Salt in the Wound - Chapter 2

Wisps of cloud gathered, meeting to shade the world from the high sun. Winds blew from across the far-reaching peaks, bringing with them denser clouds and light flakes of snow. They floated, more than fell, down around the sparse trees to gently rest upon Aiana’s flushed cheeks.

Aiana barely noticed the icy drip run down the side of her face as she crouched against the base of the oldest tree on this side of the Gash. Peeking around the edge of its trunk, Aiana spied her prey and gently lifted her crossbow. She breathed in slowly and held her breath as she fired a bolt.

The first went down with a puff of snow and rather than waste time reloading Aiana leapt out from behind the tree and drew her sword. She leaped over the snow laden underbrush, swiftly closing the distance between her and her prey and then thrust her sword deep into its belly…

“Aiana!” Gramps’ voice echoed a little around the shallow valley, “Aya! Where have you gotten off to? I’m heading back now, help me carry these.”

Aiana sighed, pulled her stick out of the snowman’s belly, and then retrieved the crossbow bolt from the hill behind the other. She noted with satisfaction that its head had been completely blown off. Trudging back up the hill towards where she’d left Gramps and collecting her crossbow, she swung the stick backwards and forwards, knocking the tops off small piles of snow as she went. It was a good one, and good sticks were hard to come by because the snow always covered everything so quickly. Everywhere.

Aiana scrambled on hands and knees up the crest of the last hill before she spotted Gramps again. He frowned at her as she skipped down the hill to him, brushing the clinging snow from her clothes in a weak attempt to clean herself up. When Gramps frowned, it made his wrinkles all bunch up even worse than normal, as if his face was made of layers of pancakes. She giggled at the thought.

“You’re going to have to get into dry clothes as soon as we get back, no messing about while you’re drenched. I don’t want to have to deal with a cold or flu on top of all your usual trouble.” Gramps hefted a large wicker basket, shaking his head, and slipped his arms through the large loops, settling it onto his back. “And what are you laughing about?”

“Nothing,” Aiana said sweetly. “Can we have pancakes with syrup when we get back?” They set off between rows of neatly cultivated plants sheltered within the relative warmth of the nearby spring.

“We’ll have to see what Lillian has ready for us, but something tells me you might be in luck.” Gramps looked at Aiana out of the corner of his eye. That corner crinkled with a slight smile as she let out a whoop and skipped ahead. “Slow down, slow down they aren’t going anywhere!” He called after her, picking up his pace to catch up to her.

By the time they reached the Salt, Aiana had tracked and slain a total of three vampires and two witches, which was impressive even for her. She figured she needed to earn her pancakes, after all; when she skipped in through the back door into the kitchen and was greeted by the sweet smell of pancakes cooking, the triumphant roar she let out was for more than just the pancakes. Gramps came in behind her and set the basket down heavily next to the back door.

“Lilly, Lilly!” Aiana bounced excitedly around Lillian’s feet as she stood near the stove, deftly defending the stack of steaming pancakes which were keeping warm by the stove even as she flipped those currently cooking. “Gramps said we could have pancakes when we got back, we’re back now, can I have some? I’ve slain three vampires andtwo witches.”

“I’m Grandpa, Aiana. Not Gramps, that’s a foolish name.”

“Well now, isn’t that impressive?” Lillian raised an eyebrow at her and began dealing out two stacks of pancakes with a generous dollop of butter on top of each one. “You certainly have earned these then!” She handed Aiana one plate and the other went to Gramps who took it and the bottle of syrup. “Don’t eat until you’ve sat down at the table Aya- and don’t run with your food!” She called out in futility as Aiana ran through the door into the common room with half a pancake sticking out of her mouth.

“Thanks Lillian,” Jashan said as he followed after Aiana, picking at his own plate as he left. Lillian shook her head after them both before turning back to the stove.

As soon as Gramps set down the syrup, Aiana scooped it up and began soaking her pancakes with it. She unconsciously bounced up and down, as she did whenever she was truly pleased. Sitting across from her, Gramps took the syrup away right before she reached the perfect sogginess. “Hey, I’m not finished!” Aiana complained.

“I know, but if you have any more you won’t sleep for the next week, and honestly, it’s making me feel sick.” Gramps replied. He didn’t know what he was talking about, really. Gramps always ate food that was so spicy you couldn’t taste anything else for a whole week. She cut a large piece off and shoveled it into her mouth. Lucky it still tasted delicious. Soon enough, Aiana resumed her involuntary bouncing.

“Hey Grampa, do you think there are any vampires living here in the mountains?” Aiana asked between bites.

“Vampires? I thought you slayed one this morning?”

Aiana rolled her eyes while she swallowed another mouthful. “They weren’t real vampires Grampa, just pretend. I mean real vampires.” She emphasized with a stab of her fork onto her plate.

Gramps smiled another wrinkly smile before answering. “Well, you know what vampires eat?”

Aiana grimaced and pulled at the collar of her tunic.

“Yup, that’s right. We’re the only people around here for a long while. If there were vampires around, we’d know about it.” Gramps chuckled, as if it were a laughing matter. “Why do you ask?”

“Oh, no reason really. I’m just going to do some hunting later and I’m trying to decide what to expect. I wouldn’t be so confident though, Grampa,” Aiana presented her case to him matter-of-factly as she counted off each point with one of her fingers, “I heard that vampires can last a long time between meals and they only get hungrier. So, if one did come here it’d have to be starving so who knows how many of us it would eat. That’s why I’ve got to hunt them, even if you think they’re aren’t around.” She concluded.

“Well aren’t we lucky to have you around then?” Gramps smiled more softly this time, looking at Aiana over their empty plates.

“Yep, you are.” Aiana said, “can I have some more?”

“Of course, go ask Lilian, but no more syrup for you, find something else to put on them.”

Aiana was already on her way to the kitchen, no longer listening. She burst through the door, plate held high, and declared imperiously, “MORE PANCAKES!” before setting her plate down beside Lillian.

Lillian turned slowly and with one hand on her hip she pointed a spatula at Aiana. “Excuse me?”

Aiana looked down, shuffling her feet self-consciously.

“Who made you queen of the realm?”

Aiana didn’t reply.

“Hrmph. That’s what I thought. Now, what do you say?” Lillian raised one eyebrow as Aiana meekly met her eyes.

“May I have some more pancakes please?”

“There now, that’s better.” Lillian turned and loaded a few more onto Aiana’s plate

“Thank you, Lillian. May I also have some more syrup? Gramps ate the rest of it.” Aiana did her best to look meek this time.

“Now that, I highly doubt,” Lillian said with a smile. But she poured a decent amount of syrup over the new stack, almost enough. “Go on now, get out before I find a job for you.”

Aiana skipped out of the room, leaving more than a few drops of syrup along the floor. Back in the common room a chill had set in even though the fire in the hearth was blazing. Someone had gone and opened the door. Aiana excitedly scanned the tables for newcomers as she walked back to her table. She was indignant for a moment when she realized that a huge-bellied man had taken her seat.

Aiana stomped over to complain to Gramps. They were leaning in closely together talking and when Aiana set her plate down heavily they both sat back. The fat man grinned widely at her and slapped the table. “Aya! Is that you? You’ve grown so much bigger since I last visited, have you been practicing with that crossbow I brought you?”

Aiana’s eyes widened and she completely forgave the newcomer for taking her seat, Uncle Hamish’s familiar grin and bright eyes looked back at her, “Uncle Hamish! Why are you fat now? And you have a beard.” Gramps cackled loudly with laughter and slapped the table. He laughed at the oddest things.

Uncle slapped his belly with a grin, “Careful what you say.” He flexed his heavy arms. “I’m still the strongest ranger this side of the Gash, and probably the other side too now that I think about it.”

Aiana crinkled up her nose, “You look funny now, but that’s okay, I don’t mind. I killed a vampire today with my crossbow, I can hit a flying beast from twenty feet without breaking a sweat.” She took aim and fired with a mock crossbow before getting up on the seat next to Uncle. As she did, though, Gramps reached over and blocked her way.

“Not right now Aiana, we need to speak alone for a minute. Go and play somewhere else, Uncle Hamish will have some stories for you later.”

With a sigh Aiana eyed her pancakes, they had gotten cold and all the syrup had been soaked up too much now, before leaving she said, “Uncle can have my pancakes then.” Uncle always had cool stories, but if he wanted to talk with Gramps privately then there had to be something really cool going on. Gramps wouldn’t let her stay anyway, so Aiana was happy to let him think that she was doing as he asked. Sometimes adults could be so silly.

Their table sat just below the stairs, so Aiana skipped happily up to the top of the stairs and then stopped to slowly creep back down until she was just above them. Then she laid down on one of the steps and listened intently.

“I can’t believe how much bigger she is now. How long has it been since I was last here? Surely not more than six months?”

“Eight. You were here for summer solstice remember?”

“Ah yes, you’re right. Time does fly by.”

Aiana couldn’t see them, but she heard mugs being set down and a pause as they both took a drink.

“Look, sorry to come unexpectedly but these poachers have been plaguing us for months. They’re bound to show up here, if they’re not already here. Just keep an eye out for us, will you?”

“I don’t know what you want me to do about it.”

“Don’t do anything rash. I just want you to be aware, and if you can identify them then a description will be enough so we might be able to stop them in the future.”

“I can keep an eye out, but I don’t make a habit of checking my customers’ cargo.”

“Of course, you don’t, and I don’t expect you to, but this poaching… it isn’t just animal skins we’re talking about Jashan. The beasts they’re poaching have serious black-market value. They’re capable of some dark stuff in the wrong hands.”

“I figured. Don’t worry. I’ll keep an eye on anyone suspicious. How long will you stay?”

“Just until the morning and then I’ve got to move on.”

“You’d better make good on your promise of stories then. You know, that crossbow is Aya’s prized possession, despite how idiotic it was to give it to her.”

“She hasn’t shot herself yet,” Hamish said with a sly grin, “and I’m not the one who gave her curse breaker bolts am I?”

“She’s almost shot me more times than I’d care to think about.”

Aiana got up as they both laughed because the interesting stuff was over now, she crept up the stairs to where the guests slept and then dashed up the last few steps to where she and Gramps had their rooms. She barred her door by propping a chair beneath the handle, then began pacing back and forth in the middle of her room.

Gramps always paced a lot when he had to think about something serious. Like, last winter when there was a reallybad freeze and the spring wasn’t enough to keep his garden alive. He paced a lot that time. But he always paced a lot. Grown-ups just must have a lot of problems. Aiana figured that when she was grown-up she’d have a lot of problems too. She just hoped that they would have more to do with vampires and strange beasts, rather than the plants getting cold.

Aiana shook her head, it was time to focus. There were some real bad people coming to the Salt and even if she didn’t know what a poocher was, she knew it didn’t sound good. She had been preparing for this type of thing for a long time and was certain she could help.

The problem was, when adults were around Gramps, they usually behaved well but when it was just Aiana there they didn’t care so much what they did. Sometimes Ma would steal a bite of chocolate for herself, and even share some with Aiana when Gramps wasn’t around, but Aiana had never seen her do that in front of him. Especially the guests, they were really nice to her and the others when Gramps was in the common room, but while he was gone some of them could be outright nasty.

Poochers sounded like nasty people, so all she had to do was hang around when Gramps wasn’t there, and then she’d be able to spot them for sure. Who knows? Maybe if she could tell Uncle Hamish who those poochers are, then he’d give her a real sword to go with her crossbow.

Aiana went back downstairs a little while later. Gramps and Uncle were still talking at the table and even though they greeted her with a smile they were talking about boring stuff, so she just sat near the hearth to stay warm. At least that’s what she wanted everyone to think. The real reason she was sitting there was because she could watch everyone. Aiana had been watching people come through the Salt for years now, probably her whole entire life, and she was getting good a recognizing the people who came through. Not that many people came through regularly.

There was Barnaby, the travelling merchant who made it through the Gash twice a year. Once before it got really cold and once a few weeks after it started warming up. It was like the old man couldn’t decide which side of the Gash was better, like that story Gramps sometimes told her about grass on the side of stuff.

Gramps said that a lot of people regretted their first pass through the Gash, but there were others, aside from Barnaby, who came through fairly often. It was a lot of effort to remember them all though, so, as far as Aiana was concerned, there was pretty much a mixture of about five different people.

First you had the Barnabies of the Salt. They were all like Barnaby. They almost never came through when it was realcold and always had large wagons full of stuff. Gramps would buy things from them, like new boots and bottles and stuff.

The Crybabies were always complaining to Gramps that it was too cold, or that the snow wouldn’t stop, or that their bed wasn’t soft enough. They usually wore colorful clothing under their winter coats and Gramps said he only put up with them on account of how much money they spent at the bar.

Then there was the opposite- Grizzlies. They were the strong and silent types who didn’t talk much, who usually arrived late and left pretty much first thing in the morning. These were more regular than the others, but they were boring.

The Crybabies and the Barnabies often brought the fourth type with them, but sometimes they came by themselves. They were the Adventurers, and they were Aiana’s favorite. They would drink a lot in the evening and sometimes sing funny songs and they almost always had stories to tell whoever would listen. Gramps usually told Aiana to stay away from them but, like the adults, when he wasn’t around she could do whatever she wanted and the Adventurers usually had swords and knives and trophies for her to look at.

One time, Aiana had even seen what she’d have to call the fifth type of person who came past the Salt. That was the Princess. It was only one time, but Aiana didn’t think she’d ever forget about it. She was a beautiful lady with a few Adventurers following her. She never complained, not like the Crybabies, but she had barely even spoken at all.

Her hair flowed long and shone black as night, her dresses were just as shiny, and even the fur cloak she wore to keep herself warm seemed to reflect the light like a mirror. Aiana could only imagine that that was what princesses from stories looked like.

It was fascinating to watch the Princess being waited on hand and foot, as Ma put it. People just seemed to want to do whatever she needed. That life wasn’t for Aiana, that’s for sure, but it was like she came from a completely different world, far from the harsh adventures that Aiana’s life would be filled with. Aiana couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like.

Shaking herself out of her distracted musing, Aiana looked around at the common room and quickly categorized each person there. She knew already that the three men sitting by the window playing cards were Adventurers, the past two nights they’d stayed she had heard stories from them. There were two Barnabies sitting quietly by the window together. An odd spot, that was. They both had small wagons out in the warehouse, and one looked really old, almost as old as Gramps.

The only other people were two that seemed like Barnabies at first, too. But now that Aiana had come to think of it, she wasn’t sure. Her main concern was that they didn’t spend much time talking to the other Barnabies, usually Barnabies tended to stick together. These ones behaved more like Grizzlies, which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing as Grizzlies just liked to keep to themselves, that’s what Gramps said.

Aiana settled in for a long night, eyeing Gramps and Uncle. The others in the common room wouldn’t likely act themselves until Gramps was gone so she would probably have to sneak back down after she had been sent to bed.

It was a long night, which was saying something because when Uncle was there to tell stories she was normally complaining that bedtime was coming too soon. After they ate dinner together, one of Lillian’s warm stews, Uncle started a tale about him hunting a huge wolf through a bunch of villages. Aiana knew that they were in for a long night, and it was difficult for her to come to terms with it, but she knew that she had more important business, like hunting poochers, so she let out a large yawn near the start of the story. It felt like an epic betrayal of herself, but sacrifices had to be made.

“I’m sorry Uncle, but I’m just so tired, it must’ve been those vampires I’ve been slaying. They got me with some sleepy spell or something.”

Gramps looked concerned, and right he should be because Aiana couldn’t remember the last time she had offered to go to bed, especially not when there were stories to be had. But duty was heavier than the sword; that’s what a hero would have said in a story.

“Perhaps you’d best be off to bed now then.” He felt her forehead, like when he thought she was sick, but she pushed it away.

“I’m not sick Gramps, just tired.”

“Sick or not, don’t call me Gramps.” Gramps didn’t like being called that, even though that’s what he was. He was funny about things like that. Aiana gave Gramps and Uncle a hug and then quickly skipped up the stairs to her bed.

Ma was there, putting out Aiana’s nightgown and straightening the room up. Aiana stopped by the door and glanced around suspiciously. “Where is it?” She asked with her hands on her hips.

“Where is what?” Ma fluffed a pillow and fussed with the blankets, “You’re coming to bed early considering Hamish is here, are you feeling okay?”

“I’m tired,” Aiana said defensively, “but don’t change the subject. You’ve hidden my weapons again!”

Ma sighed and pulled Aiana’s crossbow and the stick she’d found earlier that day from behind her skirts, “Aiana, these aren’t appropriate toys for a little girl, you’re might hurt someone.”

“They aren’t toys, they are a warrior’s weapons. How am I going to become the greatest ranger there ever is if I can’t train every minute of the day?”

With another sigh, Ma put them back down next to Aiana’s bed, “Okay, but I’m taking these still” She held up the crossbow bolts, “You won’t need them tonight.”

Aiana looked down in frustration, “Fine, but you’ll be sorry if tonight’s when the vampire attacks, Gramps agrees with me, there’s probably a hungry vampire stalking the Gash right now.”

“I guess we’ll just have to take that risk, come on. Let’s get you ready for bed.”

After Ma had finally left, Aiana quietly got dressed again and waited patiently in her room. She lay fully clothed under the covers until Gramps finally came to check on her one last time. She pretended to be asleep, of course. He usually didn’t go to bed until she was actually asleep, it was as if he didn’t trust her to stay in bed.

After she had heard his door close behind him she waited a little longer, just to be sure. That was good thinking because not very long after he came out again saying, “Blasted bladder.” Sometimes he talked to himself when no one else was around, which Aiana found hilarious. She suppressed a giggle as he shuffled past her door and went downstairs to pee.

He was gone for ages. He must have really needed to pee. When he finally came back though, Aiana gave him some time again and then slipped out of her bed and stealthily crept over to the door. The hallway beyond seemed quiet, so she went through the door and gently closed it behind her.

Once Aiana was on the guest level she relaxed and skipped down the stairs into the common room to have a quick look. Uncle wasn’t there, he’d probably gone to bed at the same time as Gramps, poor old men were always so tired. Most of the other guests were still where she’d left them though.

She went to the kitchen next, there was no way to avoid Lillian, who would be in and out of the kitchen until most of the guests had gone to bed, so Aiana would have to see her first just so that she wouldn’t think Aiana was hiding.

As she walked past the guests she eyed them for their reaction to her being there. Most of them didn’t even bat an eyelash at her presence, that was suspicious, weren’t adults supposed to tell kids to go to bed when it was late?

The faint smell of soap greeted her as she walked into the kitchen. The floor was wet from a bucket of soapy water which Lillian had emptied out on it and she stood at the bench kneading a huge lump of dough, grunting with effort each time.

Aiana gave her face a sleepy look and rubbed her eyes to make them red, then she shuffled all the way in and got Lillian’s attention, “Aiana you little scamp, what do you think you’re doing up at this time of the night?”

Aiana put on an elaborate yawn, “I went to bed early Lilly and now I’ve woken up and I can’t sleep again. I realized that I didn’t drink my warm cup of milk yet!” Aiana expected Lillian to see how important that was to her.

With a click of her tongue Lillian placed her hands on her hips and looked sternly down at Aiana, who waited just long enough for Lillian to cave. “Well alright, go on and sit by the hearth to keep yourself warm, I’ll bring you a cup of milk.”

Aiana skipped a little with excitement and brought it home by asking, “Can you make it warm, and with honey?”

“Fine! Go on, get out there.”

Aiana skipped all the way out of the kitchen but then walked normally as soon as she was in the common room, she didn’t want to draw too much attention to herself just in case the poochers caught on to her plan. She was two steps ahead of them right now and needed to stay that way.

The hearth was still blazing high, but there was a nice spot that Aiana liked to occupy just beside it. She sat down on the hearthstones and leaned back into the warmth at the base of the chimney. After a while it could get too warm but then she would lean forward a bit to cool off. For now, at least, the heat was welcome and, more importantly, it let her have a clear view of the entire common room.

The two normal Barnabies were still talking by one of the windows. It really was an odd place to sit. It had to be the coldest spot in the common room! Gramps had to deal with lots of complaints about the window, even though he said it was fine.She definitely avoided sitting next to that window. Those Barnabies seemed to be wrapped up in heavy cloaks, though, so she supposed they hadn’t noticed.

The two Grizzly-Barnabies had moved from mugs of ale to what Gramps called “the hard stuff.” Aiana wasn’t sure what he meant by it because she’d seen people drop cups of it before and they broke even easier than ale mugs, so they didn’t seem harder than those. Gramps called lots of things by strange names though. They drank the hard stuff and didn’t speak, staring into their cups as if they were all alone. Gramps sometimes said to be careful of people when they started acting like that, so that could be a sign of poochers.

The Adventurers, on the other hand, were getting a little excited and playing a game of dice between each other. Aiana could tell by the frown on one of their faces that he was losing badly, while the other two seemed pleased by their winnings. Aiana had tried playing dice once with a couple of Adventurers who had invited her to join them. Gramps had gotten real angry but luckily he didn’t kick them out cause it was pretty cold that night. Aiana remembered because he’d swung the door open for the snow and ice to blow in while he threatened them with exile. She wasn’t sure why Gramps had been angry, but Aiana hadn’t played dice with any Adventurers since then.

Lillian crossed the room with a steaming mug of warm milk in one hand and a sweetroll in the other. Aiana stamped her feet up and down in excitement and bounced on the warm stones.

“Now don’t go telling Jashan or your mother that I let you have one so late, alright missy?” Lillian gave her a wink and headed back into the kitchen.

As she walked by, one of the Grizzly-Barnabies took his eyes off his cup and reached out to touch her as she passed, but Lillian expertly slid to the side and disappeared into the kitchen. That man was not a nice man, he looked even more darkly into his cup and muttered to himself. Aiana narrowed her eyes and resolved to keep a closer eye on the Grizzly-Barnaby. His beard was thick under his chin but clean-shaven around his mouth in a way that made his face look bigger than it probably was so she decided his name should be Big-face.

She continued watching all of them, but Big-face especially. The drink Lillian had made her was warm and sweet and had some spice in it that made it really yummy. She downed the rest of it like it was a potion, granting her extra alertness. Now she would be able to keep her watch all night. Soon after she polished off the sweetroll, however, her eyes began to droop and she had to stifle more than one yawn. Then, involuntarily, she dozed off against the warm stones.

She woke up again as Lillian tried to gently lift her up off the warm stones. Pushing Lillian away, she asked “How long was I asleep? Did I miss anything important? Did the poochers get away?”

“Poochers?” Lillian laughed and shook her head, giving up on trying to carry a resisting child up two flights of stairs, “It’s high time for you to go to bed Aiana, come on, or I’ll have to wake Jashan. And you know that he won’t be happy to find you still awake.”

“He won’t be happy with you either.” Aiana glared at Lillian, but she had her hand on her hips and wasn’t going to budge this time. Gramps always sided with her anyway when it came to Aiana­­—and she knew it—so there was no point taking the risk. Aiana stood up and dramatically slumped her shoulders with an exaggerated sigh, “Fine. I’ll go to bed.” She noted that each of the patrons were still in their places except for the other Grizzly-Barnaby, who must have gone to bed, or was he doing something nefarious?

Lillian continued to eye Aiana even while she examined the room once more until Aiana relented and finally began to trudge back up the stairs. As she reached the first landing, she looked through the rapidly narrowing gap between the stairs and the common room ceiling and noticed the mean sneer that the last remaining Grizzly-Barnaby was giving Lillian as she returned to the kitchens.

The man stood up, draining the rest of his mug on the way, and swayed over to the kitchens behind her. Crouching down, Aiana watched him go and strained to listen to his low drawl as he held the kitchen door open and spoke to her. Aiana didn’t hear what was said but Lillian responded in angry tones.

Lillian stepped back into the common room, pushing the man ahead of her and slapped him sharply across the cheek. “If you think my words were the threat then think again. I’ll not have you touching me nor insinuating anything more or I’ll have Master Jashan down here quicker than you can have your coat ready. Your bed’s already as warm as it’s going to get.” She slowed down a ended her tirade, “So, perhaps you should call it a night?”

The man growled in return, rubbing his face with one hand and clenching the other in a fist. Aiana didn’t wait to see what would happen next, she raced up the stairs and stormed into Gramps’ room without knocking. It was only a little bigger than hers, but he had another room for his work. She leaped up on his bed just as he was sitting up stiffly.

“What? Why aren’t you asleep, what’s wrong Aya?” Gramps looked over her shoulder and, finding nothing, held her cheeks gently and searched her eyes for answers.

“One of the Grizzly-Barnabies is getting rowdy with Lillian and he looks angry.”

Gramps scowled and swung his feet over the side of the bed, easily lifting Aiana out of the way, “Some people can’t follow one simple instruction for one damn night.” He didn’t stop to put any other clothes on, just strode out of the room in his smallclothes.

“Gramps, I reckon this one’s a liar. I reckon he’s one of them poocher’s that Uncle Hamish asked you to keep an eye out for.”

Gramps shot her a look and even had the audacity to be angry, “What have I told you about listening to adult conversations? And why are you out of bed in the first place?”

They approached the top of the staircase which led down to the common and Aiana made sure she put on her best face of innocence, “I just wasn’t tired so I woke up to ask Lilly for some warm milk and while I was drinking the milk I saw everything. The Grizzly-Barnabies are not really Barnabies at all. I’m telling you-”

“What about before you woke up, when you were supposed to be in bed but were apparently listening to me speak with your Uncle Hamish?” Gramps stopped before descending the stairs and placed hands on his hips, barring the way down.

“Listen Gramps, that doesn’t matter now. You should be glad I happened to overhear some of what you two were saying. Aren’t you listening to me? I’ve found the poochers and…” Gramps’ stern look broke into a chuckle, giving Aiana pause, “This is no laughing matter Gramps!”

“Grandpa.” He shook his head. “Aya, it’s poachers, not poochers, and whatever they’re called you’ve no business in thinking about that. This isn’t a game. The poachers—” he emphasized the word to make sure Aiana remembered it and she rolled her eyes “—are not here yet anyway. If they do come through, and that’s a big if, you aren’t to go near them.” He turned her around and gave her a slight shove back to her room, “Now, go to bed.”

Gramps didn’t look like he was in any mood to argue about it, so Aiana did what she was told. Sometimes, there were easier ways to do what needed to be done anyway. Trudging up the stairs, she took stock of the situation one more time.

These Grizzly-Barnabies were a lot like Barnabies, but mean. Not only in the way they spoke and acted to Lillian, but they just looked grumpy. That was suspicious in itself because usually Barnabies were happy to just be out of the cold, drinking and eating with a big fire blazing. Aiana knew this because Barnaby, the Barnaby, had once told her how, because he spent so long on roads and sleeping under his cart, the Salt was practically a palace in his eyes. Who wouldn’t want to live in a palace?

Gramps was going to give this Grizzly-Barnaby a good talking to, though he wasn’t likely to kick him out just for being rude, so Aiana didn’t have to worry about the poochers getting away just yet. She was pretty sure that tomorrow they’d be on their way, though. She’d have to find proof tonight if she was going to stop them from getting away with their nefarious plots.

Her resolve slowly grew, even as tiredness itched at the backs of her eyelids. But a plan had begun to form and there was nothing to hold her back from it. She waited until Gramps shuffled back past her room and closed the door to his own. Shortly before, the front door had slammed and Aiana guessed that was the work of the poochers heading to the boarding house. It was now or never.

The waiting had only made her more tired, so she reached under her bed and pulled out her stash, a frayed hessian bag full of supplies. In the bag were small corked bottles that she had collected, some were empty, waiting to be filled with potions, but the others were filled. She selected one which contained a greenish-brown liquid and pulled off the stopper.

Its contents smelled foul, even grosser than when she had brewed it, she figured it must have gotten stronger over time. That was good, because Aiana was going to need all the wakefulness she could get tonight. That was what this was, a Wakefulness Potion. She downed it, suppressing a gag at the foul taste and lumpy texture and then replaced the stopper and stashed the bottle away again for later.

She grabbed her crossbow from beside the bed, where Ma had left it, and got out three spare bolts from in her stash—it was best to always be prepared in case a monster, or Ma, took your weapons—and stuffed the spare in the back of her belt, loading one into her crossbow. Then she gently opened the door and made her way down the corridor.

This time she didn’t go down to the common room. Instead, she used the back staircase which was dark and narrow and led straight down to the kitchen. She knew she’d have to be quiet just in case Lillian was still hard at work. But luck was on her side tonight because right as she reached the kitchen, she saw Lillian’s back disappear into the common room.

She didn’t have much time, so she darted across the kitchen to the back door. She slammed her feet into her boots and took her coat off the hook by the door, throwing it on. Then, after one quick glace behind her, she grabbed a lamp from the shelf and opened the door just enough to step out and close it softly behind her. Hopefully Lillian didn’t notice the gust of cold wind.

Aiana crouched down to tie her bootlaces in the frigid night air. Thick, snow-laden wind threatened to knock her over, but she steadied herself against the door. It wasn’t the first time she’d been out in a blizzard as bad as this, so the wind didn’t bother her. The best thing about blizzards was that no one else was around, particularly the guests, so it made for good monster hunting.

Tonight wasn’t a night for monsters though, at least not the type from the stories. Aiana needed to use this time to expose the monsters staying at the Salt, and quickly, before they left and were gone forever. Aiana wrapped her coat tightly around her body and forced a narrow trail in the snow directly toward the stables. She knew the Salt so well that she was able to make her way there even in this weather.

Still, the large stable door loomed up unexpectedly because she could barely see a few feet in front of her. As always, the small inset door wasn’t locked so she slipped into the relative warmth of the stable and lowered her hood. A few horses snorted as another gale howled against the walls of the stable and up through the mountain pass.

Squinting, Aiana fumbled with the lamp until she managed to light it and opened the shutter to illuminate the stable. She made her way silently down to the end where the carts and carriages were kept. The horses squinted and whinnied at the unexpected brightness of the lamp and eyed her closely as she passed them. She’d always wondered what they were thinking when they stared at her and she suspected that, this time at least, they didn’t appreciate her intrusion so late at night. Well, she wouldn’t have had to if Gramps had just listened to her when she warned him about the Grizzly-Barnabies. Big-Face was definitely up to no good.

At the end of the stable the area widened into a space surrounded by wagons and carts still laden with their owners’ possessions. Gramps had always told Aiana that they were not allowed to search through their guest’s belongings, but Aiana had disobeyed that rule plenty of times. Honestly, you couldn’t put all of this treasure in one place and notexpect someone to look at it, that’s just unreasonable. It’s not like she’d taken anything anyway.

Each of the four Barnabies, real ones and Grizzly ones, had their wagons here. The Adventurers had come only on horses, so she just had to figure out which wagon belonged to the poochers, it shouldn’t be too difficult.

She started with the nearest one, it had a huge lumpy pile on top of it which was held down by a large blanket with ropes looped through holes around the edge. It took her a while to find an edge that she could untie and pry up, but finally she did and found that the first blanket just covered a bunch of other blankets.

It was layer upon layer of fur, hides, and animal skins. Aiana frowned to herself before pulling the cover back down and tying it a few times. She examined the knot she’d made with satisfaction. It didn’t look quite like it did before, and a few of the furs underneath were hanging out, but she didn’t think anyone would notice that much.

Furs and skins didn’t seem that nefarious, people wore them all the time as coats and cloaks, so she was pretty sure that the poochers didn’t own that wagon. The next one along was more boxy than the first, piled high with wooden boxes and leather cases all tied down separately with ropes, this was going to be tough to check.

She climbed on to the top of the wagon and, with some effort, slid a rope off the top of a large leather case. She unclasped the lid and swung the top open. It was mostly empty, so she held the lamp inside it to get a better look at its contents and only saw a bunch of papers scattered on the bottom.

Slumping her shoulders in disappointment, she decided to look in another box before moving on to a different wagon. Just before she closed the lid to the leather case, however, she was startled by the stable door opening once more and crouched down, closing the shutter of the lamp completely and plunging herself into darkness.

“I’m telling you. I saw someone come in here, it wasn’t the bloody wind.”

“Look, we’ve checked now,” a second voice complained. “There’s no one else here. It’s pitch dark down there.”

“If you ask me to keep watch you need to listen to me when I say somethings going on. Just come and check the wagon with me. If anyone has been snooping around I want to make sure nothing’s missing.”

Aiana heard a sigh and a few horses whinny and the faint light from their lamp grew brighter. She crouched down as low as she could and prayed that they wouldn’t see her up there. Before she knew it, two figures appeared below her, inspecting the next wagon over.

“Look, it hasn’t been touched. That Ranger’s just got you all jumpy.”

“I’m not jumpy! Someone came in here, I know it.” He glanced around, never looking above his eye level even as Aiana tried to make herself smaller, pushing her body against the boxes as if they could swallow her. It was the old Barnaby, before he had looked kindly, but in the deep shadows cast by the two lamps his face had an angry look about it. “Just check that bloody bird.” He began untying the large blanket which covered their load, “Come on, if you help we can be back quicker”.

With a sigh the second, younger, Barnaby helped, even though he shook his head. In no time, they had the blanket off and had shifted a few boxes out of the way to reveal a cage which had been concealed near the center. “There, you happy old man? The damn bird is still here. It had better be worth as much as you say with how much trouble it’s causing.”

“Don’t you worry, this little thing will set us up for life, we’d never have to work a day again.”

“Even if I did, I’m never moving live product again, I don’t care how much more it gets.”

“You’ll be singin’ a different tune once this payday comes, don’t you worry. Come on, let’s get some sleep. I want to be out of here as soon as we can tomorrow. Hopefully that damn blizzard lets up.”

The two men pushed the boxes back together but left the ropes hanging loose, they both agreed to tie it down properly in the morning. And then they walked back past the horses and left. Aiana continued to hold her breathe for what felt like hours after they left and hugged the warm lamp close to her, trying to hold in even more of the light.

Eventually, the howling wind beating against the walls convinced Aiana to open the lamp back up. She stood up and shone the light down to the end of the stable, finally taking a breath of relief to see the door closed tight. She was alone again.

She laughed giddily. “They won’t know what hit ‘em!” She raised her crossbow and aimed it at where she imagined the backs of the two men would be, trudging through the snow, and then pretended to fire. It didn’t matter that she was originally wrong about her quarry, she’d found them and now she knew exactly where they were hiding the bad stuff.

Hopping back down to the ground, she didn’t even bother to affix the case she’d opened on the previous wagon, that wasn’t the poocher’s so it didn’t matter. The poocher’s wagon wasn’t piled as high as some of the others, but it was also covered with a large blanket. Luckily, Aiana didn’t have to untie it, so she just threw it off and leaned heavily against a wooden crate to slide it further to the edge of the wagon.

Her lamp and her new vantage point let her see what only the poochers had been able to before. In the middle of the pile of crates, surrounded on all sides, was a large cage that held a bird more magnificent than anything Aiana had seen before. It was as big as her chest with bright blue and yellow feathers and a purple plume on the top of its head.

As quickly as it had come, Aiana’s awe subsided because of the extra details she took in. The bottom of the cage was littered with feathers that had fallen off the bird. Its wings and body were covered in small patches from the molting and she shuddered slightly, backing herself up against the opposite side of the cage from Aiana.

The most striking thing Aiana could tell, though, was its eyes. The poor thing looked frightened, cold, and sad. Aiana put the lamp down softly and held her gloved hands out in front of her, speaking in soothing tones. “It’s okay now, I’m a friend. I won’t let those bad men hurt you anymore.” She took a few tentative steps forward, not wanting to scare the bird too much again, and unlatched the cage.

With Aiana blocking the cage door the bird didn’t try to escape but she still cowered back from Aiana’s hands. It was a large bird though, in a comparatively small cage, so despite its feeble efforts, Aiana easily picked it up and drew the bird against her chest.

Leaving the lamp behind, Aiana hugged the bird tightly to stop its wings from getting free and walked through the dark to the stable door. Unlatching it with her elbow she pushed it open and stepped outside.

Aiana rushed through the freezing wind, trying to make it back to her room as soon as possible so she could warm the poor bird up but she struggled against Aiana’s hold. As soon as the wind ruffled her feathers she raked frantically against Aiana’s coat, tearing shreds in it down to the skin.

With a gasp Aiana let go and the bird flew into the air immediately. Even as Aiana ran, she was amazed at how wide the bird’s wings stretched. It was short-lived though, a gust of snow-laden wind swept her out of the air and she landed heavily in the fresh snow.

Aiana tried to reach the bird quickly but even as she caught up to her, a hand closed on her arm and wrenched her back. “What do you think you’re doing!” The older Barnaby, one of the poochers from the stable, glared down at her with bared teeth. Aiana’s heart stopped and she knew terror. The man looked towards the bird and cursed harshly as she tried to flap her wings to extract herself from snow. He shoved Aiana aside and rushed to get the bird.

“Leave her alone!” Aiana cried, blinking snow from her eyes. The man paid her no mind and trudged through the snow to the bird. She unhooked her crossbow from her belt and leveled it at the man, it was the first time she’d ever shot at a person, that time she had almost hit Gramps didn’t count because it was an accident. She blocked the thought from her mind, focusing her mind like Uncle Hamish had taught her, and fired. Instantly the man was on his knees. He cried out in pain and red flecked the snow around him.

Aiana put a hand to her chest, not even thinking of reloading the crossbow as the man stood back up, clutching his side where a crossbow bolt was buried. He glared at Aiana with murderous eyes, “You’re going to regret that, little girl.” Aiana tried to back away as he staggered towards her, but his stare froze her in place. “I don’t have time for you right now.” He raised a hand and swiftly backhanded her across the face, the force knocking her back down into the snow, “Wait there.”

Aiana watched as he limped back towards the bird, but even as he did the beautiful creature hopped back up and made another attempt at flying away. This time she was successful and soared into the air, flying even further away from the Salt.

Aiana hoped the poor bird was strong enough to escape, even in this blizzard, but she had to be sure. She pushed herself to her feet and blinked against the stars that floated across her eyes. They didn’t stop her from pursuing the man, though. She didn’t realize how long it had taken her to stand up, but the man was out of sight already, unless it was just that the snow had picked up and was blocking her view of him, but he had left a trail of both blood and footprints in the high snow that would remain visible for a while yet.

Aiana trailed after him until all sight of the Salt was gone, hidden by not only by the blizzard but by a large outcropping of rocks. She held out an arm to block the stinging ice from whipping against her cheeks but could do nothing for the cold wetness which was finally seeping into her boots.

Eventually Aiana caught up to the poocher, the crossbow bolt in his side had slowed him a lot and Aiana was sure that the bird must have gotten away, but as his form took shape and the wind changed direction, it carried his voice back to her, “Damn bird had better not be dead or that girl will wish she was.”

He then crouched down and scooped something up off the ground and turned back the way he had come. He and Aiana locked eyes even as the bird lay limp in his arms but this time Aiana didn’t back away. She snarled. “Let that bird go!”

“You need to learn to stay out of others’ business. Look what you’ve gone and done now, you’ve killed it!” The man held the huge bird out in front of him, the only movement Aiana could detect were the feathers that violently shook in the wind. Even her head just hung limply at an odd angle.

“No! Let her go!” She couldn’t be dead yet, just tired and sick, Aiana felt so tired she would drop as well. Gramps could help her though, Aiana just had to get the poor thing back to the Salt and away from the poocher.

Aiana’s resolve grew as her plan began to form. Running headlong through the snow, she leaped at the man’s, hoping to knock him down long enough to escape with the bird. She made sure to hit him in the side with the crossbow bolt and put as much of her weight into his injury as she could.

They both went down, with a grunt from Aiana and an angry gasp from the poocher, as the wind was knocked out of both of them. But their fall didn’t end there. Aiana’s stomach lurched as they rolled together and tumbled down a steep embankment the blizzard had blocked from view. At some point they separated and Aiana rolled uncontrollably. Even though there was a thin layer of fresh snow on top, beneath it was icy and hard. Luckily, the cold numbed most of the pain. She came to a stop at the base of the hill and raised her head with what energy she had left, searching for the bird.

Only about two paces away, the poor thing lay sprawled in the snow, barely making a mark with her light body and outstretched wings. The poocher, thankfully, was nowhere to be seen. Aiana didn’t even bother trying to get up, but she crawled the short distance to the bird so that she could provide her with some warmth. She didn’t even have a coat or anything on and so many of her feathers were gone.

The short distance was agonizing. Aiana could barely move her legs and her hands were beginning to numb, although she was almost grateful because that meant she couldn’t feel the sharp biting of ice against flesh. It was only then that she realized that her gloves had been lost along the way.

Aiana reached the bird and curled up around her, folding her wings around her body to try and contain some of the warmth. If Aiana could just keep her warm for long enough then Gramps would find them, and it would all be okay. Shaking her slightly, Aiana tried to wake the bird up. Gramps had told her that it wasn’t good to fall asleep if you were out in the cold.

“Come on,” she said to the bird. “Wake up, you shouldn’t sleep yet. Gramps will come and then you can sleep in a warm bed.”

Steeling herself, Aiana sat up, lifting the bird close to her and looked around. Thinking frantically, she knew the Salt well, the embankment couldn’t be far from Gramps’ garden. The hot spring there would be warm. She tried to stand but couldn’t, crawling would have to be enough.

It felt like she dragged herself through that snow forever. Over and over, Aiana whispered reassurances to the bird. She was so big and strong, but now felt so fragile. Eventually, Aiana's hand broke through a hard ice layer and plunged into warm waters below. She dragged herself a few more feet and lay, face up, in the hot springwater. It felt like her skin would melt off, but it was glorious.

Aiana felt so tired. She cuddled the bird and tried to cover it with the water as she felt the warmth finally sink in. If she just slept a while in this warm bath, then when she woke up she’d have the strength to climb back up the hill and walk back to the Salt. Vaguely, in the back of her mind, Aiana reminded herself that sleep wasn’t a good idea. But that voice was soft, very soft, and soon enough she allowed her eyes to close, with her cheek resting against the purple feathered plume of the bird she had rescued from the poochers.

Aiana’s hearing came back to her first.

“Syanna, be calm. It’s just a little frostbite. This paste will fix her right up.” Gramps reassured Ma. Aiana could hear her sobbing. Slowly, Aiana realized that Ma was holding her hand.

“I didn’t realise that you had such an extensive supply of alchemical components, Jashan. And having a mixture like that on hand, I’m impressed.” Uncle was there too.

“Rangers don’t have a monopoly on alchemy, Hamish, even out here. I’d be foolish not to carry a supply, living in a place like this.” Gramps paused with the sound of a case closing and latches clicking. “Speaking of which, the bird is dead. But if we harvest soon its components could certainly be useful.”

Uncle sighed, “You don’t know what you’re asking.”

“I know that the bird is dead. But perhaps some good might come of it.”

“No good can come from those components. Why do you think we protect that bird so closely?”

“I’ll burn the plume, of course, but the rest can do some good. Don’t be as narrow-minded as the others in your conclave, Hamish.”

Ma interrupted them, ending the conversation abruptly, “Jashan, why isn’t she awake yet? What’s wrong?” Ma was getting worried again, so Aiana prepared to wake up.

“She should be fine by now,” Uncle said, “she’s probably just sleeping—ah, here she’s waking now.”

Aiana blinked sleepily as she looked around the room, though she didn’t need to do much to make it convincing. Gramps held a large chest which he kept locked in his potion cupboard and smiled warmly down at Aiana while Ma hugged her tightly. “I’m okay Ma. Did you get the poochers?”

Gramps chuckled with a glance at Uncle who said, “You got them, Aya, well done!”

“It wasn’t who I said, though, it was the two Barnabies. They seemed so normal.”

“Of course, Aiana. Not all monsters announce themselves with red eyes. But you caught them anyway.”

“That’s enough Hamish, stop encouraging her.” Ma put on a stern voice, but the tears in her eyes spoiled the effect, “We will talk about this later Aiana, for now you need to rest. Everyone out.”

“Sorry Syanna,” Uncle Hamish said defensively, “I’ve got to leave now anyway, before it gets too late. I’ll take this young fool back to the Conclave for trial.”

“What about the bird, Uncle? Is she okay?”

He didn’t answer, glancing at Gramps, who said “She’s fine Aya, flown off to her home. You did well. You saved her.”

Aiana sighed and wondered when they would realize that she wasn’t a child anymore. “Good,” she said with a smile, “I’m going to rest a bit more now.” Aiana turned over and buried her face in her pillow to hide the unbidden tears.

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