Wolfsbane Winter : extract

Approaching the town of Oakan, northern Galvonia
17th year of the reign of King Alvarro II

For the last few miles of the journey, the track left the river bank, and passed through dense forest. Tall pines overhung the rutted dirt road. The route climbed steadily, crossing the southern slopes of Beck Hill and cutting off a wide loop in the course of the Oakan river. The roar of the water faded away behind, replaced by the trill of bird song.

Off to one side, Deryn spotted a flash of white rumps as deer fled deeper into the forest. The animals vanished amid the wilting yellow undergrowth. Summer was gone and the ferns were dying back. Another month or two, and there would be nothing except snow and the occasional outline of an ancient ruin beneath the pines. The road turned a bend, zigzagging on the final, steeper section of the ascent. Up ahead, a patch of sky peeked between the tree trunks.

At the crest of the hill, Deryn pulled on Tia's reins, bringing the mare to a standstill so the rest of the team could catch up. As scout for the party, her position out in front was traditional, even though nobody could possibly get lost, this close to home. While waiting, Deryn took in the view.

A ring of mountains surrounded the broad valley below. The white capped peaks were stark against dark clouds that threatened rain. Tallest of all, mount Oakan filled the skyline to the north-east. The river looped back into sight and meandered away, a gray band under a grayer sky.

The forest ended in a ragged line where farms cut patchwork strips between the blue-green pines. Twisted strings of smoke marked the location of farmhouses and herds of sheep and cattle grazed in fields. In the middle of the valley, the farms were tightly packed together, squeezing out the pines. In the center of it all, the town of Oakan squatted by the banks of the river. The dense jumble was so compact, that the buildings appeared to be crawling over each other.

The town was too distant to make out details, but from experience, Deryn knew it was hastily tacked together and poorly maintained. Each year, the heavy winter snows took their toll. The roads were potholed and the timber framed houses were warped and weather beaten. The settlement had grown in the wilderness, without any sort of overall plan or vision, as each new arrival had tacked on whatever construction best fit their needs and pocket. Most of building material had come from the surrounding forest, supplemented by anything usable that could be scavenged from the ruins of Old Oakan. The clumsy blend of rough-cut timber and ancient masonry made Oakan an ugly mess of a town. Yet as ever, on her return from the wastelands, it was the most welcoming sight that Deryn could imagine.

Oakan marked the beginning and end of the Misery Trail. It provided a base for the Iron Wolves and also a hub for the miners who prospected in the mountains to the south and east. Both groups were happy to take advantage of the town's position on the borders of civilization, where the King's Law was interpreted a little more liberally than in the heartland of Galvonia. Oakan's streets held more taverns than tailors, more casinos than carpenters, and more brothels than bakers.

The depravity of Oakan was notorious and the staid farmers and tradesfolk of the region might have preferred a quieter life, were it not for the profit to be made from a stream of customers on their doorstep who were willing to pay over the odds for supplies. The King's Marshals were the only ones who actively objected to the loose morals and tried to keep a lid on the revelers high spirits, but they were spread too thinly on the frontier to do more than make the occasional firm gesture.

Beltran stopped beside Deryn. "It's party night, tonight."

"Every night's a party night in Oakan."

"I like to make the easy calls."

Deryn grinned. Beltran did not hesitate to make the tough calls either. He had been a capable leader for the band of Iron Wolves guarding the caravan.

He patted Deryn's shoulder and then urged his horse on. "You've done well. Got us home nice and early."

"I can't take all the credit. I had help from the weather."

"You can take most of it. I've been with so called scouts who couldn't get back much before the Night of the Lost if they'd had nothing but clear blue skies and a hot coal up their ass."

Deryn shrugged in answer. Just over three weeks remained until the festival, which had become the target date for the completion of the trade route, although in practice, anything up to a month either side was normal. Those taking much longer on the Trail were likely to get engulf by the winter snows and never complete the journey at all.

"Best of all, you kept us safe."

"It's my job."

"I mean it. You spotted those windigos lurking in the shallows. Some scouts need their head bitten off before they think to check." Beltran nodded appreciatively. "You're a good scout."

"I had a good teacher."

"In that case, pass on my thanks."

"I will."

Just a few weeks more, and she would be able to do so. Deryn intended to spend the winter with Brise--a chance for them to catch up. They had not met for a year and a half. Brise was currently riding the desert trails, far to the south. The work was less profitable but also less strenuous than the Misery Trail. Brise claimed it was a concession to her age, even though she was still in good shape. Deryn felt her foster mother had given up too quickly. Alby, a member of her current team, was even older, and he had coped just fine, proving that experience counted for far more than speed. Maybe, when they met, she would be able to talk Brise into giving the Misery Trail one final shot.

Beltran glanced her way. "Do you think you'll ride the Trail again next year?"

"Maybe. I'll see how I feel, come spring." Her plans for the future were not something Deryn was ever happy discussing.

"I'll recommend you for any crew I'm on, if I get a say in the hiring."

"Thanks, I may take you up on that." And I may not.

The dismissal was nothing personal. Beltran was a capable warrior who lead by example. Deryn had found him to be a shrewd judge of both people and danger. He was exactly the sort of Iron Wolf she would pick to follow on the Misery Trail, if it were not that she made it a rule never to travel on the same team with anyone twice, except for Brise.

Deryn glanced over her shoulder at the other Iron Wolves, who were following, strung out on either side of the line of wagons. For seven months they had lived together, day after day, sharing the dangers, the hard work, and the excitement of the Trail.

Rico was a loudmouth and Chay had taken too many knocks to the head. For both of them, Deryn could think of several brick walls she could have more fun talking to, but the rest of the band were okay. Nina had a wicked sense of humor. Alby was easy going and dependable. Corbin had risked his life for her, crossing the swollen river. Saying goodbye would be hard enough, after just one season. Deryn did not intend to risk growing fonder.

In under an hour, they reached the outskirts of Oakan. Ramshackle corrals and stables clustered around the approach road. Deryn patted Tia's neck. After once again completing the Trail, the horse deserved better care than anything she was likely to receive in these cheap establishments. When the traders paid off their Iron Wolf guards there would be plenty of money to go around. and Tia had earned her share of it.

"Oats for you tonight, girl, and the best stable in town."

Tia's ears twitched back and her head bobbed, as if she was cheered by the thought.

"What will you have to reward yourself?" Beltran asked.

"Beer." Deryn paused, thinking. "And maybe a whiskey or two."

"The Lodestone?" He named a tavern, popular with Iron Wolves.

"You'll be there?"

"Yes. Nina and me talked about it over breakfast. Rico liked the idea too. We'll tell the others when we stop."

Deryn nodded and said nothing. The end of Trail gatherings were something else that she always avoided. What was the point in dragging a celebration out of saying goodbye?

Tomorrow they would all drift apart. Like the smoke rising over a camp fire, the team would be carried away on the draft of circumstance. These people had been her comrades, but once the team was paid off she would never set eyes on most of them again. They were no longer part of her life, and it did not matter. Deryn forced the thought to the front of her mind. It did not matter. They were not friends or family. They had never been anything other than a chance grouping, brought together for a job. Now the task was over and all Deryn wanted was to go. Just take the money and turn away.

Oakan's wide Main Street was unpaved. The traffic kicked up a choking haze of dust in summer and churned it to ankle deep mud in winter. The wooden facades of the establishments on either side were in better shape than most of Oakan, even if the buildings they were attached to were the same old decrepit shanties. Painted signs in gaudy colors hung outside, proclaiming their owners' trade or profession. Raised wooden boardwalks lined the storefronts, running beneath flimsy verandas.

The rain started as Beltran call a halt outside the Wolves' Den, the hiring post where they had started out, seven months before. Copies of their contracts would be stored inside, should any of the traders be so misguided as to want to argue.

Deryn turned up the fleece lined collar of her jacket and looked up and down the street. Half the buildings were taverns, gambling halls, brothels, or some combination of the three. She considered each in turn, the Drunken Dog, the Lucky Strike, the Warrior's Return, and the rest. The prices they charged were even more outrageously inflated than for the rest of Oakan, relying on the inexperience of newcomers too nervous to risk the back streets. None of the Main Street taverns would be her preferred drinking spot, except that she was unlikely to run into another Iron Wolf in any of them.

The Lodestone lay on a side street. Deryn glanced at the junction that led to it, and then looked away. She was not going to join the end of Trail party. It was not as if she would have to drink alone, wherever she went. Most of her pay was needed to cover the costs of her trip down south to Ellaye, and to see her through winter, but this still left plenty to ensure she had company that night, and the ones thereafter. The sort of company that could be bought might be shallow and artificial, but it was readily available and even more readily disposable, no ties and no expectations.

True companionship would have to wait until she got to Brise. Even if she went to the Lodestone with the others, what would it give her? Her ex-comrades did not know her well enough to understand her. Nobody did, apart from Brise. The sudden stab of loneliness surprised Deryn. She clenched her teeth, as if it would help clamp down on the maudlin emotions. Next year, if Brise would not ride the Misery Trail, maybe she would join her foster mother in the desert. A change in scenery would not be such a bad thing.

Beltran had dismounted to talk with the leader of the traders. The rest of the caravan were milling around. Everyone was laughing and chatting. Soon a round of hugging and back thumping would break out. Deryn stroked Tia's neck. This was the part she hated. She just wanted her money and to go, but she knew that some would try to drag things out. Deryn looked up at the sky. The rain was getting heavier and a full-fledged cloudburst was looming. With luck, it would speed up proceedings.

Corbin nudged his horse close. "Shame the rain didn't hold off a bit longer."

"Yup."

"But we're home safe."

"Yup."

"Back in Oakan."

"Uh huh."

Corbin was a nice young lad, if not a brilliant conversationalist. He was eighteen years old, tall and broad shouldered, with dark skin, curly black hair and a crooked nose from an accident in his childhood. Deryn knew that he now also had a scar on his thigh from where he had fended off the broken tree, carried by the torrent--an action that had given her the time to regain her footing and complete the river crossing.

If Corbin had not been there...

Deryn pushed aside the thought. Corbin might have saved her life, but he would have done exactly the same for anyone else that the traders had chosen to employ. There had been nothing personal about it. Helping each other through the dangers was part of the job they were paid to do. The job that was over.

Corbin was going out of her life, with his strength, his cheerfulness, his love of smoked bacon, his absurd pink undershirt, his off-key whistling, the letter from his father that he held but did not read each night before going to sleep. Deryn ticked off the details in her head. What did it count for? How well did you know someone after seven months?

"First time I've done the whole Trail."

This was also something she knew about him. "What did you think of it?"

Corbin scrunched his nose. "Wasn't as exciting as I'd expected."

"Not even having windigos on our tail?"

"Well, that bit maybe. But you got us out of it without a fight." He sounded disappointed.

"You wanted one?"

"It'd be something to tell my dad about."

"If you'd survived."

"Yeah. There is that." Corbin laughed. "Dad will have to make do with the story about the flooded river. I can show him the scar."

Deryn nodded. "I owe you. Big time."

He shrugged. "You'd have done the same for me, but if you want, you can buy me a drink. Will you be at the Lodestone tonight?"

The one word answer slipped out before Deryn could stop it. "Yes."

~~~~~~

The air was heavy with the combination of wood smoke, stale beer and unwashed bodies. The tavern smell was thick enough to wrap around the patrons like a blanket, enfolding them in a warm alcohol cocoon. Yellow candlelight lapped over flushed faces, blurring them with soft shadows. Waves of rough voices rose in laughter. A fiddle scratched a tune in one corner, accompanied by a thumping of feet that bore little correlation to the rhythm.

Deryn sat on a bench in the corner, leaned her shoulders on the wall behind her, and drained her tankard. The beer had a rich malt flavor and a solid kick to it. It was definitely some of the best to be found in Oakan, and the price was below average for the town, a combination that went a long way to explain the popularity of The Lodestone among Iron Wolves.

The three pints she had downed were making Deryn comfortably mellow. She was tempted to go to the bar for another, but it was not her turn to buy the next round. Not that this was an issue. She was in a generous mood and the purse tied to her belt was heavy with coin, but there was no need to rush. She could take her time and still be sure of finishing the night dead drunk

A loud burst of shouts and cheering claimed her attention. Even in the hubbub she recognized the voices. Rico and Corbin had joined the dancers. Judging by the wild cavorting, they were having a competition as to who could expend the most energy. The activity could be called dancing only because there was no other word that described it any better. Corbin saw her watching and waved, beckoning her over. Deryn shook her head. She had not drunk enough--not yet.

The bench shook as Alby dumped himself down beside her and propped his feet on the rungs of a nearby stool. "Another ride over."

"Yup."

Alby had undoubtedly completed more rides than most. His skin was weathered like old leather. Once his hair would have been black. What was now left was mostly gray. Yet he had more than pulled his weight on the Trail, putting many of the younger Iron Wolves to shame. He was easy company, uncomplaining and quick to laugh. Added to his vast store of knowledge about the wastelands, it had made him one of the most valued members of the team.

Alby sighed. "You know, every year I do the Trail, I tell myself it will be the last. I'm getting too old for the game."

"How many times have you done it?"

"Thirty something. I've lost count."

"Won't life be dull if you stop?"

"Ah, now there you've got it. At the moment, I'm thinking about when you're stuck between windigos and rapids, and it's way too dangerous to be fun. But after another winter, cooped up, I'll have itchy feet again. Come spring I'll just be remembering the open spaces."

"You sound sure of that."

"I am. I've tried giving it up before."

"Why?"

"Have you got family?"

Deryn was startled, and not merely because of the abrupt change in tack. Families were not something you ever talked about on the Trail. Fortunately, Alby did not wait for a reply.

"I've got three kids sitting back home, with their mother."

Home was another unfamiliar word. Deryn wondered if she should ignore it, but in the end she asked, "Are you going to see them?"

"Oh yes." Alby's expression softened and his voice dropped. "Yes. Eli runs a dairy farm just outside Sattle. She's..." Words were unnecessary. His smile said everything. "When I met her, I thought she was the one I could give up the Trail for. Two years I tried being a farmer, but it never worked out. I went back to riding the Trail, but I go clutter up the farm in the off season, getting in Eli's way and pretending I know how to make cheese. My youngest kid is twelve. I've missed seeing her grow up. I've missed all of them. Each winter when I go back, they're strangers to me. But maybe I've not left it too late to find out who they are." Alby took a long draft of his beer. "Will you be seeing your family?"

Deryn hesitated before giving a quick nod.

"You got kids?"

"No."

"How about your brothers, sisters? Will you visit them?"

Deryn shook her head.

"You don't get on with them?"

"I haven't any."

"What family have you got?"

"My foster mother. She's the one I'll be visiting. She's an Iron Wolf. Been working down in Ellaye, running the desert trails." Deryn was keen to shift the conversation. "I'm thinking I might join her next year. It would be something new. Have you seen much of the south?"

The ploy did not work. "What happened to your real parents?"

Deryn stared down at the empty tankard, dangling from her fingers. Lamplight reflected on its scratched surface, as it swung to-and-fro while she mustered her thoughts.

This was why she never hung out with her comrades, once the job was over. Ex-comrades, she reminded herself. All the rules were changed. Suddenly they wanted to talk about life outside the Trail. Why had she joined in with the farewell party, this time?

Rico appeared through the crowd. He grabbed her hand. "Come and dance."

Deryn let herself be towed into the midst of the dancers, but only as a means of escaping Alby's questions. She was not going to stay in The Lodestone any longer, but before she could disengage herself from Rico's grip, Corbin flung himself around her neck. The smell of alcohol, sweat and wet leather swamped Deryn with nearly as much force as the weight of Corbin's heavily muscled torso, pulling her off balance. Were it not for Rico they would have ended up on the floor.

"De... Deri..." Corbin showered spittle in her ear. "I nev'r said this, but youz an fuckin good scout. An, I'll mish you."

Deryn peeled the drunken warrior off . "Yeah. I'll miss you too."

Corbin hunched down so their eyes were on a level. The feat strained his balance. He wobbled left and right before steadying. Despite his size, the young man clearly had a bad head for drink. "You actz like a fish. Cold. But ish all in there. I know. I can tell." His face crumpled in a cross-eyed smile. "Comeon, ish the las' night. Dance wi' me."

"I don't..." Deryn stopped, uncertain of what she wanted to deny. "Look, you keep dancing with Rico. He's better at it."

"Rico's a good mate, but he's not as priddy as you."

"Hey! That's not what you said before."

"Yeah, b' I've already humped you. I still gotta sweet-talk Deryn."

"You old heartbreaker, you." Rico's parody of indignation was clearly in jest. Corbin laughed until a bout of hiccups hit him.

While their attention was diverted by backslapping, Deryn ducked away, slipping between the other dancers until she reached the bar. She dug out a coin and attracted the innkeeper's attention. "This buys the next round of drinks for that group of Wolves." Deryn pointed. "I've got to go, but tell them..." Deryn frowned. What did she want to say?

"I'll tell them you bought the round." The innkeeper finished the sentence for her.

"Thanks." If it was not what she intended, it was also not worth the effort of correcting.

The daylight had faded into premature dusk, brought on by heavy cloud, but the afternoon's rain had eased off. It fell as no more than a soft misting against Deryn's face, cold after the heat of the tavern. She stopped at the junction with Main Street, and considered her options. What did she want to do?

Activity outside the various taverns was brisk but orderly. This was unlikely to last. Drunken brawls were common on Oakan streets. Most evenings would see at least one break out, although currently, the only disturbance came from the whores leaning from the upstairs windows of the Hunter's Moon Saloon. They were shouting to a group with the look of miners about them, standing below. Judging by the grins passing between the miners, some were tempted.

The breeze carried the scent of damp wood, and also that of cooking. Deryn turned her head in the direction it came from and smiled. A good idea, and far more appealing to her than the whores were. Food would soak up the alcohol in her stomach, and maybe she would not get drunk after all. She could eat and return straight to the bunkhouse where her bed was reserved. An early night would speed her departure in the morning. The journey to Ellaye would take long enough, without dawdling on the way. Deryn sighed. What she wanted to do was actually an easy question. She wanted to sit with Brise, chat and relax. It would have to wait.

"Excuse me. Do you know where the Silver Strike is?"

A young man appeared at Deryn's side. He had clearly been out in the rain for a while. His fair hair was plastered to his forehead. The hopeful expression on his face would have looked at home on the muzzle of a puppy dog. He was dressed in the rough-spun woolen clothes of a townsman, rather than the sheepskin and leather preferred by miners and Iron Wolves. Deryn was a little surprised by the faint scent of flowers about him. What line of business was he in? She doubted that even the richest households in Oakan employed a professional gardener.

"The Silver Strike?" Deryn shook her head. "Never heard of it. There's a Silver Nugget and a Lucky Strike. Are you sure it isn't one of them you want?"

"No. Neither sounds right." The man cast around, staring up and down Main Street, as if the tavern he wanted would materialize if he looked hard enough.

"What road is it supposed to be on?"

"Do you know the town well?"

"Pretty well."

The man's gaze returned to Deryn and he smiled. "I wouldn't have taken you for a farmer."

"I'm a mercenary. An Iron Wolf."

His eyes lit up. "Have you ridden the Misery Trail?"

"Got back from it this afternoon."

"Wow." He looked awestruck. "I've always wanted to see the wastelands, but my wife won't hear of it. This is the first time I've gotten her as far as Oakan, and I'm not sure I'll ever get her out again. She's picked up a cold. I've left her in the bunkhouse, sneezing her head off. I was going to met the friends we traveled with, but..." He shrugged and then held out his hand. "My name's Abran. I'm a trader from Sattle."

"Deryn."

"I'll be going then. Thanks, anyway." Abran turned, as if to leave, but then paused. "Say. I don't suppose if I buy you a drink, you'll tell me about the Misery Trail? It doesn't look like I'm going to find my friends and I don't want to go back and listen to my wife sneeze all evening."

"Oh, why not? Sure." What better than the company of a total stranger to pass a spare hour? One drink more would not hurt, and she could still have her early night.

Abran headed for the doors of the nearby Warrior's Return. Maybe he thought the name appropriate. Deryn hesitated for a moment before following. The tavern would have been well toward the bottom on her own list of choices. Not that the beer was bad, quite the opposite, or so she had heard, but it had the reputation of being the most expensive in town. Her new acquaintance was clearly unfamiliar with Oakan. However, he was the one paying and at least the prices ensured no shortage of spare chairs.

Abran returned from the bar with two full tankards. "There you go."

"Thanks."

He took his seat. "Are the wastelands as dangerous as they say?"

"In places."

"What's the worst, rapids or windigos?"

Deryn took a mouthful from her tankard before answering, and fought back a grimace. The beer in the Warrior's Return did not live up to its reputation. It was overhopped, with a sour aftertaste. If she had been the one paying, she would have complained.

"Windigos. The rapids probably kill more people, but that's normally their own stupid fault. The rapids are predictable. You know where they are. The windigos can turn up at any time."

"Have you seen many windigos?"

"Hundreds."

"They're all dangerous?"

"No. Some aren't. I once met a man who had a small one as a pet."

"What did it look like?

"A six legged squirrel with horns."

"Sounds weird."

"I've seen weirder." Deryn smiled. "Windigo is what you call anything in the wastelands that you can't think of another name for. In the forests on the other side of the mountains, there are clans of tiny green people, about the size of this tankard. They'll steal your stores and mess up your stuff, just for the fun of it, but they won't do anything worse. I've heard they can talk, though I've never spoken to one. Maybe they have a name for themselves, but nobody else knows what it is, so they're windigos."

"I've heard about huge flying lizards and men with bull's heads."

"I've heard about them too. I've never seen one."

"Nothing close to the stories?"

"Huge lizards, yes, but not flying ones."

"I guess breathing fire is out as well?"

"Yup." Deryn rubbed her nose, while trying to think what she could tell Abran in exchange for the beer. "The most frightening one I've ever seen was like a cross between an enormous cat and an eagle, with hair all round its head. That one could fly. It attacked a party I was with, but luckily it cleared off once it had gotten a couple of arrows in it."

"Have you been as far as Nawlings?"

"No. I want to, some day. But, after Sluey, the trade all goes by boat. There's not much call for a scout."

Deryn continued talking, recounting stories of life on the Trail. By the time she had finished her pint, she no longer noticed the aftertaste and did not argue when Abran brought her a second. He was an attentive listener, who showed no sign of wanting to ask personal questions and Deryn found herself surprisingly relaxed in his company.

She moved on to anecdotes of mishaps she had heard from other Iron Wolves--or she tried to, but concentrating was becoming more of an effort. Events unraveled in her mind. She would find herself in the middle of a sentence, with no idea how she got there, or where she had planned taking the tale. At the same time, the tavern around her was vanishing into a dreamlike haze. She was powerless to stop her storytelling lurching from topic to topic in a random sequence. Yet, somehow, Abran appeared to follow what she was saying. At least, he managed to laugh in the right places. Maybe she was not doing as badly as she thought.

Once Deryn stopped and stared at her tankard. It was almost full. Surely she had drunk more than that? Was it her third pint? It all seemed very silly and Deryn was seized by giggles. Abran joined in, presumably just to be sociable. At his prompting, she continued with her stories, while the tavern dissolved into an impression of sound and movement. Only the occasional wafts of Abran's faint flower scent remained distinct.

The shock of cold air cut through Deryn's mental fog. True night had fallen and they were out on Main Street. Abran linked his arm through hers and guided her into a side alley. Deryn did not notice which one. Isolated lanterns, hanging over doorways, provided the only illumination. It was insufficient to recognize the road, but even were it broad daylight, all Deryn's attention was needed to navigate around the pot holes. In fact, all of her attention was needed, just to make sure her feet stayed on the ground. If she did not watch out, she might just float away. She stared down, mesmerized by the sight of each foot in turn, swinging out in front of her and striking the ground.

Abran guided her left and right. They could have been walking for five minutes or fifty. Deryn had lost all sense of time and direction. She did not have the first idea which part of town they were in. She was just pleased that someone knew where they were going. The rain started again and cleared her head a little, but thoughts still kept slipping from her mind so she could not keep a coherent sequence in focus.

They turned into a passageway too narrow to walk side by side. Abran slid his arm from hers but still held her hand and towed her along behind him. Deryn was so unsteady on her feet that her shoulders bounced off the walls with each step. When Abran stopped unexpectedly, Deryn ran into his back, barely managing to keep upright. The light was too weak to make anything out, but she heard Abran knock and a door opened. Weak lamplight flooded out, dazzling after the darkness.

Abran's smile had lost none of its friendliness as he drew her inside. "Here we are. You'll like this, I promise."

The dingy room was another tavern of sorts, and even in her drunken state, it was a sort Deryn recognized immediately. Two small tables took up most of the floor space. No other customers were currently seated, although an indistinct cluster of people gathered in the shadows of a doorway at one side.

The scent of flowers was much stronger, and Abran was no longer the main source. He obviously spent enough time here for the odor to impregnate his clothes. The sweet smell was heavy, cloying. It launched a fresh attack on Deryn's senses, blunting what little cold induced clarity she had mustered. When Abran released her arm, she fell into the nearest chair. Abran positioned himself opposite.

A bottle and five mugs were already on the table. On cue, three figures left the doorway and joined them, two women and a man. Their clothes revealed a lot and suggested more, an impression aided by the dimness of the room. The lighting was low enough to mask details--how cheap the wine was, lacking any label; how shabby the decor; how unattractive the whores. Deryn had no doubts as to their profession.

She sat slumped in her chair and stared across the table at Abran. She should have guessed. Who had not heard about the sort of establishments where everything on sale was at five times the market rate, or about how they obtained their customers? Abran was not a trader who had lost his friends. The whole charade was a ruse to get drunken punters into his employer's brothel. She wondered how big a cut he took from the profits.

"Deryn, this is Arnie, this is Lana, this is Del."

Another pointless sham, and an insulting one. How stupid did they think she was? Deryn braced her hands on the underside of the table. She should just flip the whole thing over and walk out. But when she tried to flex her arms, they were too weak. Her legs were equally slow to obey her. Would they support her weight if she stood? And even if they did, would she be able to walk?

In an instant, her mood changed and the absurdity of the situation struck her. She began to laugh. Two whores joined in, although they could have no idea of what was so funny--but then, Deryn did not know either. The thought made her laugh even louder.

One of the women stood behind Deryn. What little lucid thought Deryn could muster was drowned in the sweet scent of flowers, now recognized as cheap perfume. The whore's fingertips lightly traced the back of Deryn's neck, and then massaged her shoulders. It felt so good. Deryn could not deny it, as the muscles in her back relaxed and any urge to resist was swept away.

The man shifted his chair closer to Deryn. He took her hand and raised it to his lips. Deryn made no attempt to stop him, but she met his eyes and slowly shook her head. A brief expression of regret crossed his face, but he released her hand and rose from the table. His place was immediately taken by the second woman.

Her hands were soft. Her lips were softer, hot and wet. She first sucked the tips of Deryn's fingers, and then flicked her tongue against them. The effect of the suggestive touch rippled down Deryn's arm, sparking a response in the pit of her stomach, and then lower. Deryn felt herself grow wet.

Why not? The question drifted through Deryn's head.

The contents of the bottle on the table would taste like hog's piss. The chances were that it was rainwater, collected from the nearest horse trough, rather than wine. Nobody would drink any, yet she would be charged as if it were the finest vintage. A similar mark-up would apply to the whores, but Deryn had a year's pay in her purse. She could afford it and she was in no fit state to go anywhere else. And was this not what she had been looking for when she left The Lodestone? Company with no questions, no ties, no risks?

And it's not as if I've never bought it before.

Deryn made no objection when she was helped to her feet and urged along the corridor. The room she entered was darker than the one they had left. When the hands released her, she stumbled and fell. She landed heavily on a straw stuffed mattress that was drenched in scent, although the cheap perfume could not cover the other, mustier odors. Deryn was grateful she could not see the state the mattress was in.

One of the women lay beside her and stroked the hair back from Deryn's face. The whore's lips touched hers, at first a tentative brush, then returning more assertively. Deryn pulled the woman to her. She was impelled by the sudden desperate need to touch flesh. Her hand scrabbled clumsily though the whore's clothes, seeking a way inside.

The whore pulled away and then shifted over so that she sat, straddling Deryn's waist. The weight, pressing down on her, ignited a fire in Deryn's groin. Her hips began to move of their own accord, to the rhythm of her desire. She could not stop them if she wanted. She felt the whore's fingers slipping lose the buttons on her shirt.

The material fell open, letting a cooler draft of air play over her inflamed skin. Deryn grabbed the whore's hands, and fastened them on her breasts. The whore trapped both nipples between thumbs and palm, squeezing and rubbing them, making Deryn groan. At the same time, other hands untied her bootlaces and slipped them off. Teeth nipped gently at her ankles.

Two whores. Double the cost. Money well spent.

Deryn's need to be touched, to be given release, was a monster inside her, taking control, except that lying down in the dark was working against her. Deryn's thoughts had been dissolving ever since drinking the beer in the Warrior's Return. Now the dark was seeping into her head. Her body was drifting apart.

The touch of a tongue between her legs was a flare of absolute pleasure, calling her back from sleep for an instant, but only an instant. The wave of darkness could not be held back. Deryn's thoughts floated away on a sea of flowers.

~~~~~~

Rain splattered on Deryn's face. The droplets trickled down her cheeks and into her hair. They seeped around to the back of her neck and soaked into the collar of her shirt, so that the cold, clammy material stuck to her back and shoulders. Still asleep, Deryn twitched her head, futilely trying to avoid the unpleasant sensation until a chill gust of wind brought a sharper salvo. The sudden drenching was enough to draw Deryn back to the world. Her eyelids flew open so sharply that Deryn heard the snap.

A thin band of morning sky stretched above her, sandwiched by the dripping eaves of two roofs. Grey clouds scudded across the gap between. A mist of raindrops fell into her eyes, making her blink. Deryn raised a hand to her face, feeling her icy wet skin.

Memories returned in a stampede--soft lips and hooded eyes, masquerading desire; beer and Abran's voice, urging her to drink more; the blur of streets as she had stumbled along with her new acquaintance; hands removing her clothes; the scent of perfume and sex.

Between one heartbeat and the next, a pounding headache erupted. Deryn clamped her hand over her forehead. Her skull felt as if it was about to crack open, but her groan owed more to despair than pain. How could she have been so stupid?

One hand she kept tightly wrapped over her head, just to be sure the top did not come off when she moved. Deryn levered herself up onto her free elbow. She was lying at the end of a blind alley. Green slime and refuse covered the ground. It stunk of rotten cabbage, piss and vomit. The rotten cabbage was nothing to do with her, but Deryn could not be so sure about the rest.

Her clothes were all in place, although disheveled in such a way as to imply that someone else had dressed her hurriedly, and with little care. Her belt and bootlaces were loose. Only two buttons on her shirt were done up, and one of those was in the wrong hole. Her pants were plastered with brown sludge that she hoped was mud.

At the far end, the alley opened onto a wider street. A solitary figure hurried by, without looking in Deryn's direction. Apart from this, the town was quiet, which Deryn took to mean that it was not long after dawn. Normally she could estimate the time from the light, but something was wrong with her vision. Even through the thick clouds, the sky was painfully bright, making Deryn squint and her eyes water. Her lips tingled numbly and nausea was now matching her headache. Her hands were shaking, and not from the cold.

She had been carried from the clip joint and dumped, without waking. Deryn knew she had not drunk enough to account for it. Taking everything together, it confirmed her suspicion that Abran had laced her drink with some other drug. Why had she not been more suspicious of the strange aftertaste to the beer in the Warrior's return?

Carefully, Deryn rose to a sitting position and then buried her face in her hands. She needed to prepare herself before confronting the world and owning up to her ridiculous gullibility. She could not believe how dim-witted she had been. She did not know where in Oakan she had ended up the previous night and had even less idea where she was now. Apart from Abran, she would not be able to identify anyone she had seen, and it was a safe bet that he would not be showing his face around town until it was certain she had left.

Abran had hooked, drugged and trapped her. How had she not spotted it? The con was so old, that Deryn could not claim she had never been warned about it. Of all the sordid, catchpenny tricks she had just fallen for the cheapest.

Deryn did not need to feel for her purse to know it was missing.

Jane Fletcher ~~~