Alazne led me back to the road where she met me, again in the lead, using that unerring, unnerving, confident stride she used at the start of the night, as if the sun was shining and she could see every tangled root underfoot.
“The inn’s about a mile that way; you’re going to need this.”
She handed me the lantern.
“And you won’t?”
She just smiled, and slipped back into the forest, the dark swallowing her up.
The windows of the inn were dark, but the moon was beginning to set; I was loathe to knock, but I was tired, cold, and hungry, and thanks to Amia’s generosity, I would be able to afford to alleviate all three.
My knock was answered by a grizzled old man made of whipcord muscles and whiskers.
His eyes were small and mean, and he only opened the door a crack.
“I’m of a mind to leave you outside, ‘cept the missus would have m’ hide. Yer not runnin’ from the law, are ya?”
I tried a smile. “Not at the moment.”
He didn’t see the humor, and reluctantly let me inside.
“We keep a room prepared for such emergencies. Ain’t much to look at, but it will serve for the rest of the night.”
He took my lantern and led the way.
The room was as he said it would be, functional with not much in the way of luxury.
“I’ll take yer coin now, in case yer of a mind to leave earlier than we get up.”
I felt bad for his wife; left to his own devices, there’d be no inn.
His unnecessary surliness was also starting to annoy me; while it was true I woke him up, I was no beggar looking for scraps.
I paid him, and he left without another word.
Stripping down to what I would be comfortable leaving on in case of running outside in an emergency, I gave myself over to the exhaustion that had already seeped into my bones.
In the morning, bathed, shaved, fed, and feeling relatively like a part of the human race again, I was back out on the road.
Finding a shady spot by mid-morning, I stopped and took a look at the list of council members.
Turns out I knew the first name: Jonas Noll.
He’d been a hunter of some renown in this area for quite some time; it was safe to assume that the game he once hunted was now faster and smarter, and he decided to stop before the law of averages worked against him.
Smart hunter, but dumb if he thought Amia was going to let him run roughshod over her opportunity to advance. He’d had some experiences with her as well, and probably decided there’d be safety in numbers.
He was wrong, and I would be the one to tell him so by ending his life, or die trying: older hunters grew craftier with the years. I would really have to plan where to move, and it had to be out of his sphere of influence, with no witnesses.
I scanned through the rest; some I knew casually, others were strangers. Out of all of them, Jonas probably posed the biggest threat.
It would best to work through the strangers first; there were five of them. Two lived some distance away, and while I didn’t really see why they’d get caught up in local politics in this place, it was a safe bet money was involved, probably in matters of voting or breaking bones, or both.
This would have to be a one day event; to spread it out would mean mounting suspicion, and while I was careful, if the right person was in the right place at the wrong time, it could mean the difference between life and death.
To hit them at a meeting would be the most practical; there’d be anonymity in the crowd, but it wouldn’t be a real test of my skills.
What Amia said about my taunting came back to mind; it was a cautionary tease: don’t mess this up.
I sighed, wanting to draw it out against my better judgment and Amia’s wishes.
All right. A one shot deal. I could use Alazne’s stalking skills to good advantage.
I put the parchment back in the back; the gold was secure under a floorboard in the room, and I got up slower than I remembered getting up before, to go get the layout of the town, a bit of trepidation in my step, because this place attracted a lot of travelers
Hopefully, no one would recognize me from a past adventure in a distant land; if they did, the assignment would stop before it began.
I decided I couldn’t take the chance.
Amia was going to have to help me. My face needed to change, but not drastically. It was the small changes in details that threw off eyewitnesses: a moustache where there wasn’t one, a scar, an eye patch, or just growing longer hair, could make all the difference in escaping bounty hunters leafing a town with Wanted posters.
Unfortunately, I’d learned through experience.
With everything in me thrumming with resistance, I began walking the path back up to her place. She wouldn’t be happy to see me, but she might help me, and I really did need to speak with her about utilizing her mysterious protégé.
© Alfred W. Smith Jr