After I secured Ela to the bed with the manacles I did my best to hurriedly search the closest buildings for anything edible or useful – which wasn’t much. I was reluctant to leave her alone again but she was right about one thing, we weren’t going to make it very far without some kind of supplies and all that oaf she clobbered had on him was lice and stink. I came up with a bottle of spiced wine, some jars of honey and some sacks of animal feed – which sadly was a haul that I was overjoyed with. Even better luck, when I return to the mostly intact house I had picked out Ela was still there securely restrained. It was a hard decision which would make her complain less – starving her or feeding her some oats smeared with honey. That woman has many gifts, foremost among them is griping. I know she’s just doing it to get under my skin but knowing that doesn’t make it any less effective.
This effort is turning out to be a hundredfold times harder than I thought. I knew that Ela would be a handful, to put it mildly, but what I hadn’t counted on was everything else possible going wrong. I hate to say it, but I’m starting to now understand why Ela is so paranoid and seems to think that everyone and everything is out to get her. When you’re trying to do something that really is very simple in the overall nature of the world and yet you run into roadblock after roadblock your mind naturally starts to think that there’s some malevolent force working against you. I need to guard myself against that kind of thinking. If you’re not careful your subconsciously develop a victim mentality. It happens quietly and without warning, like all bad things. Or at least the bad things that don’t happen loudly and without warning. For once in my life I just want something to work out for me – is that too much to ask?
I slept sitting up in the corner, unlike Ela who constantly complains anytime she doesn’t have a high quality bed to sleep in (and even them sometimes too) I have no trouble falling asleep anywhere at any time. Sleep is too important to be picky about it, I don’t know what her problem is. If she’s so tired why doesn’t she just sleep? In the morning I cast my mage hand cantrip and shook her awake, I’m taking no more chances with her. At this point it wouldn’t surprise me if she sprouted fangs like a vampire and bit into my neck like an ear of corn. She has a real way wriggling out of any traps, not unlike a flying snake. Which is actually just gliding but that’s still pretty impressive for a snake if you ask me. Once she was awake and done complaining I tossed her the keys to the manacles. I kept my distance and told her to unlock herself and then move against the wall with her hands out. I was had a spell ready to blast her if she tried anything. It’s exasperating how blasé she is about this situation – I wish I could just kill her because she is seriously damaging my calm.
Once she was pressed up against the wall with her arms out flat like I said I drew my sword and moved closer – pressing it right up against the back of her neck, one little push and that would be the end of Ela. Yet still she didn’t even seem scared. Keeping my eyes up as best I could I used my free hand and my mage hand to manacle her arms behind her back again – there is no way in the Hells I’m going to get caught off guard by her again. She must still have a storage device hidden on her somewhere, nothing else makes sense, but I’ll be damned if I know here it could be. Well, I know a couple places it could be but those would preclude her from getting access to it quickly which I’ve already seen that she can do. After that procedure was completed we both stood for a moment and looked at the man she had “accidentally” waylaid yesterday. He was still alive in a sticky pool of blood but he hadn’t woken up, and odds are that at this point he never would. That could very easily have been me – that’s the kind of woman I’m dealing with here.
She talked to me like we were just two friends traveling “So, this guy was the village priest and after whatever happened here happened he decided to stick around and drink himself to death?”
“Where does the booze come from?”
I shrugged “Maybe his God sent it to him, seems like the least she could do.”
“Never thought of Adariel as much of a drinker. Did you figure out what happened here from looking around?”
“Nothing good. Let’s move.”
Keeping Ela ahead of me and on the left we crossed one of the bridges over what Ela insists is a river (it isn’t) and headed north (I think) on a trail that seemed pretty well used. I have no idea where I am or where it leads but at least I have a trail now. That’s something. No sooner had we crossed the bridge though before we spotted a dark figure lurking in small grove of trees – I think it was a pecan orchard maybe. Is it still an orchard if it’s not for fruit trees? What do you call a nut orchard? I once again Martialla begged me to unshackle her hands for what she called “the inevitable attack” but that is not going to happen.
She whined as only she can “You can’t leave me defenseless like this!”
“You’re not defenseless, you have me to protect you.”
“What if you get killed?!”
“You better wish me good luck then huh?” I called out ahead of us into the trees “Hey you, we see you, what’s your business?”
A lanky figure slouched out of the shadows chewing on a fistful of pecans (or whatever they are). He had the sad and hopeful look of a cherished pet abandoned in the woods. This would have elicited a lot more sympathy if not for his shabby appearance. He had a thin face with a scruffy unintentional beard and was overall dirty as a hog. He wore a long coat grey that looked kind of like the one Ela had been so proud of only his had been patched dozens of times and was mostly just a net of patches now. Beyond that he wore not much else, just some tattered memories of clothing – specifically telling he had no boots or shoes, his feet were a dirty scabby mess. Bare feet are a true sign of destitution.
His voice was rich and strong despite his raggedness “You don’t want to head that way. There’s bandits up that way.”
I remarked sourly “Is there a part of this county that doesn’t have bandits? That seems to be our main industry right now.”
He paused to spit out some shells “Yeah well, these are rough times, what with the war and all. Man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.”
“What about a woman?”
He shrugged “I wouldn’t know about that.”
“Where are we?”
He tapped his chest “No, me, I’m Aubesh, that’s my name.”
“I didn’t ask you for your name I asked you were we are.”
He gazed at us for a long time before answering, then poking his chin in Ela’s direction “What’s she? Your slave? Is slavery legal now?”
“She’s my prisoner. I’m a bounty hunter.”
He squinted for a moment “What kind of hunter is that? Don’t bounty mean a lot of food?”
“A bounty hunter captures fugitives or criminals for money, they call that money a bounty.”
“I don’t know.”
He eyed Ela not in the way most men do, but more like a scholar looks at an old book, as he shoved some more pecans in his mouth “Who pays you for that?”
“Various parties, religious associations and city councils, even the crown sometimes.”
“Don’t they got sheriffs and road wardens and such for that?”
“There’s a lot of bad people out there, they need all the help that they can get.”
“Hur, never heard tell of such a thing. I guess that’s what women do then when times get tough. Men come to banditry and the women hunt them down for money. I doubt that works out too good for the women most of the time. What did she do?”
“Poisoned her husband.”
He looked over at Ela “That true lady? You a criminal being brought to the religious councils and city associations for money?”
She shook her head “Of course not, I’m being kidnapped. My cousin’s husband was planning on killing her and then forcing me to marry him so I ran away. This woman here pretended to be my friend and then betrayed me to bring me back to her for a reward.”
“Hur, sounds like you got the short end of the stick either way.”
I looked across the woods “Can you tell us how to get to Alleene? Or show us the way, I can . . .”
“I was part of a choir myself. We used to travel all around singin’ for the nice people. Hymns in such. Old songs sometimes. Up north on this path is Bedshaw, that’s where the choir went last before things went sour. The bandits took that whole place over, made everybody there their slaves. They came here and killed this place when they found out about it. That way no body would tell. At first I swore revenge on their leader, said I was gonna kill him. I meant it to back then. Now I just want to survive and get out of here. Sometimes I think about killing myself.”
“Oh . . . kay I take it that means you don’t know how to get to Alleene.”
“If I knew how to get anywhere I wouldn’t be here. I tried to go south but I ran out of food and had to some back here. Can’t go north, I just told you about that. I seen you come across the bridge. You run into that crazy priest?”
“Friend of yours?”
“No, I found a cellar full of wine up on the hill, I used to trade him for food when he was sober and not crazy enough to trade. But I think it ran out. He don’t never have food anymore. I been eating these nuts but it’s not enough to stay hale. I feel like I’m dying. Something about me isn’t right on the inside, man can’t survive on nuts alone. We ain’t squirrels.”
“I don’t think you’re going to see him anymore.”
“You kill ‘im?”
“How’d you end up here not knowing where you are?”
“Our ship was attacked by pirates. We had to jump overboard.”
“So you’ve had a rough time of it too eh? I tell you what, this whole Kingdom is coming apart at the seams. I don’t ever remember it being this bad – pirates on the rivers, bandits taking over whole towns. I think it’s because there’s a woman in charge. Once the King died and they put that woman on the throne everything that was stared to coming apart. If she don’t get herself married soon we’re all going to be in trouble.”
“Yes well . . .”
“You got any food on you?”
“No, I told you we . . .”
“You must have some food on you, you look well enough. Too skinny for my taste but you don’t seem skinny in a sickly like way, like you’re dying. How about you share some food with me and I help you with your prisoner. You can’t watch her all the time by yourself. How about we search the village together for whatever there is to be searched and then we can head south. I didn’t get far because I didn’t have no food but together we can make it somewhere I reckon.”
“No thanks, we’re going to be heading north.”
His eyes turned hard “I told you you can’t go that way.”
“Thanks for the warning, but we’ll be fine.”
He took a step towards us “You must have some food, now come on and . . .”
I summoned arcane energy to my hand and held out my palm, letting him see the crackling lines of light “Stay where you are.”
He cocked his head curiously “Huh, so you a witch huh? I guess maybe you might be a booty hunter then, using your hexes to catch dangerous ladies what off their old men. Maybe I can help you and then you give me a little of the booty.”
“I don’t need your help.”
His mouth was a tight line “I’m trying to be polite woman. The fact is that I need food or some money and you have it, just let me help you and then there won’t need to be any trouble. I don’t want there to be no trouble less there has to be.”
I released the energy, five glowing bolts of force flew faster and more accurately than any arrow and slammed into his chest. It’s a simple spell, one of the first true spells taught to young mages. That spell has taken probably tens of thousands of lives over the years, and in doing so it has spared the lives of many whose hands are too weak to hold a sword or shield. Such a simple thing, a few words and a gesture and someone is dead. It’s almost too easy. It shouldn’t be that easy. He collapsed like a damp gunnysack and didn’t move. He’d never move again. So easy.
Ela whistled “Wow, that was cold blooded.”
“Why do you say that?”
“You could have just put him to sleep, instead you murdered a starving wretch.”
“You’re just trying to get at me Ela, it won’t work.”
The fact is it never crossed my mind to use the sleep spell – too risky. It doesn’t always work, and then where am I? In a fight, and anything can happen in a fight, doesn’t matter who you are. Besides, if I put him to sleep what happens then? Then I have to worry about him following us, trailing us and waiting for a chance to attack us. Too risky. Easier just to kill him. Easier all around. I cannot wait until I get Ela back to the manor and this is all over and I won’t have to think like that anymore. Not ever.