Alice led the way over the rolling hills. The wind was blowing with a slight ebb and flow along the crests. Her brunette braid was pinned up after fluttering in the wind annoyingly one too many times, but strands flew into her blue eyes every once in a while.
Behind her plodded her charge, Ine. 'Charge' probably wasn't the best way to describe her companion. Ine was a dirty-blonde ex-street urchin and ex-mercenary that she had, for all intents and purposes, adopted. 'Charge' wasn't entirely incorrect though. Two of Alice's friends were expecting her to take care of the young girl. So far, she was falling short in that regard.
Three days ago, Ine's right shoulder had been struck with an arrow. The wound festered at first, but with some cleaning and care, it had gotten better. Well, that's what she had said. Alice knew how to do some basic first-aid, but she was out of practice. Her own time as a mercenary back in Marx had spoiled her with physicians aiding members of the Falcians as opposed to being self-sufficient.
Because of that, Ine was hunched over. Being proud however, Ine dismissed the idea and instead blamed the wind. Her hair was too short to be brought into a braid or a ponytail like Alice's, but it was still long enough to get in her face. The wind bothered her eyes, but Alcie knew that wasn't the reason she hunched over.
The road they walked led to Poldark, a trade capital in the kingdom. According to Alice's friends, Poldark had a specialty doctor, one that could do things no other doctor could. Perhaps they wouldn't need his services since Ine was doing so well.
"Ugh," she grumbled.
"Hmm? What's wrong, Ine?"
"How long until we get to Poldark? My feet are killing me."
Alice stopped to pull out her map. The journey was two days by foot. They had left yesterday at around four in the afternoon yesterday, and it was just after two judging by the shadows. However, they had passed the mountain pass several hours ago, and that was supposed to be the halfway point. They might actually make it before dark at this pace if the map was right.
"Probably another six or seven hours."
Ine groaned loudly.
"Hey," chided Alice, "You didn't have to come if you didn't want to."
"Oh yeah, let me just stay back in Ferrock and let my good arm go to shit. Why couldn't the city have lent us a carriage or something?"
"Because I am technically exiled, and I prefer to be frugal if I can."
"You're miss moneybags!" whined Ine, "You pulled out six million ducats like it was nothing!"
"Come on, standing around doesn't count as walking."
Ine grumbled to herself when they resumed their journey. As far as she was concerned, this was hell. Never mind getting shafted by an arrow, this was far worse. The waiting. The walking. The corny jokes Alice would tell every once in a while to lighten the mood.
She stared at Alice's head. That was weird. Normally, it'd be about time for another one…
…still nothing…maybe she's run out of material?
"Are you hungry?" asked Alice.
Finally, now I just gotta avoid stepping into the punchline.
Alice looked down the hill and into the trees lining the nearby brook. "There's probably some edible greens and berries down there."
The two of them went down to the bank and looked for food. Ine didn't see much, but Alice managed to carry a nice pile of various nuts and berries on her cloak. "Are you sure these are edible?" asked Ine.
Ine continued to stare at Alice.
"It's been ten minutes, and you haven't told a joke."
"I thought you hated them."
Ine scoffed. "Didn't stop you the first twelve times."
"No, I'm just hungry."
"You're going to tell one now, aren't you?"
Alcie raised her eyebrow and shook her head. Ine remained unconvinced, but Alice didn't seem to be the patient type. Unless it was vital, she normally just charged ahead and made the most of the situation. She wasn't a viper coiled to attack at a moment's notice.
"Hey," Alice asked. Her tone was downcast.
"Hmm?" Ine stuffed her mouth full of berries.
"Am I…tall? I mean abnormally."
Ine shifted uncomfortably. "Well, not abnormal. You're just taller than most people. Well, most girls."
"There is this girl back home named Tara. She had the most beautiful golden hair, and the fairest skin. It's not too pale, but it's not tan like mine, and it doesn't have nearly as many calluses on it. We were training mates, and even though she was a little snooty, she had the stuff to back it up.
"She was tall but had grace. She was always the last person to fail an obstacle course and the last person to fumble her weapon. Everything about her…was mesmerizing and graceful. There were plenty of people in our squad that would say she's like a well-groomed tree."
"That's a weird metaphor," said Ine.
"I suppose. Gardening is popular back home. A beautiful garden is a status symbol. I'm almost as tall as her, but I don't have her fighting prowess or her poise."
"This girl's a better fighter than you?" Ine was doubtful. It was probably Alice's lack of self-confidence talking.
"Yeah. People would say she's well pruned. Me? They'd just call me a tree."
"So, uh, what brought this up?"
"Lisbon," growled Alice. "He called me a tree."
"What?!" Ine tried to suppress her laughter once Alice shot her a dirty look. "I mean, when? I never heard that."
"When he accused me of treeson."
Her voice had been so deadpan, it took Ine a second to realize what she had stepped in. Ine groaned loudly as Alice burst into laughter. "That was so worth it!" she said. "I was just waiting for that!"
But Ine was furious. "I can't believe it! You set all that up for a joke? What's next, lying about being a merchant ripping off your patron so you can say you were a 'trader,' not a 'traitor'?"
"Ooh, that's a good one! I'll write that down."
"I can't believe you…that was awful." Ine kicked the nuts away in anger.
"If it's any consolation," Alice said, "it was true."
"Tara. It just happened to lead into a good joke."
Ine paused to contemplate her words. Once Alice had swallowed another handful of berries, Ine said, "That was probably your worst yet, Alice."
"Why thank you. I try my best."
"I don't like this," grumbled Alice. The two of them walked towards a roadside inn that looked less than appealing to travelers. The sun was setting, and she had no lantern. Ine's frequent groaning last night had stressed Alice beyond what she was used to. An inn had a soft bed, and a soft bed would help Ine sleep without pain hopefully.
But why did it have to be this inn? The windows are even broken.
"Oh come on," laughed Ine. "It's got rustic appeal."
"'Rustic' doesn't mean 'rundown.'"
"You're a Falcian. Aren't you suppose to have a sense of adventure?" Ine stepped through the door as Alice reluctantly walked in after her. That's not technically true.
The inn's interior was not an improvement from the façade. The furniture looked old, worn, and, worst, dirty. Did those tables have ages of beer rings stained into the wood? Ugh, and the smell… The air had a pungent odor to it. It didn't nauseate her, but it was a far cry from the little, homely inn in Ferrock. And the characters were just as bad. They looked as seedy and grimy as the tavern itself.
Ine took a deep whiff of the place and smiled ecstatically. "Get a load of this! Now this is my kind of inn."
Alice grimaced. "What about Thomas and Marcy's inn?"
"Too boring and clean. A real tavern is as dirty and gritty as the people in it."
One or two patrons heard that comment and turned to glare at the source. As Ine looked around, completely taken in by the sight, Alice made sure to make eye contact with the offended persons. She closed her eyes and nodded submissively to them, and they returned to their business. Nobles, soldiers, and normal citizens were her forte. Seedy individuals were always too unpredictable for her to manage well.
"Let's just get a-."
She was gone.
After a second of frantic searching, Alice found Ine at the bar trying to order a drink.
"Gimme an ale!" she said energetically.
I thought she was more street smart than this.
The bartender ignored her.
"Hey! I'm talking to you!" yelled Ine as she hit the bar. Alice grabbed Ine by the arm and whispered threateningly, "Don't throw your weight around when you've got none to throw!"
Ine glared at her. She said a bit more loudly, "I wasn't living on the street when we met, Alice. I know how to take care of myself."
"Clearly," scoffed Alice. Ine covered her wound defensively. "You don't have Blade to help you out anymore, Ine."
"Blade?" responded the bartender. A few patrons also turned to look at them out of curiosity. "Are you two Falcians?"
"Yup," answered Ine. "I'm Scout, and this is Firebird."
Ine pulled out her crossbow. Even though her right arm encumbered her, she managed to load a bolt into the stock with one hand. Then she managed to aim it at a dart board twenty feet away and hit it square in the center. A few patrons whistled congratulations.
That was actually impressive. At least she has some weight to throw around.
"You can check the initials on it, too," she said cockily while tossing the crossbow on the bar. "SoL. 'Scout of Lezennes.'" The inn roared with laughter. Once the patrons had calmed down, the barman drew a tankard for Scout. Apparently, Falcians were more appreciated in this part of the kingdom. Or perhaps they liked Lezennes more than Blade.
"Alright, Scout. But what about the pretty thing there?"
Unlike Ine, Alice heard catcalls from behind her. "I don't perform on demand," she replied. "I'm not your entertainment." Many of the patrons jeered as did Ine.
"Come on, it's cool! Show us a Firebird punch!"
"I said 'no', Ine."
"Can you at least show us your tits, lady?"
Alice bristled at the comment. The inn roared with laughter again. Firebird's reputation didn't seem to reach all the way here. This was a far cry from her dealings in Ferrock. She had never actually declared she was Firebird to any of the citizens, so perhaps they also wouldn't have known the name. Still, these men should be familiar with the Falcians and therefore Firebird.
She turned around nonchalantly and walked towards the man who had said the comment. "Do you know why I'm called 'Firebird'?" Before he could shake his head, Alice suddenly punched the empty space in front of the door. Out from her first erupted the phoenix as it rushed towards the door, singeing it before dissipating into thin air. Of course, she underestimated the scope of the flare in such a cramped room and set a nearby tablecloth on fire.
Alice frantically grabbed the tablecloth, kicked open the door, and threw it on the ground to stomp it out. Once she extinguished the fire, she picked up the remains of the cloth and sullenly made her way back to her seat next to Ine. The men were snickering at her mishap, and Ine was grinning like a child watching a puppet theatre. "Make that two ales," she told the barman.
"No thanks," whispered Alice, "just some water."
Ine started laughing. It wasn't everyday Alice looked sheepish.
"You think that was funny?" yelled the barman. "I oughta throw you two out for almost burning my whole place down!" Alice reached into her purse and handed a gold ducat to the barman. "That should be enough to replace the tablecloth and fix the door. Please forgive my recklessness." The barman grumbled in assent. A gold ducat was probably the most valuable coin he'd ever held in several years.
"Hey, at least you showed them your namesake," teased Ine.
Alice groaned. That wasn't the kind of first impression she had in mind.