on her face showing her fear.
A few things happened during the space of time between when Selena set her dagger down and the time that she set the half-full tankard back onto the bar. She'd managed to lift the tankard, punch the wench in the solar plexus lightly to cause the woman to gasp, and toss a surprising amount of the contents into her open mouth. Her hand on the whore's throat assured that she'd swallow and she did before the coughing began. Selena stood back with an angelic expression as the woman choked and sputtered, her dress now wearing some ale as well.
Even dark ale only shows as wetness on cloth when it is spilled. Though it's clear when it comes out of the berry, Death's Horn juice is a blood red at lethal concentrations in the presence of water and the dress showed this plainly.
Still, the barmaid caused something of a scene as she alternated between struggling for breath and her attempts at shoving her fingers into her throat so that she'd vomit. One action seemed to preclude her performing the other. It attracted the owner, who'd been talking to the barman.
"When she catches her breath, she'll likely try to tell you that I poisoned her," Selena said, "which is not correct. I only insisted that she taste some of the ale that she brought me. I watched her put Death's Horn in it. You can try it yourself," she smiled, "but I don't think that you ought to. The stuff is deadly."
"You -- y- ou said that it only, ... works a quarter of the , ... time," the barmaid said from where she knelt on the floor, still trying to cause herself to vomit it out.
"You told me that there was none in it," Selena smiled with a shrug, "so we both lied."
The woman was helped to her feet by the others and led away.
"How long before it takes effect?" the innkeeper asked as he watched, and Selena looked at him.
"I wouldn't know, since I don't know how many berries she squeezed into it, do I? But it did show red, so that's not good. Why do you care? Just get me another pint, if you can manage it without trying to poison the customers."
"She's my sister --in-law," he said a little vacantly as the commotion died down and everyone went back to their tables. He drifted back to the taps and poured another tankard looking from the hallway to the back and then to Selena.
When he set it down in front of Selena, she said, "If she grows very quiet inside of an hour and won't answer when she's spoken to, and if she really starts to sweat and the veins in her neck stand out enough so that you can see her heartbeat clearly from across the room, then you'll know. If the whites of her eyes turn red with blood, then I'd say that it won't be long and you're welcome.
If I were you, I'd look for more of the fruit in her apron pocket. It's about the size of a cherry, but it's bright green and a little furry. Don't squeeze it if it's there, and don't forget my coins here."
Selena saw that he was trying to keep his face as sombre as possible. Still, she saw what she thought was just the smallest hint of a smile there. "My thanks," he whispered as he picked up the coppers. He went to retrieve the first tankard, but Selena shook her head.
"Just leave it there, friend," she smiled, "and maybe wait a few weeks before you use any berries that you find on your wife if she's anything much like her sister. All of the signs disappear about an hour after death. That's why it's used so much."
Selena sat nursing her drink a while longer, waiting for what she knew was bound to happen, sooner or later. And of course, there were other things that would happen anyway.
It was about time for the barman to state his position, she thought. She looked at him and raised her chin just a little to indicate that she wanted another drink. He stopped wiping the bar and began to make his way over to Selena. He'd been wiping the same spot on the bar for the past fifteen minutes.
"Yeah?" he asked sullenly, "What d'yer want?"
"Well what I'd LIKE," she began, looking at him through her long, almost black bangs, "is another pint of dark. But if you can't manage to at least look as though you're a little friendly to customers, then what I'll WANT is to loosen the few teeth that you've got left for you. You don't know me from anyone, but I'm someone who gets what she wants more often than not, and I'm feeling just a little put out that I came in here, and one of the whores tries to poison me within the first half-hour. I hadn't done anything to anyone -- at least not before that."
Selena set a pair of coppers down on the bar and drew her hand back. "Now can we start over? I'll have a pint of dark, please."
"Yer coins are no good here, "he rumbled, "the innkeeper says I'm to give you whatever you want for free. But I will take the tip."
This wasn't even a stretch, Selena thought as she watched his eyes. Sure enough, she saw him glance quickly at her dagger as he began to reach for the money.
Before his attempt to grab the haft of it had really gotten underway, Selena seized it and drew it a bit farther back, rotating the blade ninety degrees.
Instead of slamming his hand on the grip, his open palm landed on the edge of the blade as his fingers began to close around it. The barman drew his breath in sharply from the pain.
"At least now you'll have a need for a fresh rag," Selena smiled as she picked up her coins and put them in his apron pocket. "Go wrap your hand and bring me that dark right afterward. You try something stupid like that again, and this'll be in your guts even quicker that it cut your hand."
It took him a few minutes, but Selena watched as he poured her ale and set it down in front of her, bandaged hand and all.
"I'm not here to sell myself," she said, "no matter what you might think. I'm here for a drink and then I'll be on my way."
"Then do it and be gone," the barman growled as he turned to walk away.
Selena looked as though his remark hadn't bothered her at all though it did, and not for the usual reason. All of the commotion had upset things and there would be some time needed for them to settle down again. It was something which Selena didn't have much of. She could see that everyone had gone back to their tables, but it was quite obvious that they were giving her some very cautious and thoughtful looks now. She hadn't intended to be here even this long, and now it would take even longer -- unless one of these dolts grew some boldness in the next little while.
She needed for just one to grow a little brass and hit on her hard so she could gut him in broad daylight. That one bounty would pay for the trip. With luck, another one or maybe two would spring to his defense and join him on the floor. It was shitty work, but it offered a thrill and it was better than looking at your own knees in front of the backdrop of whatever might be on the ceiling while some slob fucked you as a way to make a living.
She doubted that it would happen now, not since they'd all seen that the dark-haired girl who'd wandered in was quite obviously handy with a blade. Some of them were already pretty drunk, but she knew that even so, it would take a few more drinks to make the details of what they'd seen fuzzy enough for them to grow a little stupid courage.
Selena looked out of the window into the late-afternoon sunlight and she wanted to curse. Not many would see it or even have the eyes to, but she could see the smudge out there a good way off. Not more than about a third of the way down the snow-covered mountainside from the top of it, and appearing more like a dark speck than what he was, she could see him come.
It changed everything, though Selena knew that it had to happen. This was the reason that she'd wanted to be in and gone from here before this.
Well it was too late for that now, she thought, unless she just settled for her own hasty exit and she knew that if she tried it, that was when she'd be faced with all of the hopefuls who 'd been leering at her ass from behind their mugs for an hour. They'd all see her leave and decide that it was now or never. And right out in the stables among the horses was a piss-poor place for a knife fight.
She knew that she still had a little time to think. She decided to head for the almost deserted table in the far corner, but the timing of it had to be right. As soon as she got up and walked there, the stupid hopeful mating attempts would begin, and Selena wanted the chance to maybe turn this to her benefit.
She looked out through the window again.
He was a lot closer.
You could only see it if you knew what you were looking for, but she knew. She settled in to watch him and she saw it as he walked for a time, the way he just appeared in a place a little closer every so often. It was as though she'd held her eyelids closed for a minute or two instead of blinking.
She even knew the other reason that he was coming.
She wondered about it. What would someone like him need with any of the modes of human transport? For that matter, why did he bother with walking at all?
He disappeared from sight for a few minutes as he crossed the lower plain between the mountain and the little sandy plain plateau that the town sat on,. When he came into view however, he was a lot closer and her eye was able to take in some details.
She'd seen him before, now and then, and for some reason that she could never come to any answer for, he took her breath away the first time that she saw him well enough for it every time. After that first look, she was fine, but it always surprised her how he could get to her on some strange level. She'd seen him a few months ago and it had happened that time too, but the strange effect was back the first time that she'd laid eyes on him the very next day. She had no explanation for it and that was why it distracted her so much.
Every damned time.
It sounded like trite horseshit to her own ears to say it, but she guessed that there was no denying the truth. There was something about him. She had no idea what it was or might be, but it was there all the same and it made Selena uncomfortable since she could never nail it down.
The next time that she saw him, he was only about two hundred yards off, still walking.
He always looked the same to her, maybe in his late twenties, tall and muscled, though she'd never seen much of his body. It was always covered in leather armor, about the only metal on it was what was needed to pin it together on him so that it would follow the motions of his body, though she knew that there had to be something more than just the leather padding over those shoulders.
Selena would have bet money that there must be spaulders there with some sort of row of short metal spikes on those pads because she'd seen for herself how it could catch the blade of an opponent's sword just long enough to give him the split-second to get one of his own blades in.
She didn't know it for certain, since she'd never seen those spikes. They were always under the dark wolf's pelt that was a part of the equally dark cloak he wore wrapped around his shoulders. His arms were covered in leather and he wore bracers on his forearms which ended where his gloves began.
When he'd taken those gloves off was when she'd seen the only other parts of his skin besides some of his face.
Selena was slipping through a forest, on her way back from a manor house with a small bundle of jewellery that she'd stolen for a fee. It was something that she didn't ordinarily do. Oh, she stole things quite often for a fee, she just didn't try to make the first part of her exit through forests at night. On her way to where her horse was tied, she'd seen a clearing.
To her surprise, she saw him with a small girl, sharing food by a fire. The scene was so unusual for Selena that she'd stopped to look for a few moments. She watched him put her to bed in his bedroll and then come back to sit by the fire. From the way that he pulled up the cloak against the night air, she knew that he'd be sitting there the whole night. By that time, Selena was already moving away in the darkness and wondering. She'd seen them together at two other times, the strange warrior and the young girl that he'd adopted, so the story went, anyway. The only other times that she'd caught a glimpse of him, he was alone.