The thin dueling blade weighed heavily on Arca’s hip.
She shifted the scabbard and leaned back against the rough-hewn rock wall. This place was cold, but comfortable. She was getting paid to watch over the darkened entrance to the mines by a roaring waterfall, deep within the mountain, far from the fearful glares and hurtful whispers of civilization. The stout and dusty miners out in the dormitories, even now, were probably glancing behind themselves and conferring to one another about her wicked horns, or her pearly, scheming eyes, or her diabolical whip-like tail, but at least the waterfall drowned out the echoes.
Far from it all though it might be, Arca wondered if it was far enough.
She had been playing cards at a stale-smelling tavern with a particularly gullible crowd, or so she had thought. There was one fellow across the table wearing a beautiful blue surcoat and a searching pair of black eyes—the kind that have seen people cheat at card games before—so she knew she had to play it safe. She dove for two hands, dealt one more, and then worked her magic.
But the man in the blue surcoat had seen this one before. “You can’t fool me, witch.”
“What makes you think I’m bluf…”
“You are not; you are cheating, witch. And you had better leave this table now.”
Arca stared. The nervous minerdwarf and befuddled carpenter at the table didn’t look like they knew what to think, so she figured if she looked hurt enough she’d be able to salvage this one.
But then the man in the blue surcoat stood, brushing aside his coat to reveal the rapier at his side.
“Get out of my sight, she-devil, or we shall resolve this honorably.”
The blood rose to her face and she stood too.
They stepped outside into the night and the chirping crickets while the innkeep fussed and admonished them to take care of this nasty business behind the stables instead of full view of the streets. The man in the blue surcoat ignored him, donning his gauntlet and drawing his blade while Arca tried to meet his cool gaze.
In a flash, they were at each other. Arca thought herself capable with a dagger—a skill she kept well-practiced—but against his cold instinct and alarming speed, she was lost. She was cut and pricked and parried until her anger ebbed into panic and his steely demeanor gave way to jeers and taunts.
“Worthless! Go scamper off to your father and tell him your mother should meet a real man.”
Before he could make his next thrust, the night sky was alight, and the crickets were drowned out by the roar of flames and the startled cries of passerby.
A cloaked man had turned the corner and was striding down the tunnels toward Arca. Her vision was blurred by tears and the man’s footsteps were completely inaudible beneath the waterfall, so she hadn’t noticed him until he was far too close. She yanked the rapier from its scabbard and gripped it hard.
“Who are you?”
The man drew back his hood. He was a man, but he wore his hair long and showed youthful elven lines on his face. “I am called Star, and I represent justice. Who are you?”
“I’m guarding these mines.”
“You are accused of murder.”
Arca gritted her teeth. “Then… then obviously you think you know how I am.”
“I’m afraid I don’t, actually. That’s why I wanted to ask you.”
Arca squeezed the hilt even harder. “I’m a murderer, apparently. What the Hell more do you want to know?”
The man sighed and smirked a little, a sight that did not calm her.
“This is what I get for trying to be stoic and terse. It just sounds cryptic. Look, you’ve been accused of murdering a man by the name of Ralen Suttgart and of sorcery. The punishment is death. But I made sure to ask around, and I learned that it happened during a duel. I see the tears in your eyes and the paleness of your face. Something tells me you’re no cold-blooded killer, despite what the witnesses would have me believe.”
“I’m not putting down my sword. You’re going to have to take it from me.”
“Oh, so you do want me to kill you now, is that it? I think not. You may not have said much, but you’ve told me all I need to know, and I have a sixth sense for these things. You’re going to atone—Hell, you’ve already started—and so my God commands me to stay my hand. And I will obey, gladly.”
“Atone? How? You call this atonement? You think I’m not going to turn around and kill you in a fire someday?”
“I think you know those answers. Anyway, you should probably leave this place. No great sorcerer has ever been made in the back of a cave, after all.”
He was gone in the space of a blink.
In truth, she didn’t know those answers, and she didn’t know what she’d do if she ever crossed paths with him again. She wasn’t even sure whether she actually hoped that would happen. But he was right about one thing: she needed to leave this place.
Arca adjusted the scabbard on her hip one more time, and then she left the mines.