Ink and Bourbon
Tilting at windmills. Because those windmills think they're better than us.

Broken Crossroads
A Chance Meeting - Part 1

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Trilisean sat at a corner table and sipped at what could charitably be called an adequate white wine. She chose this pub because it was an area of town where people were used to minding their own business, and she had no desire to be social this night. Contract jobs were scarce, freelance work was dangerous and less lucrative. The one really juicy offer she'd heard would require an accomplice, and at the moment, she didn't trust anyone with the necessary skills.

To pass the time, she watched the two soldiers who sat at a table near the fire. They could not be anything else by the look of them. Their large, callused hands and corded muscles spoke of long hours at drill. Both wore their hair cut short, the easier to keep clean in the field. Their gear was simple, sturdy and well worn. Their speech and manner lacked the caution of commoners or tradesmen, the refinement of aristocrats, the furtive calculation of criminals or the cynicism and suspicion of policemen. They spoke with the blunt, almost careless honesty of men who reserve all their worry for the battlefield.

If all this failed to identify their trade to the casual observer, the short, heavy infantry sword which hung from the left hip and the long dirk from the right of each man was clue enough.

Their very choice of pub spoke of confidence. The Cask and Flagon was in a dangerous neighborhood. Even the city guard patrolled only in daylight and in numbers. The casualty wagons from the hospital knew the area well, as they were often summoned for those who succumbed to drink, drugs or the loving application of brute force.

The first man, tall and red haired, with a serious expression, spoke over the rim of his mug.

"I think you're makin' a mistake, Conn."

His companion smiled back, but it was a bitter smile, "It'd be a bigger one to stay. I've no future in the Company."

"Not since you called the captain a ‘doom fook', you don't."

"My only error in that statement was pronunciation. My charming accent gets thicker when I'm emotional."

"Still wasn't the polite thing to say."
"Don't get me started, Darmid. He's ruined the Company. He's stopped promoting from the ranks. He's got noblemen's brats who never saw blood drawn leading veteran soldiers to slaughter. I'm done. For Nuad's sake, we don't even pretend we're goin' back to liberate Aeran from the Jarvings any more. We just dance with their armies on the mainland, tryin' to impress the King so he can give our beloved Captain a fookin' barony. I'm not spillin' my precious blood for that bastard's glory."

"What'll you do?"

"Damned if I know," his companion smiled, "but it's got to be better than this. Maybe I'll sneak back home and lead a band of rebels. Be a good honest horrible death, anyway, instead of a pointless horrible death."

"No rebels left. Anyone with balls who hated the Jarvings died in battle or went into exile in the mercenary bands like us. Swore they'd come back, but it gets less likely every day."

"So you can see I'm right!" Conn slammed his mug down, "Leave with me. At least it'll be entertaining."

"Sorry, lad. Soldierin's all I know. What else do you know, now we think on it?"

"Bugger all," Conn emptied his mug and caught the eye of the waitress again, "Killin'. Marchin'. Livin' in the back of beyond."

"So, you thinkin' of joinin' the Police? I hear you can make five silver marks a week. Six if you count your pay."

"No bloody chance. I'll not work for this city with its dead road, its dying port and its stompin' great bloody phallic symbol hangin' over it, makin' honest men insecure about their abilities."

Darmid laughed, "Well, then, what were ye before you were a soldier? Didn't your da' have a farm?"

"I was a wee lad before I was a soldier. Fookin' Jarvings never gave me time to learn farmin'. I was a soldier at thirteen. Well, I was a rebel. I was maybe a soldier by sixteen. All's I know about farmin' is to do what my da' told me, and that with bad grace."

"You didn't pick up anything in thirteen years? You're even dumber than the average Aeransman."

"When da' said move the sheep to the south pasture, I moved ‘em. I know how. I don't bloody know why. I didn't much care, and he didn't explain. All I wanted to do was play in the woods, fish, swim and waste my time. Hadn't even learned to chase girls before I was fightin'."

"So what are you goin' to do?"

Conn stared into his ale for a moment. "Drink. For tonight anyway. Then maybe make a decision. I've got a sharp sword, a thick skull, and my pay from the last campaign. Ought to be alright."

"Take care, lad," Darmid stood and clapped his companion on the shoulder.

"And you," Conn grasped his hand, "I'm tellin' ya, there's no future in that company."

"I've got my path laid out. I'll walk it." The tall man turned away. After a few steps, he turned back, "Don't worry, lad. I don't know where you went, or when I last saw you if anyone asks."

"It never crossed my mind to worry about you, lad."

"Luck be with you."

"And with you. Cheers." Conn sank his pint and once again smiled at the waitress.

The server walked back to the bar for a fresh pint, Trilisean made a decision. This Conn was a simple fellow with a heavy purse and a good deal of ale on board. And she'd had no work in some time. This might be just the thing.

As the waitress passed her table, she caught the woman's attention.

"Another wine, miss?"

"No, actually," Trilisean forced herself to blush, "I was wondering if you'd let me bring that man his ale?"

"Who? The handsome soldier with the fat purse? Oh, sure. Why would I want to serve him?" she started to turn away.

"Wait!" Trilisean dropped her eyes, playing her part to the hilt, "I'll pay you sixpence."

The waitress stopped short. Trilisean could see the calculation behind her eyes. A pint was a penny. If the server smiled very wide and bent low enough to show some cleavage, maybe brushed the customer, the best tip she could hope for was two farthings. Three if he were very drunk. Sixpence was a lot of money.

"Fine, lass," she handed Trilisean the mug with a leer, "but he's had quite a bit. I hope ye can get sixpence worth of use out of him."

Trilisean knew she was not dressed for the part. She wore a simple shirt with a modest neckline under a jerkin of dark wool, and close fitting trousers instead of a slit skirt. Even the white skin of her throat was covered by a dark colored scarf, but she had confidence in her acting ability and charms. And she had a mug of the pub's best amber. Strange indeed would be the Aeransman who'd look past a pint to study a waitress.

Trilisean glided up behind the soldier. She reached over his shoulder to set down the ale, brushing her breasts across his back. The crowded tavern made this move plausible. Nature made it distracting.

"Your pardon, sir," she said sweetly.

"Not at all, darlin'." He handed her the penny for the ale and two farthings as a tip.

Trilisean smiled and congratulated herself on her earlier calculations. As he pulled the coins from his pouch, she leaned against him in a practiced manner which kept the purse from closing fully. She took the proffered money with her right hand while the fingers of her left lightly inspected the purse's contents. She stalled for few seconds.

"Thank you, sir," she gushed, "you're too generous." He was, but he didn't know it, she thought, as her experienced touch identified a gold royal in amongst the silver.

"A small price for a good ale and a pretty smile," he replied gallantly. She almost regretted robbing him. Almost.

A hand suddenly closed around her wrist. She tried to pull away but the grip was like iron. He didn't squeeze or twist her arm, but it was clear she wasn't going anywhere.

"Now, what would your hand be doin' in there?" he asked, his voice low, "No offense, you've a light touch, but I've not had so much to drink that I can't see you're not showin' enough skin to be a waitress, you're too pretty for a whore, and I've not had the kind of luck in my life that attractive women should be slidin' up against me without havin' a plan."

After the initial panic, Trilisean's mind went cold. She started calculating her best chance of escape. "What are you going to do with me?" she asked, frantically working on a plan.

"I'm not goin' to do anythin' to you, lass, so long as you unhand what's mine, and don't cry ‘rape'."

She dropped the royal, "You won't call the Police?"

He shrugged, "Too much like work. I'd have to answer questions. And I am a foreigner in a strange tavern. I like as little to do with the Police as possible."

"You swear?"

"You have my word."

She looked at him for a long moment. He still wore a twisted smile, but there was a simple honesty in his expression.

"Very well."

He released her hand.

"As we trust each other now, I'll assume you want this back," she reached over his right shoulder, handing over a dirk, hilt first.

"Hey--" he looked at the knife, then down at the empty sheath at his hip and back at the weapon. "How the blazes d'ya manage that?"

"When I realized I'd underestimated you, I had to make sure I could get away," she shrugged, "If I had to, I'd have put it in your back."

"It seems we underestimated one another," he smiled, retrieving his dagger and returning it to its sheath. "Why don't you have a seat and help me finish this plate and we'll make our acquaintance in a more civilized manner?"

She sat across from him, he waved down the waitress again and ordered a platter of bread, cheese and sliced meat.

"My name is Trilisean Ui Cuillean."

"Connhail Ui Domnhal," he replied, "At your service. But that's too much for everyday use. Call me Conn." he took up a chunk of bread, "Why so adamant about me not calling the Police? Got a long record of bloody and heinous crimes? Gallows waitin' for you?" he asked with a grin.

"They're a bunch of coarse, violent brutes," she sneered, "I'm not going to be ‘searched and interrogated' by them. Not while I have my strength."

"Fair enough."

"What brings you to this particular pub?" she ventured, "It's not really a soldiers' bar."

"Beer's good. Food's adequate. People keep themselves to themselves. Except for the ones who poke about in a man's purse," he smiled to take the sting out of the comment. "I don't want a lot of people knowin' I was here."

"So you're deserting?"

"That's an ugly word, sure and it is," his smile faded, "Implies cowardice. I'm leaving because I don't believe in the company any more, and I won't kill or die for somethin' I don't believe in."

"I'm sorry," she said quickly, "I didn't--"

"Not your fault. I'm just a bit sensitive. I've spent more than half my life fightin'. I'm not afraid of dyin', just don't want to do it for the glory of a man I despise."

"How did you used to feel about it?" she asked. It surprised her, but she was genuinely interested.

He studied the depths of his ale for a moment before speaking. "I was thirteen years old when the Jarvings landed on my island. Fought my first battle then. Armed with a homemade spear. Just a staff with a broken piece of a plowshare lashed to the end. Killed one of the bastards with it. He didn't take me serious as a threat and hacked at the man standin' to my right. When he did, I jammed that spear in under his sword arm, right through the gap between breastplate and backplate. He looked at me before he died. Not in pain, but all surprised like. Gettin' killed by a wee lad like me was like seein' water flowin' uphill to that poor bugger.

"Well, they kicked our arses anyway. They were real warriors and we were just a rabble. We hid in the woods and fought back for a few years, but they hunted us down like rabbits. Or maybe like wolves, because we did bite a few. Couldn't stop ‘em or throw ‘em out, though. They settled on the best farms, took the livestock, enslaved the young, married the women who didn't fight too hard. Bloody island is more Jarving than Aeran today.

"Eventually, the few of us left took an offer of service with a mercenary company in service with the King of Grian. They were fightin' the Jarvings anyway, so we figured at least we'd get paid, and get decent equipment to do it with. Maybe get the training we needed and come back, push the buggers out.

"Gradually, that dream faded. More and more of the old rebels died or mustered out with wounds or age. Noble officers replaced the veteran warriors and the war became a show. Point wasn't to drive the bastards off a wee insignificant island, no. It was to win a Glorious Battle. Impress the king enough to grant titles and estates to the officers. Impress the nobles enough to send their sons to join our company. Of course, Glorious Battles cost a lot of blood. That's where us footmen come in.

"It doesn't mean anything anymore. I've killed and bled, and not lost a moment's sleep over it, but I did it for my home. I thought I was doin' it to free my people. Course, half the bloody island has Jarving blood in their veins now. Darmid was right, there's no rebels left. Hell, if we did lead an army back, we'd probably be the bloody invaders.

"All that we can do in the company is do our duty, take our pay and save up for retirement. Us common footmen don't even get promoted to officers any more,--don't have the respectable accent and all--so there'll be no titles and grants for us. So, how I figure it, if all's I'm fightin' for is my own fortune, I'll pick my own battles, not risk my skin where some Grian noble tells me to."

Trilisean listened attentively, "I understand. I think you're making the right decision. I won't let anyone make the decisions that affect my future." She smiled, "Even if my decisions lead my fingers into the wrong purse now and then."

"No shame, lass. I must've looked like an easy mark. Alone, with a loud mouth, a heavy purse and an appetite for the pints."

"At least my error in judgement didn't get me a spear in the side." She found herself warming to this man. He was decent enough, he hadn't threatened to turn her over to the Police or tried to bully her into anything. He seemed just another spirit like her who finally rejected the control of others over his life. She respected that. And he was handsome and witty, in a rough sort of way.

"And I'm pleased that I didn't taste my own dirk. Not that dying in a pub would surprise any who know me well--"

"That may yet happen, you reptile!"

Trilisean turned to see a tall, burly man standing a few feet away, dressed much the same as Conn and his companion. His meaty hand rested on the hilt of his sword and there was a clear challenge in his voice.

"Donnough!" Conn's voice was almost cheerful, "What're your lips doin' here? The captain's arse must be miles away."

"You know well I've come to bring you back. You can walk or be carried, makes no difference to me. Desertion in the face of the enemy is serious, boyo."

"Your mother named you well, lad. You dunna what your talkin' about, and you dunna grasp simple concepts. What enemy?"

"There's a war on."

"There's always a war on. I'm done. Go back to your boss. I'm sure his bed's gettin' cold without you." Conn turned back to his ale.

Trilisean saw the big man's brow wrinkle in anger, then confusion. He obviously didn't expect verbal abuse, and was unsure how to proceed against Conn's turned back. As she watched, his expression changed slowly, like snow breaking up on a mountain. She assumed it must be the heat generated by his though process.

"Alright, lad," Donnough --his name did sound like ‘dunna' she realized with a chuckle--said with a leer, "I see you're with a lady," he placed enough emphasis on the word that all within earshot understood that he spelled ‘lady' with a silent ‘whore', "so I'll give you ten minutes upstairs. Then you can come quietly."

The pub was silent. The other patrons moved away slightly, but all eyes now fastened on the drama of the two mercenaries. This promised to be entertaining.

Conn's eyes grew cold. He began to turn. Trilisean started to object, but the Aeransman held up a hand.

"You know that Jarving who caught the spear?" he whispered.

She nodded.

"He had ten times Donnough's intellect. This is no threat."

"But you're drunk," she hissed.

"No. I'm pleasantly warm. If I were drunk, I'd be twice as witty and thrice as handsome. Damned irresistible, I'd be."

He climbed to his feet. He looked the big man in the eye, which required some tilting of his head, and addressed him as one might a slow child.

"I know your mother and the four or five chief suspects for your father didn't teach you manners, but don't insult a woman in my presence."

Trilisean looked from man to man. Donnough's face reddened, his muscles bunched and he fought for control. Conn stood seemingly relaxed, but to an experienced eye, he was perfectly balanced, weight slightly resting on the balls of his feet, ready to spring. She flexed her wrist slightly to check the position of her dagger anyway.

The big man finally seemed to control his anger. "Sorry, lad. I forgot how talk of whores upsets you. It must be tough havin' them charge you double. Out of repugnance, it must be. Me, I've always gotten half price," he smiled.

"Donnough," Conn looked sorrowful, "I'm so sorry. We all thought you knew. Is that why you thought-- I mean, you never knew they charge by the inch?"

The room erupted in laughter. The big man's face went crimson. He ripped his sword from it's sheath and swung at the smaller man's head, his blade a silver blur.

Trilisean's dagger was in her hand, reversed for a throw, but she never got the chance. Conn flowed out of the way of the cut. Trilisean had never seen a man move like that. He twisted sideways and leaned back gracefully. The blade sang past his face. His right arm whipped out, coiling around Donnough's wrist. He stepped in, punched the big man in the kidney with his left, and as his foe sagged, butted his forehead into the man's nose.

"Drop the blade, lad," Conn said gently, his left hand applying force to his enemy's elbow as his right held the wrist locked, bringing Donnough down on one knee.

The big man struggled, but Conn twisted imperceptibly, causing him to gasp and drop to his other knee.

"You're gonna drop it anyway when I pop your arm loose from its moorings. Best for us all if you let it go now."

Donnough's fingers opened and the heavy blade rang on the floorboards. Conn stepped away.

The big man staggered to his feet, rubbing his right arm. He looked uncertainly at Conn.

"Go ahead. Pick it up. Then go."

Donnough tried to retrieve his sword, but his right hand wouldn't obey. He clumsily picked it up and sheathed it with his left. He glared for a moment, then turned and headed for the door.

"Donnough," Conn called.

The big man turned back.

"I'm enjoying a good drink and good company this night, so I didn't want to ruin it by spilling entrails all over the floor. Tell the captain that the next man he sends won't likely find me in so pleasant a mood."

Donnough walked out without another word.

Conn resumed his seat, "Sorry about that."

Trilisean, her hands beneath the table, returned her dagger to its sheath. "Not at all. It was a fine entertainment. Had I known you could move like that, I'd never have tried to lighten your purse."

"Then I'm glad you didn't know, or we'd not have met."

She dropped her eyes, not wanting to venture in that direction yet. "Why didn't you draw your sword?" she asked, by way of diversion, "He meant to kill you."

"If I'd drawn, somebody would have gotten killed. Probably him, but maybe me. I know Donnough. I know he favors the cut to the head for starters, and I know he'd be overconfident facing an unarmed man. If I'd had my blade out, he'd have been more careful, and it may have come out different."

"Well, I'm glad it ended as it did."

"As am I," he tore another hunk of bread, "Now, why don't you tell me about yourself. You've heard and seen enough about me."

She smiled, "Not yet, I don't think. And not here."

"That's hardly fair, you know. You have me at a considerable disadvantage."

"You've had more to drink. And men are always happy to talk of themselves."

"You wound me."

"And I think we'd best be leaving. Your burly friend will tell his boss and there'll be more people looking soon enough."

"You're probably right," Conn sighed, tipping the last of his ale down his throat.

"If you really have no plans,"she ventured, thinking of his value in a brawl, "I may have some employment for you. If you'd consent to a partnership."

"Sounds better than followin' a damnfool captain. Let's leave this charming venue and discuss it."


Two nights later, as Conn walked through the city streets in the dead of night, he wondered if he really had made a wise career move. He wasn't risking his life for the ambitions of a petty mercenary officer with delusions of grandeur, but he was risking it at the request of an attractive woman.

He thought back to the previous evening as he silently followed the shadowy form before him.


"So it's perfect. Don't you see?" Trilisean smiled triumphantly. Conn didn't see. He saw how her eyes flashed with an enthusiasm he desperately wanted to share, not matter how ill founded his logical side felt it was. Her every gesture spoke of supreme confidence. He tried not to dwell on the fact that she hadn't succeeded in robbing him. "We steal the jewel, the clients get the information from it, we get a pile of cash and the slavers take the hit. It's absolutely brilliant!"

It's nuts. We're going to die, part of his mind screamed. He thought for a long moment about life and death, then drank in the look of childlike excitement in her smile, her sparkling eyes, and the stray wisps of her dark hair that escaped, catching the candlelight and making a halo around her face. We're going to die!

"Well, I'm in," he said with his most disarming smile.

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