Movement at the corner of Rae’s eye made her stop and crouch, bow ready. She never should have taken this trip solo, but had no real choice in the matter. Her partner had done the stupidest thing imaginable aside from dying: he fell in love. Worse, he fell–hard–for an irritatingly competent mage. After five years working together to destroy the slave trade in Rennsen, it only took a week for Rae to become a third wheel.
A trio of young boys with snowballs in their mittens stared at her with fright, interrupted in the act of readying their missiles to lob at her. She eased her bow slack, annoyed at herself for being jumpy enough to have almost shot a harmless kid. The two-day journey to this little village had been nerve-wracking with no one to watch while she slept in the middle of nowhere. Hanging from a tree all night had done nothing good for her mood.
Sliding the arrow back into her quiver, she resumed jogging to the small cluster of snow-capped buildings. She saw no signs or other indications for a store, tavern, or other central building, so she walked to the closest one and knocked. The door cracked open wide enough for a middle-aged woman to peer out.
“Excuse me,” Rae said in the gentlest voice she could manage. “I’m looking for someone named Darry.”
The woman narrowed her eyes and puckered her mouth in distaste. “What d’ya want that old lech fer?”
Rae stifled down an exclamation of victory. Not only had her information about his location proved correct, but it sounded like she had the right person. “I was hired to find him and deliver a letter.”
Rolling her eyes, the woman waved a hand covered in wool through the crack. “His house is just through the trees that way. Easy to miss. Take the path. And watch yerself. Don’t let him grab ya.”
“Thank you, ma’am.” Rae bowed. She wondered why this woman would think anyone carrying a bow and a sword might be in danger from Darry, but chose not to ask. “I appreciate your help, and I’ll cut off his hand if he touches me.”
The woman grinned and nodded. “Good day, girlie, and good luck.”
Following the path into the woods, Rae considered her options. She could threaten him from the start with an arrow pointed at his face. Without knowing much about him, she couldn’t guess how he’d react. Since she wanted information before she extracted justice, that approach might not work.
Damn her partner. Connor always did the talking. He quipped, finessed, seduced, and threatened with ease, and managed to switch from one to another smoothly as the situation needed. Rae…shot things. She did the hunting and watched his back.
The path took her to a small, secluded cabin with smoke rising from the chimney. Aside from the cleared walkway to the front door, undisturbed snow surrounded it and draped over the young conifers and vegetable support frames. On both sides, a hedge of five-foot-tall shrubs obscured what lay behind the house.
Rae noticed a curtain twitch, which meant she’d been seen. Now unable to sneak around to check the back, she sighed and walked up to knock on the door. The greasy, grizzled man who answered it towered over her own five feet and seven inches of height. His broad shoulders, thick limbs, and wide belly filled the door frame.
“Whatchu want?” His low, rumbling voice raised Rae’s hackles.
She gripped her bow and shifted her arrow hand to her hip to avoid grabbing and arrow and stringing it by reflex. “I’m looking for Darry.”
His bushy eyebrows furrowed and his beady eyes narrowed. “Found him.”
At this point, Connor would come up with something clever to say. He’d get Darry to invite them in for tea, or maybe skip straight to confessing his sins. Rae cast about for words. “Hi. I’m here because…ah, because…” No good ideas came to mind, so she shrugged and went with the bad idea. “Ewan in Rennsen fingered you as a piece of his supplier chain. If you can prove you aren’t, I’ll go away and never come back.”
Darry’s brow shot upward and he blinked once. He stepped back to shut the door. Rae let him, scooting sideways through the snow to the nearest window. She punched the glass with her leather-armor-covered elbow. The hole let her hear Darry slide the bolt lock home on the door.
“Arlene!” Darry’s voice boomed. “Escape!”
Expecting her quarry to flush out the back door, she plunged into the hedge and nocked an arrow as she crossed the thoroughly trampled snow of the backyard. Waiting at the back corner, she got her breathing under control and watched.
When several heartbeats had passed with no one bursting out and no sound of the front door opening, Rae sagged and swore.
“Of course they have an underground escape tunnel,” she groused. “Everyone has an underground escape tunnel.” She waded through the hedge again, returning to the broken window to smash it out completely with her sword.
Taking a deep breath, she climbed through. At least she was actually good at hunting.
Lee French has published several fantasy and superhero novels, and is a member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.