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D. J. Heinrich

The Tainted Sword

Chapter I

“Flinn the Fallen! Flinn the Fool!”

The taunts ripped loudly through the cold winter air. Children raced about the man on the griffon and continued their chant, their words growing more bold and cruel when nearby adults did not chastise them. One man-a baker by the looks of his flour-covered apron-even cheered his son’s viciousness. He made a wicked gesture with his hands, then turned toward his companions and laughed. “Flinn the Fool! Flinn the Mighty is no more!” the baker shouted spitefully.

A young woman edged closer, her tall, lanky frame moving gracefully through the onlookers. A gust of wind blew her braided hair into her face, and she tossed the reddish plait to her back. Her clean, calloused hands gripped her leather belt, which bound a shift to her thin waist. Johauna Menhir had yet to see her twentieth year, but her clear gray eyes held wisdom-wisdom gleaned from thirteen years spent as an orphan on the streets of Specularum. Jo had lived in the southern seaport city until recently, when she journeyed north and found herself in the tiny village of Bywater.

Jo’s gaze slid from the baker to the man surrounded by the growing mob of children. She scanned his rough, leather and fur attire and noted that he wore no armor. He wore no hat, and iron-gray streaks filled his once-black hair. Wind and sun had deeply tanned his face, which was marked by scars and wrinkles. He looked neither right nor left, one hand casually gripping the griffon’s reins and the other holding the lead to a pack mule that followed close behind. His breath formed white puffs in the early winter air.

The man’s griffon appeared to have abnormally short wings, but Jo thought that might be because they were tucked close to the beast’s body. She stared at the creature’s front legs. Why are his claws gripping those strange leather balls? she wondered. After the griffon paced forward she saw why: The bird-lion’s talons weren’t made for walking long distances, and the leather bags cushioned the impact between the beast’s claws and the ground.

Johauna searched the rider’s face again. His stem, straight lips were partially hidden by a drooping moustache. His eyes betrayed no emotion. He seemed unaware of the taunting children, the stares from the adults, and the unease that spread from him in waves. Could this old man really be Flinn the Mighty?

Bad fortune had tossed Jo off the path to the Castle of the Three Suns, the home of Baroness Arteris Penhaligon, whom Jo hoped to petition for knighthood. Now she was stranded in the little village of Bywater, some sixty miles southeast of the castle, or so the village blacksmith had told her. Jo had never expected to come across Fain Flinn, the knight who had fallen from grace seven years ago. Like most everyone back in far-off Specularum, Jo assumed he had died shortly after his disgrace.

Yet if Flinn the Mighty still lives, surely he would be treated with respect and reverence and not this… this insolence, Jo thought. She sidled her way through the crowd to get closer to the warrior. For nineteen years she had listened to tales of Flinn the Mighty and had developed a fascination for the man of legend. He, if anyone, could advise her on petitioning Baroness Arteris.

Intently, Jo watched the man called Flinn pull his griffon to a halt and dismount before Bywater’s only supply store. The white walls and brass sconces of Baildon’s Mercantile gleamed in the morning sun. A large, ornately painted sign swung overhead, proclaiming the establishment’s name. Double doors with a window to either side marked the center of the building. Haifa dozen hitching posts, each with two brass rings, fronted the shop. A single wooden bench, painted bright red, stood to the left of the door. The shop’s air of tidy prosperity contrasted sharply with the disrepair of an abandoned winery to its left and the ramshackle look of Garaman’s Pottery to its right.

The griffon screeched a shrill, eaglelike scream and reared. Jo’s attention turned toward the mount. His golden eyes were swirling in terror. The crowd’s jeers clearly made the animal skittish. His claws released the balls as he reared again, and the pads dangled from thin chains attached to the creature’s ankles. The rider stroked the silky feathers of the griffon’s neck and calmly urged him back to the ground.

Jo watched Flinn tie his mount and pack mule to a hitching ring. His jaw clenched as he shouldered the crowd out of his way. The griffon snapped at the children, sending them scurrying back. A slight smile formed on Flinn’s lips. The warrior then muzzled the skittish griffon, which nipped once or twice before submitting.

The children, seeing the griffon’s muzzle, grew bolder. Their chants rang louder, and more joined in. One or two of them even poked the griffon’s haunches with sticks, but backed away after being struck by his thick, lionlike tail. Flinn resolutely ignored the children and began unloading the mule.

Why isn’t he putting the brats in their place? Jo wondered. The children reminded her of the gangs infesting Specularum. They lay in wait and attacked passersby. Rich victims were robbed; poor victims were tormented. Jo had witnessed enough gangs to know that the one centered on Flinn verged on violence.

From the corner of her eye, Jo saw a boy pick up a rock from the muddy, partially frozen road. He was a big youth, easily as tall as Jo. His eyes were puffy slits, and he wore a deeply lined pout. Just the sort of boy to spark a riot, Jo thought.

She touched a brown, furry tail hanging from her belt and spoke a magical phrase that sounded like a growl. She blinked out of existence and reappeared before the boy, who had been at least twenty paces away. Jo struck the youth’s hand, knocking the rock from it. The boy gasped as she knelt, emitted her low growl again, and touched the tail at her belt. She reappeared in the thick of the crowd and slowly rose from her crouch. In the bustle of the street, her sudden appearance went unnoticed.

Cautiously Jo looked toward the youth, taking care to keep a person or two between her and the boy. He was looking around, befuddled, trying to find his attacker. At last he shook his head and faded into the crowd. Jo turned back to the man with the griffon, a smirk crossing her lips.

She froze. Flinn’s dark eyes were on her. Had he seen her use her blink dog’s tail? His cold gaze remained inscrutable. Turning, he continued unloading the mule. Jo rubbed her hands, then stepped forward boldly, leaving the crowd of adults and breaking the line of children circling Flinn.

“You’ve trained your griffon well, Sir Flinn,” Jo said, nodding toward the mule and horse tied together. “Either him or your mule. Not many griffons would pass up a meal of horseflesh.”

The man looked down at Johauna. He was very tall, a head taller than Jo. A fiercely curving scar sliced along his left jawline and just nicked his throat; a second scar cut through his left eyebrow. His eyes were deep brown, nearly black. Jo caught the briefest twitch of his moustache, and she wondered whether he were amused or angered… or both.

“I’m no longer a knight, so don’t address me as such,” he said coldly. He gestured toward the animals and added, grudgingly, “They’re both well-trained. Ariac-the griffon-hasn’t had horseflesh in years.”

“What does he eat if not horseflesh?” Jo asked, interested. “When I worked for a hostler, the griffons almost always attacked the horses.”

The warrior paused at the knot he was unraveling and flicked his gaze at Johauna, then turned back to the mule. “He’s happy enough with fox or bear-whatever I trap. It helps that he’s crippled and can’t fly,” Flinn replied, hefting the last bundle off the mule. He turned toward the shop. “You might pack that fly swatter of yours away. It’ll get you in trouble.”

Surprised, Jo touched the blink dog’s tail and stroked the thin, bristly fur. So he had noticed! Johauna grimaced, then hurriedly tucked the tail inside her bag. Glancing at the shop, she followed Flinn.

“Enough!” someone roared. “Enough of this badgering, you pups!” A burly man burst through the shop’s double doors, throwing both open at once. “I’ll not have you pestering my customers! Now get along, all of you, or I’ll-” The merchant cuffed one child on the ears when she didn’t flee fast enough to please him. Jo glanced at the sign above the man’s head. This must be Baildon, she thought.

“Ah, Flinn!” the merchant said, beaming. His tanned, shiny face was framed by huge sideburns that covered much of his cheeks, perhaps to compensate for the lack of hair above. One or two extra chins graced the shopkeeper’s neck. His bloodied butcher’s apron draped over a sleeveless, dirty gray tunic and a pair of even dirtier brown breeches. He wore sandals despite the cold, and Jo saw bright spots of blood spattered on them. The

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