Exile's Road: One

The sound of thunder rumbled off in the distance as a man's voice muttered, "Hope we don't get more rain."

The woman chuckled to herself quietly, wiping the bar off with a damp rag. There was a storm coming, she could feel it in her bones. In theory Midori was just the bouncer of this city tavern, but on relatively slow nights like this she didn't mind pitching in wherever she could. The 'Drunken Bard' was an older establishment down near the docks, occasionally home to a rougher sort of customer. So here she was.

Midori adjusted her leather vest, the heavy black wool of the shirt beneath laying smoothly over her muscles. Beside the tall black haired woman a heavy oaken staff stood, her primary weapon in the regular bar fights that broke out here. It had been a brawl that had gotten the attention of the Master of the bar, an old ex-fighter much like herself, and he offered her the bouncer job in exchange for room and board.

Moving away from the bar Midori stalked across the roughly built wooden floor, watching the drinkers at their tables around the room and sitting in the darker corners of the bar. A few working girls also lingered, but Midori let them be for now. Occasionally one such girl would start something between two men, but it was a rare thing and most of the time they weren't too much trouble.

Over on a small stage the bard played, soft music lingering in the musty air. There was always a magician at the 'Drunken Bard' by ancient tradition, one that the Bardic schools helped maintain by sending their delinquent students as punishment. "Ho, Nat'anel," Midori smiled.

"Nathaniel," he corrected her with a impish smile, "oh outlander dog." Nathaniel was more delinquent than most, the redheaded young man having been down here more than a few times. They had developed a teasing relationship, being friends at a studied distance.

"This from the man who's never left the country," Midori shot back with a wry smile as she moved off. She was clearly an outlander here, her skin a paler shade than the people of this southern kingdom. It had been many years since she had been home but she was marked in her very skin and bones by her homeland.

"Hey Midori," the bartender smiled as she swung back to the bar. His gray hair was short, thinning at the top, but his arms still bulged with muscles. He leaned over, offering a smile as he said, "Looking for something to do?"

"A quiet night, Garrison," Midori agreed with a sigh, leaning her staff up beside her. She offered a smile, "Shall I clear some tables or something?"

Garrison barked a laugh, "Just having you here stops fights, Midori. You don't need to do much more than look menacing."

Midori snickered softly. "It's not like you haven't been in your share of brawls," she reminded him with a smile.

In fact Garrison had joined in that first brawl that she had been in here, when a guard has mistaken a waitress for one of the working girls. The guard had been insulted when she turned him down and decided to force the issue. His buddies took exception to Midori intervening and Garrison pitched in to support her. A few wrecked tables later and he was offering her a job.

Garrison turned away, pulling a beer from one of the good kegs against the wall. "Here," he pushed it over to her, "go sit down and take a break." He flashed a sudden smile and added, "Lady Jane was asking about you again."

"Oh?" Midori kept her voice casual.

Garrison snickered, "You can pretend all you want, but I know that you're interested." He dropped his voice to a whisper, "It's rare for a noblewoman to come to a dive like this, she must be looking for something. Or someone."

"You're just looking for some news, you old gossip," Midori smiled, moving down the bar a bit to have her drink.

Lady Jane was something of a puzzle, honestly, and Midori didn't like puzzles much. The blonde had appeared at the bar a few weeks ago, accompanied by a young man who's stance clearly said he was a bodyguard. They had sat down at a corner table, ordered one of the most expensive drinks in the house, then left as quietly as they came leaving only the name Jane. She only seemed to appear on days that Midori was working, and she often felt the woman's eyes on her.

The doors swung open and Midori looked up, her eyes narrowing slightly. 'Soldiers,' she thought, finishing off her drink with a smooth draught. The men in chainmail armor, helms and royal insignia strode arrogantly towards the bar, made their orders and then moved right to a table that was occupied by one of the regulars.

"Move aside," the leader of the soldiers barked at the man.

"There's other tables," Midori called out to them, keeping her voice casually.

The leader of the guards look up, brown hair falling into his eyes as he sneered, "But we want this one, bitch!"

Midori throttled down a flash of anger, looking over to Garrison for a cue how to react. The master of the bar was clearly angry, but he was holding his tongue for now. "There's no need for any unpleasantness," Midori kept her voice perfectly level even as she grabbed for her oaken staff, "you can easily take another table, boys."

The leader swayed a bit, one of the other two steadying him and Midori realized that he had already been drinking before coming into the bar and probably quite a lot. As were all his fellows, there was little hope of someone trying to bring the others into line. Midori pushed off from the bar, quickly striding towards the angry group.

"Move aside, drunkard," the solder grabbed at the frightened man sitting at the table. moving to toss him away by force. "Oww!" he yelped. the staff smacking down on the back of his hand, making him release the man who promptly scurried away.

Midori felt the men's glares on her even as the other customers all scampered for cover as fast as they could. "You're welcome to insult me," Midori said to the soldiers quite calmly, "but manhandling the customers is a bit much."

There was a hiss of steel as the leader drew his sword, "We're Queen's guard, you've got no right to tell us what to do...."

The two other armed men hesitated and Midori seized the moment, meeting the leader's downward sword stroke easily with her staff. He looked stunned as the oak stood up to his blade, then his shock shifted to a pained expression as she kneed him somewhere very delicate. With a squeak he dropped, Midori pulling the sword away as he went down.

"Next?" Midori dropped her voice to a dangerous purr.

"Ahh!" the man bellowed angrily, swinging with a bit more skill than his leader. Midori turned the strike aside rather than meet it head long, using the boy's own motion to create the opening she needed. Off balance she slammed the staff down onto his helmeted head, ringing the steel like a bell and sending him crashing to the ground.

From behind her Midori heard the sound of breaking wood. She whirled around with staff ready, blinking in honest surprise as she saw the noblewoman holding what was left of one of one of the chairs. At her feet the third guard lay, the rest of the chair scattered around him.

"My apologies," Lady Jane dropped the chair pieces, her blonde hair falling around her delicate features, "but he was trying to attack you from behind."

"My thanks," Midori blinked, receiving a graceful nod of the head as the blonde turned around and walked back to where her bodyguard sat. By the look on his face he was rather wrathful with his mistress and intended to let her know.

"Wonder how much trouble these three are going to be?" Garrison asked, coming around from behind the bar and looking down at the three men.

"Dunno," Midori sighed, pushing her black hair back tiredly. She frowned, "You think they're really Queen's guards?"

"Wouldn't surprise me," Garrison shrugged, "they've been recruiting a lot since the King died and his sister took the throne."

Midori made a face, "Damn." She thought a moment, "Better send a runner over to the barracks, let them know about this."

"Eh?" Garrison looked at her in surprise.

"They're going to find out eventually," Midori shrugged slightly, "better from our mouths than these three gutter trash." She studied the unconscious men for a moment, "If they do try to make trouble over this, blame it on your outlander bouncer."

"If you are calling the guards," Lady Jane's refined voice had a bit of tension in it as she and her bodyguard made for the door, "I must go."

'Isn't that interesting,' Midori noted. Obviously the lady was slumming, and more importantly she didn't want anyone to know about it. She would have liked to think about it some more, but Nathaniel had made his way towards them.

"If they do cause trouble," Nathaniel was scowling at the soldiers, "I'll gladly speak in your favor. The word of a bard is very good in court." He got a thoughtful look on his face, "In fact, I think I feel inspired for a ballad."

"Oh?" Midori looked dangerous.

"The Ballad of Magnificent Midori," Nathaniel said grandly.

"Try it and die, bard," Midori growled out.

Garrison chuckled softly. "I'll send one of the dishwashers with the message to the guards," he said as he went to get the boy, "but I won't be placing the blame on you."

"Man has no sense of self-preservation," Midori shook her head, "these Queen's guards could make serious trouble for him if he doesn't sacrifice someone."

"He's loyal to his friends," Nathaniel said dryly, "a quality I notice you two share." With that the bard went to collect his harp, wrapping it carefully before settling down to wait.

The runner returned not long after with an officer and several of his soldiers in tow. Midori looked him over, realizing that this was a real combat soldier, not just a nobleman in uniform. More importantly he seemed to tag her as a fighter almost as soon as he entered that bar, meeting her measuring glance with one of his own.

"My name is Commander Hudson," the older man looked down at the three out cold soldiers then up with a piercing look, "what happened here?"

"These three tried to harm a customer," Midori said simply, "and drew steel on me when I stopped them. I decided they'd be better sleeping it off."

Hudson's lips teased upward in a small smile, "I see."

Nathaniel stood nearby, shaking her head. "The lady has no poetry in her soul, none at all," he sighed. With that he launched into a blow by blow account of the incident, also making Midori seem like some kind of great hero. He even rhymed it in parts like some old ballad.

'Hells, I hope that he wasn't serious about that damn ballad,' Midori thought glumly.

Hudson listened to Nathaniel attentively, his lips pulling up in a slight smile. When the boy finished he turned to Garrison and half bowed, "I apologize to you, Master, and to your establishment. This shouldn't have happened."

"Aye, well," Garrison looked uncomfortable.

"And thank you," Hudson turned to Midori, his expression thoughtful, "for not killing these fools. I suspect you could have, if needed."

"I don't kill," Midori said firmly, "not any more."

"Of course," Hudson nodded. He instructed his men to collect the unconscious soldiers and they left, the older man tossing Midori a final glance before he left.

To be continued....