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As the days grew shorter and colder, Margo was finding it increasingly more difficult to travel after dark. During the summer, she could light her way with a lantern and continue on for a few hours after the sun had set, but when winter came in the north, it was just too much effort to fight the cold. Her travels always seemed to stretch longer as less ground was covered, but it wasn’t as if she was anxious to return to Ravensreach, where the sour specter of her brother and his cadre of potential suitors for her or some bothersome summons from Edric surely awaited her.
The Red Stag Inn sat along the Northern Road in a bustling little town that had taken root just where the road forked to head west to Deeplake or east to Ravensreach. Its streets of hard-packed dirt had become cemented with frost as the first fingers of winter crept down from the highest peaks of the Blue Mountains, bringing flurries of snow that settled on gabled roofs and turned to black-grey sludge on the heavily-trafficked village lanes.
It was a regular stop for Margo when she took the main route through the foothills, for a room for the night in winter or a cool tankard of ale on a summer afternoon. As she halted Alois and dismounted, a scrap of a boy came jogging up to grasp at the bridle. “Watch her for a moment, will you?” Margo asked, producing a shiny silver coin from the belt pouch she wore, “I’ll bed her down myself.”
Klein had trotted forward, looking for attention, and the stableboy gave him a solid pet on the side, making him squirm happily and wag his tail. The boy’s eyes had gone wide at the bit of silver, which he snapped up as if he thought she might take it back. “Yes, my lady!” He said, stroking the big mare’s face. On the cantle of the finely-tooled but well-used saddle, Sanafet was perched, head tucked sleepily under her wing. Machtun was awake, keen eyes glowing yellow-gold in the flickering torchlight as he looked around from where he stood, talons digging into the leather of a saddle bag.
Margo trotted over to the side door of the tavern, thick-soled boots scuffing against the light snowpack, and poked her head in. Over the boisterous activity, she spotted the proprietor. “Resnick!” She shouted over the noise, “Any rooms left?”
The man turned and spotted her, a wide grin splitting his bearded face. “Not tonight, girl. Loft is yours, though!” He called back.
With a nod and a wave, Margo ducked back outside and retrieved her horse. No rooms inside meant a night spent in the hayloft, but she didn’t mind. It was warm and smelled of horses in a comforting way, and she’d slept far worse places. Resnick always insisted that if she were staying in the loft, she need not pay, but she always left enough coin to cover a room - what else was she going to spend it on? The stableboy lead them to the large barn behind the tavern and then disappeared back into the courtyard.
She untacked her horse methodically, making sure to transfer both birds to the ledge of the stall door before she removed her thick leather gloves to get at the more delicate buckles of the bridle. Klein immediately settled in front of the stall on the thick wool saddle blanket. With Alois fed, watered, and rubbed down, and Machtun and Sanafet perched quietly, she headed back inside.
Her eyes scanned the room, out of habit, and snagged on the far corner. There, two men loomed over a young woman, who looked decidedly uncomfortable. Even in the dim light, Margo could see the way her face was flushed, the way her eyes looked a bit glassy. She sucked in a breath and rolled her eyes. All she’d wanted was a bit of food before bed, and maybe a few scraps for her dog. But she couldn’t leave the girl.
Purposefully, she plastered a charming smile on her face and proceeded to shoulder her way through the crowd. The closer she got, the more assured she was that the men’s attention was not welcome. Margo didn’t do things like this often - not when jealous husbands and jilted lovers could come after her - but she could see a woman’s discomfort around men as easily as she felt it herself.
Without pause, she shoved her way between one of the men and the girl, jostling him enough that he spilled his drink all over his friend. “I’ve been looking for you!” Margo said with a grin, wrapping an arm around the girl’s shoulders, speaking in her native Northern dialect rather than Common, so the two brutes knew she was local, “Can hardly move, this place is so crowded.”
Turning, she looked at the men. “You gentleman will have to excuse us.” Her tone dipped a little dangerously as her free hand swept back one side of her long coat to casually rest on the hilt of her sword.
Nothing could make her temper rise faster than a man taking liberty with a woman. Margo had hardened herself against it; had trained herself to never flinch, to never wince, to never shy away like some feeble-hearted maiden. But that meant years of work and conditioning; meant armies of overly-familiar suitors pushing her back against shadowed walls, dozens of village boys and stable lads drunk on cheep spirits, father’s many honored guests making plays at the unmarried daughter.
It was a type of torture, the learning it took to allow anger to override fear until all she felt was the injustice, the unfairness in it, the weakness underlying a man’s attempt at power.
That familiar rage always seemed to bloom inside her when she saw it, petals unfurling like some carnivorous flower. She could overlook many less-than-moral actions, but this was not one of them. It didn’t happen to Margo much anymore, not when she swaggered about with a scowl on her face and a sword at her hip - men were generally too intimidated or put-off to try. But that didn’t mean other women were as capable as she. So it was a bit of a personal vendetta of hers, to stop such things when she saw them happen.
She silently commended the other woman as she played along despite the tense fear Margo could feel in her body. The laugh sounded tense, her voice frail and sharp as glass, but the men were likely too drunk to notice. They were staring out at Margo from under furrowed brows, obviously confused at her sudden appearance, the way her tall, lanky frame appeared to fill up more space than it rightly should.
The smile seemed to overtake her entire face, familiar and warm and mischievous, as she heard the woman’s words, voice sounding steadier. As if they were the best of friends. Margo made sure they moved as one between the men, keeping careful watch out of the corner of her eye as they passed. She thought they were clear when suddenly one grabbed her arm.
“Hey!” He shouted, drunk and loud and almost directly in her ear, and Margo rolled her eyes, “We was talkin’, you got no right to interrupt. Your man oughta keep a tighter leash on you,” He spat crudely on the floor, just short of her boot, “Fuckin’ bitch -“
Margo had dropped her arm from the girl’s shoulder, turned, and slammed her knuckles into the man’s jaw. Almost instantly, he spun back against his partner, spilling his drink, and slumped to the floor. She shook out her hand as she stared at the other man with raised eyebrows. He stepped back, shirt dripping with ale, and knelt to check his friend.
Turning, Margo allowed the woman to lead them towards the entrance hall and the front desk, keeping her face carefully blank as the stranger glanced back once or twice. She had been about to speak, to take her leave, when the other woman grasped her hand, swelling across the knuckles now, and began speaking in a red-faced rush.
When she could get a word in edgewise, Margo simply said, “Of course.” Because no thanks was needed. “I work for myself,” She said, “And you need not repay me.”
“Are you starting fights in my tavern again, you harpy?” The innkeeper had rushed over, scowling at Margo as he slammed his hands on the countertop, but the expression had a lighthearted edge to it, and she smirked.
“Only with those who deserve it.” She said, “Don’t be so sour. I didn’t even break any chairs this time.”
Shaking his head, the man dismissed her with an exasperated growl and a wave as he turned back to his work, “Insufferable woman. Sleepin’ out in the barn, where you belong…” He was muttering.
Margo was grinning now, on the precipice of laughter, “Send some food out, would you? For myself and the beasts.” The innkeep huffed and shouted for one of the barmaids.
Turning to the other woman, she introduced her self. “I’m Margo.” She stated simply, and left it at that. No last name, no title. She went on to ask, “Where are you staying tonight? Will you be safe?"