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All the Heavens - Title

Chapter 3

Mira Highmoon wasn’t the least bit concerned with Horace’s opinion of her or his threats. On more than one occasion in the past he’d threatened her with various indignities, but only once had he been able to make good on it. Mira was incredibly strong for a woman, and every bit as agile as Jon. She was only two fingers shy of 4 cubits tall, and her long legs enabled her to outdistance Horace with ease when he came bellowing and pounding after her. Although she and Jon disagreed on many things, one thing they both thoroughly enjoyed was needling Horace to the point of red-faced fury then, eeling away before he could catch them.

Almost from the day she was born, Mira was a beauty. Her piercing blue eyes and flowing, chestnut hair had brought her more than her fair share of attention from the young boys when she was growing up, and an even larger amount of attention from the men now. She was lean and firm from her years in the forests and mountains, scouting for the army or leading hunting expeditions. Although her father’s logging business took him into town often, bringing her with him, she was far more comfortable in the great outdoors than she was in the cramped closeness of the city. Although she disliked cities, she didn’t hate them. She didn’t hate anything, except lizard men.

The hideous, scaled creatures had swum up the Blackwater River to her father’s logging camp when she was five years old. It had been early evening when they attacked, some of the lanterns and fires were already lit, and the dancing flames cast an eerie light over the battle. She could still see her father and his men fighting desperately with little more than their timber axes for weapons. The huge black shadows of man and beast, surging back and forth under the trees, blood splattering the ground, was a vision she’d never been able to forget. Then, that high pitched scream she could still hear in her mind, turning around – the whole world moving in slow motion – seeing her mother, slumped on the ground, the monster’s dripping claws ripping her body to shreds until she nothing but a pile of meat.

In that frozen moment Mira had conceived a hatred she had never known was possible. It raged through her like a living thing, and she’d sworn on her mother’s grave she’d never suffer one of those scaled monsters to live whenever she encountered one.

To that end, she had learned to wield a sword and pull ever heavier bows as she grew to womanhood. She ran through the woods, eyes sharp for the slightest indication of what had passed before, learning what every bent twig and twisted blade of grass meant until she was the finest tracker of anyone her age. She learned to read the moods of the animals, to watch where they stepped and did not, to drink only where they did, and to take note of any unnatural silence in the woods. She became adept at moving like a shadow through the trees and she taught herself to swim like a fish to be better prepared to meet her hated enemies on their own territory.

But her childhood was not all given to vengeance and training.

She also had time to make friends during her many visits to the Twin Cities with her father and some of those friendships had lasted a lifetime. She’d become closer to them than her father in some ways. Since her mother’s death, he’d become a cold and distant man, all but unapproachable. Now and then he would offer her a brief smile, but such attentions were few and far between.

Therefore, it was her little group of friends that she came to depend on when things were tough when she needed advice or just wanted someone to talk to. When she heard a new joke, it was her friends she thought of first. When her heart was captured, it was one of them, though she had yet to tell him. When the madness came on her and she screamed vengeance at the moon, it was her friends who sat and comforted her until it was over.

So it wasn’t surprising when one of them suggested they form an adventuring company and see the world, she was the first to agree. The idea held an immediate appeal for her. She was tired of her father’s sullen moods and increasing bouts of drunkenness. Logging had lost what little interest it had ever had and she was ready to try something new but she didn’t know what she wanted to do. The idea of working for the army on a full-time basis was unappealing, but her skills didn’t seem to be suited for anything else. She could tutor noble’s children in their letters she supposed – reading and writing had been essential for running her father’s business – but that sounded more like a jail sentence than a life.

Adventuring was the perfect answer. Her woodland skills would be useful and needed, her sword arm and bow would be equally necessary. It would keep her out of the cities and towns, and let her see some of the places she’d heard about and despaired of ever seeing. But most important of all, she’d be with her friends on a full-time basis, especially Aaren – her idea of heaven.

It had fallen to her to find them a job. After long discussions, they’d concluded their best bet was to try to hire on to one of the trade caravans that had their headquarters in the Twin Cities. Since many of those caravans passed by or through the forests where she lived, it was up to her to make the contact. She hadn’t felt like telling them it would be an effortless task. Many of the caravan masters often stopped at her father’s logging camp to pick up fresh lumber for repairing their wagons, and she’d met just about all of them at one time or another. All she’d had to do was decide which trading company she felt like working for then, ask them for a job.

The Seven Thumbs had been her favorite and Old Tom, one of the caravan masters, had been more than happy to give her and her friends a chance to prove themselves. She finished tightening the straps on her studded, leather armor and reflected that part of his attitude was based on his appreciation of beautiful woman. Both she and Katrina definitely fit that description, she thought without vanity, and Old Tom knew it. Looking is free, she chuckled to herself, but anything else – she fingered her sword’s razor edge – is out of the question.

With a light heart, she tossed on her backpack, sauntered out of her rented room, and headed for the Smiling Waif.

*     *     *     *     *

The last lingering notes died away and the scattered patrons pounded heir beer mugs on the tables cheering loudly. Katrina Swansong flung her mane of flame-red hair back out of her eyes and smiled brightly at them. She lowered her lute into its case and closed the lid. It was the last set of her last day playing at the Bent Goblin and she was ready to go.

She stepped down off the low stage and headed for the back of the tavern. Pushing through the leather curtain hanging in the doorway, she set her lute down and plopped into the chair in front of Oren’s desk. He shook his head tiredly.

“Hmph,” he snorted. “Don’t bother to knock or anything, just come on in and make yourself at home.”

Katrina fixed her mysterious, green eyes on him in a manner that had paralyzed countless men in the past. “Now, now Oren, watch your temper. You know it’s not good for your heart.” Her voice was low and sultry, conditioned by her long years of singing practice.

He snorted again and ran a handkerchief over his bald pate. “Don’t try your green gaze on me girl; I’m six times your age and been had by the best.” He shifted his massive bulk in the chair and sighed, “How much do I owe you?”

Now it was her turn to snort at him. She reached over and picked a sheet of paper out of the mess on his desk, running a finger down the row until she came to her real name, Katrina Shiyr, instead of her stage name, then across to today’s date. The figure was already filled in, in his handwriting. “You know exactly how much you owe me,” she told him.

“Ah well, it was worth a try.” He pried himself out of his chair and shuffled to the wall safe behind him. Twirling the little knob, he asked her, “Are you sure I can’t talk you out of this? We’re going to miss you around here.”

Katrina shook her head quietly. “No, it’s time for me to move on. There’s nothing here for me anymore.” The old man sucked his breath in sharply and she realized too late she’d hurt him with her careless words. She sprang out of her chair and came around the desk to throw her arms around him. “I’m sorry, Oren. I wasn’t thinking when I said that. Please don’t be angry.”

He looked down, regarding her somberly. “I know you didn’t mean it, girl, but you’ve got to start paying more attention to what you say. Most people will simply take you at face value and not try to see beneath that beautiful exterior of yours. You’ve got a good head on your shoulders, but you rarely use it.” He pulled away from her and turned back to the safe.

Katrina paused uncertainly, not sure what to say. Oren had taken her in three years ago when her parents died in a fire. He’d been her voice instructor for several years before that and felt an obligation to his young student when she was left homeless and orphaned by the fire.

Her parents had been traveling entertainers until shortly after Katrina was born. They’d mesmerized audiences across Gaia from the island of La-Dan to the Overdark Ocean. When their daughter was a year old they’d settled in Thorginbelt and purchased a store with their savings. During their years on the road, they had collected scores of souvenirs; tiny spice holders from Zul, crystal dolphins from the city-states on the shores of the Tagil Sea, a four-leaf clover from the island of Pellin in the T’thalian Empire, a piece of grass plucked from the base of the so-called Gates of Eternity; the house had been filled with hundreds of such items, and each one had its own story behind it. She had listened raptly for hours as her parents told her stories about all of the faraway places they had been and the sights they’d seen. They’d told her about the strange customs and manner of dress of the desert kingdoms to the south, the pirates on the open seas, and the beauty of ancient mountains half a continent away. And they taught her the songs of those places.

The stories fired her imagination, but it was the songs that gave her the resolve to go and see those wondrous places and write her own songs about them. All of her life it had been her music rather than her swordplay that gave her courage. Oh, she was good enough with a sword and a fair hand at dagger throwing, but it was at music that she excelled; music and carefree lyrics that often stung more than she intended. Oren was right, if she was to go adventuring around the world she needed to be more circumspect in her choice of words.

“I’m sorry, Oren. I’ll try to be more careful,” she said slowly.

“Don’t be sorry,” he told her brusquely, “just don’t do it anymore. All the music in the world won’t undo the damage of thoughtless words. I understand and can make allowances, but others may not.”

She nodded. “Once we’re on the road I’ll let Mira or Aaren do all the talking.”

“Aye, now that’s a wise decision. Those two could talk a dragon out of his hoard,” he laughed. “Here’s your money,” he added, pressing a handful of coins on her.

She counted it silently and her eyes widened. “This is twice what you owe me. I can’t take this.”

“Take it,” he insisted. “It’s my money and I’ll spend it how I see fit.”

“But –”

“Take it.” He glared at her. “Are you trying to insult me again?”

“No,” she said, somewhat subdued.

He reached out and closed her fist over the money. “Then take it and let’s hear no more about it.”

Ducking her head to hide quick tears, she slid the coins into her belt pouch and busied herself with the tie. After a moment she had it under control again and looked around. “Where are my leathers?” she asked, changing to a safer subject.

“In the backroom,” he said, waving a careless hand, his gaze averted.

She mumbled her thanks and darted through the door to put on her studded, leather armor. It took her several minutes; by the time she’d come back into Oren’s office he’d regained his composure. The sudden display of emotion had embarrassed both of them and they were glad it was over. Both had been hurt by the slings and arrows of fate and were shy of letting others get close.

“Your pack is under that pile of tablecloths over there,” he said, indicating a tangled heap by the entrance to the office.

“Thanks.” She strapped on her sword and slid a dagger into each boot top. Two easy strides took her to the pile of cloth and she tossed it aside and swung the pack up onto her shoulders. A quick jerk tightened the straps. She carefully slid her lute into its accustomed place and swung around to confront him. “Well, how do I look?” she asked, arms akimbo.

Oren nodded slowly. “Not bad. Not bad at all.”

“Thanks. Well,” she hesitated, searching for words, “I guess I’ll see you in a few months when we get back.”

He settled further into his chair with a faint creak. “Until roads come ’round then.”

She laughed gaily. “Until roads come ’round,” she replied brightly and bounced out of the room.

He waited until he heard the faint slam of the front door of the tavern before he pried himself up out of his chair and walked over to a small cabinet and opened it carefully. Inside was a tiny shrine dedicated to the Lord of Light. Katrina didn’t pray that he knew of, the Shiyr family were given more to song rather than prayer, but he had long looked to the god some called The Healer. Now he lit incense and offered his most heartfelt prayer in many a year.

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