The riverside city of Hellesport was a businessman’s paradise, they said.
“Apparently it was a large city-cum-country which started as nothing more than an inn on the side of a well-traversed road.” Yxalle called from his horse, now beginning to buckle under the ever-increasing weight that had been applied to it’s ageing back in the last few months. A loyal companion for many years, Yxalle’s glorious black stallion had, in the recent months, been starting to turn grey in the roots of it’s well-kempt mane, and had acquired a magnificent curling moustache the likes of which Yxalle’s stubbornly hairless lip could only dream of.
“Over time,” Yxalle continued, oblivious to his stallion’s hoarse panting, “Shops built up around it, until, a few hundred years ago, it became a city sprawling many miles, filled with all sorts of businesses selling rarities you couldn’t possibly get anywhere else - spell books they found in the old storage crypts, and stones that they claimed came from the stomachs’ of dragons! The mythical kind of dragons! Can you imagine! According to myth, there were buildings with so many floors that when you looked down, it was like looking into an ants’ nest!”
Yxalle stared at his companion with a look akin to that a small child might wear when given a bag of sweets. She flicked a stray hair out of her face and sighed.
Holding herself grandly on her white mare, she had the air of a duchess, with body language that showed only pride and a porcelain face whose copper eyes declared a warning - ‘to touch is to sin, and you won’t go unpunished.’
If eyes could wander past her intimidating features however, they would be able to witness the full curiosity of her. Despite her proud air, which made her seem large and intimidating, she was surprisingly small in size. With her neatly plaited white-ginger hair and lacy moss-green dress she appeared more like a doll.
She clicked her tongue disapprovingly as the man escorting her continued excitedly.
“Isn’t that just a curious thing? How something so small and simple could turn into such a grand haven for both businessmen and common citizens alike!” He chuckled to himself, addressing his companion, “Positively amazing, Syla, that’s what I say!”
The breath Syla took whilst preparing to speak could have held the world on edge.
“That’s bull, mate.” She snorted, voice muffled by the white papery mask she wore over her mouth, “Like a buildin’ coulda been that big! It’d crumble, Yx, I tell ya.”
She wrinkled her nose and pulled a cloth out of the tiny pocket in the skirt of her dress.
“Anyways, wha’s all that about what-have-ye? ‘Haven’? Bull.” She wiped roughly at her itching nose with the old, yellow cloth. “Where’s it, again?”
The excitement in Yxalle’s golden stare had evaporated, replaced with disgust.
“Not far.” He replied quietly, and then pointed lazily into the distance. “Look, you can see the homes in the outskirts appearing now.”
Syla squinted into the distance, thick with haze.
“I really wish you would at least stay in character.” Yxalle huffed, “You’re a grand lady today, not a barbarian!”
The dirt track that they were travelling down stretched into lush green fields on either side, dancing in the warm winds of summer. To the left towering hills ran into the distance, painted with deep lilac from heather that wrapped itself in abundance around them. To the right the land dropped off into a large lake, glittering an unusual blue as the sun lazily pulled itself across the sky - it was a peculiar shape for a lake, and rose up on the other side, where rows of different coloured rock could be seen.
Ahead, the fields became smothered with a thick mass of trees, whose needles suffocated the ground and prevented other life growing, but through the gaps in the branches a city of glass could be seen like a ghost through the mist, made up of tiny blocks and speckled with a faded rainbow of broken metal carriages that shone like glitter through the old streets.
“Oh!” Syla gasped, and waved her finger about in a chaotic point. “Look it, Yx!”
“I told you! It’s mag-” Before Yxalle could respond in his joy, Syla had kicked her horse into a canter and was out of reach in a flick of her pale hair, hurrying ever closer to the trees half a mile away. He muttered to himself irritably, and maintained his steady pace.
Syla slowed her mare, Ronac, to a quiet halt a few feet from the treeline and slid off, white horse hair clinging to the seams of her dress as it caught the loose end of the worn stirrup strap and rode up her back.
Whispering to a tired Ronac to tell her to stay, she heaved her shoes off and crept forward, feeling with her toes for any loose stick or stone that might alert her prey to her presence.
Her orange eyes she fixed forward, eyeing her target. Ever closer she moved, slipping silently from trunk to trunk, until she could see every twitch that they made.
The young peregrine squawked and ruffled it’s new feathers, preening it’s fluffy grey down, oblivious to the presence of the girl watching it from the shadows.
Her breath was steady as she peered up at the creature from behind her tree, admiring the rolling flex of it’s young muscles as it stretched it’s wings, beating them up and down to practice the movement.
A cracking from nearby brought her back to the ground.
She tensed as the young peregrine tensed. As it pressed itself down into the tightly woven nest, she pressed herself closer to the hard bark of the tree, and glanced in the direction of the city.
The road was clear.
Back the way they had come, Yxalle still trotted contentedly along, shielding his eyes with his dark hand to peer again at the dull city he adored from old stories.
As another crack sounded, her eyes flickered amongst the tangle of branches, scouring past the treeline.
A flash of silver dove behind the trunk of an old fir. The tail end of an arrow stuck out above a holly bush.
There were others amongst the trees.
In one swift movement Syla grabbed a low branch and swung herself into a large oak tree, positioning herself carefully, the colour of her dress blending perfectly with the leaves and lichen that clung to the bark like parasites.
She closed her eyes, and listened.
“Is he the assassin that King Arroll sent us about?” Came the breathless whisper of a boy from his hiding spot behind the holly bush. “He doesn’t look heavily armed.”
“Why else would someone be coming this way?” An older man hissed back, rather louder than he needed to. “Only people have anything to gain from coming here is slave-traders trying to sell of the sickly last of their stock, and assassins.”
Syla opened her eyes again, and glanced back at Yxalle clinking down the road with the large sacks his horse was crippling under.
The corners of her eyes crinkled with a smile, and she slid out of the tree again. She took a deep, calm breath, rubbed her eyes with tight fists, then spun around the tree, bursting into the light.
“Don’t shoot!” She cried, and stumbled towards the men, “Please! Don’t shoot!”
The men jumped up in alarm, revealing their hiding places.
One of them, the older man, was lean-looking, like a farm-worker, but every inch of his body that Syla could see was plastered with wispy grey hair, and his hands shook nervously. The younger one was skinny, and obviously inexperienced by the plain horror on his face, and the uncomfortable way his hands held the bow he was going to try and shoot a man off his horse with.
“You have to help me, I beg you!” She whimpered, putting on a more alluring accent - that of a grand woman, which was known to tempt others more often than not .
“He took me from my home!” She sobbed, tripping as she walked, until she met them at the treeline and fell to her knees. “Please, you have to stop him! He’s going to hurt me!”
She looked fearfully at Yxalle, who was now close enough to see her terrified face, the tears welling in her swollen eyes. He looked almost amused - playing along, or, perhaps, he found her fearful face ironic; wasn’t she the one to fear?
“No!” She screamed, struggling to her feet again. “Get him away from me! Please! Don’t let him get me!”
With exaggerated clumsiness, she stumbled backwards, and fell into the arms of the young man. Ducking behind him and followed by his flustered gaze, she stared, doe-eyed, in his eyes.
“You have to help me.” She rasped, blinking so that a tear escaped and rolled down her cheek.
The boy fumbled and nodded, tripping forward and preparing his bow.
“Come here, child.” The older man comforted, reaching out his hand for her to take, “It’s alright. We’ll get him, don’t you fret.”
Syla squeezed at her sullied dress in a fearful manner, playing shakily with the frills and folds, and gave the man a wide-eyed, naïve look. Her nervous hands stopped by her sides, before she finally reached out to take the man’s worn hand.
He pulled her closer into a fatherly embrace, and she freed her other hand from the folds of the dress, where a tear was concealed through which she could reach her hilt, using the momentum of the tug to drive her blade forward.
The man choked before he had a chance to scream, a deep gash pouring crimson from his tanned neck.
As Syla threw him carelessly behind a tree and wiped off her small dagger on her dress, the boy was still struggling to correctly position the arrow on the rest of his bow.
“Y-You know what you’re doing?” She squeaked, back into character without a moment of hesitation.
The boy was in plain sight of Yxalle, but he didn’t seem to notice, and the day was getting older and warmer with every second he hesitated.
She pulled an arrow silently from the pile he had foolishly discarded on the ground, for lack of a quiver.
“Yes.” He assured her, voice more confident than the sweat trickling down his skinny neck would imply. “Ev... Everything will be okay. Don’t you wo-”
He’d glanced back to give her a blue-eyed glare of desperate confidence, but was alarmed to see the cold look in her eyes, the fresh blood stain on her pretty dress.
He stepped back cautiously, dropping the bow in surprise. She strode forward, picking it up.
She positioned the arrow on it’s rest with ease as the boy vaulted the fear that had frozen him and turned to run.
“Holloa!” With a yell and a wild look on her face, Syla drew back the bow. The boy dove out onto the road.
Yxalle’s stallion snorted at the sudden obstacle in it’s path and reared, shocking the boy. He shielded his face, distracted by the alarmed animal, and froze again.
“Tally over!” Her fingers slipped from the string of the bow as delicately as a butterfly beating it’s wings, and flew as quietly.
The boy did not cry out as he fell; he did not look for his elder, killed before him- he looked at Syla in the trees, and, offering no comfort to him, she chuckled cruelly back.
“Job bloody well done, eh?” She skipped as she emerged from the trees, adding the bow and it’s remaining arrows to the already overloaded satchels on the black stallion. “Now let’s get down to the real work.”
She clambered back onto Ronac, and the group walked calmly on down the road.
“That building, Syla!” Yxalle declared, pointing excitedly to a tall building, shimmering up and down with mirrored squares, reflecting the colours of the city and the scenery, drawing ever closer, “Is it not magnificent? How many floors would you say it had? Twelve? More?”
Overhead, the parent peregrines hovered warily.