Disclaimer: All characters here are products of my own imagination. None of them have been based on other characters, whether living, dead, and/or are parts of works of fiction. Any resemblance to real or imaginary persons you have met and/or known are purely coincidental.
The woman ran through the forest, smashing through low-hanging branches and underbrush. Her harsh breaths and occasional sobbing punctuated the otherwise silent forest. She had no torch or lantern, but the white disc of the full moon hanging in the cloudless night sky gave off just enough silvery light to let her fumble her way through the forest. Twice she tripped, catching herself with her free hand while gripping her tattered skirt tightly with the other hand.
Sweat ran down her milk-white skin, stinging the small scratches that stray branches and thorns had scored on her arms and legs. She stumbled on the uneven ground, the exertion of running hard making her lightheaded, but she only swept back the long dark curls from her lovely face, and ran on. She was crying now, tears running down her cheeks.
Her foot caught a raised tree root, and she fell onto the leafy forest floor with a squeak. She tried to scramble to her feet, only to cry out in pain as her now-twisted ankle refused to support her weight and gave way, causing her to collapse on the forest floor again.
Her blue eyes, wide with fear, darted as she quickly scanned the trees around her.
A glimpse in the dark, then the blur of a faceless form flying at her.
Her high-pitched scream pierced the sultry night air.
The Phoenix Warrior
The town of Nereid was a thriving port town, strategically located along a major naval trading route. It was a healthy-sized town, not so big or busy that most people would not know each other at least casually. Down by the docks, a small tree-covered peninsula shot out south of the town, and to the north the shore hooked seaweed briefly before heading up the coast. The drop-off at the small bay was steep—a perfect place for a small port town to crop up, offering commerce and a safe stopover for barges and smaller ships traversing the coastline. Here, at the far end of town, a small two-story building of stone and wood was tucked back against a few trees toward the base of the peninsula. This building was the Blue Mermaid, and this is where Millie the waitress worked.
It was just after dusk, and the tavern of the Blue Mermaid was crammed to the brim with sailors, dockworkers, and a few young couples. The number of customers meant that Millie was constantly busy taking and delivering orders.
Carrying a tray full of empty mugs, he carefully maneuvered her way around the tables and headed for the bar, setting the tray on the shiny dark wood counter. "Four more ales for Table Five," she said to the barman as she quickly placed the empty mugs on the bar.
Eric—the barman and innkeeper of the Blue Mermaid—glanced at said table and the loud men surrounding it. "They sure are enjoying themselves over there," he remarked mildly as he drew the ale.
Millie let out a sigh. "Yeah. Hopefully they wouldn't get too drunk and cause any trouble this time around." She waited until Eric set the refilled mugs on her tray, and then she swept back towards the noisy table.
She had just served the ale out when she felt a cool salty breeze from the front door opening. She lifted her tray, turned, and stared.
The man at the doorway was unlike anyone she had ever seen before—and in a port town like Nereid, she had seen plenty of strangers. He was not a merchant, not like those she had seen around town. Nor was he a dockworker or bargeman; his body was too lightly built for such work. A sailor or even a ship captain was out of the question, for his tanned skin was too smooth, his clothes too fine.
His eyes scanned the room for a moment, and then he stepped in, closing the door behind him. Adjusting the large pouch he carried over one shoulder, he headed straight for an empty table and sat down.
Automatically, she headed for him, halting by the side of his table. "Can I help you?" she asked as the stranger dropped his backpack on a chair beside him.
"One mug of ale, a bowl of stew, and a loaf of bread," he muttered without looking up at her. "And I want a room, if there are any that are empty."
She blinked, a little taken aback. "Uh…yes, right away." Shaking her head, she went to the bar. What an abrupt sort of man, she thought. He sounded young, too, with a soft tenor voice. She rattled off the order to Eric, adding, "That man looks…odd, don't you think?"
Eric shrugged. "Well, this is a port town. All kinds of people come here." He glanced at Millie's weary face, framed by a few loose wisps of her braided honey-blonde hair, and gently said, "Why don't you deliver the order to our new customer, and then take a break? You look like you're about to fall over."
Her shoulders slumped in relief. "Oh, thank you, sir. I'll come back as soon as I get my wind back."
A moment later, she laid her tray before the stranger. "Here's your order, sir. The innkeeper says that he's preparing a room for you."
"Mm, yes. Thank you." He glanced up just as she started to move. "Hey, care to join me? It's been ages since I've talked to anything except birds and trees."
She stared at him, surprised by his request. He only gazed back at her with his dark brown eyes. Feeling unsure, she turned her head to look back at Eric, who had been watching her the whole time.
Eric nodded, slightly. And Millie, feeling a little more at ease, slid into a chair opposite the stranger.
He did not immediately engage her in conversation, sampling the stew instead. She took that brief opportunity to study him.
He was rather pretty for a man, with refined (but still strong) features and those large limpid eyes. And young, she realized with a jolt. He did not look older than two decades of age.
His skin was a healthy golden tan that strangely complemented the color of his short, choppy hair—a bright coppery red, with hints of gold that Millie suspected came from long days under the bright sun. He was, for a lack of better word, strikingly good-looking.
"This is good," he said suddenly, startling her out of her thoughts. "The stew, I mean. Very nice." He glanced up at her as he took another spoonful. "Don't suppose the chef would teach me the recipe?"
The unusual request puzzled her, but she smiled politely. "Ah…I'll have to ask her, but I don't think she'll mind." Then, before she lost her nerve, she said, "I don't believe I've seen the likes of you, sir."
A smile tugged at the stranger's wide mouth. He reached for the hunk of bread, ripped it in two. "I'm not surprised. I never stay for long in one place. Right now, I'm very far from home."
"Yep. I came from Lorune, in the far south of the continent. A much warmer place than here—the nights and even some of the days in this place are cold enough to freeze my toes off." He let out a sigh. "I missed the sun…but," he added with a grin, "not the mosquitoes. I haven't got your name, by the way."
"Oh!" She blushed sheepishly. "Sorry. My name's Millie."
"You can call me Lyall." He grabbed the mug, gulped down some ale. "Ah, the sweetness of spirits. It's been awhile since my last drink."
Lyall's easy manner and friendly smile made her relax, and she found that she liked this man. "So," she said, "what brings you so far from your homeland?"
"Lack of crime." The prompt answer surprised a laugh out of her, and he smiled. "No, seriously. Lorune is a peaceful place, with the most efficient police force I know. Keeps criminals at bay. Great for the average citizen, but it left me no work."
"And what do you do for work?"
"Catching criminals. And claiming the prices on their heads."
"Oh!" She looked at him, impressed. "You're a bounty hunter."
He smiled at her. "Right you are."
The noise of the tavern was suddenly disrupted by a woman's shriek. Lyall and Millie both turned their heads towards the source—a serving maid beside Table Five.
"Please," she implored, trying vainly to pull her wrist from the grip of one of the men at the table, a barrel-chested brute with a shaved head. "Let go of me."
"Aw, c'mon," said the man. He smiled at her, his bloodshot eyes leering. "We want to show you some good fun." His companions laughed drunkenly, hooting and whistling.
"Please, sir," pleaded the girl, her voice trembling with fear. "Please let go."
Millie, staring at the scene with fascinated horror, heard Lyall shift in his chair. She turned in time to catch him standing up, his eyes fixed on the bald man. "This won't do," she heard him mutter as he strode towards the table.
"You should heed the girl's words," he called out, his clear voice ringing with authority.
Baldy and his companions turned to look at Lyall. "This is none of your business," Baldy snarled.
"On the contrary," Lyall drawled. "You're frightening a poor, helpless girl, and I cannot let that happen. She obviously has no interest in you, so why don't you do as she says and let go?"
The man bared his teeth in a hostile smile. "Why are you so protective of a whore like her?"
"She isn't a whore."
"All women are whores."
Lyall stilled. And even though he was a long way from her, Millie could feel the coldness that settled over him like a blanket. "Is that what you think?" he said too softly.
The bald man let out a nasty laugh. "Of course. Everyone knows that."
"So I suppose your mother is a whore as well?" Lyall asked.
Baldy paled in anger. "Why you little—"
"All women are whores; you said so yourself. So that makes your mother a whore, and you the bastard son of a whore."
Snarling, Baldy pushed the serving maid away, ignoring her as she ran off, and strode towards an icily calm Lyall. "You think you're so tough, huh, pretty boy?" he growled, towering over Lyall. "Let's see what happens if I carve another mouth in your face." He raised his thick arm over his head. From his hand, like a claw, sprang sharp cold steel.
The tavern erupted. Eric pushed through the crowd, shouting, "None of that!" The bald man and his companions were rushed outside, and Lyall followed, at the heart of a knot of men urging on the fight.
Millie followed the crowd out, her eyes wide with fear. Lyall was only half the size of any of those thugs—what if he got killed?
Outside, a circle of people had formed, like a clearing in a forest, with Lyall at it center. And he was surrounded on all sides by the thugs.
Millie squeezed her way to the front of the crowd, and froze at the sight. "Lyall," she whispered, twisting her apron in her hands.
The bald man smiled cruelly, turning the knife in his fingers, his dexterity screaming long and intimate acquaintance with the blade. "I'll make you wish you've never been born," he said.
Lyall only raised a brow at that. "Actually, I'm already wishing that—just so that I wouldn't have to put up with the likes of you."
The taunt drove home—fury twisted the bald man's features. "Get him!" he roared at his companions.
One of the thugs, very drunk, rushed at Lyall headfirst. Lyall merely ducked his shoulder and took the blow there, sending the drunk reeling out of the circle.
Another rushed at him, arms flailing. Lyall whipped his body around three times, and then shot his leg out, his booted foot slamming into his opponent's face. Blood gushed out like a fountain as the thug went down with a broken nose.
The remaining two charged in. Lyall dodged their fists, and then stepped around one of them. He slammed an elbow into the back of the thug's head, driving him down to fall face-first. The man groaned, but did not get up. A quick jab to the throat, followed by two hard kicks in the chest and head, sent the other guy dropping like a stone.
Lyall spun around to face the knife-wielding leader, and smirked. "Who taught these boneheads how to fight?" he asked. "Your whoring mum?"
The shocked expression on the guy's face vanished only to be replaced by one of rage. With a roar, the man charged Lyall, the blade of his knife glinting.
Lyall merely waited until the guy was almost upon him, and then sidestepped out of the way at the last minute. The man stumbled past him, thrown off balance because Lyall was not where he had been, and ended up sprawled on the ground.
"You look as tough as a rock," Lyall remarked. "But you also move just as slowly as one."
Screaming, the man rolled over, threw the knife. And paled when Lyall's hand shot out and snatched the flying blade out of the air.
Lyall smiled, unpleasantly. "Thanks for the gift." He lashed a foot out, struck the man in the chin. The man's eyes crossed, and then he collapsed. "But I don't need it."
Lyall turned, headed back to the tavern amidst the crowd's cheers. His face was he epitome of cool confidence as he nodded and smiled in response to the praises directed at him. Millie thought he looked dashing.
He glanced up, and saw her amongst the crowd. A warm grin spread across his face, and she felt her heart skip a bit. "There you are!" he said, elbowing his way to her. "Can you help me find the innkeeper? It's late, and I'm getting tired."
He did not look the least bit tired. "Uh…sure. I think Eric—that'll be the innkeeper—is still in the tavern."
"You knocked them out?" Eric yelled. "Those 'troublemakers', as you called them, practically finished off two kegs of ale and an entire roast lamb! How am I supposed to get them to pay up?"
"Ah…eheheh," Lyall laughed nervously, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. "Uh…sorry about that."
"Sorry's not going to help me cover the cost, young man! I've got a business to run, you know."
Millie winced as Eric continued to give Lyall an indignant earful. Although she couldn't really blame Eric for getting angry over lost coin, it really wasn't fair for him to take it out on Lyall.
When Eric paused to catch his breath, Lyall let out a sigh that expressed both relief and annoyance. "It wasn't entirely my fault, you know," he muttered, rummaging in his pants pocket and pulling out a dirt-smudged purse. "Here," he said, tossing it to Eric, who caught it without thinking. There was a healthy chink of coins as it landed in his hand. "That should be more than enough to cover your cost."
With a puzzled frown, Eric looked in the purse. And judging from the way his jaw dropped and his eyes bugged, there must be a considerable amount of coin in there.
Lyall rubbed his eyes, yawned hugely. "Can I get my room now?"
"Sure," Eric said faintly. There was still dull shock in his eyes as he made his way to the bar. "Millie, please show him the room."
"Yes, sir." She waited until Lyall had picked up his pouch before she gestured to the stairs. "If you would follow me, sir?"
They ascended the stairs in silence. He walked alongside her; the narrow stairway meant that their shoulders were practically touching. With their bodies in such close proximity, she couldn't help but be aware of his presence.
He was slim, but more wiry than bony, and he wore tight black breeches that showcased his long, lean legs. He moved in a loose, long-limbed way that was at once graceful and purposeful.
She gazed sideways at him, at the sharp profile of his face. His eyelashes, she noticed, were long, thick and curled—the kind that every girl wished she had.
He suddenly turned to look at her, and she abruptly realized she had been caught staring. She quickly glanced away, but couldn't stop the flush that bloomed on her cheeks. She felt his curious gaze on her, and it only made her more uncomfortable. So it was with considerable relief that they reached the room rented out to him.
She opened the door, showed him in. "Here's your room. Do you wish us to draw a bath for you?"
"No, thanks. I'm not that filthy." He looked around as he set his pouch on the bed. "This will do nicely." He turned, smiled at her.
"Uh…we serve breakfast early, but we can have a meal brought up later if you wish. Lunch is at noon, and dinner is after dusk." Feeling more than a little flustered from his smile, she curtsied. "I'll leave you to your rest."
"Thank you, Millie," he said softly. Blushing, Millie hurried out of the room and closed the door.
Lyall waited until he heard her walking downstairs before he allowed the smile on his face to vanish. He turned, stared at the lit candle on the bedside table.
"Such a sweet, young girl," he murmured. He smiled again, but his eyes were cold. "It would be a shame if she was killed."
The candle flame flared up briefly, and then died.