They’d nailed the prisoner to back of a tavern with daggers.
One in each palm, one in each wrist, holding her arms above her sack-covered head and dripping blood that soaked into her shirt. She sobbed beneath the reeking sack, wordless sounds of misery and pain floating out from behind the cloth.
“You thought you could just leave?” Kestrel asked, a vicious grin dancing along the teen’s face. “Nobody leaves, waerloch. Nobody walks out on the Mourners.”
Aisling – gawkier than her older sister, still not quite grown into the woman she would one day become – seized the top of the bag. “Ready sis?”
Kestrel drew the claymore sheathed at the small of her back and raised it high. Aisling ripped the bag from the prisoner’s face – and Kestrel faltered when she saw that it was her own, years older and shadowed by pain. The claymore drifted down in uncertain hands as the teenager shook.
“What are you waiting for?” the prisoner whispered. “Give me the wages of treason, girl.”
The claymore went back up in shaking hands.
And swung down.
* * * *
Kestrel bolted upright in bed, wings flurrying in her confusion and knocking away the contents of her bedside table. She’d learned long ago not to put anything fragile near her in bed, but all that meant is now the walls got damaged instead of her possessions.
Tears streamed down the Ragged Angel’s cheeks.
It took several minutes to calm down enough to banish her wings. Kestrel drew herself a bath – living on a volcanic island had some advantages, if one was willing to put up with the regular incursions of lava – and scrubbed herself raw before washing her clothes from the previous day and dressing in a fresh set. Her armor and tabard went on last, the latter marked with her symbol – the broken teardrop.
Kestrel took a deep breath, sheathed her dagger at her belt, and left her room so she could go downstairs and get breakfast.
Jack got up pretty early in the morning, and he already had a hot pot of chai waiting for the Ragged Angel. Kestrel gave him a grateful smile and sat at the bar. With the common room nearly empty, she didn’t feel the need to get a table of her own. Not yet, anyway.
“The Seven are on board,” Kestrel said with a shy smile. “They’ll protect the school. Now I just gotta get it built.”
“That’s great to hear,” Jack noted. The kitchen door near the bar counter opened to admit a waitress, bringing the scent of fresh bread with her. “Did some digging on my own for that. The dark dwarves are willing to put it up, if you are willing to get the cult of Thrud off their back.”
“And they’ll back down because they owe me a favor, and because I can get them a shipment of ash wood in from Shatterdown at cost,” the elf finished, pouring herself a cup of the chai. Cream and sugar were stirred into it, the former sparingly, the latter liberally. Kestrel could taste her life expectency shortening with every sip.
“Bad night?” Jack asked softly; the old human changed the subject casually, but he held Kestrel’s gaze. “You only talk business straight away when something’s bad.”
Kestrel sighed and reached her hand out; slender fingertips brushed an old, angry scar that marred Jack’s forehead in a crescent. “Yeah. Thinking about the old days.”
“Those days are dead and done,” Jack murmured. “It ain’t your fault that your memory’s different from everyone elses. The Mourners were just a gang, Kes. Just another stupid gang.”
The silence that descended over the conversation was oddly companionable; Jack had said his piece, and Kestrel knew he meant well. She drank her chai and, eventually, enjoyed the small breakfast delivered to her by a waitress who gave her a pat on the shoulder and a wan smile. The dark windows brightened as, slowly, the sun rose.
Kestrel worked her way through the pot of chai and sighed, contentedly. “Alright Jack. I’ve got places to be, things to do. I think I’ll check on Mouse, before I do anything else. You got anything that needs doing?”
“Yeah, mind nipping down to the docks and checking with Asher on the tobacco shipments?” Jack requested. “I’m running terminally low over here.”
“Got it,” Kestrel agreed. “Sword?”
Jack reached under the bar and produced a sheathed claymore, which Kestrel buckled into place across the small of her back. The elf smiled gratefully before getting up from her bar stool and heading out the door. Brown-and-black feathered wings spread from her shoulders where none had been before, and with a mighty flap, she took off into the morning sky.
* * * *
Mouse was a quiet girl – human, like most of Asheholm, and just barely old enough to be considered an adult in more law-abiding nations. Kestrel found her sitting on the roof of a bakery, chewing her way through a crust of stale bread and watching the streets below thoughtfully. The Ragged Angel landed far enough away to be polite and coughed to get Mouse’s attention; Kestrel’s wingbeats were silent enough that she often shocked people by landing next to them.
“Hey! C’mere, Auntie Kes,” Mouse invited, patting the roof next to her. “Got some news for ya. Weird news. Like, weird-for-this-town-weird.”
Intrigued, Kestrel walked over and took a seat next to the girl, politely refusing Mouse’s offer of bread with a shake of her head. “What’s going on?”
Mouse pointed down the cliff-face and the winding paths cut into – or bolted into the face of – the rock. “Elves, down on the docks. Three of ’em, two half-breeds, and this massive fucking wolf, like, the size of a damn bear. Real genuine article, all the way from Starfall.”
“Elves?” Kestrel said in confusion. “They never come here. I don’t even know why my parents came here. It’s too far away for almost anything.” She paused, looking puzzled. “You know what they’re here for?”
“Yeah, that’s the oddest part,” Mouse said with a conspiritorial grin. “They say they’re here for you. Or, well. The leader in the dragon hide says she’s here for ‘My granddaughter, Kestrel Moonheart,’ and gave a pretty good description of you.”
Kestrel stared at the human girl in numb shock.
“This is the part,” Mouse said helpfully, “where you go down there and talk to them.”
Kestrel leapt from the roof and spread her wings.