Onnie winced as an apple fell from the gather of her apron, striking root. She stooped, inspecting the small gash and bruise on the pink skin. It had been perfect for market; now it would be tossed in with the cider apples. No great loss, but she hated to see a pretty thing marred. She reached to gather it up again, then froze as a harsh, foreign laugh sounded across the orchard.
Spinning on her heels, she searched for the sound’s source. There—a pair of men, walking through the trees as though they owned them, their rollicking voices nearing with every step. With great hilts bristling at shoulder and hip, with leather and mail gleaming, they could only be mercenaries. They weren’t in any regular army—fearful enough—and they couldn’t be bandits, bold as brass as they strolled, picking the apples off the trees.
Onnie pressed the apron hem to her nose, shrinking against the trunk. Only thing worse than bandits were mercenaries, everyone knew. Only difference between them was that one kept hidden, and the other had your lord’s coin and protection. Was the trunk hiding her? How she wished it were bigger. Were the men coming closer? Maker save her, they were. She muted a whimper.
“No, it gets better. See, what does he do then,” one was saying, “but try to loose a warning bolt, right by the messenger’s head. But it turns out he fancies himself a better bowman than he is, because—hold, what’s this?”
They stopped. Onnie, who’d been edging towards the trunk’s other side as they walked by, tried to spring to her feet to bolt, but her foot tangled in her apron, sending her sprawling at the men’s feet along with two-dozen apples. Likely ruined now, she thought dimly, watching one roll between a large pair of boots.
She pushed up to her knees, staring with mute terror at the pair looming over her. One had an eye patch, and a terribly scarred face. The other had a bristling brown beard, and both had wicked grins.
“Aww, it’s a little apple blossom, all alone,” drawled the bearded one, stepping closer still. “Where’s your minder, girly? Surely you aren’t old enough to be out in the woods on your own.”
Onnie’s lips quivered as she fought to find her voice. “It’s our orchard. You shouldn’t be here.” It came out in a whisper.
The mercenaries laughed. “Well, we weren’t doing any ill, were we? Only taking a little walk. Sure, we might be taking a few bites as we go, but where’s the harm? Now, now. No need to shriek. We’re only having a chat.”
No use in shrieking, there was the truth of it. If she screamed now, her mother and brothers might come out, but her brothers were children, whatever they said to the contrary, and children armed with pitchforks would be quickly cut down by these monsters. She’d have to try to run again.
She’d hardly gathered her legs under her when the bearded one stepped forward again, his boot coming down on her tunic’s hem. For the first time Onnie could think of, she actually wished her tunic would rip, but the contrary thing stayed whole, pinning her to the earth. The apple-sweet air now reeked of sour sweat, and worse.
Let me be. She mouthed the words, but her breath had knotted in her chest so she didn’t think she could even squeak. If there was any point in squeaking, or in saying anything to the brutes.
“Help the poor girl up, Creyl,” the man with the eye patch chuckled, stooping down to wrap a massive, callused hand around her upper arm. It clamped tight as a shackle, yanking her to her feet. The tunic did rip, then, as her arm bruised. Ruined. She stared up into the one-eyed leer, feeling faint. She wished she would faint, hoped she might.
A third figure appeared in the trees, lanky and lean and leading a mule. Oh, two were more than enough to champion for Hell. What had she done to fall so foul of Chance and the Maker?
“What’re you louses doing?”
Onnie blinked, focusing on the newcomer. A woman’s voice? A young woman. Of a height with an average man, she wore a round shield on her back, and some menacing looking ball-and-chain weapon hung at her hip. Her blond hair was short and tousled, her face pale and her eyes bright blue and—flat. Onnie dropped her gaze. She’d hoped for a rescuer, but mercs were as mercs did. This one being a woman, really more of a girl, didn’t change that.
Grace the Mace Description:
“Duncan is a true wordsmith with a sharp poetic style.” -Danielle E. Shipley
Grace has always been there for her mother, ever since she was old enough to bite the legs of those thugs and leeches that called themselves lovers. Ever since she was old enough to understand the world in a way her mother never would.
Now, she comes home every winter with blood money from a year of running with a band of sellswords. No more scrounging in midden heaps and cutting purses for a low court lord to survive the lean months.
But this year, home is as dangerous as the battlefield. Tensions are running through the street courts of her old slums, while a new and daunting lover has confounded her safeguards and gotten at her mum–and now they’re all tangled in a vicious turf war.
Is one lone mercenary enough to protect her own? Can she trust anyone else to do the job?
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