© Copyright 2003 by Cyan
Gosl was tired, I could feel that. I urged him on, figuring he would soon see the lights in the distance and surmise that the end of his exhausting day was close at hand. I felt a nervous twitch about whether the lights did indeed represent safety but that no doubt that stray thought was due to my day's experience.
"That's definitely Stornum," said Gared. Our destination for the night, the warmth of a town, a room to sleep in. I considered whether to ask if the town was definitely safe, but felt foolish. I, the Royal Heir, should not be one to ask such things of others. On the other hand, I was clearly inexperienced and should neither pretend to know what I did not nor show fear to ask a question. It was all very complicated.
I heard my comrades laughing, clearly looking forward to safety and rest. The lights grew nearer, windows, torches, and lamps becoming discernible. I thought of the men we'd encountered earlier, but Gared was certain they were brigands. The Noth were far ahead, and the three days of travel was plenty soon to see them. There was no chance they would be anywhere near Stornum.
Brigands maybe, but certainly dangerous, the men we'd met that afternoon. My first "battle" and I had done all right. Both Gared and Morad had told me so afterward and I was certain Gared would never lie, even to appease me. It simply wasn't his way, which probably was a prime reason Father put so much trust in him.
I wondered what Father would have made of my day's work, facing a murderous opponent without flinching, at least not on the outside, and taking him down. The recollection turned my stomach, what we did to those men but it was clear to see that they intended the same to us, with no provocation on our part. And perhaps they intended more in my case, since they did not recognize me and likely would not have believed who I was if I'd attempted such a claim.
But I did it: my first combat, and with the Noth in our future, that was all to the good. All the training had certainly paid off, something I knew I would tell old Rommer when I eventually returned to the palace, and I wondered what he would have had to say about my technique. "Forget technique," Morad had said after the melee. "When it comes to a real fight, your technique has to be second nature, and what you have to concentrate on is whatever will win. And whatever will keep you alive." His words certainly made sense and I was finally glad for the hours of repetition Rommer had forced upon me as well as the bruises I'd so often suffered at his hand in our mock combats.
As we approached the town, I heard the men talking excitedly and Morad explained to me that The Swallow was clearly open and doing business. In minutes I found myself seated at a table out of the gloomy night with a tankard of ale in my hand, Gosl safe and stabled with the rest of our mounts. One of the men wanted to sing a drinking song and the rest just laughed at him. My supper came very soon, delivered by one of the tavern girls, who laughed as one of the men managed to swat her bottom on her way back to the kitchen. I wondered what Mother would have made of my being in such a place.
But of course I had a pretty good idea from what my Aunt Karee said to Father regularly. Aunt Karee stood in for Mother, making sure I received a lady's training, but she still complained constantly regarding the rest of my education. But Father told her flatly, that since I was Heir, I needed to be ready for far more than spinning, weaving, and ordering the kitchen staff about. Karee had nearly thrown a fit when Father said I was finally to join him now that the Noth were causing trouble again, but Father's word is literally the law.
"You OK?" said Morad, who sat next to me, probably the only one of the men still paying attention to anything other than the tavern girls. "You acquitted yourself well and your father would certainly be proud." I wondered whether he thought I needed additional extra attention for having experienced my first true combat. Once again I felt my pride warring with my common sense: certainly even the greatest warrior started out as I was, a bit shaken from seeing what my training was truly about.
"Thank you," I said sincerely.
The men were laughing while one of the tavern girls sat on someones knee and even Gared looked amused. "Would you like something else?" said another girl standing by my shoulder, getting my attention. I looked down at the plate of food I would normally have eaten already. And looked at Morad's concerned expression, though his attention now seemed divided, given the ribaldry taking place around us.
"I thank you but no," I said to the girl, wondering a minute at her voice. Her accent seemed a bit refined, but I recalled some of the gentry of this particular region had fallen on very hard times. She perhaps had not been raised for this life. "I'm fine."
"If you're sure," she said, then smiled. I wondered at her life, the change in circumstance I believed she had experienced. She was dressed like the rest, in what was clearly peasant clothes but like all the girls', far more feminine than my warrior's tunic. The top of her breasts were clearly displayed. I wondered, probably for the thousandth time, what made men become so witless given such a sight. "And what are you looking at," she said, suddenly grinning. "Are you like them that way, too?"
She was being saucy! For a moment I was surprised out of my wits at her audacity, but I recovered quickly. "You just watch your pert mouth," I said, giving her rear a swat on the word pert.
I think I amazed her but she too recovered quickly, backing up a step to put herself out of range. "And just what would you do about it?" she said, obviously trying to tease me. At that, one of the other men grabbed her and as I watched, she expertly extricated herself from what could almost be described as a drunken embrace.
But as she did so, I saw her glance my way once more, with a slight smile that somehow echoed her earlier grin. I felt something in me rise at that but weariness must have won out and I sat there picking at my food, watching what passed for fun among the men.
Probably an hour later by the candles, all had quieted down quite a bit. Several of the men were passed out on a bench, sprawled with a tavern girl for whom they had bought ale. Only two men were conscious in the whole room, and they were in close conversation. I could not determine from their low voices how drunk they might be. Other men had already retired to the sleeping quarters, a gleeful tavern girl accompanying them. Two tavern girls remained, cleaning up, doing their best working around men who had simply collapsed where they sat.
"If you're ready to retire, I can show you where," said one. The same one. "We'll give you some privacy." I didn't bother to tell her that I'd learned to make do, of necessity out in the open country, and of course the men knew well not to lay a hand on me. That thought made me wonder whether she indeed knew my identity. She surely must, I decided, since that sort of thing always has a way of getting around. "Come," she said, picking up a lamp. As I followed I noticed she deliberately kept her distance from me. But that was something she'd been doing with all the men all night.
"What's your name," I said as I followed her out.
She didn't turn as she led me through the building. "Tanee," she finally said and paused at a door, clearly to indicate it was where I was to be quartered.
"Keeping out of my reach, Tanee?" I said as she edged further aside when I drew closer. Somehow I knew I was assuming the role of the men in this situation. If I was neither beast nor fowl, I had to invent my course as I went along.