A week later, I was within the city of De-Jking, and I immediately searched for a store for food supplies. I found a little shop painted black in between two big mansions covered in swirling ironwork. It was a small building, dwarfed by the buildings beside it, but somehow, it was the first thing you noticed. The two big windows on either side of the door displayed nothing but dusty and decaying velvet. I took a deep breath, tied Branden to the hitching post outside the door, and went in.
I waited for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, and when I did, I gasped. Floor-to-ceiling shelves, covered in everything including old and new books, shiny bits of rocks, preserved insects, dusty colored bottles filled with dark liquids, rugs, cut and dried plants, clothing, swords, chainmail, as well as first-aid kits, bandages, and little medicine bottles.
But that was nothing compared to the woman behind the counter. She was dressed in the brightest colors in the shop, and excepting that, she looked like a younger Raven Girl, right down to the grace of movement, the sword at the hip, and the dark eyes that were wary and guarded.
But then she spoke, the eyes lit up with warm light and I shook myself. "Welcome! We haven't had an army man come here in ages. And a hurting one at that . . ." She came out from behind the counter and came towards me, her hands at my shoulder, pressing slightly and I suppressed a grimace. She knelt and felt my leg, and I felt like a horse at the doctors.
"Ah . . . not too bad. This wasn't the first time you've been hurt there, is it? And the muscles, they're all bunched up and hurting." She bustled about, gathering things off the shelves, smiling. Even the smile seemed the same, as I stared at her from the back, her bright red and yellow shawl floating behind.
She turned around and caught me staring, but she smiled a pained smile. "You're thinking that I look like someone else."
I looked down and said quietly, "You could be her sister."
"I could, couldn't I?" She turned away and put all the stuff on the counter. "Now, before I do anything else . . ." She motioned for me to follow her through a doorway in the back of the room, which led to a storeroom, then out another door, where it opened to a large grassy backyard. She led me out to the middle of the space.
"How did you know I'm in the army? And before, that my shoulder had been hurt more than once?" I asked softly, my hand drifting towards my sword.
She suddenly had a sword in her hand and I reacted, grabbing my sword and blocking her. She was good, and while we were pretty evenly matched skill-wise I thought, my shoulder soon began to hurt, and she noticed and used it to her advantage. I began to twist and turn, never letting her near my left side long enough to score another hit on my burning shoulder. I gritted my teeth as the pain became unbearable, but I managed to score a light hit on her left side. She retaliated, and I barely blocked it. She immediately whirled for my other side, and while I had been expecting it, I was not able to bring my sword around soon enough, and she flicked her sword tip up beneath my chin. She met my eyes for a moment, and then she backed off. But only for a moment, then she came at me again. This time I fought with my right hand to give my shoulder a bit of a break. This time I was ready for her tricks, and I was able to flick my sword up to her chin, instead of the other way around.
She immediately went inside and brought out a water bag, which she passed to me. I drank and then returned it to her. She poured some on her hair and wiped it out of her eyes, then sat down and motioned for me to sit as well. I did.
"You are left-handed. You have lived with shoulder issues for years, probably, but yet you still fight as if your shoulder were whole. You are ambidextrous, but you still prefer to fight with your left. Why people can break through your guard and hit your shoulder is because you think you are whole, and you do not adequately block it. You are good, with muscle training and medicine for that shoulder, you could beat me easily. You can focus the pain, and I haven't had that good of a fight since . . . Well, for a while."
I was silent. I didn't like her saying that I wasn't whole. And sure as hell, I wasn't going to tell her how or when I got my shoulder injury.
She brought up one knee, rested her arm on it, and looked across to me. She and I held gazes for a long time, until she asked quietly, "What did you learn about me?"
I brought up my knees. I said slowly, "You are one crazy woman with some explaining to do." She made a questioning face at me, and I said, "How the hell did you know about me being in the army? How did you know about my shoulder?"
"Oh, yes. That you were army, easy enough. One accustomed to wearing a sword, and eyes of a soldier. Plus, your horse has a nice traveling saddle, which obviously, you couldn't pay for on your own. Not a hired sword, then. You are more dusty and sweaty than the horse, thus you walked most of the way from wherever, and you are limping, and your shoulders are stiff and tense, which loosens up when you fight. That is one thing that would've contributed to your injury that you will be able to fix. Work on relaxing those shoulders when you aren't fighting."
"You are not just a shopkeeper." I stated. My guess was that she was some sort of healer, or something, working on old injuries. She had probably spent some time on the battlefield as a healer as well.
She laughed gaily. "And you are not just a soldier. And you are here for more than to listen to me preach at you! Good lord, boy, don't you want to find the Raven Girl?!" She swished inside and I got up, shaking my head, and followed her.
Back at the counter, she was ringing up all the stuff she had on the counter, and as I watched, growing uneasy at all the stuff that was undoubtedly leave me several holes in my pocket and I wasn't sure what to do with, she went into the back room we had passed through, and brought a bow with arrows and added that to the pile.
"I already have a bow." I pointed outside to where a bow was visible on Branden. She didn't even glance up. She was still busy scribbling on a piece of paper and checking prices of all the stuff she had piled up for me.
"It's not for you, silly. I know you have one, and you've had no practice, and you really need to remember you're not in the army anymore. Anyone could walk up to your horse and take off with him. And leaving weapons uncovered? You're just asking for trouble, especially if you're asked to fight with a weapon you don't know how to use. This bow is for the one you are going to see, the Raven Girl. Make sure she gives you lessons. It will help with your shoulder, get it used to pain and muscles it hasn't ever used before."
"And how did you know I was looking for her?" This woman does know how to talk, I mused. She seemed to barely take a breath.
"Oh, isn't it obvious?" She glanced up and smiled. "I know I sound so high and mighty right now, but think a little. How often do you think I get people here that aren't looking for her? Since I look kinda like her, they think I know. But hey, it's good business for me, so I'm not complaining. She makes good business, the Raven Girl."
"Have you met her?"
She looked down; little frown lines appearing on her forehead. She stared down at the pile while she spoke. "Yes, I know her. She comes by every few years. I haven't seen her recently; it's all this fighting down south. She's busy trying to avert a war, I know." I stared at the top of her head. She sounded bitter. And the Raven Girl, averting a war? Sounded as likely as a wolf refusing a fallen deer.
Before I could frame another question in my mind, she straightened and smiled. "That will be . . . Well, your stuff will be 5, and tell her that she owes me big time." She separated the stuff into one big pile of food and medicines, and a smaller pile of clothing, food, and medicines. She picked out one small green bottle out of the smaller pile and said, "This stuff, rub it onto your shoulder twice a day. It'll help with the soreness." She picked up another bottle, this one big and red, "Take a sip once a day for a week for your shoulder and leg. And practice every day, sword drills, bow, and, if possible, get the Raven Girl to wrestle you, that will definitely help with your balance." I silently handed her the money and picked up both bags, wanting to get out of there.
As I pushed the door open, I heard her shout, "Good meeting you, soldier!" I lifted my hand up in a wave as I tied the bags to the saddle.
After a day of searching for anyone who might be somehow connected to the Raven Girl, I finally went into a tavern and ordered a beer, after stabling Branden in the stalls behind the bar. I hadn't wanted to go back to the talkative woman in the shop.
The tavern was also a place to sleep, I guessed. I nursed my beer as I listened to the babble. The beer was average, but good enough. The man behind the counter was a short, black-haired man from up north, judging from his accent. He seemed tired, but happy, and didn't seem annoyed with my questions about his life and the tavern. Eventually, though, he said, "You are new here, aren'tcha? Another idiot looking for the legend?"
"Well, I did come in today, and I was sent to find the Raven Girl, but I'm no idiot." The barkeeper smiled and replied, "Well said. But what are you doin' here, then?"
I smiled slightly and said, "No idea how to find her."
He laughed and said, "So you're not one of the regular messengers. Well, there's a big board nailed to one of these buildings around here, covered in papers. Each of those papers is pleas for the Raven Girl. There's this guy, poor fellow, who has to take them down every day and bring them to her." Even though I had questions to ask, I was silent. I knew he would go on. And I was right. "But fair warning to you, she's dangerous. She's come in here and every time, I've had to send everyone to the healers, simply because someone said she was pretty or complimented her legs. If you want to live, boyo, don't mess with her."
"Wasn't planning on it . . . So why do you let her come here?"
"Kid, do you think anyone could stop her from doing whatever the hell she pleased?" The honest answer was no. But no one ever contradicted her? It must be so boring for her, I mused. The barkeeper continued, "She's alright, gets her usual, and I try to get around to everyone to tell them to shut up, but there's always one idiot."
"So it sounds like she comes in here a lot . . ."
"Yeah, she always stops in whenever she's in the area. Sometimes, she gets so drunk I have to walk her to that shop down the road."
I paused, drank a long draught from the mug, and then asked, "The one with the lady that looks so much like her?"
"Yeah," The man replied. He gave me a sharp look that told me to not ask any more questions about the storekeeper and the Raven Girl.
I remained silent for a while, watching the rest of the men in the bar. The only women in the bar were the servers, and the men, for the most part, seemed to leave them alone. As I looked closer, the men seemed to be watching warily, always darting a look at the door before squeezing the butt of a server.
Finally, I said quietly with a smile, "Soon your whole crowd will be trained, huh? They fear her . . . It's just the newcomers you have to worry about . . ."
The barkeeper smiled sadly. "That's the way, undoubtedly, that she wants it, but . . ." he trailed off.
Suddenly, the door was flung open, slamming against the wall so loud that everyone jumped. She was silhouetted against the darkening sky and the lights of the town. She strode in, drawing her sword, holding it steady in front of her.