Snowhawk Inn was everything one expected of an inn this far north in Lashain. It was of modest size, sturdy, well kept, and it sat right on the edge of the Belt, a swath of forest bordering the mountains. A well-painted sign depicting the inn's namesake in mid-flight swung in wind smelling of snow. The sight wasn't uncommon, as snowhawks were the only way for the fortresses guarding the Belt to communicate in the winter. Small, fast, and fierce, they were native to this part of the world, able to fly through even the heaviest storms. Inside, the inn was warm, cozy, and simple. A large fire burned at one end of the main floor, and between that and the heat pouring out of the kitchen, the entire room stayed snug. Children napped and played cards, jacks, and other such games in front of the hearth until the barkeep or the cook needed them to run an errand. Another corner held a minstrel with his harp and lute, playing whatever seemed to best fit the mood. A few people sat at the bar, but most of the folk knew each other and clustered themselves around scrubbed wooden tables. The general chatter created a steady buzz, broken suddenly by a startled noise issuing from the barkeep as he looked incredulously at the lean traveler perched on the barstool in front of him.
"Yeh want to go where?!" exclaimed the barkeep, causing every eye in the room to glance his direction.
"The Wandering Wood," the woman in front of him replied, her voice a bit too rough to be husky. "I have business there, but haven't been able to find a reliable map for this part of the Belt."
would yeh want to go there?"
"Like I said, business."
"Well, grandmother," sighed the barkeep, his hands dutifully returning to the ever-present duty of cleaning glasses, which had paused in his shock, "I sure don't feel comfortable sending yeh out that far, but I s'pose yeh'd know yer business best." The old woman nodded and a lock of silvery-white hair escaped from her braid, stark against suntanned and slightly leathery skin. She brushed it back absentmindedly, as befits well-worn habits, with fingers long and calloused, fingers of someone who put them to work. But they moved with ease, too much ease to be considered gnarled.
"Hrmph, well," rumbled the barkeep, "yeh'll as want to take the main road towards Kunlin an' then the right fork at Brela all the way past Haresdeep. Jus' keep walking till yeh start leaving footprints in the soil an' not the dust."
"Thank you. Seeing as I won't be making it to Brela tonight, might I trouble you for a room and some food?"
The barkeep nodded to one of the boys playing round the fire who jumped up and ran towards the kitchen. "He'll make sure one o' the girls makes yeh up a room." He paused. "Yeh sure yeh want to head t'ward the Wood?" Piercing eyes glanced up at him, eyes the color of a clear and bright autumn sky. "Not that yeh look like yeh can't handle yerself," he continued, "but well, not many folks go t'wards those parts, and certainly not as many...seasoned ladies." A bark of laughter escaped from the woman.
"You can call me old-the gods know it's a term I've earned-but ask yourself my good man, where would we go if not to the woods?" The barkeep opened his mouth, but a chill gust of air signaled the entrance of a new party, saving him from answering. A group of men sauntered in, the insignia on their jackets marking them as soldiers from the nearby fortress, Baneswatch.
"Barkeep!" one roared, presumably the leader, "A round of ale! We here-"he gestured towards his companions theatrically, "-we we start patrol duty tomorrow and want to make the most of our last night in civilization!" A round of cheers swept the inn, although a few of those that clapped their back grimaced at their fortune when the soldiers weren't looking. Patrol duty this close to the snows was unforgiving work, but it was necessary. Every year a few unpleasantries snuck through the snows and mountains to the Belt, looking for food, food that wasn't always limited to livestock. Turning her head, the old woman took in the men. She knew their type. They played at being hard men, ready for work and battle, but she knew better. They swaggered and sang and drank with all the marks of green backwoods soldiers, not quite prepared for the winter they were about to face. Come the spring, the lucky ones would be haggard and lined, but the winter wouldn't have taken their ability to sing or laugh. The wind and cold would steal the merriment from the rest, leaving them withered husks of nothing but grouch and bluster. Service on the Belt could be as hard as any formal campaign; not all the casualties ended up in an early grave.
The clattering of a plate and an accompanying mug of spiced wine broke her reverie, bringing her attention to the food and the boy, bright green eyes as large as the plate, who had delivered it.
"Is that a bow?" He practically bounced with excitement as he pointed to the taller of the two wrapped oilcloth items beside her. "Is it for killing?"
"When did the young get so bloodthirsty?" the woman chided, smiling. Green Eyes made a quick study of the floor, but looked up in wonder as she went on, "It was, once. Well, still is on occasion."
"You used to fight with a bow? In battle? Were you a ranger? A scout? A-" Green Eyes bit his lip, realizing the questions poured from his mouth too fast for the woman to answer. She chuckled at him, inwardly sighing at the awe in his voice. Battle always seemed more dashing before one was old enough take part. If the Great Goddess had mercy, this youngling would never find out that guts and glory is a lot more about the guts than it is the glory.
"I did fight with it. I fought in too many battles and let me tell you-"but what she wanted to say was drowned out by a surprised yell as one of the serving girls stumbled, spilling soup on the leader of the soldiers. The girl quickly stammered out an apology and went to dab at it with her apron, only to find the man gripping her arm.
"Now what did you have to go and do that for?" he drawled. "Me and my mates see, we have to report for duty in the morning, off to go protecting your pretty self from the monsters. And now, now you have spilt soup all over me." He looked her up and down, smirking, and cut her off as she began to babble another apology. "No, I know you didn't mean to, but cloth will only do so much. I think we could strike up a bargain, you and me." She yelped as he pulled her down into his lap, one hand on her arm and the other on her hip. "How about you warm my bed tonight and I'll forget all about the soup?"
"How about you let her go and I don't loose this arrow?"
Collectively, the inn turned to see the old woman standing, oil cloth piled on the floor, an arrow notched and ready in her longbow. No one had heard or seen her move, not even young Green Eyes. Standing in her traveling leathers with her bow strung and drawn, the old woman didn't seem quite so old. Her arms didn't twitch at the strain of holding the string drawn. She looked tough and wiry, taut and prepared. Not to the man however, who laughed loudly.
"Why don't you put that down before you hurt yourself. This pretty thing doesn't mind my proposition, now do you?" He shook the girl slightly, eliciting nothing but a whimper. The point of the arrow didn't waver.
"Boy, don't make me shoot you. I will, but all I really want right now is a meal and a bath."
"Boy? You dare call me boy
?" the soldier's voice rode the line between furious and amused, one hand still gripping the serving girl. "I am Jorl da Stinen, son of Lord da Stinen who commands Baneswatch! I could gut you like a fish and no one would think twice about it. Who do you think you are, you delusional crone?"
"My name is..." The old woman sighed. "My name is Sylar di Silvosin." There was a pause, and then chuckles filled the room, even from the townsfolk.
"You really expect me to believe that you're Sylar di Silvosin?" Jorl wiped away tears from his eyes. "The Windblade? The Silver Rose of Lashain? You really are a delusional old crone! The Windblade is a hero! A legend! And as the stories say, quite the beauty. You are none of those things. Do you take us for jokes old woman?"
Jorl kept the smirk on his face, but no mirth reached his eyes. "You must since you're making like you're going to shoot me. I'm surprised you can even draw that longbow-looks too much for a frail old woman like yourself. I mean, maybe when you were young, which was a long while ago, but not anymore. Bet I could though, and you know, hunting could be hard on me and my squad once the snows come. I think you should give it to us as an apology for making a scene out of nothing. A present, so to speak, for our sacrifice in keeping all of these good folk safe."
Silence made the space between them stretch, the arrow still squarely pointed at Jorl, not having shifted once. The rest of the patrons took notice and inched away as surreptitiously as they could from Jorl and his men.
"You have no idea of the meaning of the word sacrifice, boy." A hard edge entered the woman's voice. "Let the girl go. It's a sad tale when someone as unscarred and young as you needs to frighten girls into bed."
Jorl's smirk twisted into a snarl. "Why you doddering bitch!" He threw the girl down, but before his hand so much as touched the handle of his belt knife, a soft whisper cut the room. With a solid thunk, the arrow lodged itself in the far wall. Jorl screamed. His hands desperately tried to stem the blood flowing from his face. Sylar shook her head at his now crumpled form on the floor while she unstrung and re-wrapped her bow.
"You're lucky I only clipped your cheeks and nose. And what will you tell them, eh? What will you tell them when people ask why the bridge of your nose is missing a sizable piece? That Sylar di Silvosin shot you for being a pig or that some old woman with a bow got uppity?" Although, chances were, not many people would get the opportunity to ask. The boy's father would order a healer to replace the chunk in his nose to avoid any embarrassment. Still, perhaps this boy would learn something. Sylar turned to address the rest of his companions, all still motionless, worried they might be next.
"What are you lot waiting for? Take him back to the barracks and get him patched up." They sprang into action, nearly knocking each other over in the process to obey. Together with Jorl, bleeding and groaning, they exited the inn. Sylar walked over and picked up a purse which had fallen in the scuffle, tossing it to the barkeep who had rushed to help the girl off the floor.
"For the trouble. Sorry about the noise, the blood, and uh" she gestured at the far wall, "the arrow." The barkeep flapped a hand hand at her.
"No need to apologize." He frowned at the door, hands planted on his hips. "Soldiers come in all the time to blow off steam. I 'member being a young lad who wanted out of the barracks every so often. That de Stinen boy is the only one whose ever troubled the girls though, but tonight wouldn't be the first time I've had to crack a few heads. I 'member that from when I was young too," he chuckled with a wink at Sylar, and rubbed his slight gut fondly. "They see this and think I'll roll over, but I still have some iron and spark tucked away in my bones. But yeh saved me the trouble of having to do it, and I would be a poor host to not thank you." Sylar waved a hand as if to brush the offer off, but stopped as he narrowed his eyes at her.
"Yeh wouldn't want to insult my honor or pride, now would yeh?" he accused, beetle black eyes twinkling. "Everyone round these parts knows Dal of Snowhawk Inn to be a man of both, and that's all a man has after a certain age yeh know. And a gorgeous wife whose given me many lovely children," he hollered towards the kitchen from whence issued laughter. "So," he stared hard at Sylar, "what's it gonna be?"
"A hot bath and some food in the morning will be more than plenty," she relented. Dal nodded, a broad smile of satisfaction on his face, and sent Green Eyes rushing away to draw a bath. Sylar shook her head with a smile as she sat back down at her meal. If she wasn't careful, Dal would send her off with more food than would fit in her saddlebags. Gradually, conversation started back up, and as Green Eyes led Sylar to the baths, she heard tales floating around the pints of ale and spiced wine that she hadn't heard in years, as well as titles long ago shelved. Thankfully, the room with her bath was out of earshot from the main room; Sylar found listening to stories about herself to be a strange experience. She gratefully stripped out of her leathers and lowered into the silence and warmth of the bath. It was a luxury this far north, and one she wouldn't get once she passed Haresdeep. Her younger self had enjoyed invigorating baths in streams, but Sylar's bones creaked now. They never felt quite warm unless steamed through.
Sylar smiled. Her younger self seemed like an entirely different person these days. Baths in mountain streams, months spent perfectly comfortable curled up on the forest floor, and energy to spare. She'd loved every bit of being a ranger for the army. Every day spent tracking some lawless scum or wayward monster through the trees. Every long night spent scouting and tracking platoons of enemy soldiers. Even every patrol on the Belt she'd worked during the snows. It had all been fun and exciting: one big, long adventure. But it had also been hard, tough work where she didn't always come out on top. Her body was one big map of every mistake she ever made. Each pale line marking her dark skin had a story, not that she remembered them all. 'Course, it wasn't like she needed to remember them all. Between official reports, soldier's gossip, and bards, her entire life was recorded somewhere, in some form or fashion, even though most of the renditions were now embellished far beyond the truth. Just last month she'd listened to a bard sing a version of "The Valley of Frost and Fire", regaling the town square with her single-handed defeat of five fully-trained mages and their respective battalions. It was well written to be fair, but complete nonsense. She'd only killed three by herself, and the rest was the work of her scouts and the army. And far too often these days, she heard tales about her younger years that she didn't recognize, adventures she couldn't recall anymore. If only there hadn't been so damned many. Too many some days, too many...
Her chin met water and Sylar realized how long she'd been in the bath. She didn't relish the thought of getting out, but the water had cooled down. Besides, after her display, she couldn't very well accidentally drown. A snort escaped at the thought of the servants finding her like that in the morning. The Great Windblade indeed, snuffed out by a sinisterly warm bath.
Slowly, Sylar rose out of the water and made to her room where a roaring fire helped preserve some of the warmth from the water. Sleep quickly claimed her, and when she dreamed, she dreamed the same dream as always: of a laugh belonging to golden hair, of the gleam and music of clashing blades, of a wrenching feel of loss, and of an arrow fletched with feathers darker than a moonless night.