So a merc walks into a bar…

part of The Slayer of the Last Dragon

Chapter 1

It smelled of dirt and sweat. Every tavern smelled like dirt and sweat, actually, but this one smelled particularly like dirt and sweat. If Ari looked at the air, she’d swear that she could see beads of sweat suspended; dust motes so thick she couldn’t see across the dim lit, crowded floor. The wood boards lazily creaked under heavy boots. She sat there, by the bar, with a sullen expression on her face.

Everything hurt. She had been riding too hard for too long. It was a routine job—honestly—but Ari had the habit of messing things up. In Mordren, the land west of the mountains, the people are as uncivilized as uncivilized comes. Consequently, the job for a mercenary is relatively easy because there’s no Royal Guard to pursue her if she’s too obvious (which, given her track record, is all too frequent). However, she forgot about the drows that live in the mountains and they were less than pleased to have her performing magic in a village—not theirs, mind you, just one above their underground city—and consequently taught her the finer points of navigating a mountain range with angry gollums chasing you down.

Her horse, who saved her life for the gazillionth time, is now in the stable. She took care of him first because he did all the hard work. At one point he had lost his footing and Ari had to do some basic manipulation magic, but that was her biggest contribution to their escape. A Woden horse—characteristically large, black, and temperamental—are the best under extreme conditions. They also take years to get to like you, but Ari always had a knack with Woden horses. After all, her clan was the first to domesticate them an era and a half ago.

Granted, her clan is gone; she’s the only one left with merely her surname carved across her back as their legacy. It burns each time she casts a spell, a reminder from her father that magic is unwelcome in this land of Aldernon and she better not get herself killed.

So what did Ari do? How did she respect her father’s last wish? Ari became a mercenary. She takes seedy jobs from seedy men and gets paid.

Ari rakes her dark eyes across the room. No one looks suspicious. No one looks promising either. She returns to her stout, eying the dark liquid before taking a deep draught.

“It’s rare to see women fighters,” the barmaid says from behind the counter. Her dark hair is fashioned in braids and pinned to her heard. “Not since the Royal Decree that is.”

Ari smirked. “And what Decree is that? The ‘no woman shall serve in the Guard’? ‘No woman shall be knighted’? Or ‘no woman will inherit her father’s property’?” she counted off on her fingers. Then she closes her fist and smiles at the barmaid; “Or the one of ‘no practical magic’?”

“You know which one,” the barmaid whispers ambiguously, but it’s clear as day. Women were always the better sorcerers—they tended less to be swayed by the darker powers of magic. However, it wasn’t practical magic that really kept Ari’s hands tied. It was dark magic—the blood-born type that only travels in family lines. That kind had been outlawed longer than practical and within reason. The king, after all, couldn’t control you if you could learn magic on your own and not through his court-officiated sorcery schools.

When Ari went to pay for her drink, the barmaid refuses the payment. “I’d use that money to buy supplies and run town.” The dark haired woman motions to a few men gathered in the corner. They were nasty men. They had dirt all along the edges and in the cracks of their toothy smiles. Ari also didn’t recognize them and didn’t much see the need to be frightened of them until the barmaid spoke again. “Heard tell they were following a merc—planned on killing her.”

“Fun.” Ari grimaceds and finished off her stout, wiping foam from her upper lip. “Suppose you don’t know where I can rummy up supplies before riding for my life.”

The barmaid makes a quick, aborted gesture. It was the universal sign of you-should-be-going-but-ohmygodthey’realreadycoming.

Ari leaves with swift movements, slinking past the dirty men as she leaves. She realizes, as she goes by them with their soiled clothes and thin eyes, that the dirt and sweat smell had come from them. Sometimes her senses are stronger than she credits them to be and—well—she could just rightly kick herself.

Everything still hurts as she half-hobbles, half-runs to the stables. She throws a coin purse with probably too much money at the boy in livery. “Men come by, you never saw me.” She says harshly. He pulls a face, which is hardly discernible beneath the layers of dirt, but it relaxes as soon as he peeks into the bag.

“Oh my! I’ve seemed to have gone blind!” he exclaims and pantomimes clawing at his eyes. Ari smiles before darting to the furthest stall.

Generally, her horse whinnies at her approach. However, Gewitter is wilted and leaning against the rough hewn edges of the stall. He hardly lifts his head at her approach, his flanks still quaking from the brutal run. “I’ll come back for you,” she promises and runs a hand on the horse’s right shoulder. Gewitter presses into her wrist and the magic exchange lights up her veins. Then she kicks the stall door open and the horse flies out—running for some safety, some place to wait.

Ari runs out the back door after grabbing her bow and quiver from the stall. She also wraps the bridle around her belt because it was a gift from a Fey and no one should lose a gift from a Fey. The sound of men running is hot and heavy in her ears as she clambers through the small opening in the back of the barn to the back alley beyond.

The town is a blur as Ari runs through it. The cobblestones are uneven beneath her feet. There are few people on the street, but the few there are somehow get in her way. Royal Guards watch her as she swings into an alley. She can hear them call to each other after she leaves. Ari would bet her life they’re going to question the low-lifes on her tail. Sometimes she has the best luck being a girl.

Then, there are times that she has the worst luck being a girl. Like when she tries to convince the watchman to open the gate for her and he won’t because ‘a woman shouldn’t be alone out there’. “Then will you come with me?” she asks with bitter sweetness, sweating under her leather jerkin and heavy wool cloak that Mordren had necessitated in their fall months.

“I can’t leave my post,” the watchman says affably, grinning. One tooth is black, another is cracked, and his eyes sit in worn, aged skin. He has a scar on the back of his left hand. “But you’re more than welcome to sit here with me,” he offers. He’s not sitting. He’s standing on the little parapet and fingering the mechanism that cranks the heavy doors open. What a prat.

“okay,” Ari agrees much to the man’s surprise. She clambers up nimbly, minding his scattered bowls and utensils when she reaches the small, narrow place. Ari notes the weapons leaning against the wall—dagger, half-sword, and a horn—and smiles at how this man is obviously carrying no weapons on his person. Unless BO is a weapon because in that case he is armed to the teeth.

From her vantage point, Ari can see a large swathe of the town. She can also see her pursuers, a smaller posse than before but still sizeable, running down the wide causeway. Lifting the bow from around her shoulder, Ari lines up a shot. “Excuse me miss,” the man begins and she elbows him before sweeping his feet from under him. He lands heavily, head bouncing off the stone wall. She can smell blood, but the approaching posse takes up most of her attention.

Ari smiles as she looses the arrows. They arc lazily through the air and catch these men in the chest. She fells them easily. One hides behind a building, out of her reach, and that’s fine by her. Someone needs to tell their employer that she means business.

As the man in the shadows slinks closer to town, Ari attends to the watchman at her feet. His head is bleeding fiercely. When she cradles it, she can feel the lump forming and the hardness of a skull uncovered. “You’re lucky we’re close to the outskirts,” she says to the unconscious man. Her back burns viciously as she heals the head wound to a more manageable injury. Then she is jumping off the parapet to the dirt road outside the town. Then she is running to anywhere-but-here.

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