Out in the courtyard Jacob struggled with a wilful palfrey that refused to stand still and let him finish loading it with supplies. She chuckled to herself in the knowledge that it was difficult to load up such a young horse and this one was nigh impossible. The horse had had nothing but men on its back ever since she'd known it. She immediately saw the irony and chose to ignore it.
Frida took the bag from him and fixed it along with her own. Gravity was obviously more accustomed to carrying Frida and her equipment and didn't seem to mind the extra weight. Meanwhile Nelya was perched unsteadily atop Ellis's old jennet. Had she been given a horse like Jacob's she would have been shaken loose or fallen of her own accord within a half-hour but the smaller breed seemed to suit her. Klop had been Ellis's childhood horse and though older and smaller in stature than its fellows, it had been ridden well and often by its new owner and the muscled haunches hinted that it could hold its own on the road.
Ellis was in the yard tending his current horse, Firebrand, named on account of it's copper colouring. Cassidy's own horse whickered in the stall beside her.
"I know, girl" she said aloud, not taking her attention from the riders ahead of her. "We'll be off soon."
Cassidy drew a sharp breath in as she felt steel press at her windpipe. She raised herself onto her tiptoes to try and pull away from the blade but it followed her.
"Be still" a voice breathed into her ear. "I've come to say a piece and then leave you to your travels but you must be silent as the grave. I do not mean to trouble your companions."
"What do you want?" Cassidy croaked.
"Merely to set you on the right path. Help comes in many forms besides those hidden beneath the dirt in leather-backed chairs. Their thick blood and thin minds will only get you so far. But first, a warning."
"A warning?" Cassidy gazed helplessly as her friends busied themselves with their mounts, unable to call for help, though now the dagger had let up enough that she could return her heels to the ground.
"The iron men come with their worms and their lackies because of who you are, Cassidy. Because of what you are."
"What? What do they think I am?"
"Thinking is none of it, girl. They are guided by ancient words. Prescribed when our world was but a doubt in the mind of men of fire and steel and emerald light. In their minds these words hold infallible truths. If it is written, it is already done. It is their unshakable devotion to this belief that drives them to you."
"What would they want with me? I've barely been out of this town my whole life except to chase off leercats." Cassidy, finding a small repository of confidence, began to edge her hand toward the pistol in her waistband.
"Indeed, and when you were out chasing wildlife, they had men searching the ruined places and darkened corners."
"Answers. The kind that have laid buried for a long time and would have done well to stay that way. Tell me, what do you know of the markings you carry on your hands?"
"My mother drew them on me when I was an infant. It made my father furious. She said they were to protect me." Cassidy felt her wrist touch the ivory grip of the pistol. Just a little further.
"Your sigils may be more than your mother would have had you believe. The children of the darklands all carry them but none like yours, not for a long time and for good reason. Even amongst your mother's people, yours would be considered... dangerous. To put them on oneself would be foolhardy, to scrawl them on a child... unthinkable. So the iron men follow the scribblings of dead men straight to your door. They mean to take you, Cassidy, regardless of the cost, and they will go through anyone to do so."
With his spare hand the stranger rotated her head toward where Nelya was still struggling with her horse. He leaned close enough that Cassidy could feel his breath in her ear.
"Do you mean to make them pay the price for her mistake?"
Cassidy saw her opportunity. The stranger had inadvertently rotated her neck away from the blade and it gave her the window she needed. In a blink she grabbed the pistol and struck the stranger's arm away with her forearm. She span around to aim at the stranger but instead her eyes were filled with stinging dust. She dropped the pistol and fell to her knees cursing the stranger, her blinded eyes gushing to remove the debris.
When her sight returned, the stranger was gone and the rest of the group had run over to see what was going on. They arrived to find Cassidy spitting chalk dust into the hay and using curse words that Frida hadn't heard outside of a roadside grog-house.
"What happened?" asked Jacob
"Nothing," she growled back. "C'mon, we're leaving".