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Elsbeth calmly nocked an arrow into her grandfather's crossbow and wondered which of the villagers she'd have to shoot tonight.
"Come out, Angus Weaver! 'Tis your doing that the beast is attacking!"
Her door shivered beneath hard blows as the mob outside beat their fists against it and shouted their anger.
"Aye, Angus, come out! You're not welcome here no more!"
She waited until there was a pause in abusing the door before jerking it open to face her adversaries. A line of surprised villagers met her gaze. As one, the crowd took a step back at the sight of the crossbow pointed at them. Elsbeth was no marksman, but at close range she could hit what she aimed for. At the moment, her sights were leveled on the mob's ringleader, Malcolm Miller. Big, muscled, with a shaggy head of dark hair and an equally shaggy beard, he reminded her of a bear–brutish and quick to use sheer force to get his way.
Torchlight bathed the crowd in dancing shadow, lending it an eerie, swaying quality, as if it were a single creature, darker and far more malevolent than the beast that terrorized their village these days. Malcolm's features looked especially cruel in the flickering light, a Fool's Day mask to scare small children. Elsbeth suspected the light revealed much about Malcolm–the beast lurking behind the human facade.
"Move aside, Elsbeth." He stepped closer, but hesitated when she raised the crossbow a little higher.
"Or what, Malcolm?" Her finger tightened against the crossbow's trigger at the crowd's restless movements. Rivulets of sweat tickled her ribcage. The lump of fear wedged in her throat made it difficult tobreathe, but she wouldn't move from the doorway. "Why have you brought these good people out into the night to beat my door down and disturb my grandfather's rest?"
Malcolm sneered, his small eyes glittering with malice and an avarice that sent shivers down Elsbeth's arms. "You know why, woman. We want Angus. He's the reason the dragon is destroying this village and wiping out our livestock." He turned from her to face the crowd. "Is it not so, friends? We had no trouble with dragon-kind until Weaver came here telling his tales of slaughtering such a beast and showing his dragon armor to all and sundry."
A chorus of "Ayes!" answered him, and the crowd surged forward again, driven by Malcolm's words to punish the one they considered the harbinger of their misery. Once more they hesitated at the sight of Elsbeth's ready crossbow.
The ringleader jeered at his companions. "It's just one woman with a single bolt! She can't stop us!"
Elsbeth raised her voice to match his. "Aye, just one bolt to kill one man. Which of you lads is willing to take that bolt in the gut so your brave friends can drag a crippled old man out into the cold and hang him?" Her lip curled in derision when Malcolm himself made no move to rush her. "You, Malcolm? Give me an excuse. You've been nothing but a thorn in my ass since we came to live in Byderside."
Her grip tightened on the bow as Malcolm growled and took a threatening step. So be it. The miller's son would go down first. Elsbeth had never killed a man before, and her stomach churned at the prospect, but she didn't hesitate to take aim.
A hard, commanding voice rang out, freezing everyone to stillness. "Stop this! Hold, I say!"
A ripple of motion parted the mob, revealing a small silver-haired figure dressed in a night rail and tattered robe. Ireni the Elder strode to the front and blessed Malcolm with a withering look. His shoulders hunched, and he looked away, shame-faced before the diminutive elder. She glowed with an aura of authority and power, and Elsbeth wondered how such a small woman could quell an angry crowd more effectively than her loaded crossbow. Whatever worked, she thought, heartily grateful for Ireni's sudden appearance.
The older woman stood close to her. "How are you, girl?" Her voice was low, for Elsbeth's ears alone.
"Terrified. Thank all that is sacred you came when you did. I thought I'd have to shoot Malcolm."
"'Tis a pity you didn't. It might shut him up for once." Ireni's faded blue eyes twinkled with amusement, and Elsbeth smiled, despite her grim circumstances.
Ireni leveled the same damning glare on the villagers. Like Malcolm, many bowed their heads and shuffled their feet. But a few refused to be shamed and shouted their grievances.
"That dragon is killing our livestock and burning our fields!"
"It's vengeance for its kindred. Angus killed one of its own!"
Ireni snorted in disdain. "And ye thought to stop it by swinging a dying old man on a gallows tree?" She crossed her thin arms over her chest. "Come straight from Will's tavern, didn't you, lads?" A few mutters answered her, but none spoke up to argue, not even Malcolm, who alternately glared at Elsbeth and undressed her with greedy eyes.
"Go home," the elder ordered. "If you wish, we'll hold council tomorrow to talk of this, but we won't be doing it here in the cold night while a frightened woman holds off a mob of drunkards far gone in their cups!"
Elsbeth held her breath and kept a tight grip on the crossbow. Please, she prayed. Let the elder's words be enough. It was soon apparent they were, for the men slowly wandered away, a few leaning on each other in stuporous camaraderie as they stumbled home.
Malcolm was the last to leave. Sober and sharp-eyed, he bared his teeth in a feral smile. "This isn't over between us, woman."
Copyright © 2007 Grace Draven.