The Cursed Company

One – Yulia

The City Coalborn, better known as "Merc Town"

Midwinter's Eve

Year 1103 of the Atheri Empire

A big fire crackled merrily in the common room. Wind buffeted the windows. The blizzard outside was a fearsome one, but the walls of the old Guild House were strong. A mere century ago, it had been the most formidable fortress in the Contested Territories.

Though most of the feast was cleared from the tables, the air still smelled like slow-roasted mutton and baked apples. Someone made a slurred toast to Baacha, the god of wine and merriment, and I raised my mug. I realized belatedly that I'd run out of drink. Praising Baacha with an empty mug was a mild heresy, but I believed the god would forgive me. Though I did appreciate a good winter ale, I was already drunk, warm, and well-fed. In fact, there was only one thing I needed to make my holiday perfectly complete.

I didn't expect to get it, but I wanted it all the same.

I sighed and rocked back in my chair, watching the finest woman I'd ever laid eyes on uncork a bottle of wine with her teeth. Although it was snowing outside, she looked like one of the Caliph's concubines, dressed in dark green silk embroidered with gold. The colors complemented her pale skin and scarlet hair perfectly. She was from Valsarra, I'd heard, a Guild Sister of some repute... and the newest member of my Company. My Captain called her "Lucky".

It seemed appropriate. "Lucky" was what I would be if I could coax her into my bed.

"Bless you, woman," I said as Lucky refilled my glass. Although I was not much of a wine drinker, it was a nice vintage and it complemented the taste of cloves that still lingered in my mouth.

The usual Midwinter's game of cloven fruit was underway, and although I knew I wouldn't get what I wanted from it, I still enjoyed playing. I picked up the cloven orange on the table closest to me and offered it to Lucky.

She took a clove with her teeth. Usually, that meant a kiss... but she pretended for a moment that she would swallow the clove, which meant something else entirely. She stuck her tongue out with the clove resting on it.

"Agh, you bitch!" I groaned. The kiss she offered was nice, but I was too irritated to enjoy it.

Lucky winked. She took the cloven orange from me and tousled my hair. "Go kill your dragon, Northman!" She said, twirling her clove between two fingers.

"I'll make you eat that clove!" I warned her.

Lucky laughed and sashayed away. "You're so cute," she said in a way which reminded me of my unfortunate predicament.

I glanced at the window closest to me. Usually, I avoided my reflection, but Lucky's playful rejection still stung. A tall, well-built Northman, not quite thirty summers old, with a square nose and a thick reddish beard stared back at me. Mirrors and clear water showed my true face, although the body that I lived in was that of a petite, very attractive young woman. For the thousandth time, I cursed the dragon who'd enchanted me and swore I'd slay him.

If I ever found him.

My Guild Brother Meyat took a clove from Lucky's orange with his fingers, and she gave him a peck on the cheek. He seemed indifferent to the way she flaunted her assets, but his preference was for his own sex. Meyat swept his ostentatious saffron-colored cloak over his arm and minced across the room, his eyes fixed on a short, somewhat effeminate man dressed entirely in black. Although it was Midwinter's Eve, my Captain, Caine Faerin, sat with his nose buried in a book.

Caine glanced up and saw Meyat hovering over him. Meyat was standing with his hands on his hips, holding the entire cloven orange in his mouth. I didn't know what that gesture was supposed to mean, but one thing was certain. Even Lucky wouldn't get me to touch that piece of fruit again.

A knock came at the door, quiet but insistent. Since it was Midwinter's Eve and the drink was flowing freely, I suspected no one heard it. Finishing off the wine Lucky had poured for me, I stood up and walked over to the window. I couldn't see anyone outside, so I opened the door just a crack and peered out.

"Hello? Anyone out there? State your business," I said, before my eyes adjusted to the dark.

There was a girl standing in the snow, dressed in nothing but a white, shapeless garment that looked like a nightgown.

She was a tiny thing, obviously southern-born with curly black hair and huge, gray eyes which made her look like a fae creature, blown into the lands of men by the winter storm. Although she didn't smell of magic, I did not touch the deadbolt and I kept the door between us. Sometimes things weren't what they seemed to be. I already had one curse to my name, and I wasn't in a hurry to add another.

"Is this the home of Korvald Ariksen?" The girl asked.

I smiled slightly. If she didn't know the answer to that question already, she was woefully ignorant.

"Hey, Kor!" I shouted. "There's a silk rabbit at the door, and she used your full name!"

Though I didn't think the sorry-looking waif was a whore, I couldn't resist teasing Kor.

The Housemaster looked up as he realized he was being addressed. He scratched his chin somewhere under his thick, dark beard and raised just one of his eyebrows. It was the face he always made when he was thinking about something. He looked as though a furry caterpiller was about to crawl out onto his nose.

Everyone gathered in the common room laughed.

"Five dinar says she's pregnant!" Meyat shouted. Several people threw coins at him.

Caine rolled his eyes and buried his face in his hands. He knew he couldn't control Meyat, though he always tried his damnedest. Both Caine and Meyat were noble-born, but Meyat's father had disowned him years ago. While Caine usually behaved like what he was, an over-educated, well-bred princeling... Meyat was always eager to do a little more damage to his illustrious surname. He hoped the rumors would get back to his family. As I understood it, they usually did.

Kor slowly stood. He did everything slowly, but that was because he was a very big man. I'd met him only after being cursed, but it seemed that he would have been taller than me even if I'd been a man myself. At very least, he was a good deal broader than I had ever been, although most of that was the result of drink. All the Guild Brothers sitting at his table had to move their chairs aside so that he could get to the door.

"Very funny, Ivarsen," he sighed, rolling his eyes at me.

I bowed slightly, doing my best impression of a pompous southern sorcerer. "Twas not my desire to offend you, my most glorious leader!"

"If you were a man, I'd take you out back and beat you," Kor said, cuffing me hard across the back of the head. I saw stars, but I didn't complain. By hitting me, Kor had just given me his version of a complement. A good Northman never touches a woman, unless she's his mother, his daughter, or his wife.

Kor pushed me aside roughly. He undid the deadbolt and evaluated the girl with a critical eye. Evidently, he didn't think she was dangerous. I still had my suspicions. It was Midwinter's Eve, after all. Anyone who wasn't up to something should have been safe at home, enjoying a glass of spiced wine with their kin.

"I'm Kor. What do you want?" He asked the girl.

"I... I was told that I might find work here," the girl confessed. "As a maid."

That got another good laugh out of everyone.

"We've already got a maid. If you want the job, you gotta fight Ivarsen for it!" One of my Guild Brothers teased.

"Piss off, Salakin!" I retorted.

He batted his eyes at me.

"Do you want to take this outside? I think it's a little cold for you out there, sand rat!" I gestured to my sword. Although Salakin was one of the better swordsmen in the Coalborn Guild House, I'd had a blade in my hand since I could walk. Being cursed, I was no longer the warrior I had been... but I was still skilled enough to handle a common mercenary. More importantly, Salakin was an Ilskaan and still unaccustomed to snow. In my homeland, the mountains were always crowned with white, even in the middle of summer.

Although Salakin did not push me further, I still gritted my teeth a little, thinking about the insult he'd lobbed at me.

When I'd first arrived in Coalborn two years ago, I'd been desperate for food and shelter. I didn't know how to live as a woman, and I heard that the Guild House was in need of a maid. Kor allowed me to humiliate myself trying to do housework for a full week. My performance was so abysmal that he eventually threw me a sword and declared that if I couldn't fight, the Guild had no use for me. I knocked him flat on his back, and as he staggered to his feet he caught sight of my true reflection. The story of how I was cursed came out, and I signed my first contract as a mercenary.

I felt the weight I'd been carrying lift slightly. Although I could not go home until I slew the dragon responsible for my current predicament, within the Guild I could survive... and be myself, more or less.

"Girl, do you know where you are?" Kor demanded, his attention still focused on our unusual visitor.

"A tavern?" She guessed, still seeming very nervous.

"This is the Mercenary's Guild," I said.

Her eyes widened in disbelief. "Oh, I'm sorry. I'll leave now."

"Hold on," Kor paused. "Who sent you here?"

The girl bit her lip. She peered around Kor's bulk, her eyes darting from one corner of the room to another until she caught sight of Caine. She stared at him gravely, as if she knew exactly who he was, although he didn't seem to recognize her.

"Caine?" Kor eyed him suspiciously. "Do you know this girl?"

"No, Housemaster," Caine paused. "I don't think I've ever seen her before. But you might as well let her in. It's nasty out there," he added.

It wasn't until the girl came inside that I noticed her feet were bare. They were blue with frostbite. Cold as it was, if she'd been out in the snow for more than an hour, she ought to have frozen to death. The Guild House was more than a mile from the actual city of Coalborn, on the grounds of an old Ilskaan border fort. Surely she hadn't walked so far without shoes. Where had she come from?

Those kind of questions never had easy answers. I suspected magic, and swallowed hard.

Pretending all was well, I returned to my seat next to Meyat. The wine Lucky had poured me did not sit well with the ale I'd been drinking all night. I belched twice, cleared my throat, and then let off a better one.

The girl jumped. She was so skittish it made me nervous sitting close to her. She looked Ilskaan to me, and if she was from that far south, there was a distinct probability that she'd never seen a woman with a sword belted on, sitting and drinking with men.

"Ignore Halvar," Caine advised. "He's a barbarian." He shoved me as he said that.

"Ponce," I said, shoving him back.

The girl again looked confused, probably because Caine had referred to me as a man. He was the only one of my Guild Brothers who never treated me like a girl. Although he was born into a noble house, Caine had Trader blood... and with it, the uncanny knack for seeing things, not as they were, but as they potentially could be. While Caine didn't have the blue eyes of the dragon-born, there was still something about him that seemed magical.

"So what's your name, girl?" Caine asked. He eyed her suspiciously

She hesitated.

"Yulia," she decided. I immediately suspected that it was an alias.

Not that it mattered. A lot of mercenaries avoided using their real names. As Kor often said, there were only two reasons to become a mercenary. Either you needed money, or you needed to disappear.

Yulia sipped on her wine as if it were molten lead, but when Meyat brought her a plate of food she tore into it like a wild animal.

"Easy does it, girl," Kor sighed. "There's more where that came from."

Yulia nodded, seeming embarrassed. Her eyes drifted towards the tiny red dragon pinned to Caine's doublet right above his Guild pin. The dragon curled around the hilt of the half-drawn sword below it. It looked like it was snickering, which seemed very dragon-like to me. The same design adorned the crossguard of Caine's sword. It was a very fine weapon, probably forged centuries ago and worth more than everything I owned.

"That's our Company insignia," Meyat explained, adjusting his cloak so that Yulia could see his little dragon. "Within the Guild, there are groups of mercenaries who usually work together. Those groups are called companies. Usually about five to ten mercs. Big companies, maybe twenty."

"Myself, Meyat, Ivarsen and Lucky are the Company of the Red Dragon," Caine said.

"Company of the Red Dragon, my ass," Kor rolled his eyes.

"Damnit, Kor! I'm not telling people we're the Cursed Company," Caine retorted.

"You don't have to tell em'," Kor sighed. "Every merc worth his pin already knows."

I nodded solemnly, thinking of a few of the former Cursed Company members I'd met. Brand was retired, a Housemaster up in Freeport. Winnie was dead, Malik was in prison, and Dane Cooke was completely insane. The last I'd seen him, he'd been trying to claw his way up the side of a ship, and I'd been busy kicking him in the face, trying to knock him back in the water.

Working with Caine and Meyat was a lot of things... but it was never boring.

"The Cursed Company?" Yulia echoed.

Kor nodded.

"How are you cursed?" She asked.

"I'm not cursed," Lucky said, squeezing her chair in between Caine and Kor. "At least I don't think so."

Cain coughed. Meyat sighed.

"Don't get me started," I warned.

"Hm," Kor paused. He glanced at me, and then turned to Cain and Meyat with his hands on his hips. "You know, to be honest, I'm not sure these three are cursed either. They always seem to turn a tidy profit."

"There are more important things in this world than money, old man," Caine laughed.

"Blasphemy," Kor retorted, slapping him. "Nothing is more important than money! And you call yourself a mercenary?"

Yulia smiled slightly. Despite how small and skittish she was, it was obvious that she wasn't going to be a maid.