It was but a small collection of huts in the distance, and Eira, ever the optimist, said that there would be more buildings over the hill. The lizardwomen were walking on grass now, however, with the dirt road having dissipated into nothing long ago. And Gwyneth, despite being more or less the phlegmatic counterpoint to Eira’s sanguinity, had hoped that yes, maybe the village was not as miserable as it looked in the distance, and it was all just an illusion of the late afternoon mist.
When they crested the hill on which the village began, they found that there were indeed more thatch-roofed buildings on the other slope. At a glance, one could estimate that breadth of the settlement could house as many as a hundred families, but no-one greeted them when they entered, save for the barking of a chained dog. And even before that, there were no lookouts, professional or otherwise, on the alert for strangers like them.
The typical reaction to a bunch of sellswords – or any armed persons, rather – walking into your settlement was to close the doors and eye them suspiciously through half-shut windows, but in doing so, the settlement would usually take on the air of restrained energy – the energy of prey going into the defensive. But there was no such buzz for the sellswords when they entered Virid, only a mere tingle on the scale.
Iona tsked and rested the scabbard of her greatsword on her shoulder. “Should have known better than to trust the word of seedy tavern keeps,” she said, irritated. “Nobody lives here. We’ve wasted our time.”
Eira frowned. “No, that can’t be right. There should be people here. I mean, there are people here, and-”
“Well obviously there are.” Iona rolled her crimson eyes. “But clearly not enough, and not rich enough to offer us good coin for our work. If there even is any work to be found.”
“Eh… I guess,” Eira shrugged, her shoulder-length, brown hair bobbing with the motion. “What do you think, Gwyneth?”
Gwyneth was the leader of the five-woman band with no name. She was at the very forefront, as her status befitted her. She took a moment, regarding the ghost town with calm sweeps of her golden eyes.
“I think… that it’s a bit too early to judge,” she said, her dark brown ponytail swaying as she turned. “And I think that we’re all rather thirsty from our journey. How about we grab a drink and we can sort this out later?”
Iona smirked. “Sounds like a plan. I could use a cold mug or two.”
The band began to make their way to what could only have been the tavern. It was a large structure, the only one in the settlement two storeys tall. They made their way past houses that were by no means in disrepair but were for some reason empty, and ambled around what could have been the marketplace in better times: a collection of empty containers and folded bolts of canvas. Their only companion aside from the dog barking behind them was the breeze whistling through the streets, and the creaking of half-open doors and window shutters.
There was a strict methodology in the way they navigated the place. Eira and Gwyneth had their shields the most readily available, so they walked together at the front. Morwen walked just behind them, characteristically silent with her index finger anxiously stroking the trigger of her light crossbow. Lili was second to the last with her powerful recurve bow, and finally, taking the rearguard was Iona, whom they all figured was a shield unto herself. They all looked around, scanning for any threats.
“This place gives me the creeps,” Lili said.
“You’ve said that, what, five times now?”
“You’re not worried at all, Eira?”
“Nope!” Eira grinned toothily. “Well, I am, but if there’s smoke coming out of the tavern chimney, then there should be someone present to cater guests.”
“And hopefully they have ice,” Gwyneth said, stopping at the building’s threshold. Large double doors stood before her, windowless and imposing with rough wood and dark, iron bars for crude handles.
“They’ve covered the windows from the inside,” Iona quipped. “Odd.”
Gwyneth rapped on the door loudly. “Hail!”
Perhaps ten seconds passed till the muffled reply. “Who is it?”
It was a man’s voice. “Travelers from Bethell! We seek food and drink.”
“Travelers? What- what fools would travel here?” A moment passed as someone partially undid the cloth covers of a window to peek at Gwyneth’s band. “Okay! Just wait a minute.”
It actually took one full minute. Gwyneth could hear the settling of a heavy object and the rattling of a chain as whoever were inside undid lock after lock. That they seemed to be willing to let them enter was as good a reason to relax as any, but the surreality of it all just made her want to put her hand on the pommel of her sword despite how rude that could be.
A tall man, middle-aged, swung the doors inward just enough to show himself and no-one else. He greeted them with his bald head and the golden eyes of an incubus, wearing the garb of a butcher, apron and all; and in addition to the faint smell of blood, Gwyneth could also smell of the woman who had taken him.
“Who are you?” He asked, his eyes on their surcoats, chainmail and weapons.
“Travelers, like I said. Sellswords, if you want to be specific. What is your name?”
“Sellswords?” The man echoed, as he looked towards the distance. “Sellswords, huh. You’ve come a bit too late then, sellsword.”
Gwyneth was irritated that he hadn’t answered her, but decided not to show it. “Why? What’s happened here?”
He frowned, the crux of an overall pained expression. “Oh, a lot of things. Elder Ada can tell you more. I dare not speak of what’s happened here. If… if you can help, then please, come inside.”
The man turned around and disappeared into the shadows of the tavern. Gwyneth looked over her shoulder, lightly smiling.
“Looks like there’s work for us here, after all.”
“Should I unstring my bow?” Lili whispered.
“No, not yet.” Obviously. But Gwyneth couldn’t fault the nerves of the band’s newest and most unbloodied member. Skilled though she was at the bow, the heart could only be trained through facing danger.
The interior was dark when Gwyneth’s clawed foot went past the threshold. The villagers had done their damnest to cover everything up, but for what, she wondered. Her eyes adjusted to the dim glow of candles and oil lamps; the thin, vertical slits of her pupils expanding to take in the scene. Only when Gwyneth concluded that there was no danger did she amble further in and allow her comrades after her. But even then she stopped to examine the common room one more time.
It was a mess. Tables and chairs were overturned, and even miscellany like small wooden crates and barrels swept her view from end to end. Yet there was an order to the chaos – Gwenyth could immediately identify barricades and low walls for cover. Most of the windows had been boarded up, or at least had a propped-up chair and a piece of cloth to hide the interior and maybe catch a bolt or two. Her gaze came upon the villagers and saw that they were indeed preparing for a siege. If that term could even apply to such a tiny locale.
There were maybe a hundred of them. The common room was large enough to allow each person a comfortable space while still leaving more than twenty paces of distance to the tavern entrance. Some were behind the bar or in the dining hall proper, while others stared at the band from a second-storey overlook. Most of their eyes glowed yellow in the dark, half of them of men, but some were just sniffling children.
Gwyneth’s eyes had fully adjusted by the time Iona entered. She could see as well as if it were daytime, then. The men carried spears, cleavers, axes, clubs – whatever they could get their hands on, it seemed, as they formed a weary militia whose only uniform garment was a red handkerchief tied to the right upper arm. The women were all weresheep, looking ragged and worried even as they fingered the knives at their belts. Gwyneth could recognize dark circles under their puffy eyes, from crying and grieving, no doubt. She idly swung her reptilian tail to the side, and she could see them all bristle at the gesture, eyes widening madly as fight-or-flight instincts kicked in.
Now she knew the problem. Gwyneth dipped her chin a little, considering how hard the job would be, and wondering at whether these villagers would even have the coin to pay for it.
“Lizardfolk?” One woman called out from the crowd. “You brought lizardfolk in?”
“They’re not a threat, Anna,” said the bald man beside Gwyneth. “They come as guests, and maybe-”
“Not a threat? After all that’s happened, you say that lizards are not a threat?” There was a clear venom in the way she addressed her race. Gwyneth stared cooly as the woman spat on the wooden floorboards. She was about to speak again, but Gwynth raised an armored hand.
“We are not a threat to you,” she said, her voice loud as she addressed the crowd. “But we are a threat to the ones that raided your village. Only give us the coin and you will have vengeance.”
Hushed whispers and murmurs erupted and rippled amongst the crowd, appalled at her audacity but confused at everything else. Straight to the point. That was how Gwyneth liked it. If they they couldn’t pay, or refused her, then she and her band would simply walk away. If, gods forbid, they attacked her, then she would kill them all and eat their hearts.
She grinned at that thought, despite herself. It had been twenty years since the Demon Lord had changed from one of Slaughter to that of Love; twenty years since all the races and families of monsters had their bones, flesh and hearts twisted in the image of succubi. Gwyneth herself was only nineteen years of age, but her mother had been a very powerful Scale Guardian in her time. As a beast, she cleaved the men of the Order in half with her mighty glaive, challenging their captains to single combat and winning every time. As a woman, she took one of their best as her husband in a daring raid. From their powerful union came Gwyneth, who inherited the strength and magic of both of her accomplished parents.
It was a golden age for sellswords; the perfect time for questing warriors to find themselves in a world of turmoil and strife. The new Demon Lord was still consolidating her power, and old factions still stubbornly existed to resist her rule. Not everyone had been turned into succubi. Many lesser demonic lords still plotted her downfall in the shadows, and tribes of monsters who had somehow resisted the transformation attacked the realm on an almost day-to-day basis. The succubi dreamed of a world of love, but hatred had gripped it for a very long time before their age. Many still remembered the triumphs of the old Demon Lord of Slaughter, and it would be a while before even succubi could permanently sheath their swords to live their lives in sex-crazed eternity.
Gwyneth allowed herself to indulge in her memories of the Luceth and North Angwarren Campaigns while the crowd continued to undulate with indecision. She battled against untransformed Minotaurs, then. They were agile despite their bulk, and fought with great swords the length of a man. Idly, she put a hand over where a massive, jagged scar remained from where she had been struck almost square in the stomach. She smiled. It was a sweet memory.
Iona tsked from behind her. “Damn it, what’s taking them so long?”
“They’re weresheep,” Morwen replied, her voice ever cold. “It’s in their nature to be indecisive. They are prey animals, after all.”
Gwyneth was also getting impatient, herself. “You will not take us to this Elder Ada, old man?”
The butcher turned to her, grimacing. “I would, but everyone is all shaken up. If you go any closer, they might all jump on you.”
Iona nodded in acknowledgment. “If that happens, we will kill them all.”
The man could only make a shocked, jaw-gaping expression at that. He stepped away, shaking his head. Iona grinned back, winking. The rest of the band all suppressed smiles except for Lili and Eira. The former, Gwyneth knew, because she was unbloodied; the latter, because she was opposed to the idea, being a stout believer in the new code of honour that even the far-away Dulhallans subscribed to.
Gwyneth was about to address the folk again when they all suddenly stilled. She was confused for a moment till she heard the sound of hoofsteps emanating from the second floor. They were heavy, but not quite. That was the only way she could describe it. In all the things that she did, the matriarch of a weresheep herd was greater. Befitting her position was a magical aura that guaranteed this. They could see Ada then, taller than the rest of the weresheep and even some of the men. She came to the balustrade and cast her golden eyes across the common room and upon the band, her expression cold and unreadable. The yellow and green of her tasteful robes were easy on the eyes, but her gaze was that of a judge.
“Like a cow,” Iona muttered under her breath, referring to the matriarch’s generous bosom. Ada’’s expression soured for a moment, intensifying her very mild wrinkles. She heard Iona when nobody else could.
“My, my,” she announced, her motherly voice filling the air with authority. “What is all this?”
“Murderers, great mother,” cried the woman from earlier. A girl beside her slapped her across the face and told her to be quiet. Ada pretended not to notice.
“I am Gwyneth, daughter of S’a-Martahuk.” The entire room cringed as they heard the language of Old Lizan. “This is Iona, daughter of S’a-Hektehon; Eira, daughter of D’a-Barbaluk; Lili, daughter of V’a-Antahen; and Morwen, daughter of Sigrid.”
Ada’s chuckle rang across the space. “Sigrid? That’s far from the language of lizards.”
“My mother chose to abandon her old name, mistress, in light of the new age,” Morwen said, bowing insincerely.
“We are travelers, looking for food, drink and lodging,” Gwyneth continued. “But we are also sellswords. Give us the coin and we will avenge you.”
“I would like that very much,” Ada said immediately. “Yes… very much so. So you say that if we give you enough money, you will track a hundred lizardmen into their god-forsaken wilderness and kill them all?”
Ada continued to stare at her.
“Recall the names of our mothers,” Gwyneth began. “Specifically, their honorary prefixes – S’a, D’a, V’a. Scale Guardian, defender of the Old Princes. Warmaker, proven bonds-warrior of the Old Trees of S’emaktahut. Shaman, of Ancient Names Forbidden. We are worth twenty of our lessers, especially untransformed scum.”
Ada nodded. “And what of the girl Morwen’s mother?”
“She has no honorary title, mistress,” Morwen said, bowing again. “I am low-born.”
“So it will be eighty-one against a hundred,” the matriarch concluded. Morwen suppressed a grimace while Gwyneth looked sharply at her in case of an outburst. She needn’t have feared. Morwen’s sense of honor was not as sharp as the rest of the band’s. “Even then, can you still win?”
“They will all fall to our blades,” Eira said. “Morwen is just as capable as the rest of us. It will be a hundred against a hundred.”
Ada did not look at her. Her eyes never left Gwyneth’s form. “Will you give me your word?”
“Only once a contract is negotiated,” Gwyneth said unhesitantly, smiling.
Ada held her unwavering gaze for twenty whole seconds before visibly relaxing with a sigh.
“Very well. My dear herd, there is no need for alarm. They are not the beasts that attacked us. They are guests, with all the rights that go along with that. Come upstairs, Gwyneth, Iona, Eira, Lili and Morwen. We have things to discuss while you eat. And please, unstring your bows. You are among friends here.”
Lili and Morwen looked to Gwyneth as Ada turned and the crowd settled down. Gwyneth shrugged and both girls began to deactivate their weapons.
It turned out that the proprietor of the tavern was Ada herself, adding to her responsibilities as Elder of the village. She had a young man named Gunther lead them to her room, which was at the end of the second floor hallway. He too wore the red handkerchief of the militia, and walked stiffly with a military-grade spear that he seemed to hold with pride as he swaggered along. Undoubtedly the young man wanted the band to notice him – and they did, but with suppressed mirth at having him and another man flank them in escort. Two more guarded the double doors to Ada’s own room, playing soldier and relishing in it. Everyone except Iona and Eira kept their faces cold out of respect for their duty, if nothing else.
Ada and a younger weresheep were already laying food and plates on a table when the double-doors opened for the band. It was much brighter in the master bedroom. Black curtains had been pulled away from the windows but not fastened down, allowing amber shafts of light into the homely place. Most obvious to the eye were a massive bed, a high shelf of books, and a small fireplace that shared the chimney with the kitchen downstairs, still smoking with hot embers.
The lizardwomen were all surprised when they stepped on snug rugs made of fleece, and even more surprised when they saw that the bed was also draped in the material. Were those pillows stuffed with wool as well? Did it come from animals, or did weresheep shear themselves as well?
“Welcome, welcome,” Ada said, smiling lightly. “Please have a seat around the table. Lori, would you mind bringing some soup from downstairs?”
“Not at all, mother.”
“And sorry there’s no ice. Our mage was one of the fallen.”
Gwyneth, Iona, Eira, Lili and Morwen took their seats as Lori left the room, joining the matriarch. The table was big enough for exactly six people to dine comfortably. Bread lay in a quaint little basket while sausages threatened to spill from their heap in a saucer. The band took forks and knives and began to dig in, filling their mugs with ale from a tall pitcher. Ada did not eat, content ito sip on a cup of water instead.
“That was Lori, my daughter,” Ada said. “She’ll be sixteen in three months. I wonder if she’s already found a boy she likes. I do know at least three… two, rather, are courting her.”
“Why have you barricaded yourselves in this building?” Gwenyth said, in no mood for idle pleasantries as she tore at a piece of bread.
Ada sighed, closing her eyes. “That is a question that is both hard and easy to answer. Please wait while I reorder my thoughts.”
“They… they came here five days ago,” she began after a while. “In force. We had never seen anything like it – a company of lizardmen coming over the hills, bent on nothing but death and murder at full sprint.”
“A hundred, right?” Gwyneth said.
Ada nodded. “Yes. We… we were not prepared. We had lived here for almost twenty years and nothing like this has happened. The most we ever experienced before this were bands of five or ten young lizards, scouting or foraging or whatever the hell those misbegotten creatures even do, walking around nude.” Her face contorted with rage for a moment. “The militia would usually scare them away with crossbows while they hunted in the forest. The nearby woods are dangerous but bountiful, you see. The men enjoy the deer and the boars, and going on hunts is something that they enjoy.”
“I didn’t know weresheep even ate meat,” Eira said. Ada smiled warmly at her.
“The men, dear. Not us. Well, we could, and I have, on occasion, but I’d say most of my folk prefer bread and fruit over meat”
“Where there’s one lizard, there are many,” Gwyneth said, putting the conversation back on track. “You mean you lived within scouts’ reach for twenty years without fighting the tribes?”
“We founded this village while the blood of the previous Demon Lord still burned at the steps to His throne,” Aba said sharply, using the honorific pronoun, “when the armies of succubi and incubi roamed around the realm and beyond and pacified this region twenty years ago. I traveled with them as a victualer, and I saw that the land here was good and rich. I was wealthy then and I- the point is,” Ada paused, “that the army left. They founded Fort Bethell and built the abandoned watchtower you undoubtedly passed by.” The band collectively nodded. “We had soldiers protecting us for years till the last five, and the duty to defend the village gradually fell upon the militia until we were left alone.”
“I had some retired soldiers teach the men how to fight,” Ada continued, her voice taking on a miserable tone, “and the village pooled funds for armor, shields and spears, but… they surprised us that afternoon. And what we had procured wasn’t enough. They came at us, running.”
Her expression took on a haunted look. “There was barely any time to raise the alarm bell, and the men got their weapons and fought bravely, but… they got through. They went into the streets. They dashed in between houses, hacking and chopping at- at everyone. They killed the horses in the stable and scattered our herds of sheep and cattle. Then they-” she choked for a moment. “They- they killed my husband,” she said solemnly then, her voice unbreaking but her entire body shaking. “They killed my Gunjar for no reason other than that murder is the only point of their existence. They didn’t even touch our fields. They just wanted blood.”
She soldiered on, as if uncaring for her agony. “My men – and women who should not even be fighting – killed maybe half of their number until they fled, but by then they had butchered so many. Four hundred people used to live here. Now, only a hundred remain. I can only thank that only a few of the little ones were hurt, and only slightly at that.”
A silence hung in the air. Lori took that moment to come through the doorway and set a pot of thick, hot soup onto the table.
“I will come back with bowls for the soup.”
Ada gave her a weary smile as she went. “Thank you, dear.”
Gwyneth bowed shallowly. “I sympathise.”
“You’d be heartless if you didn’t,” Ada said. “Thank you.”
Morwen leaned back on her chair, letting the returning Lori place five bowls on the table. “We didn’t see any bodies or blood stains as we entered the village,” she said.
“You should not underestimate the diligence of my people, or our capacity to recover from disaster. We buried them all and fixed the mess. Go to the other side of that small hill,” Ada gestured with a turn towards the window, “and you will find a mass grave.”
Morwen nodded quietly, satisfied as she began with her soup.
Ada’s voice was small as she asked, “Can you really kill fifty or more of those horrible things?”
“That depends,” Gwyneth said. “Describe these beast lizards.”
“They were small things. Four feet in height, some of them five. But very brave – or stupid – and very reckless. They mostly had weapons of stone tied to sticks or stolen equipment, but their claws and teeth could… could do horrible things.” She shook her head. “Their scales were various shades of green, if that’s of any help.”
Gwyneth nodded. “Did they wear armor?”
“No. They were naked.”
“Z’e-Mordhuin,” Eira breathed, smiling. “The lowest caste. We can take them!”
“They’re vermin,” Iona sounded. “The least of lizards. They should not even be called lizards at all! There’s a reason why our armies used them as fodder in the Age of Slaughter.”
“But they killed most of my people,” Ada warned, her lips trembling.
“Even peasants can kill a knight,” Gwenyth said, raising a hand. “Or a group of knights, if they surprised the knights and wrestled them to the ground before they could draw swords. We are not belittling your people’s tragedy, elder. We are only relieved that this is a job we can take without any additional burdens on ourselves and your people.”
“We are only a five-woman band of sellswords. Usually, our jobs consist of clearing out a werewolf den or taking out an untransformed troll harassing the local villages. Our quarries rarely go past ten or fifteen individuals. If it were Z’e-Mingghah, or Z’e-Tobrun, I would have asked for the militia to accompany us – if you were willing.”
“I’m not,” Ada firmly said.
“Right. If it were Z’e-Daitam like Morwen here, then I’d take the problem to Fort Bethell for the army or a free company to take care of it.”
Ada nodded and closed her eyes for a moment, digesting the information. “And what about the rest of you? What are your castes?”
“Morwen is a freedwoman,” Gwyneth explained. “The rest of us are Z’e-Daitien, or noble-born. There are no physical differences between the Daitam and the Daitien. The lower castes, however, are all servants and slaves. Or were, rather, with the reign of the new Demon Lord and her egalitarian principles.” She shrugged. “It matters not. The raiders will die by our hand.”
“Okay. I see.” Ada closed her eyes again, thinking.
Gwyneth leaned back on her chair, her bowl finally empty. “You still haven’t answered why you’ve holed up in here.”
“We prepared the tavern as best as we could for a siege.” Ada sighed, shaking her head. “In case that they came back. I know that it’s made of wood and a single idiot lizard with some oil and a torch could doom us all, but what else could we do? The lizards lingered at the outskirts of the village for days. We couldn’t send a messenger out to Bethell, not with our horses dead. You are the first to arrive here since the incident.”
“But why gather everyone in one place at this time?”
“We were discussing the fate of the village, and decided, just before you came knocking, that we cannot stay here. We will leave at first light tomorrow. I still have some friends at Fort Bethell. Hopefully, Captain Vaerily still remembers how I saved her arm from venom rot.” The matriarch smiled miserably to herself. “This is what we get for colonizing the frontier. I wish I could just…”
“So in that case,” Gwyneth crossed her arms. “How will we collect our pay?”
“We will stay in Bethell for some time. If we happen to leave before you return, I’ll entrust the money to Vaerily. Otherwise, I’ll be there – you have my word. So, how much will it take?”
“How much is the village of Virid willing to offer?”
Ada sighed, but she smiled wryly after. “A sellsword to the end, huh? Fine. Five hundred talons.”
“Six hundred, with two hundred in advance.” Gwyneth refilled her mug with ale and took a sip, watching the matriarch’s reaction intently.
Ada chuckled humorlessly. “You drive a hard bargain, sellsword, but most of my people are dead and I am in no mood to haggle. Fine. Two hundred up front and another four hundred once you reach Bethell. And in addition to killing the raiders, I would have you escort us half the way to Bethell.”
“That’ll be an additional fifty. And up front.”
The matriarch sighed. “Fine. So it’s settled.” She raised her half-empty cup of water. “Deal?”
Gwyneth brought up her own mug in toast. “Deal.”