The meager coin purse pilfered from the Matrons' steaming ashes jingled a disjointed tune as they ran. Great oak trees flew by in their peripheral vision, their trunks as thick as the belly of a cow and tall as towers. Florence stumbled and tripped her way farther into the forest, further away from the chaos left in her wake.
There were whispers of an anarchic town hidden somewhere in the Darachen, a beacon of safety to those on the run. Provided you don't step on the wrong toes. Nearly silent foot falls padded through nearby shrubbery, heavy and quick. Last night's rain leaving a thick musk through the forest, obscuring Florence's keen smell.
She readjusted the child in her arms, gripping tighter and hoisting her higher. Growling sounded from a dozen places, the footfalls getting louder now. The prey was almost cornered. The girl lifted her head, pointing a shaking hand to the left.
Florence didn't think she simply turned, crashing through the thorns and underbrush. The beasts were howling now, frustration dripping from the sound. Florence's head whipped around with wild abandon. Night was falling, the forest becoming increasingly sinister by the moment.
Where? Where? Where?
Desperately she searched for some haven, a hole, a log, anything! A clearing opened up before them, holding the most ancient oak tree Florence had ever seen. Gnarled roots rose out of the mossy earth, creating several hollows.
Florence tore off her veil and threw it in one hole, her coif in another. They crouched in the smallest hollow, Florence shoveling handfuls of dirt and moss into the entrance and rubbing the moss on their clothes and skin.
She prayed then, something she hadn't done in many years. A warmth suffused her bones as she felt a calming presence, like a mother holding their child in a tight embrace. Wohena. As the warmth left, Florence succumbed to the pushing weariness, the day having taken its toll.
A sleep like no other whisked her away from corporeal form and all rational thought. A kaleidoscope of color played in her dreams, wild, spinning, and incomprehensible. There were voices and laughter, calling to her, but she couldn't parse their words. A soft whimper brought her back to consciousness.
Blearily she raised her head from the peat pillow, the sounds of a Warg poking about at the mossy hole. Fear griped at her chest. Bones snapping and creaking brought her awareness back into the hollow, the little girl next to her, now fuzzy and small. The girl snarled and snapped her attention on the invading snout.
With a small but mighty leap, she latched her teeth deep into the offending nose. The Warg yelped, shaking its ponderous head back and forth, knocking the girl into a sturdy root. She released her teeth from the nose, a bit of blood dripping from her muzzle. Baring her fangs in a triumphant grin, she snorted at the hole in satisfaction.
The transformation had freed the girl from her rope bindings, but it had not freed her from the floppy sack. She tried to step backwards, only to tangle her feet, falling in a limp heap to the moss. Florence struggled into a crouch. She picked the auburn-haired pup up, threading its little legs through the armholes.
"You've got a bit of a vicious streak, don't you?"
The girl simply looked at Florence, a curiosity behind her eyes.
"Go to sleep now."
The little wolf snuggled down into the skirt of Florence's now tattered habit, huffing as she tried to make a comfortable dent in the moss.
Morning sun shone through holes in the root roof, dust sprinkling through, causing Florence and the little girl, now human again, to sneeze.
"We should get moving again."
Rubbing her eyes, the girl yawned and stretched, refreshed after an undisturbed rest of the night. Bronze eyes pierced Florence.
"That sure was something."
A pained smile stretched over Florence's face. The girl blinked.
"What is your name, Little One?"
The girl remained mute.
"Not ready to tell me?"
The girl nodded slowly.
"Well, I have to call you something, so for now, I'll call you Vicious. Seems suiting after last night."
Vicious beamed from ear to ear.
"Guess you like it too. I'm Flor-. No, I was Florence. My given name is Vivienne, actually. Vivienne Florrine Wrynn." she ruffled the girl's shaggy hair.
"We need to find Caerncana. I don't want to know what else in this forest will see us as prey."
The pair trudged on into the deep woods. Half a day's walk brought them to an overgrown and purposefully hidden path. An ivy covered signpost marking their direction to the Caerncana glade. Vivienne eyed both of their current state of disarray.
Her once white robe now gray and brown with mud and ash, the sleeves pinking with blood from her battered arms. Vicious wasn't in a much better state, but the burlap was still holding up, and for that Vivienne was grateful.
Thick morning fog added to the muggy air of the Darachen, nearly obscuring a lone man curled on the shabby road. His ragged clothes and harrowed face betraying a deep poverty.
"Please, young mistresses, please, just a few coins. I'm so hungry."
"I have a coin or two I can spare. A good hot meal would do you some good."
Vivienne pulled out the meager purse from the folds of her robe. The pouch jingled as Vicious reached out to stop Vivienne's hand with a small shake of her head.
The attempted warning came too late. The man threw off his tattered cloak, a wicked grin stretching his face as two more men came rushing out of the brush. What had seemed like a frail, hunched man was a now looming figure.
Vivienne pushed the girl behind her.
"What do you want!?" she demanded.
"Your coin or your life, darling, simple as that!" The beggar said, laughing dryly.
Vivienne stiffened, a deep rage boiling within her.
A defenseless woman and child, and they want to rob us?
She breathed deeply of the forest air, ripe with the miasma of the gang's putrid smell. The man held out his hand expectantly, beckoning the handover with his expression.
"Come now Love, nice and easy."
Vivienne stepped forward, coins in one hand, the other wrapped around Vicious protectively. She laid the purse in the brigand's palm, a blank expression adorning her face.
"You smell like murder."
Vivienne closed her hand around his upper arm. She held his gaze as the heat surged from her body and into his. Greedily, the flames lapped at every hold and purchase. Within moments, the man became ash, his clothes and sword falling to the mossy cobbles with a soft thump. Two more thuds sounded as the other men fell, crumpling at the knees and into dust.
Whirling, Vivienne found the girl unharmed, not a hair singed. She kneeled in front of the child and pulled her emaciated form into an embrace.
"I am so sorry, I am so sorry, you shouldn't have seen that."
Vivienne's eyes filled with stinging tears. Her shoulders shook with choking sobs. She wept for the men she killed, for the souls she had cleansed, for the murders she herself had committed under the command of Wohena.
She had killed so many but very few tasted of true guilt and evil, like these men. I have been so ignorant! Vicious wiped the tears on Vivienne's reddened cheeks away, a worried look on her face.
With a silent understanding, the two stood and pilfered the bodies. Vicious taking an iron dagger and belting it on, Vivienne taking the intricate sword from the now dusted ring leader. Its hilt shone with silver embossed leaves and a ruby on the pommel, its blade a thick steel.
"It'll have to do for now. They had very little coin for the amount of lives they took. Disgusting vultures."
Vivienne nearly spit with anger. To have her life threatened for so little was unconscionable. And so, they moved on, Vivienne silently praying to no one that the road would be empty. She entertained Vicious with tales of her life before the Abbey. Of threshing wheat with her sisters and sleeping under the stars with her brothers.
Cresting a small hill, the pair saw smoke coming from several colorful tiled roofs. The village sat in a sizable oak glade, its smooth cobble streets a welcome sight. On their left, they found the Rognan Reliquary Inn. A building of limestone, heavy worn oak timbers, and a vibrant purple tile roof. Vivienne had seen nothing so intricate.
She stood outside just starting at the intricate limestone and tile until Vicious pulled at her sleeve. The girl rubbed her eyes and yawned.
"You're right, let's get a bed that isn't covered in moss, hmm?"
The inn teemed with life and boisterous conversation. Clacking wooden flagons and rowdy laughter drowned out most other sounds. A sagging bard sat in the corner, proffering his hat in the hope of some coin.
A bubbly woman in a teal cotton dress came to greet them. She stooped down to look at Vicious and then turned her head to eye Vivienne.
"I'll assume you aren't here for the drinks. Can I get you two a room?"
Vivienne nodded, distracted by the delightfully noisy scenery of the room.
"Just for two nights please."
The blonde woman clucked.
"You two are a right sight. I'll have the girls bring you some hot water for a bath, and a bar of soap for your washing. The Southern Forest Road isn't a pleasant place for ladies like yourselves."
She straightened and leaned in to Vivienne a bit.
"You seem in more than a bit of need. Go see Gady and her husband down the road at Gady's Seamstress Services, can't miss it, there is a needle and spool on the sign. Tell them Addie sent you. They'll get you something to wear at cost."
Vivienne scrunched her face.
"You're helping us?"
Addie laughed, a full bellied, beautiful sound.
"I came to town in a similar state and someone else helped me, just paying it forward like I promised I would. Upstairs, second door on the left, best room we have right now. Off you go, you look exhausted."
Vivienne grabbed Vicious' hand, shooting a grateful glance at Addie. The room held a large tub, an enormous feather bed, and smelled faintly of leather polish and lilacs. Vicious let out a small whoop as she charged the bed, belly flopping onto its softness. A small puff of dust rose from the blankets.
"I guess no one's used this room in a while."
"That's cause it's the marital suite darling."
A voice chirped from the doorway. Vivienne whirled around to find another woman in a maroon dress, similar to Addie, holding a large pitcher of water. She beckoned behind her and four more women filed into the room.
"Marital suite?" Vivienne asked.
"Yeah, well, the owner of the inn thought he would have a lot more business from freshly married couples, but it works better for a twosome like yourselves than being crammed into the much smaller beds."
The smell of fresh goat's milk soap filled the room as the women poured water into the tub.
"How much is this extra luxury going to cost us?" Vivienne asked. Mentally tallying the coins they had.
"The standard rate. We take care of those in need here. And you two smell of needing a bath."
The woman waved and left the room.
"Alright kiddo, you first. Take an extra sheet and go take a bath."
The words barely left her mouth before Vicious was behind the privacy screen, getting into the warm water.
By the time Vicious was out, the water had cooled down, but Vivienne didn't mind. She hadn't had a proper bath since she lived with her mother in Livnica.
She languished, flourished, and scrubbed her skin just shy of raw. Once out, she washed the burlap sack and her own tattered gown. Wrapped in a clean linen sheet, she slipped beneath the blanket, Vicious beside her, snoring as if the world didn't exist.
The two woke feeling refreshed. They donned their shabby garments once more with disgust.
"Vee, stay here. I'll go get us something else that isn't this."
She gestured up and down between the two. Vicious nodded, legs swinging off the side of the bed. The common room was quiet as Vivienne descended the stairs, but Addie was still there.
"Addie? I'm headed into town, can you-?"
Addie waved her hand.
"I already asked the cook to make some breakfast for your chit, and I'll keep an eye out. Go, that dress is a frightful sight."
Vivienne walked down the cobbles to Gady's shop, feeling mangy and in a disarray. A small bell rang as Vivienne opened the shop door. The smell of tannin in the shop overpowered almost any other smell.
"Be with you in a moment!" A flitting voice sounded from the back of the cottage.
Vivienne shifted uncomfortably, looking down at her present state of disarray. From the back came a tiny woman, her brown hair braided down her back.
"Oh yes, I'll bet Addie sent you down here, didn't she? Well, what do you need?"
"Well, I need something that isn't ruined and I have a girl traveling with me who needs something serviceable as well. All she has is this old sack with holes cut for her arms."
The woman tapped her fingers on her chin, thinking.
"You seem like you are going to have a hard journey ahead, seeing as you have already had a hard journey here. How big is the girl?"
Vivienne mimed height and width. The woman nodded.
"Give me half an hour."
A flurry of hammering and snipping sounds came from the back of the shop before the woman even left the counter.
Vivienne stepped back out onto the street. A small market bustled within the adjacent alley. One stall, tended by a cheery old man, held various supplies. Packs, blankets, flint and steel. She bought a set of everything, never wanting to sleep without a blanket or fire again. Beneath a stack of blankets, she found a felted wolf toy.
"Ah, my wife used to make those. Almost every child in town had one." The old man's eyes grew shiny.
Vivienne laid a hand on his shoulder.
"She was a wonderful crafter. May I buy this as well?" He nodded, giving Vivienne her total.
She stepped back inside Gady's shop, waiting in silence for the woman to finish. When Gady returned to the front, she carried a small bundle and two pairs of shoes.
"Here we are! A pair of sturdy traveling garments. I threw in a scabbard belt as well. A woman should not be around without a suitable weapon."
She tapped the hilt of a bejeweled dagger at her own hip.
"Thank you, Gady? I am guessing you are Gady?"
Gady smiled and laughed.
"Yep, that's me! Come back if I got the girls' measurements wrong but, I'm rarely wrong."
Vivienne dug in her coin purse for the largest coins she had, stilled only by Gady shaking her head.
"No charge! I know a charity case when I see it. No pride or shame here, sometimes a body needs help."
Once back at the inn, Vivienne and Vicious opened up Gady's packages. What Vivienne thought were just shoes were sturdy leather boots with good soles. Vicious's dress was two pieces, an adorable thick cotton traveling dress in deep green with a woolen overcoat of gray. Each had a clasp in the back to tighten or loosen them as needed. For Vivienne, a crimson robe of thick cotton as well, similar to her habit but with a shorter hem and open sleeves.
Gady included a leather weapon harness for her back and waist in the bunch. Vivienne and Vicious got dressed in their newly gained finery, strapping on their weapons.
They threw their rags to the fireplace, the waiting blaze bursting higher with the fresh fuel.
"Let's eat supper in the common room!" Vivienne said, feeling anew in her dress.
Boisterous laughter greeted the pair as they descended the stairs, Addie quickly grabbing them at the bottom. She guided the pair to an unoccupied table, handing a flagon of ale to Vivienne and a hot toddy to Vicious.
"You're wonderful Addie, thank you."
"A couple of house specials, my dears?" Addie asked, her face lit with a smile.
"Yes, thank you again."
Addie simply bobbed in a mock curtsy and sauntered off to the kitchen. A pin board with handbills caught Vivienne's eye.
Southern Forest Road Brigands 12 Strong
Various murders and pillages of Caerncana citizens
300 Gold Eporan Crowns
“Vee? I think I know how we’re going to get some real money.” Vivienne stood and walked to the board. Pulling down the poster, she felt a surge of nervous energy.
Now this I can do.