They were in luck. The horse faire had barely begun and it was a week long event with traders coming from everywhere including beyond the northern mountains and as far south as the great desert. The town was not great in size, but had the curious happenstance of having a great deal of pasturage cut out from the forest to be able to support many beasts. The traders had been wandering in for the past few days even though the faire wasn’t set to start until the morrow.
Traders weren’t the only ones coming in, as the bards and the vendors were already setting up selling their wares to anyone who would look and listen.
Roxana found a room at a moderately priced inn and asked for a bath as she tended to Gorlouis. She made a show of wiping him down and checking his feet. As soon as the young girl was out of sight, Gorlouis stopped pretending to be a mute horse.
“I don’t see why you can’t take a bath in the lake,” he said. “It’d be cheaper.”
Roxana pounded his shoulder with her fist. “And ice cold.”
“I am not a dragon!” Roxana shuddered. “I should go after you with a scrub brush and a bucket.”
Gorlouis chuckled. “If you can keep me still long enough.”
Roxana glowered. “Would serve you right if I found you a pretty mare for company at this faire.”
Gorlouis widened his eyes. “You wouldn’t!”
“Every warrior needs a second horse.”
“I’ll eat it.” Gorlouis threatened. He folded his legs under him and shut his eyes.
Roxana snickered and then leaned over and hefted the saddle and the bags to her shoulder. The girl met her at the door of the stables and Roxana smiled at her. “My horse has settled down to sleep,” she said.
“He’s awful big, Lady Warrior.” The girl said.
Roxana reached out and ruffled her hair. “His bark is worse than his bite,” she said despite the fact that Gorlouis was pretending to be a horse, not a dog. The girl would understand.
The little girl nodded. “Ma says I have a fair hand with horses.” She glanced at Roxana’s sword. “We don’t see that many lady warriors. Have you ever killed anyone?” She asked and led Roxana towards the inn.
Roxana grimaced. “Only when they leave me no choice, little one.”
The girl pushed open the inn door and led her up the stairs. “Ma says we’ve got a beef stew or a ham dinner if’n you’re hungry. If you don’t want to face the press, we can bring you a tray up to your room.”
“I’ll get cleaned up and join everyone down here,” Roxana said. “The ham sounds wonderful and I’d enjoy some company that talks back to me.” She’d had enough of stew for a while.
The girl grinned at her, showing a missing tooth, nodded and opened the door for her, before heading back down the stairs to help her parents. Roxana entered the room and glanced around. It wasn’t large, large enough to have a bed, and a small hearth with enough floor space to set up the copper tub. She’d eat downstairs to give them time to remove the tub before she took her rest. She shut the door with her foot. She set her saddle down at the end of the bed with a groan.
A quick bit of hearth magic rid the room of bugs, cleaned the sheets and took a coat of grime from the walls and swept it all into the hearth. A touch of fire magic, which she’d learned from Gorlouis whose primary nature was fire, had the water in the tub steaming. It required no more magic than the weakest witch or wizard would use and wouldn’t proclaim her presence magically for hundreds of miles around like going up to the lake and heating a portion of that.
Wincing, Roxana unbuckled her armor, setting the pieces on the floor and as she pulled her blood and sweat stained tunic off, she checked her arms and torso for cuts and bruises. The Dark Sorcerer had a dab hand at wind spells. He’d tossed her into the air more than once. She grimaced at the bruises on her shoulders and the small cuts were he’d found cracks in her armor and cut shallow cuts through her skin that bled much but hadn’t killed her.
Out of her packs, Roxana found a sachet of lavender and tossed a small handful into the tub before finishing divesting herself of her clothes and stepping into it. She hissed as the hot water found her cuts but sank into up to her neck, leaning her head back against the edge.
The water and smell of lavender relaxed her muscles and eased some of the aches. Roxana couldn’t remember the last time she hadn’t ached. Once she felt relaxed, she reached up and unbraided her hair. It floated on the water and stuck to her skin from the steam, a shocking contrast. No dye would change its color, no illusion stuck to it. Gorlouis and she had tried about everything they could think of. Everywhere she went, she was remembered for her red hair. No doubt, some of the bards at the faire would be singing songs about her.
Roxana grimaced. A pox upon bards. At least they didn’t know that the red hair was the outward mark of a princess cursed to be a sleeper. That was the provenance of lore masters and scholars.
Roxana examined her legs, more bruises and shallow cuts. Dark brown hair grew out of her skin. She rubbed her hands along it and sighed. She needed to shave, but as she wore trousers no one would care enough to see. She supposed that finding a sharp razor could wait. At least, unlike the hair on her head, it grew at a normal rate.
Satisfied that none of her injuries were going to kill her or become infected, she reached for her rather pitiful squashed sliver of soap. It smelled again like lavender. Lavender kept away all manner of bugs. She was going to have to replace it during the faire.
She scrubbed at herself with a cloth and her soap, ducking under and also going after her hair, using what little fingernails she had on her scalp.
She did this at least twice and once her skin was pink and her scalp tingled, only then did she feel human enough to get out of the tub and find her spare change of clothing in her packs. At least it was clean. She glanced at her armor and grimaced. She wasn’t putting that on until she could clean it. She examined her old clothes and cursed. The tears were too great. She tossed them into the fire and scowled.
It was good then that this faire was larger than most. Tomorrow she would see what she could do about replenishing their food supplies and seeing about getting the extras that she needed. Maybe she’d finally relent and get herself a decent knife. She strapped her sword back on, not feeling comfortable without it.
Dressed and hungry, Roxana left the room and went downstairs to get the promised dinner. She took a seat on a bench near the fire. The proprietress saw her and nodded at her and a few minutes later, a teenage boy all limbs and awkwardness set a plate with a thick slab of ham, cut carrots and mashed potatoes with ham gravy in front of her. There was a large slice of bread with it slathered in bacon grease.
The boy fidgeted. “Beer, ale, mead, Lady Warrior?” He asked. “We also have wine.”
Roxana would have preferred water, but knew better than to ask for that in such a place as this. “Cider?” She asked.
“Sweet or hard?” The boy returned. He flushed. He’d forgotten the cider.
“Sweet is fine, lad.” Roxana smiled at him.
He turned redder, bowed clumsily and left her.
Roxana shook her head.
An older man sat down across from her. “That’s a fine blade,” He said. “Well used.” He leaned forward. “Mercenary?” He asked.
Roxana smiled tightly at him. “Of a sorts.”
“Only a woman mercenary would carry a blade,” The old man murmured.
“You haven’t met enough women,” Roxana responded.
The man laughed.
The boy returned with a large mug of cider. Roxana nodded at him and he left. She turned to her food and cut up the ham with the side of her fork. She eyed the old man as she did.
He scratched his chin. “No company,” he murmured. “No badges that you belong to a guild.”
“Never much saw the use for them,” Roxana said. “We don’t have the same goals in life.”
“You must be looking for a job.”
Roxana shook her head. “Just came off of one, more or less, I’m looking for a direction to go next.” A source of payment would present itself when she got there.
“Must be a peculiar type of mercenary.”
“Not in it for the fighting.” Roxana said in honesty.
“Are you always full of mystery?” The old man asked.
She half smiled. “My business is not your business, grandfather. And it’s best that you don’t get caught up in it.”
The old man leaned forward. “I’m head of this town, I find it is my business when a lone warrior rides into town on the eve of the largest faire of the year. I don’t want any trouble for my people.”
Roxana took a bite of bread and wanted to sigh. It was good homemade bread, crusty on the outside, chewy on the inside and with a bit of tang to it. She’d try to barter some off the innkeeper before she left. It’d be better than anything she could find at the faire. She swallowed. “You won’t get any trouble from me.”
“Lone warriors attract enemies.”
She picked up the cider and took a sip. She shook her head. “My work leaves me with few enemies.” Evil magicians were not much for passing on their knowledge. If they did have apprentices, they were sacrificed before she fought the evil magician.
Oh, she was sure she might have missed an apprentice or two, but they’d show up eventually and she would deal with them if they did. It had happened already. There had been more than one that she’d found when she’d confronted them had gone off about another magician she had cleansed and tried to take revenge before she cleansed them. Given her wandering ways, she highly doubted that they’d show up at a random horse faire. “If any were to show here, it’d be by fate or chance.”
“Fate and chance mean little to me. I still desire to know what you do.”
Roxana pulled her tri-bladed dagger and set it on the table between them. “I fight magicians.”
He eyed the blade, reached out and turned it over. “A cleanser,” he murmured. “I have heard tales of such.”
“Only those that practice evil magic have anything to fear from me, grandfather. The spells do naught on those who practice ways of the light,” she said. “If my blade can be of service to you and yours, then so be it, but it is not my calling.”
The grandfather looked up at her. “I have also heard tales of the red headed warrior who frees villages from the terrors of the night.”
Roxana flushed. “Mostly greatly exaggerated. And for which I am well paid.”
The old man snorted and took his hand off the dagger. “Keep that hidden, it is worth more than its weight in electrum. Though few would know what to do with it.”
Roxana reclaimed her blade and sheathed it. “You asked, grandfather.”
“You are welcome in my faire, Lady Warrior,” he said. “But I will be happier when you are on your way.”
“The Dark Sorcerer of the Twin Peaks is no more,” She said in a low voice. “You have nothing to fear from him for harboring me.”
“That is good tidings then.” The old man nodded. “I’ll leave you to your meal,” he said and got up. “I’m sure you have earned it.”
Roxana snorted and nodded at him. “Fair winds and blessed travels,” she said in the manner of Gorlouis’ and her peoples.
His eyes narrowed at her, but he nodded and left her alone. No one else approached her during her meal and Roxana finished in peace. She got up and leaving the dishes where they were for the boy to pick up, she left the inn to walk the beginnings of the faire. She wanted to stretch her legs and see what there was to be seen. It would be good to have an idea where everything was.
She kept her ears open, listening to those around her as they set up their tents and settled their beasts. Old friends greeted each other. Horses whickered and made noises looking for their herds. She didn’t hear anything to catch her interest yet and returned to the inn. She checked on Gorlouis before going to bed.
The innkeeper’s daughter sat next to his head and scratched above his eyes. Roxana grinned and leaned against the stall door. Gorlouis would let her sit there and do that all night if she was willing.
“He likes being scratched under the chin too.” She said.
Gorlouis snorted and opened his eye to look at her.
The little girl laughed. “He’s funny. He won’t accept carrots and shares them with the horses next door.”
“He’s not overly fond of vegetables.” Roxana said in a mournful tone.
The little girl giggled again and tried scratching Gorlouis under the chin. Gorlouis tilted his head back so she could reach it easier.
Roxana wondered what the girl would think if she knew she was really scratching a dragon. Dragon’s weren’t expressly dangerous, or at least not Gorlouis’ people, however, she felt bad for not being able to be honest with the little girl. She’d probably be able to appreciate the wonder that was Gorlouis in his draconic form.
“The Headman told my mama that you killed the Dark Sorcerer of the Twin Peaks.” The little girl said.
“The Dark Sorcerer killed himself, little one.” Roxana said and tapped the door with her hands. It was a common misconception that the Cleansers killed the evil magicians. Though their name was about cleaning. Some folk, she supposed, took it far too literally.
The girl’s brow furrowed. “I don’t understand.”
“The spell I used rid the Dark Sorcerer of his evil magic, it unraveled all the dark spells he’d used.” Roxana said. “Including the ones that supported him living long past when a man should die. When the dark magic unraveled, all the years that would have been his returned to him and he turned into an old man and died.”
The little girl’s eyes widened.
Roxana continued. “If he hadn’t dabbled into stealing the years of others, perhaps he would still be alive to repent of his wicked ways.”
The little girl nodded rapidly.
“Or perhaps not,” Roxana said and shrugged. “It is hard thing to know that you are wrong and turn away from evil deeds and thoughts. I have been told that it actually hurts the mind and heart to do such a thing. And the Dark Sorcerer had been doing evil magic for years and years.”
“It must be scary,” she whispered. “Going in to face them.”
Roxana half smiled. “It can be. Staying here with the horses is much safer.”
“If it is scary, why do you do it?” The little girl asked. Gorlouis nudged her hand and she went back to scratching him.
“Because, someone must. Evil runs unchecked when good people do nothing.” Roxana said. “There is a hero to defeat every evil magician. The Dark Sorcerer could have been defeated through mundane means if those who faced him had enough courage.”
“So, we were cowards?” The little girl stood up and bunched her fist. “You don’t understand how terrible he was! No one could face him and live.”
“It took great courage to hire me.” Roxana said. “It is better to send one person with knowledge of what they are doing rather than to send hundreds of the unprepared to be slaughtered and fuel his dark magic. Battle is not the glorious things of tales and songs.”
Gorlouis snorted again and tossed his head.
Roxana smiled down at him. “Unless you’re a dragon,” she said.
He snorted a third time, mollified.
The little girl’s lip quivered. “I wouldn’t have been scared.”
Gorlouis lifted his head and rubbed his nose into her chest.
“Of course not.” Roxana smiled at her. “You have a great deal of courage.”
The little girl smiled and went back to scratching Gorlouis. She changed the subject abruptly. “Why doesn’t he like carrots? All horses like carrots.”
“He’s never told me.” Roxana said.
The little girl said. “He can’t talk.” It was quite logical to her mind.
“He certainly acts like he can.”
“Does he like apples?”
“He loves apples. He’ll eat them whole if you let him.”
The little girl giggled. “Greedy, greedy.”
Roxana stood straight and stretched. “Don’t stay up too late,” she said.
“Oh, mama won’t let me do that!” The little girl said.
“I was talking to Gorlouis,” Roxana said.
Gorlouis pinned his ears back and snapped his teeth.
“Now, now,” the little girl said. “That’s not nice.” She stopped scratching him.
Gorlouis slumped. He ducked his head and tried to look pitiful. It worked. The little girl started scratching him again.
Roxana rolled her eyes. “Moocher,” she muttered. She pushed away from the door and returned to her room in the inn. There was a cup of mulled wine by her headstand. Roxana blessed the innkeeper and drank it down in one gulp before crawling in between the sheets clean and crisp from her earlier spell and into a deep sleep.
If you liked what you’ve read and would like to know Roxana’s story, The Dawn Warrior is for sale on Amazon! E-Book (and paperback coming in the next 12 hours, promise.)