CHAPTER 1 (part 3)

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Chapter 1 (part 3)

Gallen knew a threat when he heard one. She was saying, either you pay more attention to me, or I'll find someone who will. And she wouldn't have to look far. Gallen took a thick oak stick from his pocket and began simultaneously twisting and squeezing it, an exercise he used to strengthen his wrists. "Hmmm ..." he said, "maybe I should take a look at your backside." He felt her warm breath on his neck.

"You're not a religious man, are you?" she asked. "I wouldn't want you to think I'm just after fornicating with you. If you would rather have a priest and some vows first-"

"No, it's not that," Gallen assured her, yet marriage was exactly the problem. She was so young that no honorable man would propose to her, yet she couldn't bear the thought of working here for another two years. So, if she happened to turn up with a child in her belly, the whole town would just wink at it and hurry the wedding. It was an odd turn of events, Gallen thought, when the town would view a shameful wedding as somehow being more noble than an honorable proposal.

"If I were to propose right now," Gallen said, "it would hurt us in the long run."

"In what way?"

"I want to have a political career," Gallen said. "Father Heany is right. I'll never make a living by selling my escort services around here. I've killed too many highwaymen. Next year, I plan to run for county sheriff. But I can't do that and go tumbling in bed with you. It would bring shame on us both. I beg of you, give yourself time to grow up."

"Is that a promise you're making me," Maggie asked, her shoulder muscles going stiff in his arms, "or are you just trying to brush me off like a gentleman?"

Gallen looked into her dark eyes, eyes such a deep brown that they were almost black. She smelled of good honest sweat and lilac perfume. Outside, a fierce gust of wind howled and sleety rain spattered against the windows with such startling ferocity that Gallen and Maggie turned to glance at it. The window rattled so loud, Gallen had been sure that someone had pushed against it. He turned back to Maggie. "You're a sweet girl, Maggie Flynn. I beg you, be patient with me."

Maggie pulled away, disappointed, perhaps hurt. He still hadn't promised himself to her, and she wanted a commitment, even if it was informal.

The inn door swung open, and a sheet of rain whipped into the room. At first Gallen thought the wind had finally succeeded in blowing the door open, but after a moment, in walked a stranger in traveling clothes-a tall fellow in riding boots and a brown wool greatcloak with a hood. He wore two swords strapped over his cloak-one oddly straight saber with a strange finger guard on its hilt, and another equally long curved blade. By wearing the swords over the cloak in such a downpour, the stranger risked that his blades would rust but kept his swords handy.

Only a man who made a living with his weapons ever wore them so.

Everyone in the alehouse stopped to stare: the stranger must have been riding in the dark for at least five hours, a sign that he had urgent business. Furthermore, he stood at the door without removing his hood, then silently inspected each person in the room. Gallen wondered if he might be an outlaw. He didn't seem to want his face to be seen in town, yet his roving eyes appraised each person in the room as if he were a hunter, rather than hunted.

At last, he stepped aside from the door so that a slender waif of a woman could enter the room. She stood in the doorway for a moment, erect, head held high with her hood still covering her face. Gallen saw by his tense posture that the man was her servant, her guard. She wore a bright blue traveling robe trimmed with golden rabbits and foxes. Under her arm she carried a small harp case made of rosewood. She hesitated for a moment, then started forward and her hood fell back.

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