Chapter One : The Stranger

She stood at the top of the hill and peered gently down from its snow-covered top. The valley stretched out below her, like a white cat stretching in the pale winter moonlight. Above it, she could see the night sky, a vast blanket of black studded with gemstone stars and stained, here and there, with the wispy outlines of clouds.

It was on nights like this that she enjoyed travelling on foot the most that she could forget the dull ache in her feet and the tiredness that clung to her almost as tightly as her thick travelling cloak. A sharp, icy wind rustled past and she shivered as what might, in other circumstances have been called a blush, settled onto her cheeks.

Not too far off she could make out the faint lights of a town, two, maybe three hours away. Just the thought of it made her smile. Although winter had always been her favourite season, it had been a while since she'd slept in a warm, soft bed, or had a nice, hot meal. Tonight, she thought as she shouldered her pack and began to amble down the hill, she'd change that.

All up, it took her a little over two hours to reach the town and she ran an appraising eye over it as she stood at the town gates behind a number of merchants and travellers, all of them eager to find their way inside. It wasn't all that much to look at. Everything, the thick wall that snaked around it, the low, wide buildings, all of them were built of the same drab grey stone that was so common in the area. Amidst the crisp white snow it looked, she suspected, not unlike a dirty snowball.

Finally the guards made their way over to her. There were two of them, dressed in the thick cloaks and heavy armour of the southern lands.

"Purpose of visit?" One of them murmured, barely audible above the swift wind that had kicked up, bringing with it fresh snow and the promise of more to come.

"Shelter," she said simply as she adjusted the pack to sit more comfortable on her back. "Food and warmth."

When the guard waved her through she gave him a brief inclination of her head and moved past him into the town itself. For a moment she struggled to get her bearings, everything just looked so similar, so grey.

"You looking for a place to stay?" The voice came from behind her and she turned to find herself looking at a lean, fit looking man. "I've travelled around here a fair bit," he explained. "So I know where all the inns are, just follow me."

"Thank you."

He limped, she noticed, as they walked along together. It was easy enough to see, or for that matter to hear, because every now and then he'd wince and she'd hear his injured right foot scrape awkwardly through the snow. A broken ankle probably, which was in the process of healing.

"Are you all right?" She asked as they stopped in front of a tall, stocky building, the colour of ash. "You seem to be limping."

The man chuckled and smiled, though it didn't quite reach his eyes. "I'm fine, besides, now that I'm off the road it'll be better in no time."

She nodded, and looked at him more closely. At first she hadn't noticed it concerned as she had been about his awkward gait, but the lumpy shape beneath his cloak was a musical instrument, something with strings, the name of which she couldn't remember.

"You're a bard?"

He looked delighted to be recognised for what he was and he nodded enthusiastically. "You're sharp, you know that?" He grinned, a real grin and extended a hand. "I'm Balivan."

"Alshana," she said as she shook his hand. He had strong fingers, she thought, long and lean with a gentle but firm strength, a musician's hand.

"Well, Alshana," he said as he pointed to the doors in front of them. "This here is the best inn in town, the prices are low, the rooms good, and the food warm. Besides," he tapped the money pouch at his waist. "I'm in need of further funds and winter's as fine a time as any for a bard to spin a tale."

That said he pushed the doors open and they both stepped inside. Momentarily surprised, she blinked. As drab and lifeless as it seemed on the outside, the inn's interior was the complete opposite. Just across from her she could see a long bar where several people sat served by a slightly portly, but obviously jovial barkeeper. On her right was a large eating area, with tables and chairs, arranged around a slightly upraised circular platform, a performance area, she guessed.

"If you want a room," Balivan advised as he began to walk towards the performance area. "Speak to the barkeeper, he's actually the inn's owner, though," and he grinned that same, almost childish grin again. "You'd never know it by the way he acts."

"Thanks, again," she said as she waved him off and walked over to the bar and took a seat on one of the stools, her pack propped against the bar.

While the barkeeper tended to another customer she let the hood of her travelling cloak fall from her face. It was nice to be somewhere warm, with other people about and with the ambience of conversation, even if it wasn't her own, around her.

"So," the barkeeper asked as he looked at her over the mug he was cleaning. "What'll you be having?"

She blinked, taken aback by the warmth in his tone. "What would you recommend?"

He cocked an eyebrow at her request and chuckled heartily. "You're not from around here are you?" When she shook her head he laughed again. "Because none of my regulars would ever ask something like that."

A nearby group of men, local soldiers by the looks of it raised their ale filled mugs and flashed her what they probably hoped her winning smiles. Despite herself she laughed and turned back to the barkeeper.

"But seeing as how you're not from around here, I think I can oblige you." He pointed behind him, to a kitchen, which seemed to be the source of a gentle, but most decidedly delicious aroma. "My wife cooks makes the best soup you can get around here. On a cold night like this, I'd recommend that and some warm bread over just about anything."

"I'll have that then," she said with a smile as she reached down for her money pouch.

The barkeeper chuckled and shook his head. "Don't worry about paying for your meal until you get it, just take a seat." He looked past her. "Well look at that, it seems like that friend of yours is about to get started."

She turned, and sure enough she could see Balivan sitting on the upraised section of the floor the instrument in his lap, about to begin. It would be nice to go over and listen to him but first she had to wait for her meal.

As if sensing her unease the barkeeper put a big hand on her shoulder. "Just head on over there, he looks pretty good to me. I'll have one of the barmaids bring your food over when it's ready."

Quietly she murmured her thanks and made her way over to the performance area, her pack slung over one shoulder. As Balivan began to sing she closed her eyes. He had a pleasant voice, not the best that she had ever heard, but still, very pleasant indeed. It was an old folk song, about the legendary kings of ancient times.

Some time later though she became aware of a different sound, one that she heard over the polite murmurings in the audience and the almost rhythmic pounding of the wind against the building. Slowly she opened one eye and found a number of men on their feet. It was obvious that they were drunk, and she frowned, hopefully they'd just go off and mind their own business, if not, well, she'd never been one to suffer fools.

"You cheated," one of the men shouted suddenly as he grabbed one of the others by his tunic. "Dirty, cheating scum."

"Please, gentlemen, calm down," It was one of the barmaids, a small slip of a girl who couldn't have been more than sixteen. "There's no need to fight."

"Damn you girl," another of the men growled, his eyes dancing with drunken anger. "Stay out of this." He lashed out with one heavy hand and the girl crashed to the ground, and clutched her rapidly reddening cheek.

"Shut up," the man snarled as the barmaid began to sob. "Just stop your crying, girl." He raised his hand again, only this time he never got a chance to swing it.

While the rest of the patrons had sat frozen in shock at their tables, Alshana had moved. Striking another drunk was one thing, for all that she knew, maybe the man had cheated at whatever game of chance they were playing, but striking the barmaid was another matter all together. That she couldn't tolerate.

The man's mouth opened in a silent gasp as her fist drove right into his solar plexus. She hadn't put very much weight into the blow at all, but he was plenty drunk and had probably had too much to eat beside. He collapsed to the ground, gagging and gasping for air.

"Are you all right," she asked the barmaid as she helped the other woman to her feet.

"My cheek," the barmaid murmured. "It hurts."

Carefully she knelt by the other woman and pulled her hand away from her face. The cheek was a deep red, and it would probably soon darken into an ugly purple bruise. Just to be sure she probed lightly at it. Good she thought, at least the blow had done more than bruise, a broken cheekbone would have been far less pleasant to fix. Suddenly the barmaid's eyes went wide and she felt, more than saw, something rush towards her from behind.

Instinctively she rolled to one side just as a chair smashed into the ground where she'd been just a moment ago. As she got to her feet she eyed the three remaining drunks warily. They no longer looked angry with each other, instead they looked angry at her. More to the point all of them had weapons, two had daggers, each about the length of her forearm while the third had picked up another chair.

As the first of them moved towards her she let her awareness of the room fall away until all she could see were the three drunks. Nothing else was important. Distantly she heard the bartender shout out a warning.

"Hey, you drunks! Put those damn things away!"

The first one came at her with the chair and she ducked beneath the crude swing. As the man struggled to bring it around for another swing she kneed him in the stomach and brought an elbow down on the back of his head as he doubled over. He dropped to the ground and lay still, unconscious.

Swish!

She dodged nimbly to the side as a dagger sailed through the air just beside her. Without another thought she caught the drunk's wrist and twisted, he screamed as the joint first locked then threatened to break before she stripped the knife out of his hand. Startled by the loss of his weapon she struck him cleanly on the temple with the dagger's hilt and he went down too.

"Damn you!"

The dagger was out of the last drunk's hand before he even saw her hand move and he was suddenly face to face with her, twin orbs of violet boring into his eyes. Involuntarily he swallowed, only to realise that her dagger was pressed flush against his throat.

"Get your friends," she whispered softly as she let the dagger move just a fraction. "Say sorry to the girl, and get out."

Slowly the man nodded and staggered away, leaving his friends to languish on the floor. She shook her head, there was nothing worse than a violent drunk, and placed the dagger on a nearby table. When neither of the other men moved she prodded the nearest in the stomach with her boot. He groaned and tried to roll over but couldn't seem to manage it.

"Don't worry about him," the barkeeper said as he stepped out from behind the bar. He moved swiftly over to the fallen men along with two of his 'regulars' and they grasped one man each. "We can dump them in a storeroom out the back, then when they come to we can throw them out properly." He grinned.

She gave him a grateful smile and turned back to the barmaid. The bruise had darkened in the few moments that she'd been occupied with the drunks and was now an angry purple.

"Here," she said as she moved the barmaid's hands away from the bruise. "Let me deal with that."

"Oh…" the barmaid gasped as a sensation, not altogether unpleasant coursed through her cheek, like liquid warmth. "What are you doing?"

Alshana didn't answer instead she pressed one hand more firmly against the bruise. Unseen to most of the other patrons of the inn was the faint white glow that danced between her hand and the barmaid's face. It was the shimmer of magic, and she closed her eyes as she envisioned the wounded flesh, saw the burst blood vessels and let her magic branch out and mend the damage.

A minute later she pulled away and the barmaid put her hand to her face and let out a startled cry.

"The bruise," she cried happily. "It's gone." She leaned forward and hugged the other woman tightly. "Thank you so much."

"It's no trouble," Alshana replied as moved to return to her seat. Casually she slanted a curious look at the bard. "Are you going to continue?"

Balivan looked startled for a moment then he grinned. "You, Alshana are by far the most composed person that I have ever met. But let us continue," he added, once more using the more expressive voice of a performer, "With the ballad of Luthariel, the Princess of Swords."

She had just finished her meal, brought to her by the grateful barmaid, when the merchant drew took a seat opposite to her at the table. All things considered she wouldn't usually have given him a chance to speak. It wasn't out of rudeness of course, on the road it was always wise to be polite, but she had business to attend to further south and she wanted to be well rested before she set out the next morning. However the meal had been wonderful, with some of the best soup she'd ever had, and the bard had started on one of her favourite songs, so she had little inclination to move.

"I trust you enjoyed your meal," the merchant said, his voice smooth with the confidence of a seasoned trader. "The soup here is always excellent."

She met his eyes across the table and spoke. "Speak plainly, merchant, about what it is you want."

The merchant gave a good-natured chuckle. "I see you have dealt with my kind before." From a small pouch inside the folds of his voluminous blue merchant's robes her withdrew a small gemstone and pushed it across the table to her.

She caught the gem easily and lifted it up to the light. Instantly she recognised it, a mana crystal, a gem capable of capturing and storing magical energy. Very rare, and very, very valuable, especially down south where mages where few and far between, and often over worked.

"I run a trading caravan," the merchant said as he took the stone from her. "Recently I was able to acquire a number of such stones. Of course I hired a group of soldiers immediately to see to their protection." He paused. "However with the weather being as cold as it has been, several of them, a healer included, have taken ill."

"And you would like me to join your caravan?" The connection was obvious. She shook her head. "I'm sorry, but I have business elsewhere."

The merchant raised his hands off the table. "Please, reconsider. The journey is not far. I intend to sell the stones in Virinion, but a few days south of this town. Besides," he added. "I can certainly make the trip worth your while."

On the outside she kept her face schooled into an expression of contemplation. On the inside though, she'd already decided. The business she had to attend to was in Virinion. With the weather likely to get worse, the prospect of travelling as part of a caravan was very appealing. And there was, of course, the matter of the money. The almost non-existent weight of her money pouch at her waist settled things.

"How much," she asked at last.

"Ten silver pieces," the merchant said.

"Twenty." Her reply was crisp and swiftly delivered. Her father had been a merchant and she could smell a rotten deal a mile away.

"Fifteen," the merchant insisted.

She paused and narrowed her eyes. "All right, fifteen and I travel with the caravan both on the journey there, and the journey back."

The merchant extended his right hand. "Very well then, you have a deal." He laid five silver pieces on the table. "My name is Allidor, you shall receive the rest of the money once we reach Virinion."

His hand, she thought, as she clasped it in her own was not at all like a merchants. It was strong and hardened, with a calloused palm and fingertips. These were a soldier's hands. Nevertheless she nodded.

"I am Alshana."

"Well, Alshana," Allidor said as he rose. "My caravan leaves in two days time. Be at the town gates at dawn of the second day."

As the merchant strode back to his table she followed him with her eyes. It was strange the way he moved, not with the lithe grace of a warrior, but more with the weary strength of a veteran. A retired soldier, probably, and she smiled as she saw the little girl at his table throw her arms about his neck, his daughter by the looks of it.

As Balivan began another song, this time a warm, hearty song of spring and summer she leaned back into her chair and gave a quiet sigh of satisfaction. She'd stay at the performance area a while longer, then she'd go and get herself a room. Not bad at all really, for a day's work. She'd dealt with some unruly drunks, had a nice hot meal, booked her passage south and soon, well, she smiled, she'd be asleep in a soft bed.