The tavern smelled of body odor and spices, all mixed with the pungent scent of ale. Ravenna’s nose flared and her lips curled in disgust. She absolutely hated the smell of alcohol; it reminded her of her previous life. She reached up and tugged her hood down over her eyes. The tavern was filled with men that had dirt-smeared skin and were missing teeth. Several women danced around the room with pitchers of ale, their tattered dresses swishing with each step. Ravenna clung to the walls, lurking within the shadows. Her hands slipped in and out of pockets with ease.
As she neared the bar counter itself, a bulky patron stumbled backward, almost knocking her over. “Watch it!” the man slurred as he whirled around to get a look at her. His round cheeks were speckled with red. He lifted a fist threateningly and scowled.
Ravenna glared. The tips of her nails grew cold. The dirt engrained beneath the tips started to cloud over with ice as her hands balled into fists. The drunken man slunk back toward his seat, slamming his empty metal mug down against the counter. He reached for the leather coin-pouch at his side and, startled to find it empty, let out an outraged cry.
“Shite…my coins!” He started to shout incoherently. He skewered the room with squinted eyes and then jabbed a finger at another patron. “You stole ‘em!”
The scrawny patron held his hands up in defense. “I ain’t stole nothin!”
Ravenna slipped the five gold pieces into her own pouch and smirked. The added jingle was drowned out beneath the continued roars of the drunken ogre. The owner of the tavern slammed a mug against the bar and his screams drowned out the chaos. It wasn’t long before the ogre was kicked out onto the streets. A few heartbeats later, and the chatter kicked back up again, flooding the room like a wildfire.
It was the same old scene every time. It was yet another reason she hated taverns.
As she skimmed through the crowd, a particular bout of whispers caught Ravenna’s attention. She paused several feet from the source of the noise: a rounded table, half-concealed behind a wooden column. Several patrons were clustered around and had leaned in close. Their mugs overflowed with frothy bubbles in front of them.
“Did you hear the rumors?”
“I heard somethin’ to do with the Imperials rushing through the streets earlier. Said that some of the poor saps were frozen solid.”
The first man leaned in closer, attempting to whisper. “I heard there was a dragon.”
“Aye,” one of the other men said, his eyes flashing. “It came from the mountains just north o’here and attacked the soldiers near the farms outside Khal. And it breathed ice instead of fire!”
Another of the patrons shook his head. “That’s legend-speak,” he scoffed. “No way in hell that a real dragon exists! It was probably just some unlucky wizard.”
Then the table of men grunted at each other, drank another mug of mead, and burped. Laughter exploded from their table and Ravenna started toward the other side of the room, her eyebrows furrowed. A dragon that breathed ice. It wasn’t completely unheard of. The ancient legends sang of dragons that breathed all sorts of magic.
It was just that dragons were supposed to be exactly that… ancient legends.
Ravenna brushed past a woman whose chest was exposed. A group of men surrounded her and marveled at her breasts like trolls marveling over a diamond. Her levels of disgust reached their peak, and she started toward the door.
She pushed the heavy wooden door open and a gust of wind rushed to greet her. Darkness stretched across the sky, mixed with speckles of stars and a massive round moon. The streets of Kahl were empty, save for a few drunkards and several Imperial guards. Ravenna remained hidden within the shadows as she made her way toward her homestead: an abandoned church that had burnt to the ground centuries ago. Her gaze skirted over the tops of the surrounding buildings. The snowcapped mountain peaks loomed in the far distance.
Her thoughts returned to the dragon.
Even if it had only been a wizard, it still had enough control to aim at the Imperials.
She glanced at her hands. Frostbite nipped at the tips of her fingers as ice crept toward her palms. The idea of control seemed too good to be possible.
A gust of wind sliced across Ravenna’s cheeks. It filled her cloak and knocked her hood back, revealing pools of ice blond curls. Her blood stilled with fear as she looked around. There were only two people within sight, both with their backs turned. Neither seemed to know that she existed. She wrenched her hood back into place and ducked her head, keeping her gaze on a nearby street tucked in between two houses. It was almost completely covered in darkness. When she reached it, she looked around and made sure that no one had followed. Then she exhaled a small sigh of relief.
Nobody had seen her. She was safe.
“Excuse me, lass?”
Ravenna whirled around. An Imperial stood at the mouth of the alley, a flickering torch in hand. The flames glimmered against his steel armor and the slender sword at his hip. His clouded gaze seemed to be focusing on her as he asked, “What is a young lady like you doing out on the streets at this time of night?”
“I don’t see how that’s any of your business,” Ravenna responded smoothly. Her hand reached up and tugged her hood dark farther, further concealing her face.
His gaze hardened. “Just a moment now, lass. Anybody wandering the streets and hiding behind a dark cloak could be conceived as a threat, which makes it Imperial business. It’s my job to protect these streets.”
“You’re doing a fine job as well,” she said and started toward the other end of the alley. A cluster of trees waited just beyond the rear yards of the houses –an escape route waiting to engulf her. Her stomach started to twist with knots as she reached the waist-high rock walls that lined the yard. A glance over her shoulder proved her nerves right. The guard still followed.
She turned to face him once more. “I’m sure an Imperial guard has much more pressing duties to attend to. Especially at this time of night.”
The Imperial moved faster than she had expected him too. The torch dropped to the ground and sparks skidded across the cobblestones as the flames flickered, and then snuffed out, bathing the space around them in darkness. Her lower back slammed against the edge of the wall, the weathered rocks scratching her palms as she tried to catch herself. Pain clawed at her spinal cord and she gasped. His hand clutched her throat, metal bracers digging into her skin.
His body pressed against hers and he leaned in close, breath washing over her mouth. Her hood pooled around her neck and strands of hair tickled her cheeks. She watched his gaze widen and cloud over with desire.
“Oh no,” she whispered. Her hands lifted in defense, squeezing between the limited amount of space between them.
His milky eyes darkened and he brushed a finger across her lips. “If you scream, lass, I may just have to kill you.”
Her heart pounded in fear, pulse screaming just behind her ears. As he leaned in closer, his hand gripped her chin, forcing her head still. The stench of mead and burned venison washed over her senses. Ravenna squeezed her eyes shut.
It happened before she could stop it.
Ice exploded from her palms, spreading across the Imperial’s chest beneath his breastplate. Swirls of agony entered his dark eyes, replacing his lust. She watched as his mouth went slack and a small wheeze of air escaped from him. The Imperial flopped to the ground like a sack of wheat. The ice expanded across his throat, fanning upward across his face until he could no longer breathe. The rest of his skin blackened with frostbite and blisters.
Ravenna took a step backward, and her hands shook as she tried to pull her hood back into place. She squeezed her eyes shut and struggled to find enough air to breathe.
“He deserved it,” she told herself. “He would have raped me so I had to do it. He deserved it.”
Her hands stopped shaking and she exhaled deeply. The Imperials definitely did deserve it. It was their fault that her mother was dead. It was their fault that she was cursed.
Ravenna opened her eyes and stared at the mountains. It was ten days ago that she had woken beneath a thick layer of ice, surrounded by blue-faced Imperials in a body of freezing water. It was ten days ago that she realized that she had been cursed with the ability to create ice.
Now she just needed to learn to control it.