Brogan walked into the forge early the next morning, met by the peals of a hammer already beating against an anvil.
“Don’t you ever sleep, girl?” he shouted over the din.
After she’d stopped hammering, she muttered, “I’ll sleep when I’m dead.”
“Another fight then?”
She only had to look at him and he knew her answer.
“You’re going to get yourself into more trouble than you can handle one day,” he said with a worried look, shaking a hammer at her in reproach.
This time she didn’t even look up, busying herself instead with the iron she was now reheating. Before Brogan could berate her further, the door to the shop opened. A tall, broad-chested man stepped in. He was in his late thirties and had grass green eyes with dark brown hair that was just becoming shaggy, and a beard that was just a shade on the unkempt side. He wore a white tunic under a richly embroidered green vest, one that almost matched his eyes, and tooled leather bracers. There was a sword in a scabbard at his hip and he wore knee high riding boots with spurs. He carried himself with an air of self-confidence.
“Can I do something for you?” Brogan turned to face the newcomer.
“I’ve come to return something,” He answered, reaching behind his back to pull her knife from his belt.
“I believe this belongs to you,” he said matter-of-factly, looking straight at Taryn.
“It’s for sale,” she offered.
“I don’t want to buy it, but I would like to commission something, if you have the time.”
“I said, I would-”
“No, I heard you. What do you want?”
“Oh, well, I need a four-hand long sword-”
“Stop,” Taryn commanded, pulling a string from her smock and began taking measurements from his arms and hands. “Do you use a shield?”
“Do you care what’s on the handle?”
“I have some other projects to finish. Be back in a week,” she told him with finality and began to turn back to her work.
“Do you mind if I watch while you work?”
Without turning to face the man, Brogan saw one of Taryn’s eyebrows quirk up and she said, “Suit yourself.”
Returning to his own work from the previous day, Brogan began heating a small piece of round stock in the forge. Once it glowed red hot, he pulled it out and slipped it through the previous link of a chain he was making and bent it into shape. He continued to add links while eyeing his company every now and then.
Moving to the corner of the shop in an effort to stay out of the way, Shepard watched as Taryn put the iron back into the forge and began drawing it out, reheating it, then shaping it into a fire poker. After she had the general shape of it, she started adding decorative twists and flourishes. By the time she quenched the poker, she had created a work of art – and she appeared to have barely broken a sweat in the process.
He looked away from her gloved hands to take in her long, red-brown hair that was plaited down her back and her pleasantly symmetrical face. She wore a leather smock over her loose-fitting tunic and a blue vest with corset strings in the back, and although she didn’t wear it very tight, he could tell she had a strong, athletic body. He wasn’t surprised to see that she wore men’s pants and boots instead of a dress. As his eyes travelled back up to her face, he appreciated her full lips and cheeks, her hooded, hazel eyes, and her strong, square jaw. Beneath the soot and dirt, he realized she was quite beautiful.
Suddenly it struck him that she had stopped working and was staring at him. She rolled her eyes, but he didn’t look away. He wasn’t embarrassed to have been caught; he wanted to see her reaction. He expected her to blush, to smile a little and look away, but instead she furrowed her brow and went back to work, moving on to shaping the head of an axe.
He nodded, to no one in particular, and headed for the door. As he walked back to the inn, which was also the tavern where he had first seen the woman in action, he thought about her. She had a fire in her that he hadn’t seen in a woman before, a quiet strength that surprised him. He was intrigued by her, drawn to her. Only, she was so young. Her exact age unknown, Shepard could only guess that he was her senior by at least fifteen years. He shook his head, trying to clear it before he was reunited with his comrades. The day’s agenda required his full attention.
Taryn had looked up as the door closed behind the man. Setting the half-finished ax aside, she picked up a brick of steel, the last of the steel she had bought on her last trip to Mirston, with her tongs. Placing it into the forge, she watched as it turned from black to a bright, cherry red. She removed it from the coals and began drawing it out.
She worked methodically, one section at a time, to be sure she kept the metal at the optimal temperature and to keep any one spot from getting too thin. Once she was happy with the length and general shape, she prepared the blade for annealing by heating the entire length of steel. Just as she was pushing the coals in the forge to one side allowing the blade to cool slowly, Brogan came into the shop.
“Taryn, you still working? Come in and eat while its hot. I’ve done the horses already.”
She looked around, as if woken from a trance. “Oh? Is it that late?” She mumbled more to herself than Brogan.
He just nodded and went back up to the house while Taryn put all her tools in their rightful places, then she followed his lead across the pitch-black courtyard and into the kitchen door. The gamey smells of rabbit and potato stew greeted her at the door.
Brogan was already seated at the small table and his tall, thin wife was ladling stew into a wooden bowl set in front of him. He tore a chunk of bread from his roll and dipped it in the thick broth, then popped it in his mouth before it could drip into his beard. Taryn sat to his left and Faline dished her a bowl of stew as well.
“Thank you, Faline. Smells good,” Taryn mumbled as she began eating.
“You’re welcome! I’m glad to see you with an appetite this evening,” Faline told her with a warm smile, tucking a strand of her blond hair back behind her ear as she took her own seat on the opposite side of the table.
On the plate in front of him, Godwin pushed around what was left of his roast and mashed potatoes, lost thinking about the events of the day. Because they had arrived in Cirrain after dark the previous night, shortly before the showdown at the tavern, his companions spent the better part of the morning in bed. Consequently, Shepard spent the morning in the smithy while he waited for them to get their beauty rest.
Back at the inn, Shepard roused them and together they made their way to the tree line – an obvious place to start their search – to continue an investigation spurred on by yet another hollow clue. The tip was from Drake, who had overheard a group of merchants retuning from Cirrain. From the way they talked about it, it seemed to be the perfect location for a dragon: their sole prey.
Finding no roads that lead into the woods, the group was forced to pick their way up the mountain by way of the narrow game trails that crisscrossed the mountain. Their main goal for the day was to find some high ground and scout around, looking for caves or ledges that might be a dragon’s haunt. In the thick forest, though, high ground was scarce and no matter how far uphill they walked there seemed to be no break in the trees.
After a couple more unfruitful hours, Wade’s voice broke the silence between the five of them. “I think the only high point we’ll find is in the top of the trees.”
Without further explanation, Wade guided his chestnut gelding to stand below the lowest branches of a towering pine tree, whose trunk was wide enough to hide two horses standing side by side. Gracefully the man stood in his saddle, using his horse to vault into the boughs. The quiet brute hardly batted an eye at his rider’s gymnastics, having done this many times before.
Still sitting on their horses, the four remaining men watched as Wade scaled the tree with a feline agility. He disappeared upward, and Milo turned to Shepard to fill the time as they awaited his report.
“What kind of dragon lives in such dense forests?” The younger man asked.
Eyes still on the place where Wade had disappeared, it took Shepard a moment to respond. “Smaller ones, ones that might not be great at flying long distances but rather climb and glide between the trees. Dragons can stay small if they choose to, so they don’t outgrow their territory.”
“How fascinating,” Milo breathed, looking around as though he might spot the dragon Shepard was describing.
Before Shepard could reply, a rustling came from above them and soon Wade manifested between the branches. He was grinning, his blue eyes sparkling and wavy blond hair was windblown.
“I’ve spotted a cave,” He told them, gesturing in its general direction.
Milo and Randall both gave a whoop, shaking their fists victoriously. Sheperd smiled at their antics, then turned to Wade, who had slipped from the tree directly onto his waiting steed.
“Will you be able to get us there in the morning?”
Wade nodded, and together they all turned back the way they’d come, not wanting to get lost on the mountainside in the dark.