Slya breathed slowly and evenly, keeping her mind calm as she sighted along the arrowshaft. The bow did not waver in her hands even though she’d held her pose for over a full minute now. The bear wasn’t in place yet. She’d been tracking this beast for five days already; there was no need to get impatient now.
When she’d left her home village to make a living as a ranger, she hadn’t realized it would involve all this work. Townspeople wanted to talk and talk about what needed to be done and debate how to do it and what value to put on having someone else do it. They’d done the same at the last town she stayed at as well. What was wrong with simply stating a price for the service needed and paying it? What need was there for bargaining and haggling over price? If something cost an amount, then that was the cost. She didn’t think she would ever be able to understand these city dwellers. In fact, she was sure of it. Why close yourself behind stones and wood when you could live outside closer to the gods?
A glimpse of movement through the trees dragged her attention back to the job at hand. The bear had turned more towards her finally, providing a clearer shot at his chest. She didn’t hesitate. The bear let out a confused sort of growl before dropping to the ground dead. A perfect shot. She gave thanks to the gods and stepped out of concealment. The afternoon was late and it would be nearing dark before getting back to the town.
“Thanks to the gods, ranger! We had begun to think you would not return.”
Slya gave the town elder a disgusted look, although he wasn’t even watching her at all. His attention was riveted to the bear skin and head she’d just finished dragging into the center of town.
“Of course I was going to return. You hired me for a job and I certainly couldn’t run out on that duty,” she replied. The amusement in his face confused her; why should he find her statement so funny?
“No, it’s plain to see you are an honest ranger and still new to the wider world beyond your forests,” he stated. “Come, you are welcome to a meal and a night at the inn. In the morning, we’ll send you off with provisions and the gold you are entitled to.”
She nodded and followed him inside, where he bellowed for the innkeeper to bring food. After eating her fill and drinking the sweet wine offered, Slya finally climbed upstairs to spend a night indoors on a comfortable bed.
Pounding on the door woke her abruptly and the morning light shining through the window stabbed into her tired eyes. She stumbled out of bed to open the door to a serving girl carrying a tray with breakfast foods. The smell made her feel slightly queasy and the serving girl apparently noticed. She offered Slya a cup with more wine in it, motioning her to drink. Despite misgivings, Slya did so, and her stomach seemed to settle down. The rest of the meal was plainer fare than the night before and by the time she was finished eating, she felt much better. A quick wash, new leathers from her pack and she felt ready to meet the day.
“Good morn to you, ranger. I trust you slept well” At her nod, the elder continued. “I’ve taken the liberty of having some provisions put into a pack for you as well as your gold. The innkeeper was more than happy to oblige, since it was his chickens that the bear had attacked last. Is there anything else our town can do for you before you leave us?”
“No, sir. The provisions and gold that you’ve given me shall be plenty. I thank you for the chance to have served your town and wish you all well in the future.” The polite phrases her mother had taught her rolled off her tongue. Even if she’d thought they sounded silly when she was learning them, the words seemed to satisfy the town elder. He bowed to her with a broad smile and the rest of the town council copied him. With a wave, she started walking.
The day was more than half over before she stopped to take a break. Finding a likely location near a stream, she set her packs down with a sigh. No matter how often the teachers had taken them out, actually traveling with full packs was a different matter. Before, there’d always been the hidden knowledge that it wasn’t real and you’d eventually be back home in you own bed. Now though, she didn’t even know if she’d have a bed to sleep at the end of the day. Still, all youngling shifters were sent out to earn their way in the larger world; it was required before they would be allowed to choose a mate or form any partnerships and start a house within the community.
She stretched again and then pulled out the pack of provisions provided. The meat rolls had been wrapped so well that some warmth still lingered, but they were good enough to eat cold if need be. Near the bottom of the pack, she found the sack of money the town elder had said would be there. Fifty gold had seemed like a fortune when they offered it to her for stalking and killing the rogue bear, but after seeing the beast up close, it was worth it.
Slya smoothed out the pack to make a place to hold the gold and then she opened the pack and emptied it out. She wanted to hide some of the gold so that incase she ran into highwaymen, they wouldn’t get all of her savings. The pile of coin didn’t look as large as she though it would though. In fact, the gold had a decidedly silver shine. She set aside her lunch and began counting. When she was finished, she stared in disbelief at the stacks of coin before her. They had cheated her! Instead of fifty pieces of gold, there were only 10, and the remaining coins were lesser silver pieces that didn’t even add up to three gold. Less than 13 gold for work that she’d been promised fifty.
She looked up at the sun, and saw that her lunch had only taken a half hour of time. She thought about it, and making a sudden decision, hid her packs in a tree truck. Taking only her weapons and the sack of coins, she headed back to town as quickly as possible. Even though it was frowned upon by the pack leaders (because it looked undignified and animal-like), using hands and feet to run was done by all the younglings when they were in a hurry.
She made the return trip to the town in half the time it had taken her to leave this morning. The sun was still above the trees when she arrived outside the open gates. She paused there to catch her breath before walking through the gate.
“Ranger! I had thought you were well on your way this morn. Is there a problem?” The town elder’s voice seemed cheerful and unconcerned as he greeted her arrival in the inn doorway.
“Yes, there seems to be some gold missing from the payment you included in my provisions. I was promised fifty gold for killing that bear, yet there was only ten gold and some silver in the pouch. I’ve come back to get the remaining gold you owe me.” She tried not to sound surly, but knew that the tone of her voice was still hostile.
“Are you accusing Ser Frexian of cheating you? I’m appalled that you would have the temerity to bring such a charge against the elder of this town!” The innkeeper stepped from behind the bar and strode towards her. “How dare some unknown shifter come into my inn and accuse one of our most upstanding citizens of cheating her. You should be ashamed of yourself, trying to claim more gold than you deserve like that! Fifty gold for killing that bear? Impossible! And here I was kind enough to provide you with food at no charge. I should make you give payment now that I’ve heard what a greedy creature you are.”
“I was offered that much.. the elder knows…”
“I’m afraid I have no idea why you would make something like that up, ranger. I most certainly would not offer fifty gold for killing a mere bear, rogue or not. This town doesn’t have coin to throw away like that, and how you can imagine that you deserve more than the ten gold we agreed upon…. I’m saddened that we so mistook you for an honest ranger, willing to help out beleagured townsfolk in danger from the goodness of your heart,” Ser Frexian shook his head sadly.
“We did not agree on ten gold and you know it!” Slya shouted back at him.
By this time, their raised voices had drawn attention, and other townsfolk had begun to gather around the inn as well. As the conversation went on, their angry mutterings got louder, and Slya decided to leave with what she had before the residents got even more upset.
“Fine, since there seems to be no way I’ll win this argument. But I will let others know of your duplicity, elder.” Slya walked away, hearing the elder saying something indistinct to the other townsfolk and their laughter swelling in return.
On the run back to her campsite, Slya decided that never again would she take payment based on the “good word” of someone else, no matter how reputable or honorable they were claimed to be. She’d barely been out on her own for a six-month now, and already she’d been run out of a town for being a shifter, chased away without the food and nights housing she was promised and now, cheated of her rightful pay by a “respectable” town elder. Somehow, she didn’t think the larger cities would prove to be any more trustworthy.
In the morning, after eating another of the cold meat rolls, Slya gathered her packs and set off again. According to the innkeeper (could she really trust him either?), there was a city further along, about a weeks ride. Walking, it would take her almost three weeks to get to Sharn.