But in these hills, it was just endless wet chill. The smell of smoking meat had lured Donna from the merchant road onto a sheep trail, a track of loose gravel and mud that descended into a sheltered valley and a tiny village.
Fog shrouded the houses with their stone walls and wood shingle roofs, and Donna followed the sounds of murmuring voices to the village common where she walked right into trouble.
A hundred people, maybe more, were herded into the center of the town square by the fountain. A cluster of armored horsemen glared down the shafts of spears and axes. More armed men patrolled on foot and a pairs of them were posted as guards at the four roads leading into the square.
Donna knew a shakedown when she saw one. She'd heard plenty of stories these last few weeks of travel. With the winter closing in, the wars to the south were on hold. Even where it doesn't snow, nobody wants to slog their armies through endless mud. Better to wait until after the rains let up. But no one wants to pay mercenaries to sit around and do nothing either. And with all of the conscription that had been going on, villages were vulnerable, as many of their own fighting men had yet to return from the wars.
Donna was a mercenary herself. She knew winter. If you drank through your pay in the first week off, then you had a cold and damp season to look forward to with few chances for paying work. Too many men gave in to the temptation to simply take what they wanted by force, and to band together in the hopes of more loot.
Donna emerged from the fog, too close to avoid being seen. She wasn't sure she would have bothered trying to avoid the mess if she could have. She was too tired, too wet, and too cold. Donna wanted her bowl of soup.
One of the guards dismounted and approached her, making some noise about getting over with the rest of the peasants. Donna glared at him and he stopped short. Smarter than most, she thought. Donna usually had to fight two or three before they took her seriously.
This man was small and lean, and he'd gotten close enough to Donna before he stopped that she could smell the beer and puke on him. He probably hadn't been eating well before tonight.
He looked up at Donna. She was six feet and then some, and she probably had a hundred and fifty pounds on the guard. That threw people off more than the fact that she was a woman sometimes.
But the leader recognized her, or at least he knew her by reputation.
"Donna Stone, the demoness of Dracairne." He dismounted and stepped past his soldier to meet her. This man wasn't going to be intimidated. He matched her height and he was solid muscle clad in heavy armor that his frame carried easily.
"I haven't heard that nickname," Donna replied. "The battle of Dracairne was a mess and I spent most of it in a ditch ducking arrows. Were you there?"
"I try to be more selective in my causes. That one was hopeless."
"We won," Donna pointed out.
"You bought time, but the city may still fall in the Spring. That's the way I heard it, anyway. What brings you here, Stone?"
"The merchant road, and the smell of a hot meal," Donna said.
The townsfolk were watching the exchange intently. This was a routine to them, Donna realized, and tonight was the first break they'd had in it for some time.
"I'm Jeth Holt. Commander Holt. I've got a good band of fighting men here. They're strong and they're hungry for a fight, but they're undisciplined. You whipped that rabble into shape at Dracairne. Turned them into a capable force. I need a lieutenant who could help me do that with my men."
He was worried. That was a good sign. Donna liked it when she made men nervous. He had the numbers on his side, but he didn't trust them.
"What is going on here?" she asked, moving closer to where Commander Jeth Holt stood. "A training drill?"
"Oh, we're just doing our part to keep the region free of bandits. You know how it goes in the winter."
Donna knew. She glared at Holt, unsmiling, eyes steady.
"Hey, I give them every chance to handle the job themselves," he said. "I've got a standing offer. Anyone wants to fight me for the position, I'll even give them a week to prepare."
Donna went for her knife. "Why wait?" she hissed.
Holt's hands went to his shoulders, and Donna got the knife out and closed half of the distance to his gut. People tended to underestimate Donna's speed, because they focus on her size. Sure, she wasn't going win a foot race, but she'd trained her hands to be fast. This time, though, it was Donna who underestimated Holt. She'd been counting on him going for his sword.
Instead, he went for a pair of fighting sticks in a shoulder harness, and he struck three blows in a blur of motion. He hit her wrist, a stinging blow to seize up her hand and get her to drop the knife. But she clenched her fist to lock her grip as the blow landed.
The next two strikes hit her thigh and she had to shift her weight to her back foot. Donna was still standing, and Holt looked impressed by that, but her hand and her leg were barely functional. This fight was going bad quickly, and Donna hadn't even put a scratch on Holt.
But just like the villagers, Holt was lulled into his own routine.
He stepped back, twirled the fighting sticks into a guard position, and gave a quick bow.
"One week, Donna Stone. I hope you'll put up a bit of a fight when I return."
He turned his back to her and walked to his horse. Donna considered taking the knife in her left hand and throwing it into his back, but she didn't like her odds. He had too much armor, and too many men eager to prove their worth if she only wounded him.
She watched him gather up his men, willing herself to stand steady and ignore the pain shooting up and down her arm and her leg.
Holt rounded up his bandits and they rode off into the fog, shoving and knocking down a few nearby villagers just to get in a last laugh or two.
Then the villagers started to disappear into the fog as well.
Donna expected as much. She could probably get back to the merchant road before Holt managed to put together a party to track her down. If he really pushed the pursuit, she might have to leave a body or two in her path to discourage him, but she was confident she could be done with Holt if she wanted to.
She didn't want to.
She slowly shifted her weight onto the bruised leg. It held her. She'd be walking with a limp, at least until she rested it overnight, but no lasting damage done.
Donna tried taking a step and a hand gripped her arm to steady her.
She looked down to find a slightly-built old woman.
"I've got a bed and a warm fire. My name is Clarette. You are welcome in my home, Donna Stone."
Donna turned and made the best formal bow she could manage while making sure she kept her footing.
Some of the other villagers gathered close now. Not all of them, but enough.
Enough to plan.
Donna straightened up and spoke loudly.
"I'm not running away. In one week's time, I'll fight Jeth Holt and I'll win. I'm Donna Stone, the warrior woman, the Demoness of Dracairne. And I'll train for this week with secret techniques I've learned in distant lands, and when Holt returns, he'll regret the day he ever set foot in…"
"Glaston." A girl supplied the name of the village. She looked doubtful, but Donna thought there was a tiny spark of hope in her eyes.
Donna had to complete the bargain. A service offered, a price asked. Bandits, farmers, soldiers. They were all creatures of routine.
"I will fight him for you in a week's time." Donna looked around at the faces gathered near. "For the price of…"
She hesitated for a moment because she had not actually thought this through. Then she remembered what she wanted. The only thing she wanted.
"For the price of a warm bed for this week, and a hot bowl of soup every night."
Donna awoke on the first day, with pain in her back from Clarette's too-small bed. The stone-walled cottage didn’t have much room, and Donna had to duck to avoid the ceiling beams.
Donna had awoken with the dawn as she was accustomed to, and she found Clarette up and dressed, chopping turnips by the stove.
"For your soup tonight. These will keep your strength up. Do you need anything else?"
Turnip soup sounded wonderful after weeks of cold trail rations.
"Not a thing," Donna replied as she laced up her boots. "Oh, except if you can spare a stout stick. A staff will have better reach than a knife against those fighting sticks that Holt uses."
Clarette pointed Donna toward the shed, and Donna rummaged through dozens of broom handles and rakes until she found a staff with the right weight and balance.
She bid Clarette good day as Clarette put the turnips into a pot of water to boil, and she made her way back to the village square.
Donna didn't intend to hide what she was doing. Many of the villagers had slipped away before they heard her promise to take on Jeth Holt, and if she was going to put her life on the line in exchange for lodging and soup, Donna was at least determined that the townsfolk were going to see her doing it.
Donna started out with staff exercises. The staff would certainly be a better weapon than a knife against Holt's fighting sticks, but Donna had also chosen it because the staff exercises she knew were good for stretching out tight muscles. Donna worked at half-speed. Footwork, then blocks, then strikes and spins. The deep bruises in her thigh and her forearm still ached, but the sore muscles from the night on the cramped bed loosened up, and she began to grow more comfortable with the fighting movements. The body could get locked into a routine too. Donna knew this, and she knew she'd gotten too much into the routine of walking these last few weeks.
She worked at an easy pace, taking rests when she needed to. The sun came out after an hour, and Donna noticed someone watching her. It was the girl who'd spoken to her the night before. She was in her teens, slender and wiry. She sat on the steps of the little public house that faced the town square and she watched as Donna switched from staff work to practicing hand-to-hand techniques.
When she stopped to rest, the girl walked over to her.
"Thank you," she said.
Donna shook her head. "Don't thank me now. I still don't know if I can take the guy."
"We should all be thanking you just for trying. No one else has even tried."
"Fear is what men like Jeth Holt are good at," Donna said. "Unfortunately, sometimes they're good a fighting too. But I'm also good at fighting. And besides, I know secret techniques from fighting masters in far lands."
The girl smiled.
"Is there anything you need?" she asked. "My father owns the tavern."
Donna made a show of looking around her.
"You know, there is one thing I could use. Clarette was kind enough to loan me this staff, and all I need to practice with it is some open space. But I can tell that Jeth Holt is a dirty fighter. Once I get those sticks away from him, it may come down to hand-to-hand. And practicing those techniques is best done with a fighting partner."
The girl looked back at the tavern. "I can ask if someone would…"
"What's your name?" Donna asked.
"Me? I'm Glenna. But… Jeth Holt is a lot bigger and stronger than I am."
"I'm a lot bigger and stronger than you are too," Donna said. "Let me show you how you throw someone bigger and stronger than you. Then we can practice."
Donna practiced letting Glenna throw her around all afternoon.
When she returned to Clarette's cottage that night, she got a bowl of the best turnip soup she'd ever tasted.
Glenna was waiting for Donna in the town square the next morning with two young men.
"This is Lars," Glenna introduced the taller boy. "Last night at the tavern there was, well… Lars, you explain…"
"Well, Ma'am. People had been drinking and one thing got to another and a fight broke out and…"
"This big man knocked Lars down and I got between them and…"
"He took a swing at Glenna and she ducked and threw him! Landed him on a heap of chairs." Lars looked at Glenna in amazement.
"Oh, that." Donna smiled. "That's what I meant about routine. Practice it enough and it sticks. You were lucky, Glenna. He must have come after you just like we practiced. I only had time to show you a couple of moves. I'm glad I taught you one that helped."
"Lars and his cousin want to know if they could practice with us," Glenna said.
Donna walked a short distance away. "All right. I need to get my practice in, and better to practice with a choice of opponents. Glenna, you come at me and I'll run through the techniques for your friends."
They practiced all morning.
At noon, Glenna went into the tavern and returned with bread and cheese, and they sat and ate and rested.
"Do you really think you can win?" Lars asked Donna.
"You never really know with these things." Donna spoke between bites of crusty bread.
"Well, we believe you can," Lars assured Donna. Getting tossed around by Donna and Glenna had apparently given him new appreciation for Donna's fighting skills. "Is there anything else we can do to help you get ready?"
"Do you know where you get the stones for your walls and chimneys?" Donna asked.
"Sure," Lars said. "The quarry is pretty close by. You just follow the creek that feeds the mill pond. What do you need rocks for?"
"Strength exercises. My family are stoneworkers. I was always big, but I got strong hauling rocks with my brothers."
That afternoon, the four of them set out with picks and baskets.
"Will you really get stronger in just a few days?" Glenna asked. She seemed skeptical of the whole idea and was wishing they could get back to learning fighting.
"It's part of the ritual," Donna assured her.
"Ritual? You're doing magic now?"
"A kind of magic. Mostly it's just about routines. Sticking to routines that work and breaking routines that don't. If I know I have to fight and I have time, I do strength exercises."
Donna showed them some simple exercises, practicing punching and blocking while holding fist-sized rocks, and then she started filling a basket with rocks of the same size.
"Hauling baskets of them strengthens the whole body," Donna explained.
The others joined in and they struggled back to town and deposited four baskets of rocks on the edge of the town square.
"What now?" Glenna asked.
"Rest, and then one more run to the quarry."
Glenna wasn't happy to hear that, but she went along with it.
When they returned a second time, three more lads and one girl were waiting in the town square to ask if Donna would be teaching fighting again.
They all practiced until sunset and when Donna returned to Clarette's cottage, she found a hot bowl of barley soup in beef broth with carrots waiting for her.
It was the best she'd ever had.
Donna had a dozen partners to choose from the next morning. Since she couldn't spar with all of them at once, she paired them off, with the boys and girls from the previous day showing some basic techniques to the newcomers. There were older men joining in this time, and a couple of matronly women as well.
After practicing for most of the morning, a grey-haired man who'd been watching from the sidelines approached Donna.
"Most of the folk here say you're fixing to get yourself killed," he said. "But my granddaughter thinks differently. Figured I'd see for myself."
He gave a nod in Glenna's direction.
"She's been a big help. I hope I don't disappoint her," Donna said.
"Well I hope you kill that bastard Holt, but I still don't give you much chance. I've seen too many times when courage, sticks, and stones go up against good weapons and armor. Weapons and armor win."
Donna shrugged. "I've got to work with what I have."
Glenna's grandfather reached into the bag that was hooked to his belt and removed a ten-inch steel spearhead.
"Thought maybe you could rig up something. I had it in an old box from my soldier days."
Donna looked it over. "Good steel, but the weight doesn't feel right, and I'd have to find a shaft for it. Clarette has a bunch of poles and staves in her shed. Did any of your friends serve in the war with you? Maybe they have some more of these blades. Between those and the different shafts I might be able to put together a passable weapon."
Glenna's grandfather went to ask around, and that afternoon, Donna sat down with a bundle of staves and a bag of about twenty spearheads in various states of rust. She cleaned them and matched them up and soon had fifteen working weapons to choose from.
When she walked back out onto the village square to practice her spear drills, she found she had well over fourteen partners. She had the ones who didn't have spears go and get staves and sharpen one end, and she drilled spear techniques until sunset.
Clarette served a bowl of potato cream soup that night that was the best Donna had ever had.
"Ethan, could you help me?" Donna walked over to the edge of the square where Glenna's grandfather watched along with a growing crowd of the town's elders.
"I have to admit, I'm impressed," the tavern keeper said.
Donna had formed her training volunteers into two lines and equipped them with a mix of weapons. They'd come at her with clubs, staves, spears, and fists, and she'd thrown or disarmed them in turn. She ran the practice at half-speed, but Ethan watched as the pacing crept up until Donna was essentially facing real attacks by time she finally called a halt.
"Don't tell me that people are starting to think I might win?" Donna laughed.
"Some of us are. What can I do to help?"
Donna turned and pointed to the crowd.
"This is wonderful," Donna said, "But I need to make sure I'm getting the most out of my training. Jeth Holt is strong and he's fast, and he's skilled. Everyone wants their turn practicing with me, but I need to pick a few of the strongest and fastest and focus on pairing up with them. Everyone who's been coming here has been so enthusiastic about helping me get ready that I don't want to just send them home. So I was wondering if you could help me give them a way to be useful."
"I guess I could help. What, exactly did you have in mind?"
"You spent some time as a soldier?"
Ethan looked away. "That was a long time ago."
Donna put an arm around the older man's shoulder. "But not so long that you've forgotten, right? Look, I just need you to keep them involved. They've got all of these spears and staves. Go through some basic formation drills with them. They want to know how to use their weapons, and I don't have time to work with them all one-on-one, but one man can show them how to work together."
Ethan turned back and his eyes met Donna's.
"What are you playing at here?"
Donna shook her head. "Not playing. Just getting ready for my fight. And earning my soup."
Donna returned to the group and selected ten of the strongest men who had joined the practice, and then called Lars and Glenna over.
"Me?" Glenna asked.
"You've been at this the longest. I need to go up against skill as well as strength," Donna said. "Besides, we're going to keep improving our strength, starting right now."
Glenna groaned as Donna walked over to the rock baskets, picked one up and headed down the path to the quarry. The dozen chosen fighting partners, Glenna included, picked up their own baskets and fell into line behind Donna while Ethan got the rest of the volunteers lined up in rows.
Donna worked on hand-to-hand fighting with her twelve well into the night.
When she got back to the cottage, there was spicy bean soup on the woodstove, and it was the best Donna had ever tasted.
Glenna struggled with the weight of her rock basket as she followed Donna along the path back from the quarry.
"Donna! Wait!" She moved to drop the load, but then thought better of it and placed it down carefully.
Donna stopped and turned. She didn't put her load down.
They stood there for a moment. Donna wanted to do one trip to the quarry after a full day of training.
"You aren't going to leave us," Glenna said.
Donna shook her head. "Yes, I am. But not today or tomorrow. Not until after Jeth Holt has been has been dealt with. Did you think I was going to walk away from this before it was done?"
"No! Of course not! I…" She stood where she was and looked down at the path. "Yes. I don't see what we've done to make this worthwhile for you. You're risking your life, and for what? Some soup? It would be too easy to just walk away. Anyone could choose that."
"I won't." Donna still held the basket of rocks on her shoulder.
"All right," Glenna said. "Then I know something that could help you."
Donna put down her load of rocks and followed as Glenna led her into the woods.
"Lars found this when he was hunting." Glenna stood with Donna on a hillside looking over a mud-filled depression.
"This was a swamp at the end of summer," Glenna said. " Jeth Holt led one faction of the mercenaries. He had a rival for leadership, and he settled matters by leading his rival and those loyal to him into an ambush crossing the swamp. The dead men sank in the muck and the swamp turned into a pond when the winter rains came."
Donna looked down on the mud. "But it's been raining almost nonstop. Why isn't this under water?"
"There was a dam of rocks and logs. It gave way a few days ago and the water flooded into the creek. Lars found it like this, with the bones of the dead mercenaries exposed in the mud."
Donna understood. "Weapons and armor. It's ghoulish, but I'd rather borrow from the dead than join them."
But after an hour of digging, Donna had only managed to find a set of forearm guards that fit her and a lightweight cavalry sword. They'd excavated a small pile of other weapons and armor, which they'd put aside. Nothing else fit Donna.
"Maybe something can be hammered into shape," Donna said.
"There's more down there. We should bring more people to dig," Glenna suggested.
"I need to get back to training," Donna said. "Let's haul back what we can now."
They each took a bundle.
As they neared the village, they encountered Clarette gathering wild mushrooms in a basket for Donna's soup that night.
Donna smiled in anticipation.
Donna blocked a high thrust, and reversed her grip on her staff as she stepped back. She was giving ground and her opponent pressed the attack. Another block, then a quick sidestep. People didn't expect a woman the size of Donna to sidestep anything.
Donna jabbed the end of the staff into Glenna's ribs, just a touch, but enough to make her lower her guard, and then Donna was in close with her staff pressed against the side of Glenna's neck and Glenna signaled to concede the match.
"You are very good at this," Donna said.
"I keep losing." Glenna stepped back into her guard stance.
"So did I. For a lot longer than you will. The staff and I took a long time to get along. I kept wanting to throw it on the ground and wrestle. Of course, if I tried that, my opponent still had a staff. It almost never ended well."
It was the last day of training. Donna had chosen Glenna to stay and spar with her. The other eleven of her main fighting partners were making a last trip out to scavenge weapons and armor from the swamp. There still wasn't enough to make Donna a really effective suit of armor, but the village blacksmith had promised to cobble together what he could work with while the rest of the weapons and armor that were uncovered went to the villagers helping with the training. He'd promised to work all night.
As Donna got set to finish up the day's training, Ethan handed her a small bottle.
"This is the strong stuff. I managed to hide it from Holt and his thugs. Used to call this liquid courage."
Donna took it from him.
"Is there anything else you need?" he asked.
"Maybe one more thing. A blessing. Do you have a priest in the village?"
Ethan shook his head. "My cousin Albus is the speaker when someone dies. But he's not officially a priest of anything."
"He'll do," Donna said.
Ethan turned toward the spectators, pointing to a bald man with a beard that was red-brown streaked with grey. Donna caught Ethan by the shoulder.
"Tomorrow," Donna said. "Blessings can wait for tomorrow. Tonight is for soup and sleep."
Ethan smiled. "Clarette told me she made her pea soup tonight. That's one of her best."
And it was.
Donna considered allowing herself a bit of extra time to sleep in the morning, but her body was used to waking with the dawn, and the bed really wasn't that comfortable. She'd be better rested from walking and light exercise than from staying crammed on the small bedframe. Clarette had a breakfast of smoked meat and rolls prepared, and Donna ate a small amount. She didn't know when to expect Commander Holt, so she wanted to be ready at any time.
She opened the cottage door to find the air clear and the sky blue. It was cold, but dry.
She strolled into town and found the square already crowded and bustling with activity. Firepits had been dug, and large pots were being set to boil while Ethan was supervising a group of cooks who were busy husking corn and chopping potatoes.
"Expecting to celebrate?" Dona asked.
"The last portion of our payment. If you win, there will be enough soup for everyone."
"And if I lose?" Donna asked.
"Then I'll piss in it myself before I serve it to Jeth Holt."
Donna smiled and waved to Glenna, who was practicing fighting with Lars and some of the other boys and girls of the village.
Then she looked for Albus the village holy man.
"May we talk a bit?" Donna asked.
"Oh, of course. Ethan told me you'd want to speak with me. He told you that I'm not an ordained priest, right?" The man looked unsure if he wanted to lead Donna somewhere more private or have the conversation right where they were.
Donna chose for him.
"Walk with me," she said, then turning to Ethan she called out, "We're walking the path to the quarry. Send Glenna for me if Commander Holt shows his face before we return!"
As soon as they were out of sight of the village, Donna handed Albus the small bottle Ethan had given her. Liquid courage. She hoped it lived up to that.
"An offering. Take one swig now," Donna said.
Albus' eyes lit up and he drank deeply.
"What god do you worship, Albus?"
"Any and all of them. When we need a prayer said here, people turn to me, whether it's to Kel Sunspark to raise up the crops, or to Alaendra of the Mists to guide the dead on their way."
"I worship Mantek the Lawgiver," Donna said. "Because in addition to giving people laws so that they could live together as civilized folk, Mantek also gave us discipline and routine and ritual."
"Some people were saying this is all a magic ritual to defeat Commander Jeth Holt," Albus said.
"Oh, it is," said Donna. "Seven nights, seven bowls of soup. And now we are going to pray to Mantek seven times, and we are going to drink seven times from this bottle."
Donna put the bottle to her lips seven times, but only drank after the last prayer. The liquor probably wouldn't have lasted otherwise. When they were finished, only a few drops remained. She poured it out as a libation to Mantek and to whatever gods might help.
"It's time to go back," Donna said, "but I want you to say a prayer for Glaston when we return. I want you to pray in front of everyone who has been kind enough to come and watch me practice, everyone who has come today to see Jeth Holt dealt with once and for all."
"What do you want me to say?" he asked.
"Well," Donna said, "think of everything that Holt has done to your village while we walk back. I'm sure you'll think of something to say."
Donna quickly filled her bag of fist-sized rocks from the quarry and they walked back to the village in silence.
Ethan met Donna at the edge of the crowd.
"Holt and his men have been seen on the merchant road. They'll be here soon."
Donna nodded. "Good. Albus will lead us in prayer."
It wasn't a prayer.
Albus recounted every injustice, every hurt inflicted on the villagers. His voice started out low, but rose to a frenzied pitch as he demanded to know how the gods could have let this happen, how the people of Glaston could have let this happen.
"Liquid courage, indeed," Donna whispered to herself as she watched her ritual come to fruition.
Men and women were taking up spears and staves, strapping on bits of armor from the pile that had been left in the town square. Boys and girls were taking rocks from the piles where full baskets had been emptied.
Donna saw Lars directing some of the younger children to climb up onto the roofs of cottages.
Some villagers lit torches from the fires that were heating the soup kettles.
Donna saw Ethan running to the crowd standing with the spears and staves. He was yelling, "No, no! In line! Like we practiced!"
"There they are!" some called out.
The villagers of Glaston had spent a week breaking out of their routine.
Holt's bandits were still stuck in a routine of their own. And that routine definitely did not involve facing down an armed militia.
Holt stopped in his tracks, and he took a moment too long to decide between ordering attack or retreat.
Donna didn't hear what he did finally order, because it was lost in the screams of villagers on the roofs of every house in the lane. The yells were accompanied by a hail of fist-sized rocks.
Donna had noticed a lack of discipline in Holt's soldiers. Their horses, it turned out, weren't very disciplined either.
Horses threw riders. Men charged at the cottages and were met with more rocks. Baskets of rocks were dumped down on them. Donna had done a lot of her strength training in the last seven days, and all of her helpers had done a lot more.
The cottages were solidly built, and even though the village looked vulnerable to attack, it proved to be better tactical ground than Holt had ever considered.
When Ethan ordered the spearmen to charge, they came up fast on Holt's scattered mercenaries and wheeled to trap a small group of them against the stone walls of the
public house while a contingent of them spun to guard the flanks. Donna jogged forward to position herself in the ranks as Ethan barked out orders again and they moved on another small group of the mercenaries.
By the time Commander Holt managed to get any significant number of his forces regrouped, a fourth of his men were already down.
Holt probably still could have gotten away with most of his force. But he was as much a creature of routine as any of his men. He didn't believe what he was facing, so he ordered his men to attack. The ranks of the villagers buckled as some of the mercenaries broke through their front line, but the numbers caught up with the mercenaries at that point.
Across the fighting, Donna spotted Holt. He wasn't bothering with the fighting sticks, and he had a space of a few paces around him as the villagers kept clear of his sword.
Donna set her spear.
"Bad idea, giving me my choice of weapon," Donna said. "But at least now you know a little more about what went on at Dracairne."
Holt stalked toward Donna, but he never got there. Lars hit him first, ducking under his blade to slam into the back of his legs. Holt kicked and pulled his boot free when Lars tried to hold on, but he was still off balance as he tried to regain his feet. Glenna pulled him into a throw, and Holt went down hard in the dirt, and the villagers swarmed him.
That was all it took. The mercenaries who weren't dead, hurt, or trapped fled for the hills.
"You're leaving." Glenna found Donna by the quarry path, well away from the celebration.
Donna nodded. "I said I'd leave after Jeth Holt was dealt with."
"You never got to fight him," Glenna said.
"Well, I told you I was going to use magic."
Glenna shook her head. "And you’re not even staying for your soup."
"I'm not," Donna said. "But you should go have some. It will be the best you've ever tasted. I promise."
© February, 2013 Rick Silva
Rick Silva has been involved in small press publishing since his college days. He published and edited Kinships magazine. Along with his wife Gynn, Rick is a partner in Dandelion Studios (dandelionstudios.com), a small press comic book company. Rick co-writes the Dandelion Studios comics Zephyr & Reginald: Minions for Hire, Stone, Kaeli & Rebecca, and Perils of Picorna. His prose short stories have been published in anthologies by Apex, Flying Pen Press, and Crossed Genres, and he was a featured contributor for the fiction webzine The Edge of Propinquity. Rick Silva grew up in Boston, Massachusetts, attended Cornell University, and currently teaches chemistry at a high school on Cape Cod, where he resides with his wife and son, and three cats.