They Call Her Lady Warrior Ch.3
And Then There Was Nick, Part II
"All right, spill the beans."
Cianna had kept quiet as long as she could. When she and Nick left the Soltown tavern after their near run-in with the men from Rats Nest, they turned left, past a small scattering of houses and shops, and towards the woods where they would find privacy. Cianna waited for Nick to speak, but he seemed lost in thought, his gaze slowly surveying the woods before them.
"Hmmm? Oh, sorry. Was just wondering what those men were up to."
"Why should you care?"
"No reason, really. I just wouldn't want to see anyone get hurt." Cianna stopped walking and stared at him.
"What?" he said, noting the exasperation on her face.
"You are a walking mass of contradictions, do you know that?" she said. "First, you want to be part of whatever those men have going on, now you're worried about people getting hurt. Which is it: are you a good guy or a bad guy, a gentleman or a cad?"
Nick chuckled. "I think you will find, milady, that all men are a bit of both."
They walked a few more paces in silence.
"Cianna, there are reasons you need to be careful about who you make friends with in these parts, especially when you travel as a woman alone."
"I told you...."
"Yes, yes, I know. You can take care of yourself. And I don't doubt that for a minute. I saw you in action the day we met, remember?"
Cianna smiled at the memory. Returning to Aelasar's Forest after one of her reconnaissance missions, she made a quick stopover in Brittany to stock up on supplies. There, on the waterfront, she found a rather inebriated Nick lying on the ground with a grizzled old man holding a knife to his throat while another went through his pockets. She dispatched the pickpockets with ease, took Nick to a nearby inn, and sobered him up.
"I should have left you there," she said, laughing. "Would have served you right. But that was nothing, Nick. I really am quite capable of taking care of myself. I've trained long and hard to get where I am, and I carry the title of Lady Marshal to prove it."
Nick whistled. "Lady Marshal is it? I'm in even grander company than I thought."
Cianna bristled, than relaxed with a laugh. "Sorry, I didn't mean for that to sound so grandiose. But I am extremely well trained, and I am experienced in actual fighting, too. More than you'll ever know." The last part was said as a whisper.
She averted her eyes so Nick wouldn't see the sudden pain there, but it had seeped into her voice, as well. Nick opened his mouth to speak, but Cianna cut him off.
"Tell me about those men," Cianna said. "The one's you said belonged to the Baron."
"No, they don't belong to the Baron. Baron Drocis Fondorlatos has only one interest and passion in life and that is the pursuit of magic: black, white, good, bad, ancient, modern. He doesn't care, as long as it brings knowledge and power with it. He does, however, own the town of Rats Nest, where he lives. It's a pretty lawless place, since the Baron turns a blind eye to whatever goes on there. There are only two rules in Rats Nest: don't mess with the Baron, and pay your taxes on time. After that...." Nick shrugged.
"He sounds a bit intimidating. Is he a powerful wizard then?"
"No one really knows, Cianna. He keeps to himself. Rarely ventures out. It makes one wonder what he wants all of that knowledge for, though."
Nick plucked an apple from a roadside tree and offered it to Cianna. She shook her head.
"So, what interest did you have in those men in the tavern?" she asked as Nick bit into the apple.
"I was hired to trail them. My, uh, 'employer' has had several supply caravans robbed in the last few months and whenever it happens, these two men seem to be around. They're also suspected of strong-arming a number of merchants in the land, extorting coin and supplies from them in exchange for not burning down their businesses."
"That's awful!" Cianna cried. "Why are they allowed to get away with that?"
"People are afraid, Cianna, so they won't bear witness against the men who are robbing them. They don't know who's behind all of this. It could be the Baron. It could be the Novian Elves. It could be anybody at this point. And without proof, well, I may not like them, but I'm generally against hanging innocent men."
"So, you're trailing them to...?"
"To find out who's employ they're in. If we can take care of it from the top, it cleans out all the layers underneath. There's no point in killing just two men when there are 30 more who can take their place."
Cianna was lost in thought for a moment. She kicked a rock with her boot and watched as it skipped down the dirt road. A gentle breeze blew across the road bringing the smell of flowers and food from the tavern behind them.
"So why the pretend drunkenness all the time, Nick? Are you trying to throw them off guard?"
"Who says it's pretend?" Nick laughed. "But yeah, people tend not to take much notice of drunks. They blend in to the background more or less, which is a perfect place to eavesdrop on conversations."
"You weren't really drunk that day at the waterfront, though, were you," she demanded.
He grinned, and for a moment he looked like a young boy engaged in a game of Dueling Knights. He didn't answer, and Cianna smiled back at him.
"What will you do now? You've let them get away. You'll lose the trail."
"Oh, I didn't let them get away, Cianna. They haven't left yet. In fact, they're in these woods watching us right now."
As he finished speaking, a pair of rugged men emerged from behind a small grove of trees about twenty yards ahead of them. Cianna instinctively reached for the the hilt of her sword.
"Easy, girl," Nick whispered beside her. "Wait till they're closer."
They watched as the two men sauntered toward them, their drawn daggers glinting in the sunlight. Beyond them, Cianna could see a town guard sprawled on the ground. Unconscious? Dead? She couldn't tell.
"Well now, boys, we meet again. Have you decided to take me with you after all?" Nick called out cheerfully. "Just let me get rid of the little lady here and I'll be ready to go."
"She's going nowhere," the taller man answered, exposing a missing tooth as he grinned at Cianna. "The two of you are coming with us."
"And what if we don't want to?" Cianna said, her hand still on her sword.
"Well," said the man, "I guess we'll just have to persuade you then."
He swung his dagger in a wide arc towards Cianna's face, just missing her cheek.
"Be a shame to mess with such a pretty face," he said, leering at her. "You sure you don't want to come with us willingly?"
In a flash, Cianna had her sword in hand and was bearing down on him. She could hear Nick behind her in a scuffle with the other one.
"You okay?" she called out to him.
"Yeah, I just threw some dirt in the poor sod's eyes."
"Nick, didn't anyone ever teach you to fight fair?"
"Nope," she heard him reply, laughing. "What's the point in that?"
She grinned and turned her attention back to her attacker. "Now, let me show you what this 'pretty face' can do."