By Isabel Yacura
IG Digital Arts/ Shutterstock
“We can take him.”
The voice was confident and bright, albeit a little thin, twanged out over the vowels.
“I highly doubt that,” Burges said, condescending and amused enough that Colin actually looked up from his woebegone navel-gazing. He could see why, after a moment.
The two women in front of him were young-ish, one much taller than the other, though the second woman was short enough that it wasn’t a difficult task. The small one was wiry and compact, dark eyed and scowling, with an enormous scythe slung head-side down over her back. The one who had spoken was a little older, with pale, strangely reflective eyes and some sort of lute held casually to the side. They looked enough alike that Colin figured them for sisters, or cousins. Maybe aunt and niece on the far side.
“I assure you,” said the tall one, eyes bright, “we’ve never had any complaints with our services.”
“Why, because your charges were too dead to make them?” Burges said derisively.
“Suit yourself,” the tall one shrugged. “Makes no difference t’me if you don’t want us to take him, no skin off my nose. We’re headed in the direction, is all.”
“Why take him at all then?”
“No sense in saying no to extra coin,” the small one said, speaking finally. The tall one looked delighted, favoring her— relation— with a broad grin.
“You even know how to use that thing?” Burges said, raising an eyebrow, his own hand casually at the shortsword at his waist.
The small one’s eyes brightened in the same way, solidifying Colin’s suspicion they were related. “Oh yes,” she said, almost lasciviously. “I do.”
“Fine,” Burges said after a moment, shrugging. Colin gaped at him.
“What do you mean, okay?” he squawked. “You were supposed to take me all the way to Limenon, Father said—”
“Your father,” Burges said, turning and eyeing Colin now, “sent a message to return to the manor now, and to put you in some caravan or a carriage for the last hundred miles. Now, I’ve asked around and there’s no caravan—”
“Not trading season round here right now,” the tall one chimed in helpfully.
“And there’s certainly no carriage—”
“Not in these parts.”
“And I work for your father, not you,” Burges finished. “So there. These two…ladies will take you to your fancy city school..”
“I’m going to die,” Colin said, looking at his father’s guard captain with wide eyes. “You’re sending me to my death, Burges.”
“Cheer up,” the tall one said, grinning. “We’ve got a cart and everything to put your nonsense in.”
The road was decidedly not the best of a bad lot, and, indeed was perhaps the worst of it, but there was little time to complain. Not to mention that Colin was very sure that if he opened his mouth out of its grit-teeth grimace, his teeth were going to bounce out of his damn head and all over this aforementioned road.
Suzanne— the tall one— did it for him. “How much longer?”
“Eh, another mile,” Morgan— the short one— said, her own voice hopscotching up and down as the cart hit a particularly bad rut and promptly hopped back out.
“Another mile?” Colin said. “I won’t surv-i-i-ive.”
That was another bad pothole, bad enough that Suzanne’s fingers slipped on the banjo, and the cart came to an abrupt halt. She was thrown forward, hard enough that she slammed her boots into the footboards of the cart, curling protectively around her instrument.
Morgan, smaller and denser, nearly flipped out of the damn thing. Colin went tumbling over what Suzanne had referred to as ‘his nonsense’, which had rattled over the length and breadth of the cart bed.
“Now you’ve done it,” Morgan said, blowing hair out of her eyes, ignoring Colin moaning on the ragged boards of the cart. “We’re going to have to reset the whole damn transportation spell.”
“We?” Suzanne said, whipping her head around. “You mean me. I don’t see you doing any magic.”
Morgan scowled. “Sorry, did you want me to sing a little ditty while you strum us into motion?” she said sarcastically.
“Why don’t you go harvest some manners, kid,” Suzanne said threateningly, brandishing her banjo. Morgan’s eyes rolled in the manner familiar to younger sisters the world over— no matter how old or how dangerous they got— and shoved herself out of the cart to go stand in the middle of the road and ignore Suzanne and Colin.
Colin propped himself up with a groan, said, pitifully, “Do you think we can stop for a while?”
Suzanne ignored him too, swinging herself out of the cart to go glower at the crude runic symbols on each of the carts four wheels.
It was a funny, crooked thing, the cart, more of a long open box on wheels, with a bench in the front and no place to hook up animals. It didn’t need animals to tow it along, after all, not when Suzanne could play them along just as well. “And it was much, much cheaper.” Suzanne had told him, grinning, when he had looked at the cart askance. Though maybe the cart itself was askance, and he was looking at it straight.
“Wood’s still alright,” Suzanne called from the side, bent over and peering like an old woman. Colin had examined the runes himself— he was going to the city to study magic, he should know what was propelling them along, but he hadn’t recognized them. They had been weird, blocky things, better suited to being carved with a knife than written with ink and a pen. Colin had tucked that little tidbit away, thinking to himself that would be useful to look up in the near future, when he was safe in the citadel and not stuck in the rutted road with a pair of yokels. The runes apparently hadn’t burst into flame or crumbled to dust with the unexpected cessation of magic— and so Suzanne just sighed, kicked one wheel half-heartedly, and pulled herself back into the front bench.
“Colin,” Suzanne said idly, twisting her fingers round one of the pins on the banjo’s neck, “have you ever—”
“Suzanne,” Morgan said, her voice made strange and thin.
Suzanne’s head snapped up.
Morgan’s weapon lay in the cart, flat on the floor, not visible unless you were damn near in the cart. Like Colin was, half-propped up on a box of his books. Instead, Morgan stood in the middle of the muddy run-down track, a shockingly little figure without her glower and scythe.
The three men surrounding her emphasized that fact, emphasizing the youth of her big dark eyes and small stature.
“Well,” Suzanne said, letting herself drop not onto the ground, but into the big box of the cart. Her footsteps sounded loud on the unfinished wood, even over the whine of the bugs in the fields. Dragonflies flitted round the brackish water that collected in the ditches on either side of the track, probably the source of all the damn mud. She stepped over Colin’s sprawled out legs and he hastily tucked them into his body, swallowing hard. “Howdy, gentleman.”
“Howdy indeed,” one of them murmured. He had a Monstranti metropolitan accent to his ears and a sort of condescending laugh hidden inside faux politeness. “It’s a bit dangerous for two young women to be traveling alone.”
“We’re not alone,” Morgan said, her voice soft and tremulous. “We’re going with our cousin to the big city.”
Colin waved a weak hand at the three men, dark silhouettes in the bright afternoon sunshine, and accidentally made a sound like he might vomit. Suzanne stepped down on his hand, hard, while giving the three men an easy smile. “That’s right,” she said. “You gentlemen must be mighty quiet. I didn’t hear a damn thing.”
“Something like that,” the second of the men said, his skin greying in pigment and wide mouth a little too dark. Shadowmage, more like that not. Probably explained the soft feet they had come out of the fields on. Not even the corn had been disturbed, here, golden stalks still swaying.
“Can we help you with anything?” Suzanne said, smiling, not quite all her teeth. “Only, you’re makin’ my baby sister a mite nervous, I think, standing over her like that.”
The shadowmage looked down at Morgan and grinned. He used all his teeth. “Are we making you nervous?” he said, slow and syrup thick. “We’re friendly, I swear.”
“Your cousin looks a bit nervous,” one of the other men said in his sharp city tones.
Colin sat up straighter, tried to look easy and unafraid. He was sure he looked more like a lemming. “He’s a scholar,” Suzanne said easily. “Too used to bein’ in the library and not in the sun like the rest of us.”
“A scholar going to the city with two girl cousins,” the shadowmage said. His esses were starting to slip, making his speech sibilant and hissing. “Easy pickings.” Colin’s head swam, and he made a promise that if he got out of this he was going to curse Burges’ damn head off, gods help him.
The third man, who had thus been quiet, grabbed Morgan’s arm.
Colin, who had been keeping himself upright through formerly unknown strength of character, was a bit confused about the series of events that next transpired.
One of the men grabbed Morgan’s arm, who went from looking small and delicate and somehow fragile to looking murderous in about .2 seconds, and Suzanne had slammed her foot down on the handle of the scythe hidden in the bed of the cart, driving it into the palm of her waiting hand.
Colin, diving with a yelp out of the way of the scythe’s ludicrously long blade, had missed exactly how the scythe managed to migrate from Suzanne’s hands to Morgan’s, twenty feet away.
When he popped back up out of the bed, Suzanne had her banjo slung across her body and Morgan had a white knuckle grip on the scythe, slung low across her body. The man who had grabbed Morgan’s arm was making a low, gritted teeth groan, clutching his hand to his chest. It was a different color than it had been ten seconds ago.
“Now gentlemen,” Suzanne said, sounding much lazier all of a sudden. “I’d like to gently point out that we are not, as some of y’all may have thought at first glance, easy pickings. I’d also like to take the time to say that I’m already hot and tired, and having a little brawl is an easy way to get even hotter and tireder.”
“More tired,” Morgan said from in front of the cart bed. Her shoulders were bright with tension, and Colin saw a sliver of her face, one dark eye like a crows.
“Sure thing,” Suzanne said easily. “Th’ point is, why bother? I’ll play us along in a moment and you can go back hidin’ in the wheat for another, richer caravan. How’s that sound?”
“Bitch,” the third man spat. Gods above, his fingers were turning black—
“Rude,” Morgan said, turning the scythe in her grip. The long blade brushed the red clay, left long scars behind.
“How about this,” the man with the dark grey skin said. “We grab your caravan and the next, richer one, and you—”
Colin never gets to hear what he was about to say. The man with the broken fingers took a step forward, his uninjured hand at his mace, and then he was just missing the injured hand.
Then the other hand.
The other two men startled into motion at about the time the now-handless man started screaming.
“Aw, seven hells,” Suzanne said, frowning. Then her fingers touched the strings of her banjo.
Morgan moved like a dervish, the scythe a spinning silver circle in the summer sun. The metal glinted in the light right into Colin’s eyes, so it felt like he blinked apart tears as mirror bright flashes left him blinded for moments at a time.
The man-who-formerly-had-hands had stumbled off to the side of the road, making an unholy racket and losing, to Colin’s untrained eyes, really too much blood. It was the other man,, with his broadsword and the shadowmage who were to be worried about.
The scythe slammed against the broadsword, a ringing blow that nearly overpowered the screams of the injured man. It barely landed when Morgan flipped her scythe between her hands to come at him on the other side, where he was unprotected.
Was, being the operative word.
The shadowmage slid up from the man’s shadow, small and centered by the high sun, his own sword held in two hands as Morgan brought the scythe down in a two handed overhead strike. Underneath it all, the fast, strangely muffled twang of Suzanne’s hand on the strings as she stood at the bow of the cart, strangely unmoved and unmoving.
Another ringing blow, the shadowmage’s tombstone teeth gritted, and then he was gone again, sliding back into the shadows and making Morgan stumble a step forward as all her pressing momentum was suddenly gone.
The Monstranti man took a hasty step back, raised his broadsword in a heavy defensive posture right as the shadowmage came out of Morgan’s shadow.
Colin started forward, scrambling against the rough wood and giving himself splinters for sure, his voice caught in his throat to warn her.
“Nope,” Suzanne said from somewhere above him. Colin, on his hands and knees, looked up, past the body of her banjo, to where her hair is bright and her eyes lost in the glare of the sun.
Suzanne’s fingers didn’t stop on the neck of her banjo, but her other hand slammed down hard on the strings.
Colin couldn’t see magic yet— he wasn’t a sorcerer or a warlock, indeed he’s only a wizarding hopeful. Not even an initiate, with mage-sight half working. In this moment he was half grateful, half aggrieved about it.
It might’ve made it better, easier to make sense of, to have seen the thick cutting rays Suzanne sends towards the shadowmage.
Instead, all Colin saw was Suzanne’s hand come down, and the shadowmage— come apart.
Colin’s father had hounds, back at the manor. A big pack of sleek sighthounds that ran with his father on the hunts. They were a well trained, bright-eyed bunch, kept hungry the day before the hunt to make them keener. One day, his father had had a hunt canceled, and he took Colin out to feed the hounds.
“Watch,” his father had said, and Colin had cringed as his father threw thick cuts of meat into the froth of the excited dogs.
The sound of the meat, landing in the sludge of the kennel, torn apart by slavering jaws, was something that Colin had not forgotten.
It was the same sound, now, a thick, slick sound, as the pieces of the shadowmage slid apart and flopped into the mud.
The Monstranti man gaped past Morgan, who did not turn, did not flinch, utter faith as her sister sliced a man about to kill her into pieces.
Then Morgan spun her scythe and killed the man in front of her, and the same sound echoed in Colin’s ears, and he knew he’d be hearing it for the rest of his life.
The afternoon was quiet, now, the man without hands having apparently expired in the last minute or two.
Morgan turned around with a bright smile. She was remarkably pretty when she did, though the bloody scythe hiked over her shoulders ruined the image somewhat. “That was nice,” she said brightly. “I was a little antsy.”
“Little antsy,” Suzanne scolded, “you nearly got merked by some middling shadow bastard.”
“Did not,” Morgan said. “I knew he was there. You were playing the ballad for dismemberment for like, a minute and a half.”
Suzanne scowled. “Well, check their pockets while I finish the runic work,” she said, begrudgingly. “I need a drink and you’re going to need ten gallons of vinegar to get that bloodstain out.”
“Ugh,” Morgan said, with feeling. “You had to cut him into so many pieces?”
“He was going to shadow magic my babiest sister!” Suzanne said, aghast. “Of course!”
“Who are you people?” Colin said finally, also with feeling. He was pretty sure he was going to throw up in a few minutes.
Morgan shrugged. “Just mercs.”
“Adventurers,” Suzanne corrected, hefting her banjo over her shoulder. “We’re just taking a couple jobs on the road while we go meet up with our sisters. There’s a big job in the capital that’ll need all of us.”
“Your— I thought you two were sisters?”
Suzanne’s grin was the kind of grin that one would have thought would be more suited to Morgan. It was a sharp, bloody thing that sat easily on her face, like it had been there, beneath the surface, the entire time. “We are.”
Colin’s face paled remarkably. “There are more of you?”
About the author: Isabel Yacura is a writer and editor in Brooklyn, New York. She has been featured in All World’s Wayfarer, Kelp Journal, Zoetic Press, and other publications. She’s currently represented by Haley Casey at CMA Literary, and can be found @isabelyacura on Twitter.
This post has already been read 482 times!