Zierski proved to be a fair-sized village. From the looks of things, it was probably big enough to have more than one blacksmith. She patted Aysi’s neck as they started down the hill.
She looked up at the sound of Fadekya’s voice. “Yes?”
He gestured at Roffe. “I am uncertain of the reception your companion will receive. They may mistake him for a wild wolf.”
“Ah. Right.” She glanced down at Roffe. “We should get you pants.” Roffe rolled his eyes and sneezed. Just because he could take human form didn’t mean he liked to. She chuckled as she rummaged through the baskets, eventually settling on a beaded scarf. The wolf gave her an irritated look, but allowed her to fasten it around his neck. She looked up at Fadekya. “Better?”
“Hopefully.” He slid down from the back of Aysi, then patted the rhinoceros’s neck before giving Veronika a contemplative look. “You may wish to place your weapons in your pack. Zierski does not allow strangers to go around armed.”
She scoffed. “That’s silly. What if I need to hit something?”
“I believe that is exactly the sort of situation the policy is intended to avoid.” He gestured at the axe. “If you wear your weapon, the guards will insist it be peace bonded. And if the seal on the peace bond is broken, you will be arrested until they can be certain you have not committed any violence within the city.”
Veronika gave him a dubious look before looking down at her axe. It was clearly a weapon rather than a tool. Then she looked back up at him. This was his land and his people, so if he said it was the custom he was probably right. It just didn’t exactly make sense. “You’re trying to tell me that nobody in that city is armed?”
“The sheriff and his guardsmen are armed.” He frowned. “And there are undoubtedly a few ruffians with concealed weapons on their persons.”
“So, you’re saying I might need my axe.” She shrugged. “Good to know.”
“I…” Fadekya glanced at her as she started walking again. Then he shrugged and followed. “Do not think that is what I was implying, no.”
Veronika led her small party into the village. The wall around the city was makeshift at best, and the gate something Aysi could likely trample without even noting it was there. The village itself consisted of wooden buildings, though a larger structure in the center was made of stone. Two men wearing short swords glanced in her direction as they passed, and exchanged an uncomfortable look with each other. One reluctantly walked towards her. “Excuse me, miss?”
She raised an eyebrow. “Yes?”
“I’m afraid we cannot allow you to enter the city armed.” He indicated her axe. “Your weapon must be peace bonded.”
“Okay.” She nodded. “I promise I won’t draw it unless someone attacks me.” She started walking again.
He blinked. “Miss.” He moved to block her path. “I’m afraid that is insufficient.”
“You asked for a peace bond. I have given my word.” She blinked at him, then turned to Fadekya and raised an eyebrow. Maybe he could explain.
“A peace bond means that it will be tied into the sheath so that it cannot be drawn.” He gestured towards the axe. The shackles around his wrists immediately drew the attention of the guards. “Wax will be poured onto the tie and stamped with the village seal to ensure the tie is not removed and then replaced. If the seal is broken, you’ll be detained until they can determine what crime you may have committed within the village.”
“Yes.” The guard nodded, then glanced again at Fadekya’s shackled hands. He gave Fadekya an odd look before shaking his head and frowning. He turned back to her. “Are you a bounty hunter, my lady?”
“No. I’m a monster hunter.” She frowned. “Unless you happen to have a bounty out on any good monsters, in which case I can be both.” She tilted her head. “Are bounty hunters allowed to keep their weapons?”
“If they are so registered with the sheriff, yes…” He gave her a confused look. “Is this man your prisoner?”
“No. I got him up on the mountain.” She gestured behind her carelessly. “They were going to let the Girkalon eat him.”
The two guards started to exchange horrified looks with each other. Fadekya spoke up quickly. “She killed the beast.”
“Sweet merciful waters…” The guard’s mouth hung open as he starred. “I…” He smiled. “It’s truly dead?” He ran a hand through his hair. “Forgive me, my lady, but I must…” He laughed. “It’s actually dead? You are certain?”
“I yanked out its teeth, so I’m pretty sure.” She shrugged and offered the axe to him.
The guard turned to Fadekya. Fadekya nodded. “It is most assuredly deceased.”
He began tying the axe with a spool of silvery cord, while the second guard began questioning her about the beast. A small crowd had gathered by the time her axe was handed back, and Aysi was beginning to make cranky noises. Roffe’s hackles were raised slightly, though he was not yet growling at anyone. She put the axe back on her belt. “Can you direct me to the closest blacksmith?”
One of the other guards that had gathered, an eager looking young man, spoke up quickly. “I can show you the way.”
They stopped briefly at an inn that the guard claimed could accommodate Aysi. There was a large paddock, and the rhino looked at it dubiously. An elderly groom stared at Aysi as if he’d never seen a unicorn before, and the guard had to try three times to get his attention before he’d take the coin Veronika was offering. Rather than take Aysi himself, the groom gestured for a young stablehand to do it. The young man walked toward Aysi as though certain he was going to his own execution. Aysi gave a shake of her head, then simply walked forward, used her horn to unlatch the gate, and shoved the gate open to enter on her own. Veronika smirked as Aysi casually kicked the gate closed behind her.
She paid for a room before following the guard to the smithy. When he learned she was intending to replace her battered shield, the guard eagerly offered to purchase it from her, but for some strange reason insisted she write her name on it for him. Veronika watched him head back the way they had come, clutching the shield to him as though it were a precious child. “What’s wrong with him?” She glanced at Fadekya.
“There are few families that have not had to offer at least one member to the beast. I doubt you will have to pay for a single meal or drink during your stay here.”
“They have swords. Why didn’t they go fight it?” She wrinkled her nose as she led him into the smithy.
A solidly built man looked up from the forge. “What can I do for you?”
“Couple things.” She gestured at one of the pieces hanging on a wall. “I need a new shield, and some repair work to my armor.” Veronika grabbed Fadekya’s arm and dragged him further into the smithy before she held up his shackled hands. “And I don’t have the key to these.”
“Is he dangerous?” The smith frowned, giving Fadekya a wary look.
“No, not really.” Veronika shook her head. The smith probably weighed double what the slight Fadekya did. “You’re not, right?” She glanced at Fadekya.
“Certainly not in present company.” He shook his head.
“He’s a prisoner?”
“No. I killed the Girkalon that was going to eat him.” She shrugged.
The smith dropped his hammer, narrowly missing his foot. “It’s dead?” He took a step towards her. “It’s truly dead?”
“Um…” She glanced at Fadekya before looking back at the smith. “Yeah. Yanked its teeth out and everything.”
“You…” He stared at her. “Killed the Girkalon.”
“Yes.” She nodded.
“And you’ve come here, to my smithy? To have me make you a shield? I’m making a shield for the slayer of the beast?”
“If you’re not too busy, I guess.”
“My lady, all other work can wait.” He spread his hands. “I will begin work immediately.” He held up a hand and frowned at it before recovering his hammer and turning back towards her.
Veronika smiled. “Well, thank you. I’m staying at the Wending Rose Inn.”
“Of course. I will have your items delivered to you as soon as they are finished.” He blinked, and then glanced at Fadekya. “Does he require branding?”
“Um…” She scratched her head as she tried to make sense of the question. Then she glanced at Fadekya. “Do you require branding?”
“I would greatly prefer not.”
“Right.” She nodded. “No.”
“Have you a crest?” The smith accepted the damaged chainmail tunic she handed him.
“A what?” She glanced at Fadekya again.
“A sigil or standard that represents you and can be used to mark your property that others may know it is yours.”
“Oh.” She rummaged in her belt and pulled out a bracelet with her family’s sigil. “Here.”
The smith took it from her almost reverently. “Oh, this is a glorious day.” He actually let out what sounded like a giggle as he carried the chainmail and bracelet to a workbench.
“Alright then.” She glanced at Fadekya. “I’m going to go get supplies. I’ll met you back at the inn.”
“Most likely.” He nodded to her.
By the time she’d visited the third shop, she had nearly a dozen children following her. Their eyes were wide as they stared at her with awe-filled expressions. Veronika sighed, and then went into the next shop.
It didn’t work. Now she had almost two dozen children following her, munching merrily on the hard sugar confections. One of the braver children worked up the nerve to pet Roffe. The wolf’s tongue hung out of his mouth, and she was fairly sure he was laughing.
A couple hours later, she was heading up to her room. At least the children hadn’t followed her into the inn. The barmaid had started to object when Roffe entered, and was promptly shushed by the innkeeper. The staircase cut off the staring eyes, and she almost immediately breathed a sigh of relief.
She stopped in her tracks as soon as she entered the room. Fadekya was sitting on a chair, and his shackled hands had been secured to a nearby post. And there was a thin metal collar around his neck. She frowned. “I told him to take those off you.”
“No.” He glanced at the shackles. “You told him you did not have the key.” He nodded at a small leather parcel on the nightstand. “The key is in there.”
“I’m starting to think there is something wrong with the people in this city.” She shook her head and retrieved the key before unfastening his wrists. She blinked. “These aren’t the same shackles you were wearing earlier.”
“He removed the other ones and replaced them with these.” He shrugged. “Admittedly, these ones do not pinch as badly as the others did.” He rubbed at his freed wrists.
“Where is the key to the coll…” She touched the band around his neck. “Where is the lock on the collar?” The metal band had been welded shut. There was even a red blistered mark on Fadekya’s neck where it had been done. And there was her family’s sigil, etched into the metal. She growled before releasing the collar. “Why did he do this?”
“It is a far preferable option to being branded.” Fadekya rubbed at his neck.
“Wait…” Her eyes widened. “When he asked about…” She looked back at the door. “You mean he was asking me if I wanted him to brand you?”
Fadekya raised an eyebrow at her. “What did you think he was asking you?”
“I didn’t know. That’s why I asked you.” She shook her head. “Explain what is going on here.”
“When a sacrifice’s lot is drawn, they become the property of the temple, to be offered up to the gods, in the hopes that the gods will show the rest of the people mercy.” He shrugged. “Or in my case, to the angry woman who had just slain the beast, in the hopes she would show the priests mercy.”
Veronika sat down. “Oh.”
“You did not realize this?” Fadekya examined the abrasions on his wrists before looking up at her. “You did tell the priest you had won me.”
“I was speaking metaphorically.” She ran a hand through her hair. “Alright. I’ll see about getting you some clothes or something, and then you can be on your way.”
“I beg pardon, my lady, but I cannot.”
Her fist clenched, and she made a growling sound. “Make with the explaining.”
“Anything the beast leaves behind becomes the property of the priests. Since you have won the tribute left to the beast, the same applies.”
“I let you go, you become the property of those jackasses on the mountain?” Veronika made a frustrated sound. “And then what?”
“Since you declined to have me sacrificed on your behalf –”
“Yeah, explain what sacrifice to the river god meant in that context.”
“A hole would have been cut in the ice covering the river. Then, I would have become a fair bit colder than I was when you first met me.”
“Since you declined that offer, I would have spent the winter doing whatever drudge work could be found. Then, when the waterfall thawed, I would have ended up fed to that monster.”
“That –” Veronika blinked. “Wait, you guys have another big people-eating monster around here?” She leaned forward eagerly. “What kind of teeth does it have?”