It was already late afternoon and Tara n’ha Sansela estimated that she still had close to three or four leagues to travel before reaching Tench. She didn’t want to stop, but her horse, Boxter was an older animal, and it was obvious that the rapid pace she had been forcing him to go was beginning taking its toll. At the top of a hill, she dismounted, leading Boxter over to a tree, and took the opportunity to rest herself in the cool shade. As she sat down, Zed, her pet Shivaree, trotted over and curled up beside her, immediately falling asleep. The big ferret-like creature wasn’t accustomed to running all day. Several times Tara had lifted him up to the saddle with her so he could catch his breath as they had traveled.
It had been two days since her parents were killed by bandits, and Tara still hadn’t managed to grasp the reality of her situation. It all seemed like a dream. Each morning, she woke up with the idea that it would all be over, and she would be back in the small farm cottage where she had lived her whole life. But it was not to be. The cottage was now little more than ashes and her parents were both dead. She’d buried them herself in their old cellar and set out for Tench, where she hoped to find a guide or at least a map which would get her to Dargon and to her uncle’s.
As Tara sat under the tree, she surveyed the countryside. It was still green, but there was a chill in the morning air. The snows would come soon. As Tara scanned the horizon, which held clouds in the threat of an evening storm, she noticed some activity in the valley. In the middle of a clearing stood a fortress, surrounded by several cultivated fields and three oval tracks. Looking closer, Tara could see people scattered about, and as they moved, she caught the glint of metal reflected in the evening sun. Tara had never seen so many people in armor. Surely this was an army camp of some kind. It was hard to see, but the people down on the clearings seemed to be training, although some could also be seen tending fields. It was all very interesting,and Tara would have liked to stay and watch a little longer, but she knew she had taken up as much time resting as she could afford. She would have a hard time making Tench by sunset.
Tara had been afraid that she had lost her way in the dark until she finally spotted a group of lights, revealing Tench’s location. The town was nestled in between large, tree-covered hills, and had a small river running through it. Riding down towards the lights, Tara was glad this leg of the trip was finally over. It would feel good to have a bed to sleep in again. It would also feel good to have a chance to be around other people, even if they were strangers. The last two days had been lonely ones.
Tench was little more than a cross-roads town. As Tara rode down the main road which provided Tench with most of its travelers, the few buildings she saw were either inns or taverns, with stables tucked away behind them. She did notice a small dwelling or two, but from the looks of things, Tench had very few permanent residents.
Tara had expected the streets of the town to be almost deserted. In the few tiny villages located near Tara’s old home, people went to bed shortly after sundown, raucous laughter came from one of the nearby taverns, and several people were wandering up and down the road. Few of them took notice of Tara, although some took time to glance suspiciously at this strange girl rider with a Shivaree trotting behind her.
Tara was looking the town over, and she didn’t see the man step in front of her. The horse bumped him in the back, and he turned around and snarled, “Watch where yer goin’, or I’ll–” Then the man’s face changed from arrogance to fear, and his voice softened as he apologized, “I’m sorry M’Lady. If I’d o’ known it was you, I’d o’ never….” And then he turned and walked hurriedly away.
Tara had started to apologize to the man, but he had left too quickly. His change of attitude was also very puzzling. He didn’t seem like the apologizing type. Too tired to worry it, Tara turned her attention back to finding a place to stay for the night.
The next inn Tara found was in an old well-worn building, but it was well lit. Tara read the sign above the door: The Lame Duck Inn. It didn’t look like much of an inn, but at least the nearest tavern was almost out of earshot, so she would get some sleep tonight. Cheered by that fact, Tara tied Boxter to a post and went inside.
The room was dimly lit and had a stale, musty odor. A small, balding, round-faced man was bent over a sheet of parchment, making a scratch here and there as he counted on his fingers. Tara shut the door and walked to the counter. The small man didn’t seem to notice.
“Hello,” Tara said shyly.
“Could I get a room?” The man did not answer, but seemed to count a little more furiously on his fingers. “Hello?”
“Yes, yes, yes,” the man muttered, recounting his fingers. “You, uh, wanted a room?”
“Yes, if you have one.”
“We do have one,” the little man said, and then he looked up, and his face immediately brightened. “Why didn’t you say it was you? Tryin’ to fool me again, were ya? I thought you were just another traveler come to interrupt my bookwork.”
Tara put a puzzled look on her face. Then she answered, “You must have mistaken me for someone else. My name is Tara n’ha Sansela.”
“Oh, I see,” the inkeeper laughed. “It’s Sarah this time, is it?”
“No, Tara. Tara n’ha Sansela.”
“Ah, good. I will try to remember.” Then the little man laughed again. “Your usual room, uh, Tara?”
“My usual room?”
“Yes, the corner room at the top of the stairs.”
“Whatever you have.”
“Fine, fine,” the little man beamed. “Boy! Boy!” The little man grumbled to himself, and stomped around impatiently for a moment. Then he disappeared into the back room, and when he came back, he was carrying a young boy by the back of the neck, which he tossed in front of the counter. “Take her horse to the stable, boy, and get to it!” The boy was little more than skin and bones, and bruises could be seen on his cheeks and arms. Tara started to say something, but then checked herself. This was no time to get involved. The little boy said nothing, but stared sleepily at the man. Then he rubbed the sleep from his eyes on his way out the door.
The innkeeper had noticed Zed. “What’s this?” he asked, putting his hand out towards Zed. The shivaree growled, baring his teeth, and the man quickly pulled his hand back, putting it in his pocket. “Never mind,” he blurted out before Tara could answer. “Normally we don’t allow animals to stay in the room,” he continued, “but since he’s yours, I’ll make an exception.”
Tara just nodded an acknowledgement, and then she headed up the stairs. As she reached the top step, the innkeeper called to her, “You never did fool me. Not this time. The animal is a new twist, though.” Tara thought about answering, and then decided to let things lie as they were and disappeared into her room.
Once inside, she pulled off her boots, and layed back onto the bed to rest a moment. Zed jumped up beside her, curled up into a ball, and was immediately asleep. Tara knew she needed sleep, but too many things were bouncing around inside her head. The inn keeper seemed to recognize her and even gave her special treatment, even though she’d never seen the man before in her life. Also, Zed was always friendly, but he almost bit the man’s hand. And what about the boy? And the stranger she’d bumped in the street? Tara’s turned over the thoughts in her mind as she lay on the bed.
Zed rolled over sleepily and settled his head on Tara’s belly.
Tara sat up in bed. Midmorning daylight was streaming through the window. She was disoriented for a moment before she remembered where she was, but she didn’t remember going to bed. Then she realized she was still fully dressed. Quickly she put on her boots and made sure she still had the small bag of gold attached to her belt. As soundly as she’d slept, she was glad no thief had taken it in the night. Then Tara walked to the door. Zed trotted up from the corner, expecting to go along. After thinking a moment, Tara ordered him to stay, pushing him back from the door with her foot as she left.
Several minutes later, Tara was sitting at a table downstairs, eating the best breakfast she’d had since leaving home. The innkeeper had given her breakfast for free, but when Tara asked him to have someone take care of Zed for the day, he agreed to do so, but it cost her several extra copper pieces. When Tara finished her meal, she went to find the things she would need to get her to Dargon.
Tara soon discovered that it was easy to find supplies, but that they weren’t so easy to buy. Everything was over-priced, and after purchasing a warm cloak, dried food, a couple of water skins, another blanket, and some bones and meat scraps for Zed, she only had half her gold left. She also found guides who were eager to take her to Dargon, but not for the amount of gold she had to offer. They did tell her that the road to Dargon was fairly well-traveled and she could find her own way there, if she lived that long. They portrayed many dangers of the road for a girl traveling alone, but Tara listened to them with her father’s teachings firmly in mind. As he used to say, “Those preaching loudest about the dangers of the night are the ones selling lanterns.”
It was afternoon before Tara had finished all her tasks and had started back to the inn. Her arms were laden with her supplies, but she felt good. Things were going as planned, except for the message she had wanted to send to her uncle to let him know she was coming. Such a message had turned out to be too expensive and too slow. There was the chance she might be in Dargon before the message. Then, suddenly, someone stepped in front of Tara, gave her a bear hug and planted a passionate kiss on her lips. Tara was caught completely off-guard and dropped everything, but as soon as she recovered, she slapped both hands onto the man’s head and he immediately let go with a yelp. “Yeoww! What’d you do that for?” Tara didn’t reply, but drew her sword instead, holding him at sword’s distance. “What’s wrong?” he asked. “You said you’d see me as soon as you came back, and then I find you out roaming the streets, so I come to welcome you back, and you attack me?”
“You are wrong,” Tara told him. “You attacked me.”
“No, Honey, I didn’t . . .”
Tara cut him short with a poke of her sword in his belly. She didn’t hurt him, but it was enough to change his plans. He quickly mumbled an apology, and walked away through the crowd which always formed when ever a fight broke out. When it was over, the people also dispersed, leaving Tara alone to gather up her things. She was shaking and had trouble hanging onto things, but she managed to get back to the inn without further incidents.
Once in her room, Tara calmed down, and then realized that she was hungry. She decided to get some supper and try to figure out whether the man that attacked her made an honest mistake or whether he had just tried to protect himself after seeing her reaction. When Tara went downstairs, she was told that the inn didn’t serve meals in the evening, but there was a good tavern just down the street and around the corner, so Tara set off in that direction.
The tavern served her a good meal. It was a little expensive, but everything in Tench was more expensive than what Tara was used to. She ordered some of the strong, bitter ale that was common in this country, and found that she couldn’t stand to drink it, so she had it taken away and replaced with a mug of a sweet cider. Then, after finishing her meal, she decided to sit and relax a little before heading back to the inn. It was going to be a long time before she had the chance to socialize with people again.
The tavern had been empty when Tara had arrived, but now it was crowded, and Tara enjoyed looking at so many different kinds of people. Then she noticed that one of them was looking at her. He was a tall man with a powerful body and hair blacker than ashes. He was also a handsome, noble-looking man, but his eyes were strange. Hard-grey eyes, their stare chilled to the bone. As she watched, the man said something to the serving wench, gave her a few coins and stood up. He’s coming over here, Tara realized suddenly. She quickly pulled out enough gold to cover her meal, and wrapped her cloak around her as she headed for the door. The last thing she needed was another event similar to what had happened to her earlier that day. She didn’t bother looking back as she rushed out, shutting the door behind her.
She only made it fifty yards before several rough-looking men sprang from around a corner and surrounded her, drawing their swords. A short, stocky man with a mouth that wore a constant sneer, blocked Tara’s path.
“You made a big mistake comin’ back here, or are you still so scratchy that you think you can’t be beat?” Tara tried to speak, but failed to find her tongue. “This time you will not live,” the man snarled and started towards her, motioning for the other men to do the same.
“You’re making a mistake,” Tara blurted out, drawing her sword.”
“Not this time,” the man told her confidently. “Last we met, you managed to walk away with all my money. You made a fool out of me. Now you will die.” With that, the man swung his sword at Tara’s head. She managed to block the blow, but it sent her sword sailing. Quickly, she ducked under the man’s second blow and tried to escape, but all she managed to do was trap herself between her attackers and a wall of a building. Slowly the group closed in. There were five brutes in all, and the burly man who had talked before let an evil sneer of a smile crawl across his face. “I will enjoy this,” he beamed, raising his sword for the death blow. Then, just as he started the sword forward, a powerful hand wrapped around the wrist, squeezing so tight, the man let out a painful cry and dropped the sword. Then he was knocked to the ground. It was the man from the inn. He seemed almost to glow. This man was comfortable in battle.
The other four brutes were stunned for a moment, but they quickly recovered. Two on each side of the man attacked at the same time, but he glided smoothly out of the way, causing them to clash swords. Then, in the blink of an eye, he had disarmed one and sent the other sprawling to the ground. As the other two attacked, he again avoided their blows, sending one to the ground with a push and swatting the other in the side of the head with the flat of his sword. He took a step back, ready for another assault, but all save one of the attackers grabbed their weapons and scrambled away down the alley. The remaining one was on the ground, unconscious, bleeding a little where he had been struck.
Tara stood in awe a moment before she recovered enough to thank the man. Then she picked up her sword, resheathed it, and admitted, “I’d be dead now if it wasn’t for you.”
“Yes, you would.”
Tara was surprised by his frankness. “Thanks anyway.” Then she added, pointing to the man on the ground, “He isn’t dead, is he?”
“No. He will have a headache when he awakes. That is all.”
“Why didn’t you kill them?”
“I only kill when I must. These men couldn’t harm me.”
“But there were five of them.”
“Yes, I believe there was.” Then he managed a smile. “My name is Sir Morion,” he said, taking her hand.
“I am Tara n’ha Sansela. Where did you learn to fight like that?”
“That is a long story,” he replied, his eyes growing distant. “Instead I should learn of who I saved. Come, we can talk while I escort you home.”
“You can’t take me home,” Tara said sadly, “but I’m staying at the Lame Duck Inn.” They started down the street.
“You are very foolish to wander about these streets, unescorted, after dark, when you cannot protect yourself,” Morion scolded her. “The sword you wear implies you can fight. That’s a bluff that will only keep an honest and sober man from bothering you.
“But I wasn’t bluffing.” Tara explained. “I didn’t know better.”
Morion seemed unimpressed by her naivete. “Where are you from?”
“From a farm near Myridon.” Tara saw Morion’s blank expression, so she continued, “It’s a small village about sixty leagues east of here. I came here because–” Tara paused, and then changed her mind. “I’m headed to Dargon to live with my uncle. I don’t know why those men attacked me. One of them said something about getting even for the last time we’d met, but I’ve never seen him before.”
“Perhaps they mistook you for Lana.”
“I almost did myself, but after watching you a little while it was obvious that you weren’t Lana.”
“Who is Lana?”
“You are too quiet and shy. Too well-behaved. You didn’t fool me for long at all, but then, I know Lana better than most.”
“Who. Is. Lana?” Tara asked, stamping her foot.
“She’s a bandit and assassin who you greatly resemble in appearance. She kills and steals in her travels and then she returns to Tench to hide, usually in disguise and under an alias name, until whoever she has wronged has stopped searching for her. I’m surprised more people haven’t mistook you for her.”
“Ah, I understand,” Tara said, her face brightening. “That’s what’s been happening. The innkeeper, the man who kissed me–now things make sense!”
“Yes, well, I would advise that you exercise caution while you are in Tench. Many people know Lana here. Some will be friendly. Others will not.”
Tara thought about that for a minute, and then she asked, “How do you know Lana so well?”
“Everyone in Tench knows of Lana.”
Unsatisfied, Tara prodded him, “You said you knew Lana better than most. If I have to wear her face, I’d like to know something about her.”
Morion put a nasty look on his face and his eyes grew distant again. He shook his head and remained silent. Then he sighed. “I will tell you the story since you have a reason to know.” Morion gather his thoughts before he continued, “I run a school about three leagues north west of here.”
“That must be the army camp I saw yesterday on my way here,” Tara blurted out.
“Actually, it’s a Citadel containing a school,” Morion corrected her. In any case, Lana came to my school four years ago. She was very young, but she had potential and money, so she became one of my students. For almost two years, she was trained in methods of fighting and fitness. She was always a very good learner, but she was also always a trouble maker. Every chance she had, she would travel here to drink. Always a fight would break out. Always more men were killed. One night Lana–” Morion stopped a moment, his emotions catching up to him, but it quickly passed. “I do not train my students to kill for no reason. I expelled Lana from my school.”
“She sounds terrible.”
“She’s not bad to everyone. Just those who cannot help her. Actually, she can be a very nice, sweet girl when she wishes it so, but I think she is too full of hate.”
“What’s wrong with her? I mean, how could a girl do anything like that?”
“I’m not sure,” Morion said thoughtfully, “but when she was drunk one night, she told me she never knew her father, and her mother was a serving wench at one of the local inns who used to take men–” Morion cut off the thought. “How old are you?”
“You look older. Let’s just say Lana had a very rough childhood.” As Morion finished his story, they arrived at the Lame Duck Inn. “You will be safe now. Please don’t travel after dark without an escort again.” “I won’t. Thanks again.” Then as Morion started to leave, Tara pulled some gold out of the pouch around her waist. “Please take this as a reward for you help. I can’t give you much, but–”
“No thank you,” Morion interrupted. “I could not accept money for an act of kindness.”
“Please take it,” Tara pleaded.
“No!” Morion growled, spinning on his heel and walking quickly away into the dark. Tara was confused by his reaction, but she shrugged her shoulders and put the coins away before heading into the inn for the night.
Tara was up early the next morning, eager to get started for Dargon. After she had saddled up Boxter and given Zed something to eat, she was ready to go. Making sure she hadn’t forgotten anything, she rode out of the stables, and found a cloaked rider blocking her path. Tara tried to ride around, but the rider grabbed the reins of her horse, pulling Tara up short.
“Let me go,” Tara demanded, raising her head defiantly. The rider let loose a defiant laugh. Then, as Tara’s face grew perplexed, the rider said in a feminine voice, “So, they spoke truthfully. I do have a twin.” With that, the rider pulled her cloak away from her head. Tara gasped. She was looking an image of herself in the other saddle.
“I hope you have had fun, Sister.”
“I don’t know what you mean,” Tara replied, trying to pull the reins away from the rider.
“You have done quite a job of ruining Lana’s good name in Tench. It’s all over town that I couldn’t defend myself last night. The story claims I had to have some man save me.” Lana made an ugly face, and then she spit, as if the words had left a bitter taste in her mouth. “Now every horny, drunk, or greedy man will think he can treat me as he would any other woman. My reputation was all I had, and it was much too valuable to allow some miserable little girl with a nose like mine to destroy it in one night!”
“But it wasn’t my fault,” Tara explained. “I told them they were making a mistake.”
Lana seemed not to hear. “Do you know what I’m going to do, Sister?” she asked in her sweet voice. “I’m going to cut off your head and hang it from my saddle. Then people will know I am Lana, the Snake, to be feared.” Tara was frightened now and looked desperately around for help, but although a few people had gathered to watch, none looked willing to get involved. Franticly, Tara tried to pull the ruins away. Lana held the reins tight and casually planted a foot in Tara’s chest, knocking her to the ground and letting loose another laugh.
As Tara lay on the ground, desperately trying to catch her breath, Lana jumped down beside her. Then she grabbed Tara by the hair and yanked her to her feet. “You really are a wretched little creature,” Lana told her, pulling on Tara’s hair to keep her off balance. “You don’t deserve to wear my face, do you?” Tara just whined. She felt like her scalp was bleeding where her hair was being pulled. Lana didn’t seemed satisfied, and she pulled harder. “I asked you a question, Sister.”
Tara let out another yelp of pain, and then she managed to reach up and claw Lana’s face. “You little bitch,” Lana swore, letting go of the hair and reaching for her sword. Tara backed away, dizzy from the pain, and grabbed her own sword from where it had fallen.
“Good. At least you are woman enough to die honorably.” Then Lana stepped forward and casually flipped her wrist, knocking the sword out of Tara’s hand. “And you will die,” Lana taunted her before almost leisurely swinging her sword in a horizontal line across Tara’s belly. Tara was trying to move out of the way when the sword grazed across her stomach, just below her breasts, and she tripped and fell over backwards. Although the pain from the cut was terrible, the amount of blood oozing down her ribs told Tara she wasn’t hit bad enough to kill her. She looked frantically about for her sword, spying it a few feet away, but she never had a chance to get to it. Lana had grabbed her by the hair again, pulling her up enough to expose her throat. Apparently, she was going to make good on her original threat.
Then, Tara heard a low, gutteral sound as something flashed by her face. Lana let go, and Tara rolled away, hearing Lana cursing and fighting. Tara managed to sit up enough to look over and saw that Lana was on her back, her sword several feet away, and she was trying in vain to fend off the attack of a large furry animal. It was Zed.
Lana managed to pull out her dagger and swiped at the Shivaree. she missed her mark, but did manage to take off an ear, which put Zed into a complete fury. He mutilated Lana’s arm, and she dropped the dagger, crying out in pain. Then she felt the bones in her shoulder crush as Zed worked his way, biting, toward the throat.
“Stop him, help me! Call him off!” Lana was pleading for her life now, and Tara had recovered enough to call to Zed. At first, he continued to maul Lana, but then, when Tara called again, he sprang back, growling, blood dripping from his mouth. Tara never dreamed Zed could do anything like that. She called him again, and he trotted over to her as if nothing had happened.
Lana was still alive. She was covered with blood, and her left arm, which was her fighting arm, was almost shredded. With her right hand, Lana pushed herself up to a sitting position. Tara walked over to help her, but Lana fended off the assistance with a menacing gesture. “Get away from me, you slut,” she growled, dragging herself to her feet. Then she hobbled over to her sword and dagger, leaving a trail of blood. After getting her weapons, Lana turned towards Tara, “This is not the end, Sister. You will not live to see the Spring, and the next time we meet, your animal will not be able to save you.” Then Lana pushed her way through the crowd and was gone.
The crowd that had formed to watch the fight had not dispersed, but were shuffling in closer to Tara. Many of them seemed troubled by the outcome and several were glaring at her. Tara was shaking now, and all she wanted to do was to get away. She was still bleeding, and so was Zed, but she knew she couldn’t stay here. She managed to fight off the pain long enough to lift both her and Zed to the saddle. Then, with a touch of her heels to Boxter’s sides, she found her way through the crowd to the edge of town.
Tara dismounted and found her old tunic, which she tore into bandages. She tied the large one around her torso, and she used some of the smaller strips to bandage Zed’s head. It was not a very good job, but it would serve to stop the bleeding until she made camp that night. Once again, Tara heaved herself and Zed back on to the horse, and they headed out of town.
As Tara struggled in the early morning sun to fight off the pain and dizziness just to stay in the saddle, she made a wish for the rest of her journey to be much less eventful.