Pepper

      Today’s snippet, titled “Pepper”, is a piece I wrote about my new character, Ava Blue-Elk, to sort of demonstrate her experiences with a major in-game event.
      Be forewarned, there may be mature themes and naughty language below.

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      A sultry wind, uncharacteristically warm for this early in the season, ruffled her parka. Ava stroked the wolverine lining of her hood nervously. The dark fur would not mat with ice when she breathed on it in the frigid Brevic winter, but today it was unnecessary and she felt a little foolish. Between that and her heavy reindeer skins, she was well-equipped for a day in the peaks, not for standing in queue for an audience with the Reeve.
      “Out the way, lass,” a gruff voice said by way of warning. A heartbeat later, before she had even a moment to react, his thick arm thrust her aside. She was knocked into the chest of the burly, surly peasant behind her.
      “Sorry,” she mumbled, averting her eyes from his angry glare. The man grunted acknowledgement and returned to his gruff conversation with a poxy-faced woman beside him. Ava could not help but eavesdrop – they stood but a foot behind her – as words like hick, idiot, and wasting time crossed their lips.
      It seemed an hour passed before the queue advanced, a hundred or more troubled souls shuffling forward a few feet and then, anticlimatic as it was, waiting some more. Ava had not anticipated such a long, grumpy line of people. Her mother had certainly not mentioned it when regaling her with tales of youthful excursions to the towns and cities of Brevoy. Those stories were always filled with bright colors and lovely ladies with big smiles and handsome gentlemen who opened doors for you. There were always laughing children and the smells of food you could hardly even believe were real.
      The reality she had found was much… less. Dirty and malodorous, both the place and its people, Ava could not wait to have her moment and then lead a troupe home to take back her family’s land. She had arrived two days ago and found nothing to her liking thus far – not to mention the expense of it all. She had shed coppers and silvers as if there was a hole in her pocket. Two for the hay and four for the stalls, per day! A ruddy fortune spent on her meals – overcooked eggs and a skimpy rasher of bacon to break her fast, limp greens with greasy quail at noon, and stringy rabbit with turnip mash for supper – and all she could think about was heading out into the forest for an hour. She would have come back with a fat ptarmigan, some of its own spring eggs to stuff it with, a bunch of wild ramps and – if she were lucky – some mushrooms, too.
      It was astounding to her how much life cost in the towns and cities of Brevoy. The coin she’d wasted on room and board since leaving home was more than she’d even seen before her grandmother pressed a beaded purse into her hand and told her to go to New Stetven for help. It galled.
      “Next!”
      Ava was nudged forward by the big fellow behind her and stumbled forward a bit. She realized there was no one left in front of her and she swallowed hard.
      “Next, I said. Get on up here, if you’re going to,” the Reeve’s herald scowled at her. “Step lively.”
      “Oh.” She stammered. “Yes, I am. G-going to.”
      The way the officials were looking at her, appraising her, scrutinizing and judging her; Ava had never felt so small and insignificant.
      “Speak up now, girl,” the Reeve himself spoke to her, fanning himself with a page of parchment. “I haven’t got all day to listen to some slip of an outlander bellyaching.”
      Outlander? She thought, flustered. “I- uh, I-”
      “Out with it.”
      Ava pushed a lock of burnished copper hair from her eyes, tucking it behind her ear. “Sir, I come here to get justice for my Mam, sir, and my granparents.”
      “Uh huh,” he said, drawing a bored circle in the air with his finger as if to say, carry on. The herald’s quill hovered an inch above the page where it remained, unmoved. “Names?”
      “I’m Ava, sir, daughter of Red Kozik and Merta Blue-Elk. Well, they called him Red, a’cause of his hair, but his given name was Radúz. And my mam’s parents, what also live on our land, are called Meraya and Veshar.”
      “Go on.”
      Wetting her lips anxiously, Ava hesitated. She could feel unfriendly eyes upon her back and she flushed beneath her freckles. The folk behind her were growing antsy. They too, had waited days for this audience and if they were not heard today it would be at least another ten-day.
      “Look, I just come for justice, is all. I can lead a few deputies down to our plot. It wouldn’t take but three or maybe four, I reckon, if they’re skilled. And then we can take back my family’s plot. We had more than fifty acres on the south slope of Razorback Hill. Now it been taken by the Badmen Brothers.”
      “Right. Well, the Lord isn’t sending anyone out there with naught but the word of a girl to guide them. Go on home, lass. When the troops make it as far south as the Razorback, they’ll route those thugs. Next.”
      Confused, Ava said, “But sir, how-”
      “NEXT!” The herald’s bellow rang in her ears, but it was the annoyance in his glare that pierced her heart. “Move along, Outlander. No more words from you, the Reeve said get.”
      “But- but-”
      Ava was bundled off the platform and shoved out of the way by half-a-dozen gruff hands. Suddenly, she stood alone at the perimeter of the square. She frowned.
      “…guess Mam was right. The Lord don’t give no nevermind for folks in the ‘belt.” Ava could practically hear her Grandmother’s words in her mind, offering a rebuttal. Ten years back, the old King would never’ve stood for that; he was a good’un he was. He’d put these thugs down right and true, he would.
      Retreating toward the stable – where she had paid thrice the normal price to have her mare, Sailla, and her matched pair of cream-colored mules, Honey and Sugar, fed and boarded – Ava sighed heavily.
      “Now what?” She asked herself, touching a fingertip from her right hand to her left clavicle. As always, the discolored spot – the Blue Elk’s kiss, as her grandmother called the birthmark – over her heart was slightly warmer than the flesh around it. Ava closed her eyes, waiting expectantly for a long moment.
      She sighed again. Maybe Grandma Meraya is wrong. Maybe I don’t have the Gift of Sight.
      Ava avoided eye contact as she climbed the steps to the third floor of the Inn. She had taken the smallest room , cramped beneath the eaves, and still felt as if the fee was highway robbery. Once she was safely ensconced behind a locked door, she shed parka and fur-lined boots, heavy tunic, undershirt, trousers and woolen socks. Standing before the wavy looking glass in her skivvies, Ava allowed the warm, moist air to caress her flesh. It was steamy in the cramped attic room, but without the wintery layers, it was nearly bearable.
      Though she was all by naked, alone in the inn room, Ava felt a hundred times less vulnerable and exposed than she had down in the square.
      “It was stupid to come, leaving them on their own and unprotected. In the morning,” she told herself firmly, then splashed a bit of lukewarm water from the basin onto her face. “I’ll head home. Find another way to win back our land. Tonight though – a good meal and some real city wine, hang the cost.”
      In the common room, freshly clad in her favorite old leathers – ones gone soft as butter with age – and with her copper-colored curls pulled back into a low twist at the nape of her neck, she could almost pass for townsfolk.
      “What’s cooking tonight?”
      The barmaid watched her take a seat at an unoccupied table with disinterested eyes and sidled closer. “Rabbit stew with cabbage and carrots, picked melon rinds, and whatever cheese ain’t yet gone over.”
      The woman was in her thirties, at least, with a heavy bosom and the sort of square figure that came from multiple pregnancies. She yawned openly.
      “Oh.” Ava bit her lower lip. “Nothing but rabbit?”
      Rolling her eyes, the barmaid shifted her weight to the other foot as if answering a simple question was just about the most painful thing she had ever been asked to do. “Might be some river pike leftover from lunch. Boiled it half-to-death in some fruity white wine and cracked in a whole mess of peppercorns. Damn near inedible.” She paused. “But it ain’t rabbit.”
      “Yes. Please. Um, the pike. And a flagon of wine, too. Please. And thank you.”
      “Sure.”
      Ava watched her saunter toward the kitchens, taking time to stop and flirt at just about every table with a man sitting around it. She knit her brow in consternation, and then sighed.
      “Hope you weren’t too hungry.”
      Startled, Ava looked to her left. A young man, her age or thereabouts, stood beside her. “What?”
      He gestured to the empty chair. “May I?”
      “Huh?”
      “Taking that as a yes,” he said sliding into the seat. “I said, I hope you’re not too hungry.”
      “Why?”
      “Irma is on the prowl these days. Her last husband died nearly a year ago now, and she’s got five mouths to feed.”
      “Oh.”
      His smile was different from most of those she had encountered here. It was genuine and kind, not patronizing or amused by her ‘funny’ outlander manner.
      “I’m Richard,” he said, catching her gaze as she tried to avert it, embarassed by the intent way he looked at her. “Pleased to make your acquaintence.”
      “Oh. I- My name is Ava.”
      “Well met, Ava.” Richard lifted his mug and took a long, foamy pull of ale. He licked his lips, thunking it down onto the table. “That’s good stuff. You know, I saw you before. Down in the square. The Reeve was a bit of a prick, wasn’t he?”
      Ava gave a chuckle, nodding. “A bit. I thought for certain that the King’s men would help. Da and Granma Meraya always spoke so highly of the King, but I guess with him gone… things changed. Me Mam was right after all – they don’t give a fig for us on the borders.”
      “They’ve got plenty of problems in the realm anyway. There’s always talk of civil war in the dark corners and no troops to spare for the outlands.”
      Eva bristled at the term, pointedly looking away from him.
      “Whoa – I meant nothing by that. Its just a word, is all. Anyway, I came over here to meet you ’cause I think I can help you out.”
      She felt her brow furrow, suspicion growing upon her face. Though she wanted to resist his charming smile, she could not. “How?”
      “We heard – from reliable folk – that the Lords are sending Charters south to the ‘Belt to root out the trouble and firm up our hold on it. There was a call for stouthearted men – and ladies,” he added hastily, “To go up to Restov to join up.”
      “Really?”
      “Yeah!” Richard’s excitement was infectious. “My brother, William, and I are leaving at first light as a matter of fact. Well…” She followed his gaze to another table where a big, freckled blond man held court over a bunch of boys barely old enough to grow fuzz on their chins.
      Richard gave a wry chuckle. “Assuming he ain’t so hung over he cant sit a saddle.”
      “Where’s Restov from here? Is that further North?”
      Pushing a hand through his floppy, wheat-colored hair, Richard gave a shrug. “Yeah, I guess. I mean, Will’s got the map in his pack. Anyway – why don’t you come with us? Will’s bringing his wife along, and our cousin Bren and his son are coming. There’s safety in numbers, and well – maybe you can find help to get your plot back.”
      Ava’s heart began to thump wildly in her chest. Yes – she thought – company and protection and maybe I’ll be able to find someone to help! Then she vacillated, wondering if it was just a big lie to lure her in so that they could rob and rape and kill her out on the road. But then again, they seem nice enough, well – Richard does – and I can’t take on the Badmen Brothers on my own. She frowned. No, I can’t. I’ll just end up leaving them unprotected in the caves even longer if I detour now…
      “Here.”
      She jumped in her seat as Irma plopped a wooden platter onto the table before her. A round loaf, hollowed out and filled with thick, creamy fish chowder sloshed around but did not spill. She could smell the wine and pepper without even leaning in to sniff.
      “Thank you,” she said to Irma’s retreating back. The barmaid had left so quickly Ava felt a breeze in her wake.
      “That looks… ” Richard swallowed thickly. “…tasty.”
      “Anything is better than more rabbit,” she said, lifting a spooful to her mouth. Big hunks of soggy potato and flaccid onion floated amongst the flaky fish and green flecks of herb. “Let’s meet in the stableyard here at dawn. All right?”
      Blue eyes lit up, the color of the Brevic sky in high summer. “Yeah, yeah! That’s great. So you’ll come with us?”
      Eva nodded, taking a bite of the chowder. It tasted like a ray of hope.
      …and pepper.
      Lots and lots of pepper.

Signed, Josie

Note: Image is “Spice” by miholz from SXC.hu

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