Standing up in the stirrups, Cassandra strained to see over a small rockslide blocking the switchback path up to the Kotoan ruins. It seemed recent enough—probably triggered during the rains over the past few days—but had accumulated in such an unfortunate place that it would almost be easier to shift the rocks uphill than roll them downwards and off a turn in the path, and that pushing them aside would only mean shifting the problem onto an earlier length of the switchback. There were no signs of a work crew attempting to clear it from the other side, either.
“See if there’s anyone coming, please.” After giving Owl a boost as he took off from her arm, Cassandra dismounted and walked closer to the rockslide. No higher than up to her shoulder, and looking reasonably stable—at least for someone her size. Someone who was capable of crawling overtop it. She turned back to Fidella. “I am not going to make you walk over that.”
Snort, Fidella said with relief.
Cassandra looked over the view from the path’s height. They were exposed where they stood, and there was no shelter or cover to be found here. While she was still mulling the situation over, Owl returned, and she held out her arm for him.
Hoot, Owl said, and shook his head no.
“Okay. You two stay together, I’ll go up top and see what this pretend Bayard is about. Be back for you soon as I can, before nightfall at the latest.”
Snort, Fidella said, and laid down next to the rockslide in an attempt to blend in with her surroundings a little more.
Owl, in the meantime, was narrowing his eyes at Cassandra in an unblinking, suspicious stare.
“You know I’ll call for you if something happens.”
Hoot, Owl said, making it very clear what he’d think of her if she didn’t, and only then moved to perch atop Fidella’s saddle.
Cassandra rolled her eyes and started ascending the rockslide. With the gentle slope of the pile, and the boulders too large to be moved by her weight alone, it was incomparably easier than last night’s climb. She leapt from its summit down onto the path on the other side and continued on foot, making another turn of the switchback path before she frowned at a hole right in the middle of it, no doubt where the rockslide had crumbled and dislodged from. On even ground, she’d jump the distance easily—on an incline like this, she found herself landing a little too unsteadily for her liking. Were she carrying anything heavy, the gap would have been a problem.
Two more turns of the switchback path, and it started evening out, leading Cassandra up to the top of the mesa. A few ramshackle tents were huddled together beside a somewhat taller section of the devastated walls, most likely in an attempt to use it as a windshield. No more than five people in the modest wear of farmers, construction workers, and ex-miners loitered around, some repairing damaged garments or tools, some tending a campfire and a deer haunch slowly roasting overtop it. Seated on a large rock in front of the only tent that looked slightly better was a man-at-arms distinctly not hailing from the region: a bronze-skinned Kotoan about Cassandra’s age, with slightly mussed black hair and a round goatee. He was busy taking a whetstone to the blade of a halberd in his lap, but as soon as he spotted Cassandra entering the camp, he donned the helmet laying next to him on the rock and rose to his feet. Cassandra came to a halt a reasonable distance away, giving him the same gauging look as he was giving her. Mixture of plate and chain-reinforced cloth that would provide considerable protection without sacrificing mobility or a fair quietness of movement. Open-faced coif helmet with the noseguard profiled like a diving bird of prey and an attached chainmail hood spilling down onto the shoulders. Extensive familiarity with handling the halberd, a sheathed bastard sword at his left hip, and a modestly-sized crossbow hanging from a belt hook at his right. He’d probably put up a pretty tough fight, if it came to it, and if she was fighting fairly.
“State your business,” the halberdier called out.
“I’m looking for lord Bayard,” Cassandra replied, barely squeezing the false title past her throat, but still managing to sound somewhat neutral. “It’s about the treasure-hunting bounty notice.”
The halberdier gave her a pitying look, but turned away to pull the slightly better tent open and exchange a few words with someone inside. After a moment, an older man emerged from within—greying, in his late forties maybe. His garb was fine enough, Cassandra supposed, but she also noticed immediately that it wasn’t a perfect fit. It seemed to have been made for a man slightly taller and broader in the shoulders; it also sported several less-than-expertly mended tears that failed to hide entirely behind the decorative sash across his chest. Quite as if the outfit had been pulled off a dead person killed for it. And although his face was free of scars and his hands were hidden in a pair of doeskin gloves, making it impossible to gauge how much work they’ve seen, his eyes held an appraising, ever-calculating sort of avarice, as if the only thought on his mind at all times was how to use those around him and how much he could get away with.
Rather than a noble, this was a conman pretending to be a noble—and doing a pretty convincing job of it, really, unless someone had spent just about her entire life in the background of a royal court.
Though he was a little shorter than her, he managed to make it seem like he was looking down at her. “You don’t look like much of a treasure hunter.”
“I’m the one you’re getting,” Cassandra said flatly.
“Hm.” The conman gave her an uncomfortably thorough up-and-down. “You’ll have to do. Welcome to the humble abode of my ancestors, devastated as it had been by Equis barbarians in the years past. My men are excavating the ruins in pursuit of an heirloom, one of three, that will pay for restoring the castle to its former—and rightful—glory, while my servant Roberto is charged with the security of this endeavour.”
Cassandra glanced at the halberdier. Judging from the irritated look on his face, whatever his name was, it wasn’t Roberto. Or maybe he just took issue with being called a servant, which Cassandra could understand and agree with on a very deep level.
“The remaining two, you are to retrieve and bring to me,” the pretend-baron continued. “Both have long since been looted and stashed away, but fortunately I was able to narrow down their last known locations. One has been hidden in the southernmost depths of the abandoned silver mine; one was accounted for most recently as finding itself in the possession of a farmhand who fled into Wolf’s Head Hollow to protect his claim and was never seen again. Your payment will be doled out after these artifacts are returned to me, and sold by me: ten percent of the monetary gain from such a transaction. Now, if there aren’t any more questions—”
“There are, actually,” Cassandra interrupted. For a conman, he certainly carried himself with the self-important air of a blueblood. “What are these two treasures? I need to know what I’m looking for.”
“An item of jewellery, and a ceremonial weapon.” The pretend-baron folded his hands behind him, looking at her down his nose. “Unfortunately, as the family chronicles have been savaged by fire and rain, that the extent of detail I possess.”
“Okay, which one is where?”
“Are you deaf, sellsword? I only just said that I do not possess any more detail.”
Cassandra ground her teeth. “Great. I need directions.”
The conman sniffed indignantly, and turned on his heel to walk back into the tent, even as he waved a dismissive hand at the halberdier. “My servant can perform that plebeian a task.”
With a barely audible sigh of frustration, the halberdier looked at Cassandra and sharply jerked his head sideways, signalling her to follow him.
“I fucking hate that guy,” he said as soon as they were out of earshot. “Whatever money that comes out of this had better be worth it.”
“You’re on a percent payment too?” Cassandra asked.
“Not exactly, I insisted on five hundred gold up front and a percent afterwards. Bastard haggled me down to five percent, though. You?”
“Ten, but I had to shell out eighty gold to take his notice off a job board.”
The halberdier grimaced at that. “We might end up getting about the same amount, net-change. You came through Silberstadt, then?”
“Head further into Equis territory, most of their towns don’t charge a taker’s fee off bounty boards.”
“I’ll remember that. Thanks.” Cassandra gave him a longer look. “What’s your name?”
“Riccardo,” the halberdier said. “Yours?”
“Cassandra.” She shook his extended hand. “You know this guy isn’t actually a Bayard, right?”
“I honestly don’t give a shit, I just want to get paid.” Riccardo came to a halt near the mesa’s edge and pointed into the distance, a little off to the side from where the town walls of Silberstadt were. “See those hills over there? That’s where the mine used to be. Still sees traffic, and a lot of folks are using the less accessible tunnels for hideouts or stashes, so keep your wits about you and head in prepared for trouble.”
“That’s going to complicate things,” Cassandra said slowly. She hadn’t expected the mine to still be in use, even if a different use than originally intended.
“Yeah, good luck finding a needle in that haystack.” Riccardo pointed in another direction, this time indicating a lower area in the plains and hills stretching far and wide—an area that seemed filled with mist, even in the afternoon sun. “Now see that over there? Wolf’s Head Hollow. Every local I talked to seems pretty convinced that it’s haunted, and they avoid it like the plague.”
Cassandra shielded her eyes from the sun as she squinted at the fog, trying to make out any hint of shape or movement, to no avail. “Why is it even called that?”
“It’s where Koto lost a battle against Equis, some fifteen, seventeen years ago. And when I say lost, I mean lost so badly that Equis actually managed to kill a witch-knight there,” Riccardo said. “And you know how it is when one side kills an officer or a noble from the other. Apparently they chopped his head off and mounted it on his own lance stuck into the ground like a flagpole.”
“Wolf’s Head Hollow,” Cassandra repeated with disgust, remembering how the helmets of Kotoan witch-knights were wrought in the likeness of a wolfhound.
“Yeah, I’d haunt the place if something that tacky was done to my corpse, too.”
Cassandra shook her head. “It’s probably the stupidest thing they could have done.”
“I know, right? I mean, witch-knight, it’s in the name.”
She couldn’t help a chuckle. “Thanks. Looks like I have a ways to go, either side.”
“A fair bit, yeah. You staying overnight?”
“No, I should probably start making headway. You have a rockslide and a hole in the path, by the way.”
Riccardo shrugged. “I’m not paid to deal with that. Already done more than I’m contracted for when I built a pulley to get that deer lifted topside, instead of having the hunter carry it all the way up to here.”
“Be careful, and good luck.” Riccardo shook her hand goodbye. “Both our payments depend on that.”
Cassandra thanked him with a nod, then made her way through the campsite again and began descending the path. A careful leap over the hole, measured not to carry her off the path and into a lethal fall, then an easy climb over the rockslide again, and she found Owl and Fidella still waiting for her where she had left them.
She indicated her left shoulder for Owl to sit on, and took Fidella’s reins. “Where do you want to go first: an exhausted mineshaft, or a haunted battlefield?”
Snort, Fidella said, resigned.
“I know. I don’t like either, as well.”
Hoot, Owl said, unimpressed.
“Mineshaft it is.”
After they made their way down the switchback path, Cassandra climbed into the saddle again and headed for the mines, going off the road this time. While she was keeping an eye out for trouble, rather than admiring the view, she did have to admit that the view was easy on the eyes: the plains and gently rolling hills covered in thistles and clovers and grasses that reached to Fidella’s knees or even further up, all turned a golden hue by the slowly setting sun, interspersed often with small thickets and sunlit groves and clear-watered ponds, and far more rarely dotted with mesas, colossal in comparison. And as beautiful as the landscape was, Cassandra couldn’t help but linger on the details that betrayed it for what it was, and for what it used to be.
The high, golden grasses were immediately recognizable, barley and oat and rye and wheat, left largely uncut for years on end and choked through with weeds and wildflowers. The sunlit groves were comprised of fruit trees that had been planted in regular grids, untended orchards growing wilder each year. The small lakes and ponds were ripe with fish, many of them twirling through rusted helmets cloven in half and between algae-covered ribs still protruding from the muddy bottoms. The hilltops were crowned in overgrown ruins of houses and barns, long-turned into abattoirs and torched down, or in clustered beehives torn apart by honey bears. Atop the mesas, faint remains of fortifications lingered: paths carved into their mountainsides, watchtowers reduced to crescent-shaped walls and scattered rubble and an errant stone of scathingly contrasting rock large enough to have been launched from a trebuchet, stacked piles of wood for fuelling signal fires decayed into mulch and overtaken with dandelions, flocks of carrier pigeons turned feral and scattering for shelter whenever a raptor’s silhouette hovered in the sky—whether it was Owl, a kestrel, or an unfamiliar falcon-like shape.
It was hardly surprising that Equis and Koto battled for control over land so verdant. But Cassandra did have to wonder just how verdant it would be, had it not been fed a generation from each side of this conflict, and more from those who used to call it home.
Nightfall saw her taking shelter just past the treeline of one of the thickets left in the middle of what used to be a field. She burnt no fire, concerned with how visible it would be even from afar, and woke up stiff from the cold air and the hard ground. Her withered arm, however, ached almost as an afterthought, almost as if only to make up for the overall loss of feeling. Cassandra flexed her fingers, clenched a fist and opened it again. She could swear that the normal range of movement for it was not this wide anymore.
She ate in-between tending to her sword and sharpening her daggers, preparing herself however she could for a day of spelunking in spent mineshafts—some of which she fully expected to be collapsed, unstable, or flooded, not to mention whatever threat their inhabitants could pose.
A piece of jewellery or a ceremonial weapon, one that she had to look for in the southern section of the mines, or at least start in the southernmost and work her way north in case it had been moved. Nothing more to go off of. Cassandra sighed heavily at herself.
“How did this end up being what I’m doing?”
Hoot, Owl said, tilting his head sideways pensively.
“I know it’s not anything I’m particularly beholden to, but I don’t want to give up so early on. I’ve only just started, haven’t I?” Cassandra closed one eye and stared critically down her sword’s blade, then wiped the whetstone dust off. “It would leave a bad taste in my mouth to stop the moment I’m having trouble. This is life, not a Flynn Rider book, there’s always going to be trouble.”
Hoot, Owl said, inquisitive without pushing.
“I don’t know. It’s like– this isn’t too much for me. It can’t be. I’m not expecting this to be easy, or anything other than really time-consuming, but this is far from convoluted. Go in here, find a thing, bring it back. It’s—” Cassandra shook her head. “If I give up on doing even this, what am I good for? Everything is so much simpler now, too. Nothing is at stake. There’s almost no opportunity for failure. I’ve tried for hard and difficult things every chance I got, and I was denied or did terribly every time. Maybe it’s okay to start small, like this, this time. Maybe it’s better to not try to be a hero.”
Owl stayed silent, simply looking at her compassionately.
“I just want something to go well for me,” Cassandra said slowly, her throat suddenly tight and her eyes burning, and hid her face in her withered hand. “How did I get from a servant at the royal court to a con artist’s errand girl?”
Hoot, Owl said gently.
“No, it really isn’t all that different, is it?” Cassandra dragged her hand upwards and through her hair. “Ugh. Enough with the feelings. Let’s just go do something and figure all this out later.”
It wasn’t long until she made it to the mines, and withdrew into the thin cover of a nearby forest when she spotted how much traffic the area was seeing. There was a rather sizeable communal area in the slight depression where three mineshafts poured out, with big cauldrons and roasting spits placed over well-tended hearths. There was an earthen mound that Cassandra recognized as used for turning wood into charcoal, and a few soot-covered loggers pulling a felled rowan tree towards it along the ground. There was a bare-bones yet functional kiln, seemingly built out of parts scavenged from several different smelters, and a clay-stained couple beside it: one blowing against sparks to start a fire, one shaping a simple jug on a pottery wheel. There was a ramshackle thatch-roofed hut built of poorly stacked wood and stone, off to the side, the shared workshop of a tanner and a dyer if the stench was any indication. There were chickens everywhere, there were at least twenty sheep and a herding dog being led out into the countryside by a youth in threadbare clothes, there were a few oxen pulling two-wheeled carts or used as beasts of burden, there were half-feral cats grooming each other and chasing after rodents as ever-present as the chickens were. And above all, there were people, of all genders and ages, descended from locals and from foreigners, wearing stained leathers and threadbare linens and poor-quality furs, going about their business: talking, trading, resting, working, making, breaking. Many had skin discoloured gray, a sign of silver poisoning. Many were running errands, between the charcoal mound and the hearths, between the hut and the tunnels. Only some were carrying any weapons larger than an all-purpose knife, and even fewer were clad in anything resembling armour—and those who were usually walked in pairs or groups and carried another identifying mark, a red-dyed scarf, a headband with a rat skull mounted at the forehead, a raccoon tail pinned to the side of a belt, a crudely tattooed dagger on the inner side of each forearm.
Rather than just a bandit hideout or a difficult-to-access location riddled with thief stashes, this was a veritable village of refugees, deserters, survivors, and outlaws. And here, far more than in Silberstadt, Cassandra was going to stick out like a sore thumb, if only by virtue of her clothes being too well-made. And by leading a horse. And by bearing a gold-trimmed kerchief on her arm. And by carrying multiple weapons in pristine condition. And more.
Skirting around the settlement, Cassandra headed further south, not caring much that she was making little progress in comparison to what she could have accomplished by heading straight there. It was probably better to waste a little time, which she had an abundance of, than parade across someplace that had at least four separate and distinct gangs, none of which would be very likely to bat an eyelash before attempting to kill her for her gear, by the looks of them.
She passed by several more mineshaft entrances, each manned by a few sentries bearing the marks of one local outlaw band or another, and did her best to stay hidden. Once or twice, she was pretty sure she had been spotted, but none of the bandits on watch did anything more to pursue her than maybe stand up from where they were sitting, and sit back down once Cassandra moved far enough away. Finally, when she made it to the southernmost point of the rocky hills area that the spent silver mines were concentrated in, she realized immediately why this would be the tunnel to hide valuables in safely, and why there was no one on watch at its doorless entrance.
The mineshaft was caved in so profoundly that the hillside over what would have been its ceiling was concave.
Cassandra dismounted. “Stay here, stay safe, and stay patient. This might take a while.”
Snort, Fidella said uneasily as she looked between Cassandra and the mineshaft’s entrance.
“I went crawling up a cliffside already. Why not go crawling between a floor and a ceiling now?”
Hoot, Owl said firmly, digging his talons into her shoulder.
“No, you are staying with Fidella.” Cassandra took a fire starter, a few dry torches, and a small flask of oil out of a saddlebag. “If I start having trouble breathing down there, I’ll just come out empty-handed. If she has to go somewhere else to avoid people, though, she’ll need you to watch her back while I’m gone, and I’ll need you to lead me back to her.”
Owl glared, silently.
“I’m counting on you,” Cassandra said pointedly. When he didn’t move from her shoulder, she set her jaw and matched him glare for glare. “Owl.”
Fidella sighed deeply and began to walk away from their staring contest, headed farther into the thin woods.
Cassandra lowered her voice. “When you left, I know it was to get help for my dad, and when you came back, I know it was to set me straight. So I didn’t try to leave Corona without you. Because I know you and I will always take care of each other. Because I know you won’t belittle me with pity or with candy-coating things. I need you. I depend on you. It’s hard for me, but you’ve made it easier, you never came short or made me regret it. Can you trust me in return, this once?”
Hoot, Owl said, pointing a wing at the collapsed mineshaft.
“I know I won’t be able to call for you from in there if someone follows me in, but it’s so narrow that every fight will be a one-on-one, and I can win those.” When Owl still refused to move, Cassandra pinched the bridge of her nose with her withered fingers. “Please. I need to be capable of doing something—anything—on my own. I need to know that I can. And everything’s been going so badly for me, for years, that I have to prove it to myself before I can believe it. Please believe in me first so I can make myself worth your trust again.”
Owl pressed the flat of his beak to Cassandra’s forehead and hooted at her softly. Then, the pressure of his claws against her shoulder intensified briefly before disappearing altogether, as he took off and flew after Fidella.
Cassandra took a deep breath, exhaled slowly. Then another, exhaled slowly. On the third inhale, she rubbed at her eyes with her withered hand, opened them to look at the mine, and walked towards it. On the threshold between the outside world and the tunnel’s bowels, she doused one of the prepared torches in oil and lit it. Moving now in a circle of flickering light and dancing shadows, she walked into the mineshaft, and inspected the cave-in that began less than two dozen steps in.
There was a very narrow passage between the floor and the giant folds of rock that have collapsed from the ceiling.
She shifted the scabbard of her sword from her back to the front of her chest, and started crawling through, struggling to keep the torch tilted upwards enough to prevent it from going out, her chest grinding against the rock beneath her and her back against the rock above her. Ten feet in, and she could see a wider stripe of darkness before her. A cavern opening back up, it must have been. Fifteen feet in, and she found the grinding of rock against either side of her turning from grinding to a static, consistent pressure. She was stuck.
Cassandra stopped moving, and considered her options. Tried to crawl backwards to get herself unstuck, failed. Awkwardly pulled her sword out of its scabbard, in an attempt to flatten her frame a little more. Took a moment to focus on staying calm, then emptied her lungs, and forced herself forward again.
By the time her shoulders and upper back crested the edge of the rock, leaving her free to gasp for air again, her heart was hammering a too-fast drumbeat and three of her limbs were burning with exertion. If there was ever a time to be grateful for her scrawny build, no matter how hard and time-consuming it had been to build up muscle tone...
She coughed, and looked back at the small gap she had just gone through. Just under twenty feet of a very difficult crawl. Nothing she couldn’t handle going out. Unless the treasure stashed here was the ceremonial weapon, and it was a big one. Like a lance, or a halberd, or any manner of two-handed weapon. But if someone had taken it here to stash it away safely, then she could take it back out—at worst, she’d have to tie one end of a rope around the weapon and the other end around her ankle before crawling out, then pull it out. And with that thought, Cassandra lifted her still-burning torch up, looking around the cavern she’d just managed to enter.
At first glance, it seemed far wider than she would expect of a mineshaft. Under more careful inspection, it turned out to be a five-, six-foot-wide path bordered with a wall on one side and a fissure too deep to see the bottom of on the other. Cassandra briefly considered lighting a second torch and throwing it down to see how deep it was, then remembered everything she read and heard about mining accidents that involved poisonous or explosive gas, and decided against that. There was, however, an abundance of small rocks around—knocked loose by the cave-in, no doubt. She wondered briefly whether it had been caused by the fissure opening up, or if an unfortunate foreman had miscalculated the potency of explosive charges set off in an attempt to fill the fissure up.
She sheathed her sword and shifted the scabbard back into its place, then picked up a couple of stones, and threw one over the edge.
“One-one thousand, two-one thousand, three-one thousand, four-one thousand, five-one thousand...”
A distant, echoing clack.
That was not a survivable fall.
Cassandra tossed one of the remaining stones up and caught it again a few times, thinking. If the treasure had been stashed somewhere along the fissure’s side, she wouldn’t have a chance to find it without knowing exactly where it was, and it would be suicide to try. However, if that was what its last possessor had pulled off, it had to be a small object—a dagger, at the largest, and more likely a piece of jewellery. So if she could find nothing in the rest of this area, it would narrow the Wolf’s Head Hollow search somewhat.
It took her a moment, busy weighing her options as she was, to notice a reflection of the torchlight in the rock. Examining it more carefully, she realized that the dark gray of it was cut through with brighter, whitish threads.
Cassandra lifted her torch up against the cave-in. Broken up as the stone of it was, the lines were irregular, but clear and much thicker than in the rock she was holding.
The silver mine wasn’t spent. It had been collapsed, likely on purpose, and to prevent further profit.
Funny how things could shake out when it was about a strip of land argued and fought over by two kingdoms for decades on end.
She pocketed the rocks and walked deeper in, along the fissure’s edge, until she found it ending. When it did, the tunnel narrowed again into a single mineshaft, no forks in the road of it, more veins of silver in its walls. There were timbers propping up its low ceiling, still, and seemingly free of rot in the dry air. About fifty feet in, the tunnel came to a dead end, a few mining spikes and sledgehammers abandoned on the dust-strewn floor, and a lone skeletal corpse tucked into the corner.
Cassandra lowered herself down to one knee beside the remains. Dead for anywhere between six months and several years, at a glance. Thankfully, it meant that it no longer stank; curiously, it meant that it hadn’t been here anywhere near as long as the mine had spent closed. Not only did it have no pouches or satchels on it, it had no belt to hang them off either, no boots, no shirt, and the pockets of its soiled and tattered cut-off trousers had been turned out. Teeth in poor condition, some partially rotted, some missing. Skull bashed in on one side, like with a blunt strike, but nothing as heavy as one of the mining hammers covered in dust nearby—a small club, or maybe a rock, seemed far more likely.
So it probably used to be someone who had crawled in here looking for a treasure, and got murdered for their trouble by whoever was laying claim to that treasure still.
Cassandra lifted her head at the sound of something grinding against stone, echoing from where the mineshaft’s entrance was. And from where she was, she caught a glimpse of a different colour in the torchlight—a red tassel hanging off the top side of the timbers propping the ceiling up. She stood, and strained to reach for it, then jumped up to grab onto it and pull at it with her whole body weight, successfully yanking out a red scarf, the same style as she had seen some of the bandits outside wearing, bundled carefully several times around a smaller object. A quick attempt to unwrap a little, a cursory glance—jade. Finely carved, green jade.
The piece of jewellery. She would be going to Wolf’s Head Hollow for a weapon.
Cassandra smiled, and headed towards the exit, to catch whoever had followed her between the wall and the fissure.
Two someones, as it turned out, and both wearing those red scarves. One was armed with a rusted sword, one with a butcher’s club, the kind used to knock livestock out before slaughtering them.
“Hand that over,” the swordsman demanded as he pointed at the bundle in Cassandra’s hand, “and no one has to get hurt.”
“Nice blade,” Cassandra said calmly. “You pull it off a dead soldier ten years ago?”
“I’ve killed with it before. Hand that over, I’m not gonna warn you again!”
“Good.” Cassandra tucked the bundle into her tunic, between her skin and the fabric, and drew her own weapon.
The swordsman hesitated, eyeing the path along the fissure’s edge. Cassandra lifted her arms, open, torch in one hand and sword in the other.
“Hey, hero! Are you gonna come kill me, or what?”
That finally made him angry enough to charge at her. Even one-handed, Cassandra parried his untrained attempts to strike at her easily, then uncoiled in a backhand of her left fist to his jaw driven from the hips, staggering him easily, and kicked him over the fissure’s edge. He screamed as he went into the dark, the sound of it piercing and abruptly cutting short about five seconds later.
“You bastard!” the club-wielder roared at her, charging down the narrow path in turn. “You killed Desmond, you fuck, I’ll kill you!”
Cassandra stood her ground only to move out of his way at the last moment, allowing his momentum to carry him past her, and slashed at his back as he went. The regularly sharpened castle steel met little resistance as he yowled in pain, and with little trouble, she kicked his knees out from under him, and finished him with a swipe to the throat.
She wiped her sword clean with a severed length of one of those red scarves, then sheathed it. Considered the butcher’s club hanging off a loop around the dead bandit’s wrist. Rolled her shoulders, then put the torch in her teeth and started dragging the still-bleeding body deeper into the tunnel, ultimately dumping it at the feet of the skeletal corpse. Doused a second dry torch in oil, then spent a while setting it upright between two of the abandoned sledgehammers, and lit it.
It wasn’t a candle, but it would have to do.
“May you rest peacefully now,” Cassandra quietly told the skeletal corpse, and bowed her head to it before leaving.
The crawl back out was just as gruelling, but still not impossible. Cassandra brushed some of the rock dust off of herself, coughing, before she extinguished the torch, tucked it into the back of her belt to properly dispose of later, and exited the mineshaft.
And came to an immediate halt, yanking her sword back out, at the sight of three more bandits with rat skull headbands waiting outside.
“Look at that,” one of them called out in a gleeful tone. “Not only found the Reds’ stash for us, but killed the pair to come in after her, too. Hey, you sure you’re not looking for an outfit to join up with?”
“I thought we weren’t recruiting,” another piped in, turning his head towards the first one, but without taking his eyes—or the point of his crossbow—off of Cassandra.
“We’re always recruiting if you can kill a useless idiot to take their place,” the first one answered, nimbly pulling a small axe out of a belt loop.
“For the love of all that is holy, kill him if you do that,” the third one spoke up, one hand at her face in an exasperated gesture, the other holding a sword.
“Are you quite finished?!” Cassandra yelled.
Three against one—two bruisers, one crossbowman—in an open space. This was bad. This was very, very bad.
Cassandra threw herself to the side to evade a crossbow bolt, and barely had the time to regain her footing before the axeman fell on her, the swordswoman hot on his heels. She could barely do anything but parry and back up to avoid getting flanked, trying to keep both of the bruisers in front of her. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the crossbowman reloading—and just as he finished winching up, Cassandra managed to get into the swordswoman’s reach, grab her by the wrist to keep her blade away, score a slash across her midriff, and yank her to the side just as the crossbowman levelled his weapon up again. An impact and a shout of pain told Cassandra that the bolt had hit the swordswoman, and she threw her into the axeman to buy time for leaping a few steps away, putting two fingers into her mouth, and letting out a piercing two-toned whistle.
The swordswoman was on the ground, alive but out of the fight; the axeman and the crossbowman looked around quickly, unsure whether the whistle was a bluff or a call for aid, giving Cassandra a moment to catch her breath. When nothing happened, if one did not count a tawny shape barrelling across the sky towards them all, both bandits turned their attention back to her.
“Oh, nice try,” the axeman growled, and fell on Cassandra again.
He was taking care to stay out of the crossbowman’s line of fire, this time, and Cassandra struggled to keep both of them in her field of vision. Seconds later, a startled yelp came from the crossbowman’s direction, quickly morphing into a howl of pain; Cassandra focused on the axeman fully, then, regaining ground, and grabbed her cloak with her free arm to throw it at his weapon, entangling it for just enough time to slash his throat open. She wasted no time charging across to where Owl was harrying the crossbowman, who was now bleeding from multiple talon slashes all over his face, and put the momentum into a shoulder check that left her the perfect opening for a thrust to the heart, sending him toppling down.
The swordswoman, still on the ground, lifted both empty hands up as soon as Cassandra looked at her. “Yield, yield!”
Cassandra lowered her weapon, and held her left arm out for Owl. “Don’t try to follow us.”
“Sure,” the bandit said quickly.
Waving the sword in a sharp motion to flick the blood off the blade, instead of clean and sheathe it for now, Cassandra turned and walked away. “That was top work. You came just in time.”
Hoot, Owl said proudly.
“Thanks. I found what we came for.” The truth of saying it out loud pulled a grin across Cassandra’s face. “I got it. I got what we came for. Now let’s get out of here.”