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Chapter 1

A Stranger


Klara’s eyes fluttered, admitting nothing but blackness. The grass stuffing of her pallet had long since been squashed flat, offering no comfort at all. Now, her hip and shoulder ached from being pressed against the ground. Abandoning thoughts of sleep, she rose, intending to hunt before the alehouse opened for business.

Today was the Vernal Equinox. Everyone in the surrounding villages was celebrating, so the alehouse had been full the past two nights. Serik had not purchased enough supplies to make it through the holiday and the last of the mutton was put into a stew yesterday. If there was to be meat with the meal tonight, she would have to kill it. Collecting her bow and slinging her quiver across her back, she slipped out the back door and disappeared into the forest.

The alehouse had a reputation for serving the finest meals around. It had another equally well-known reputation for ignoring the local magistrate’s ban on prostitution. Those two factors combined meant Serik did considerable business. Klara cooked the meals and served the men, with food or on her back, it mattered little. And while Serik’s business made him a wealthy man, he did not share his riches. Unable to afford either horse or house, she was at the mercy of men like Serik and expected to earn her keep.

Worn thin by years of use, Klara’s dress did little by way of keeping the breeze out and her in. Catching her golden braids in its grasp, the wind set them to bobbing at her back. Shivering against the chill, she made her way deeper into the forest. Upon reaching a creek, she climbed into a tree that afforded a good view of the stream and waited patiently as the forest awoke. Something was bound to water here.

The time needed to pull an arrow from her quiver, nock it, and then draw her bow might mean the difference between meat on the table or beans for supper. In anticipation of game, she pulled an arrow from her quiver and held it nocked at the ready.

As the forest came to life, birds began their morning songs. The gray dawn gave way to golden clouds with pale pink hues and finally hints of blue. Below her the brush began to rustle. A roe deer cautiously approached the stream. Klara drew her bow and waited. The deer had only presented her its hindquarters, which was a poor shot. After it finished drinking, it turned and stood quartered away from her. She loosed her arrow, which sunk deep into the animal’s lungs. The deer jumped, ran thirty paces, and collapsed.

Climbing down from the tree, Klara went to collect her game. The deer was a doe. She pulled her knife from its sheaf, spit its belly open, fished her hands into the body cavity far enough to cut the wind pipe, and extracted the steaming innards as one jiggly mass. Lying amongst the offal were twin fawns.

“Absent gods,” Klara said, rolling the gut pile away from her. “That arrow claimed three lives, not one.”

This early in the year the bucks had yet to re-grow their antlers so it was difficult to tell the sexes apart. Given a choice, she would have preferred not to shoot a doe. Cursing Serik for not purchasing more meat, she slung the field-dressed carcass over her shoulders and made her way back to the alehouse.

Built in a clearing alongside the road, the alehouse was a ramshackle two-room structure. Serik’s house was nearly as large as the tavern, but much better kept. Both buildings were stone and timber construction with heavily thatched roofs. During the day, the alehouse doors were flung open to let the light in and the smoke out. Two oblong tables, each flanked by a pair of benches filled the room. Another bench lined the front wall. In the center of the building, planks lay across casks of wine and ale. This formed a long bar that not only served to separate the alehouse’s patrons from the hearth where she cooked, but kept drunkards from falling into the fire. There was no doubt in her mind that all those seats would be full this evening.

After hanging the deer out back, she went to wash up. Unfastening her belt, she shrugged the threadbare dress off her shoulders, revealing the ample curves the men so greatly desired, if only for a night. Long ago, she chose comfort over fashion, eschewing the fitted tunics and breeches sported by the bands of warrior maidens. Instead she wore the plain baggy dress, belted at the waist, favored among women who had given up warrior life and settled down.

Klara dampened a corner of her dress and washed the blood from her hands and neck. Golden braids bobbed in the sunlight as she worked the cloth over the back of her head, taking care to make sure no blood was in her hair. When her skin was scrubbed pink, she pinned the braids so they encircled her head like a wreath. Most Skolts preferred wearing their hair loose, but long hair was bothersome, so she kept hers up and out of the way while she cooked and served.

Owning a single dress left her with a dilemma, either she washed it now or wore it all day, crusty and blood-stained. The men cared little about her cleanliness or attire; they preferred her bare. In truth, she preferred nudity herself, though not when it encouraged groping hands. After rinsing out the dress, she hung it on the line to dry in the morning sun and went inside to cook wearing naught but what the Goddess had gifted her.

Inside the smoky room, Klara made bread and cut up winter vegetables to be roasted with the venison, courtesy of this morning’s hunt. With the bread on to bake and the meat and vegetables roasting, she put the damp dress back on. There was no need to give the men frequenting the tavern any more encouragement than the ale already provided.

Soon the room became boisterous, full of red-headed bachelors lacking nearby kin and eager to celebrate the holiday. Klara served food and beer while skillfully dodging the hands of men as she made her rounds of the room. Her curves were too great a temptation for them, which was not helped by the fact that the thin cloth of her dress left little to the imagination.

Toward the middle of the evening the tall, dark-haired foreigner, entered the alehouse, dashing her hopes that his absence in the intervening nights was an indication that he was just passing through the area. He was dressed entirely in blue and carried a walking stick with him, though she detected no sign of a limp. A nasty scar ran down the side of his face ending in gray streaks of hair at both ends, temple and beard. Despite the gray in his hair, he appeared to be in the prime of life. His tunic was plain, giving him a dull, unobtrusive appearance. But, given the quality of the garment, even without appliqués or embroidery, she knew he was no pauper.

When he had dined at the alehouse before, he held himself apart, refusing to interact with the Skolts. She had felt him watching her the previous nights, too, but he never asked for the pleasure of her company and left as soon as his meal was finished. That was odd. Most men who took a meal lingered to talk. Klara felt certain she needed to keep an eye on him.

Approaching his table, Klara asked, “What’ll you be having tonight?”

“Ale and supper,” the stranger replied. Before he could speak further, the man sitting opposite him reached out and squeezed her bottom. Swatting his hands away, she slipped behind the bar to dish up the food.

Klara returned with a platter and placed the food before him. “I saw you in here before but you didn’t stay long. If you’re still here that means you aren’t just traveling through.”

“I’m visiting my sister.” The stranger tore off a bit of crusty bread and gave his meal an appreciative glance. “I didn’t think you’d remember me. We never spoke more than a moment or two.”

“With those streaks of gray in your hair and beard, you’d be hard to forget,” Klara said. “And you didn’t try grabbing my bottom. That’s worthy of notice right there. This is the third meal you’ve taken here in a fortnight. Either your sister isn’t much of a cook or you’re looking for other entertainment.”

The stranger laughed. “Cooking has never rated high on my sister’s list of priorities.”

Well, that was hardly unusual. Fighting and horse breeding generally ranked higher than domestic responsibilities. Rather than rebuke him, she said, “If you’re to be frequenting the place, I’d best know your name.”

“I go by Waywyrd,” the man replied.

One of the regulars, Erasyl, pulled her into his lap, cutting short her conversation. His red beard tickled her cheek as he whispered in her ear, “I’ve got silver in my pocket that says you can make me a happy man.”

“Erasyl, it doesn’t take much to make you happy,” Klara said, much to the delight of the other men, who roared with laughter.

The laughter continued as she led him past the bar. Erasyl fumbled in his purse for the proper coinage and passed it to Serik whose bulky biceps flexed as he received the payment. Serik’s gray eyes flashed like flint against a striker. He did not mind how the men used her, so long as they refrained from misusing her. Bruised and battered, her value dropped. A quiet man, Serik seldom needed words to get his point across.

Satisfied that Erasyl had received the unspoken warning, Klara pulled aside the goat-skin curtain covering the entry way of a small room partitioned off by the hearth. It was where she slept and where she serviced the clientele with silver enough to purchase her sex. Serik took most of the money, but she was given a roof over her head and afforded some manner of protection. Not a quarter of an hour later, her task complete, she resumed her duties in the tavern while Erasyl returned to his seat, a broad grin on his peasant face.

Pitcher in hand, Klara made the rounds of the room again and asked Waywyrd if he wanted more ale, but he declined. Having finished his meal, he paid and left. His gaze lingered on her before passing through the door. It was odd behavior and a little unnerving.

The tavern had emptied and Klara was sweeping up when Waywyrd returned, floating in on a cool breeze, and ordered another ale. She felt him watching her as she cleaned and Serik counted the money in the cashbox.

Once she had finished and put the broom away, she went to sit opposite him. “Not many men sit in an empty tavern.”

“I was hoping we could talk privately,” Waywyrd said.

“We can do anything you want privately,” Klara replied. “But it all costs money.”

“Really, I’d just like to talk,” Waywyrd insisted.

At that moment Serik shouted across the room. “Klara, be sure he leaves. I don’t want any trouble like we had before. And make sure he pays.” Then Serik disappeared out the back door, heading for home.

Waywyrd sighed and reached for his purse. “How much?”

Klara told him and he reluctantly parted with the silver. She rose, intending to lead him to the room in back.

“That’s not necessary,” Waywyrd said, “here is fine.” Puzzled, Klara wondered just what this man was after, but consented to sit opposite him again.

“My sister sent me for you,” Waywyrd began.

Klara cut him off with a sharp wave of her hand. “If that’s what you’re after the price is double. Threesomes, foursomes, and moresomes all cost extra.” This would be her first brother-sister combo and there was no way she was going to do it for the regular price.

Waywyrd coughed and cleared his throat, looking uncomfortable. “We are seeking a cook, not a whore.”

“Oh,” Klara said, her hands dropping to the table. “I just thought . . .” She paused, and then added forcefully, “You still have to pay. Serik won’t believe you just wanted to talk.”

“That’s fine, keep the money,” Waywyrd said, seeming somewhat relieved. “A party of Keltoi will pass this way around Beltene. They are traveling to their homeland in the Abnoba Mountains and need someone who can cook and hunt. My sister says you’re capable of both. If you’ve been the one preparing my meals, I can vouch for your cooking.”

Beltene was still moons away. The Skolti did not celebrate Belenus or observe his holy days. The only thing they worshiped was their horses. Why not wait to hire a cook until they were ready to travel? She shook her head. They likely expected more from a hired cook than just cooking.

“So you want me to cook and hunt,” Klara scoffed. “And at every village we pass through I get hired out as a whore; makes for a handy way to finance your journey. I’d still have to endure as much feasting, fighting, and fornicating as I do here, plus I’d be sleeping rough and dog-tired after a long day of walking.”

 “I do not expect that will be the case,” Waywyrd said. “They are looking for someone to sign on as an equal in the company, not as a whore. You would share in the cooking, hunting, and other chores just as the other members of the party will. It seemed prudent to take on another member since there are already six in the party and seven is a luckier number.”

“And there would be no sex?” Klara asked, looking for confirmation.

“Not unless you want it,” Waywyrd said. “Then I expect there would be a number in the party who’d be happy to oblige.” He was trying to hide a smile and failing miserably.

“How do I know this isn’t a trap?” Klara asked. “You could be making the whole story up just to get me to leave here with you. What’s your role in all of this?”

“You have no way of knowing if this is entrapment,” Waywyrd agreed. “But you won’t be riding off with me tonight. If you are agreeable, they’ll meet you here. As for my role, I am a wizard enlisted to aid them in their journey, rather unwillingly, I might add.”

“A wizard seems to be a far-fetched claim,” Klara said. She had seen plenty of road-side charlatans in her time at the alehouse and was never impressed.

Waywyrd held up his flagon, which still held a small measure of ale and blew across its base. The ale froze and frost crept up the flagon’s side. Then he turned it upside down. Not a drop of liquid fell from the lip. Righting the flagon, Waywyrd snapped his fingers. The ale was liquid again and all that remained of the frost was dew-like droplets running down the flagon’s sides and dripping onto the table.

Klara took the flagon from him and considered the ale in silence. She took a sip, then wiped her hand across her mouth. “Well, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to meet them.”

Waywyrd smiled, moved the walking stick to the crook of his arm, and proffered his hand. She took it and shook, feeling callouses on his rough skin. Then she walked him to the door. The man was utterly mad. Was there really a party destined for the Abnoba Mountains looking for a cook? That seemed almost as unfathomable as his claim to be a wizard. Still, the trick with the ale was impressive and traveling to the Goddess’s home was bound to be more interesting than working for Serik.

Submitted: May 05, 2022

© Copyright 2023 K.S. Wright. All rights reserved.