The slith is a sly, feral beast, thought to be a degraded cousin to the now-extinct greater dragons. Possessed of low animal cunning and exceptional hunting abilities, the slith are in a constant battle with the Barrakai hill-folk, who prefer to keep their sheep for themselves. This has made the Barrakai fierce fighters, for the slith are a formidable enemy. Legends have it that occasionally a bond arises between one of the Barrakai hillmen and one of the slith, but most reputable scholars put this down as superstitious twaddle. If such a thing did happen, they would be driven from their respective communities to live among the lowlanders. And no Barrakai tribesman would ever tolerate such a fate.
From the Moratovian Index
Entry By Barles Tarklay, Circa 1538
Hooten Grove Township
Kingdom of Ruall
Five and a half feet of sleek, reptilian death slipped into a dense thicket of blackberry bushes at the side of the road as three riders came galloping toward them down the east road. Her companion, the Barrakai Hillman Bastion Wolvish, let his mount amble to a stop and watched them approach. The bay gelding beneath him whickered softly as he caught scent of their horses.
“Easy, boy,” Bastion said, laying a broad, calloused hand on the beast’s neck.
They wore the clothing of gentlemen, not soldiers, he noticed. And armed with dueling weapons, not the tools of real warriors. They’d pose little threat to him even if he didn’t have an ally in the bushes. His second thought, however, was that it seemed very strange that three nobles would be out on the road without an escort, particularly this close to dusk. The efforts of Bastion and people like him had made the roads safer by far, but the world was full of desperate men and women who’d be willing to risk a lot to take a noble’s purse. If you did it quickly enough and fled, you might escape justice altogether if you had any kind of a head start. Not even the best thief-taker could find a killer no one could identify.
As they drew closer he realized it was even odder than he’d first imagined. One of them was a woman, dressed much as the men in long breeches, sturdy boots, and tunic, with a light chainmail hauberk and warm riding cloak rounding out the ensemble.
As they drew closer he realized that even she was armed, though not with the dueling swords the men carried. Instead, she wore a pair of long knives, one on each hip. The unmistakable end of a bow stave stuck out of a scabbard mounted to her horse’s saddle.
They reigned up about twenty feet away from him, the men’s hands falling to their sword hilts in what he found to be a truly amusing bit of bravado. They were actually trying to threaten him with dueling swords? He refrained, having had enough experience with nobles to know they wouldn’t take it well if he dared to find them laughable.
The woman wasn’t what most men would call pretty. Horsey would probably be the most conventional way to describe her features. What it lacked in beauty it more than made up for in strength, he decided, as she broke the silence. “Can we be of any assistance to you, stranger?” she asked. Her voice matched her face somehow, being deeper and more gravelly than one would expect out of a woman. If he had heard the voice without seeing the owner he might well have thought it had come from a man’s throat.
“I don’t think so,” he said in reply, “though I thank you for the offer.”
Her two companions, two fair-haired men who might have been brothers, exchanged glances behind her back as she regarded him soberly. He saw her take in his various accoutrements, most of which were only barely visible. “You are Barrakai.” It wasn’t a question.
He nodded. “I am.”
She cocked her head as she considered him, then nodded to herself. “You are the one called Bastion Wolvish, are you not?”
He blinked, surprised. He hadn’t expected anyone to recognize him this far north. Not that quickly. Word had clearly traveled faster than he’d hoped. Sighing, he admitted his identity.
She broke into a wide grin, the expression transforming her face into something that transcended mere beauty. Her eyes, green as a forest pool at midday, danced with what he took to be genuine pleasure. “I had hoped to meet you,” she announced, surprising him again. “I just didn’t think it would happen so quickly. The gods be praised. My name is Mina Nightsong,” she said, “and I’d like very much to hire you.”
After the series of shocks she’d already delivered, he grasped after that concept as if it were a lifeline thrown to a drowning man. He could wrap his mind around that much, at least. “Hire me? For what?”
The two men objected, loudly. “You have no idea if he’s even telling the truth,” the one on her right said, while the one to her left exclaimed “The only thing you know about him is based entirely on rumor!”
“They’re right,” said Bastion, feeling a little more firmly on solid ground. He knew entirely too well how many criminals and worse prowled the roads just waiting for a tasty morsel like this one to fall into their hands. The idea of her falling prey to them made his stomach twist as if he’d just swallowed a large draught of very cold water.
Something was wrong with him, he realized. How had this woman so quickly gotten under his skin? What was it about her that had piqued his interest? Her boldness? It was rare in lowlander women, from what he’d seen. Barrakai women were as fierce as the men, and for good reason. Everyone had to know how to protect the sheep.
“Right about what?” she asked, challenge in her eyes. “By all means, please elucidate.”
He didn’t know the word, but he caught her meaning anyway. “You shouldn’t trust someone you meet on the road. Rumors can also be unreliable.” He let his gaze fall on each of the two men in turn. “And you are?”
“Lucius and Caspar Du Chalagne,” Mina said. “Who are merely humoring me, as it happens.”
“Humoring you?” And just when he’d thought he’d found some solid ground. Bastion resisted the urge to sigh. “How so?”
“Now, Lady Nightsong, I really must object,” said one of the two Du Chalagnes. Bastion had no idea which, since she hadn’t bothered to identify one from the other. “You can’t be telling random strangers on the road your business.”
“My business,” she said, “is too damn important for you to muck it all up with your timidity!” She refrained from stomping her foot, if only because she was still on horseback and the horse wouldn’t like it. “Sir Wolvish. I would like to hire you for a sum of twenty four gold Royals now and another seventy-six when you deliver me and my sister safe at home.”
A hundred Royals? That wasn’t quite a king’s ransom, but it might well have ransomed a prince or two. “I accept.”