Thursday, December 14, 2017

Chapter Nine: Divine Right(Part Two)



Kacey MacTavish stumbled through snow. Her breath came out in ragged gasps that hung in front of her eyes. She fought the temptation every time, but she wanted nothing more than to reach up and wave at the mist.

Just like she and her father had done when she was a little girl, bundled up with Ardyn and Corlane in the snow.

He's dead, Kacey reminded herself. The thought no longer brought her crashing down, but it still echoed like a dull drumbeat. He's gone. Because of me.

She shivered, and not from the cold. Again she saw the green-eyed man turning the gun on her, and...her father had been a mighty man. He could have survived one gunshot, surely. But no! He had to take two. If Kacey hadn't been there...

"I should have refused to go," she growled to herself. "I should have fought harder about the wedding! I shouldn't have gotten in the carriage. I should have told Ardyn to shove it when she talked me into the dress. I should have...he'd be alive if I had just..."

It was her fault. She knew that, deep inside, as she crunched snow underfoot and made her way along the coated path. Her father's shield thumped on her back, so heavy after so long running. Twice she had almost thrown it away, but it wasn't a tool of murder, was it? It was all she had left of him.

Light. There was light ahead. Kacey almost turned away, but she hadn't eaten since the ill-fated stop at the inn, last night. She hesitated on the road, stomach roaring.

She felt in her pocket. She'd given away her most valuable necklaces and trinkets already, but maybe she had enough for something.

"And then what?" Kacey asked herself. She started for the town anyway. "Go where?"

It was a miniscule town. It couldn't even properly be called a village. But there were lights hanging off the buildings, and Kacey saw heavily-bundled townsfolk moving from place to place. 

"Excuse me," she asked of the first person she passed. The man tucked his coat in and turned his head, but Kacey didn't stop. "Where could I go to find some food?"

He ignored her. She stood in the snow, shivering and trying not to curse him. Then she turned back to the street.

"Excuse me-" No, she was moving along. Kacey picked her next target. "Sir, please, can I ask-" She swallowed as he too pretended she was a ghost.

She moved through what felt like most of the town, and no one acknowledged her. They gave her dark looks, and several of them muttered. They hurried away when she approached. None spoke directly to her, though one couple loudly wished "that drifter" would leave them alone.

"Nice," she told them. "I'm right in front of your faces, and I'm only asking if there's a place I can find something to eat. You don't have to do a thing but talk to me."

"That drifter is getting on my nerves, darling," the man said, and she nodded very seriously as he took her arm and moved along.

"Gods above and powers below," Kacey hissed. She paused to kick a snowbank very forcefully. "Bleeding..." she couldn't even finish the sentence. Her stomach did it for her. 

"Food," she muttered. "I'm trying, all right? I promise." She hefted the strap of her shield, then...

She paused as she saw a rickety church, close to the west edge of the settlement. Kacey inhaled, studying the lamps burning by the doors.

"Well, Kacey...why not try?" She approached, and raised a hand to knock. Falteringly, she did, teeth chattering.

"Yes?" a woman asked, opening the door. Kacey took in her dark nun's outfit.

"Please," Kacey said. "Can you tell me where I can find some food? I can pay, or I can work. Just...no one will talk to me."

The woman frowned. "We have little to spare. You are not the first to come recently and take."

"I can work," Kacey pleaded. "I can-" She broke off as she heard a loud fit of coughing. "Is there sickness here?"

The nun's face became stony. "The children have to go somewhere when the flu strikes, don't they?"

"The flu..." Kacey swallowed. "Children?"

"You can thank the other men, the ones who took the medicine and food," the woman told her. "Those Guiding Light fellows. I assume they're friends of yours. Hopefully the drow will put us all out of our misery." She pushed on the door.

"No, wait!" Kacey put her shoulder in the door. It might have been the worst idea of her life, but children... "Ma'am, I can heal."

The nun raised an eyebrow. "You are a wizard?"

Kacey shook her head, meeting the nun's eyes. She saw the understanding click to light in her gaze, and tried not to shiver. "But I can heal. I can cure the flu." She swallowed as she watched the woman's eyes, and her complex web of interconnecting thoughts. "Please let me help. I don't know the men who took your medicine, but I can cure sickness without it."

The nun clutched the door, jaw working. Kacey held her breath. She wondered if she was about to get a first-hand look at a witch-burning.

"Come in." The nun opened the door. "Come on, young lady."

"Thank you!" She stumbled as she ascended the last stair. Warmth slapped her, and she pulled down her hood with a gasp of relief.

"You are a Vod-witch?" the nun asked. She tilted her head. "Your ears. You are half-elven."

Kacey jumped. "I..." She swallowed. "Yes, ma'am."

"You would do well to keep that hood up outside these doors," she warned. "Perhaps even when you heal the children. We are on the border, miss: you'll find no human settlements north of here. Half of your lineage is looked on with hate and scorn by all in this village."

"I'll bear that in mind," Kacey agreed. "Where are they?"

"How do you expect to be paid for this?" the nun asked, standing in Kacey's way. "We have no money here."

"I..." Kacey had completely forgotten her own hunger and exhaustion when the words children and flu crossed her world. "I don't care. Just let me help them. Whatever you think my work is worth, I'll take it gratefully."

The nun raised one eyebrow, as if she were regarding some strange new species no man had ever seen.

"Come." She gestured, and Kacey looked past her to see blankets spread over pews and between them, and perhaps two dozen boys and girls no older than thirteen. "If any of them ask, stranger, you have a Rune of Nerien, and know nothing of witchcraft. For your own safety."

***

Kacey lay in a pew, with a thin blanket and her own coat bundled up as a pillow. Her father's shield she had propped against the wood by her head, and her boots she had set before it, as neatly as she could.

The nun had watched while she worked, and very closely. Kacey suspected she had been poised to do...something if her witchcraft had harmed the children in any way, and that just made her respect the middle-aged woman a little bit more. She wondered if there was a knife concealed in her habit...and also wondered whether possessing a blade or not would have changed her willingness to try and keep a malignant witch from her charges.

She probably would have succeeded, too. Kacey had barely managed to stay on her feet long enough to examine all the children and give them the healing touch she'd perfected from Brigid's book. Several of them she'd also given Clarity, to poke a light through the cloud of depression haunting their gazes. One, she had marked with Safety, noting his black eye.

The nun had given her food. Not much, and only potatoes and bread, but Kacey relished it like a kingly feast.

She stared up at the reliefs of the gods above her. Kacey eyed each one in turn, from Nerien to Atura.

What am I doing? she wondered. What am I supposed to be doing? How am I supposed to do it, whatever it is?

She shifted her weight. Well, this is a church, after all. She closed her eyes for a moment. If any of you are listening, up there...I could really use some guidance. I need a sign.

The children crowded around the nun, where she sat on the steps to the altar. Kacey's eyes were distant, but she listened as the kids settled down, all together, and the woman opened a large tome.

"The Book of Sora," the nun said. "Who is Sora?"

"The Goddess of Protection," the kids chanted. Kacey smiled, remembering her own lessons.

"And what does she do?"

"She protects," Kacey murmured, far too low to be heard, but with a cheeky smile.

"The Goddess of Protection watches over those in need of watching over, and she is patron of the downtrodden," the nun explained. "She is not the God of War, and war is not her nature. Her mission is to defend and uplift. Her symbol is a broken sword, which shows no weapon can harm those under her protection. Her motto is what?" She paused. "Matthew?"

"Do what's right because it's right," the child said. "And you need no other reason."

Kacey listened. She eyed the Goddess' relief above.

Kacey let out a sigh.

She was fast asleep before the nun even got to the first parable.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Chapter Nine: Divine Right(Part One)



"No sign? Not one?" Ardyn fidgeted. "How did she cover so much ground, so fast?"

"Kacey can move like the bleedin' devil when she has a mind to," Corlane growled. He paced the parlor with a scowl. "She could be in drow country by now if she broke north."

"She wouldn't go north," Brigid objected. "She'll be heading for the capital."

"No," Ardyn said. "No, she went north. She lost Uncle John. She's thinking about her mother now."

"Are you sure?" Brigid asked. "The kind of danger she'd face up there-"

"She's half-elven," Angus chimed in, leaning on the far wall. "She might think that she can find a place in their society, even if she's no longer comfortable with us."

"Her mother's heritage..." Corlane seemed quite concerned. "She's going to get herself killed."

"We have to find her," Ardyn said. "Angus and I can go-"

"No!" Corlane turned to her, very sharply. "Kacey ran off. I'll not risk losing you too."

"That doesn't mean I can't go," Angus said. "I promised Laird John I'd take care of her."

"And a bloody fine job you did, eh?" Corlane demanded. "You just let her up and run off, didn't you?"

"It was that or have her leave me behind and me wind up lost too," Angus said. His eyes glittered coolly. "I don't like it, but I stand by my decision. I thought I could do more good coming back."

"You're being a great help," Brigid said, throwing oil on the water while Corlane grunted. "But I think Kacey's beyond our reach."

"I'll send some men that way regardless," Corlane said. "We have to try."

"Yes, master Corlane," Brigid said. Ardyn looked back down to her crocheting, focusing on the smooth and simple motions and trying not to worry about her cousin.

"What about the other thing?" Corlane asked, in a low voice. "Have those boffins said anything yet?"

"Nothing yet, sir," Brigid replied. "I've been assured they're considering the concern very intently."

"I don't see what's so bloody concerning about it!" Corlane resumed his thumping back and forth. "So Kacey took the will? What of it?"

"I don't follow," Angus said. "What's happened?"

"Kacey took Uncle John's will when she left," Ardyn explained. "Probably for the letter at the end, for sentimental reasons."

"Aye," Angus agreed. "Makes sense enough to me."

"Remember what Laird John wrote?" Brigid asked. "He named Kacey Laird MacTavish. What's happening two days from now, Angus?"

He blinked. "The vote? King of Clans?"

"Exactly," Ardyn said. "Every Clan has a vote, but really, it's the Laird who has the vote, according to the letter of the law. Kacey's Laird MacTavish."

"She's not here," Angus said. "She's gone."

"Right," Corlane growled under his breath. "She's gone. Took the vote with her."

"But...there are allowances for Lairds being unavailable," Angus protested. "Sickness, war, foreign ventures, diplomacy. Happens all the time. The Laird's immediate family are entitled to issue up a vote in their absence so long as the Laird himself - or herself - hasn't given them instruction otherwise." He glanced at Ardyn's father. "You're acting as Laird while Kacey's missing, sir. You can head to Lionsmane and place yours in her name."

"Yeah, that's the problem with the boffins working for old King Roger," Corlane growled. Angus blinked.

"I don't follow," he repeated.

"Angus. Kacey took the will." Ardyn lowered her crocheting. "The only people who heard it read are the four of us, Kacey, and the will-reader. Kacey never made her first formal appearance as Laird MacTavish, and she never sent the will and her signet in to King Roger for his approval of the transition. She just took them both."

"And?"

"And as far as anyone but the four of us know, maybe Laird John named someone other than Kacey his heir, and we're trying to prevent that person from finding it out," Brigid said. "From the outside, maybe this is a coup."

"That's ridiculous!" Angus gaped. "Who else would Laird John name his Heir other than Kacey?"

"That's the thing of it!" Corlane cried.

"It's bloody outrageous! It's a scandal!" Angus' eyes flashed. "When my father hears of this, MacLoughlin will be outraged right along with MacTavish!"

"That's the spirit, boy!" Corlane thumped him hard on the back. "You've got spine to you!"

"They can't take away the ancestral right of one of the oldest Clans on a bloody technicality!" Angus seethed. "The will was read! I don't care who heard and didn't hear; this is outrageous!"

"All we can do is let them deliberate and come to the same conclusion," Ardyn said. "The law is very clear. MacTavish has the right to vote." She reclaimed her hook, taking a deep breath. "It'll just be ugly on them when they finally have to cave."

"And besides," Brigid said, "One vote's not going to make that much of a difference. MacDonald versus MacPhearson? She's got four safe votes - her own, MacLoughlin, MacArthur, and MacNaire. Safe votes, so the worst-case is a four-four tie with us sidelined."

"But, MacDougal is in MacPhearson's column. That's five." Ardyn shrugged. "MacDonald has his own, and MacFletcher and MacMichael. That's three. Even without us voting for her, MacPhearson can't lose. It's just a technicality, like you said."

He exhaled. "I'll still tell my father. He'll lodge a protest."

"You do that, son," Corlane said. "I appreciate the gesture. For a rat's nest of pirates, MacLoughlin are tight lads in a pinch."

"Excuse me?" Angus demanded. "My clan have always been seafaring traders. Never a pirate MacLoughlin, in our long and storied history. Not a one."

"Right," Ardyn agreed. "Not a one." She couldn't keep the snicker from her voice.

***

Ardyn sat before her mirror, brushing her hair in silence. She pursed her lips as she examined it in the mirror, sighing when she became certain it was just that little bit more brown than yesterday.

"Fudge," she murmured, before resuming her work.

A nose found her lap. She chuckled. "No, Soap. I don't have fudge. I was just cursing without cursing. Fudge can be a curse, you know, not just a treat."

The dog seemed unconvinced and unimpressed. His tail thumped on her vanity, and Ardyn just had to pause and reach down to pet him.

"Aren't you sweet?" she asked, as she discovered one of his toys clamped in his jaws. "Give that here, then."

Soap turned his head. He growled as Ardyn reached.

"Oh. I see." She growled right back at him, scratching him behind the ears. Soap dropped the toy, and as Ardyn moved to grab it, he sneezed, ears flopping three ways at once as half his face peeled back.

"Soap!" she cried. "That was my hand, Soap!"

The dog swept up his toy, giving her a dark glower. Ardyn gave him one right back as she sought out a towel and wiped her hand as clean as possible.

"Go on," she ordered Soap, as he pushed at her leg. "I tried to play, and you didn't want to let me. Live with your decision."

Knock knock! "Ardyn?"

"Angus?" she asked. "I'm decent, never fear."

He pushed the ajar door fully open, then had to pause as Soap bolted for freedom. Angus stared.

"What did you do to him?"

"He did something horrible to me," Ardyn protested. "Dogs are disgusting creatures."

"Are they?" Angus leaned in the door frame. "Is now a bad time?"

"No." Ardyn resumed brushing. "As long as you don't mind me multi-tasking."

"Never stopped you before." He put his hands in his pockets. "I'm be heading home. I just wanted to ask what your plans were for the vote. My family has a ship that has certain characteristics in common with a blockade runner but was never used as such or designed with that purpose in mind, but we use it to get across the Sapphire Sound in a couple of hours. We're shipping out the morning of, and I thought I'd offer passage."

"Well, I'm certainly convinced of your upstanding nature," Ardyn observed. "Thank you, Angus. I believe I will take you up on that. And if I'm going, my father's coming with me. Brigid will hold things down here while we're in Lionsmane."

"Excellent." Angus smiled. Ardyn did too...but then it wavered.

"I'm worried about her," she confessed. Angus hesitated.

"Me too," he finally admitted. "Kacey's strong, so I'm sure she'll survive unless she does something stupid, but she's also fond of doing stupid things. My father always gives me the same advice about any problem I ask him about, and-"

"I remember," Ardyn said. "Don't do stupid stuff." She shrugged. "Applies fairly well across the board, I must admit."

"Kacey never absorbed the lesson," Angus muttered.

"I think that's being unfair," Ardyn hedged. "I think she can be quite smart when the moments strike her. I just wish they struck her a tad bit more often."

Angus chuckled. "I think she'll be fine. But her timing could have been better."

Ardyn's face lost expression. "The mad gunman's timing could have been better."

Angus sighed. "I'm sorry, Ardyn."

"It's fine." She shook her head before standing. "Come on, Angus. I'll walk you out, and I'll see you day after tomorrow, bright and early, for a trip on the pirate side of life."

"Hey, now," Angus growled. "There has never been a pirate MacLoughlin..."

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Chapter Eight: What Have I Become(Part Two)



There were three of them, Kacey now saw. The first had a long nose and a nasally voice, but both of his friends were big and broad-shouldered. Each one of them had a weapon on his back, and they all stood with their arms crossed.

Let's not make judgments, Kacey heard her father say in her head. Maybe they're here to sell you something. 

"Hello," she said. "Yes. I've just come in tonight. And I'll be gone tomorrow." There. If somehow she was a threat, they now knew she wasn't staying. 

"Oh, that's a shame, that is." The lead man claimed a chair and loomed across from her. "We've got a job lined up that pays well. And we're looking for a fourth person. Pays great, love."

"Don't call me love," Kacey ordered. She took deep, slow breaths. "I'm sorry. I've got my own agenda. I'm not interested."

"It's not far off," the man said. "I'm sure you saw the compound on your way up here. Just across the river. Just a security thing. Some people called the Guiding-"

"I'm not interested," Kacey repeated. "Move along."

A spark set in his eye. "I'm not finished talking, girl."

"I'm finished listening." She narrowed her eyes. "Get out of my face."

He leaned forward on the table. "Why should I?"

"Because I'll kill you if you don't." Kacey reached up and touched the hilt of her father's claymore. "You've been warned. Go."

"You know, I don't like your manners, love." the man rose. "We're offering you a job. Good pay. Good fun. I'm sure we'll all be great friends by the time it's over. You'll take another job with us in a heartbeat."

Kacey clutched the hilt, heart thundering. "Last warning."

"Aw, precious thinks she's scary, doesn't she?" He laughed, and his friends stepped up beside him. "I think the new girl needs a lesson-"

Kacey rose, drawing her father's sword. "Try me, precious."

She had expected them to run. She had accepted that maybe they would laugh.

She had not suspected that they might do neither.

The leader hit her, right in the face, and Kacey stumbled backward. Thankfully, she remembered her drills with her uncle, and her slice would have bisected the second man if they hadn't retreated. Kacey touched her nose, and she cried out as she felt it move under her fingers.

"Get her." The first one drew a knife, the second a sword, and the third an axe.

Blades flashed. Kacey parried the blade, kicked the knife out from the leader's hand, and ducked around the axe as its wielder came in for a horizontal strike. The redhead cracked the hilt of her father's sword into one thug's face, and he sat down hard on her chair, a mark on his forehead from the pommel stone.

"Gotcha!" The leader seized her sword hilt and twisted brutally. Kacey staggered as he yanked it from her hand, though he didn't manage to keep a hold of the blade himself. His axe-wielding fellow lined up as the leader slammed Kacey's hand onto the table.

"No!" She hit the leader with her forehead, then yanked her hand back. The blade of the axe nearly clipped her fingernails. Before the man could rip his weapon from the table, Kacey's left fist broke his nose, and her right elbow spun into the back of his head. He bent over the table, face going right into her soup, and he was screaming even before Kacey grabbed one of his arms and twisted it around until he flew over her shoulder. Lots of things popped and snapped.

The sword-bearer was back on his feet, claiming his weapon. Kacey spun his way, launching into a hook kick that nearly put him into a cartwheel. Instead, he hit a chair face-first and the flimsy thing shattered into splinters.

"Whoa!" The leader raised his hand...and his knife, as Kacey backed up, eyes flicking to the claymore. "You are serious, aren't you, lass? You are a firebrand!"

"Leave now, and you'll live through the night." Her heel touched the sword's hilt, but Kacey didn't dare lean down to pick it up. "Go! Now!"

"The night's young, love, and you aren't nearly bloody enough yet." He lunged, and she wove to the side to evade his strike. Kacey's foot came up and she kicked him back into a column, giving her a moment to lean down and sweep up her sword-

"Come on!" He threw himself at her, knife upraised, face wild. Kacey twisted-

The noise was soft. It was a meaty squish, and for some reason the only thing Kacey could think of was a watermelon being carved open. She felt a sudden shake of resistance, jerking all the way from her fingertips to her shoulders and down to her toes, as two hundred pounds of weight drove her backward.

The man dropped his knife, choking as blood leaked from his mouth...and dripped from where Kacey's claymore was embedded in his chest up to the hilt.

He coughed. Red sprayed Kacey's face, and nervelessly she pulled on her sword, ripping it free from the man's chest. He fell, thrashing on the floor with red leaking from his back and front at the same time.

"No!" She dropped her scarlet sword, staring. "No, you...I..."

Kacey landed on her knees. She tugged at his shirt, looking for the incision even as he grew still. She found it, and of themselves her fingers curled as she thought of the spellbook-

He's dead, she realized. You're too late. He's dead. You...you killed him.

She looked at her hands, stained red, and for a moment she thought she saw bridal gloves.

Kacey flung herself upright. She grabbed her sword, stumbling backward from the body and his groaning, still-living friends.

"You all right?" the innkeeper asked, popping up from behind the bar. "They didn't hurt you, did they, miss?" He paused. "Miss-"

Kacey ripped the room key from her pocket, throwing it on the floor. She seized her pack one-handed and bolted onto the street, heedless of the man calling after her.

The rhythmic thumping of her feet on the road soothed her, and also didn't. She ran, and ran until the village was behind her, ran until the lights were gone, ran, and tried to force the images of her father and the church out of her head.

Her legs gave out after an hour at sprint. She collapsed on her hands and knees in the dirt and rocks by the river, and Kacey cried out as she skinned her knees and scraped her palms. Her stomach heaved, and what little she'd managed to put in it came back up in a sudden acidic tide.

She didn't move for long minutes, gasping and choking for breath, shaking with terror and shock.

"I killed him," she whispered, bile still falling from her lips. "He's dead...I killed him..."

She thought of her father's body. She thought of his face, his eyes full of shock and fear. She thought of the ruffian, and how for all the differences between them, in death they had looked all but the same.

She glanced at the sword still held in her hand, and the red and black blood.

This is a tool, she realized, for the first time in her life. It's a tool for murder!

She cried out, at the top of her lungs. Kacey MacTavish jumped to her feet and flung her father's claymore end over end toward the water, and she quivered where she stood until she heard the loud splash that announced the damned thing was gone for good.

"Never again," she swore, though in honesty it sounded like more of a plea, as tears poured from her eyes. "Never again! I don't want to do that again!"

Damn the pain in her legs. If she broke them, she broke them. Kacey turned north, and with an empty belly and no weapon but her father's shield, she resumed her mad run, hands still coated in blood.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Chapter Eight: What Have I Become(Part One)



Kacey ran for three days. The holdings of the Clan MacTavish were centrally-located within the Highlands: on the shore of Sapphire Sound, separated from the capital by only the water, or a long, winding road through MacArthur territory to the north. There was plenty of talk about putting a bridge over the narrowest part of the Sound down to the south, but that was MacPhearson land, and coincidentally one of her pledges if she became Queen of Clans. 

Kacey went north. She wasn't headed for the capital, or anywhere else in particular. All she cared about was escaping her father's house and land, and north offered the easiest, cleanest way to do that. No one would run north. Corlane and Brigid would look for her south, east, west...but only a fool would go north. It was the best way to not be caught.

Most of the travelers she passed were headed to the capital. With the vote and the crowning coming up, everyone wanted to be there. Kacey supposed she'd find out the results eventually, but it was hardly a pressing concern. So, on she ran.

At night, she found secluded spots in the woods, and she relied on the knowledge she'd picked up on hunting excursions with Corlane to make a safe camp. She was cold without a blanket, but she would survive. She quickly ran out of prepared food, however, and she wished for a bow to hunt. Hunger became her companion, but she wouldn't steal from the people she passed on the road.

Dad wouldn't have, she told herself the first time the thought crossed her mind. Dad was a better man than that.

That didn't mean she had nothing to eat, however. Occasionally she stumbled over food other travelers had dropped, and she also found berries and plants. Once, she risked a market, and she was able to barter away one of the necklaces she'd taken from home for several days' worth of food. Unfortunately, she spotted men of MacTavish in the crowd, and that had been the end of her toying with public interaction.

She slept fitfully. Dreams of her father plagued her, and even when she was awake, she couldn't keep him out of her mind. When she walked in rain, and thunder boomed in the distance, all she could think of was the green-eyed man's pistol, and the shot that ended the world.

So she would sleep two or three hours at a time, and then run that long or more before succumbing and camping again, only to repeat the process. Her shield and sword became heavy on her back, but they were her father, and her defense. More than one shady-looking character moved on when he spotted the hilt protruding over her shoulder.

After three days of running, she left MacArthur's land behind, and then it was MacDougal territory. She took long detours every time a town lay ahead, and always she was wary when riders passed from the south. No one stopped her, and for that she was grateful...but it didn't mean she took it for granted.

Eventually, she again ran out of food. Kacey doggedly continued her flight, unsure of her destination but sure she needed to get there before Corlane and Brigid could stop her. Her stomach growled as she forced her way further north, and she found herself running along the shore of a river still in the process of freezing over, watching her breath fog in front of her. Snow wouldn't be much further now, and she wouldn't be able to feed herself then.

"Nothing for it," Kacey muttered, as she looked across the ice to the lights of some kind of village, festooned with tall towers. "I'm going to have to find a town."

The village was out of the question. There was no way she could ford the river, but perhaps further down the road, there would be another settlement. She forewent sleeping, and idly her stomach growled as she thought of perhaps, just perhaps...not running that night. A settlement meant an inn, didn't it? One warm night and meal wouldn't hurt too much, especially after she'd put this much distance between her and home.

The next village's lights appeared after only another hour on the road. Kacey smiled when she saw them ahead, and she picked up the pace as much as she could, this time not to detour, but to enter.

People stared as she made her way in, but not too many. Strange wanderers had to be fairly common this far from the heavily-settled southlands. Up here it was adventurer country, and military as well. Kacey supposed she was an adventurer with a military lineage. That meant she fit in, didn't it?

"Ah!" she gasped, as she stepped into the warmth of the first roadhouse she found. She glanced at the braziers radiating warmth through the building's common room, and almost without thinking she made her way over, shivering more now that she was warming up than she had in the cold.

"You need a room, young lady?" the innkeeper asked. She jumped, glancing at him where he stood at the bar.

"Oh. Yes, please." Kacey approached. "And something to eat."

"Money up front," he grunted.

"How much will it be?" she asked. "I have this...it's worth a good bit." She took out her next necklace, figuring that many adventurers had more loot than coin. "That's a real sapphire."

"Is it, now?" The innkeeper took it. "A room for you, and a meal for the night, that's fair for this. Will you be wanting anything else?"

"Where can I get more food?" Kacey asked. "To take with me, that is. And warmer clothes?"

"There's a market down the street," the innkeeper said. "Tell 'em Reggie sent you. They'll point you to my brother, and he'll get you straight."

"Thank you," Kacey said, bowing her head. She accepted the key to her room, and waited until Reggie fetched her a bowl of hot soup and a tankard of something that smelled strong.

"If you're wanting more, it's cheaper after the first round," he enlightened her, with a little smile.

"I'll remember that." And then she took her decadent luxury and made her way to a table. She made sure to keep her hood up. Her ears looked for the most part human, but she saw no reason to take chances on the border of elven country. More than likely some of these people had gone through bad dealings with elves and drow, and any who recognized her as half-drow would be more than a little disinclined to be polite.

Kacey sat, and she inhaled the smell of her soup for a long moment. It wasn't much, but she could smell potato and onion, and she detected a hint of meat buried in the bowl. If nothing else, it was far more exciting fare than she had enjoyed since her father's death. And a drink to go with it!

"I could die happy," Kacey murmured. She winced at her choice of words, pushing down on thoughts of death.

She dipped her spoon and scooped up her first bite. She savored the taste, closing her eyes and letting out a happy sigh. The instant she swallowed, the redhead reached for her tankard, and though its contents were weak and watery, it did in fact contain ale.

"Gods..." she mumbled happily, debating whether she wanted more food or drink first.

"Hello, there. You're new around these parts, ain't you?"

Kacey's eyes snapped open, and she saw a man looming over her with a sneer.