A short-story independent of any larger project, this was a quickly-written and little-edited piece I wrote because I had the idea for the main character. The story concerns a young noblewoman named Ilana Goldengrass, who is on an unspecified journey which takes her through the small, river town of Meyer's Crossing.
Ilana Goldengrass rode into Meyer’s Crossing just before noon, her manservant Harold riding beside her. It was a beautiful day, and the waters of the Laguind bubbled and laughed in the river just east of the road.
Snow, Ilana’s white mare, was enjoying the smell of the water and the warmth of the sunshine, and she pranced eagerly as they neared the town, picking up speed in her excitement.
“Now, now, Snow,” said Ilana, gently stroking the horse’s mane. The mare slowed and calmed at her touch. “We don’t want to leave Shadow behind.”
Shadow was Harold’s mount, a huge, grey gelding that carried the bulk of Ilana’s bodyguard with ease. Every noblewoman needed a bodyguard when traveling abroad, and Harold made an imposing sight, dressed head-to-toe in shining full-plate, the Goldengrass Knot-and-Rooster crest emblazoned on the breastplate. Shadow moved slowly, carefully, and Harold sat atop the mount like a sack of apples, threatening to topple over.
As they passed out of the trees and entered the town proper, a bird flew down to alight on Ilana’s shoulder. This was Abigail, a Long-Tailed Fiscal with finely-preened feathers. She hopped about excitedly and rubbed her head against her lady’s cheek, then affectionately nibbled at her ear.
“Abby, stop that,” Ilana laughed, and the music of her voice caught the attention of a pair of townsfolk just ahead. They looked up from their noonday chores to look at the procession, and shied away a little when she reined up before them.
“Long days to you, goodfolk,” said Ilana, sweeping back a strand of red-gold curls from her face in a dignified motion.
“Long days, m’lady,” said the older of the two citizens with an awkward bow. He was dressed like a farmer and had been unloading a crate of potatoes when she approached. “What can an old man like me offer you?”
“Directions will suffice, my good man. My manservant and I will be staying the night here; tell me, is there a public house or inn where we might stay?”
“Aye,” said the man. He had removed his hat in a show of modesty, and now clutched it in his sun-spotted hands. “Two of them. The nicer is The Riverman’s Rest, and it’s just along this road, under the sign of the dock and anchor.”
“Thank you, sir.” Ilana pinched her skirt in a riding curtsy and heeled Snow forward, then hesitated. “You’ve been very kind; if you need anything, ask for Goldengrass and I’ll be sure to let the innkeeper know to allow me visitors.”
She rode on, Shadow following automatically.
Mor, Hatcher, and Pace sat in the common room at the Riverman, eating their lunch and drinking their ale in agitated silence. Their last job had fallen through. They’d gotten out unharmed, but the goods had ended up in the water, along with the raftsman who was taking them south.
Each of them blamed the other two for the incident, but their arguments had stopped short of bloodshed, and they had all agreed to let the matter rest.
When Ilana entered the common room, only Pace took notice, but he nudged his cohorts to look at the mark that had just arrived.
Ilana, in her green, brocaded riding dress, glided into the inn with a practiced grace, her hair spreading down the back of her traveling cloak. She crossed to where the innkeeper stood in his boots and apron, addressing him in a dignified manner.
“Sir,” she said, and her clear voice was audible throughout the quiet of the room. The few other customers who were there eating took note of her now. “I would like to rent a room for the night. Second floor, the one with the dormer, if it’s available.”
As she spoke with the innkeeper, Pace turned back to his partners.
“See what I see?”
“Aye,” said Hatcher. “Girl like that’s sure t’be carrying something worth taking.”
“Fools.” Mor spat a bit of gristle onto his plate. “That one’s bad news if ever I saw it.”
“What you mean, man?”
“See her?” he pointed with a chicken-greased pinky finger, still eating. As he did, her motions moved her cloak aside, showing an old book strapped to the small of her back. “Rich girl like her, bird on her shoulder and book like that? Wager my teeth it’s a magician’s book, and that bird’s her famil’r spirit. Not even trying to hide her money, either. She’s a witch, I bet, one who’ll be more than a match for you dullards.”
Hatcher and Pace thought about this as they watched her, but it was around this time that she showed a golden signet ring on her finger and said “Put the room under the name ‘Goldengrass,’ and if anyone comes to call, let them up.”
“Hear that?” whispered Hatcher. “She’s a Goldengrass! Forget robbing her, she’s worth her weight in salt and cinnamon for ransom.”
“And how are you going to ransom a witch? She’ll blind you and turn you on your ears if you try.”
“Harold, come along.” Ilana spoke clearly and motioned to the doorway. The huge figure of Harold entered, carrying their baggage in his arms. He stumbled a little, and clumsily plodded his way way across the room with all the grace of a dazed bull.
“See that, Mor?” said Pace, half-rising in his excitement. “Bodyguard.”
“Aye, and he’s bigger’n you are, too. You wanna tangle with that?”
“No he ain’t,” said Pace, indignant that anyone in this town (even just passing through) might be bigger than him. In truth, Harold was of similar build and about an inch taller.
“He’s half a drunk, though,” said Hatcher. “We catch’em right and he won’t even be part of it.”
The three continued their nefarious discussion past lunchtime and into the afternoon, working out the details of how best to rob these good folk.
Ilana sat down on the bed and gave it a little bounce to see what the mattress might be filled with. The answer appeared to hay and possibly gravel, but she had slept on worse. Rising and going to the dormer, she pulled open the shutter of the window and stuck her head out into fresh air, taking a moment to enjoy how the sunlight fell across the houses of the town.
Abby flew out to explore (or perhaps to hunt), and Ilana leaned on the sill, turning back to look around the room. It was a poor place, honestly, but she held no resentment towards it. These people lived in a small town on a big river and they were doing the best they could. She admired them.
Harold stood in the corner like a big, shiny, up-ended log.
“Harold, be a dear and go stand in the hall. I’m going to be reading for a bit; if anyone comes calling, let them in.”
Harold wordlessly (but in no way quietly) went out into the hall to stand watch, and Ilana sat by the window, flipping through an old, skin-bound book she had recently come into possession of. She was very excited to find out what secrets it held, and could think of no better place to read than this little dormer, warmed by sunlight and listening to the river running in the distance.
Ilana had only one caller: the farmer she had spoken with on the way into town. He stood hesitantly before Harold for a few long moments, expecting the guard to ask his business, but receiving only silence.
“I’m here to see the lady, uh, sir,” he stammered at last, wringing his cap in his hands.
The armored sentinel turned awkwardly and pushed the door open, stepping aside just enough to let the old man pass.
Squeezing inside, he saw Ilana as she sat by the window, reading. She noticed him and closed her book, rising with a warm smile.
“Hello again,” she said.
“Hello, m’lady,” said the farmer, and he gave an anxious bow.
“Is there something I might help you with?”
“I…It’s my herd, y’see.” He was nearly sweating, but with one hand he reached down and touched the coins in his pocket. It was a good feeling, and the thought of more to come emboldened him. “Somethin’s been taking the little ones and I thought—what with the big, strong knight ye have with ye—mayhap ye could have him look into it. If ye come out t’night, my wife will make the best meal ye’ll find this side of the water.” He almost rushed through the offer, trying to get it out before he lost his nerve. He did it, though, and his part of the deal was complete.
“That sounds lovely,” she said in response. “And I’m sure my Harold will be more than a match for whatever animal might be stalking your herd.”
So they made their plans and, that evening, Ilana and Harold rode out with the farmer as he returned to his homestead a few miles away.
Ilana could not help but be charmed by the little place, nestled as it was between two hills crowned with trees. The cabin was scarcely large enough for the farmer, his wife, and their little boy, but they pushed a pair of tables together and made room for their guests.
“Oh,” said Ilana, seeing the table spread. “I’m afraid Harold won’t be dining with us. He’s superstitious—you know how it is with coastal folk—and won’t eat before a hunt. No offense intended.”
“None at all,” said the goodwife. She had rosy-red cheeks and a plump face that made Ilana want to stay a while and enjoy a mother’s hospitality. “I’ll wrap his in a cloth and he can eat it once he’s done with this monster business.”
The meal was smoked beef with potatoes and onions, leek stew, fresh bread, and glazed apples, served with tea and coffee, which suited Ilana just fine. They passed meal in friendly conversation, mostly between Ilana, the goodwife, and the boy, who was particularly curious about the world beyond cattle ranching.
When the meal was well done (and it was very well done, indeed), Ilana and the farmer went to join Harold where he stood with the horses.
“It’s not too far,” said the farmer. “We’ll not need to ride.”
“Just as well; Harold doesn’t fight ahorse. He’s far too clumsy for such graces,” she laughed.
They went afoot, therefore, and at a slow pace. It was fully night when they entered the thicker woods where the creatures were thought to den. Above, a narrow moon shown down its pallid rays, which fell upon the quiet wood and lost themselves amidst the leaves.
Mor, Hatcher, and Pace crouched in a thicket beside the old hunter’s path, armed with what weapons they could find and watching with excitement for lantern light. If the farmer kept up his part of the deal, they’d all be rich by morning. It’d be easy too, taking them by surprise, and even if the lady didn’t have her better belongings with her, she was sure to have the key to their room at the inn.
Pace was the most eager for this job, and he was carrying an honest-to-goodness spear which they had scored on a previous robbery and been unable to sell. The other two had a woodsman’s axe and a banded cudgel and, thus armed, were more than willing to let Pace take the lead on this one.
“I’ll jump out and run the knight through,” he had told them. “All his muscle don’t stop steel, and if I get a runnin’, I can put this spear through a tree.”
Neither of his partners believed such a tale, but they figured if he could at least cause a distraction, they could nab the girl and keep her hostage long enough to disarm him. Mor’s warnings of sorcery had mostly been dismissed by this point, though Mor, himself, still kept that in the forefront of his mind.
Let the other two go first, draw her hexes, he thought. I’ll not get witched by some highborn trot tonight.
Hatcher, who was the dumber of the three, had little thought of planning and intended to axe whatever got in his arms’ reach. He wasn’t as strong as Pace, but there was a lot to be said for quickness and unbridled ferocity when it came killing surprised folk.
They had all unanimously agreed to kill the farmer, too, so they wouldn't have to pay him his cut.
They caught a glimpse of light coming in through the brush and leaned forward, peaking out to see their marks coming down the path. They had expected lantern light, but were unnerved to see that the lady now carried a twig, the tip of which shone with a clear, white light that made stark shadows of the plants and trees around.
“Witchcraft,” whispered Mor.
“More light for us to see them by,” said Pace, his confident grin audible in his voice.
They scooted back, Pace hunching his broad shoulders, all doing their best to not be visible from the path, and waited.
A minute passed, the light grew brighter as the travellers drew near and the tension stretched thinner until Hatcher nearly poked his head out. Mor stopped him, but no more than ten seconds later, he gave the signal.
The three robbers burst out of their hide, screaming from the top of their lungs and waving their weapons in the air. As they did, the farmer turned tail and ran, dropping his lantern with a clatter.
Before Harold could react, Pace rushed forward and drove his spear through the knight’s belly, punching through his platemail and out the back, such was the force behind it. As the other two thugs went after the lady, Pace watched as his opponent turn with a staggering gait to face him and lurched forward, his huge hands shooting out to grab the brigand’s neck.
The man screamed as the gauntleted hands closed over this throat and then began to lift him from the ground. Harold said nothing as he did this, did not even grunt with exertion or pain at his mortal wound.
Hatcher and Mor stopped dead in their tracks and turned to watch in horror as Pace, big as he was, was lifted up and throttled by the monstrous knight. Mor jumped to action, grabbing Ilana by the arm and waving his cudgel threateningly towards her head.
“Call him off!” he roared, but Ilana only watched with a calm smile.
Hatcher had gone to his friend’s aid, swinging his axe in both hands, bringing it down right into the knight’s visor. It made a horrific clanging sound as it bounced off, and a second blow crumpled it inward. The force of the wild attack broke fastenings on the armor’s gorget and it fell away, hanging awkwardly from the breastplate and exposing the knight’s neck, guarded now only by a bit of cloth. Harold seemed not to notice this at all, and only squeezed his hands tighter.
Another swing and the knight’s head came off his shoulders, falling bloodlessly from his helm as it bounced across the dirt path below. In the magic light, his pallid face stared up accusingly at the attackers, his thin, grey lips open in a silent groan, his eyes clouded over white. His hair was patchy, mostly fallen out, and one ear was completely gone. Worse, his left cheek was rotten through, showing a grin of stained and broken teeth.
And yet, still the knight stood, holding the brigand for a few moments more, still squeezing harder and harder until—slowly—it realized it was dead and had been for a long time, then crumpled gracelessly into the dust.
Hatcher and Mor could only stare in shock at the grizzly scene, unable to react to what their minds could not—at least, willingly—comprehend.
“Now, now,” said Ilana, crossing over to her fallen bodyguard. Mor realized suddenly that he didn’t have her arm anymore. “This won’t do at all. You’ve gone and killed my Harold.” She knelt over the armored corpse and tsked. “And look,” she drew a knife from her belt and pointed at Pace’s chest, which rose and fell in broken, uneven gasps. “He didn’t even manage to finish the job.”
“What’re you—” Hatcher stepped forward was stopped short as Ilana waved a hand in his direction, causing the air between them to shimmer and spark with a dangerous heat. He backed up just a second before a sheet of blinding flame scoured the dirt in front of him.
The noblewoman took her knife and cut open Pace’s throat, turning it to the side to bleed him out onto the ground. In the unnatural twig-light, the blood took on an almost pinkish color.
Pace sputtered as blood entered throat and was coughed out his mouth, then shortly grew still and quiet. One last bubble escaped his lips with a shuddering sound, and he was dead.
Mor was about to run. He had had enough of this nonsense and was ready to cut his losses. Whatever the witch had, it wasn’t worth this; but he stayed, frozen and unable to look away from the horrible act unfolding before him. Had he been entranced by her, or was there simply a fault in men’s hearts, that they wish to look upon that which they fear most?
Hatcher was likewise dumbstruck as the girl dipped a finger into Pace’s blood and, with it, drew a sigil on his forehead. She produced a fine black powder from her belt-pouch, one that glittered like diamonds in the light of the magic twig. She sprinkled this over his body in a single swipe of her hand and then leaned down—
Close, so close,
—and whispered a single, quiet word into the dead man's ear.
There was no flash of light, no rolls of thunder, but some worse magic was afoot in the woods that night.
Slowly, with graceless, drunken motions, the corpse began to move, and in this fashion was helped into a sitting position by its master. The mouth hung slack, and the head turned achingly towards the two bandits, its eyes like dull, dead stones.
They screamed in abject terror, running now heedlessly into the night and vanishing into the distant clatter of underbrush, swallowed up by the forest around.
The next morning, Ilana stood holding Snow’s reigns outside The Riverman’s Rest. She yawned, covering her mouth politely as she did so, and watched as Harold stepped clumsily out into the street, their luggage in his arms. His armor bore a few, odd scars, where the plate had been patched in an unusual way..
Ilana took the luggage from him and loaded it onto the horses, humming a tune as she did.
“Is there anything you need for the road?” The innkeeper stood in the doorway, sad to lose such a well-paying guest.
“Thank you, but I think we’ll be fine. Harold’s eager to hit the road, I’m afraid, or else we might like to spend another day in your beautiful town.”
The townsfolk watched as Ilana mounted her horse and Harold climbed awkwardly into his saddle. It would be a long time before another noblewoman came through.
“Oh, Harold,” said Ilana as they set off. “I’m afraid you’re a little shorter than you used to be. I’ll have to remember to have your armor tailored when next we see a good blacksmith.”