EMPIRE: COUNTRY I - Tia
“Sir, please grant us shelter.” A sneeze threatened to erupt through Tia’s nose as she spoke the words.
“No.” Beady eyes lost in a tangle of facial hair glared at Tia.
“Ah-choo!” The sneezes violence made Tia’s slight body curl despite the sodden mass of her dress. “I shall inform Master Brutus of your inhospitality.”
“The orders come from him.” The window banged shut. “Wretched peasants.”
Sir Peter Cortez reached for his sword hilt. “Who are they, to refuse shelter to their betters?”
Tia placed a restraining hand on the knight’s arm. “Don’t bother, Sir Cortez. We depart this place at once. Kyle!” The last word was directed at a huge man whose cask-like body strained at a long blue jacket.
“Yes, my lady.” Kyle lifted her without apparent effort and trudged across the yard, boots making sucking sounds with each step. Once in the cart, Tia huddled against her maid Rebecca while Kyle heaved himself onto the driver’s bench. The wain lurched into motion and almost collided with a pair of figures in clerical cassocks. Tia glimpsed a wrinkled female face fringed by gray hair.
“Beware,” said the priestess as the wagon rolled past, along with other words lost in the cacophony of pounding rain and rumbling wheels.
Wonderful. The priestess was probably warning them of bandits. The roads swarmed with the vermin these days. The knight rode alongside the wagon.
“Sir Peter, how far to the next shelter?”
“The old monastery is two miles from here.”
“Will the monks permit us shelter?” Tia reached the wagon. Another sneeze threatened to escape. Two miles. Half an hour on this miserable road.
“It’s abandoned.” ‘Abandoned’ didn’t sound hopeful. But at this point, Tia was ready to commandeer the next barn, shack, or wild animal den they came across, so long as it was dry. The wagon lurched sideways. Tia slammed into Rebecca. “Kyle, must you strike every chuckhole?”
Auburn hair peeped from beneath Rebecca’s hood as she straightened herself. “It’s alright, my lady.”
“No, it’s not alright,” said Tia. “Thanks to his piss poor driving,” she jabbed her index finger into the oafs back, “my nice dry carriage is back at Stone Hollow with a broken axle.”
The wagon rumbled through a corner. Bramble and weeds stretched into the distance on either side of the road. Ahead, the road dipped into a gully with a plank bridge at the low point.
God above, what a depressing place. I need a hit of Dust. Tia’s hand crept towards her hidden jacket pocket. Just one little hit to tide me over until I’m someplace warm and dry with a decent bottle of wine at hand.
Sir Peter’s steed appeared alongside the wagon. His gauntleted hand motioned at a spiky shape that leaned over the highway on the gorges opposite side. “That’s the Boundary Tree, my lady – the border between Cosslet, Lupton, and Caestoninus baronies.”
Tia squinted at the tree. Brown-robed figures and half a dozen head of cattle huddled beneath its branches. Peasants, not bandits. The tree vanished from view as the road dropped towards a bridge almost submerged beneath the orange-tinted water.
“Ochre Creek,” said Sir Peter. “It’s tainted by the old mines north of here.” Tia didn’t care about worthless pits in the ground. She just hoped the wretched bridge didn’t collapse. The cart’s wheels struck the bridge with a jolt and took on a hollow sound. Then they were across, and Ginger began towing the conveyance up the far slope.
“My lady, we should reach Cosslet Castle before nightfall,” said Peter.
Tia suppressed a groan. Peter’s half-brother Ian was suitor number four on ‘the list.’ Tia sighed. Marriage was such a bother! But her parents were determined to attain aristocratic rank, which meant their offspring – specifically Tia, as her brother was much too young – had to find nobles willing to marry beneath their station. Alas, most such aristocrats possessed flawed bodies, flawed characters, or both. Plus, they were all in debt to their eyeballs. No doubt Baron Cortez hoped for a handsome dowry to settle his pile of bills. A gust of wind blew rain into Tia’s eyes and turned the world into a watery blur. Worse, the dampness had reached her hair. My curls will be ruined. How can I make a good first impression on the bumpkin Baron if my hair is a mess? She plucked at her sodden coat. Not to mention the rest of me. Perhaps we can stay overnight at an inn. The thought made her shudder. Previous roadhouses boasted poor food, coarse company, and bedbugs. Such rude accommodations were suitable only for the lower orders.
Another jolt snapped Tia from her reverie. We’ve stopped. Had the empire’s worst driver managed to break yet another wheel? Tia opened her mouth for a retort. Sir Peters outthrust hand filled her vision.
"My lady, stay in the cart.” The knight’s helm rotated as he surveyed the landscape. Naked steel slick with water gleamed in his fist. Kyle’s bulk tensed. His beefy hand reached beneath the bench.
“What happened?” Nerves made Tia’s voice shrill. “Bandits?” Tia’s gaze swept from side to side, but the liquid veil remained impenetrable. Brush. Rocks. Weeds. Ahead, the giant oak branches drooped over the road. She blinked. The branches hung at the wrong angle. Queer mounds blocked the highway. Sir Peter edged his steed closer to the tree.
The Oaf rose to his feet, short sword in hand. “My lady, you might have to run.”
“Kyle, what are you talking about?” Tia’s heart sounded louder than the rain. A horrid realization penetrated her awareness. A scream fought its way from her throat.