She nocked an arrow and drew the bow up in a smooth motion. She exhaled slowly and her breath pooled in a misty cloud, swirling golden in a stream of light before dissipating. The forest was deathly silent; no birds dared sing with a qi’rel so near, its spindly limbs picking over the undergrowth, its chitin plates sliding together with a papery whisper as it moved.
The mottled brown and green of her clothing rendered her nigh invisible against the wooded backdrop. She held herself perfectly still as the qi’rel prowled closer, close enough now for her keen ears to pick up the soft chattering of its mandibles as it tried to catch her scent. It crunched crisp autumn leaves as it crept about, and she waited with practiced patience for the opportunity to strike.
Ephemeral seconds ticked as she watched unblinking. The grey creature, no bigger than a wolf, traversed the forest floor, turning this way and that as it tried to find her. It knew she was here; she had lured it from its nestmates after catching it alone, had drawn it further away from its kin to this spot of her choosing, where she would fell it.
Something snapped further off, a dry twig under a deer’s hoof, and the qi’rel’s head jerked up. There! The flesh exposed, unprotected, soft and momentarily vulnerable. She loosed her fingers and the arrow left the bow, streaking with a keen whistle through the crisp morning air and sinking deep and firm into the qi’rel’s flesh.
It let out a piercing screech, spinning as it tried to locate the source of the threat. She launched herself from her hiding spot and sprinted to close the distance between them, hopping fallen branches and skipping slippery stones as she drew her sword from its sheath. The qi’rel, panicked and angry and screaming still, barely had time to acknowledge her presence before her blade found the point where the arrow held the chitin plates apart, and with a satisfying slice she cleft its head from its thorax.
The stall owner looked her up and down, taking in the cut of her cloth, the polish of her bow, the multitude leather straps and pockets that held knives and tools and the plethora gear she carried, all well used and well cared for. She caught the moment that his expression acquiesced respect, his head dipping in a curt nod.
“How much do you want for it?”
“I’m not from these parts. I trust you will pay me fairly the value of a qi’rel corpse. The chitin is unblemished, the meat fresh, and the claws intact.”
“Well, I can certainly sell it, but you’ll get more if you take it to the barracks.”
She arched a brow in question.
“Guess you’re really not from ‘round here, then. The qi’rel are getting feisty, straying further from their nests and threatening some of the local livestock. The militia’s paying good coin for proof of any of these bastards killed.”
She digested this information, considering. “They won’t have need of the corpse beyond seeing that it is a qi’rel slain. You can pay me for the corpse and the militia can pay me for the kill.”
The man smiled. “Guess it’s a good day to be a hunter, eh?”
“I’m not a hunter,” She hoisted the sack off the ground and slung it over the shoulder. “Where is the barracks?”
“Oh. I just assumed…” His eyes crawled again over her array of weaponry. “Never mind. That way to the end of the road,” he pointed, “can’t miss it.”
“I’ll be back with the corpse,” she said, her amber eyes burning intently as she waited for his confirmation.
“Right you are.”
The soldiers’ eyes wandered in her direction as she swung through the fence gate and crossed the courtyard, such as it was; a square of dirt in front of a stone building that served as the training area for the town’s militia. They wore the King’s uniform and were no doubt composed of units sent from the city mixed with local folk who wanted to enlist and serve. They were a ramshackle group, some showing the most basic of swordsmanship skill, some not even that.
She recognised the captain by the insignia on his left collar. He was a man of unimposing height, but built wide at the shoulders with a broad chest and a thick, solid frame that would make him hard to knock down. She caught his attention, noticed the crow’s feet of middle age at the corners of his eyes and the dimples, deeper than they would have been in his younger years, forming crescents around his mouth as he pursed his lips in acknowledgment.
“Qi’ril,” She dropped the sack at her feet and kicked it open, a spindly, barbed leg falling loose onto the dirt. “Killed as the sun rose.”
“At dawn?” The captain crouched, lifted the edge of the sack to peer inside, after he’d given her a cursory once over. “Damned things are getting closer every day, if you killed it at dawn and already made it here.”
“I lured it from its nest deeper in,” she explained, hoping it would alay his fears somewhat. “And I move swiftly. The nest is a decent distance from the nearest village.”
“Mmm,” he grunted, moving the legs aside to inspect the body. “Still too close for comfort. You know we’ve got a bounty on qi’ril?”
“I do now,” She nodded. “Merchant told me. If you could confirm the kill I’ll take my coin and have the body back to him for selling.”
She glanced aside; a couple of soldiers had paused their training and lingered nearby, talking in hushed whispers as they pointed at her bow, her sword, her cloak. She looked back at the guard, waiting.
“Well, it’s definitely dead,” He smirked. “The garrison’s been cleared to pay two silver a qi’ril. I know it’s not much, probably doesn’t even make it worthwhile for someone of your mettle. I think they’re hoping they can entice some overzealous farmer’s sons to go hunting with their pitchforks. Two silver’s worth a fair bit more when you’re losing cows to these damned abominations.”
“Or daughters,” she replied, flatly.
It took him a moment for her words to sink in. He frowned, and stood, his knees clicking.
“Right. Here,” he pulled two coins from a pouch at his belt and offered them.
She took the coins, slid them into a pocket, and gathered up the sack.
“You, er… You wouldn’t fancy killing some more, would you?” He rubbed a hand at the back of his neck.
She paused, looked around at the cadets again. No, she couldn’t see them faring very well against a nest of qi’rin. One or two by themselves, maybe, but she doubted they had the skill necessary to draw them away like she had.
“You see the issue,” He’d noticed her appraisal of his men.
“How much have you been authorised to spend?”
“Fifty silver in all.”
“How much of a problem are the qi’ril?”
“We lose a few livestock every night. It’s only a matter of time before they move on to people.”
She’d heard of qi’ril taking children, mostly in late autumn when the nest would be stockpiling for winter. It was late autumn now.
“I’ll take the nest,” she fixed the captain with a hard stare. “I’ll need ten silver upfront for extra supplies, and I’ll take another ten when it’s done. You can keep the rest; distribute it to cover costs for those who’ve lost animals. I don’t expect you to trust me enough to just give me the silver, so you’ll accompany me, with two of your stealthiest men. Wear light armor, nothing metal, nothing heavy. Same for your men. Weapon of choice?”
“Er, spear, but-“
“Perfect,” She cut him off. “Bring a shortbow, but only if you’re proficient. I’ll take this corpse to the merchant and meet you back here shortly. Make haste; we need to reach the nest a few hours before sunset.”
“Right,” he said, absorbing her instructions quickly. He scanned the yard. “Elling, Galwell, with me.”
She appraised the two men he’d chosen. Elling was almost as short as her , lithe and scrawny. Galwell was taller, and slim but with sinewy muscle. They weren’t much, but they’d do.