With another glance toward the sun, Siobhan quickened her pace. Their hunts or rather her hunts—Elias merely came because he considered it his job to watch her—never carried them far from their current city. A cart full of meat and skin moved slowly at its best speed. Though they laced the underside of the cart with ice totems that kept it chilled enough but they would eventually warm and the meat with them. Having the ability to return in haste proved prudent.
It always amused her that the lowlands, a realm weary of mages to the point they captured them and turned them into the will-less Vanguard, would so willingly use and sell magical totems. Did they not realize without the very mages they loathed, their totems would be useless? In the eyes of Siobhan, it was human hypocrisy at its finest.
“M’lady,” Elisa said.
“Will you stop calling me that!”
“Nay. For as long as I breathe, you’re my lady and I am in your service.”
“Fool,” Siobhan muttered. “Your life force is longer than mine, leaving you a chance to still be in my service well after I’m shriveled and grayed. You should’ve taken my offer of freedom when I gave it to you!”
“I swore an oath to your father to guide and protect you whenever needed. There is nothing I deem more of an honor than that.”
Siobhan snorted. “You truly are a moron then, Elias, upholding an oath made to a dead man.”
“Perhaps.” He chuckled. “Will we be staying in Scanla for much longer?”
“I’m not sure. Depends on how much we get for today’s hunt. Last winter, scouring for any abandoned lodging we could find, is not a scenario I aim to repeat. Until we have money for a ship, there’s no point heading to the southern coast where hunting is scarce. Scanla is as good a place as any to hunker down for the winter and find work wherever.”
Siobhan’s eyes lifted to the guards standing watch on the stone walls circling Scanla. Their cloaks rippled in the wind, swords glinting with the dying light. Once night fell, the gates would close, leaving those men as both the judge and jury for poor souls hoping for a safe nights rest. At night, bandits and animals reigned the plains and hills. Anyone caught outside the sheltered walls fell easy prey or in for a long, sleepless night. Often the only way the gates opened before dawn was at the exchange of money, or the order of some prominent lord. Safety was as corrupt as the man who called himself the king of the lowlands.
Though Scanla was one of the smallest cities in the lowlands, its hustle and bustle of the market rivaled that of any place Siobhan had visited since her nomadic travels began. Men and women, old and young, rich and poor, were crowded into the narrow streets surrounded by stone buildings, wooden stalls, and prostitutes who cared little about the time of day. They cared only for the money they could score for their specific favors. Many days Siobhan was grateful for her well-rounded teachings as a child. If she hadn’t received them, in spite of her daily balking at the time, she wouldn’t be any better off than the women selling their bodies for a morsel of bread. Instead, she could negotiate any deal, hunt for her meals, and use her female charms if the situation required.
“Spare a bit of coin, love?” a woman, hunched over with age, asked. She licked her lips, eyeing the full cart. With the piles of meat and skins, any who saw them would assume Siobhan and Elias were wealthy hunters there for a trade. Scanla, and most cities in the western regions of the lowlands, were known for their poverty. This woman was no different. Her tight skin, frail body, and hole-filled clothes suggested she spent many days and nights on Stone street with the other dregs of Scanla.
“Sorry,” Siobhan said, “until I sell these wares, I’m as poor as you.” She reached over the side of the cart and grabbed the smallest pelt of deerskin within reach. “See if you can sell this, best I can do.”
“Many thanks!” The woman grabbed the deerskin and hobbled away. Siobhan watched her stagger to a worn table covered in a hole-filled cloth. Many skins hung from an awning behind the table. Based on how many skins remained that late in the day, it wasn’t the ideal place to sell another. Siobhan frowned, knowing the woman would be lucky to get two coins at best from that particular stall.
“That was kind of you,” Elias said. “Even a pelt that small could’ve fetched you several coins.”
“Be quiet. When I want your opinion, I’ll ask for it. She wasn’t going to leave us alone until I gave her something. This way she shuts up and leaves.”
Siobhan turned away from the woman and tapped the neck of Nyka, scanning the market. Selling her conquests would be simple; finding the right buyer to barter with was the challenge. First, there was the matter of finding a seller who’d managed to unload most their wares during the day. They wouldn’t be keen on buying more than they could turn around for profit the next day.
Second, to find a seller she could trust. They’d sooner stab her in the back and steal her cart than give her a fair price. Some would consider her a mark simply for her breasts alone. Her dagger to their throat could persuade them to believe otherwise. After her first year earning coin for her meals, and being ripped off on more than one occasion, she’d never again fall victim to their scams. No matter what, she’d hold her ground or refuse to sell.
As the light continued to dip from the burning array of colors to the dimming indigo, the chill from the near winter frost rose around her. Cold hardly bothered her but she could see others shuddering in their cloaks. They had days, at best, before the first snow fell. On the first days of winter, travel wouldn’t be a burden and they could still leave Scanla if they chose, but hunting would be near impossible as animals went to ground for hibernating. It was now or never for her to build her purse before five months of frost put a stop to everything. Skins, with the proper treatment, could hold. Meat, however, needed selling.
The stench of the stumbling miscreant hit her well before he did. To a normal person, his dark cloak, limp leg, and pungent aroma would anger any he bumped into and they wouldn’t think twice about pushing him away. Siobhan was hardly normal. If she were a wiser person, she would’ve grabbed the imprudent boy and slit his throat before his hand finished reaching under the loose bottom of her bell sleeved shirt. Though her leather clincher kept much of the linen trapped, she liked the end was free to cover the worn leather purse holding her coins and totems. Idle curiosity, and perhaps a little boredom, allowed him to bump into her and continue his path when she faked an annoyed grunt.
“Beg your pardon,” he said. She wondered if the rumble to his words was an intentional part of his act or if he was parched enough to strain his voice. This was when a normal person would push him away and shout at his clumsiness. Siobhan stood there, staring, waiting for his next move. He stopped for a moment when Siobhan didn’t react.
His hand, far too clean for the vagrant he claimed to be, grabbed the edge of his hood as he tipped his head. Siobhan crossed her arms, smiling, when he turned and slithered away. Slither was an accurate description of the way he dragged his left foot and pulled himself forward with the right. In the time she watched him, he stumbled into three more people. Unlike Siobhan, they gave him the push he expected. Their curses raised above the chatter filled streets of the market.
“M’lady?” Elias asked, stepping beside her.
“Do you have your purse on you?”
He tapped the front of his robes and nodded when the soft jingle of his shifting purse followed the pat.
“Good,” she said, glancing to Elias. His silver hair shifted in the wind, the high collar flapped and momentarily revealed his gills. Siobhan smirked, buttoning his top button to keep them hidden from human eyes. “Take the cart and sell what you can. Give what meat you can’t sell to the Foundling House on Stone street. I’ll meet you back at Ivan’s.”
“And where are you going?”
She reached inside the cart and grabbed her hooded cowl. Pulling the hood over her head, she turned. One hand rested on the edge of her collapsed staff, itching to release it from its loop and join the pieces. It had been weeks since she last used her weapon of choice. It was another fact she had to keep hidden from the lowland humans. They’d never seen a staff that could separate into parts, least of all one like hers with the hidden blades on either end.
“I’m going to see a miscreant about a stolen purse.”
“Wouldn’t it have been easier to simply stop him before he stole it?”
Siobhan looked to Elias and grinned. “Oh, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun.”