Desa Kincaid - Bounty Hunter
Desa rode into town atop Midnight.
The large black stallion let out a snort of derision, his ears shifting this way and that as they entered a village where log houses stood on either side of the hard-packed dirt road. It was a primitive place by her standards, but she noted the presence of paraffin lanterns hanging unlit above every door. At this late afternoon hour, the sun still provided enough light despite a thick ceiling of clouds.
To her left and her right, tall pines rose up on the outskirts of town so that it seemed as if the only way out was along the east-west road. But Desa had studied maps, and she knew the area well. A smaller road branched off from the centre of town, heading south.
Midnight twisted his neck to give her a side-long glance with one eye. No doubt he felt the same disturbance she did. The Ether seemed distant. It was usually so in places where men's hearts were full of hate.
Closing her eyes, Desa nodded once in agreement. “I feel it too,” she whispered, patting the horse. “Be at ease; we won't be staying long.”
Midnight snorted again.
A petite woman in tan pants and a brown duster, Desa pulled the wide brim of her hat down to shade a face of olive skin. Her mother always told her that hers was a face that would inspire young men toward all sorts of trouble. Not that she cared very much about getting a man's attention. She had always fancied women, and that had remained true even through her brief marriage.
She urged Midnight up a side street where two women from neighbouring houses were gossiping on either side of a waist-high fence. One had her hair up in a thick, golden braid, and the other let dark-red tresses fall to her shoulders, but you might have thought them twins by the way they turned their heads in unison to stare at Desa.
A skinny man in a fine black coat and a bowler hat came walking past on the other side of the road. City fashion? Out here? Maybe he was the local banker. He paused just long enough to direct a sneer at Desa.
Puckering her lips, Desa blew out a breath. “It's going to be an interesting stay,” she murmured to Midnight. The stallion whinnied in agreement.
A young boy in thick overalls that he wore over a white shirt came running out of one yard, dashing across the road. He was maybe eight or nine with a mop of yellow hair and a dimple in his chin.
“Boy!” Desa called out.
He stopped halfway across the road.
With a cheeky grin, Desa bowed slightly in her saddle. “Reckon a smart lad like you would know where a lady can find a hot meal,” she said. “Where do travelers usually stay when they pass through town?”
He turned his head to look at her, squinting as he sized her up, then gestured up the street. “Around the next bend,” he said. “Place is called MacGregor's.”
“Maybe you could show me?”
He shied away from her, backing up a few steps, glancing this way and that as if he thought his mother might come out and scold him for talking to a stranger. “I have to do my chores.” Desa snorted. The boy didn't look as if he was very busy with chores at that particular moment. “You'll know it. It's taller than the other houses.”
She nodded to him.
A squeeze of her thighs set Midnight in motion, and it wasn't long before the road curved slightly to her left. She passed more log houses, a tall man in a duster who led his horse by the reins and even a small village green.
The boy was true to his word; McGregor's was a large, two-story building made of wooden planks. Its gabled roof was still slick from a recent rainfall. A metal sign above the door depicted a man on the back of a rearing horse.
The very instant she arrived, a stable-girl came running out to meet her. A tiny slip of a lass with her body hidden under a poncho, she wore her bright red hair pulled back from a face as pale as snow. “Will you be needing a place for your horse, ma'am?”
Desa swung her leg over Midnight's flank and dropped to the ground with a loud thump. She straightened, reached up and tipped her hat. “Much obliged. Do you get many travelers here?”
“We're the biggest village between High Falls and Fengen's Wake,” the girl replied. “Most folks stop here.”
Desa stood before the child with hands shoved into her duster's pockets, nodding slowly as she considered the answer. “Lookin' for a fella as might have come through a few days ago,” she said. “Maybe you've seen him. Thick dark mustache and a scar along his cheek.”
The girl turned her head to study the inn's front door, then stepped back and scraped a knuckle across her brow. “Lots of folks stop here,” she mumbled. “I'm sure I wouldn't recall if I did.”
A moment of tense silence passed before the girl stepped forward and reached for Midnight's reins. The stallion nuzzled and licked her outstretched hand. “He's friendly!” Desa had to stifle the urge to laugh. The child didn't know the half of it! Once Midnight decided he liked you, he was your friend for life.
Taking him by the reins, the girl led him toward a stone path that went around the back of the inn. Really, it was Midnight who allowed himself to be led. That horse would not go anywhere he didn't want to go.
“Girl,” Desa said.
She fished a coin out of her coat pocket and flicked it with her thumb. It tumbled end over end toward the girl, who whirled around to catch it with a deft hand. “For your trouble.”
Inside, she found a saloon with sawdust on the wooden floorboards. Round tables were spread out beneath unlit lanterns that hung from the ceiling. For now, the light from the front window was enough.
A bar ran along the wall to her left, built against the side of a staircase that went up to the guest rooms. The man who stood behind the counter, wiping a glass with a rag, was tall with a barrel chest and a ring of dark hair. “Lookin' for a room?” he asked.
“And a drink,” she said, removing her hat.
The barkeep wrinkled his nose at her, then shook his head. “Suppose you'll be wanting a Vinthen Red or something else they serve in the cities,” he muttered. “Well, what'll it be?”
Desa hopped onto a stool, folding her hands on the counter and leaning in close. “Whiskey,” she said. “Straight up.”
His surprised grimace was almost enough to soothe Desa's annoyance. The man plunked a shot-glass down on the counter, then filled it with the contents of a brown jug and waited to see what she would do.
Desa picked up the glass, shut her eyes tight and downed it all in one gulp. The hot sting on her tongue and the warmth as it filled her belly were familiar companions, salves that soothed her many pains. “Now,” she said. “Maybe you could answer my questions.”
The bartender narrowed his eyes. “Maybe you could answer mine,” he shot back. “We don't trust strangers around here.”
“That's funny, coming from a fella as runs an inn in a town where strange folks come through all the time.”
“I may have to house 'em,” he said. “I don't have to like 'em.”
Pursing her lips, Desa held his gaze for a long moment, then nodded curtly. “Tell you what,” she offered. “I'll answer one of your questions, and you answer one of mine. All square and even, no?”
“Why are you passing through?”
“I'm looking for a couple of lowlies as broke the law back in High Falls,” Desa explained. “Figured they might have come this way.”
The man looked her up and down, and his face tightened, his thick, black eyebrows drawn together. “I knew it!” he snapped, though his voice never rose much beyond a soft whisper. “You have the reek of a bounty hunter on you. Very few women hunters in these parts, and only one as looks like you. You're Desa Kincaid: the Widow.”
Her mouth clicked shut, and her eyebrows climbed up her forehead. “I see you've heard of me,” she said. “And unless the name of this establishment is entirely misleading, I presume you're McGregor. So...Where's Morley?”
“Don't know any Morley.”
“I consider myself to be a woman of reason, sir,” Desa said, her accent changing slightly now that she no longer had to effect the facade of a local dialect. “Surely, we can come to some kind of accommodation.”
“There's nothing you have I want.”
With care, Desa slid a gloved hand into her pants' pocket and retrieved a thick coin of pure Aladri silver. She held it up so the barkeep could see the sword embossed on one side. “Not even this?”
“I don't want witch silver.”
Desa felt her lips curl, then bowed her head to him. “It's not what you think,” she said. “There's no magic, simply a deeper understanding of nature. This could be a useful tool if you were willing to open your mind just a crack.”
The man took it from her, squinting as he examined the coin. “How does it work?” he asked. “This...deeper understanding of nature.”
“See the sword on one side?”
“Run your thumb along it from hilt to blade.”
McGregor's cheeks puffed up as he let out a sigh, but he followed her instructions to the letter, clutching the coin in one hand and sliding his thumb across its surface. His eyes all but popped out. “It's cold.”
A grin blossomed on Desa's face, and she nodded to him. “Indeed,” she said. “Now, consider what you might do with it. You could put it in an icebox and use it to chill wine or keep food fresh. You could use it to bring down a child's fever, to provide some relief on a hot summer's day. Use that sparingly, and it should last months.”
The coin would drain an enormous amount of heat energy before it was filled to capacity, but it would do so slowly. Desa had made sure of that when she created it. A person would have to hold that coin for quite a while before they were in danger of hypothermia, and frostbite would compel them to put it down first.
“For months?” McGregor spluttered. “How do I...make it stop?”
“Run your thumb over the sword from blade to hilt.”
The very instant he did so, McGregor exhaled with relief. He set the coin down on the counter and bent forward, staring at her with beady eyes. “A treasure to be sure,” he said. “But I'm of no mind to cross the man as passed through here two days ago.”
“He made an impression, I take it.”
“You might say that.”
“Perhaps I should sweeten the pot.”
She slid the coin toward McGregor, then reached into her pocket and retrieved its twin, setting the two down side by side. The bartender's eyes flicked down to the coins, then back up to her. “Two would be useful...But not enough to-”
“Just try this one. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.”
With a look of extreme annoyance, McGregor palmed the second coin and ran his thumb along it. This time, he gave a start and nearly dropped the thing. “It's hot!”
“Imagine a journey of several days in which you must sleep in a tent each night,” Desa said. “Autumn's chill setting in, but that's of no concern to you. You'll be safe and warm all night long.”
Silence stretched on for several moments in which McGregor seemed to consider the offer. Desa could see it in his face; he wasn't swayed. Finally, the man slid his thumb across the coin again and set it down next to its companion.
Standing up, Desa put her hat back on and pulled the brim down over her eyes. “If you're not interested...” She reached out, slapping a gloved hand down on the two coins, clawing them back toward herself.
She looked up, arching one dark eyebrow. “I am in no mood to be trifled with, Mr. McGregor,” she said coldly. “If you know something, then by all means share. Otherwise, I'll be on my way.”
His mouth opened, and his eyes dropped shut. A shuddering breath forced its way through his lips. “This Morley you speak of,” McGregor said. “He came through here a few days ago. Darkness seemed to follow his every step.”
“The light dimmed?”
McGregor winced, shaking his head so quickly he might have made himself dizzy. “Nothing so obvious...It was more...a feeling you got when you were near the man. Folks were happy to see his back.”
“Do you know where he went?”
Before McGregor could answer, the door banged open, allowing a young man to stumble into the saloon, trailed by several of his friends. The leader of this group was tall and lean with short, black hair and fuzz on his upper lip that might have been an attempt at a mustache.
The two louts who shuffled in behind him were at most a few years younger, both skinny lads with pale faces, though one had obviously suffered a broken nose some time ago. Desa tried to ignore them, but it seemed they were unwilling to allow her any peace.
“Who might this be?” the leader asked.
Desa had her elbows on the counter, her mouth covered by the tips of her fingers. Aside from a quick glance when they had made their entrance, she made it a point not to look. That would only encourage them.
The leader seemed not to notice her disinterest. Desa heard his boots thumping on the floorboards, and she could practically feel the air stirring on the back of her neck. He would be within arm's reach in seconds.
“My dear,” the man said. “You are-”
Desa's hand snapped up, seizing the fellow's wrist before he could tap her on the shoulder, holding him tight in an iron grip. “Utterly disinterested,” she said. “Now would be a good time to move along.”
She released him, and the man staggered away, his feet scuffing across the floor. “By the Almighty's left nut, girl!” he barked. “Who do ya think you are? In these parts, women know better than to-”
Desa turned around.
Lifting her chin, she stared him down without a single word, her eyebrows slowly rising. “Reckon you meant to apologize and wish me safe journeys,” she said, assuming a local accent once again. “I thank you for your kindness, sir.”
The man was bent over and rubbing one wrist with the other hand. When his eyes fell upon her, she saw hatred there. He reached for the holstered revolver on his hip.
“Ducane!” McGregor called out. “Not in here!”
With his hand hovering over the grip of his pistol, Ducane stiffened, then looked away and spat on the floor. “Another time then, Missy,” he whispered. “'Less, of course, you're smart enough to leave town before I find ya.”
Desa said nothing more.
Defeated for the moment, Ducane jerked his head toward the door and then left without even checking to see if his two lackeys bothered to follow him. Of course, they did, and then Desa had a little peace again.