That afternoon, the job board held a single job worth two tokens. In a city, the tokens might’ve been metal, stamped with the the deed to be done in the metal corresponding with the skill of the task to be tackled. (Brass for Novice, iron for Heroes, and steel for the near-impossible quests that required a Master.) A second token would’ve been beside the first, telling a would-be hero where to find the requester—the person paying for the job to be done. No use doing work if you didn’t know the details, including how much they were willing to pay you to do their dirty work.
Here, though, there was little wealth to be wasted on fripperies like a job board. Wood and paint and marks would do for those who found themselves illiterate in the woods. Cara pushed her bangs back and squinted at the wooden circle resting at the bottom of the peg board. Its edges were worn clean of the red paint—a sign that this token was used often in this part of the realm. Of course, it would be. It called for a pester, and the woods held nothing if not dozens of pests.
But it was red paint. That was the same as a brass token in the city, denoting a job that Novices could apply for with their masters’ blessings. If it had been blue or white paint, needing a true Hero or Master, Cara would’ve ignored it. No one would risk paying the health fees and death price for an unknown quantity for jobs of those magnitude, even if those requesting that level of service had appropriately tiered the work. Often, she’d seen folks—terrified half out of their minds and desperate for relief—post jobs asking for Heroes when the greenest Novice could have done, saving them the money in the long run.
Those folks, deluded and desperate as they were, would not consider an unknown quantity if they requested a full-fledged Hero or Master. But a red token… A Novice’s token…
That was another story.
Cara squatted down on her heels, fingering the job token that sat, snug in its pegs. A crude chicken head was painted in fading black ink, its head feathers pointed and rigid. The beak had… Cara peered closer. Were those fangs drawn on the bird’s head? She smothered a chuckle. The pointed lines protruding from the bird’s beak were fresh, almost glistening. Whoever had posted this job had decided to add that cosmetic touch to the cockatrice token.
Cockatrices had no fangs, of course, but she couldn’t really blame the poster for adding them. Folks could image all sorts of things to make a monster seem bigger than it was, especially after being locked in the cockatrice’s hypnotizing stare. And really, who wanted to be caught asking for help killing what were basically feral chickens? Fangs made the whole thing seem much more menacing, for those who didn’t know better.
She shifted her gaze to the second token, which held the mark of the requester. Most folk hereabouts were illiterate, so they created personal symbols to identify themselves. That was all to the good, anyone, since Cara barely knew enough of words to read her own name. Reading is for scribes and those with nothing better to do, she mused as she studied this token’s symbol. It was metal, unlike the job token, and bore the imprint of an anvil and horseshoe.
Cara winced. That was the blacksmith’s mark. Aaron was a shrewd pinchpenny, if a bit dramatic. If the cockatrices were enough of a problem that he was willing to pay for the job to be done, then it was going to be a trial and a half compared to what she’d done freelancing so far—and he might not even take her on, considering her credentials. Or, more precisely, her lack thereof.
She squared her shoulders. There was no harm in asking, after all. The worst he could say was no, and perhaps he felt like saving a bit of cash by doing a bit of black dealing. Cara dropped her own token in the empty column beside the blacksmiths—a swirl of scribble that the scribe who designed it for her said was the first letter of her name—to show any other prospective heroes that she was taking the job on, before turning away down the path.
Leaves and twigs crunched beneath her leather boots as she walked to the village in the valley. Branches peaked through the last leaves, a darker brown behind light orange. The sky had never seemed so blue. It seemed to glow above the trees. She shivered a bit, pulling the hood of her grey cloak up to cover her head. The sky screamed summer, but the wind whispered of the cold nights and killing frost to come.
She climbed to the top of a small rise, and the village spread out below her, quaint and quiet. Everyone just called it the village, though the tax collectors insisted on calling the place Baronsfield. Cara supposed it would make their jobs difficult if every small town in the forest was called “Village.” But no one bothered with names overly much here.
It was set at the edge of a small running stream, which fed the tiny miller’s wheel and the ditches the farmers had dug to water their plants. The stream went on to feed the marshes some miles beyond, but the houses were far enough away that the marshlands posed little threat to the families who made their livings at the edge of civilization.
Well, rarely interfered. The cockatrice must’ve come from someplace, and Cara would bet gold (if she had it) that they’d fluttered up from the marsh. The local forests were regularly swept for wild eggs that had turned, after all, but trying to map out the marshes was a fast way to end up stuck to your hips in mud and ruin your best boots to boot.
The blacksmith’s forge was on the outer edge of the village, close to the untamed forest and all that lovely wood, ready for the burning and turning into charcoal. Smoke from his fire belched from the chimney before the wind tore it to shreds. As Cara approached, the bright ting! of hammer on cooling metal pounded out a rhythmic tattoo. A lull, and more strikes chimed from the forge.
Aaron was working. That was bad, if she wanted to take the job now. The blacksmith despised interruptions of any sort, particularly those asking for favors instead of offering to give him money for work. But the trees had begun to pick up streaks of amber and gold, and her shadow stretched impossibly long. Soon the inn would open for the evening meal, and she’d be needed there again. If she wanted the job, she’d have to ask now, before another hero saw the notice on the board and approached Aaron.
Any chance was better than no chance, Cara decided, even if that chance involved poking a soot-covered bear with a hammer. She adjusted the hilt on her hip, steadied her breath, and strode through the door into the forge—
—and promptly tripped over a pile of loose rods that had fallen over the threshold. Rods and limbs went flying as Cara flailed, hitting the dirt floor with a hard smack that knocked all the wind from her lungs. Her right hand flared with heat. With a gasp, she snatched it away from what she saw was the forge’s hearth and a hearty, healthy fire. It roared in the enclosed space, flaring with each pump of the apprentice’s billows. Even her ungainly entrance didn’t halt his movements, though he stared in disbelief and shock at her sudden appearance.
“What in blazes…!” Aaron had come from the other side of the fire, hammer clenched in one fist with a set of tongs in the other, to see what all the commotion was about. He leaned over, scowling. Cara scrambled to her feet, dusting off her shirt and trousers as best she could. “It’s the tavern girl making a mess, then. What do you want, besides ruining my shop?”
“I wouldn’t have ruined the shop if you hadn’t booby trapped your door!” Cara snapped, red flags flying on her cheeks. “I’ve half a mind to not take on the job, if that’s how you greet visitors!”
“What job? Are you offering to take his place?” Aaron jerked a thumb at his apprentice. The boy’s only response was to pump his billows all the harder, and the fire flared in response.
“The job on the questing board, of course.” Cara gathered the folds of her cloak about her and lifted her head. “You have a problem with some cockatrices?”
Aaron’s beard twitched. “And you’re the one to do it for me, then, lass?”
If she didn’t need the work so badly, she’d walk out the door. As it was, she lifted her chin a fraction. “Yes.”
Aaron blinked, then barked a laugh. “But you’re just the barmaid!”
Cara grit her teeth. “Here.” She reached beneath her cloak, extracting a scuffed leather wallet. It had the same curving initial tooled in faded red ink on the front that her token had. She flipped back the front cover to show a battered brass disk inside. It had been bent nearly in half, but had been painstakingly, clumsily hammered back into a semblance of its original convex shape. Though the blunt hammerstrokes had almost completely erased the delicate etchings, enough remained to mark its bearer as a Novice Hero. The trainer’s mark, however, had not survived the repair work.
The smith raised a wooly eyebrow. “How much did you pay a tinker to fix that? Too much, whatever it was.”
“I did it myself.” Cara offered the wallet to him, desperately biting off any
Her patience broke. “I’m a hero, not a metalworker,” she snapped. “Are you going to look at the badge or not?”
Aaron’s eyes narrowed, but he took the wallet. He spent a long time examining the badge, going so far as to slip the disk out of its straps to examine the back side.
“Where is your trainer?” he finally asked, still peering at her Novice’s badge.
Cara’s arms prickled with gooseflesh. “You posted for a Novice, not a hero.”
“But I want to talk to your trainer, ask them whether you can handle cockatrice.”
Cara threw up her hands. “For the love of all the gods, it’s not like they’re dragons! You’ve got feral chickens with stingers! Your own apprentice could probably handle them, the way he pounds away over there. Brain ‘em dead with a hammer, if he knew where to strike.”
The fire guttered for a moment as the bellows’s pattern stalled, then resumed.
“And how do I know that you know where to hit ‘em, then, if not by talking to your trainer?”
Cara bristled, but her stomach sank. This was the very conversation she had hoped to forestall. “He’s not here.”
“Oh? Really?” Aaron folded his arms across his chest, still holding her Novice’s badge. “And when would he be back, then? Would he pay the health fee, as a guarantee?”
Gods above, he was going to drag this out of her, wasn’t he. It was obvious she had no supervising trainer to answer to, to sponsor her for these sorts of jobs, but he was going to grind it in. Fine. She’d let him have his pound of flesh, and then she’d take it back—and more—once she’d haggled out the fee.
“If he was coming back anytime soon, do you think I’d have taken work at the tavern? You’ll have to take me as I am.”
“As you are, eh?” His gaze swept down to the dirt covered knees of her trousers. “And that’s a clumsy farce of a Novice Hero who mucked up my workroom, that’s what it is.” He tossed the leather wallet at her feet, heedless of the soot and dirt. “Get back to the tavern, girl. I need a professional to do this job, and you’re not anything.”
Cara felt a pang in the place she kept her pride, but she refused to bend and pick up her badge just yet. “But I can do it! And it’s not like we have any other heroes in town. I wouldn’t get hurt or ask for the health fees or anything, just let me do this!”
“And do you have references? Anyone at all willing to speak for you? Or should I ask George about your fighting skills? You dumped a beer on his lap not last week, and then snapped him in the arm with a towel trying to sponge him off.”
“That’s some skill, at least,” Cara joked weakly, but Aaron was already shaking his head.
“I’ll not have it and risk having to pay for your injuries, girl. I need someone who knows the sharp end of a blade, and the closest you’ve been to a sword is an eating knife, I’ll warrant.”
Cara shifted so the cloak’s fabric fell away from the hilt of her sword. Aaron snorted. “That’s not a sword, that’s a piglet-sticker. No, you’ll not do for this. Get back to the tavern where you belong. I’ll wait for a real hero, thanks all the same. Now get.”
With that, he strode back to the other end of the forge, snagging a metal rod on his way. Cara’s badge laid at her feet, smudged and dull. Slowly, she stooped to pick it up, carefully rubbing the grime away with the palm of her glove.
When she raised her head again, she saw the apprentice was staring at her with something like sympathy. Cara supposed Aaron wasn’t particularly soft to anyone, even his apprentice.
“You’d not use a sword to take care of cockatrice, anyway,” she said, softly. But the apprentice heard her, she was sure. “Better to use a slingshot, to take them out at a distance. Or a hammer to stun them first, if you can sneak up behind them.” She clutched the folds of her cloak around her once more, feeling cold despite the warmth of the forge. “Just in case they return before a real hero shows up,” she added, and she walked out of the forge before the apprentice could say anything at all.