A Taste of Winter
by Laila Blake
Excerpt from Chapter 3
It was almost nightfall when they dared to approach the small village at the edge of the forest. It seemed mostly rural much like many in the Rochmond fief but it benefited from the proximity to the excellent hunting grounds the forest offered in the region. Owain had bidden Moira to wrap a scarf around her prominent hair and was gently leading her through the darkening streets towards the small Inn.
He had hoped they would find it all but empty, ready to accept two strangers in the night if they had the coin. When he opened the door however, a flood of chatter came wafting out of the place like a bad smell. Moira stiffened in his arm. There were so many things they had never bothered to think about before they’d run away that night. For a moment, he squeezed her tightly and then led her inside. It wasn’t as dingy as he might have expected and a good number of men were sitting by the bar over a drink sharing exaggerated hunting stories.
“A room for the night?” He asked the bar-maid, who eyed them suspiciously. It was hard not to recognize Owain for what he was. With his stature, he towered over most men and there was a certain slant to Blaidyn features, a sharpness in the cheeks; the nose was large and elegant and they simply moved differently than humans. In completely rural areas he sometimes went unrecognized because the uneducated peasants still believed Blaidyn had claws and muzzles like their dogs, but it took only one glance at the woman behind the counter to know that she knew better. Carefully, she set down the mug she had been polishing with an old rag and her eyes fell on Moira. Anger boiled in Owain’s gut when he saw the hint of disgust she couldn’t hide.
“A room?” she asked, raising her brow, “for the both’o ye?”
Owain exhaled, his arm fell from around her shoulders and he took a step forward, allowing her to fade a little into the broad shadow he cast.
“I am tasked to accompany this young woman to her relatives in the capital,” he explained quickly, in that way Moira had come to recognize as an attempt to sound more human. It cut most of the growling grumble from the tone and he even managed to hide most of the Blaidyn accent she found so attractive in him.
The innkeeper took one look at their muddy clothes and the huge pack on his shoulders and then raised a brow.
“Yer far off the path, wolf, quickest way to Lauryl is down the river. Everybody knows that.”
A growl rose in his chest but he managed to control it.
“Our travels must remain hidden from certain people,” he finally said quite smoothly, “hence the expense of my protection.”
Again her eyes swept over both of them but when he pulled out their purse, she shrugged. She had a living to make like everybody else. He pulled out two coins and pushed them over the counter, in return she gave him a key. Owain exhaled a well-concealed sigh of relief. Even Moira managed a small smile.
“Oy, wolf-whore,” a voice suddenly sounded from off to the side. It was a drunk voice, slurred and wet. Moira spun around and Owain winced. It would have been better for their cover if she hadn’t reacted but his own anger was quick to rise as well.
“I for one…” the drunk continued loudly and a moment later all eyes were on them. The chatter had died down and Owain exhaled a silent prayer to the moon.
“I for one,” the drunk repeated, “think it’s a bloody disgrace… yer a perfectly adequate maid. I bet lots of real men would have ye.”
“You think if we bring ‘er down to the stables, she’d fuck them horses, too?” another voice could be heard and one of the tables erupted in harsh, loud cackles. Almost too late, Owain took a threatening step between Moira and the men. He could feel her shivering behind him, gasping for air every now and again. Strangers, always strangers. It was hard to believe sometimes that she was genuinely happy to be alone with him in the woods for days and days but in that moment it was easier to fathom.
He pinned them down with his gaze for a few long heartbeats, and then he let his eyes flicker into the wolfish silver. Once they flinched, he turned back to Moira and led her towards the stairs. They didn’t linger to find out whether the innkeeper had changed her mind.