Chapter 27: Price of Freedom

Chapter 27: Price of Freedom

They had been through a lot together.

The midday sun hung low overhead, forcing Svetya to shade her eyes with a gloved hand. Beneath her, Mokhnati grumbled as they trudged down the wide, dusty street.

“I know,” Svetya murmured, touching his heavy shoulder. “This is no time of day for someone with a fur coat.”

Mokhnati snorted, kicking up dust.

Svetya rolled her eyes, “I said I was sorry. I thought the marshals could help. How was I to know that the sheriff had never seen an armored bear before?” Mokhnati snorted again, but this time with pride. Svetya smiled. Mokhnati had been gifted to her as a cub. They had grown up together, and learned to rely on one another through hardship. Leaning down toward his ear, she said, “Let’s cut through that alley. We have no time to lose, and it will be cooler between the buildings.”

The mouth of the backstreet was barely wide enough for Mokhnati’s bulk, but Svetya coaxed him forward into the welcome shade. As they neared the exit, Svetya spied a barrel sitting in the alley’s mouth, blocking their way out. More delays, she thought, frustrated. With a tap of her foot, Mokhnati halted and Svetya slid to the ground. As she did, there was a crack, and splinters flew from the wall next to her head. Ducking, Svetya’s hand darted to her belt as Mokhnati let out a harsh warning growl.

Ain't nowhere to hide...

“Damn it!” a man hissed. She heard the heavy noise of a rifle being readied, and Mokhnati’s growl grew louder.

“What do you want?” she asked, gripping the handle of her father’s hunting knife. Her heart was pounding in her ears as she tried to steady her breathing. Calm.

“Jus’ you,” the assassin laughed. “Seems you went an’ made yourself some dangerous enemies. We're getting a fair bit for your pretty head. Now, turn around.”

The Cabal, Svetya cursed inwardly. Vara warned me. Mokhnati’s growl had fallen to a low rumble. He looked up, meeting Svetya’s gaze as she turned to face her attacker. “What about alive?” she asked.

“Funny, that,” the man said. “The buyer didn’t seem to care.” Squinting down the barrel of his gun, he added, “Nothin’ persona—”

“Duck!” Svetya shouted, charging forward. With one hand she drew her knife as the other hand slapped the barrel upwards, away from her and Mokhnati. The gun barked, and pain seared across her palm. The gunman cursed, dropping the rifle and reaching for the pistol at his hip. Mokhnati’s roar shook the walls of the alleyway as the bear launched himself over Svetya, flattening the assassin before he could draw. He wheezed, air rushing from his lungs, before something inside snapped. Mokhnati bellowed, pressing down with a heavy paw.

“Stop!” Svetya called, squeezing past the bear’s flank. Mokhnati turned to look at her, questioningly. “Stop,” Svetya said again, trying to catch her breath. “He can’t answer questions without ribs.”

Mokhnati huffed, but raised his paw slightly. Gasping, the assassin started to curse, until Svetya leaned down and held the knife against his chin.

“Who set the bounty?” she spat.

“I don’t know! Never know. Got it through a contact!” the assassin grunted. When Svetya did not immediately reply, he added, “No need to use that blade there, miss; this was jus’ business.”

There are many in Kosul who would think me weak for not killing him… Svetya grimaced. And if I let him live, will he try again? Killing him would be the quickest solution. As she struggled with what to do, a detail from her earlier talk with the sheriff stood out in her memory.

“What about you?” she asked, looking down.

“Pardon?” The assassin frowned.

Svetya smiled. “What’s the price on your head?”

The doors to the tavern slammed open as a man, hogtied and worse for wear, was thrown into the dingy room. A bear’s roar punctuated his rough landing as a slim, blonde woman with a red scarf walked through the still-swinging doors.

“Who wants to collect an easy bounty?” Svetya asked, bandaged hand on her hip. The few patrons at the barroom tables gawked, drinking stopped, and cards were laid down for a moment.

Name's Jekk.

“Those are two of my favorite words,” a gruff voice rumbled from the bar.

Svetya turned to see a large, muscular man leaning over the bar. His worn leather duster was pulled away from the large revolver at his hip, and there was a heavy sword slung over one shoulder. Empty glasses lined the bar next to him.

Svetya nodded at the groaning figure. “Here’s a Cabal contract killer. I’ll split his price with you. Fifty-fifty.”

“After you went to all the trouble to wrangle him?” The bounty hunter raised an eyebrow.

Svetya shrugged, “The sheriff and I had a, ah, disagreement earlier over my mount. I’d rather someone else turned him in.”

“I been there,” the man drawled, nodding slightly. “Name’s Jekk.”

“Svetya.” Svetya returned the nod, “Have you been taking bounties long?”

Jekk snorted. “You could say that.”

“I…” Svetya trailed off. I’m running out of options, she thought. Every day we spend searching for help is a day Yushkov stays in power.  “I’m also looking to hire guns. Perhaps…”

Kosul is burning.

“I don’t do that kind of thing.” Jekk cut her off flatly.

“No, not killing! Not like him,” Svetya said, stumbling over her words. “It’s to return to my homeland, Kosul. It was taken. Taken from me.” She looked down, “I don’t have much more than what this bounty will pay, but when we take back the palace and royal treasury I can pay you ten times over.” If Yushkov has left anything behind, she added to herself.

Jekk stared, silent.

“Please,” Svetya said, quieter. “My people are suffering. I can’t help them on my own.”

Jekk didn’t reply, running a calloused thumb along the edge of the sword on his back.

“I don’t do that kind of thing anymore,” he repeated brusquely, standing up. With one hand, the bounty hunter reached down to pick up the bound killer, who began to complain. “I’ll take this parcel to the marshals,” Jekk said over the swearing man. “I can get the Cabal to lay off too, if you like. Me and them go back a ways.”

“Yes, thank you,” Svetya said, following the man outside.

Mokhnati looked up from a water trough as Jekk walked past. The bounty hunter gave the bear an odd look, and tossed the bound man over the back of a nervous-looking horse.

“If you won’t help,” Svetya pressed, desperation seeping into her voice, “do you know anyone who would? I could find—”

You need believers...

“You don’t need hired guns,” Jekk said, pulling a crumpled piece of paper from a saddlebag. “You need believers who’ll fight for lost causes.”

“I—” Svetya started to say.

“Lucky for you,” Jekk continued, turning to face Svetya, “I just might know a guy…”