The sun filtered through the fresh leaves in the trees. Alice walked in relative comfort through the forest despite being midday. The sounds of Spring were in full force all around her. It seemed that winter hadn't been kind to this country. Back home, things sometimes took a while to regain their vitality after a particularly nasty winter. For some reason, that seemed to bring her a bit of comfort.
The weather was warm on her skin, but she felt cold today. Her boots wouldn't be all dusty like they had been last month. Or was it two months? She'd been on the road to God-knows-where for the past however-many weeks. When was the last time she took a bath? Probably back in that village called…something. She sighed. Being on the road for so long was exhausting. Everyday seemed to melt together like they were just one long time after leaving home.
She didn't even know where she was heading. What did know was that she had to get away. But that was over a year ago. Nothing horrible had happened or almost happened since then. As far as she could tell, no one was looking for her. That was both comforting and depressing.
No matter how long she had been travelling, Alice knew exactly what day today was and what seven days from now would be. Alice shook her head and took a deep breath to calm the pit in her stomach. Pursing her lips seemed to help. No, they didn't. She rubbed her temples to regain her composure. Think of someone else. Papa. Papa and the toys from the forge scraps he'd always make for me back then.
That worked. Papa and Mom. Back how it used to be. She'd explore the town while Papa would hammer out a living at the smithy, and he'd bring home the most bizarre toys to use as dolls for her make-believe adventures. Mom would return from patrols every third day and smile warmly. She remembered that one time Papa had returned early from the smithy and acted out the dashing prince with fancy blade work. Much better than Treyce's.
Alice groaned. She needed to busy herself. Map. She needed to look at her map and go somewhere. The parchment was folded up in her scratchy, brown travelling cloak. It had creases from being folded for so long but no other signs of use.
She came across a shrine on her right. It was made of pewter and only bore the Seven Prayers for Peace on its face. Lichen had overgrown most of it, but the text remained unmarred by the elements.
Alice found the landmark on her map for her bearing. There was a town on the road just two miles from where she was. She hadn't spent any money since the beginning of her journey, and she was quite tired of eating small and medium sized game. She'd treat herself to some company, a hot meal, a warm bath, and perhaps a strong drink. But before any of that, tradition. She knelt down and payed respects. Alice was acutely aware of the quarterstaff on her back humming ever so slightly. She tried to ignore it.
A small deafened squawk jolted her. Ten feet to her left a baby bluebird was struggling to fly from the ground, but it looked relatively unharmed. Alice folded the map and looked around for some flowers. There were some safe berries nearby. Close enough. With a few berries in her palm, she put her hand on the ground next to the bluebird. It hopped on and pecked the berry curiously. She smiled. It didn't know how to eat harder food yet. She found the mother on a branch looking intently at her. Alice got a foothold on a tree knot and handed the bird up to its mother. It hopped back and chirped happily. After admiring the fruits of her labor, she mused, "Not instant peace but definitely closer now. Thanks."
The next two miles were uneventful, but as she came closer to the edge of the village, farms started popping up. An aging man worked in the field with his grown son. They were both tanned from the sun and dirty from the work. The son looked about her age and was quite handsome, really, even from this distance. She frowned. It was much too soon for anything like that.
Still, it wouldn't hurt to go and just talk, right?
She couldn't go through life missing Treyce constantly. She was 23. She had her whole life ahead of her. Plus, the bluebird was a sign to get working again. Sure, there'd never be anyone quite like him, but then she wasn't ever going to replace him, just add on to her life. Her mind made up, she decided just to ask for directions. A map with very little detail wasn't exactly that useful anyway.
The father saw her approach the fence before the son. He jabbed his son in the side and pointed. The youth looked over and suddenly began trying to straighten his hair as he walked briskly over. He had a chiseled chin and taut shoulders. The blonde hair he had tried to tame was sticking out in a few places but remained relatively compliant. With a bath and some nice clothes, he'd be ready to take the dance floor in the city.
She kept a straight face through the backwater dialect and the stench. Alice had to remind herself she was from a backwater town herself. Being with Treyce for so long must have made her too cultured. At least it hadn't affected her survival skills.
"Alice. And you are?"
"Nathan, I was hoping you could tell me about the little town up here."
"Oh, it's a right darn beaut, Miss Alice. It's might bit cleaner than over heyah. Gots an inn that makes the best darned stew ya ever did tasted."
She tried not to cringe. "Does it have a bath and good drink?"
"There's a bathhouse closer tuh the other side a town. Gots itself a hotspring cause we's near the mountain. Nice and warm it is. Marcy the cook don' make no good lemonade ah juice at the inn. Probly best tuh buy some a git it fresh. Pleny a wild berries out there."
"Oh, that's fine. I was looking for something a bit stronger anyway."
Nathan turned three shades of red.
Alice remained pleasant. Was that intended or a natural reaction? Nice touch, either way.
"Uh, yeah, uh, Marcy done got's lots a good ale. If yer looking tah get swept off a yer feet, I mean." He said the last bit sheepishly.
"Thanks, Nathan. Will I see you there?" she asked.
"Ah, uh, sorry, Miss Alice. I done gotta help mah paw…plant the corn and tend the pigs."
Of course you do. "Oh well. Next time?"
"Yeah, sounds like a hollering good time!"
She winked for good touch and waved slightly. He beat his hand back and forth energetically. When she turned away and was a few dozen yards away, she let out an exasperated growl. That acting was awful and offensive. No one ever talked like that back home. He sounded like a walking stereotype. And that smell wasn't a pig pen. Neither was that mound in the field tilling. That was the distinct smell of a fresh body. Treyce's highbrow culture wasn't the only thing to rub off on her. His attention to minute details had rubbed off bit, too. Combined with her field training, she made the following conclusion: Those men weren't farmers.
A few discrete peeks at the older man revealed him to be much too muscular and not nearly adept enough at a hoe to be a farmer. They were vagabonds. Whether they were burying an ally or a victim was entirely different question and one she couldn't figure out by reading Nathan's face. Had he used his real name? His mannerisms didn't revealed that much, but he clearly thought her to be a country girl just looking for some company. He was just flirting anyway. It's not like he was actually going to take her up on her offer. That was just her ploy to see what his reaction would be.
Her thoughts turned to Treyce and how he could have read much more than her in Nathan's behavior. That's all she needed to do: remember him and not the way they parted. Maybe she'd find some fine wine out here, his favorite, to celebrate. But first a bath. A hot spring sounded heavenly. She fingered her brunette bun. It was greasy and probably would stink to high heaven when she let it down to wash.
As the trees thinned completely, she saw a large mountain towering above her and the shadows of houses at the base. The village came upon her quite gradually, and then suddenly the center popped up. The roads were paved with cobblestone, and she passed more people in two seconds than she had seen in two months.
The inn wasn't near the center of town like she expected, but neither was the town a circle. It was more of a half circle with the main hub of activity close to the base of the mountain. Off to the side, she saw a cliff face indent, and around the indent was a prominent building with steam emanating from it. That was obviously the bath house. And right across from the bathhouse was the inn.
"Maybe I'll stay here a bit longer than I expected."
As she passed the inn, she saw a young, dirty-blonde-haired-girl loitering in the alleyway. Alice waved but was rebuffed with a glare. She withdrew her hand and made her way to the bathhouse hurriedly. The doors to the bathhouse were propped open with a sign above declaring, "Red Mountain Hot Spring: Melt your troubles away! Now: OPEN."
Inside the foyer was a man who looked about 55 with thinning salt and pepper hair and a ruddy complexion. He was reading some sort of periodical with bright colors in unusual patterns. He looked up as she approached. The middle-aged clerk was taken aback at the sight of her and asked a bit too directly, "Have you ever been to a bathhouse before?"
"Actually no. Just heard about them. They sound divine."
"Hmm, yes. The hot springs are not for cleaning the grime from your body, ma'am. There are buckets of water provided for you to clean yourself before jumping in. We can't have the rest of our customers soaking in your filth, now can we?"
Alice bit her lip. That, in Hannah's words, would be classified as a 'preemptive thrashing.' Expertly dictated, she would add.
"Right. I'll make sure to be spotless before entering, sir."
"Make sure you do. We have a few rooms. Basic is 100 ducats. Steep I know, but-."
Alice pulled out a single platinum coin and placed it on the counter. His mouth hung open in silence. She repacked her money-sack and said airily, "Will that cover a seven days' reservation of your best room and a locker to keep my belongings?"
The clerk nodded slowly and handed her a brass key.
Washing all the dirt, sweat, and grime from her body had been enjoyable but also painful. Her skin was red from the novel experience of scrubbing so hard. The unraveled braid hadn't smelled as bad as she had expected, but there were a few hitchhikers from the trek, and she made sure to burn them with her gift. Her mother would have disapproved of such casual use of her gift, but then again her mother never had five different kinds of insects in her hair when on patrol or on a campaign.
Alice dipped one toe in the hot water. It was better than she had hoped. With none of the grime shielding her from sensations, the hot water kissed her skin and made it tingle. The private room let her get as comfortable as she wanted naked without worrying about other people. She never was good with being naked even around other girls, even Hannah and Tara. She smiled. The memories of when the three of them had finished an escort came rushing back to her. They had happened upon a still pool off to the side of the base of a waterfall. She and Hannah had been so enthusiastic about having a bath for once in four days.
"We need to return to Almertha Penelope today, you two," Tara had chastised. Their response was a squirt of water in the face. There soon was a three-pronged naval battle that lasted for several minutes.
That was one thing she wished she and Treyce had done. They had been all business for the first two years, only getting to know pet peeves and a few hobbies. It was only in that third year did they truly bond, but they never did something quite as silly as have a water fight. Treyce had always been practical; he could read her body language almost perfectly, understanding her feelings well and able to communicate his own subtly. Alice agreed it would have been unnecessary and childish, but those honest, direct moments that were few and far between gave him a more human character. Now those chances would never come.
She missed him so much.
"Miss Flanagan?" called one of the attendants.
Alice tensed with a start. "Yes?"
"We've cleaned and dried your clothing. It's in a basket next to your locker."
"Will that be all?"
"Yes, thank you."
Alice heard the door close. She had been listening intently to the attendant. The walls were so thick though that she couldn't even hear the woman's footsteps. No matter. Nothing valuable was in the locker anyway. She smirked at the small pile of valuables she had in the private room. The money-sack lay next to her quarterstaff, a leather bite, her sacred knife, a small book, and a doll made of field grass. She smiled, remembering the first one she ever made for her mother. It wasn't nearly as pretty as this one was, but her mother had loved it all the same. And it was destroyed in the fire anyway.
Her attention drifted to the book, A History of Marx and its Rulers. Out of all the things Treyce could have given to her, he gave her a history book. I suppose it's appropriate. I probably couldn't have found another memento that small. She pressed her fingers to her lips and remembered the first time her breath had mingled with his. No, not the first time. The first time was empty save for curiosity on her part. The second time was full of love. And hands where they shouldn't have been. His face had a red handprint for a day after that, and it took a week of apologizing before he had made up for it. Those days were so distant now.
Alice fingered her hair and tried to distract herself with memories from her training back home. She, Hannah, Tara, and many of the other trainees had rebelled against their two overseers for dragging them around the forest for four weeks with no apparent purpose. That rebellion had been quickly squashed, and now Alice saw the wisdom in that training. These past few months had made those days seem like luxury. If she ever saw Almerthas Penelope or Dawn, she'd thank them for everything.
The sacred knife brought back mixed memories. It was blessed by her mother and forged by her father. Alice and this knife had been through a lot together. She fingered the horizontal scars on her right thigh. "For better or for worse," she murmured. The knife and the doll were the only things she had to remember her mother by. Nothing remained of her father except the knife. Treyce had given her the book. Everything of value was a gift.
Except that damned staff.
She glared at it, and it leaned against the wall defiantly, taunting her.
Everything that had gone wrong in her life was because of that damned thing. If it wasn't for her sense of duty and the fact it was indestructible, she would have smashed it against the hardest boulder she could find. She had trained in unarmed combat anyway. She didn't need a weapon like that.
The clock struck six. She had been soaking for almost an hour. It was time for a good meal. After drying herself with a luxurious towel, she felt her travelling clothes. They were nice and dry and didn't smell like road. Alice noted that the "farm boy" had made another mistake in his ruse. Even though the map had labelled this place as a village, it had boasted more than just a country settlement. It wasn't quite a city, but calling it a town was a disservice.
She had half expected the attendant to steal something. There were some berries, seeds, and a few fire-dried bits of jerky in the locker. Everything was in order. Alice smiled ruefully. She was glad the woman had been trustworthy, but she criticized herself for assuming the worst so quickly. Humming her favorite tune kept her spirits up. That and fantasizing about what kind of food the inn had.
Once she finished up, she locked the door and approached the clerk. It was the same man, but his gaze was softer. Must have a thing about dirty people. Ha, that's a riot.
He nodded. "I trust everything was satisfactory?"
"Amazing. I'll be sure to come back every day."
"Wonderful," he replied with his chest puffed.
"It's strange. I was about to pass over this place. The map I have made it look like an outpost than a small city."
The man cocked his head, confused. "How old is your map exactly, miss? We're just the hub of the outskirts of the real city. Ferrock may not be large, but it is part of the trifecta of Corth"
"I've never heard of Ferrock."
"Never heard of-?! Miss, where are you from exactly?"
Alice grinned. "Very far away."
The clerk ducked underneath the desk and called out, "Well, don't you worry. We have…a lot of…travelers coming and going." He popped up with a map much larger than Alice's. "…so we naturally have a bit of a stockpile for them. Free of charge."
She nodded and scanned over the map. It…definitely filled in the pieces. Ferrock was about 20 miles from the capital in this kingdom. There were dozens of kingdoms to the northwest and west. Some had borders. Most just had names in different fonts. To the southeast she began to see some names she recognized: Karlon, Etuskani, Azara…Marx and Kreathor. Those were much less detailed. She could fill in those five kingdoms by memory. They were almost as barren as her map was of everything else.
"Why is there almost nothing in the southeast?"
"Oh, you know, the Karlonian king is always hostile and Marx clamped down on trade around the region. Not real reason to explore there, and fugitives would escape south."
"A fairy tale of women warriors able to wield the power of God."
Alice suppressed a laugh.
"Well, thank you for that. But just a tiny correction."
"The old rulers have been deposed for a very long time."
"Oh really?" he said sarcastically.
"Yes. The current rulers of Kreathor, Azara, and Marx are quite open to commercial possibilities and diplomatic relations."
"How exactly would you know that?"
Alice shrugged innocently. "I'm from very far away."
The man leaned forward and whispered. His tone was deathly serious. "You shouldn't advertise being south up here. People are superstitious. They think everyone down south has some black magic from the poor to the rich. People'll start questioning you. Dangerous people. Lots of them forget we came from the south to begin with. I don't, and that's why I like you."
"I also gave you a platinum ducat."
"That too. Just don't be stupid."
"Fair enough. Do you know a place where people aren't superstitious?"
"Poldark has a lot of cultural mixing, but that's almost about a week by foot."
"Thank you." Alice turned away and began heading toward the inn. She saw that the girl from before was still sitting in the alleyway. Alice looked back at the clerk. "That girl was there when I first arrived. Is she waiting for someone?"
"I said don't be stupid." The clerk sniffed. "She's nothing but trouble."
"Trouble? She can't be older than fourteen."
He looked at her pointedly. "She's trouble."
Alice conceded. It wasn't worth fighting over. She walked toward the inn and made sure not to make eye contact. Despite her efforts, she felt the girl's gaze. It was unsettling.
The door to the inn was heavy, probably to keep it closed in the winter. This time of year, it definitely had to be propped open. The heat from inside was stifling. Plenty of men hooting and hollering at their tables added to the heat in the room. There was even a minstrel playing the fiddle for a small crowd. By the sweat on his brow, he looked like he had been playing songs for a long time. There were a few burly women in the crowd, but they mostly kept to each other. Hardy people hung around hardy people, but even girlish gossip seemed unshakable out here.
Alice took off her travelling cloak and slung it over her shoulder. The bar itself was relatively empty. Most of the inebriated were laughing with their friends at the tables. The barman was a lanky one. If he ate here often, it didn't show one bit. His face was hawkish, and his gaze was like flint. None of the women seemed to pay him any mind, even the young ones who were flirting. If he had been in Kreathor, every one of the unattached sisters would be testing him because of that stern gaze alone.
Alice's façade of an encounter with the farmhand vagabond removed any desire to flirt for the sake of it. She didn't exactly want to, but Treyce had always encouraged it. It was just a game after all, and it would be good practice for being observant. He'd probably critique her technique afterwards and tease her.
The bartender looked up from polishing a glass.
"What'll it be?"
"Have any wine?"
"Not until June, I'm afraid."
"Then just two shots of hard liquor."
He stopped polishing the glass. His gaze was steady. Nodding, he replied, "Two shots of brandy it is."
"Anything stronger?" she asked. He shook his head once. "Then put a sprinkle of cinnamon in each." He laughed in his throat. "Now that's a first," he said while fingering the bottles.
Alice shrugged. "I like a bit of spice in my drink."
He poured the shots. "Brandy's not spicy enough for you?"
"Wrong kind of spice."
After serving the two shots with cinnamon, he clucked his tongue. "Is that so?"
Alice downed one shot and shook her head. "That's right."
"You want something to eat so you don't tip over?"
Down went the second one. "Vegetable stew."
"You're in luck, miss. Marcy just made a few batch a minute ago."
He went into the kitchen and emerged a few seconds later with a steaming terracotta bowl. Alice ate a spoonful of sliced carrots, cabbage, chard, and white beans. The flavor brought back memories of home. She smiled despite herself. She'd have to complement the chef.
"Something wrong, miss?"
He pointed beneath his left eye. She felt her own and found it was moist. Wiping her eyes, she answered with a bit of difficulty, "I'll live." The chef just then exited the kitchen. The woman was heavy set, but that bulk was definitely from muscle and not all fat. Her curly red hair was escaping her white cap. She carried a tray to a table nearby. An older man with a curly black beard winked at her, and she rolled her eyes.
"Marcy," called the barkeep casually.
"You stew was so good it brought a customer to tears."
"I'm serious. She's crying right now." He looked at Alice. Marcy walked over and became flustered once she realized the girl actually was crying.
Alice was softly choking back sobs. Her hand was covering her face. It was red with embarrassment. "She's also possibly drunk," Thomas added.
"I'm not drunk, jackass."
"That's what they all say," he mused. Alice looked to Marcy for support. "Does he always have to have the last word?"
"Of course," he answered.
That Thomas needed to fall in a ditch.
Marcy shot Thomas a death glare, but he just grinned. She sat next to Alice and rubbed her back. "Oh you poor dear, what's got you all torn up?" Alice slammed the bar with her other hand. A few patrons looked over to watch the small scene play out. Alice growled and gripped her face tighter.
"Gimme a room. I'll pay in the morning."
Marcy nodded. "Alright dear. Let's get you upstairs." She glared at the patrons rubbernecking, and they slinked back to their tables like whipped dogs. Marcy gently held Alice by her shoulders and led her up the stairs. Alice didn't try to hide her face. It was red and streaked with tears. Her face was taut with anguish.
"She…used to make soup…like that…my mom."
"You miss her, don't you?"
"It's going to be alright. You just need some rest." They were at the door.
"It's no problem at all, dear."
Alice walked mechanically into the room and sat down on the bed. Out of all the memories threatening to destroy her peace of mind today, it was the simplest, most benign one that set her off. Her sob mixed with a laugh.
"What's your name, dear?"
"Alice, if you need anything, I'm right downstairs. We'll be open past midnight, and my room is right next door."
"My pleasure, dear."
With that, the door closed softly and the only light in the room was rapidly waning from the setting sun. Alice managed to calm herself and close her eyes. Deep sleep embraced her within minutes.