Talya sat in the corner, away from the banked fire in the cooking hearth. It made her all but invisible in the darkness of the room, her favourite position to be in. Anybody trying to sneak in through the door to the stables, and she had checked that out for herself first watch, would have to pass in front of the faint glow of the embers. There was no way to avoid that, and as long as she was awake no matter how stealthy a scout the mercenaries could rustle up from their ranks, she would see him and deal with him before he had a chance to see her.

It was amusing to her in a way, if she ignored the tension and discomfort. Normally she was in the reverse position, where she was sneaking into a place and had to worry about finding and dispatching guards before they could raise the alarm, or do the same to her. Not, of course, that in the realm of the Mage Priest there were many who had the kind of guard that could threaten her, and those who had were smart enough not to do anything that might call His wrath down on them. Still, there was always the possibility of one of the lordlings having an ambition and greed that outstripped their sense and most of the time she, and others of her order, were send out to keep an eye on those who might conspire. Ruling after all went so much smoother if those who would challenge the order of things were weeded out quickly and quietly. War after all was such a waste, and the Mage Priest applied this logic to the barbarians warlords to his southern border. Any of those who might gain enough of a following to be able to turn his eyes to the north was quickly and efficiently dealt with.

All of this made her current assignment something of an enigma. In particular the reason why she had been chosen for it. There were others who had received training in guarding and protecting every bit as intense as she had in entering defended places and quietly taking out her target. In fact, much of her training exercises saw her paired with those who would be her opponents if it were even physically possible for her to betray the Mage Priest. As the task was the protection of this messenger it would have made far more sense to send one the Mage Priest’s own bodyguards, who were all of them, far superior in these particular skills than she was.

Her amulet had lead her to the inn at the centre of the dangerously aware forest, and from there to the back of the building where she had stumbled on a fight in progress. Its guidance was not so specific that she could tell which of the seven people inside the room was who she had to defend. It wasn’t really even accurate enough to tell her anything more than that it was inside the building, and that only vaguely.

The sound of fighting had been audible even outside the front door, but that there was trouble going on was even more obvious the moment she entered the building. There was a group of men crowding a door opposite and a little to the side of the entrance. There also was a lot of shouting and cheering from deeper in the building, muffled by doorways and the crowd blocking them. Her amulet had not given her a clear indication where to go next any more, but she figured that if there was trouble it likely involved the messenger, and that meant she had to get past that crowd to wherever the fight was happening.

Dealing with crowds was not part of Talya’s training of course, but over the years she had picked up a few useful tricks. The fact that these men were all a head or two taller than she was also helped, as she could push between them and duck under their arms. The first door was easy enough to get to, and through. Those gathered in front of it were not particularly motivated to witness the fight — in fact a few were already wandering back to a table with pitchers of beer on it — so she could get through the door with only a minimum of pushing. The room beyond was more tightly packed but she could get past that by poking a man in the ribs and then slipping past him the other side as he turned to angrily accuse his neighbour. That brought her eventually to the other door which was pretty much jammed with three men all struggling to completely block it, and four more behind them also trying to get a look at what was going on.

Knowing how preciously little time she had, sword fights rarely lasted more than a few minutes, she drew two of her daggers and hit the nearest man in the back of his head with the pommel. He dropped without making a sound. This gave her a bit room and she used it to kick the legs out of the next one and then push him into the three who blocked her passage. They started to go down in a tangle while she knocked out the third. It all took so little time that she was through the door while everybody was still trying to figure out what was happening.

Once inside she had only a moment to take in the situation. No amount of training could prevent her from focussing on the fight just two steps before her and ignoring what was not immediately a threat. And the biggest threat was right in front of her. The biggest man she had ever seen was using a sword bigger than she was to drive the second biggest man towards her. And towards the two armed and armoured men standing just before her, one of which was getting ready to stab him in the back.

There was no time to think. One of the people in this room was her target and one of them was about to be killed. If she guessed wrong the Night Lord no doubt would strike her down for failing Him.

She stepped in briefly and stabbed the one with his sword out through the eye, then she turned around and put her other knife across the other man’s throat, putting her back against the wall and pulling him back with her to use him as shield in case the other men decided to get cute.

The fight was over in seconds after that and she had time to look around. There were three non-combatants in the room. A woman and a young man cowering in the corner to her right, and a naked woman standing in the doorway to her left.

This brought her back to the one dangerous unknown in the little group she had found herself with. The first look at her had given Talya an unpleasant jolt, but she had quickly retreated. Dealing with the other three, or five if she counted the prisoners, had distracted her from the oddity of the tall woman. Her amulet had felt oddly by then and was barely able to confirm that her target was in the inn, never mind the room. She had proceeded on the assumption that it was one of the two commoners. The big man who called himself Brandt did seem an unlikely messenger, and at any rate was a mercenary like the prisoners, and the two corpses. The Mage Priest did not employ mercenaries, of course, but some of the warlords further south did when they didn’t know who in their tribe could be trusted. Mercenaries travelled where money was found and the good ones stayed loyal. They wouldn’t be messengers themselves but might be hired to protect a messenger. If they hadn’t been fighting against what she presumed her target was, Talya might just have attempted to hire them for the job of helping her guard the messenger. Probably not though, she didn’t know what the going rate was for mercenaries this far south. Mercenaries, even the good ones, were only loyal as long as they were paid, and she had no idea how long her purse would be able to buy their loyalty. Probably not long. Since there was no telling how long her mission would take she had more than the usual amount of foreign coins in her purse, but only a handful of them would be accepted in this little country until she could find a money changer.

When the strange woman returned only moments later, now armed with a strange looking bow, she gave shocked Talya. Her amulet gave her a jolt so strong that she almost lost control over her muscles, and then petered out completely. As if its magic and blessing by the Night Lord had been completely wiped away.

Only a lifetime of remorseless training kept Talya from showing her shock. The brief exchange of names was tense, but Talya did not recognise the language from which Melissa’s name came. It was not any of the lands that the Mage Priest had dealings with. If his spies had, that information had not been shared with her. From her lack of reaction to the name of her order, Melissa was equally clueless about who Talya was. That suited her just fine, the tall yellow haired woman was a enough of a complication to her mission as it was already. And that was, Talya realised with a start, if she was not actually the messenger. She certainly was a stranger to these lands and the Night Lord knew how far she had travelled already to end up getting lost in this barbaric corner of the world. If she really was the one she had to protect that was a joke straight out of His black realm. Worse, with her amulet gone she could not afford to let the group split up as she had no way to figure out who to track. Somehow she had to come up with a reason to make them all travel together, at least until the message had been delivered. As if her job wasn’t already difficult enough.

Brandt assumed control of the little group with a force of habit that made Talya suspect he was far more used to commanding soldiers than to being an ordinary grunt in a mercenary company. She let him because it gave her time to study everybody in the room and assess their strengths and weaknesses. Brandt and Keri, and Melissa when she finally returned dressed in something that, if not for the colours. could have come out of the stores of the Order of Nachtgren. Talya upgraded her impression of both Melissa’s skill and the threat she represented considerably, and she could see from his thoughtful expression that Brandt was doing the same. He also had to metaphorically haul up his jaw from somewhere around his knees when she returned fully dressed and ready for war. His glance darted a couple of times to Talya as he got himself under control. Clearly he too recognised the close similarity in style, and understood the implications.

Army officer, Talya thought so why is he pretending to be a common merc?

She hated going into a situation blind. Normally she would take days, weeks if necessary, scouting her route to the target, so that by the time she finally moved there would be no surprises and the only evidence of her presence that she left behind was the corpse. Here, she was subjected to surprise after surprise, and none of them welcome. But complain as she might, it was not changing the reality that she was in an unfamiliar situation and had to make the best of it.

At least, after Brandt had agreed to share the watches with her and, on her insistence, on making them only as long as either could stay awake, rather than a fixed time that neither of them would be able to keep in the dark any way, she had some time to ground herself in the darkness of the Night Lord, where she belonged. Even if everything was unfamiliar, this at least was normal for her. Darkness and waiting for a chance to strike at a target should he be foolish enough to expose himself to her.

Normally, waiting like this would not be difficult for her, but it had been a long day and a harsh journey over an increasingly impassable road and through a forest that had managed to give her quite a scare with how it could affect even her. She was tired, plain and simple, and decided that while she was not in immediate danger of falling asleep, enough hours had passed that she would wake up Brandt to take over from her.

The faintest scrape of soft leather over stone jolted back her attention from what little wandering it had done. Shallowing her breath till it made no more sound than the beating of her heart, she waited if the noise repeated itself.

Which it some seconds later. Certain now that somebody was sneaking into the kitchen Talya strained her eyes, looking at the edges of the faint light of the banked coals, where whoever was coming would reveal himself, no matter how good he was.

From her left was the unmistakable twang of a bowstring at the same time that the slightly wet thok of an arrow striking a body came from the door opening. Talya was still reaching for her belt pouch when the man made a soft grunt of air being expelled without much of any force behind it, followed by the thud of a body hitting the ground. Whoever had been hit had been killed instantly by that arrow.

Almost fluid in her motion Talya got to her feet and threw her little surprise into the hearth. She had a moment to look to her side, but could not see Melissa. She did see a pair of green glowing eyes in the blackness of the shed before she closed her own against the blinding flash of light. Even with her eyes firmly closed it was still a bright white light that she saw. Anybody who had his, or her, eyes open would be blinded.

Talya was already in motion when behind her she heard shouted words in a language she did not recognise but that, from their tone, could only be expletives. She could also hear Brandt getting to his feet. The man was fast, she had to give that to him. Her sight recovered far more quickly and she could see, in the slowly fading glow of her flash powder, that two men had jumped into into the kitchen over the corpse in the short hallway. Both were swinging their swords blindly. There was no time to finesse it, so she ducked under one sword and pushed the man in the path of the swing by the other man. Neither was armoured, of course so the man cried out in pain and fear as the sword bit into his neck. The other man never made a sound as she dispatched of him with a quick thrust of her dagger.

Then she dove out of the way as Brandt came storming up with that huge sword of his. He wasn’t blinded either so he had no trouble putting the tip of his sword a centimetre from the throat of the third man who had jumped into the kitchen. Melissa came up too, her eyes streaming tears but an arrow nocked and aimed unwaveringly into the hallway. Even a blind archer could not fail to hit at least one of the two men still standing there.

That took the fight out of the survivors, who slowly began to back away.

“Stop!” Brandt barked out the command as if he was on the exercise field rather than in a kitchen. “You will take these three dead with you. And then I don’t want to see any of your faces again, or I will string you up from a tree, right here in this cursed forest.”

Talya grinned to herself. The mention of the cursed forest clearly made an impression. The man with the sword tip at his throat already looked scared, the other two lost their murderous expression for something much more subdued. None of them was inclined to argue any longer.

Keri, who was now awake too, was smart enough to rake up the fire, creating enough light to see by and to stop any foolish notion the three might have had of rushing them under the guise of darkness. Not that the darkness had helped half their numbers they were now dragging out of the kitchen. Talya looked impassively at them as they worked. Behind and to her side Melissa did the same, though she had first repeated her suggestion to just outright kill the three. She had subsided when Brandt had outright refused. Brandt was interesting, Talya thought, because he looked wan. He was still protecting these mercenaries even though twice now they had tried to kill him. She wasn’t sure, yet, what it said about him, but it was a potential weakness she could use against him if it came to that, as well as a protective urge that she could perhaps use to her advantage too.

Melissa on the other hand was just ruthless, which Talya could empathise with. In this case though she agreed with Brandt that dropping six dead bodies on the other mercenaries would more likely rile them up than cow them. Though she had to agree with the other woman that leaving three alive to plot revenge was not without its risks either.

Keri was harder to read. She kept to herself, and if she appeared overwhelmed that was entirely understandable. From what little they had talked while cleaning up the mess of the first fight and getting ready for the night, Talya understood that she was a travelling musician. She knew how to handle herself in a bar brawl, but this was beyond anything that she had ever experienced. Far beyond, if Talya thought about it objectively, anything that was reasonably to be expected. Sure, mercenaries were infamous for being rowdy and getting into brawls in bars, but this had lasted through the night and had left five dead. And it all started, according to Keri, when Melissa had walked into the inn wearing almost nothing.

Melissa again,’ Talya mused ‘who grates on my skin like wool, and who somehow destroyed my amulet.’

It made sense to think that Melissa was the one sent to stop Keri, assuming that Keri was indeed the messenger. Only, and that was the point that had confused her throughout her watch every time she thought about the strange woman with her too bright eyes, she could have killed Keri dozens of times tonight already. She clearly had been awake during Talya’s watch sitting in easy striking distance of Keri for that dagger of hers. And again, while Brandt and she were busy fending off the attackers, Melissa had been left behind with Keri.

Then again, it also made sense that Melissa was the messenger and that the violence around her was caused by her adversary. Only, then where was this adversary? He could be a mercenary, but they could have used their numbers to overwhelm them at any moment, which Brandt clearly had expected, and planned for.

Talya barely prevented herself from sighing in frustration. She hated going into a situation essentially blind, and yet here she was forced to do exactly that.

“I’m following them.” Brandt announced “they might retaliate against our horses.”

“Snowflake!” Keri cried out and ran after the big man.

“Bring your horses into the kitchen” Talya called after the two.

“The innkeeper …”

“The innkeeper can bite me,” Talya shouted “we’ll need those horses. Alive.”