Beka Lane shifted behind her mistress as their mount changed its gait. She had never ridden a daggit before though she had taken care of them at the inn where her father had been in charge of the stable.
Daggits were, according to her father, an unholy mix between a horse and a large dragon. Their basic body structure was like that of a horse, but it was a reptile, not a mammal, and some were even winged. The one they rode however was not, nor was it the normal gray-green, but a brown-green. Her mistress said it was called Warchild, and had been trained as a warsteed; but why would a Messenger need a fighting steed?
Warchild twitched his head and the messenger pulled him up, then moved him off the road until they were looking back the way they had come. This was the third time they had left the road today. The last time two riders had raced by their hiding spot in a patch of wood but here there was nothing but flat land around them..
“It’ll be fine. Just be quiet.”
Why had her father sent Beka with the Messenger? Why leave in the middle of the night? Her mistress did not answered when she asked those questions, though she talked about her work readily enough the last three days. The last two evenings were spent talking around the campfire of the places her mistress had been and who she had met. Beka quite enjoyed those talks; they kept her from being too homesick. This was the first time in her seventeen years that she had ever left her home village and while it was exciting she missed her two younger brothers and father. Her eyes misted as she thought of the family she left behind.
Her brothers took after their father; long, lean, and blond as snow, but she took after their mother. Beka was moderately tall, but stout and mousy haired. Only her eyes were the same as theirs; gray. They all had a way with animals; mainly because they had been around them since the day they were born. Their father had been stable master at that inn for years before he had met and married their mother. What or who their mother had been before she married their father they never knew but she worked with their father after. Beka had been nine when their mother died, leaving their father to care for three children and care he did. All three of them were treated the same, taught the same, though Beka seemed to have a knack for learning.
“We should be at the inn within the hour,” her mistress said, breaking into Beka’s thoughts. “We’ll be staying the night if all goes well.”
It had been two days since they diverted from the main road onto this one, scarcely wider than a cart track. They’d seen little signs of habitation, only grassy hills with patches of forest here and there and a farmstead a few miles back. This track was used so there was some traffic here which usually meant a town or village that the farmer went to regularly.
A rider appeared on the road and Warchild pawed the ground. The rider slowly approached, then pulled his mount up before them.
“What a fortuitous meeting.” The man gave her mistress a strange smile.
“Why do I doubt that?”
“We’ve been looking for you for awhile, Messenger Penn.”
“Well. You found me. Now what?” Her mistress shifted a bit.
The man made a move toward his belt, but before he could complete the move, he fell from the saddle.
Her mistress slid off Warchild and moved cautiously to the slumped form. Beka could see a knife in both her mistress’ hand and sticking out of the man’s chest. The hand without the knife touched the man’s neck briefly before her mistress stepped away.
“Everything’s fine, child.” She slipped the knife in her hand back up her sleeve before she pulled the knife from the man’s chest. “Come help me put him on his horse.”
Beka obediently slid off of Warchild and they both managed to get the man on his horse. Her mistress used some rope she scavenged from his bed roll to tie him lightly to the saddle before slapping the horse’s rump. As it took off across the field, she turned to Beka. “You’re not to speak of this to anyone. You understand?”
“Speak of what, Mistress?”
“You’re a good child.” Her mistress patted her cheek. “Now let’s get to that Inn. I’m starving.”
They both swung onto Warchild’s back and he was pointed back to his original heading. Warchild paused at the top of the hill an hour later, allowing its two riders to look into the pseudo valley that spread out before them.
The village was small, but seemed prosperous. They could see the inn; from here it looked well-built and had a large stable. It looked as if the village had been built around the inn which was common along more popular trails and caravan routes.
Warchild started down the hill, and her mistress sighed as if in relief.
“I told you to call me Calli, child,” her mistress said, her dark eyes flashing under the hood of her cloak.
“Yes, Mistress Calli,”
Her mistress sighed, “What, Child?”
“We’re near the Border, aren’t we?”
“Yes, about fifteen miles south of it to be exact.” Calli waved a hand. “The land between us and Rennon was even called the Borderlands before the king of Rennon conquered it. Now only the Phenn River and a few mountains divide Eldan from Rennon.”
“The tales are true?”
“Depends on the tales,” Calli said. “I want you to stay with Warchild like you did at the other inn.”
“Alright, mistress.” Beka remembered the crowd that had gathered around Warchild’s stall, but which had dispersed when they caught sight of her in the stall. Daggits were not rare, but they were quite valuable. Ignorant people would no doubt think that it would be easy to steal a daggit like they would a horse, but daggits were not horses and Warchild was war-trained. One word from a handler and the thief would realize his/her folly. And Beka knew that word.
Her mistress patted Beka’s pant-covered leg to get her full attention. “Don’t spend too much time away from War. We may have to leave in a hurry.”
“Should I eat in the stable then?”
“No,” her mistress said after a moment’s thought. “I don’t want to draw too much of the wrong attention.”
Beka didn’t understand what she meant, but didn’t ask since they had entered the inn’s courtyard and had an audience made up of the innkeeper and one of his stableman. Both had the blond hair of native Eldanians, but the stableman’s eyes were dark, showing he had Rennon blood. Her mistress helped her down, and Beka moved to Warchild’s head to grip his bridle.
“Messenger,” the innkeeper gave Calli a nod. “I am Cyrus the keeper of this humble inn. This is my head stableman Larek.”
“Innkeeper. Larek.” Calli returned the nod before dismounting. “I need a room for myself and a stall for my steed and Beka.”
The innkeeper’s head jerked up as he stared at her mistress. “She’s to stay with the steed?”
“Aye. Less of a fuss that way.”
“Right,” the innkeeper visually gathered himself. “If you’ll follow me…”
“I’ll see my steed settled first, then Beka and I’ll eat before you show me my room. I might have to leave.”
The innkeeper nodded and gestured to the stableman. “Then Larek will take care of you while I set you up a table.”
“Good.” Her mistress turned to Larek with a gesture. “Lead on.”
Beka followed the stableman with her mistress at Warchild’s shoulder. Larek lead them to the first stall that was empty and left to get food for the daggit without a word. Calli unlatched her pack and swung it onto her shoulder while Beka checked the riding straps and girth. The stableman returned as Beka finished with checking the bitless bridle, and Beka helped him settle the daggit in the stall. Since they might have to leave in a hurry, the saddle remained on the steed.
After Warchild was comfortable, Beka moved to her mistress’ side and followed her into the inn.
The dark stone-walled common room of the inn was much cooler than the courtyard outside. An empty table awaited them in a shadowy corner with a platter of food, and they moved quickly to it as their stomachs growled. Cyrus brought a pitcher of ale for Calli and a mug of water for Beka, and then left without a word so they could eat. Her mistress ate fast, but neatly, her eyes no doubt roaming the room. Seven other people shared the room and anyone of them could be the one that Beka’s mistress was waiting for.
“Your father ever tell you about the Kellian Forest?”
“He showed it to us on the map in the inn and told us that that was where both our grandmothers was from. Our paternal grandmother told tales of her childhood there with her Forester father. Da didn’t say much about our maternal grandmother though.”
“I suppose he wouldn’t,” her mistress said.
“My brothers would hear talk sometimes in the inn when they helped clean up at night from some of the travelers. They’d tell me about it but none of us believed most of it.”
“A wise decision.” Her mistress poured herself another mug of ale. “Remember don’t wander tonight.”
“I won’t. Goodnight, mistress.”
Beka slid out of the chair and headed out the door. She decided to visit the privy before settling in the stall with Warchild. Many a night she had spent in a stall at her father’s inn so it would be no hardship to sleep with the warsteed. The nights were getting cool; it would soon be autumn and sleeping with either a warm-blooded animal or fire-blooded reptiles was better than a blanket anytime in her mind. She took care of business in the privy and moved toward the stable, her mind already on sleep.
A step in the stable and she paused, her eyes registering the two blond men standing by Warchild’s stall. The warsteed was eyeing the strangers and pawing the ground, his claws sheathed for now. His topaz eyes flickered to her then went back to the men as she moved forward.
“Gentlemen.” They were obviously not stablemen by both the better cut and style of their clothes so she gave them the generic title for citizens. “May I help you with something?”
“Whose mount is this?” the one on the left demanded.
“Messenger Calli Penn” Beka slid carefully past them and into the stall, her hand moving to rest on the warsteed’s shoulder.
“A Messenger…” the one on the right stepped back with a glance at his companion.
He gave an off-handed wave. “Doesn’t matter…Girl, tell her I’ve claimed him.”
“And who might you be?” Came her mistress’ voice as she stepped into view.
The man drew himself up. “I’m Lord Ivery’s son, that’s all you need to know, woman.”
“I’ll need more than that to put on your tombstone, boy,” Calli said, still standing in the doorway.
“I have the right to claim anything in this land, woman, and I claim this daggit. He’s wasted on you anyway.”
Beka moved to give the daggit room as it shifted, but stayed where she could see what happened. Her mistress was still by the door and her voice was still calm, but Beka could see the tension in her mistress’ form.
“The Queen gave me that daggit, boy. A queen outweighs a lord’s brat any day.”
“I’m taking him, woman, and if you try and stop me, I’ll use more than my sword on you.” The man made a grab for Warchild’s bridle, but ended up on the floor. The daggit laid a claw on the man’s back, holding him prone easily. “You’re dead, woman.”
“I didn’t touch you, boy. If you knew anything about daggits, you’d know better than to try and steal one.”
“I claimed him!”
“Call it what you will, it’s still stealing. I’d advise you to learn more about daggits and to read your laws more thoroughly about claiming. Now my friend’s going to let you up, I’d further advise you to leave him alone. He has your scent now and he doesn’t forget.” Her mistress made a gesture and Warchild removed his claw from the man’s back. As he got to his feet, Calli moved away from the door. “Goodnight, gentlemen.”
The other man dragged the Lord’s son away and out the door before the man could say anything. Her mistress chuckled and moved to the stall, her hand gesturing in a calming motion. “It’s okay now, old friend.”
Snorting, the daggit stretched out his head. Calli patted Warchild’s neck firmly while the daggit calmed.
“Was there something you needed, mistress?” Beka asked.
“Just a meeting place, child,” her mistress said as a shadow entered the stable and hovered. Calli gave the daggit one last pat and moved to where the shadow stood. It was obviously someone using a bit of sight-bending.
Beka moved to the rear of the stall and made a bed for herself with some of the hay she and the stableman had used earlier. When the daggit was ready it would settle next to her and rest while she slept.
A thump made her look up and she was staring at a quivering arrow stuck in the wall by her head. Warchild screamed, and Beka heard a heavy thud which shook the floor. Glancing toward the daggit, she saw a body laying at the entrance to the stall, and Warchild was lashing out with his front claws. A human scream denoted a hit, and then her mistress was pushing past the daggit.
“Come here, child.” Calli was leaning against Warchild, her cloak torn and bloody. “I need your help.”
Beka hurried to her mistress’ side, but when she moved to help her, the woman grabbed her hand. “None of that, child. Get up on War.”
“We haven’t got time, child,” her mistress almost threw her onto Warchild’s back. She reached into her cloak and drew out a small hand-sized chest, giving it to Beka. “Stick that into your tunic, child.”
Obeying, Beka settled the box in her breast-band. “Mistress…”
“No time, child…Now head to the Killian Forest.”
“I said we have no time. The others will be here soon.” Calli slipped her cloak off and handed it to Beka. “Put this on and get going.”
Beka stared at the wound in her mistress’ shoulder as she absently took the cloak.
Before she could say anything, Calli made a gesture and Warchild took off at a run. Beka tightened her legs to keep from sliding off and Warchild quickened his pace. Turning her head, Beka caught sight of riders entering the courtyard behind her, and she quickly leaned into Warchild’s pace. She slid the cloak on, and felt a shimmer as it settled over her shoulders.
The noise behind her grew louder, but she did not turn to look.