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The Song of Steel

Book One - Chapter 23

By W.R. Logan


Copyright 2004 W.R. Logan

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The dagger would be her only clue to the assassin’s identity.  A magic weapon of this sort would be a very rare work crafted by some famous mage.  She had no intention of finding the one who crafted the piece.  Her band would not have the muscle to squeeze any information from such a foe.  But the merchant that sold the item was a different story.


In all the kingdoms only one place came to mind for buying this type of dagger.  Most of the kingdoms had banded mages from making this sort of enchanted weapons.  Too many foolish nobles died from their own blades.  Just a nick from the weapon could kill.  Kings found it easier to ban the magic all together than to explain to a new widow her dead husband was an idiot.


In the seven kingdoms only Vale still allowed the weapons to be made.  There was the chance that this one had come from the free cities where nothing was illegal but she would stake her gold on Vale.  Her course was set for Toth, Vale’s capital; from the moment she left the inn.  Even if the dagger was made in the free cities, chances were good it came into Toth first.


Her two companions, Tomment and Bigsby, rode a few yards behind her.  Sylvia had thought to have left the men behind fighting their little war.  The two had returned with some story about all three armies being gone from the valley.  She had barely paid enough attention to the tale to retain that much information.  The fate of Kings Overlook was not her concern and never had been.  The girl would have done her duty for King G’Leaze if Ser Larkel were alive.  Not for any loyalty she felt for the king but for the sake of her friend.  Her only friend.


Ser Larkel’s memory made a lump form in her throat and tears to well.  He was the only person she had trusted in life.  The only one she could rely on to back her.  Even when she was wrong, the knight was by her side.  He would scold her soundly after but never spurn her for the error.  There was no character that she had to play for him, no alternate ego to put on to win his attention.  She could just be Sylvia.


The knight must have discovered her secret and left it where he had found it, in the dark.  The price on her head would be a temptation that would turn most allies into informants.  It had made her friend into a guardian.  He had been true to her till the end and she would return that allegiance.  The killer would pay life for life.


Bigsby and Tomment had taken to making conversation between each other.  Sylvia had not been much company since Ser Larkel’s death.  Her unstable temperament had driven the men to riding as far as they dared away from her.  The separation suited Sylvia fine and looked to have improved the relationship between the two men.  They spoke in low voices and occasionally chuckled at a joke unheard by the girl.


The notion of how she was going to cross over the border of a kingdom preparing for war had not crossed her mind until they neared it.  The only thing that ever brought the scattered forces of Vale together was the call for war.  The warlords of the provinces jumped at the chance to reap the rewards of pillaging the cities of other kingdoms.  By the looks of their boarders the call had been answered diligently.


A large force of Vale knights pulled up camp at the border to Kings Overlook.  The fires of the previous night still smoldered in the mist of the morning.  The clanging of war armor being strapped onto the knight’s mounts drowned the noise of Sylvia’s approach.  She quickly brought her horse to a full stop and dismounted to take cover in a crop of trees.  The girl motioned for Bigsby and Tomment to do the same.  The three of travelers crowded into the small crop of trees hoping not to have been seen.  They began to feel safe when no cry of alarm went up.


The host looked to be ready to move.  It would make sense for Vale not to be worried about their borders, Kings Overlook would have no army to attack them.  The thugs would want every man available to loot the towns of their victims and bring the booty back home.  Sylvia would have to be on her guard on the way to Toth.  More Vale knights were sure to be bringing up the rear.  This group was only the vanguard.


“Why are they heading in the direction of the Kingdom of Tides,” questioned Tomment.


“Maybe they are going to use the Great wood to get around the ork,” suggested Bigsby.


“Most likely going to flank them as they engage the Steel Tide,” Sylvia added.  It had been the most she had said to the men in two days.


The lines of knights rode off into the distance fading from their view.  They lay still and silent for many minutes after the legion was gone.  When the ground had stopped the vibrations caused by the hooves of warhorses, the three felt safe to resume their journey.  Sylvia kept a watchful eye in every direction for any stragglers.


The road ahead of them would be a harsh one.  The terrain of Vale was a treacherous as the men who lived there.  The loose rock that ruled the ground from one end of Vale to the other made farming an impossible chore.  What little food could be produced off the land was just enough to feed the one who grew it.  The trees had been harvested to extinction by the paper mills and never replanted.  The mountains in the north stood barren as a reminder of the greed of man.


The only thing of value to anyone in Vale was its port in Toth.  The port was ill kept and as dangerous to visit as it was to sail through the numerous reefs that embraced the coast.  Only captains with nerves of steel dared to venture into Toth.  This had made the city a safe haven for criminals and killers alike.


The girl was sure to find Ser Larkel’s killer there.  With the rest of the kingdoms in open war, where else could he be.  Sylvia looked at the glove on her hand.  The delicate flowers of the hemlock plant ran from her middle finger and up to the clasp on the top of the garment.  It was so beautiful.


The design of the glove made her wonder if it were a man that she hunted at all.  It fit her hand like it had been made for her, or a woman her size.  Whatever gender the killer may be did not matter to Sylvia.  A woman would die just as well as a man.


They found Lake Targa and followed the river that connected with it toward the sea.  The lake had been further north than they had to travel but it would keep them out of the more populated areas of Vale.  Plus it would be the only food source in the desolate land.


Bigsby Littlefoot took his new sword from the scabbard and hacked at some overhanging brush.  The hairfoot had refused the sword when Sylvia had bid him to take it.  She had to force the issue more than once.  The girl knew how Ser Larkel felt about the Red Tide.  He would not want the blade wasting away beneath the earth.


Sylvia took great care showing the hairfoot all the magic of the sword.  She touched it lightly to one of Bigsby’s old swords.  The Red Tide instantly took on the form of the blade.  It adjusted even more as the little knight practiced with it, conforming to fit his every need.  Soon the same love that Ser Larkel had for the weapon gripped the hairfoot as well.  She was happy to see the sword would be well cared for.


When night found them, they were still following the winding river.  The party set up camp just as the sun dropped over the horizon to blanket the land in darkness.  Sylvia had a light dinner of dried fruit and meat dreaming it was a bowl of steaming hot stew with large chunks of meat.  Then she bed down in the driest place she could find to sleep.


She took the pouch of powder from her belt.  The dust that had helped her sleep for so many years felt useless without Ser Larkel to sprinkle it on her.  The girl wasn’t sure if the powder had ever had any magic or if it had been the comfort of the old knight watching over her that chased away the night terrors.  Either way, she couldn’t use the powder again till the assassin was dead.  Her mind had to stay sharp.  Sylvia tucked the powder back into her belt.


By the time the sun lit the sky above them, the party had broken their camp and been on the go for two hours.  Sylvia wanted to be in Toth by mid-sun.  Bigsby took the lead, being the only one who had ever been to the city made him the most favorable choice.


The hairfoot veered south of the river shortly after sun up.  The trail was rocky and rough on the horses.  They in return, made it just as bumpy on their riders.  Only Bigsby was unbothered by the craggy terrain.  His Windstrider sailed gracefully above the obstacles.


When a small town was spotted in the general direction of their sally, Tomment and Sylvia cast the vote to take the detour.  As bad as Sylvia wanted to find her prey a relief from the jarring of her saddle was foremost on her mind.  They had traveled far enough into Vale not to fear a gathering host.  Any warlord this far behind the vanguard would know his chances for spoils lost and returned home.


The town was not much to see.  It had a few tagrag buildings in the middle of a few run-down houses.  The storefronts in the Podunk boasted “the best in town” on every window.  Being only four stores in the hick town and none of them selling the same service, Sylvia came to the conclusion that all the signs were truth.


All four of the proprietors of the businesses hurried to their doors in hopes of tasting the adventurer’s gold.  Smells of fresh hot food drew them passed the lusting merchants and into the inn at the end of the street.  The tradesmen remained at their doorways in hopes of a second chance after the party had eaten.


The inn had no menu.  If patrons wanted to eat, they ate what to old woman that owned the inn served them.  But it was the best, if not the only inn, in the one horse town.  The main room had few seats and the regulars of the inn had taken most.  Sylvia and her party had to sit at different spots of the room.  Bigsby and Tomment were able to find seats across from each other, while Sylvia took a seat in the far corner between two maids of questionable morals.


“We work this room, girl,” one of the harlots threatened.


The woman’s face was the attestation of her hard life.  Layers of make-up were insufficient to hide the age lines on her wrinkled face.  Her green dress was made of light cotton and sewn in a pattern clearly designed for silks.  The drab had long outgrown the attire but used a tight girdle to slither inside.  The steel buttons on the bosom just made it to the adjoining holes.  Others would have taken pity on a used up old whore.  Others but not Sylvia.


She drew her dagger and placed it at the drab’s belly.  The magically poisoned edge glowed red in the shadow of the table.  The harlot sucked in her plump middle as far as gravity would allow and sat frozen in place.


“I’m no whore, bitch,” Sylvia informed her.


The woman’s face filled with fear.  Then the fear faded away.  She took her hand and placed it on top of Sylvia’s gently pushing it away from her.


“Oh Hemlock,” she purred.  “Why do you insist on scaring me with that every time you pass by?”


Sylvia had replaced her ire with confusion.  Why had this tramp called her Hemlock?  She knew the name.  The woman decided to try and bleed the tramp for more information.


“Why my dear, must you spoil my fun every time I pass by,” Sylvia questioned.


“You may have a better chance if you were to take those gloves off,” she suggested.


The flowers on the glove, Sylvia thought.  Hemlock flowers.


Her head began to spin.  Someone had hired Hemlock to kill her.  By all rights she should already be dead.  No one had ever survived a contract taken by Hemlock not even the queen of Tural.  Every bard in the kingdoms could fill a whole day and night singing the ballads of his kills.  Sylvia cleared her head fearful she had blown her cover.


“If you ladies would be so kind,” she cooed, “I am in need of a place to conduct some business and need the use of this table.”


The two tramps scattered without question looking to be relieved to escape the assassin’s company.  Sylvia waved to Bigsby and Tomment to join her.  The men hurried over to her bringing their bowls of stew and one for her as well.  Sylvia noticed as the two whores made their rounds, the patrons of the inn all averted their eyes from her.  Even the scraggly man by the door that had taken a swipe at her behind when she entered, dared not meet her gaze.


“I know who the assassin is,” Sylvia told them.



The men had returned to wolfing down the thick stew.  There was very little meat in the mixture and what specs there were couldn’t be recognized.  The emptiness in Sylvia’s stomach had been filled with knots that drove hunger far away.  She had a feeling that her companions’ hunger would soon come to the same fate.


“It is the Hemlock,” she informed to the sound of spoons falling from her friends’ hands.




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