Talis couldn't tell if the two big commoners at the end of the table were interested or simply angered that she'd chosen to sit at their table. Despite all the empty seats at this board, the rest of the place was overflowing with stools and chairs pulled around tables scattered pellmell around the common room of the New Town Inn.
Frankly, she didn't give a damn. This table was closest to the fire. It was the only empty seat to be had. They had ridden long hours today and she was tired, hungry and in a pissy mood. Even though the two occupants extended large booted feet to impede, and the larger pockmarked one with bad teeth made rude comments as she passed him, she moved towards the seat. A well placed kick with the hard toe of her long leather boot mid stride and he pulled back a bruised limb in surprise.
At her signal the barmaid brought her a mug of mulled wine and with it a bowl of whatever was stewed that day. There was also a rough loaf of bread with a reasonable aroma and a good crust. The slight girl also added an extra large paddle of churned yellow butter from the sideboard and smiled at Talis. Talis' glance caught the gleam of a steel source bead that escaped from the girl's rough shirt.
For the girl's generosity, Talis slipped one small copper coin into her thin hand with a sideways glance at the fat keep eying her from the bar.
“When you tire of this, make your way to the old herbalist on Shanty Street.” The girl's eyes opened wide at this, but she quickly hid her astonishment and feigned a reasonably blank look.
Talis made a show of paying for her meal sensing that the serving girl would be more likely to own the penny if the keep thought that the brass coin she held up now to the girl was all that was tendered. She was repaid with a grateful, fleeting smile.
The two hooligans couldn't hide their interest in the deerskin pouch at her waist after the farce. It couldn't be helped. From the looks of it, the girl needed every penny to buy shoes and a decent stole to replace the threadbare one wrapped around her scrawny shoulders.
She slurped noisily as she tested the soup and decided to sip her wine instead. Let the chill in the air that even the big fire crackling in the hearth failed to fully subdue make it easier to gulp down. She was in a hurry to be out of New Town and everything annoyed her at this point.
One of the sluggards at the end of her table made a stab at flirting with a horribly crude remark directed at her chest. Talis leaned forward and stared stonily at the fire in reply.
“Unfriendly wench, aye” the smaller one of the two with the scar of a big gash across his cheek pushed back his stool and loomed towards her, meaty paws splayed out on the table. With a snick of metal singing against leather and lightning fast reflexes, she had unsheathed two short knives from above her boot with her right hand, sent them spinning in the air to land with a hissing thunk between the second and third fingers of his left hand.
The third knife she unleashed from her bodice with her left hand carved off a neat slice of the bread loaf. Talis stuck the chunk of bread between her teeth and chewed. She growled, stood up and retrieved the two blades from the now seated and red-faced scar man and went back to entertaining her meal. Things settled down. She threw her cloak over her shoulders and went back to entertaining her meal ignoring the two muttering dolts who left soon after.
Stranger nickered softly when he saw her and danced a bit, his breath fogging in the night chill settling in. She put her forehead on the massive neck, rubbed his shoulders and flipped the stirrup onto the saddle to check the girth cinch.
“Littlefoot, where are you”? She kept her voice low. New Town may be a center of commerce, but folks here were still a suspicious and zealous bunch. They were antsy around her kind. A lump under her saddle roll began to stretch and search. A small, silver gray furry head with two shining eyes black as coals greeted her from beneath blanket folds, Tiny, sharp white teeth chattered in a heartfelt scold.
“I've been cold out here! And hungry! And I sensed danger for you and couldn't be there to help”! Littlefoot gave her a ferret's rendition of a petulant cold shoulder. She grinned in his direction.
“This should mollify you, bottomless gut”, Talis tossed him a chunk of meat fished out of her stew and some bread with gobs of butter attached to it. His pouting suddenly shifted to keen interest. With a quick thought for him to hide, she turned her attention to Stranger who sent her pictures of grain and water. She palmed a wrinkled little apple that she'd purloined from a table she passed on the way out with the occupants none the wiser.
“You're next. Let's get around to the stables to see what fare and accommodations they can offer you”, she said as she stepped in the stirrup and threw her leg over the busily moving lump with Littlefoot contentedly consuming his dinner at the center of it.
The stable boy gawked at Stranger. It wasn't often that New Town got riders on horses of the old line the size of the stallion – or red haired women with big swords riding them. The horse was such a dark brown he appeared almost black even in bright sun, and this late afternoon saw not much in the way of light. Long feathered fringes covered his lower legs over the hooves and his mane and tail were thick and waved.
The boy, used to the stubby ponies of the Punts and Newlanders, brought around a skimpy wooden bucket of grain. He sidled up to Talis as if fearful to get too near the big horse or her. Talis looked in the bucket and sighed.
“Where's the grain bin, boy”? She followed his wavering finger and filled the bucket more to Stranger's size and liking.
“And find me some black syrup for sweetening”. The boy lumbered off slack jawed and scuffing feet to do as she bid. Stranger rolled back his lips to grin his approval at her and she tussled his forelock.
“If we don't find work soon, you two will eat me out of house and home”.
Where would they find work? There hadn't been a skirmish or a clash among The Families and The Highborn in the five villages for moons. And no fanatical Punts had run off with a butter maid or her cow for 'tithes', either. The skinny wages she made as bodyguard for some snotty Highborn lords and their ladies attending a harvest fair last moon were dwindling fast in her pouch. Even if they sold the fancy gold earrings Littlefoot pinched from a particularly spiteful wealth bred daughter in another party wouldn't keep them all in the larder for much more than another half moon.
With thoughts of feeding her traveling household wearing on her, Talis wrapped up in her cloak and blanket in the stall Stranger was housed in. She'd thrown a second blanket over Stranger's back and seen to it that the boy had fresh straw strewn on the floor of the paddock after he made a halfhearted attempt at mucking and laid a flake of hay for Stranger' browsing in the feed trough. She awarded him half a big copper for hay, grain and a night's service after he filled Stranger's bucket with clear water.
She knew the inn master would cheat the boy out of most of it as sure as she knew that his maid never saw a dime of her tupps. But she was feeling peevish enough at his slowness not to hand him two small half brasses so he could get his portion.
Littlefoot appeared from her saddle pack, belly bulging where he'd managed to stay hidden during the interchange with the stable lad. He tunneled under her coverings and arranged himself across her waist to take full advantage of her body heat. Lulled by Stranger's contented chewing and Littlefoot's musky smell and fleeting images of weasel dreams, she drifted off to sleep.
Some little night noise startled her. Stranger chuffed and Littlefoot stood up on her belly full length, eyes intense and ears pricked forward. He was still draped in her blanket and she would have laughed at the comical sight of one side of his head swathed in cloth, but her sixth sense told her that there was danger close by. She heard a cough and a curse as a heavily booted foot smacked into a feeding trough.
Rolling in a smooth motion to one knee and dislodging Littlefoot with the effort, she retrieved her sword from the saddle as quietly as she could, freed the top of the faring ties for her boot knives and crouched, allowing her eyes to accustom to the difference in the shadows around her and straining her ears to catch any sound.
Stranger instinctively tried to wedge his way in front of her dislodging his blanket with Littlefoot now clinging to his mane and forelock on a new perch, fangs ready and high pitched growl warning as he jumped back and forth in his fury dance.
“Move your big ass over so I don't nick you, Stranger”, she whispered urgently. Stranger flicked back an ear, chuckered low, and shifted his massive weight over in the tight quarters of the stall.
The crunch of boot heels on dry hay chaff and horse shit alerted them to the whereabouts of intruders just outside the door of the stall. In the ambient light from the stable door they left open, Talis outlined two men – two very big men with an air of something familiar about them. She recognized the voice of the scar man from earlier in the pub.
“High and mighty Missy don't want to consort with the likes o' us, eh? Let's make sure she remembers us tonight. I'm first! And mind them knives o' hers”.
“You shure she's a'sleeping yet?” queried Bad Teeth.
“I paid thet id'git boy a full copper to let us know when she settled in” said Scar Face.
Talis sprang up from her crouch to land briefly on the gatepost. “Well! Less' be sure ya gets yer moneys wurt, “ she mocked in a fair imitation of their backwater slang.
With that, several things happened in quick succession. Scar Man lunged in her general direction only to receive a matching scar on his other cheek from her short knife and a vicious cut to his upper right arm from her sword as she leapt down from her perch. He screamed in pain and surprise, then swung his heavier broadsword at her. Talis easily leaped the crude swipe and laughed as the weight of his own blade slung him around in almost complete circle.
“How were you going to peg me in the dark with that tiny sausage lurking in your trousers when you can't even guide that big sword in the right direction”? He grew livid with her taunt, swung back around from the force of his misdirected thrust and lunged again.
Stranger had felled the door in two swift kicks and was angling the other lout towards the wall of the stable, teeth bared, massive neck extended, ears back and screaming all the way. Littlefoot launched all two feet of himself over Stranger's head and was busily entertaining Bad Teeth's ears and cheek with his razor sharp teeth. He worried the man's back with his hind feet like he was burrow building. Bad Teeth struck wildly around him with a mallet type affair that doubled as his weapon, blows landing ineffectually in the air, and once on his own leg. He let out a howl that brought a big grin to Talis' face.
The big horse reared once, front hooves churning the air and screaming for Littlefoot to move away. Stranger cleanly landed two sharp blows to the man's face. The ruffian slumped against the wall, slithered down the length of it leaving a swath of blood and brain matter in his wake. The ferret continued to bite the man's neck after he was down. Littlefoot was deep in blood lust.
Talis landed her deathblow almost matter-of-factly after toying with Scar Man a moment more. The stable boy would have a mess to clean up tomorrow for sure. She snickered at the cuffing he was liable to get for it. He had, after all, been the lookout for this ill-fated attack and she had no doubt that the inn keep had some hand in it large or small for profit.
She cleaned her blade with a scrap of rag, made the sign and wished the two dead men swift passage to Summerland. She scooped up Littlefoot where he still gnawed away at Bad Teeth's throat. She wiped the ferret's muzzle on the man's tunic. To calm him, she had to forcefully stare into his eyes to reach him down in the black abyss while holding his wriggling body.
“I'm alright, Littlefoot. Stranger is well, Littlefoot. Come back, Little Thief”! She focused, sought him out and stayed him where he wandered in Red Land.
The ferret suddenly went limp in her arms, and she gathered him to her chest. After a moment, he wriggled free of her, and gathered himself up to leap over to the gatepost where he began grooming the blood from his coat.
Talis checked Stranger with her hands as best she could in the dim light despite his protests and the blood scent that was flaring his nostrils. She saddled him and packed them up to go.
“We'll spend the rest of the night in Deep Woods. I'll wager we'll go unmolested there”, she said as she ducked the low door of the stable from atop Stranger's back.
(NOTE: Sword above is from Dragon's Edge. Stranger's doppelganger is available from Artexpression.com. Littlefoot is from the National Park Service.)