Post Tue Dec 13, 2005 6:32 pm

Savant's Blood: Shadow of the Avatar -- Chapter 9

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Myrmigynes—I never saw one until I met Beia. Trained to fight, trained to survive... the junglelands sisterhoods are home to some formidable women. Their manners could
use some work though...
<DIV ALIGN="RIGHT"><font style="font-size:12pt">—Wren</DIV>
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<div align="center"><font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 18pt;">Chapter 9<BR>
<font style="font-family: Times New Roman; font-size: 16pt;">Myrmigynes, Melees, and a Dagger Contest</div>
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Wren stared up at blonde Beia who stood flanked by her two huge ‘sisters’. The door of the tavern lay in splinters behind them. Kicks and punches had turned chunks of the brick jam to gravel. A cold wind blew against Wren’s neck. Her skin prickled and her heart sped. The sun felt pale and weak. She saw that blood now covered her tunic; splatter from the man Beia knocked through the door.

A whispering audience gathered at a discrete distance. Curious faces with eyes that never seemed to blink.

Wren’s chest ached. Breaths came hard. She swallowed. Her gaze climbed Beia’s muscled physique and locked with intense jade-colored eyes. A thought repeated in her head.

Could this be an avatar?

The woman’s aura pressed against her like a warm blanket. A tangible presence like that of the black-eyed priest, only this didn’t hurt. If Beia was an avatar, what of these other two? Her red-haired sister was a hand taller, and white-haired Damrosil yet bigger.

Remember the mission. Get to the wizard. Find Desiray. Get help to defeat the cult. The words pounded in her head. She felt so weak. Beia had grabbed her before she could react. What did she want? Wren’s hand went to the phoenix symbol beneath her tunic.

Beia’s stormy face broke into a smile, making her go from ferocious to friendly. “Sorry for that. Drink for your trouble?”

Offending this woman would be stupid. She needed to rest now anyway. Wren nodded, letting Beia pull her into the tavern.

The onlookers in the doorway parted. Wren almost choked on the smoke filled air. Battered soot-darkened lanterns dangled from a network of ship’s nets spiked to the ceiling. Farm implements, wagon wheels, and other oddments hung on the walls and wooden supports. A banner strung between two columns proclaimed the place ‘The Green Dragon’.

A few dozen men and women reseated themselves, buzzing about the fight. Gazes in the room stayed on the jungle-women.

A rotund red-faced barkeep came around the counter ringing his hands. “My doorway, look what you’ve done.” His eyes met Beia’s and he cringed. “Milady,” he added.

Beia reached into a pouch, pulled out a half dozen platinum Degars, and put them in his hand. “Shut up.”

Eyes bulging, he stared at the coins. Bowing to Beia, he retreated into the smoke. Damrosil grinned and clapped Beia on the shoulder. They went to an unoccupied table.

Using a rag from her pouch, Wren made a clean spot for her elbows on the greasy, knife-scarred table top. The amazons followed suit.

Three men who were playing darts, stopped and stared.

The red-haired woman glared at them. “Play!” she growled. “You observed what befell the last lout.”

They hastily returned to their game.

Her speech puzzled Wren. The language sounded affected and over-formal with a northlands accent. She must have learned the common language in a Malanian academy where they taught sages, bards, and scholars.

Once seated, Beia eyed Wren. “Bet you’re one who likes sweat mead.”

She nodded. She’d agree to whatever this woman said.

“Keep!” Beia yelled. “Mug of Blackstar for this one.”

The barman acknowledged her. The noise level in the room grew as the excitement died. The cloying smell of kerf and lowlands pipe-weed made Wren dizzy.

She studied the women. Beia and Damrosil looked her age, though they showed signs of long healed battle scars. Ess looked older, but not over thirty. She saw two campaign tattoos on Damrosil’s neck; one a crown over three crossed swords, and a shield and pike. Ess had them too, a talon-bird and a griffin. Beia wore only the shadowbolt, but that surpassed campaign marks. Except for Ess, they didn’t look old enough to wear such marks of prestige.

Their sleeveless tunics looked enough alike to be uniforms, velvety material that reached a little below the midpoint of the thigh. The finest stitched boots Wren had seen, hugged their long legs. They carried weapons enough for a small army. That man had been insane. Nobody tangled with warriors armed like that, even without the tattoos.

Damrosil held two fingers toward Wren. “I’m Damrosil,” she gestured. “These are Beia and her sister Ess.”

Wren nodded, not knowing what to do with the fingers. She hooked them with her own and felt a tingle on her skin. That seemed to satisfy the giantess.

“I’m Wren, recently from Corwin.”

Beia raised an eyebrow. “By ship?”

“By magic. A Sovereign of Isis teleported me here.”

Damrosil leaned back, tottering on the two back legs of her chair. “What’s so important in Ivaneth?”

“The wizard.”

They laughed. Damrosil almost fell from her chair. Ess shook her head. Beia pinched the bridge of her nose. A cold chill went through Wren. What was wrong?

Beia waved. “Excuse. Others have said the same.”

“Lots, I take it.”

“The wizard is oft inquired of,” Ess said. “Seekers of magic, lore, and advice keep him well occupied.”

“I see.” It sounded like a situation that required a bribe. Hades. She had only a few silvers in her pocket. If only she’d been able to go back to Grahm’s cubby and get the gem.

A dart thunking into naked wood rather than a target made her look over. The men were still playing, and not well. Not enough money there. Her gaze settled on the women’s fine boots and weapons. Perhaps she could gamble some of their wealth out of them.

Wren pointed at the board. “Any of you play darts?”

“Dah,” said Damrosil. “We prefer knives though.”

Knives? Better yet. She’d never lost with knives. “Ten paces, best of nine throws?”

Damrosil settled her chair and leaned forward. “Your wager?” Her breath smelled of spice herbs.

Damn, what to wager for? On impulse, her hand went to the phoenix. Drawing a breath, she pulled it from around her neck. “This against 100 gold crowns.”

Beia hooked the chain with a finger and pulled it close. She examined the emblem. “It’s worth more.”

Red-haired Ess traded looks with Beia. “Agreed, it appears to be an heirloom.”

She couldn’t back down. “I have to put up something.”

A graying ruddy-faced tavern maid, set a mug down in front of Wren. She sipped it; a stout dwarven mead that bit so hard her eyes watered. Beia watched her, studying her reaction. Wren kept her face smooth, forcing herself to swallow the bittersweet brew. It burned all the way down. She grinned at Beia.

The woman lost interest.

“Bets on,” Damrosil boomed. “Hundred gold crowns.” She stood. “Clear the board, boys.” She pulled a dirk from her boot and threw. It parted one man’s hair and nicked another’s ear before sticking in the center of the board.

The men made angry noises until they saw the accuracy of her shot. The three of them slunk away.

Wren stared at the still vibrating weapon and choked down a gulp of mead. Maybe she’d spoken too soon. She thought Beia was the master.

Her gaze went to the phoenix. Should she risk it? She wanted to impress these women, they might be valuable allies in the future. She swallowed some more mead. It had grown easier to handle. Her chest no longer ached. Now, her head hurt. She rose. “You first.”

Damrosil smiled and shook out her white hair. She slipped a dagger from the other boot and one from her belt. The metal winked mirror bright and lethal sharp. Yanking her first knife from the board, she paced off ten strides from the target and put a chair on the spot. She turned and threw in rapid succession. “Twenty spot, nineteen, eighteen.” The weapons thunked center of each number.

A room went quiet as Wren stepped over to the chair. She held a breath, fingering the hilts of her own worn daggers. Old and rusted, not ones she would choose to compete with. She flipped the blade, feeling a tingle that ran from her neck down her arm as she focused on the target. “Top of the one, bottom, middle.” She loosed in a steady rhythm, planting the points in the chalked on symbol.

Hoots and cheers burst around the room. Damrosil raised an eyebrow. She grinned fiercely, dark eyes gleaming. “You’re good.” She went to the target and removed the daggers. She frowned at Wren’s knives. She returned and handed them over with a nod.

“Fifty crowns says Wren wins,” Beia said.

Damrosil scowled. “You clean my weapons if she loses!”

“Done!”

“On the twenty vein,” Damrosil said, thunking the knives in a perfect line down the chalk.

Even mistress Desiray couldn’t throw like that. “Same shot,” Wren said. Her voice shook. The phoenix represented all that remained of Grahm. She hurled the blades, lodging them equidistant on the white line. Each one hit.

She sighed. Six trues a piece.

The room rumbled as people started wagering. Ess fetched their knives. She appeared fascinated by Wren’s black iron stilettos. What did she find so interesting? The lady kept weapons fifty times as good in her belt.

Beia rose with Wren’s drink in her hand and handed it to her. “Long time since Damrosil worked for a win.”

Wren took a long swig. Her hand shook. “Been a while since I worried about losing.” She glanced at the phoenix on the table. “It’s important to me.”

Ess handed them their weapons. “Impressive technique,” she said to Wren.

“Thanks.” She nudged Damrosil. “Three paces back?” The giantess narrowed her eyes. Wren peered up at her. One big woman, almost half again her height.

“You’re on.”

They moved the chair and threw another set. Both hit their marks. Nine to nine. The whole room had focused on the competition.

They backed to the full length of the bar; sixteen paces. From here, Wren needed to muscle the dagger to target instead of using finesse. The betting turned furious, men slapping down coins.

Damrosil called numbers. Six more trues. Wren did the same. It looked as if it would be a tie.

She needed that bet. Wren squinted at the target. The line that outlined the red center dot looked like a blur. Could she hit a line narrower than her finger at this range?

“Center circle,” she said. “On the line.”

Damrosil ran a tongue over her full lips. She folded her arms. “This, I must see.”

Wren braced. She inhaled and focused on the target. The tingle in her arm and head became a throbbing.

The dagger thumped home.

“Near miss!” Beia reported from by the target.

A cold hand clenched in her guts.

Damrosil smiled. “Two more chances.”

Wren rolled the weapon in her fingers. She felt the moisture on her fingertips. She wiped it on her sleeve. She focused and threw, letting the tingle guide her arm.

The blade whizzed. The audience drew a breath.

“Hit!” Beia reported.

Wren felt a surge of confidence. “Double my money if I get two?” she asked.

The white-haired woman eyed the target. “What if you don’t?”

“Me.” She swallowed, knowing she could be getting into trouble. “You get me. One service. I can do other things besides throw.”

Damrosil sized her up. “I bet you can. Go.”

What a chance she was taking. Her competitive urge was out of control. None of her previous opponents even approached Damrosil’s skill. She kissed the pommel of her last dagger. “Be true.” She flipped the blade.

The flutter of the weapon cut the noise in the room. People halted in mid whisper. Not a mug or utensil clinked. It hit with a hollow thonk. The blade sagged.

“Hit!” Beia exclaimed. The room let out a roar of surprise. The vibration proved too much for the shallowly planted dagger. It clattered to the floor.

“No, miss!” Beia called. “Miss. Miss!”

Wren’s brief elation soured in her stomach. Gamblers saw the knife had fallen and gave out disappointed yells.

The corner of Damrosil’s mouth quirked. “Good try.” She pointed at Beia. “Pull them out.” She weighed her own knife. “What do you say? Three trues, same shot?”

Wren’s throat constricted. She shook her head.

Damrosil prepared and let go.

“Hit!”

She glanced over. “Still not?”

Wren clenched her hands. If Damrosil missed the next two she’d still get the original bet and owe Damrosil a service. She wished the woman’s hands would shake. That she’d stop looking so confident. Of course, if she was as tall as mountain, she’d be confident too.

“Not!” Wren declared.

Damrosil chuckled. She took her next throw.

“Miss!”

“Oh well.” She tossed the dagger into the air and caught it. “The deciding throw.”

Wren tightened her fists until they hurt. “Do it already.”

“In time.” Damrosil stared at the target. “For the money and the young lady’s service.” She threw.

Heart in her throat, Wren watched the spinning piece of steel, willing the weapon to miss. It seemed to flick through the air as though traveling in molasses. Each revolution took bells.

The dagger slammed into the target to the hilt.

Beia leaned over to check. The whole room appeared to lean with her.

Please, no.

“Hit!”

A rock dropped in the pit of Wren’s stomach.

“Fine sport!” Grinning, Damrosil punched her in the shoulder. Wren nearly lost her feet.

She felt empty. Giving away the phoenix was like losing a part of herself. So foolish. She’d never lost. She trudged to the table and took the phoenix and held it out to Damrosil. “You won.”

The woman made a dismissing gesture. “Rest it. You did. I finished one throw ahead using balanced knives. You hitting at all with those iron chunks is a miracle.”

Beia nodded. “The best throwing I’ve seen by a mortal.” She put a hand on Wren’s shoulder. “Not a bit of magic in it at all.”

Mortal? What did Beia mean by that? “Thanks.” Clutching the phoenix, she looked at Damrosil. “You sure?”

“I don’t need your trinket.” She pulled at Wren’s sleeve. “I can tell you can use the money. That show was worth it.” Damrosil handed a pouch to Wren then poked her in the stomach with a long finger. “I’m holding you to that service though. You didn’t get the second shot.”

Wren bowed. “I’ll honor it. It will have to be after my mission here in Ivaneth. How can I contact you?”

“Don’t worry girl,” Damrosil said. “We’ll find you.” She glanced at Beia. “Thinking of that, we’ve got a mission of our own. Be well, Wren. We will meet again.”

The three nodded to her and disappeared out the tavern door before she could say a word of parting.