An Unexpected Ally
There were few things Brotis liked better than a group of pliant young men hanging upon her every word. Those things that did invariably included a vast amount of sweat, blood or both. However, since it was unlikely she would have a chance to bloody her blades in the boring town of Thrice Hills, the young men would have to do.
There were twelve of them arrayed before her, all between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five. They were rather attractive. Some of them were muscular, but others were lithe. They were an enthusiastic audience, though the younger ones were, perhaps, a little too eager.
Two weeks ago Elder Parkeen – that ancient snake! – had all but ordered her to assist in the training of any villagers who wished to learn the art of swordplay. He had made it seem a reasonable request and payed her a heavy dose of flattery, but Brotis knew better. Since that nosy witch, Bree, had stormed through Thrice Hills waving around her shiny sword and severed gnoll heads there had been an increase in interest in the more bloody forms of death dealing. The old goat wanted Brotis to teach the villagers to be like her. Poison.
He had no authority over her, of course. Brotis was a member of Kelmarane’s Militia, and was always offered missions, never given them. Even while she was working, Sheriff Santon gave her suggestions and guidelines more than orders. He was a free-form sort of employer. Full of enticing offers and playful winks. Unfortunately, he knew her better than she cared to admit – the smooth bastard! – and knew just what would entice her to come to this backwater hellhole.
Brotis was not a woman who chased after frivolous things. She liked a sparkling necklace, or a silken robe as much as the next woman, but it was other things that really motivated her. Less tangible things. Things like power.
And here, in Thrice Hills, he had convinced her she would find it. He was right, of course. Brotis had not been disappointed in that respect. Thrice Hills was a sheltered place, so with a few bats of her eyelashes and a sultry saunter through town she had the interest of all the single – and some decidedly-not-so-single – men in town. She had the women’s interest too, of course, though for entirely different reasons. While the men wanted Brotis, the women both wanted to be her and wanted to hurt her. Such was the nature of jealousy. Brotis was used to it. Besides, being envied held its own sort of power.
Still, Thrice Hills was a small village full of proud people with old-fashioned morals. This was not a place where she could flaunt her assests or accomplishments. Her conquests needed to believe they were special. That they had done the wooing, not her. An unfortunate prospect, but not insurmountable. Brotis was raised in a world of lies and subtlety. Thrice Hills would pose little problem.
So when that Old Goat flattered her like a common tart, and pandered to her more base natures Brotis was neither fooled nor insulted. She had worked rather hard to cultivate her image, after all, and it worked immeasurably well. Still, she had accepted his offer and payment, blushing shyly at the compliments and fluttering her eyelashes in a most sickening display of docility. Shoes and a new robe, indeed! Wait until the cobbler saw her order for shoes! He would need the blacksmith’s help, of course. And her own. Concealed blades were tricky business in men’s boots, never mind in fashionable women’s footwear. She’d have to ensure he knew how important discretion was to her. Nothing that couldn’t be cured with a little blade-work. What kind, however, would depend on the cobbler.
Brotis had organized the students into three classes. Yesper was given the beginner’s class which consisted mostly of over-eager children, and the old. On the surface, this was due to Yesper’s less-than-stellar melee skills, but really it was out of spite. Yesper hated children, and Brotis hated Yesper. She really shouldn’t have taken that damascus curved dagger from the treasure chest a few years back. Brotis would never forgive her.
And that bastard Dullen! He always sided with Yesper! The pig had been struck stupid by Yesper’s thighs years ago and had yet to return to the thinking world. Still, Brotis couldn’t fault Dullen for Yesper’s wiles. Brotis herself had used the same tactics on more men than she could count. Never for so long, though. Didn’t Yesper ever get bored? Yearn for a challenge? Tempt someone new? She didn’t love him, did she? Brotis suppressed a shudder at the thought of such sentimentality. Yesper had no imagination.
Brotis had given Dullen the intermediate class. He was a better swordsman than Yesper, certainly, but he also angered her less. His group consisted of the middle-aged, the women, the smart and the ugly. Brotis’ own group was called the advanced group, and consisted of attractive and energetic young men with fine complexions and facial structure. She had picked them for their looks, eagerness and gullibility. Any man too smart would throw an unwelcome complication into her plans. Some of them were even decent with a blade.
She stood before her class in a sun-baked clearing that acted as a village meeting place. It was the highest point on al’Harad hill, the most northern of the three hills that made up Thrice Hills. It was an ugly hill, if one could be said to be uglier than the others, but was the most prestigious. Some sheriff and his wife had died here a few decades ago to protect the village. Presumably that was back when Thrice Hills had been worth protecting. The fools. All that bravery and all they got was an ugly hill with their name on it.
They advanced class gave Brotis their full attention. They watched her every graceful motion and listened to her every whispered word. They were just starting for the day and were in the midst of warming up. Brotis stretched her arm across her body and held it by the elbow with her other arm. She angled her arm so it pushed her breasts up in what could be considered an accidental fashion. The men mirrored her actions, though with considerably better form and less cleavage. A few of the young ones sniggered amongst themselves and puffed up their chests – as if they were the only ones enjoying the show. She caught the eyes of each of the men in turn. A few of them smiled or winked at her. She blushed innocently at them, and fluttered her eyelashes as appropriate. These small-town men did so love a sweet, bashful woman.
Still, the subtlety required made for good sport.
Brotis stretched her other arm across her body, luxuriating in their attentions as before. She would have them spread their legs next, and reach down to touch their toes. What better way to judge their flexibility? Then they would –
Brotis paused mid-stretch and squinted at the horizon. A figure was running from the Brazen Peaks towards Thrice Hills. They were a long way off, yet, and moving rather slowly, but they lurched about in a strange manner, as if wounded or dying.
The men paused with a disgruntled look upon their faces and glanced around to see what had put a stop to their rather enjoyable training. A few sighed. Another grumbled. Brotis ignored them all.
“It’s just some fool who didn’t plan for the dangers of the Brazen Peaks,” one of the men told her. He was the strong one, with biceps the size of melons.
“Foreigners,” another laughed. He had a wiry frame and rough, calloused hands. “They think the wilds will just bow before them.”
The others nodded.
It was likely, of course, but something didn’t feel right. And Brotis was not a woman to ignore her instincts. They had kept her safe through too much. This was –
The men chuckled amongst themselves, perceiving her interest as worry. One stepped forward to console her, but she raised a hand to hold him back.
“Quiet,” she ordered.
The man stopped in his tracks, surprised at her terse tone. The others fell quiet. This was not the Brotis they were used to. This Brotis was strong and full of confidence. Her tone brooked no argument.
Silence fell on al-Harad Hill.
The figure lurched closer, stumbling as they went. The sunlight hit their long hair and made it shine like gold. Brotis’ frown deepened. She knew that hair. Poison had returned.
One of the men spoke. “It’s Bree,” he breathed in awe.
Another of the men laughed. “The wilds finally bested her, have they?” His voice had a rather cruel tone to it.
The first man scowled. “Never! Bree would – “
“Of course it did! Look at her! She’s running back to Thrice Hills with her tail between her legs!”
Brotis’ frown turned nasty. The boy had obviously been turned down by Bree in the past or he would not have found such enjoyment at the thought of her failure. The pompous fool was angry for allowing a woman a choice! Brotis made a mental note to demote him to the intermediate class. Even with those lavishly full-looking lips he didn’t deserve her attentions.
The men around her continued boasting.
“Silence!” Brotis ordered.
The jealous man continued. “She’s just been beaten by the wilds, flower, no need to – “
“You are a fool.” Brotis snapped.
The men around her laughed.
Bree would not allow herself to be beaten by the wilds, of all things. She had become quite a smart survivalist over the past year. That coupled with her irritating stubbornness made it impossible! Bree couldn’t fall victim to something so… mundane.
Had she been beaten by the Three Jaws? Despite what the others may have thought Bree’s odds were alone against a pack of gnolls, Brotis didn’t doubt her prowess. She recognized in Bree a fellow woman who could get what she wanted, when she wanted it, no matter the odds. The men back home severely underestimated her. Or so she had thought…
Had she been wrong? Had Bree been defeated by the Three Jaws Tribe? No! And if she had been there was certainly no way she would come back like that! Bree was far from pathetic. She wouldn’t flee from her loss, wounded or otherwise! Bree would have come back victorious, or not at all. There was no in between for women like them. No chance of failure.
Bree had not been forced to run. She couldn’t have! There was no way Brotis’ rival would fall so far!
But, then… What was wrong? Why was she running?
Brotis paled. Whatever the cause it had to be big. She may have a chance to whet her blades, after all…
Brotis ran down the hill and the men followed her. She had trained them well in that, at least. She reached base of the hill just as Bree staggered, and pitched forward, landing facedown in the dirt. Brotis cursed and allowed her throaty Qadiran accent to take over. She would worry about appearances later. This was more important.
“Fetch a healer!” she ordered over her shoulder.
A few of the younger men scurried off back up the hill. Brotis leaped over the trench at the base of the hill, landed in a roll and kept running without missing a beat. The men ran around to the nearest crossing. Brotis fell on her knees at Bree’s side and checked for a pulse. It was faint, but incredibly rapid. It fluttered like a caged bird in her chest. Her skin was dry and hot to the touch.
The stubborn fool! What had she gotten herself into this time?
Brotis rolled Bree over. She was unconscious and looked like she should have been for a few miles, at least. How had she kept going? Bree had no visible wounds, but was obviously dehydrated. Her lips were chapped and bleeding, her tongue was swollen and despite the heat she didn’t have enough fluids to sweat.
“Fetch water,” someone ordered. Brotis didn’t bother to check who it was.
“No,” she interrupted. “Fetch wine.”
“Wine? She’s dehydrated! She – “
“She needs wine!” Brotis yelled. “The white, not the red. And make sure it’s the expensive kind.”
The man ran off and Brotis nodded. She knew Bree better than most. What better way to plot a rival’s downfall than through intimate knowledge of their habits and affairs? Despite the need for hydration, Brotis knew she worshipped that attractive, drunken god from the north. She had seen Bree drink and most importantly she had seen… strange things. Even Brotis had to admit that Bree had powers granted to her from the gods. Alcohol was no longer booze in her hands but a holy draught. It sharpened her mind when it should cloud judgment, revived her when is should knock her out and invigorated her when she was weary. For Bree, wine would do a good deal more than water. Especially if it was the good stuff. Bree preferred her wine expensive and white. Such strange tastes the Northerners had. She herself preferred a strong dash of arak mixed with at least two-thirds water.
Brotis looked around but found the healer still hobbling his way down the top of the hill. She sighed. The useless, old worm. She pointed at the three strongest of her students. “You three, carry her up the hill.”
The men nodded and moved to obey her at once.
“And be gentle! If you make her worse I’ll ensure every wound is revisited upon you tenfold!”
The men paled, but lifted her relatively smoothly. Brotis frowned. Women like Brotis and Bree deserved better. That healer had best be smarter than he was nimble or there would be hell to pay!
Bree had to be in top form.
Brotis had no need for a weak rival.