The Reverend Mother used to tell acolytes that if men were going to brawl, they should at least be naked and glistening with oil.
Leda's money was on the hulking brute with the Cydian blade, but right now she needed the other guy to win. That one had information she needed, and she wasn't going to get it if he got himself killed. She was just about to intercede when her quarry tripped on his feet and knocked himself out cold.
The Cydian giant punched the air, knowing he'd be declared champion. The innkeeper waddled over to the center of the bar, grunting on every breath. Local custom dictated that the loser pay for damages, but this one didn't look like he had the coin to pay for ale, let alone broken furniture.
The tavern smelled of smoke and sweat. Leda stood up on tiptoes, bobbing her head above the shoulders of fetid drunkards, all trying to get a better view of the coming settlement.
From a corner table, the home magistrate watched the fracas through bleary eyes, indifferent to the outcome. His spine crackled in a series of pops before he ambled over to the wreck of a man still sprawled out on the floor. He rustled through the man's pockets, finding nothing but a dented copper piece. The judge flipped the coin to the innkeeper. "There's not enough here to cover your damages, Gos. Looks like you've ended up with another indentured servant."
"Bah! I've enough drunken fools working for me now. I don't need another. Throw him into--"
Leda pushed her way to the front. "How long would you have kept him in iron?"
"What?" the innkeeper barked, cupping his ear so he could hear her better.
"How long?" she repeated. "To pay his debt."
The innkeeper squinted at her with pig eyes, then spat toward a nearby earthenware jug, missing it completely. He waved his arms about him. "Look at my place! He owes me at least two month's worth of work."
"More like three." A portly woman with an ample bosom pushed her way under the innkeeper's arm.
Gos nodded, squeezing the woman's shoulder with a meaty hand. "True that, Dodie. Three months." He turned back to Leda. "Why do you ask? Does he belong to you?"
"No," Leda said. "But I need a manservant and I'll pay for his damages if you'll consign him to me."
"Done!" the rosy-faced matron shouted. She wiggled from beneath her man's arm and stuck the flat of her hand out to Leda.
Leda suppressed a snicker and dug into her coin purse. She placed three squares of silver in the woman's pudgy hand.
The woman kept her hand out. "He did more damage than that, priestess."
Leda quirked a brow at her. "If you know I am a mage, you'd know better than to bargain with our kind."
The broad-faced woman tilted her nose with a sniff. "I only want what's owed, priestess. We want no magic trouble here. You can see for yourself the damage the oaf has caused."
Leda nodded, not because she agreed with the plucky woman, but because she admired guile. It wasn't everyone who was willing to haggle a price from a blood mage. The fae-kind weren't exactly known for their benevolence with the plainfolk.
She handed Dodie another square of silver and closed the woman's palm over it. "For the damage," she said. "And for a night's lodging for me..." she hesitated, certain this heathen was going to be more trouble than he was worth, "...and my manservant."
Dodie bit into the last piece of silver, then slipped them all into the cleft between her bosoms. "Agreed. But you get only one room. Meego will haul him up there for you."
She motioned to a bruiser of a servant with a crooked nose and shoulders as wide as an ox-yoke. The oaf nodded dumbly, grabbing a black iron collar and a pair of pincers from behind the bar before shuffling over to the sleeping man. He crouched down and snapped the metal band around the loser's neck, pinching it closed with a folded rivet as a lock. He heaved him up over his shoulder with a grunt and a trumpeting fart.
Leda winced. Could plainfolk get any cruder? Sometimes it seemed the fae-kind employed the only semblance of propriety left in decent civilization. She hoisted her traveling bags in one hand and grabbed a lantern with the other then followed the smelly lout up the stairs. At the landing they turned left and tramped down a long corridor. Meego jerked to a stop in front of an unlatched door, butting it opened with the head of the unconscious man.
Leda set the lantern down on a candle stand by the door. The room was stingy but clean, the scent of tallow oil permeating the floorboards. A small bed hugged one wall. Next to it was a table with a pitcher full of water and a basin. The servant trudged toward the bed to dump his load.
Oh, I don't think so. Leda snapped her fingers. "Hey, genius. On the floor. There is no way in two hells he's sharing my bed."
The man did what he was told and chucked the graceless fool to the rough-hewn floor like a side of beef. A groan escaped her new bondsman, but he remained asleep.
She nodded to the exit, silently ordering Meego out. The servant bowed in obeisance, fat fingers tapping his lips and each shoulder in the sign of the Trinity, then shut the heavy door behind him.
Leda put the lamp on the floor and studied her new charge. He was out cold, but the sweat forming on his brow made her nervous.
She knelt beside him and felt for a pulse. It was slow and weak. Not good. She lifted his top lip, sliding a finger across his gums. His flesh was soaked with sweat, but the inside of his mouth was dry and pale.
Her hands patted down his chest, then around each of his legs, relieving him of a long knife and two throwing stars in the process. A thin dart, nearly invisible in the poorly lit room was embedded in his leather britches. She pulled it out and sniffed it.
Damn her luck! He'd been poisoned. Someone had rigged the fight.
Leda rushed to her medicine bag and pulled out two vials. One was a tincture of red sorrel and the other a derivative of adonis. With a steady hand, she poured three drops of each potion into a narrow flask. She pulled out a fresh needle and fed the oily blend down its narrow throat, then pushed the iron collar down and stabbed him in the jugular with the dart.
He moaned softly, still too drugged from the poison.
Leda went to the door and listened for any sound. Only the raucous merriment of drunks and minstrels carried from the tavern below. Flattening her palms across her chest, she chanted a mantra that cast a protection spell on the door and window. Energy swirled around the doorway and window frame, wrapping the room like a second skin. It would be enough to keep the savage in, and hopefully keep whoever had tried to kill him out.
She returned to her patient and felt his skin. His color was returning and his pupils were now normal size. Whatever he'd been shot with hadn't gone too far in his system. Her antidote was enough to waylay the toxin.
The savage was comely for a plainfolk, with a well-chiseled face and the rippled muscles of an athlete. A man a few summers older than she, he was old enough to have fought in the fae wars ten turns earlier. Under normal circumstances, she would have chalked up his poisoning to revenge. But there had been no other fae in the crowd--none that she noticed. Yet only one of her kind could have delivered such a toxin.
Someone wanted him dead and most likely for the same reason she needed him alive. For now, she'd keep that information to herself. There was no need to alarm him. But she'd need to keep a wary eye. If a rival was looking to kill this man, he would try again.
Her bondsman's breathing grew normal, but he had yet to open his eyes. Leda rose and picked up the pitcher of water. She poured some of it into the basin then flung the cold water at his face.
He woke with a start, his hand slapping at an empty thigh sheath.
Leda pounded the flat of her hand on the tabletop to get his attention. "Over here, Grace."
The man rubbed the back of his head, a scowl reflecting his mood. "If you're trying to swindle me out of coin, you're way too late." He patted his pockets.
Leda laughed. "Oh no, my fine dandy. I'm not here for your money, or your pleasant personality. You belong to me." She tapped on the hollow of her throat. "Notice any new jewelry on you?"
His hands felt around his neck, finding the iron band snapped tight. "What the bloody hells! What kind of trick are you playing, whore? I'm a freeman."
"You're my bondsman, fool. At least for three months. I bought your debt for that nice bit of redecorating you did downstairs in the pub."
"I was winning!"
"Ha! You tripped and knocked yourself out. As loser you are bound by law to pay for damages." She tossed him a careless glance. "Judging by all your finery, the magistrate ruled that you were to pay off your debt in service. The innkeeper didn't want you, so I paid for your writ instead." Her mouth curled upwards. "You belong to me."
"The hells I do," he growled and stumbled to his feet.
He was a full foot taller than she and broad enough to wield an arming sword. She wet her lips, her gaze tracing the lines of his bare, muscular arms. Her attention traveled down to his waist and thighs, and a pair of black leather britches that looked like they were painted on those long sinewy legs. He was quarry, but at least he was pleasant to look at. She'd had much worse.
Now that he was stable she also noticed he smelled. Her eyes watered and she tried to hold her breath. "Holy Trinity! When was the last time you took a bath?" She poked a finger at him and pushed herself away.
"My grooming habits are none of your business. And I can pay for any damage. I have funds in Corredo. That's only two days ride."
"Keep your funds, bondsman. I want you."
"I'm not for sale."
She clucked at him. "That's no longer your decision. The magistrate has ruled." Leda slipped off her longcoat and unbuckled her sword belt, draping it on the bedpost. She kicked the boots off her tired feet and flopped down on the bed, closing her eyes. It had been several days since her head rested on something softer than stony ground. Even a straw mattress was more inviting than sleeping in the damp cold of an open field.
Her manservant drew closer and she squinted at him in the low light of the room. "You get the floor." She kicked a folded blanket that sat at the foot of the bed toward him. "I wake early and sleep lightly, savage. Don't try anything stupid. There are wards surrounding the door and window and I spelled your collar with a tracking spell. You can't run."
"Doesn't mean I won't kill you while you sleep. Spells vanish when the weaver is dead, don't they?"
Leda chuckled and wrapped her arms behind her head. A bold one. "Do you have a name?"
"Greyhawke Tams," he said sourly.
Leda arched a brow at him. A Meriga tribesman. That clan liked to christen their babies with the name of whatever creature they first see out their doors. She lifted up and blew out the lamp. "My name is Leda of the Gaia Order of Mages. Sleep well, savage. Tomorrow, we will find out if you were worth the money I spent."