Helena perched lightly on the edge of the large branch, confident in the fact that it didn’t bend in the slightest. It would be a poor ambush if she fell on her face.
Or break my neck, she mused darkly.
Warm sunlight trickled through the lush forest, splashing her fiery scarlet hair with its light. Her deep green eyes, so often sparkling with mischief, were focused firmly on the King’s Highway. Muscles tensed and relaxed as she was forced to wait.
Patience was not her forte. She had once punched a man in his kidneys for spending too much time arguing with the barman about how much a bottle of wine should cost.
The wine he wanted had been pig swill anyway, she thought.
Helena broke off a twig and rolled it in one hand, her other hand gently stroking the rough tree bark of the mighty oak that was her jump point. Her sword pressed heavily on her back, but she urged her muscles to hold on. It couldn’t be much longer now.
Don’t betray yourself. Stealth is the key this time.
The carriage came around the bend, bucking and swaying as the driver poorly navigated the ruts in the road. It had rained the night before, and the mud was reaching for the wheels like a long-lost lover.
It was a well-traveled route and was known to have bandits here and there. The richer the traveler, the more protection was evident. Or in this particular case, absent.
No guards. Good. That’s one less thing I have to worry about. He was in an awful hurry to leave Hurntown.
Lowering herself to grip the underside of the branch for a few moments, she waited for the carriage to pass. Her legs flexed, and she dropped, flipping in midair. A loud thump accompanied her landing on the top of the coach, followed quickly by the swearing of a man inside.
The driver turned, a look of utter dismay on his pale face.
He looks like a good man. Better not kill him.
She straightened, took a steps and landed a solid kick on the side of his face. He sputtered in shock as the blow carried him and his velvety suit into the muck.
He’ll thank me later.
Snatching up the reins, Helena pulled hard. “Whoa there fella! Whoa!”
“A woman?” came the man’s voice from inside the carriage. “Get rid of her! Damned bandits.”
Another man stepped out of the carriage just as it had finished its halt, narrowly missing a large puddle. He was tall, lean and carried himself with the calm reassurance of a seasoned fighter. Something terrible must have happened to his face because half of it was glossy like wax, and one eye was missing. His other eye locked with hers, and he ground his teeth together which only made him look even uglier.
And more dangerous, she reminded herself.
“Bandit or assassin?” the bodyguard queried, his voice low.
Her only answer was a grimace as she took one step toward him and bent her wrist up with her fist squeezed tight. There was a click, and the spring loaded dart crossed the distance between them in the blink of an eye.
The bodyguard jerked his head to the side, but the needle had already stuck into his neck. He yanked it free, his face a mask of rage.
“Coward! Fashe me . . .” The bodyguard shook his head, trying to clear it but to no avail. “Fashe . . .”
Helena caught him as he fell and guided him gently into the mud face up. “Sorry friend, but you look like you’ve had a bad enough life.”
Jerking the carriage door open, she took in the scene. A robust man with an immaculately- trimmed brown beard sat against the far wall, his tailored suit wrinkling in an odd way. His hands were out in front of him and his expression was fixed with panic.
“Felix Cartho?” Helena asked even though she knew it was him. His face had become as familiar to her as her own.
“Y-yes.” Cartho gulped, his fearful eyes shifting from Helena’s face to her hands and back again. He was clearly unsettled by the fact that she had dispatched his bodyguard with such ease without even bothering to use her clearly sheathed sword. “If it’s money you want, you can have all that you want. Just let me live.”
Helena laughed, a sweet musical sound. She watched in satisfaction as the man jerked back but found the wall inside the carriage unable to get him any further away from this crazy woman.
“Did you really think that you could steal something from us?” Helena asked softly.
His eyes widened. “I . . . b-but I was promised payment, and it was not delivered. I . . . I had to take something. It was only fair.”
“Fair?” Helena’s face heated, and she had to resist the overwhelming urge to slice his throat. For a moment, she thought she would as she brushed her hand on the pommel of the dagger on her right hip. Helena stepped into the carriage and sat opposite him. “Her name was Gabyrthora . . . my little Gabby. She was my niece and you sold her like a cheap trinket.”
He gulped again, loudly.
“She died because of you, you filthy son of a whore.”
“Please.” His voice so small she could barely hear it.
Helena reached out and her eyes flared as red as her hair. “I, Helenaskatha, second daughter of Surogeth the Primal find you guilty of theft, slave selling and neglect of a dragon hatchling.”
“No . . .”
“And treason to the Council of Drakthor.”
Absolute terror lit Cartho’s face, and he began visibly shaking.
Helena’s body was suddenly too small to hold in her rage. Skin shifted into shimmering crimson scales as her body expanded to fill the entire side of the carriage. Her hair shrank back and her face extended to form a snout with rows of serrated teeth. With a stretch of her shoulders, she burst into her complete dragon form, shattering the carriage walls into elegantly decorated splinters.
Cartho tumbled into the mud and began crawling away, whimpering a little chant to Yorril, the god of merchants, to save him.
Helena reached out and grabbed him with one of her mighty claws. “Your sentence is passed, Felix Cartho. May you remind those that come behind you of the danger of making an enemy of a dragon.”
His eyes were the size of saucers, and his voice barely a whimper. “Mercy! I beg you!” He reached out his hand.
A pulse of Draconic magic left her, and Helena released him as it took hold.
Cartho froze as if transfixed. His mouth opened in a silent scream, his mind unable to bring words to the unimaginable pain. Then his body hardened and seconds later became an eerie glowing stone statue, his expression of terror frozen for eternity.
Helena glanced at where his stone hand pointed and thought it poetic that it was at the sky. Many feared the skies because of dragons and now some may fear it more.
She flowed a small enchantment into the statue. Thousands of tiny dragons swirled into being and flew a circuit around him as if they were having a race. On the soft ground in glowing orange flames spelled out the words in Draconic: JUSTICE.
Helena bowed her head solemnly. “Rest in Peace, Gabby. You are avenged.”