The horses could travel for hours, hooves pounding gravel into the dirt and sending clouds up behind them only to be lost in the shadows that surrounded them. A night, one darker than they had in the east as the skies were a void, inky black and lacking the lights that shined over the east.
Everything was truly dark.
“I don’t understand why they couldn’t come to the stronghold, ma’am.”
Rowena waved a hand dismissively, looking away from the window she had been staring out for most of that day’s journey. The air smelled of rain, rich and earthy, but it was a smell that she found unsettling, foreign compared to the east. Undergrowth, trees that shed their leaves when the warm weather was gone, were both things that had been an odd sight after staring out into the white she was accustom to.
“That isn’t something you should be worrying about, Tuffett.”
The young woman dipped her head. “I know. But…are you sure you can trust them?”
“I may have lost my bounty hunter, but I’ve known these men for far longer. Their failure would mean my entire establishment is crumbling. We both know that isn’t so, don’t we?”
“I don’t understand, ma’am.”
The carriage came to a halt and Harriet was thrown backwards with a grunt of surprise, rubbing her head tenderly. Rowena smiled, moving towards the opening door and looking into the face of their distraught driver.
“They’ve only got one lantern lit. Didn’t see the thing right away, ma’am-“
She raised a hand, cutting him off. “It’s quite alright.”
He dipped his head, stepping back and climbing back aboard the coach the moment the door was clear of Rowena and her chief.
The inn was small, lopsided and lit poorly as the man had said before. A wall had been patched, mismatched stone dotting along the side of a structure that made her wonder just how the building had remained standing at all. Quaint, she decided, was the most respectful way of describing it.
The interior was no different, containing only a few occupied chairs and tables.
A woman greeted them with a kind face, tired eyes blinking rapidly as Rowena cracked a pleasant smile. “I am looking for two men-“
“Two?” a drunken patron slurred, grinning. “Mind if I-“
Rowena drew her pistol, arm steadying to aim behind her as she smiled apologetically at the woman behind the counter. “Two friends of ours.”
“You stop that ‘less you want a bullet in you. I’ll let her do it too,” the woman scolded, staring beyond to the man slumped at the table. “No manners here.” Her eyes went back to the Dravara. “Who’re you now?”
Rowena’s smile twitched.
Harriet stiffened beside her.
“Dravara,” she explained plainly.
“Oh, heard you were coming. Your friends are out back,” she paused, pointing away from them, “through that door.”
Harriet stammered out a word of thanks as they moved off and Rowena’s pistol was slipped back into her holster.
If she thought the main portion of the inn was quiet, the room they entered was utterly deserted. However, the company was more pleasant for certain and her eyes went to the two men that stood against the far wall. They were dressed plainly, hidden by shadows that weren’t reached by the lantern sitting on the table centered in the room.
“I’m so glad the two of you were able to make it. Have I missed introductions?”
“We didn’t introduce ourselves, ma’am.”
“Ah, I understand.”
“As you may not already know, the bounty hunter sent after Aurora and Norton failed. I can only assume he was captured or disposed of. However, knowing the rebels that took him, I suspect he is now a prisoner of theirs.”
“Are you looking to get him back?” one of them asked.
“No, I couldn’t care less what becomes of him. I have more important things to deal with and right now, I have a self-proclaimed resistance to handle. They are attempting to upset a natural order, something that has been in place long before my father even led the Dravara. Disbanding my establishment would mean allowing the rest of the country to fall into chaos. Without the Dravara…” Her words trailed off. “We cannot allow it.”
“You know there’s only two of us, right?”
Rowena smiled. “Of course. However, I have underestimated the power of two before and I know you are both capable. I would like Hooke taken care of as soon as possible. Without a head,” she paused to draw her dagger, setting it on the table, “a snake cannot slither.”
“What about Aurora?
“A fair question though it surprises me from you. Aurora will get what he deserves, but he isn’t the only danger here. He is one man.”
The figure nodded. “And yet he threw the Dravara into chaos already once.”
Rowena leaned forward, arms braced on the table. “It won’t happen again.”
“Do you know what happens when an order is taken down?”
“I’ll answer that for you. There will be turmoil. We are stopping that from happening, stopping a war and the other acts the resistance is driving itself towards. Because of our actions, the country,” she paused, looking between them, “our country, will be safe. The Dravara have kept us safe for decades. I don’t intend on giving that up now.”
“Are you talking about declaring war against the resistance?”
Rowena shook her head. “I’m talking about killing an uprising before it even begins.”
The Dravara numbered in the thousands whereas the resistance was small, petty compared to her forces. They weren’t a threat just as a flea wasn’t anything more than an annoyance to a wolf. Disloyalty coupled with their desire for disorder couldn’t be allowed to continue.
She was protecting them, all of them.
“Benjamin dies first. I don’t care how, but I’d like it done as soon as possible. The resistance crumbles and, if the right circumstances arise, Aurora can be dealt with too. If not, I’ll find him and take care of the problem myself. Do you understand me?”
The other was quiet.
“I don’t want more bloodshed than what is absolutely necessary, but there are times when it can’t be avoided. Blood is precious and I can think of no one that takes kindly to when blood they know is shed. That being said, I can promise you that the safety of any family you have is assured. However,” she paused. “The same can’t be said if you fail me.”
Her palms pressed down and metal sliced through flesh, crimson winding away from twitching fingers as the blade bit deep. Rowena’s eyes flickered, a flash of pain, but the smile was still there.
There was another pause and a glance shared between the two, hoods shifting atop their indistinguishable heads. One cleared his throat. “We won’t fail, ma’am.”
“That wasn’t a question. I know you won’t.”
Harriet tapped her shoulder. “Ma’am, we should go.”
Rowena smiled, collecting the bloodied blade from the table. “You will have to excuse me, Tuffett is right. The two of you should be on your way now too.”
One man nodded, dipping his head as he moved towards the door, slipping out and disappearing without a word. The other stayed.
She clenched her fist, holding back the blood still dripping between her fingers. “It’s a shame we can’t meet more often. I would love a less…formal meeting, wouldn’t you?”
A hum. “I’m not sure that can happen again.
Frowning, she sighed. “What a pity.”
“I should go,” the man mumbled, dipping his head as the other had done.
Rowena nodded her head, watching him as he shuffled across the floor to follow the same path out the door. Harriet cleared her throat. “Were they Dravara too?”
“No, the opposite.”
She leaned forward, wetting a finger and snuffing out the candle burning between them. Smoke swirled upward, light lingering for a moment in her eyes before fading away into the inevitably consuming shadows.