Gifted Hunter Sample

 
Sample Chapters From:
Gifted Hunter
An Ilvenworld Novella
by
Nicholas A. Rose
Copyright 2012
***
Chapter 1
Journey to the Mainland
The ferry crossed the mila or so of choppy green-brown water that lay between Taura's quayside and the narrow channel leading out to sea with surprising speed.  Sallis ti Ath found a quiet corner of the deck to stand and watch, well clear of the oarsmen.
He had spent two days enjoying and ogling the sights of Re Taura's capital city, waiting for the ferry to the mainland.  Two days to Calcan, unless they ran into any storms, then he must travel overland to Marka, the city everybody called the Jewel of the World.
The tide had begun to ebb and the expanse of water ahead gave the deceptive appearance of great width.  But the channel was narrow here, marked by brightly-colored floating bladders.  Rocky flats protruded far into the gap and lurked beneath the water at high tide, waiting to wreck the foolhardy or ignorant.  A castle atop its own small island loomed far above, its turrets dominating the passage leading to the harbor.
Bells rang out from within the castle, urgent sounds of emergency.  There must have been something in his stance, because another passenger smiled at him.
"They test those bells every week," said the man.  "The Mametain's son is an inventive sort and likes to experiment.  Nobody knows exactly what he's up to, but they say he had the bells installed, just in case."
"In case of what?"  asked Sallis.
"Precisely."  The man smiled again.  "That's what we'd like to know.  But at least Castle Beren's far enough from Taura for us to be safe."
"I see."  The wind freshened as the ferry left the shelter of the land and Sallis pulled his brown cloak tight around his shoulders.  Those shoulders had broadened as Sallis the boy matured into Sallis the man.  He had grown tall too, and not just for his age.
"Going to Calcan, or headed further abroad?"  asked the stranger.
Sallis had been warned to guard his tongue.  "For now, Calcan."
"Me too.  My family's in Calcan, so I ought to spend some time there.  I'm from Re Taura though.  Sounds like you're from one of the outer islands."
Sallis blinked and watched the sudden bustle as sailors readied the sails.  As the ferry cleared the channel, the crew hauled on ropes and the sails filled.  The wind freshened further and oars were no longer needed.  As cream-colored canvas filled the gaps between the masts, the ferry heeled and gathered speed.
"From Re Annan," Sallis eventually replied.
"Not enough work?  Or just want to see the world?"
Sallis smiled.  "Both," he replied.
***
Sallis had spent most of the past four years working on his father's farm.  Elvallon still visited and remained friendly, but a definite edge had crept into their relationship.  It took Sallis a couple of years to realize that his old tutor was wary.  His return visits to Leynx grew less and less frequent.
That was a shame, because Lyssan always gave him a ready welcome, but it was rare for her to accompany Elvallon when he traveled north.
Sallis used his talents whenever possible, catching those who liked to steal other people's sheep, or those prisoners the Guard managed to lose.  He had never worked out if the Guard suffered from incompetence or carelessness.  He had certainly amassed gold of his own, but Hayland always said the best work would be found on the mainland.  And the most rewarding.
"But who will help with everything?"  demanded Sallis.  Now his sisters were married, his parents would have the farm to themselves when he left.
"We'll cope as we always have," replied Hayland.  "Neighbors and friends.  And we can still call on Barten and his family when needed."
Sallis thinned his lips.  "When I can afford it, I'll send you sylphs," he promised.  "They can help.  And if you have male and female sylphs, perhaps that'll be another way to make money."
Hayland waved a dismissive hand.  "We'll make the farm smaller," he announced.  "Fewer mouths means we need less money."
Sallis smiled.  "I'll send you the sylphs," he promised.  "They're probably cheaper on the mainland than here."
"More common, certainly," replied Hayland.
***
The number of sylphs on Re Taura opened Sallis's eyes.  He had always imagined sylphs to be the preserve of the wealthy, but seeing so many about their errands, he now realized most people here must have them as servants.  He had not bothered to learn their cost.  Once he'd paid his ferry fare, he had enough spare coin for a horse after he arrived in Calcan.  Get established first; buy sylphs for his father's farm later.
Sallis now stared at the sylph hovering beside the steersman.  He had no idea exactly what a ship's sylph was for, but she appeared to be a valued member of the crew.  She even wore the same: canvas trousers, white shirt and a blue serge jacket with wooden buttons.
Elvallon had left Sallis's education concerning sylphs to Lyssan, the only sylph Sallis knew well.  Lyssan claimed to be a proper sylph and never hid her vague contempt for infertiles, shaking her head whenever he referred to one as "she".
"Not she," she always said, shaking her head.  "I am a she.  They are neuters who cannot breed.  What use are they?"
From what Sallis had seen in the past two days, infertiles filled lots of uses, and dashed about their tasks with an efficient air.  Most servants he had seen running errands were infertiles, and that included the ship's sylph he now watched at her duty.
She stood with feet planted apart, earpoints slanted forward and twitching in excited curiosity, and her silvery eyes glowed with pleasure.  More sylphs stood beside their owners, all with wilted earpoints and all, Sallis suddenly noticed, looking landwards.
"Bring much food with you?"  asked Sallis's new friend, looking hopeful.
"No," replied Sallis.  "I paid for my meals with my ferry fare."
"Ah."  The other man nodded and looked disappointed at the same time.  "Probably sensible."
Sallis thought so too, and his attention returned to the ship's sylph.
There was little difference between her and the others.  Skin and hair color the same, earpoints and vertically slit pupils...  Shorter than Lyssan and certainly not as developed, but she clearly belonged to the same species.
As Re Taura grew smaller and smaller, and the unbroken horizon ahead widened, Sallis noticed the other sylphs vanish below one by one.  An infertile began it, and before long the only one left on the upper deck belonged to the ship.
"Why have they gone?"  he wondered aloud.
"That's sylphs for you," said his friend, overhearing.  "They don't like being at sea."
Sallis nodded towards the ship's wheel.  "Doesn't bother her."
"She's probably used to it."
Pushing the strangeness of sylphs out of his thoughts, Sallis leaned on the rail, stared into the green water and dreamed of Calcan.
Chapter 2
Calcan
Calcan's harbor lay a good five milas from the city.  Sallis was surprised a city could stand on the sea, or even develop as a city, and not have its own harbor.  Instead, Calcan used the harbors of two satellite towns: one no more than a glorified fishing village, the other a trading port.
Sallis had no spare money - as far as he knew - so he walked the five milas to the city, following a paved road gradually rising uphill.  He strapped his sword to his back, so it could not tangle in his legs and used his quarterstaff as a walking stick.  Calcan stood on a cliff, so only had walls on three sides.  The gates leading into the city were impressive enough, flanked by two round towers and easily wide enough for four carts to pass abreast.
The streets bustled with the same industry Sallis had come to expect after his visit to Taura.  Easily twice the size of Taura, Sallis hoped his awe of Calcan did not show too obviously.  From what he saw, anything and everything could be bought here, from cloth and clothes, to armor and weapons.
He found three places selling horses and wandered between them to compare prices, until he found one suitable.
The animal watched him approach and tossed his head in greeting.  Brown all over, except for a white blaze on his nose, Sallis admired him from a distance.  He reached forward with a hand and gently patted the creature, who nuzzled him back.
"Has he got a name?"  asked Sallis, as the proprietor joined him.
"Glyder."  The proprietor sniffed.  "Second hand, six years old, just re-shod."
Sallis let Glyder investigate his hand and took careful note of the animal's teeth as he peeled his lips back, expecting something edible.  Finding nothing, Glyder gave Sallis a reproachful look.
"Take a good look, young sir; you'll find this animal is a bargain."
"That depends how much he is."  Sallis smiled.  Strong legs.  Deep chest.  Good teeth.  Even temperament.  No sign of disease.
"One crown sir, that is his price."  The proprietor smiled.
"For one gold crown, I expect the tack to be included," replied Sallis.  "And directions for Marka."
The haggling eventually accounted for most of the time Sallis spent in Calcan.  One horse and his tack heavier, but one gold crown and fifteen coppers lighter, Sallis wasted no more time and left the city.
For the first time since leaving Re Annan, Sallis felt blessedly alone.
Everything went well for two days.  Nothing drastic went wrong on day three, but Sallis's riding skills had faded somewhat.  Glyder proved a delight to ride, but that did not protect Sallis from saddle sores.
Getting up on the third day and it felt as though he had been visited by a sadist with stinging nettles.  Sallis felt agony just standing upright.  Despite that, they must eat.  He looked after Glyder first, suspecting his soreness was more the fault of the saddle than the horse.
After that wasted day, Sallis forced himself to ride, though Glyder got his hooves checked for stones rather more regularly than normal, and grooming lasted twice as long for a couple of days.
By the end of the first week, Sallis had almost forgotten about saddle sores.  Four days since he turned inland, four days without seeing the sea.  Only now did he realize how a continent felt so different from an island.  Sea-smell pervaded everything on Re Annan and now, with the smell absent, he missed it.
Pining for that smell could be a form of homesickness, but he looked forward eagerly to the adventures waiting for him.
Sallis wanted to take no chances.  He rode with his quarterstaff strapped beside him and his sword hung from the pommel.  Calcan controlled lands allegedly safe and stable, but he knew people everywhere were not always friendly towards strangers.
As he rode further west, things began to change.
Seeing borderstones on both sides of the road, Sallis paused to consult his map.  Unless he had a really poor sense of direction, Calcan's lands were about to fall behind and everything in front of him belonged to Marka.  He had the road to himself, without even a trading caravan in sight.
He wondered if men gave this road another name once he passed the stones.  According to his map, Alderra was a huge prefecture, and according to the few he had spoken to along the way, almost completely independent of Marka, but ruled by a family with no wish to break away completely.
About a mila after the borderstones, the paving ended.  Ruts and puddles marked the road's route, with shards of old paving scattered about, but Sallis saw more neglect than care.
No soldiers patrolled here.
People had a more watchful and suspicious air about them.  The few caravans he passed had merchant guards, who all looked at him carefully.  Aggressive looks outnumbered neutral looks, and no friendly faces were seen anywhere.  Most unlike the way people treated each other on Re Annan.
Farmers took one look at his sword and staff before closing their doors against him.  Sallis spent more and more nights sleeping under the stars or in a hedge.
He eventually passed from Alderra, his map informing him that the road hugged the border between Selim and Eman until he reached Outer Marka.  Here, Sallis met his first patrol of soldiers since leaving Calcan's lands.
And these were a lot less polite.
The patrol had five men, which included the junior officer in charge.  Paving had reappeared now Sallis neared Marka, but the soldiers were dusty from their ride.  They surrounded Sallis, forcing him to stop, and eyed his weapons suspiciously.
The men boasted two days' stubble, while Sallis managed some fluff on his chin and upper lip.
"Where you headed, boy?"  demanded the rider with a thin line of cloth around the rim of his helmet.
"Marka," replied Sallis.  He eyed the cloth, knowing it must denote rank, but not what rank.  "Er, Captain."
"Squadman," replied the other man, his dark-blue eyes showing no hint of humor.
"Sorry."  Sallis took a breath.  "I'm going to Marka, Squadman."
"A good ten days yet," said the squadman.  "Not much between there and here.  What are you doing for food?"
Sallis blinked.  The soldier's words... insinuated, and out here their word outweighed his.
"I forage," he replied.
"Poach and steal you mean."
Sallis's dark-brown eyes hardened.
"No," he replied, "I mean forage.  Coming from a farm, I know the difference."
"With that accent, from a farm far away."  The squadman's gaze flickered quickly to Sallis's sword.  "Much call for farmers with swords there?"
"It might be needed where I'm going."
"Joining the Guard?"
Sallis shook his head.  "I want to be a bounty hunter."
The men laughed.  Sallis tried to ignore them, but at his age all such insults were personal.  Despite the urge to teach these men a lesson, he gritted his teeth and said nothing.
"What's your name, boy?"
"Sallis ti Ath."
The squadman shook his head.  "From one of the islands then.  Never knew things were so bad that way."  He leaned forward and lowered his voice.  "Some advice for you, Sallis ti Ath.  If you can use that sword, join the Guard."
Abruptly, he straightened and raised his voice.  "Nothing for us here, lads," he announced.  His blue eyes were cold again.  "On your way, Sallis ti Ath."  He touched a hand to his helmet, then led his men onwards.
Sallis watched them go before deciding to press on.  What waited for him in Marka?  Perhaps the city might not be such a good idea after all.
Was he doing the right thing?
Chapter 3
Marka
When Sallis crested the pass between the last hills and saw Marka for the first time, spring had turned to summer.  Even in the pass, he was grateful for his early start and, coming from a more temperate climate, he dreaded how hot it would be in the city.  In common with every other traveler, the pyramid and not the city caught his attention.
Made from black material glistening in the strengthening sunlight, the pyramid rose up and up, its base covering an area greater than even the city.  Still early, wisps of cloud clung to its upper reaches and a ruby light-crystal glittered at its apex.
Sallis closed his mouth.  How could the hands of men manage to build such things?  Most said the pyramid dated from the first, lost civilization, but a few whispered that the Father Himself raised the artifact from the ground, long before men came to the ilvenworld.
Beyond the city, forests clung to hillsides, bare in places where areas had been cleared for the timber Marka needed.  Paler green patches showed where young trees grew, replacing those taken some time before.  Like on Re Annan, people did not clear trees without replanting.  Such foolishness would quickly lose the forests forever.
Looking down at his destination, Sallis smiled to himself and touched Glyder's flanks with his heels.  That pyramid would take some getting used to; at certain times of day its shadow probably engulfed the city built beside it.
Riding slowly towards the gates, he hoped Marka would provide what he wanted.  A few people left the city, but most passing through the gates were farmers heading in.  Those with carts had ground to a halt, waiting their turn to enter Marka.
A guardsman walked along the queue.  "Just you and that horse?"  he demanded of Sallis.
Sallis nodded in reply.
"Ride down the right side," commanded the guardsman.  "Enter through the right hand gate, but give way to anybody leaving the city."
Sallis nodded in reply and dropped out of the queue to ride slowly towards the gates, aware that some people watched his every move.
Brown cloak and disheveled appearance aside, he was clearly an outlander.  Most people here boasted dark-blue eyes, a few blue-gray.  Sallis had dark eyes.  He avoided speaking with people.  They would not appreciate him reaching the city while they waited outside in a line.
He soon realized sylphs outnumbered humans here, too.  They walked alongside farmers' carts, or rode in the back; some carried sunshades to protect their mistresses' skin.  Several gave him more than a cursory glance, their eyes widening.
Sallis knew why, though he doubted the sylphs understood what caused their sudden feeling of unease.
All sylphs could sense the Gift, and none enjoyed having it used near them.  Of course, Sallis was not using his abilities right now, but a minority could sense even a practitioner's potential and disliked being close to a Gifted human.  Sallis suspected the sylphs now staring at him belonged to that minority.
Finally reaching the gate, the short, fat guard took one look at his sword and waved him to one side.
"Secure your animal and dismount," he said, brown eyes glittering.  "Over there, please."
As Sallis tied Glyder's reins to a post, a taller, thinner guard left the gatehouse, holding a sheet of paper pinned to a wooden board.
Sallis waited.
The newcomer had the dark-blue eyes so common here and medium-brown hair.  He regarded Sallis with a mixture of curiosity and distaste.
"An outsider," he said.
"Yes," replied Sallis.  He jerked his head towards the gate.  "So's your companion."
A smile ghosted across the uniformed man's face.  "Where are you from?"
"Re Annan."
The guard noted the answer.  "Name?"
"Sallis ti Ath."
The guard nodded as he wrote.  "That fits your accent."
"Why would I lie?"
The guard looked up from the paper and his eyes hardened.  "You'd be surprised," he replied, "how many people do lie."
Sallis shrugged.
"Why have you come to Marka?"  continued the guard, glancing at the sword.  "And do you know how to use that?"
"I've come to be a bounty hunter," replied Sallis.
The guard groaned.  "Not another one."  His expression was certainly unfriendly now.  "Look boy, the Guard might not have enjoyed much success of late, but we have enough bounty hunters here."
"What do you mean?"  Sallis was cautious.
"If I fart in my sleep there are at least half a dozen bounty hunters in earshot.  Marka's crawling with 'em and more come in every day.  The only consolation is that they have even less success than us."
Sallis narrowed his eyes.  "You have a problem that needs sorting?"  he asked.  "I have references-"
"Nothing we can't sort for ourselves," interrupted the guard.  "We're more concerned with justice than bounty, unlike you hunters.  Now, do you know how to use that sword?"
"I'm not bad," replied Sallis.  He hefted the staff.  "But I'm better with this."
"How old are you?"
"Fifteen."
The guard eyed him up and down.  "Had you down as older," he grunted.  "No matter, fifteen's old enough to join the Guard."
"I'm here to be a bounty hunter," insisted Sallis.
The guardsman ignored him.  "You come back here an hour after noon and we'll put you through your paces."
"I'm not here to join the Guard," protested Sallis.  "I'm here to-"
"An hour after noon," insisted the guard.  "You come here and ask for me or Oston."  He nodded towards the fat guard.  "That's Oston.  Or you can ask for me.  I'm Crallin.  You can leave your gear and horse here and look around the city till then."
"But I must see to Glyder," protested Sallis.  "He's come a long way."
Crallin smiled.  "Don't worry, we'll look after your horse.  We've got stablers here as well."
"But-"
"An hour after noon."  Crallin turned away.
Chapter 4
The Testing
As commanded - for one thing he wanted Glyder back - Sallis turned up at the gatehouse exactly one hour after noon.  Two fresh guards stood at the gate, but Crallin and Oston, now wearing leather armor instead of their uniform, waited.
An older, gray-haired man stood with them.  His hands grasped Sallis's sword and quarterstaff.
"This is Lieutenant Vayburn," said Crallin.
Vayburn inclined his head to Sallis, taking him in from head to toe.  Finally, he flourished the sword.  "This is a good weapon," he growled.  "Where did you get it?"
"It was made at home," replied Sallis.  "A gift from my father."
Vayburn's gray eyebrows lifted.  "Made on Re Annan?  I doubt that."  He hefted the sword and turned his wrists a few times before slamming it back in its scabbard.  "This sword is Re Taura work, or I've never seen it."  He threw the scabbarded sword at Sallis, who snatched it out of the air without thinking.
"Possible."  Sallis shrugged.  "There is a lot of trade between the islands."
"This however," continued Vayburn, the sword forgotten, "is a farmer's weapon."  He hefted the quarterstaff and twirled it.  "Man who knows how to use this can take two swordsmen out at once."
"I learned to use that long before I saw a sword," said Sallis.
Oston and Crallin exchanged a look as they strapped swordbelts around their waists.
"What now?"  asked Sallis.  "Where's my horse and the rest of my kit?"
"All safe, I assure you," said Vayburn.  "Your horse has enjoyed a large meal and what I suspect is the best rubdown of his life since you entered it.  And now, we will discover how good you are with those weapons."
"Why?"  Sallis was suspicious.  "I already said I'm not interested in joining the Guard.  I have come here to-"
"We know: be a bounty hunter," interrupted Vayburn.  "I want to see how good you are with your weapons.  You show you haven't got a clue what you're about and I'll put you in the guard for a couple of years until you do.  Then you can make up your own mind."
"I already have," said Sallis.
"Right, we've chatted long enough," said Vayburn, ignoring the comment.
Oston and Crallin took up station alongside Sallis and escorted him back out through the gates.  Sallis feared they intended to abandon him outside the city, but they did not go far, only to a grassy area, overlooked by the walls.  Expecting a show, a couple of guards lounged up there, watching.
Oston went to one side and removed his leather jerkin.  Sallis changed his mind about the man.  He wasn't fat at all, but squat.  Muscle thickened his arms and chest, and Sallis knew he faced a powerful man.
"You can take your cloak and tunic off if you want," said Vayburn.  "No point in sweating to death in this heat."
"I doubt you get the chance to strip down in real life," said Sallis.
Vayburn's dark-blue eyes hardened.  "You'll need full movement here," he said.  "We just want to see what you can do."
Sallis reluctantly removed his cloak and tunic.  His arms were not that well muscled, though he was pretty hefty for his age.  His height made him look even slimmer.
Drawing his sword, he threw the scabbard aside and came to stance as he had been taught.
Oston didn't wait, but launched straight into an attack.  Sallis turned first and second thrusts aside easily and whacked the short guard across his bottom with the flat as he passed.
Oston growled and returned to the attack.  Rage flashed in his dark eyes as Sallis easily turned all the attacks aside.  He didn't even need to try.
Vayburn clapped his hands.  "Excellent!"
Oston looked at Sallis in disgust as they parted.
Crallin came in next and, while he avoided Sallis's blade, he made no more progress than Oston had managed.  Crallin had a quite different style of fighting, colder and more clinical in his movements.
"Good!"  Vayburn nodded in approval.  "Sure you don't want to join the Guard, Sallis?  You're better than I'd hoped.  Maybe the next Blade Grandmaster?  Not had one of those since Olista left us for the Senate."
Sallis rested.  "Not interested in the Guard," he said.
"Of course not."  Vayburn smiled.  "Let's see you with the staff.  Crallin, Oston; both together please."
Crallin looked surprised.  "Sir, two on one in these circumstances is not right!  We don't know how good the boy is."
Vayburn shook his head.  "You try and kill him with those swords."  He turned to Sallis.  "Reckon you're up to it?"
Sallis whirled the staff.  "If it stops you banging on about the Guard, then I'm ready," he replied.
Vayburn laughed.  "All right you two: kill."
As expected, Oston came in straight away, while Crallin watched for weak points.  But neither man had a chance.
Sallis twirled his ostwood staff.  It moved in a blur and almost broke Oston's wrist as it met his blade.  The guardsmen watching from above laughed and cheered.  Oston cursed and gave his hand a violent shake while Crallin angled in.
Sallis pivoted and tapped Crallin's elbow.  The second guard dropped his sword.
"Come on you two!"  roared Vayburn.  "Stop faffing about and kill him!"
Again, Sallis suspected that Oston's temper had frayed, but both guards circled around so, no matter how Sallis turned, one man stayed in front and one behind.
There was only one way to deal with this.
Sallis opened himself to the Gift.  Oston moved as if through water, while Crallin angled ever so slowly around.  Despite the impression that time had slowed, Sallis knew that he moved faster through it.  He must end this fight.
The two men had been commanded to kill him, so Sallis must hurt his opponents enough to stop them.  Turn.  He cracked Crallin's head so the man went down in a heap.  Turn.
Now he faced Oston.
The squat man's eyes widened - or rather were still widening - when Sallis cracked the already bruised wrist again.  Oston clutched the injured joint and screamed in agony.
Sallis released the Gift.
Vayburn's mouth was still dropping open and even the men on the walls above stood silent.
"How in 'Ranva's name did you do that?"  demanded the lieutenant, during a pause in Oston's screaming.
Sallis shrugged.  "Practice," he said.  He turned to the two injured guardsmen.  "I would offer healing, but my talents lie in other directions."
Vayburn stepped forward.  "Talents?  Healing?  You're Gifted!"
Sallis smiled.  "Satisfied I know how to use my weapons now?"
Vayburn nodded.  "I am that.  You could rise very quickly in the Guard," he said.  "Bounty hunters have a very hand-to-mouth existence in this city.  But the Guard offers regular pay and square meals."  The older man looked hopeful.
Sallis shook his head.  "I've come to be a bounty hunter.  There is one thing you can do for me."
Vayburn waited and watched a groaning Crallin climb to his feet.  Oston stared malevolently at Sallis, but his screaming had finally ended.  He clutched his shattered wrist.
Sallis's attention focused on Vayburn.  "I'd like you to tell me why there are already so many bounty hunters in the city."
Chapter 5
Sandev
While Vayburn arranged a healer for his two injured guardsmen, Sallis checked on Glyder.  His pack leaned in one corner, the tack stacked beside it.  The horse looked happy enough in a stall and shook his head in greeting.  Sallis entered the stall and nodded in approval.  Glyder's brown coat shone and someone had plaited part of his mane.
Sallis checked on the animal's hooves, which stablehands sometimes overlooked on other people's horses, but all four had been well scraped.  The straw looked fresh and unsoiled.
Sallis patted the horse's long nose affectionately.
"Told you we'd look after him," said Vayburn from the stall door.
"How are your men?"  asked Sallis.  "No hard feelings I hope?"
Vayburn laughed.  "They're bitter as a spring apple," he replied, "but their injuries are better now."
Sallis looked over his shoulder.  "Your healer is Gifted."
Vayburn nodded.  "Indeed.  Her name is Sandev and she wants to meet you."
The name tickled something in Sallis's memory, but he couldn't pull it free.  "All right," he said, "but I still want an answer to my question."
"Sure you do; I haven't forgotten."  Vayburn drew breath.
"And no, I don't want to join the Guard," said Sallis, before the man spoke again.
"Didn't know the Gifted were mind-readers," grumbled the lieutenant.
"Some people are just very predictable," replied Sallis.
Vayburn shook his head.  "You are a find.  Such a waste, such a shame."
"I'm here to be a bounty hunter," insisted Sallis.  "And to be the best bounty hunter.  But why are so many already here?"
Vaynor sighed.  "There have been a string of thefts from homes of the wealthy.  With every successful theft, the reward money goes up and more hunters stream into the city.  Whoever the thief is, he's very good."
"Why aren't bounty hunters welcome?"
Vayburn's dark-blue eyes looked troubled.  "Because they are more interested in bounty than justice.  Several 'suspects' have been brought to us, and not all were treated as they ought to have been."
"I'm interested in justice," said Sallis.  "A hunter must have the right man, else he'll never receive his bounty."
Vayburn nodded and looked hopeful again.  "We need young men like-"
"The answer's still no."
The older man subsided.
"Has the thief left anything behind during his thefts?"  Sallis brought the conversation back to thieves.
"Only a corpse at his last job."
"He has turned murderer?"
Vayburn nodded.  "One of the Senators, Jarron Lebstan.  Must have disturbed him during the theft.  Had to have been him of course, the city's in an uproar.  What was a simple theft is now murder.  Instead of hard labor, the thief faces death."
"What does he steal?"
If Vayburn was surprised at the calm demeanor of the very young man, he showed no sign.  "Money, jewelry.  We think he melts the gold and silver to sell on with any gemstones."
"So the original piece can't be traced," murmured Sallis.
Vayburn laughed.  "Sounds to me as though you're already practiced at bounty hunting."
Sallis smiled back.  "At long last, people ask the right questions.  I caught my first criminal before I even knew I could do this.  I have four years experience already."
The older man looked doubtful.
Sallis finished petting Glyder.  "Right, we'd better not keep this healer of yours waiting."
"Oh, she's not our usual healer," said Vayburn.  "She's far too important for that."
"Why does she want to meet me then?"
"Perhaps you are more famous than you realize.  Come, I'll take you to her now."
***
Vayburn led Sallis to an office furnished with a couple of chairs and a small table.  A woman that must be Sandev occupied one chair and beside her stood a female sylph.
Sandev did not appear very much older than Sallis.  Her eyes shone like sapphires and her light-brown hair framed a rather girlish face.  She wore a simple dress with a plain leather belt at the waist.
But he could almost smell the Gift emanating from her.  Girlish or not, he faced a very powerful practitioner.  One whose Gift had developed over time.  This woman was no youngster, despite appearances.
"So you are Sallis ti Ath," she said.
"I am.  You must be Sandev."  A glance over his shoulder showed that Vayburn had not stayed.  "He wants me to join the Guard."
Sandev smiled.  "Probably wise counsel."
Sallis glanced at the sylph, and wondered what was different about her.  She wore a gray work smock and a brown leather collar - Lyssan was the only sylph he had ever seen without a collar - and held herself in the servile stance common to all domestic sylphs.  Then he saw the difference: a glance at her earpoints showed a wisp of silvery hair growing from the tip.
"I've come here to be a bounty hunter," he insisted.
Sandev's smile broadened, but the sylph glared at him.
"The boy is impolite, anya," she said.
"He knows his own mind, Geyn," replied Sandev, peaceably.  "Not everybody is frightened of me."
The sylph subsided, but carried on glaring at Sallis.
"Elvallon spoke highly of you," continued Sandev.
Sallis shrugged.  "He abandoned me," he replied.  "Frightened of my talents, I suppose."  His dark gaze bored into Geyn.  "But his sylph remains polite."
Sandev smiled and even Geyn's earpoints twitched as their owner suppressed laughter.
"You may as well take a seat."  Sandev indicated the empty chair beside her.  "Geyn, will you chase up the alovak, please?"
The sylph inclined her head and left the room.
"I hope you will excuse her," said Sandev.  "She's getting old and grows more forthright every day.  Hard to believe she is the same shy girl from forty and more years ago."
Sallis smiled.  "Of course.  She clearly adores you."
"Elvallon told me of your... talents," murmured Sandev.  "I've never heard of Healing being used to kill before."
Sallis blinked and looked wary.  "Not something I expected either."
"I know."  Sandev sounded sympathetic.  "I've already come across most of your talents before.  But that one's new."  Her sapphire eyes looked anything but naive now.
"I've killed nobody," protested Sallis.  "And got no intention of it either."
"Noble sentiments."  Sandev nodded.  "Until your life is at risk.  And if you persist in this ambition of bounty hunting, it will be at risk.  Hunters make plenty of enemies, who make a point of catching up with them at a later date."
"I can use a sword and staff," said Sallis.
Sandev smiled again.  "And I've seen the result of that, too.  You broke poor Oston's wrist; it proved very difficult to heal."
Sallis shrugged.  "Vayburn told them to try and kill me."
"He would have stopped them."
"I didn't know that."
"Exactly.  And that will be the same when you are threatened.  You will have no idea how far your enemy will go.  Will he kill, or merely inconvenience?"  Sandev stared directly into his eyes.  "You used the Gift while fighting Crallin and Oston, you will use it to help you whenever you are attacked."
"Yes."
"And one day, you will use that... other... part of your talent to kill."
Sallis looked away.  "Only in defense of my life," he muttered.
Sandev abruptly sat back.  "Good.  Ah!  Here is our alovak."
Geyn returned carrying a wooden platter bearing mugs and the all-important alovak can.  Sandev changed the subject.
"Have you given any thought where you are sleeping tonight?"  she asked.
Sallis understood why the subject had changed.  Sylphs were uncomfortable with the Gift at best and rapidly made themselves scarce when the subject came up.  But Geyn must be at least used to the feel of the Gifted.
"Not yet, I've been busy fending off attempts to recruit me into the Guard."
"I know someone who will look after you.  For a fee."
"It usually is for a fee."  Sallis grimaced.  "And my horse?"
"She has stables too."  Sandev smiled.  "But first, I would like to hear about your successes tracking down criminals."
Sallis sniffed at his alovak before taking the first sip.  He glanced at Geyn, who stood beside her mistress, and drew breath.
 ***