It is a camp. A camp full of soldiers. And here I am, standing in front of one, about to take a shot at him – because he told me to. How on earth did I end up like this?
I was walking back from the mess tent when I heard Charis mention my name. That was my first clue. I’d been practicing with the career soldiers – using them as guinea pigs really. Could I make this one forget about his mate? Could I make that one forget about his meal? Could I cast a spell on one without them noticing? (The answer to that was ‘no’, but he forgave me as soon as I smiled at him.) It was a rather satisfying feeling, I’ll admit. To know that, should I so desire it, I could have all these grown men falling over themselves to help me, do something for me, be near me. It added a lift to my lips and a sway to my hips. I had never really regretted taking up with Charis’ group, but I had been vehemently against her decision to attach us to this camp full of soldiers. Now perhaps, I was starting to change my mind. Until I heard her mention my name.
“You want Silver for what?” Charis sounded surprised, amused, and perhaps a little scornful. The voice that responded was deeper and masculine. It was too quiet for me to hear what was being said. Well, there was only one solution to that. Get closer.
I moved carefully, as quietly as I could towards the tent Charis used as her headquarters. Two steps, and then three, and then – what was?
“Silver!” Charis was suddenly right in front of me, beaming. I don’t trust Charis, I travel with the band for safety’s sake. She doesn’t trust me either, but she enjoys the money I bring in. But how had she heard-? I took a step towards her as she swept back the tent entrance and immediately realised what I’d forgotten.
My bells. The tiny silver bells I wear when I dance. The bells I’d been wearing earlier. I had forgotten to take them off before attempting to sneak up on Charis. And the army wanted me? I sighed.
“Yes Charis? What is it?”
She ushered me into the tent, still beaming. Beneath that though, I saw the brittle smile she wore when she was anticipating a fight. It’s not my fault half her crew would rather watch me dance than listen to her. Is it? Surely not.
Within the tent was a man I had seen around the camp. Big and solid, wearing armour, a sergeant or something similar I thought. His face was scarred, and he carried himself with the manner and bearing of a career solider, after three months trailing after this sorry lot, I had learned to tell the difference. He looked – loyal. The type who would lead from the front and get himself killed in the first five minutes. I had to be careful not to roll my eyes, this army was paying my wages after all, and I do like to eat.
“This is Sergeant Rubin” Charis began, “he has been –what was it you said you were doing Sergeant?” Charis turned to him, eyebrows raised in question. Lying little witch. She knew perfectly well what the man was talking about, knew I wouldn’t like it, but also knew I couldn’t say anything or give away the fact I’d been listening. More importantly, that I’d been sneaking around intending to listen further. He cleared his throat and turned so he could face both of us.
“The Empress has charged me with the creation of a new squad” he began. “There have been – rumours, of civil unrest that the army simply is not suited to. I will be training and commanding a special squad, tasked with handling situations the army cannot.”
I raised my eyebrow at him, the question had to be asked, even if I was sure I knew the answer.
“And this has what exactly to do with me?”
“We need a skilled diplomat and negotiator” Rubin replied. “One who can also fight” he gestured to the whip hanging from my belt.
“I can negotiate” I admitted, I can be diplomatic too, if I have to. I prefer a more subtle method. Much better if you can make them think it was their idea. “I’m not much of a fighter though” it was the truth, even though it pained me to admit it. Sure, I carried a longbow, what elf doesn’t? The simple truth – I’m not strong enough to use it effectively. I had heard stories of people embedding weapons in their clothing, blades hidden in armbands, knives sewn into the fabric of a cloak. One day I’d find something like that, with my looks, I could get close enough that they’d never see it coming.
“Good” Rubin said, turning away as if that settled everything. Like hell it did!
“Excuse me” I began, moving quickly to stand in his way. I reached one hand and rested it lightly on his arm, careful not to let him see how much any contact bothered me. “I was under the impression that you had come to ask” I kept my voice calm and measured, with just a hint of coyness. “I’m really not a very good fighter.”
I know, the ‘helpless female’ act is older than dirt. It was an old ploy, and perhaps a bit cliched, but only because it works. He turned to look at me, dark eyes grave and serious, looking at me up and down. I did my best to look small, and at only 4’7” it wasn’t hard.
I had him. I knew it. I could see it in his eyes.
“Sergeant, let me talk to her” Charis. I could have killed her.
“If you’re sure” he replied doubtfully. “I do not want anybody forced.” Yeah right.
“Of course not” Charis was oily as well, oil. Damn her. “My troupe looks at the world in a different way Sergeant. I’m sure I can explain the situation to Silver in a way that she’ll understand.”
I’m sure she could. I’m also sure it would involve big sticks. Or shorter ones with pointy bits at the end. Damn her.
But no, he was walking out of the tent, Charis right beside him, murmuring reassurances about how I was sure to come around once she’d had a chance to explain things to her. Well, I had a chance too, and I wasn’t going to waste it. My longbow was with the rest of my gear in my tent, but I had my whip. I had it out and ready by the time Charis had let the tent flap fall and turned to face me.
“I won’t do it” I said before she could get a word in. I was good, and I knew it; but. But, it was entirely possible that Charis was better. I wasn’t going to take any chances. She chuckled. Chuckled?! What sort of person chuckles when faced with an angry elf? I might be small, but I know exactly how terrifying I can be when I need to.
“You’re quick” she told me, applauding with slow, steady claps. It was a resonate sound, the type of sharp staccato I used to get the beat when I danced without music. It made me sweat. Faster than I had thought possible, she was in front of my face, towering over me.
“What you don’t understand, however, is that Rubin has offered to – compensate me for taking away one of my best earners. It’s quite a tidy sum” she admired neatly trimmed and buffed nails, before raising hate-filled eyes to mine. In that instant I knew that I had no chance. I was one of Charis’ best earners, if not the best, and she had never been happy about it. It appeared that she’d finally decided to do something about it.
I might not have the lungs of a singer, but I have the lungs of a dancer. I drew breath to scream, only to find it choked off before it could begin. A dagger at the point of your throat will do that. Small sticks with pointy bits. I knew it.
“Don’t scream Silver. And don’t think about going with Rubin and then telling him the truth either. I’ll have Archer watching you, and you know he never misses.”
Damn her. I knew Archer, and I knew Charis was right. He never missed.
I wouldn’t give her the satisfaction of seeing me afraid. Bad enough that she knew she’d won. I stepped away from the dagger and walked out of the tent without looking back. A few words with Rubin had him convinced of my change of heart.
And as I walked away with him, I saw, up in a nearby tree, Archer sitting watching waiting, arrow nocked on the string. Damn her.
And now I’m standing here, in front of Rubin, trying not to roll my eyes as he requests, ever-so-politely, that I try and hit him with my whip. He seems to have been rather successful in his quest – in numbers at any rate. A halfling girl, a human woman bearing emblems of Perha, a gnome with a wolf of all things, a half-orc who looks about as intelligent as my bow. And the last two. An elf; he’s young, and if he comes anywhere near me, he’s stupid as well. And a man; he’s massive. I have never felt so small.