“You know this is gonna be the same as always, right, Prim?” said the dark-haired woman as she drew her white mare to a halt and swung a leg over to gracefully dismount. The heavy, sodden ground squelched underfoot.
“Chin up, Abbie. This far north it’ll be different, you’ll see.” The other lass, with the crystal blue eyes and the fair hair, shaved on one side, smiled broadly at her dour companion. She too dismounted her piebald stallion and then reached out her hand. The other woman took it in hers and the pair led their horses onto the nearby track that led to the Deloran town of Gendaton. Sheer, startlingly-pink granite walls loomed well over thirty feet above the plains, and spread wide to either side of the track. Despite the town being named for the wide river that bisected it , leading out to sea, it was these walls that gave the place its affectionate nickname - ‘Rose City’. Beyond the shining walls, and casting a pall over the eastern half of town, was some kind of roof.
Three well-armed guards were posted at the entrance to the bustling trade town, two holding bardiches by their sides, the third, their sergeant with a filigreed long sword, and all three had a hand crossbow strapped to his back. They watched the women's entire approach impassively, as did four archers ranged along the ramparts atop the sheer granite face of the city walls.
As the pair drew nearer the guards could see their clasped hands.
“Oh these two come attached, huh? Guess us men just aren't good enough.” One snidely remarked to his companion, though as the women reached the gate and halted he took on a more professional air and stepped forward to greet them.
“State your names and business in the free city of Gendaton.”
Another guard approached the couple from the right and glanced at the weapons dangling at their belts.
“Peace cords at all times, ladies. A weapon without a sash gets you a stay in the stockade.” The raven-haired woman nodded the couple’s assent, their weapons already in accord, while Prim addressed the first guard.
“Primavera Callaine and Abigail Drake, three days out of Corbistide, passing through, heading to Deep North. We’re Sellswords, true enough, but we’re off the clock, lads. Strictly looking for rest.”
Abbie looked across the guards, staring them down, but without belligerence. She was a believer in asserting oneself. However her partner was better at stopping assertiveness spilling over into confrontation. So Callaine often did the talking.
The guard pushed his helmet up slightly on his brow and nodded, “Accord yourselves well and Gendaton will welcome you. Enter. Stables are a hundred yards on the left, Aldon is your man.”
Prim nodded her thanks. She brushed her hair back from her face, then turned to glance at Abbie, then back to the massive wooden gates as they swung open. Was Abbie right? Or would things be better here? They’d find out.
As the wide gates parted the smells of the bustling trade hub washed over the warrior women. Prim grinned, and started forward, pulling both her horse, Thunder, and her lover with her. Abbie, still looking sceptically at the new town, followed her partner's lead. She admired the younger woman's optimism but didn't share it. She knew they stood out everywhere. Gendaton would be no exception, she was sure.
Spices from the south wafted over the busting throng in the street ahead, along with the smell of fresh baked bread. Prim's mouth watered but Thunder and Shadow needed stabling first.
The street holding the stable was quieter than the town’s thoroughfare, though still active. Stablehands passed to and fro, handing off or receiving steeds, brushing and feeding them. Prim nodded in their direction and Abbie followed her gaze. Yeah, this would be fine, Thunder and Shadow would be ok here. It was the places with no bugger about that were the problems. Aldon himself was such a portly man that it beggared belief that any horse would have ever been capable of being his mount. However, he lacked no facility in equestrian matters and the pair were satisfied.
Chips of steel were exchanged, their mounts led away, and the women took a moment, finally, to stretch. Abigail rubbed her lower back, looked to her companion, then laid a hand on Prim’s shoulder. Callaine was the smaller of the two but that just meant she was constantly underestimated in a fight. Her shorter stature though, for Abbie, sometimes made the older woman feel all her advanced years. The feeling passed though as quickly as it emerged.
“Bed or bread first?” She asked, finding herself undecided. Both sounded good after the last three days' ride.
“Better sleep with a full stomach”, said Prim, moving to Abbie's side and putting her arm around her waist, as Abbie's leather-clad arm circled Prim's narrow shoulders. Thus linked they could feel the stares. It was always like this. Abbie was already partly right. Prim sighed lightly. The couple knew they stood out, and they knew their reputations too often preceded them.
Abbie was brushing her shoulder length ebony hair from her eyes when all her fears were confirmed. There, those fishwives, muttering.
“Damn inverts. Which one is the man in that pair do you think? The tall one?”
“Well, from what I heard they was both men once.”
A look of shocked disbelief.
“A hex? Or are you saying they's Switchlings?”
“And they supposedly killed a bunch of Nend in Kelver’s End. Single-handedly, word is.”
The words faded behind the women as they continued towards the town centre, but Abbie was already checking exits.
Her attention shifted though as the couple rounded the corner of the side street back into the main street through town.
Gendaton, situated at the estuary of the River Gen (‘Gen’ meant simply ‘Deep’ in a local dialect) was a relatively minor yet still thriving mercantile place, one which had outgrown two former city walls in its creeping expansion over the river’s former diluvial plains, as damming and agriculture tamed the surrounding countryside. It formed a natural crossroads between bigger trade destinations north, south, and east, and some small seatrade to the western isles of the Gyrans. It was a place where it helped to know people to get the most out of it but it was said that, with the right connections, one could acquire anything one could in Deep North or Cyliatax. The two women hoped this was true...
The pair wandered the busy stalls, constantly accosted by hawkers and barkers, everyone with a service or good to peddle. But they ignored the colours and sounds in favour of the smells Prim's nose sought. For her part, Drake was oblivious, an incident of her youth having robbed her of her sense of smell. Her sense of taste was less impacted than people seemed to expect when they learned of her anosmia however. And so she always trusted Prim to find decent food, not to mention fare that was not spoiled, whenever they were in unfamiliar surroundings. It took a further fifteen minutes of weaving through the jostling crowd before they arrived at a cornershop that the smaller woman seemed confident of. Amazingly they'd not had to backcuff a single pickpocket. Yet.
Prim looked into Abbie’s deepwood brown eyes and smiled, nodded to the open door. 'Pastries’, she offered, as if that was all the explanation in the world.
“So I see”, said Abbie, now beginning to wonder why she was still feeling so damned irritable. Chiding herself, she smiled, then stepped back and gestured gallantly to the door, politely bidding her girlfriend enter first.
Minutes later, after a surprisingly friendly and unhurried chat with the enthusiastic shop keeper, a young half-elven woman named Cayla, they left the shop and the market behind and found a quiet spot down on the banks of the Gen. The pastries, recommended by Cayla as her favourite of those baked by her business partner, a fat dwarf matron named Salroon, were good, great in fact. Innumerable layers of buttery crumbliness, the pastry itself laced with delicate herbs, the pocket filled with gravy-soaked chicken, and full-favoured seasonal vegetables. They ate in silence, lost in the delights of the delicious food after so many days of trail rations, punctuated only by the occasional fish or rabbit.
Once finished they stepped down to the river and drank the chill clear water, so refreshing after the richness of their meal, before splashing their faces and running fingers through their hair, loosening the dust of the road. Their scalps itched in gratitude for the brief attention. They'd been travelling too long. The last five week's ride had been punctuated really only by the skirmish two weeks prior and a two night stay in the small fishing village of Corbistide.
They sat, side by side, on a fallen log for a moment, allowed themselves a moment to just be. Abbie noticed out the corner of her eye as Prim massaged her neck and tried to reach her left shoulder blade. Hmm. A bath would help but in the meantime... she pushed down at her knees, lifted into a stretch, and stepped over the log behind her girlfriend, her bone-white, bleached leather armour creaking as she did. She laid her slender hands on Prim's shoulders and began to massage. The younger woman let out an appreciative sigh. There was a knot of tension in her shoulder, for sure, but Drake knew that the pain was really elsewhere. She'd do what she could for her friend when they were more comfortable.
After a short while of her ministrations, watching contemplatively as trade barges passed, she rested her hands on the seated woman's neck and bent close, “Ready for that bed now?”
Drake straddled the log and proffered her hand. Callaine looked at it then stood on her own.
“Save your strength, old lady”, she said, with the briefest of winks. Then she strode off purposefully back towards the centre of town, leaving a bemused Abbie in her wake, who muttered simply 'huh' before taking a couple of quick strides and catching the younger woman's hand, which was held out behind her, waiting.
The pair had urgent business in the town but not so urgent as desperately needed rest. They stopped a few doors from the first hostelry they came to. They dropped their packs at their feet.
“My turn”, Abbie said. She nodded toward an alleyway on the opposite of the street already shrouded in pitch black in the early evening gloom. The street still held plenty of people but the market had dismantled for the day while the pair had eaten and unwound.
Prim followed Abbie's nod then grabbed up both packs and dipped through the passing townspeople and took up position at the passageway's mouth. She slung her own pack on her back and hooked Abbie's on her belt, weighing her hip heavily but freeing her hands and her foot space. She reached behind her with both hands and, without looking, unwound and restrung her shortbow.
The whiteclad woman across from her waited and watched for Prim's nod. When it came she tapped a finger to her forehead in acknowledgement then headed to the tavern. She glanced up at the sign. The Threadbare Wyrm, it read, with a crudely painted dragon struggling to stay aloft on tattered wings. Because of course it was. She sighed. Why did this shit always happen to her?
She pushed open the heavy oak door and the muted sounds from outside leapt to life, assaulting her ears with already drunken carousing and the clattering of mugs and dishes. She closed the door, sealing in the warmth of the open fire in the crowded room, against the cooling evening air. The sound of the door had no discernible effect on the hubbub, there were just one or two curious turned heads. That's how it begins, Drake thought,still standing there motionless inside the door. The muttering started and more faces turned, the sound of the inn lowering by the second as more people regarded the tall warrior woman in the bonewhite armour. The music stopped too.
Having let enough of them see her she stepped between the crowded tables to the bar at the room's rear. Every step, she knew, under close scrutiny by the majority of the room now.
She approached the innkeep, a rotund matronly woman, who looked the warrior up and down. "You know the rules, sellsword. If you keep the peace, kept it shall be. I'm Maylice. What can I get you?"
Drake gave a tiny inward sigh, not of relief, but of a de-escalation in readiness. She flipped a gold gilder at the trio of bards in the corner, "The Maid of Hallowed Ways, if you please minstrels." She turned her attention back to Maylice as the trio regained their instruments and their composure and launched shakily into a rendition of the bawd about a fallen nun. She felt the crowd start to turn their attention back to their individual circumstances. "A room, for two, for a week. A hot bath and two pitchers of water, as cold as you can make em."
The innkeep nodded. "No drinks then?"
The woman shook her head. "No. No alcohol.".
Maylice inclined her head in surprise but called "Rial, show this lady to the top room."
A teen boy, human, pale and sickly appeared from nowhere and looked around Drake's feet for her luggage. Abbie lifted a finger, indicating he should wait then strode back across the room, opened the door and watched as Prim deftly stowed her bow and sauntered across the street. She ducked under Abbie's arm as she held the door open, and then the older woman led her across to the boy. The pair ignored the sniggers and muttered profanities at the sight of two women who were obviously more than just companions-at-arms. Such prejudice was rife in the north. And given what the crowd clearly didn't know about the pair it was certainly an easy thing to bear.
The boy, Rial, led them up two narrow winding staircases to a broad room in the tavern's roof. Two broad, expansive windows looked out on the main street and the adjacent side street. It was comfortably appointed with a wide table, cushioned chairs and a well-made large bed. Prim nodded appreciatively as Abbie tipped the expectant boy.
Rial tugged his forelock and said, with a half-broken voice, "I'll bring the bath in a hour, if that please you milady."
Drake smiled and nodded. "That will be fine, Rial. Thank you."
The boy turned on his heel and left, closing the door behind him without a sound.
The women simultaneously inclined their heads in a gesture that spoke at their pleasant surprise at the level of service.
Prim sat on the edge of the bed, then, feeling the softness of the covers and the well-stuffed mattress beneath, flung herself backwards, splaying her arms out.
Abbie walked to the main street-facing window and pushed the heavy curtain aside. It was a good view. One could see a fair distance in either direction. She didn’t bother with the other window but instead let herself fall to the bed beside the younger woman who curled one outstretched arm around her and drew her into her side, kissed her dark hair.
Within seconds both were snoring.