All the while as the young woman climbed the steep slope of Tor Avalon to the town proper, from the slum-like hamlets below, she thought of the men who were coming to take her head. Her imagination conjured figures in dark chainmail skulking through the countryside around, sharp-edged swords held low and at the ready.
Why were they coming? Who had a reason to want her dead?
No, plenty enough people would have smiled to see her spread lifeless on the hillside. The real question was why someone she had no recollection of meeting might send brave assassins to take her life.
There was a round hall of stone and thatch ahead, a trail of grey smoke winding up from the roof’s centre. She ducked in through the doorway and saw Colla, known as the Charcoal Man, feeding metal to his roaring forge.
Like the moss-covered ruins of the bathhouse, he was a relic of Roman times. When men gathered to gossip in taverns, they said that Colla’s father had been an Aethiopian gladiator brought to entertain the crowds of Londinium.
He was a great brute of a man, with towering muscles and a jutting black beard, his skin darker than any she had seen. The effect of his massive build was that he appeared like a slab of butcher’s meat, a thick wedge of man holding a small oval on top, no neck in evidence.
“Have you polished your head today, oaf?” she asked, hopping up to perch on his work table.
The looming giant turned and flashed her a brilliant white smile, lowering his bald skull for her to inspect. “I polish it near every day, and don’t it shine? What brings you here, Arta?”
“I’ve come to ask a favour from you.” she said, letting him see her dimples.
Colla’s blinding grin stretched further across his face as his powerful fingers struggled to unlace his trousers, hopping from foot to foot in eagerness.
“I’ve been wondering when you’d take me for your own. You’ve been flirting with me long enough.”
She gave him the death stare and his fingers froze. In her mind’s eye, she saw his blood begin to boil and his whole body erupt in flames. His gaze met hers, stern and forbidding. Then he threw back his head and let out a booming laugh.
“You should see your face, little miss!” he howled. “Perhaps these tales you put out about being the fiercest kitten in the litter are true, but you’re none too hard to make a fool of.”
Arta slid down off the table, took a step towards him and sent her foot flying up between his legs. It slammed into his groin and he reeled back, still spluttering with mirth as he crashed to the ground.
“It’s true!” he gasped, smiling even as his face turned crimson. “It’s all true! Have mercy!”
With unhurried movements, she came to stand over him and drew the lumpen ball of iron from inside her tunic. His eyes grew wide when he saw it and his writhing ceased.
“I’d wondered when you’d be bringing that old stone to me. What do you want me to pull out of it? Necklaces, brooches, torcs. I can fashion them all.”
“How about a sword?”
He squinted up at the deformed metal, closing one eye and pinching his lips.
“Drawing a sword from a stone? That’s a hard task and no mistake.”