The rising sun was warming the crisp morning air as Storn Mard cantered up Dargon’s Main Street, mulling over the day ahead. While he still felt a bit uneasy about the plan he and Durvin Karrick had devised to get money from Durvin’s estranged wife, he felt buoyant about the prospect of seeing the attractive Della Karrick once again. He decided that he would regard this escapade as a “recovery” and not an act of theft; after all, Durvin insisted that Della had cheated him out of a goodly sum of money two years earlier. Storn pulled up the reins and slipped off his mount, tethering the stallion to a wooden post outside Della’s home. He rapped on the door, then stepped back into the street with a hand tucked behind his back and waited. There were muffled sounds indoors and he heard a little girl’s brief wail just before the door opened cautiously.
“Oh! Milord Mard.” Della balanced her daughter Ginny on a hip as she pushed the door ajar and looked at the bundle in his hand. “I did not expect you to return the clothes.”
The day before, Storn had contrived to meet Della after staging an accident at the docks during the annual blessing of the Dargon fleet. The plan had worked out neatly; not only had she invited him back to her home, she had also loaned him dry clothes.
“It was the least I could do, Madam Karrick.” Storn smiled broadly as he proffered the pile of borrowed clothes and followed Della into the house. “You were most generous in providing me with assistance after my unfortunate tumble.”
He revealed a spray of wildflowers that he had concealed behind his back. “I picked these on the way into town.”
Della took the flowers and set Ginny on the bed, along with the clothes. “They are very pretty. But there was no need.” She was cool and aloof. Storn watched as she crossed to the kitchen and silently searched for a jug.
He bent to talk to the toddler in a loud whisper. “Something tells me that your mother does not like flowers.” Ginny rushed away shyly to her mother’s side and Della reached down to clasp her hand.
“I didn’t mean to sound rude.” She looked at him. Her blue eyes were piercing and her direct gaze caught Storn off guard.
“Della …” he paused. “It so happens that I now have some business in Dargon that I need to attend to. I will be here for a day or two.” He had to convince her he had a good reason to stay on, because he had told her before that he was just in town for the festivities. “Would you and Ginny like to accompany me on an outing tomorrow? After all, we missed the festivities and I feel I owe you both something in return.”
“Thank you for your kind offer, Milord.” Della’s smile seemed forced. “Unfortunately,” she said, looking at Ginny, “we are not going to be here on the morrow.”
“Oh.” This was going to affect Storn’s plans. “Will you be busy the whole day?”
“I am afraid so.” She started to walk back towards the door and Storn was forced to follow. “Thank you for returning the clothes,” she said brusquely, and nudged the door open with her foot. Storn knew he was being given a signal to exit.
He stepped outside into the fresh air, untethered his stallion and hardly had time to say farewell as Della shut the door firmly. With his foot in the stirrup, he swung his leg over and settled on his mount.
“Never fear, Storn Mard. One door closes, and another opens,” he muttered to himself as he set off down the road at a canter, his mind already working on a way to turn the situation to his advantage.
Judging by the glazed look in his eyes, Durvin was already downing his umpteenth ale of the day as Storn walked through the door to the Rogue and Quiver. His greasy-haired companion was also doing his best to engage the serving woman in a conversation and Storn caught the tail end of some fanciful story as he approached.
“Back already?” Durvin grinned. “I guess our Della did her usual icy slip and shunt.” He chuckled at his own description.
“For your information,” Storn said through gritted teeth, “it so happens that I have another plan.”
Durvin’s stool scraped as he pushed it back, swigged his ale and surveyed Storn. “So let’s hear it then.”
“She’s going out tomorrow.” The interest in Durvin’s eyes picked up at Storn’s words.
“She turned me down for a prior arrangement,” Storn informed him, but decided not to say that Della had subtly declined him in more ways than that. He was not used to having his advances rebuffed. He turned his attention to the woman behind the counter.
“Good morning, fair maiden.” The woman blushed, but responded with a gap-toothed smile. Reaching across the counter and catching her hand in his, Storn beamed back at her. “What does a poor man have to do to get a drink and a smile in this place?” He lifted her fingers and brushed them to his lips as his partner snorted loudly next to him.
“Just bring the man a drink, you silly sow,” Durvin interjected loudly.
Storn gave him a sideways blow on the shoulder, almost knocking him from the stool. The woman laughed and filled a tankard with ale. Storn decided that this was a more productive way to spend his day, instead of chasing after a cold-hearted woman like Della Karrick. He took a generous swig and winked at the barmaid.
“It’s going to be much easier than we anticipated, Durvin.”
“Fat lot of good you’ve been,” his partner grunted. “I may as well have done this on my own.”
“Straight! You could not take the chance of being seen by the town guard. In fact, you are taking a risk sitting here.” Storn said under his breath. “Or did you forget that they still hang people who commit murder?”
Durvin’s eyes narrowed and Storn knew that his partner would prefer not to be reminded that he was being sought in Dargon for the killing of a young guardsman. “Well, thieving ain’t much better, Mard. So don’t get all self-righteous with me.”
“We are partners. We do this together,” Storn proclaimed, slapping Durvin on the back. “Besides,” he said, leaning forward to whisper a fact that he had concealed the day before, “I know where she has hidden the money.”
He grabbed the wench as she passed by the table and pulled her onto his lap, ignoring Durvin’s expectant gaze.
“I’ve got work to do,” she protested.
“That you have,” Storn agreed and slid his hand around her waist.
The stallion swished his tail and snorted, and Storn patted his flank as he peered from the alleyway early the next morning. A full bell had passed since first light.
“Shhhh, boy, shhhh.” Storn felt uneasy. It was unlike the horse to be restless, and it was not the first time that he had been backed up in a narrow alley, although Storn usually worked under cover of dark. He had a clear view of Della’s doorway. She was yet to leave for her errand, but there was still no sign of Durvin. Storn cussed under his breath. They had agreed to meet here at dawn and Storn hoped that the stupid fool was not still asleep somewhere. His own head was throbbing slightly. If it had not been for the fact that he had had company in his room the previous night, he would have kept a closer watch on his rogue companion. As it was, he had told Durvin to make his bed elsewhere; after all, Storn had paid for the room and he was in need of a little womanly comfort, even if she was not as fair as Della Karrick.
Sudden movement from across the road caught his eye and he sidled closer to the wall to get a better look. Della was closing the door. She had her back to him and a bright scarf bound loosely over her hair, concealing her face as she turned to the road. Ginny was standing at her side, fidgeting about. Della picked her daughter up, cradling her in the crook of her arm, and walked off in the opposite direction towards Main Street. She was moving slowly, and Storn had to wait a few menes until she disappeared from sight. He stepped from the alley and looked about for any sign of Durvin.
“Turdation!” He decided not to wait any longer. A heavily laden wagon rolled by, stirring up a trail of dust. Storn gave a quick tug on his horse’s reins to check that they were still tied to the wooden wall slat, then hurried across the road as the wagon came to a halt a short distance away. There was some commotion as a group of men started to unload barrels. With a quick glance over his shoulder, Storn opened Della’s door and stepped inside, shutting it behind him.
The room looked as if the Beinison army had plundered it. Chairs had been smashed; jagged bits of splintered wood poked into the air. Bolts of cloth had been yanked open and were covered in ash. His eyes settled on the torn strips of material caught beneath an overturned bench. He recognized it as what was left of the dress Della had been working on.
“*Durvin*!” He spat the word out as he dashed to the back room, stumbling over a tattered flap of curtain that had once covered the doorway, and dropping to his knees to look under the bed. The loose floorboard he had noticed when he had changed in the room two days earlier had been pried open and lay to the side of a now-empty hole. There was no time to be lost if he wanted to catch the two-timing, thieving, no-good whoreson. Storn sprinted for the door — and stopped dead in his tracks as he came face to face with Della Karrick. Ginny was asleep in her mother’s arms, her thumb in her mouth. Their eyes met.
“What are you doing in my home?” she asked in a low tone that seethed with anger. Storn saw with some shock that her scarf was concealing a livid bruise across her cheek.
“I just came to bid you farewell and found this disarray,” he said, watching her reactions closely. “What happened?”
Della sighed and stood quietly.
“Please don’t tell me you think I am responsible for this,” Storn said, with a calculated measure of surprise. He crossed the room and set the bench upright, then gestured for her to sit on it. She walked past him, leaving the door open behind her, and laid Ginny on the pallet, smoothing the little girl’s dark curls.
“I was going to report this to the guard this morning.” Her voice was trembling. She bit her lower lip as she stared at the destruction around her.
“You know who did it?” he asked, feeling ill at ease. There was an extended silence as he waited for her to speak.
“I was not entirely honest with you,” she said at last. She spoke slowly, her body rigid as she perched on the edge of the pallet. “This is the work of my former husband — the lousy rat who walked out on us two years ago and then came back last night.”
If the town guard knew, they would be here soon. Storn glanced at the door. “Did you report it?”
“I changed my mind.” She looked defeated. “Durvin is a brutal man.”
Storn’s hands hung at his side and he felt an inner rage starting to seethe. “Why did he do this?”
“He said it was revenge for the way I treated him.” She shook her head and looked at him, as if she was expecting him to say something.
To avoid her gaze, Storn bent to the task of clearing up the things that were strewn on the floor. He could feel her eyes on his back as he moved about the room.
He found a woven coverlet under an unrolled bolt of cloth and handed it to her. She flinched when she took it and he noticed the bruises on her arm as she covered Ginny with it. Her trembling fingers tugged at the scarf and a sheaf of hair fell across her shoulders. She stood up and brushed past him.
“Did he take much?” Storn asked, watching as she began to straighten her possessions, her hands pausing over the broken shards of mug and bits of shattered wood.
“He took everything I had.” She looked at the torn remnants of the dress she had been working on. The tears welled in her eyes and he barely heard her whispered words. “It was money that I earned the hard way.”
They worked together in silence, turning the table upright and fixing the stools and chairs as best they could. Swirls of dust glimmered in the sun’s rays as they moved about. Ginny whimpered in her sleep and Della rushed to her side. She knelt and cuddled the little girl in her arms, and as Storn looked down on mother and daughter, an uncomfortable sense of guilt settled heavily on him. It was not something that he was used to feeling.
“I have to go,” he said quietly. Della did not reply as he left her house, pulling the door shut behind him.
Storn’s gap-toothed companion from the night before beamed widely as he barged into the Rogue and Quiver. There were a handful of early morning patrons hunched over tables, but Durvin was not in the tavern. Storn darted across to the counter and tried desperately to recall the wench’s name. Eventually he blurted, “Woman! Where is my friend? Did you see him leave?”
She looked taken aback at this sudden show of rudeness and turned away from him. He leapt over the counter and pushed her up against the barrels.
“Please, my dearest one,” he said in a soothing tone, running his hand over a rounded hip, “it’s a matter of life or death.” Her eyes softened as he took her hand in his grasp and dropped to his knees, clutching her waist.
“All right, you charming scoundrel!” She pointed to a stout woman wiping tables. “He spent the night with Maddie over here — even gave her a bleeding Round, unlike some of us who got nothing.”
“I wouldn’t say nothing,” Storn reprimanded in mock offence and stood up. She blushed and pushed at his chest as the other woman came towards them.
“If you’re looking for your friend,” Maddie said, “he bolted during the night.” She leaned over the counter, giving Storn a generous view of her ample bosom. “Just so you know, the Round was only because he couldn’t get it up and wanted me to keep quiet about it.”
“Guess I should have given you a Round then,” his bed companion said, running her hands down his chest and winking at Maddie, who let out a hearty laugh.
“Did he say where he was going?” Storn brushed the roving hands away.
“Do I look like I care where he was going?” Maddie said. Storn swore in exasperation. Durvin could be heading anywhere, and he had a good head start. “If it will help, he asked about barges heading for Kenna.”
Storn bolted back over the counter and planted a resounding kiss on Maddie’s cheek before dashing out the tavern. He could still hear her laughter as he mounted his startled steed deftly and dug his heels in to get the beast moving.
“Thought you would get away, you cheating whoreson,” he grunted, and galloped towards the riverside docks.
It was close on mid of day at the docks as Storn slowed the stallion to a trot. He cursed, looking at the clusters of people milling about. It seemed as if everyone in Dargon had business at the riverside today. A couple of deckhands staggered past him.
“Ahoy there,” he called. They stopped and turned to look up at him. “I’m seeking barges bound for Kenna.”
“End of the dock,” the swarthy one muttered, pointing past a row of crates and goods on the small crowded dock.
“Thanks.” He spurred the horse on, then yelled back over his shoulder, “If you’re wanting a good time, try the Rogue and Quiver!”
With the knot of people thickening every step of the way, Storn slipped off the stallion’s back and looped his reins over the closest post. Charging ahead, Storn narrowly avoided careening into some dockworkers who were shifting a large wooden crate. Ahead of him, he could see deckhands preparing a barge for sail. Storn’s path was blocked by a group of straggling dockworkers. He skirted round them, lengthened his stride and broke into a run. Durvin Karrick was not going to get away that easily. Kenna was upriver from Dargon, and if his cheating partner got that far, Storn would have a hard time tracking him.
“Are you bound for Kenna?” he called to a thickset man who was untying a thick swirl of rope from its mooring.
“Aye.” Storn stepped past the man and bounded up the gangplank, ignoring the shouts of protest from behind him. A glimpse of greasy hair and a black cape were all he needed to confirm that his crooked partner was on board. He lunged forward.
Busy deckhands cursed him and blocked his path as he shoved past them and clambered over crates, jostling his way across the barge’s deck. Durvin was near the barge’s helm, talking to a man Storn took to be the captain. They turned at the sound of the commotion. Durvin’s eyes widened. He muttered to the captain and started to scramble backwards. Storn reached him in two strides.
“Screegull scum!” He grabbed Durvin’s tunic and whipped him round to face him.
“I can explain –” Durvin stammered.
“How you cheated me and beat up a young woman?” Storn snarled. He sensed that the men on board were circling them.
In the background, he heard one of the deckhands start a chant. “Fight. Fight. Fight.” More voices joined in.
“The bitch deserved it!” Durvin spat the words out and widened his stance.
The voices around them rose, but Storn no longer needed an invitation. He swung his arm and felt the crunch of Durvin’s jaw beneath his fist. Wild-eyed, Durvin staggered into the gathered men and was grabbed roughly and flung back into the tight circle. As he straightened, Storn saw that Durvin now held a short dagger in his hands. Durvin lunged at him. Storn pulled back, narrowly escaping the blade, but the circle of men behind him thrust him forward again. Out the corner of his eye, he saw a thick wooden staff against a crate in a narrow gap between the jeering deckhands. Dodging to avoid another of Durvin’s wild blows, he made for the staff, gripped it in his hand and went on the attack, slamming the hard wood into Durvin’s chest and forcing him to reel backwards. He wielded the staff, blow after blow, until Durvin’s knife fell from his grasp and he sank to his knees. The gathered men fell silent, and the only sound that could be heard was the ragged breathing that tore from Durvin’s lips and Storn’s own deep gasps.
The captain bent to retrieve the knife and took the staff from Storn’s clutch. “Beat a woman, you say?” he asked, looking at Storn.
“A beautiful young woman,” Storn said, not taking his eyes off Durvin’s prostrate form.
Nochturon’s glow lit the deserted streets of Dargon as the lone rider’s mount slowed to a trot. The horse’s hooves clack-clacked slowly across the cobbles towards Ramit Street. Storn pulled the horse up short and paused in the cool night air, his tongue running tenderly over a bruised lip. There was a dull ache in his arm and he plucked gingerly at his shirt, prying it away from the dried blood on his wounded shoulder. Less than a bell ago he had been on the road south, heading away from Dargon. “You’re getting soft,” he said under his breath and shook his head. From where he sat, he could see Della Karrick’s door, a short way down the road. The stallion whinnied and flicked its tail. Storn dropped his hand to his waist and felt for the pouch of coins he had taken from Durvin, then he nudged the horse’s flanks with his heels and headed for her threshold.
He slipped off his steed and knocked quietly on the door, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. The house remained silent. He knocked again, this time a short, sharp rap. The sound carried in the night gloom and Storn glanced over his shoulder to see if there were any people about. He heard a light footfall. The door scraped and opened an inch, and he saw Della staring at him in surprise.
“May I come in?” he asked, the reins trailing loosely from his bruised fingers.
She hesitated, the candle she held lighting her face with a soft radiance.
“All right, Milord.” She opened the door to let him in, tugging her shawl around her shoulders. There was an icy chill in the dark room.
“I won’t stay long. I just wanted to return this.” He stretched out his hand and held the bag of coins before her. “I’m afraid Durvin has already spent some of it.”
She stared at the pouch that dangled from his fingers, and he heard her breath catch in her throat.
“I don’t know what Durvin led you to believe,” she said as she eventually reached for the bag. “There wasn’t much to take.”
He raked his fingers through his hair, wincing at the pain in his shoulder. Della crossed to the table and emptied out the small pile of coins in the flickering candlelight. She gathered them in her hand and turned to face him.
“Why?” she asked.
Storn realized that it was a simple question which begged a hundred different answers. He looked away and thought a while before he spoke.
“Durvin lied to me and he cheated me. I expect that he did the same to you.” He swallowed hard. “I suppose I thought that you and Ginny didn’t deserve it.”
“Should I be grateful?”
“No,” he said, “That’s not what I came for.” He was glad that he stood in the shadows so that she could not see the uncertainty on his face, because he did not know what he wanted from her. Not gratitude. Perhaps acceptance; perhaps just to know that he had made her happy; this woman with eyes the color of the ocean on a calm day, and a laugh that made him feel like the gods had smiled on him.
She slipped the coins back into the pouch and tightened her shawl around her. “Then you have done what you wanted to do.”
“I’ve survived Durvin Karrick more than once, Milord Mard.” She sounded bitter, but resolute. “I’ll do it again.”
“Then at least know that Durvin won’t be back in a hurry.” What he did not say was that after he had beaten Durvin, the captain had agreed not to call the guard. Since he had already been paid for the journey, the captain said he would let Durvin stay aboard, but as a deckhand, and not a passenger. “He’s on his way to Kenna.”
She picked up the candle and crossed to where he stood, her hand on the door. He turned to leave, then paused.
“Tell me,” he asked, voicing the one question that had been on his mind, “why did you think that I was involved? Because I was at your house that morning?”
“I knew the day that you brought the clothes back,” she said.
“Was the ruse that obvious?”
“No. But I never told you my married name, Milord Mard,” she said. “When you brought the clothes back you called me Madam Karrick. People around here only know me by my mother’s name.”
He remembered how cool she had been towards him that day.
She gave a wry laugh. “I moved the coins, you know. I took you for a petty thief, and thought if you didn’t find anything you would leave me alone. Durvin was just more persistent.”
“I am truly sorry, Della.” He looked at the fading bruise on her cheek. “I have been many things in my life: I have swindled and conned and stolen. But I have never hurt a woman.”
“Perhaps not with your fists.”
The words hit him harder than any of the blows Durvin had struck. He swallowed and shook his head lightly. “It’s not likely that I will ever do an honest day’s work, but knowing what I have done to you will certainly make it harder.”
She opened the door. “Good bye, Milord.”
Instinctively, he leaned forward and brushed his lips over her soft mouth. “Good bye, Della Karrick.”
He turned and walked out the door. As he settled in the saddle, he saw Della staring at him from the doorway, the candle flickering in the cool night breeze.
“It’s never too late to change, Storn Mard,” she said, and he had a feeling that she knew what she was talking about. He clicked his tongue and yanked the horse’s reins, turning to head up the dark street.