Her mask was made from the head-bones of an aurochs and she ran. Each footfall landed in a violent clatter, the assault of her soles on earth sending the pouches and hanging weapons from criss-crossed belts and harnesses colliding, rebounding off each other. This was no stealthy flight.
Ridgen Village perched at the edge of the great gorge, squatting there as though trying to defecate into the chasm. When the woman clanged and thudded her way into the muddy slums on Ridgen’s western outskirts, her pursuers were nowhere to be seen.
She paused at the rough sign driven into the sticky grey ground at the village’s limit. The words above the faded whitewash of an arrow, gesturing south, read, “Ridgen. Population 1,300. Bridge customers welcome. Gorge floor path.” Words came slowly to Fian; she relished the opportunity to catch her breath while she made sure she understood the sign’s meaning: the bridge lay ahead, through town; to the south, the long road through the canyon.
A lumpy man dragging a rickety cart approached from the northern path. His skin and clothes and cart were all the same color as the ground.
“Vitte corga, good citizen,” Fian said, raising one hand and removing her mask with the other.
“Corga durano, bitch,” the man replied.
Fian ignored the rudeness. “How much time will it save to cross the bridge?”
“Depends on how long you stay here, trading your thigh-joint for silvers to pay the toll.”
“How much is the toll?”
“Sixty couppers per head; ten silver an axel. Unless our pig of a Magistrate has seen fit to raise the cost again this week.”
Numbers were no more familiar to Fian than letters. “How much then for six men with two chariots?”
The peasant curled a lip. “Do I appear to have a damn abacus on my person, you walking kitchen?”
Patience narrowed in Fian’s mind. She turned for a moment, pretending to re-assess the sign, hoping the man would catch a glimpse of the sword at her back and find some respect. “Let’s assume I can pay the toll myself, today. How long is the journey through the gorge?”
The man sighed and dropped the handles of his cart, leaning against the splintering wood as if expecting to be delayed a long time. “At a steady pace fitting cattle or other dumb beasts that are prohibited on the bridge, it’s three days’ walk.”
“Thank you, good man,” Fian said, leaving him behind and regaining her good mood. Perhaps she would be similarly sour, were she forced to farm this unattractive land.
Beyond the retaining wall separating the dirt farmers and crippled beggars from the tax-paying citizens, the bustle of expected activity died away. There were no more chickens underfoot; the boot-tugging mud gave way to hardpack; children cowered behind wood-framed doorways, scurrying into shadow like roaches from a lit oil lamp. Fian found herself conscious of her noisy procession through the streets, pouches and cooking pots banging in the silence.
It took several minutes for her to identify that the tack and supply shop was also the toll crossing. The man behind the counter was tall and sun-browned, his face droopy and spidered by wrinkles. Two wet eyes inside bags of sleepless, purple flesh. He adopted the proprietor’s pose, hands flat on the counter’s termite-soft surface. “Corga buno, roader. Tack or toll to please you?”
“Par vitte corga, sur. Information would please me most.”
“Not much profit in talk,” he said after a beat.
“Can you calculate the toll for six men and two chariots?”
“I am able.”
Fian waited for him to do or say something further, but when it became clear he would not, she realized what she had asked and what he had answered. “Indulge me, sur? For a coupper, perhaps?”
He stared at her for a moment more. Then, “Why? Do you have six men and two chariots to pay for?” He glanced over her shoulder through the doorframe and into the empty, eerily silent street.
“Perhaps,” Fian said, hoping to pique his greed.
“When they arrive, we can discuss payment,” he said and looked away as if to attend other customers.
In a brutal flash and a cacophony of rattling from her hanging burdens, Fian snatched an iron horseshoe from a rod where a stack of them hung and slammed it onto the counter. The weak wood parted like soft cake beneath the violence and the merchant drew back in shock then lurched, held fast. He regarded his left arm and found the horseshoe looped over his wrist, a makeshift manacle driven into his own countertop. His eyes found Fian’s and hatred boiled there like tar, the black strands of her hair shading her eyes.
“How much?” she asked through her teeth.
“Twenty-three silvers and sixty couppers, priestess.” His jaw quivered while he blurted the sum. The stench of soiled breeches rose from behind the counter.
Fian smiled as sincerely as she ever had. “A kind thank you, sur.” She pried a coupper from a pouch and set it on the counter, “As promised.” She fished in long satchel at her waist and produced an ivory chess piece, the rook, and placed it next to the coin.
“In a half day, six men will come to you with two chariots. They will ask if I crossed the bridge. Tell them I did. If you say otherwise, I will know, and you will die. Their leader will be a man named Bartaugh. Give him this gamepiece. If you do all this, I will make you rich.”
She did not wait for an answer. She turned with a great din and headed for the south road. He would co-operate. Meantime, she had an ambush to set, with a three day journey to complete in one.
As she ran, she grinned and said aloud, “Checkmate.”