Parissus, the Impilturian woman, winced as the red-bearded dwarf drew a bandage tight around her wounded forearm.
"You better be here to tell me that you've decided to deliver the rest of our bounty," she said to the soldier sitting across the other side of the small room where the cleric had set up his chapel. Her appearance, with broad shoulders and short-cropped, disheveled blond hair, added menace to her words, and anyone who had ever seen Parissus wield her broadsword would say that sense of menace was well-placed.
The man, handsome in a rugged manner, with thick black hair and a full beard, and skin browned by many hours out in the sun, seemed quite amused by it all.
"Don't you smile, Davis Eng," said the woman's female companion, a half-elf, much smaller in build than Parissus.
She narrowed her gaze then widened her eyes fiercely - and indeed, those eyes had struck fear into many an enemy. Light blue, almost gray, Calihye's eyes had been the last image so many opponents had seen. Those eyes! So intense that they made many ignore the hot scar on the woman's right cheek, where a pirate's gaff hook had caught her and nearly torn her face off, tearing a jagged line from her cheek through the edge of her thin lips and to the middle of her chin. Her eyes seemed even more startling because of the contrast between them and her long black hair, and the angular elf's features of a face that, had it not been for the scar, could not have been considered anything but beautiful.
Davis Eng chuckled. "What do you think, Pratcus?" he asked the dwarf cleric. "That little wound of hers seem ugly enough to have been made by a giant?"
"It's a giant's ear!" Parissus growled at him.
"Small for a giant," Davis Eng replied, and he fished into his belt pouch and produced the torn ear, holding it up before his eyes. "Small for an ogre, I'd say, but you might talk me out of the coin for an ogre's bounty."
"Or I might cut it out of your hide," said Calihye.
"With your fingernails, I hope," the soldier replied, and the dwarf laughed.
Parissus slapped him on the head, which of course only made him laugh all the louder.
"Every tenday it's that same game," Pratcus remarked, and even surly Calihye couldn't help but chuckle a bit at that.
For indeed, every tenday when it came time for the payout of the bounties, Davis Eng, she, and Parissus played their little game, arguing over the number of ears - goblin, orc, bugbear, hobgoblin, and giant - the successful hunting pair had delivered to the Vaasan Gate.
"Only a game because that one's meaning to pocket a bit of Ellery's coin," Calihye said.
"Commander Ellery," Davis Eng corrected, and his voice took on a serious tone.
"That, or he can't count," said Parissus, and she groaned again as Pratcus tugged the bandage into place. "Or can't tell the difference between an ogre and a giant. Yes, that would be it, I suppose, since he's not set foot outside of Damara in years."
"I did my fighting," the man argued.
"In the Witch-King War?" Parissus snapped back. "You were a child."
"Vaasa is not nearly as untamed as she was after the fall of the Witch-King," said Davis Eng. "When I first joined the Army of Bloodstone, monsters of every sort swarmed over these hills. If King Gareth had seen fit to pay a bounty in those first months, his treasury would have been cleared of coin, do not doubt."
"Kill any giants?" asked Calihye, and the man glared at her. "You're sure they weren't ogres? Or goblins, even?"
That brought another laugh from Pratcus.
"Bah, that one's always had a problem in measuring things," Parissus added. "So they're saying in Ironhead's Tavern and in Muddy Boots and Bloody Blades. But he's not one for consistency, I'm thinking, because if he's measuring now like he's measuring then, sure that he'd be certain we'd given him a titan's ear!"
Pratcus snorted and jerked, and Parissus ended with a squeal as he inadvertently twisted the bandage.
Calihye was laughing too, and after a moment, even Davis Eng joined in. He had never been able to resist those two, when all was said and done.
"I'll call it a giant, then," he surrendered. "A baby giant."
"I noted nothing on the bounty charts about age," Calihye said as Davis Eng began to count out the coins.
"A kill is a kill," Davis Eng agreed.
"You've been taking a particular interest in our earnings these last tendays," Calihye said. "Is there a reason?"
Pratcus started to chuckle, tipping the women off. Parissus pulled her hand back from him and glowered at him. "What do you know?"
Pratcus looked at Davis Eng, who similarly chuckled and nodded.
"Yer friend's passed Athrogate," the dwarf priest explained, and he glanced over at Calihye. "He'll be back in a couple o' tendays, and he's not to be pleased that all his time away has put him in back o' Calihye in bounties earned."
The look that crossed between Parissus and Calihye was one more of concern than of pride. Was that honor really a desired one, considering the disposition of Athrogate and his known connections to the Citadel of Assassins?
"And you, Parissus, are fast closing in on the dwarf," Davis Eng added.
Davis Eng tossed a small bag of silver to Calihye and said, "He'll fume and harrumph and run about in a fury when he gets back. He'll make stupid little rhymes about you both. Then he'll go out and slaughter half of the monsters in Vaasa, just to put you two in your place. He'll probably hire wagons out, just to carry back the ears."
Neither woman broke a smile.
"Ah, but these two can pace Athrogate," Pratcus said.
Davis Eng laughed and so did Calihye, and Parissus a moment later. Could anyone truly pace Athrogate?
"He's got a fire inside of him that I've never seen the likes of before," Calihye admitted. "And never does he run faster than when there's a hundred enemies standing in his way."
"But we're there, right beside him, and I mean to pass him, too," Parissus said, allowing her pride to finally spill forth. "When our fellow hunters look at the board outside of Ironhead's, they're going to see the names Parissus and Calihye penned right there on top!"
"Calihye and Parissus," the half-elf corrected.
Davis Eng and Pratcus burst into laughter.
"Only because we're being generous on this last kill," said Davis Eng.
"It was a giant!" both women said together.
"After that," the soldier replied. "You two were dead before you got to the wall, had not Commander Ellery rushed out. That alone should negate the bounty."
"So says yourself, bluster-blunder!" Calihye roared in defiance. "We had the goblins beat clean. Was your own fellow who wanted a piece of the fight for himself. He's the one Ellery needed saving."
"Commander Ellery," came a call from the doorway, and all four heads turned to regard the important woman herself, striding into the room.
Pratcus tried to appear sober and respectful, but giggles kept escaping his mouth as he tugged hard to tighten down Parissus's bandage.
"Commander Ellery," Calihye said in deference, and she offered a slight bow in apology. "A title well-earned, though all titles seem to fall hard from my lips. I beg your pardon, Commander Ellery, Lady Dragonsbane."
"Given the occasion, your indiscretion is of no concern," said Ellery, trying not to appear flushed by the complimentary use of her surname, Dragonsbane, a name of the greatest renown all across the Bloodstone Lands. Technically, Ellery's last name was Peidopare, though Dragonsbane immediately preceded that name, and the halfelf's use of the more prominent family name was certainly as great a compliment as anyone could possibly pay to Ellery. She was tall and slim, but there was nothing frail about her frame, for she had seen many battles and had wielded her heavy axe since childhood. Her eyes were wide-set and bright blue, her skin tanned, but still delicate, and dotted with many freckles about her nose. Those did not detract from her beauty, though, but rather enhanced it, adding a touch of girlishness to a face full of intensity and power. "I wanted to add this to the bounty." She pulled a small pouch from her belt and tossed it to Calihye. "An additional reward from the Army of Bloodstone for your heroic work."
"We were discussing whether Athrogate would be pleased when he returns," Davis Eng explained, and that thought brought a grin to Ellery's face.
"I expect he'll not take the demotion to runner-up as well as Mariabronne accepted Athrogate's ascent."
"With all respect to Athrogate," Parissus remarked, "Mariabronne the Rover has more Vaasan kills to his credit than all three of us together."
"A point hard to argue, though the ranger accepts no bounty and takes no public acclaim," said Davis Eng, and the way he spoke made it apparent that he was drawing a distinction between Mariabronne the Rover, a name legendary throughout Damara, and the two women.
"Mariabronne made both his reputation and his fortune in the first few years following Zhengyi's demise," Ellery added. "Once King Gareth took note of him and knighted him, there was little point for Mariabronne to continue to compete in the Vaasan bounties. Perhaps our two friends here, and Athrogate, will find similar honor soon."
"Athrogate knighted by King Gareth?" Davis Eng said, and Pratcus was bobbing so hard trying to contain his laughter at the absurd image those words conjured that he nearly fell right over.
"Well, perhaps not that one," Ellery conceded, to the amusement of them all.
Something just didn't feel right, didn't smell right.
His face showed the hard work, the battles, of more than twenty years. He was still handsome, though, with his unkempt brown locks and his scruffy beard. His bright brown eyes shone with the luster of youth more fitting of a man half his age, and that grin of his was both commanding and mischievous, a smile that could melt a woman on the spot, and one that the nomadic warrior had often put to good use. He had risen through the ranks of the Bloodstone Army in those years during the war with the Witch-King, and had moved beyond even those accolades upon his release from the official service of King Gareth after Zhengyi's fall.
Mariabronne the Rover, he was called, a name that almost every man, woman, and child in Damara knew well, and one that struck a chord of fear and hatred in the monsters of Vaasa. For the ending of his service in the Bloodstone Army had only been the beginning of Mariabronne's service to King Gareth and the people of the two states collectively known as the Bloodstone Lands. Working out of the northern stretches of the Bloodstone Pass, which connected Vaasa and Damara through the towering Galena Mountains, Mariabronne had served as tireless bodyguard to the workers who had constructed the massive Vaasan Gate. More than anyone else, even more so than the men and women surrounding King Gareth himself, Mariabronne the Rover had worked to tame wild Vaasa.
The progress was slow, so very slow, and Mariabronne doubted he'd see Vaasa truly civilized in his lifetime. But ending the journey wasn't the point. He could not solve all the ills of the world, but he could help his fellow men walk the path that would eventually lead to that.
But something smelled wrong. Some sensation in the air, some sixth sense, told the ranger that great trials might soon be ahead.
It must have been Wingham's summons, he realized, for had the old half-orc ever bade someone to his side before? Everything with Wingham - Weird Wingham, he was called, and proudly called himself - prompted suspicion, of course, of the curious kind if not the malicious. But what could it be, Mariabronne wondered? What sensation was upon the wind, darkening the Vaasan sky? What omen of ill portent had he noted unconsciously out of the corner of his eye?
"You're getting old and timid," he scolded himself.
Mariabronne often talked to himself, for Mariabronne was often alone. He wanted no partner for his hunting or for his life, unless it was a temporary arrangement, a warm, soft body beside him in a warm, soft bed. His responsibilities were beyond the call of his personal desires. His visions and aspirations were rooted in the hope of an entire nation, not the cravings of a single man.
The ranger sighed and shielded his eyes against the rising sun as he looked east across the muddy Vaasan plain that morning. Summer had come to the wasteland, though the breeze still carried a chilly bite. Many of the more brutish monsters, the giants and the ogres, had migrated north hunting the elk herds, and without the more formidable enemies out and about, the smaller humanoid races - orcs and goblins, mostly - were keeping out of sight, deep in caves or high up among the rocks.
As he considered that, Mariabronne let his gaze linger to the left, to the south, and the vast wall-fortress known as the Vaasan Gate.
Her great portcullis was up, and the ranger could see the dark dots of adventurers issuing forth to begin the morning hunt.
Already there was talk of constructing more fortified keeps north of the great gate, for the numbers of monsters there were declining and the bounty hunters could no longer be assured of their silver and gold coins.
Everything was going as King Gareth had planned and desired. Vaasa would be tamed, mile by mile, and the two nations would merge as the single entity of Bloodstone.
But something had Mariabronne on edge. Some feeling warned him far in the recesses of his mind, that the dark had not been fully lifted from the wild land of Vaasa.
"Wingham's summons is all," he decided, and he moved back to the sheltered dell and began to collect his gear.
Commander Ellery paced the top of the great wall that was the Vaasan gate a short while later. She hardly knew the two women, Calihye and Parissus, who had ascended so far and so fast among the ranking of bounty hunters, and in truth, Ellery was not fond of the little one, Calihye. The half-elf's character was as scarred as her formerly pretty face, Ellery knew. Still, Calihye could fight with the best of the warriors at the gate and drink with them as well, and Ellery had to admit, to herself at least, that she took a bit of private glee at seeing a woman attain the highest rank on the bounty board.
They had all been laughing about Athrogate's reaction, but Ellery understood that it truly was no joke. She knew the dwarf well, though few realized that the two had forged such a partnership of mutual benefit, and she understood that the dwarf, whatever his continual bellowing laughter might indicate, did not take well to being surpassed.
But all accolades to Calihye, and soon to Parissus, the niece of Gareth Dragonsbane thought. However she might feel about the little one - and in truth, the big one was a bit crude for Ellery's tastes, as well - she, Athrogate, and everyone else at the Vaasan Gate had to admit their prowess. Calihye and Parissus were fine fighters and better hunters. Monstrous prey had thinned severely about the Vaasan Gate, but those two always seemed to find more goblins or orcs to slaughter. Rare was the day that Calihye and Parissus left the fortification to return without a bag of ears.
And yes, it did sit well with Ellery that a pair of women, among the few at the Vaasan Gate, had achieved so much. Ellery knew well from personal experience how difficult it was for a woman, even a dwarf female, to climb the patriarchal ranks of the warrior class, either informally as a bounty hunter or formally in the Army of Bloodstone. She had earned her rank of commander one fight and one argument at a time. She had battled for every promotion and every difficult assignment. She had earned her mighty axe from the hand of the ogre who wielded it and had earned the plume in her great helmet through deed and deed alone.
But there were always those voices, whispers at the edges of her consciousness, people insisting under their breath that the woman's heritage, boasting of both the names of Tranth and particularly of Dragonsbane, served as explanation for her ascent.
Ellery moved to the northern lip of the great wall, planted her hands on the stone railing and looked out over the wasteland of Vaasa. She served under many men in the Army of Bloodstone who had not seen half the battles she had waged and won. She served under many men in the Army of Bloodstone who did not know how to lead a patrol, or set a proper watch and perimeter around an evening encampment. She served under many men in the Army of Bloodstone whose troops ran out of supplies regularly, all on account of poor planning.
Yet those doubting voices remained, whispering in her head and beating in heart.