Courtesan – Flanders`

Jess was almost humming as she rode at an easy pace along the small game trail.  She had not planned on the hunt lasting more than an afternoon, but it had stretched out into two days.  The fresh spore she had seen convinced her to take the extra time, and she was glad of it.  Two partially dressed maug-deer were strapped across the back of her pack horse.  She had also managed to catch some maug-rabbit and quail.  The catch would supplement the garrison’s supply nicely.  For now, she headed towards the Flanders Outstead.  She planned to give them some of the rabbit and quail in exchange for the provisioning they gave her every hunt.

She spied the open back gate through the trees and pulled up short.  The gate should not be open.  She lifted the quiver up from the pommel and settled it across her back.  She check her bowstring and the blades strapped to either thigh then quietly slid from her mount.  She looked to each side, led the horses off of the trail and ground tethered the.  She preferred they were able to pull loose and run if they needed.  She did not return to the trail to approach the gate but took cautious steps through the undergrowth.  She strained her ears listening for anything out of the ordinary.  The maug was always unnaturally quiet.  She stopped, slung the bow, drew her blades then moved on.  She swiveled towards a long hollow tree that creaked oddly.  A scrap of bright colored fabric was snagged on the outside.  She knelt to inspect it: bright blue with a stitched yellow flower.

“Karsis,” she whispered.

The tree whimpered.  Jess slid one blade back into its sheath and knelt by the opening.  “Karsis, is that you?  Sweetie, it’s Jess.”

A small tear-streaked face framed by dark hair slowly appeared in the opening.  Violet eyes round with fear fixated on Jess’s face.  The girl suddenly wormed out of the tree and flung herself onto Jess burying her face in the woman’s shoulder.  Jess hugged her with her free arm and put away the other blade.

“Karsis, can you tell me what happened?”

Without looking up, Karsis shook her head.  Jess pursed her lips then whickered to her horse.  The animal’s dappled nose pushed through the growth to push at Jess’ shoulder.

“Karsis, do you remember my horse Gwen?  I need you to stay with her.  Karsis, do you understand?”

The girl clung more tightly and shook her head again.

“Karsis, please, sweetie, I need to check on your family.”

The mare lipped Karsis’ hair, and she looked up.  Jess rose with the girl in her arms.  “Karsis, I’m going to put you in my saddle.  You can lean forward and hug Gwen’s neck, okay?”

Karsis nodded, and Jess lifted her up. Jess took a carry belt from her saddlebags as the girl hid her face in Gwen’s mane.

……

Jess stepped around the gate without touching it and onto the small footbridge.  The  inner gate to the outer livestock yard was closed.  That was good.  It meant that whatever had scared Karsis enough to cause her to run into the forest alone had not followed her.

The normally bustling outstead was beyond quiet.  The livestock were all missing except for a couple of game hens that wandered about.  All the feed was gone as well, and there was no sign of the herding dogs.  As she moved around the yards, Jess did see evidence of fighting but no bodies.  It was all very strange.

There were only two structures left to search: the signal tower and the main house.  Jess turned towards the signal tower, a tall, stone chimney over a bricked fire pit with a sheltered ramp that ran around it to the very top.  A woodshed snugged up against the stones at the ramp’s lowest level.  Fortunately, whomever had taken the livestock had left the wood.  She stepped back and scanned to the top.  Someone could be up there.  She frowned and glanced back at the house.  During her search, Jess had kept looking for signs of movement at the doors and windows but had seen nothing.

Best to check here first.  The sheds were cleared quickly.  Both sides were stacked to the rafters, dry on one end, green on the other.  The pit, though, was something else altogether, not that someone hidden there could climb out unassisted.  She headed for the ramp first, one long curved blade held out in front, the other behind.  The ascent did not take long.  The tower ramp was as empty as every place else had been.  She headed back down to check the pit.

Jess dug in her carry belt for her striker as she approached the pit’s maw.  A mirrored lamp hung and a torch hung to one side.   The wick of the lamp lit quickly and burned brightly.  She lit the torch as well then angled the mirrors of the lamp to aim the light through the opening.   There was a quick flash of what might have been skin and the pre-laid wood in the pit shifted.

“Show yourself,” Jess called out,  “or I light the wood with you in there!”

A soot streaked face of a prepubescent girl soon appeared, eyes wide with fear.  Jess recognized as one of Karsis’ older cousins but could not put a name to her.   She put the torch in it’s bracket and hung the lamp from the hook in the middle of the opening.

“Youngling, I’m going to put down the ladder for you,” she told the girl.  “Then you can come up and help me with Karsis, okay.”

The girl nodded.

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