Lyana slept that night on a random rooftop. Innkeepers were well aware of the commerce the fort generated and priced their hospitality accordingly. Better to save the money now so she could spend it on something that mattered later. Besides, she’d spent more nights in her life under the stars than she had under a roof. Seemed a shame to break with tradition on the eve of the next stage of her life.
She woke with the coming of the dawn, well-rested and eager for the day’s adventure. The sun was bright, but the air was cool, and she shivered as she threw her blankets off and rolled them back into her pack. She scampered off the roof and made a straight line for a small shop near the eastern edge of town. The door was closed and the windows dark, but Lyana strode in as though she owned the place.
The smell hit her nostrils first. It was a scent unique to this place, a combination of oil, gunpowder, and steel. She thought of it as home, or at least, as close a place to home as she’d ever known.
Light from the back room burned a skewed rectangle into the floorboards, but no one came to investigate her entrance.
“Who’s there?” shouted a woman’s voice from the workroom.
Lyana grinned. If there was anything she was going to miss about being stationed here, it was Liz. “Just me,” she hollered.
The sounds of metal scraping against metal paused briefly before resuming. “Come on back, girl. I was starting to wonder if you might have run off without your best friend.”
“You know I never would.” Lyana walked into the room and saw Liz working at one of the three workbenches arranged around the room. A rifle was dissembled on the table before her, and she cast her gaze down the length of a barrel to check for imperfections.
Liz was a force of nature even tornadoes feared. Her shoulders were as broad as a stallion’s, and she could drink two-thirds of the soldiers in the fort under the table without blinking an eye. She’d been a captain in the army before retirement, but she worked harder now than she had during the war.
Liz would break your spine if you crossed her, but she was more likely to lend you the shirt off her back if you asked nicely. Lyana loved her like the mother she’d never known, and Liz cared for Lyana’s rifle like it was one of the sons she’d lost in the wars.
Liz nodded to the back wall, where Lyana’s rifle was propped up against the wall. It looked better than new. “All fixed up and it still shoots as true as any rifle I’ve ever seen. You found a good one.”
Lyana bowed deeply before starting to pull some money from her pocket. Liz shook her head as she returned the barrel back to the workbench. “This one’s on the house. Just come back safe sometime and tell me all about it. I’ve got to live vicariously through someone, and the army brats who come round here aren’t half as exciting as they think they are.”
“I will. I promise. And thank you.” Lyana grabbed her rifle and inspected it, though it was more out of habit than any need. Liz’s work was always above reproach.
She stood there for a second as her throat suddenly tightened. “I’ll miss you,” she said.
Liz grunted and waved a hand. “You’d be mad if you didn’t. Now take that and get out of here before you get cold feet. I want your stories, not your tears.”
Lyana threw her a salute, even though Liz hadn’t been in the army since before Lyana was a child. Liz waved her away, her attention already back with the restoration project on the table.
Lyana left with her own rifle, a sad smile on her face.
As though changing in response to her moods, the weather had started to shift. Pillowy clouds advanced across the sky from west to east as though on the march. Darker clouds followed miles behind and looked to promise a cold rain. Lyana pulled her coat tighter and made her way to where the departing caravan would be loading.
The decision had been an easy one. The caravan promised some small amount of coin, while the train would rob her of a considerable portion of what she’d saved. Caravans were slower, but it wasn’t as though she lacked for time. She’d get a better sense of the land with the additional time, too.
The caravan assembled on the western edge of town. Five wagons, four of them covered, were already in place, and a sixth was being prepared. Lyana whistled softly to herself. It was a bigger operation than she’d expected, and more efficient, too. Army caravans were rarely ready this early.
She spotted the owner without difficulty. He was a short, thin man with sinewy muscles and a beard bleached white from sun and age. He hurried from one wagon to the next, checking on passengers and cargo as he worked his way down the line. When he spotted Lyana, he paused his inspection and offered a brief bow. “How can I help you, ma’am?”
“I was actually going to ask if I could be of service to you. Name’s Lyana, and until yesterday I was a Lieutenant stationed at the fort. Honorably discharged and I’m looking for a ride west. I saw the ad in the town square about a need for guards and was hoping a position might be open.”
The caravan owner stroked his beard as he studied her. “You any good with that rifle?”
The owner turned slowly and pointed to a tree that was about seventy paces distant. “Prove it. See the knot in the tree?”
Lyana didn’t bother with acknowledging. She spun her rifle up to her shoulder and took aim. She breathed in, released half her breath, and gently pulled on the trigger. The knot in the tree exploded in a shower of bark and wood chips.
The owner grunted. “More than good, then.”
The gunshot caught the attention of one of the men sitting in the lead wagon. He glanced back, saw the owner and Lyana, then leaped lightly off and approached them. In many ways, he could have been the owner’s younger, taller brother. His beard was still dark, but he had the same lean musculature. A rifle was slung across his shoulder and a sword hung at his hip.
The caravan owner handled introductions. “My name’s Rick, and this here is Clayton. He’s the leader of a small group of hired hands. So far, they’ve been the only ones to accept the offer. They’re skilled, but I’m thinking another hand might do us good. What do you think, Clayton?”
Clayton’s cold look made Lyana think the mercenary wasn’t all too pleased to see her, but he took one look at her, shrugged, and said, “Your caravan, your money. We’re all you need, but none of mine will complain about having someone else to help keep watch at night.”
Rick stroked his beard again and nodded. “There you have it. Welcome to the caravan. I’ll get you quickly introduced, and then we’ll be off. I’m hopeful we can stay ahead of this storm if we leave early enough. Why don’t you stow your gear in the rear wagon with my own goods, then come find me?”
The caravan left not long after Lyana joined. Wagons fell easily into the rutted tracks and began their long journey west. Rick wasn’t expecting trouble this close to Preston, and Clayton didn’t seem interested in having her join his crew, so she spent the late morning and afternoon serving as a completely unnecessary rear guard.
She didn’t mind. After all this time, she was heading west. Joining the caravan was more about earning a little cash while enjoying the protection traveling with others afforded. They didn’t need to entertain her.
Clouds thickened and darkened behind them, and Lyana was certain a storm would pursue them soon, but so far she’d seen no sign of rain or lightning. The next town was only about a dozen miles away, so Lyana hoped they’d find shelter before the rain developed and caught them.
She was lost in her own thoughts when one of the caravan’s passengers climbed awkwardly out of a covered wagon. She needed a few seconds to remember his name. Rick had introduced her to a handful of people quickly, and she’d never been good with matching faces to names.
Andrew. She nodded in satisfaction as he dropped and almost twisted his ankle. He wasn’t as big as some merchants she’d met, but he definitely spent more time eating than he did walking. His movements made it look as though he had to consciously remind each limb to move before it obeyed him. He survived his descent, though, then walked straight toward her.
“Is something wrong?” she asked.
“No. Well, maybe.” Andrew turned so they were walking side by side, but he was so close his shoulder kept bumping into her. He leaned closer and spoke low. “I fear that not everyone in this caravan is as honorable as they seem.”
Lyana let her gaze travel across the caravan. She couldn’t claim to know her companions well, but Rick struck her as an upright guide. Her opinion on Clayton wasn’t so positive, but his payday required him to deliver the caravan safely to Razin, so there was little benefit in him harassing the passengers. “They seem all right to me,” she said.
“Regardless, I heard that you were an officer in the army. I’d like to hire you, if I could.”
Lyana frowned. “There’s no need. Rick already hired me to protect you.”
“From bandits and rogue sagani and evil hosts, yes, I understand.”
Lyana bristled at Andrew’s insinuation, but then she glanced down and saw the church’s crest stitched insignia on the inside of his jacket. She let out a slow breath.
Andrew didn’t notice her reaction as he continued. “I want you to protect me from everything, including the caravan itself, if it comes to that.”
“Why would anyone in the caravan attack you?”
Andrew looked around, as though checking to make sure no one was listening to them in the empty prairie. “I don’t want to say, exactly. I’m carrying something that many would find very valuable, and it has made me no small number of enemies. All I’m asking is that you keep a special eye on me and my family. An extra layer of insurance, if you will.”
The merchant reached into his deep pockets and pulled out a roll of bills. Lyana guessed there was almost as much in his hand as Rick had promised as compensation for when they reached Razin. “In exchange, I want your constant attention. When you sleep, I want it to be in my wagon with my family. And more than that, I want you to obey me instead of Rick. Only if there are conflicting orders, of course. I just want to know there’s someone here whose first loyalty is to me. What do you say?”