- Text Size +

The whole camp moved onward, pushing through the night, using the glow of the moon to light their way. There were times where the teams walked to rest and times where they pushed for all they were worth. Eric stayed in the wagon the whole trip. Tor didn't try to speak to him and he didn't seem eager to bridge the gap after the brusque tone she had used with him. Quite some time had passed since she had spoken to him like that. He wondered if his position in her life was sliding. The thought worried him. 

It was late afternoon the following day when they finally pulled into town. Tor dropped the horses and teams in the corrals at the livery stable, paid the hostlers to feed and water the herd before taking her copy of the will and Eric and heading off down the main boardwalk in search of the solicitor. It didn't take but just a few minutes to find one. Two blocks down, a sign hung over a doorway that caught her eye. "John McCormick and Sons." Beside the names was the image of the hanging scales of justice. Exactly what Tor needed. She stepped inside, blinking a bit as her eyes adjusted from the bright sun to the building's interior. Eric was perched on her shoulder as he examined the office space. 

He could tell the space wasn't a large one for Elders. It was almost cramped feeling. The only thing that kept that cramped feeling away was the large windows that overlooked the boardwalk. All the natural light they allowed to pass into the room made the room appear bigger than it really was, if only a little. He caught the receptionist's eye and scooted closer to Tor's neck.

The was a receptionist eyeing them with misgivings. She was a sharp-faced woman with her grey-streaked hair pulled back into a severe bun at the nape of her neck. Her clothes were dowdy shades of grey and brown, not at all flattering to her thin frame but somehow suiting to the no-nonsense air she gave off.

"How may I be of assistance?" she asked. Her voice was as sharp as her face, cutting sharply against Tor's fraying temper.

Eric glanced up at his owner-friend as a muscle in her jaw ticked. He rested a hand on her neck. She couldn't afford to be rude, he thought. No telling how much influence this woman had. He remembered his father's clerks. Although their standing wasn't much, they had a fair amount of influence over his decisions due to their much more intimate knowledge of his estates. While he couldn't be sure this woman had such an influence, he didn't want Tor losing her chance to speak to a solicitor and be free of Jason blown because she was tired and cranky from a hard ride and no sleep.

Tor inhaled deeply and slowly let it out. "I need to see a solicitor."

"Concerning what business?" the woman pressed.

"My father's will," Tor said. "I need to see if there's a way or loophole or something for me to get out of it."

"Hmm. I will check with Mr. McCormick to see if he has time. He is a very busy man. What is your name?"

"Torani Keller," Tor replied. She hated using her full name but figured it would be best here.

"I see. Well, Ms. Keller, please have a seat and wait." The woman stood and entered one of the office doors. Tor sighed and took a seat in a chair. 

She didn't talk to her human, despite Eric's persistent efforts to try and let him see the will or read it. "Please?" he asked for what felt like the millionth time. "I just want to see it. I know I'm not a legal expert but maybe there's something I picked up that could help you." 

Tor ignored him, rubbing the bridge of her nose and trying not to sleep in the semi-comfortable chair. It wouldn't have mattered even if Eric was a legal expert. The will wasn't written in the common tongue. He wouldn't have been able to make heads or tails of it. A few moments later, the woman returned. "Ms. Keller, you are in luck. Mr. McCormick will see you."

Tor sighed. This was a bit of good fortune. She stood and followed the sharp-faced woman through to the office. Eric clung to the braid she had given him, using it as an anchor as Tor shook hands with the solicitor. Mr. McCormick was an older man, though perhaps not much older than Larson. He was a handsome fellow in his age, silvery hairs streaked through a thick coif of black. His eyes were a bright blue, keen and aware and following Tor's every step. He smiled, stood and offered his hand.

"Ms. Keller, it's a pleasure to meet you face to face. I've read your father's will many times and read yours and your siblings' names but have yet to actually see one of you," he said. 

"I'm sorry, do we know each other?"

"No, not formally." He sat back down and unbuttoned his coat. "I was one of the five initial solicitors that penned your father's will. Truthfully I represented you." 

"Wait, what?" She sat there, stunned. This was turning out to be a ray of Divine Favor more so than simply good luck.

Mr. McCormick smiled, amused at her shock. It was understandable. They had never met but he had worked in her interests from the start. He had never expected to meet her but was pleased he was able to. "Now then, how can I help you?"

"I, uh, I," Tor stammered. She knew what she wanted but it wasn't coming to her tongue at the moment. She was always so ready to state her case in a flustering rage, but the calm, at-ease manner of the solicitor had her off guard. 

"Her brother stole her horses and she wants to know how she can get away from him." It was Eric, speaking in her stead.

The solicitor arched a brow at the human. He hadn't seemed like much at first glance, but upon further inspection it was evident he was well cared for. His clothes were nice, he had a rosy glow to his face and had a definite little paunch to his belly. 

"I see. And who would you be?"

"This is Eric. My pet." That was a question Tor could answer. "I found him being chased and threatened by other humans. I rescued him. He has chosen to stay with me and be my pet rather than return to his home."

Eric gave her a look when he was called her pet, but he didn't back talk her. She didn't seem to mind when it was just them, but he knew how it made Tor appear when he did so in public. The thought of further eroding his position in her life by appearing as a disobedient pet in public sent a shiver down his spine.

"Interesting. Do you have a deed of ownership for him?" Mr. McCormick asked.

"Uh. No?" Tor gave the man a confused look. "I didn't realize you had to have one."

"Well you technically don't, but if your brother has already attempted to steal your horses, a human isn't a far cry for a next target. And if you don't have a deed of ownership, it would go to a magistrate for litigation. Those proceedings are not known for being quick," he said. 

"He already stole Eric once, before he stole my horses. I suppose I need one of those, too. But most importantly, can you help me get out from under Jason's thumb?" she asked. "There has to be something you can do. I even brought a copy of the will for you to read." She handed over the worn paper.

Mr. McCormick took it, arching a brow slightly. He glanced at the page, flipped it over and briefly scanned the back before looking to Tor. "Where is the rest of it?"

"The rest? That's all there is. That's all I've ever seen," she said. 

"Hum. Just one moment." He handed the paper back and walked over to a large bureau in the back. "It's been some years, I realize, but I do believe I have a copy or two of the original." He sorted through a couple drawers before he gave a noise of delight. "Found it. Now then, let's see here." 

He walked back to the desk and sat down in his chair. He displayed the copy of the will. The full copy. All three pages. "Here we are. Why you don't have the rest, I cannot say. But I was tasked to keeping a copy for you, should you need one. Your father paid me well to keep your interests a priority." He smiled and looked through the document. "Ah. Here we go. I see where you would think you had to stay with Jason. He is given controlling interest." At this he paused and looked to Tor. "Until you are eighteen years of age. At which point, you have the option to purchase some land held in trust. Doing so would free you from his holding. This option was set forth for you and all three of your brothers."

Tor sat there, speechless. Eight years. She had been under Jason's ridiculous thumb for eight years too long. She could have been gone. Owning her own lands. Making her own money. But she hadn't. She had been working for her selfish, heartless, cruel older brother this whole time.

"How much?" she croaked, her throat suddenly paper-dry.

"Beg pardon?" Mr. McCormick asked.

"How much does the land cost?" No matter where it was, it was hers and she was leaving for it. "I need to know so I can pay out the amount to whoever I owe it to." This was it. This was her chance to be free.

Mr. McCormick smiled. He wrote down a number on a piece of paper. "I think you'll find this amount to be more than fair."

Tor looked at the amount. She felt hope, real, true hope, welling up in her chest. Her throat burned. That was a pittance. So little for so much. She made that three times over at the horse fair this past summer. "Who do I pay?"

"You'll pay the bank in that area," he said. "It's beautiful land. I went to see it shortly after the will was drawn up. It's nestled between the Twin Rivers. It floods every few years or so, but that just makes it very fertile."

"When can I go there?" she asked. "How do I make all this legal? Jason has held me under his thumb for so many years. I didn't know any of this. I never heard about it. I thought I was bound to stay within sight of him forever." 

"No, my dear," Mr. McCormick said. "You most certainly are not. I will draw up the deed of ownership for your human. I will draw up the deed of ownership for the horses you say he stole. You need not be tied to him any longer. If I had known of your predicament, I would have advised you of your rights long ago."

"Thank you," she whispered. "Thank you so much."

The solicitor smiled and patted her hand. "I will have it ready in the morning. Go down to the hotel and rest. You certainly look as if you deserve it. Go rest and rejuvenate. Come see me first thing in the morning and I will have all you need to prove your freedom. The only things I need from you are names and descriptions of your horses so I can make it all perfectly square."

Tor nodded. "I'll have my man come bring you my ledgers. You'll find everything in there."

"Good then," Mr. McCormick said with a smile. "I will have it done. Guaranteed."

Tor shook his hand and left. She trembled all over with pure joy and exhilaration. Eric had to cling tightly to the braid. A broad smile was plastered on her face. She walked out of the office, practically whistling, although she couldn't carry a tune in a bucket. There was almost a skip to her step as she headed down the boardwalk and to her wagons. Nothing could ruin this day for her. Not even the annoying ranger who always seemed to pop up at the worst times.

Like now.

Bret grinned when he saw her. "I thought that was your herd of big horses," he said. He turned and began walking alongside her. His dancing eyes landed on Eric's scowling face and his grin only broadened. "I see you've been taking good care of your mistress."

Eric's scowl deepened. "What do you want?" Tor said. Her tone was far less snappish than usual when she spoke to the ranger. 

The ranger and Eric both took notice. Only the ranger liked it. "It sounds like I caught you in a good mood," he chuckled. "What's got you on top of the world?"

"I'm about to be free of my wretched brothers for the rest of my life," she said. "Not even you can ruin my day now."

"I ruin your days?" He laughed and shook his head. "Well, I have to say your visits always make mine."

Tor rolled her eyes. "My question is unanswered. What do you want?"

"Well, since I caught you in a good mood, I do have a question for you. What do you know about your brothers' business practices?"

Tor shrugged her empty shoulder. "Not much, except that Jason usually boasts about swindling just about everyone who buys some of his horses."

Bret arched an eyebrow. "That is interesting."

"I'm going to bet you got swindled, too, didn't you?" she asked. Eric silently hoped he had been swindled for all he was worth and that the man had come to beg and Tor would refuse him. It was silly and petty, he knew, but he felt how he felt. Tor couldn't help but laugh at Bret's expression. "How much did he take you for?"

"Not me personally," Bret said. "I bought my string from you, remember. But I was charged with shopping for the paper-pushers this time. I tried to sell them on your horses, but your brother's are prettier. Not as useful, but prettier."

Tor snorted. "Pretty is as pretty does."

"True," Bret agreed. "But Jason and I worked out a deal. I have my paperwork to prove it. I paid him for twenty horses. That's a string of four for each of the other rangers in our office. I received four of the twenty. Jason claims the price was not what we agreed on and that what was paid was only paid for the four nags given."

Tor sighed. "Somehow, I'm not surprised. What do you plan to do him about it?"

"Charge him with anything that'll stick," Bret said. "And I've got enough things that'll stick that will keep him behind bars for the next twenty or so years."

"I like the sound of that," she said. "I'll do what I can to help but I don't know much. He boasted but I never saw anything to prove his claims." She paused and smirked. "I can, however, give you a list of his clients. You could contact them and see if they're facing similar issues."

"That would be mighty nice of you, ma'am." He tipped his hat. "When could I pick them up?"

"This evening. I'm at the hotel down the way." She didn't care if he came tonight. His company, if he was out to jail her brothers, was a welcome one. "Come to dinner with me and we can discuss it all." She smiled slightly at him. Eric felt his mood sour. This ranger was going to come and ruin their dinner and good time. Tor's attention would be on Bret instead of him.

Bret couldn't help but give an actual smile, not a smirking grin, in return. Tor wasn't a beautiful woman and she didn't have the best personality, but something about her drew him like a moth to flame. And that something only increased when she smiled. He stepped forward and took her hand, lifting it to brush his lips across her knuckles.

"I await it with eagerness," he said.

Tor blushed and quickly took her hand away. "You're a ranger, not a knight," she snapped. "You don't have to kiss my hand."

"But you're still a lady," he chuckled.

Tor's blush deepened and she hurried off to the hotel. She wanted to clean up before she went down to dinner. She stopped at the livery stable and made sure her horses were fine and her men were taken care of. She sent her ledgers to the solicitor's office and grabbed a list of all Jason's clients she knew of before she indulged in a bit of luxury. The hot bath in her room was incredible. It was divine. She sunk to her nose in the tub, her wild mane of hair floating around her. 

Eric huffed as he stared down at her from the rim of the tub. The steam wafting off it told him the water was far too hot for his comparatively delicate skin. He would have to wait until it cooled to actually get in. He watched his owner. She was acting odd. A ghost of a smile lingered around her lips and eyes, taunting him with the thought that some other man had made her happy. He couldn't make her happy like that. He sighed and leaned against the cool tile. Tor didn't linger long. She quickly scrubbed herself, washed her hair and combed it out before drying off and dressing in a clean pair of trousers and a light blue shirt.

Pap had always said blue brought out her eyes. Jason's bimbos had frequently said her eyes were the only pretty thing about her. Her lips were too thin, her hips not wide enough, her shoulders too wide and although she had a large bosom, it was mostly hidden under her shirts, much to the bimbo's dismay when they occasionally tried to make her up.

She brushed out her hair and pulled it back into a high ponytail. She caught sight of herself in a mirror and frowned. The ponytail just didn't look right since she wasn't wearing her hat. She took her hair down and shook it out, much like she had seen one of Larson's girls do, and took another look. While it was still flat against her head, knowledge of her hair told her it would puff up more as it dried. Satisfied she looked decent, she grabbed her satchel with the ledgers and headed downstairs. 

Eric sat on her shoulder, scowling. All that preening and he knew it was for the ranger. That man made her act odd. That man made her smile and blush and do all the things Eric couldn't. It wasn't right. Tor seemed unaware of Eric's dark mood as she entered the dining room.

Bret was already seated at one of the tables. He looked up and smiled when she walked in. When she approached the table, he hurried out of his chair and around to hers to pull it out for her. Tor made a face at him.

"I'm perfectly capable of getting my own chair," she said.

"I believe it," was his calm reply. "But you're still a lady and while I'm not a knight, I am a gentleman."

Tor snorted but sat. Bret took his own seat across from her. "It's chicken and dumplings for dinner with a roll and greens," he told her. "One of my favorite meals."

"Really? How interesting." She didn't really know what to say to his comment. "So what else do you want to know about my brothers? I've got the list with me." She put her hand on the satchel.

"Hold it. That can wait until after dessert," Bret said. "Right now, I just want to enjoy a little bit of time with you." He smiled as their food came. "Good company and good food. How much better could my day get?"

Eric groused and mocked Bret under his breath, but he didn't dare to say it out loud. Tor wasn't put off by the flattery, but it did confuse her. "If you think I'm good company, your standards must be pretty low."

Bret chuckled. "Don't be so down on yourself. You are far better company than most of my company; sweaty men and sweaty horses and sweaty outlaws make most of my company."

Tor touched her drying hair. It was already starting to puff out and gain some volume. "Hm. Well, I guess I'm better than sweaty outlaws," she chuckled. 

"Most definitely," Bret assured her. "Now tell me, what brought you out this way? I see you and all your horses but I don't see any of your brothers."

Tor snorted. "Jason decided to be a fool and steal my horses. I got them back but I'm not about to let him take them again. So I came to see a solicitor to see if I could do something about it." She grinned. "Turns out, he's been lying to me for years. I was free of him at eighteen. I've been under his thumb eight years too long."

"So you're twenty-six?" Bret asked.

"Don't you know not to ask a woman her age?" Tor retorted.

Bret laughed again. "My sincerest apologies. I hope I didn't offend you."

Tor rolled her eyes. "Yes, I'm twenty-six. And you? How old are you?"

"Thirty-two," he said. His eyes were seemed to dance as they watched her. "Do you think I'm old?"

"Older than dirt," she said evenly. A hint of a smile tugged at the corners of her lips.

Bret laughed. Eric made a face. He didn't like this. Not one bit. Tor was smiling at Bret and seemed to be enjoying herself. He didn't like that she felt so at-ease around this man. He harrumphed and poked at the bit of food Tor had set aside for him. His appetite was rapidly diminishing.

Dinner and dessert came and went. Tor enjoyed the small luxury of the cherry cheesecake. Cherries and creamed cheese didn't keep well on a wagon trail. One day she would have a home where she could keep these things and have such delicacies frequently. For now, she would have to enjoy it when she could.

When the dishes were cleared, Tor set the list on the table. "I kept my own record of who he sold to. It wasn't hard. Brad and Thomas run their mouths period but especially when they have a few beers in them." She shrugged. 

Bret leafed through the pages, noting names and dates and amounts. "Either your brother has very, very expensive horses or he's been stealing from people for years."

"Probably the latter," Tor muttered. "His horses are pretty but not that pretty."

"I agree. Which is why I bought yours." He smiled up at her. "That bay mare is my favorite. I've started calling her Sassy. She's sweet but boy does she have an attitude."

Tor smiled in return. She loved hearing about her horses thriving with their new owners. "Good. I'm glad you're enjoying her." She glanced outside. It was getting dark. "I need to go check on my horses and men. Take the ledgers. I have another set that hold all my horses. I do want them back, though."

Bret nodded. "I'll get them to the paper-pushers and they'll have them copied before you can blink." He smiled. "They're quick with their pencils."

Tor chuckled. "I guess if they have no other life than scribing they would be quick." She wiped her mouth and stood. "I actually had a pleasant time."

"You sound surprised." Bret stood with her. "I can be good company, you know."

"That's hard to see when all you do is tease and make lewd jokes," she said dryly. 

Bret grinned. "I am who I am. But you seem to hold your own against me just fine," he pointed out.

"Yeah, I've had lots of practice." She scooped Eric up and set him on her shoulder. "Goodnight, Bret. Don't forget to return those to me or my solicitor, Mr. McCormick."

"McCormick? He's a good one," Bret said.

"I agree. He's the best thing I've ever inherited." She smirked, waved and walked out.

Bret shook his head and waved back. "Some kind of woman," he muttered. He took the ledgers and headed off to his mare. He needed to get these over to the paper-pushers right away.

The next morning, Tor paid a visit to McCormick just as instructed. She collected her deeds of ownership and felt quite satisfied with it all. "Larson, you take my horses out to my new lands." She handed him the copy of the will that Mr. McCormick had had commissioned overnight. It had cost a shiny coin, but it had sure been worth it. Now she had a full copy, her solicitor did and Larson did for the lands he would claim in her stead. "I'm not risking Jason getting his grubby hands on them again."

He arched a brow. "And just where do you think you're going?"

"To show Jason I'm no longer under his thumb."

"Tor," Larson said.

"What? I'm going to show him how stupid he is. I'm free of him now." She crossed her arms over her chest.

Larson groaned. "Yes, you are. So don't go stirring up a hornet's nest!" 

"I want to get Mick out of there, as well," she told him. "He doesn't deserve to live under Jason's thumb for the rest of his stupid life."

Larson scrubbed his face. "Girl, you are going to be the death of me. Or yourself. And yourself. Don't do this. If that boy wanted to be free, he would have left long ago. There are other ways out from under Jason."

Tor swung into the saddle. "I'm going, Larson. I'll meet up with you in the Cradle." She leaned down and clasped his forearm in hers. "I'm trusting you."

Larson gave her a look. "Girlie, I ought to pull you off that horse and take you with us."

"But you won't, will you, Uncle Larson?" She purposefully used the old nickname she had for him.

Larson's eyes narrowed. "Don't you go calling me uncle. You never got away with anything when you did."

"I got away with a lot." She kissed his cheek and pulled back. "I promise I won't linger. I'll take care of business and head out. I may even get there before you."

Larson snorted. "Right. And I'm a human's uncle."

"You never know. I've heard stories of half-breeds," Tor said. "And with all the philandering you do..."

"Bah! Old women's gossip. Nothing more." He looked steadily up at her. "You get back quick, ya hear?"

"I hear." Tor gathered Idiot's reins and turned him back down the road. This time, she rode into the setting sun rather than keep it at her back. It was bright and fiery and beautiful. Tor imagined it burning away the years she had spent under Jason; setting on her past. Morning would dawn anew with her a free woman.

Eric was ensconced in his spot in the saddle. It was warmed by Tor's and Idiot's body heat and allowed him to sleep without fear of falling. It was a mostly comfortable place, made more so by the padding of his bag and sleeping blankets.

Tor rode into her brother's camp, shortening Idiot's reins so he pranced and snorted in frustration. She was making an entrance. Mick, from his place by the morning fire, looked up, surprised to see his sister. 

"Where've you been?" he hissed. "Jason saw you move your whole herd off and he's pissed! You know you're not supposed to leave the skyline. You know that."

Tor smiled. "I don't give a fuck anymore. I'm free."

"You're what?" he asked. 

"I'm free," Tor repeated. "I went and saw a solicitor. Pap's solicitor. One of the ones who penned his will. Turns out, I was somehow given only one of the pages. Not all three. And in those missing two pages, it details how a person can get out of Jason's control." She laughed. "I was free eight years ago. So, I'm leaving. I came to tell Jason and get you and we can go."

Mick hesitated. Leave? He hated breeding and raising and selling horses but this was all he knew. Jason had never treated him poorly. He had always been decent, even if it wasn't the best of lives. He was saved from answering. Jason came charging in on his favored mare.

"Tor!" the big man bellowed. "Where did you take your horses?! You know you're not supposed to leave."

Tor threw her head back and laughed. Eric clung to her shirt. "I'm free of you, you dumb mother-fucker! I was free eight years ago but today it's official." She held out the will and deeds of ownership. "See these? Mr. McCormick drew them up for me. After showing me the will. The full will." She smiled. "Jason Keller, go fuck yourself. I never have to deal with you again. I never have to pay you a single coin from my sales ever again."

Jason's face was purple with rage. "Papers don't mean a damned thing way out here," he growled. "Out here is just my word and my word alone." He yanked his mare around, hauling on her mouth as he did so. He kicked her and rode hard out of camp. Brad and Thomas traded glances. They swung up onto their own horses and quickly followed after their older brother.

"You can stay in my wagon as long as you're here," Mick said.

"Just pack up and come with me," Tor huffed. "You don't have to stay here. You can be free."

"It's not so bad, really." Mick poked at an ember in the fire. "Jason is good to me."

Tor gave him a horrified look. "Mick..." She cleared her throat. "I can't believe you're saying that. Come with me. Let's leave. We're all we have in this gods-forsaken world."

Eric looked up at Tor, more than a little hurt she had left him out of the equation so easily.

"Let me think on it," Mick muttered. "Just... just give me some time to think."

Tor sighed. She was hungry and tired and the bed in his wagon sounded awful good at this point. "Fine. I'll drop Idiot in a corral while I get some sleep. Make me a plate of food, would you?"

Mick nodded. "I'll fix you something. I know what you like."

Less than an hour later, Tor was asleep in her baby brother's bed, Eric curled against her neck. Moments like earlier where she had claimed that Mick was all she had in the world increased the anxiety that his position in her life was slipping, eroding. Soon, he thought, he wouldn't matter at all. Then what would she do with him?

Chapter End Notes:

Apologies for the late update. I'm a terrible procrastinator. That, combined with not feeling well for two days, kept me from getting fully prepped for this Christmas Party tomorrow. So I'm scurrying around, an hour past my bedtime, and still not finished cleaning. I still have to make the bed, clean the bathrooms, pull the sheets from the couch and put them away... So much to do and so little time. My kids have their winter reading benchmark test in the morning and I'm going to be half asleep through it all, letting the other teacher handle all whining. XD But my house will look on point for the party! 

All that to say, I got busy cleaning and forgot to post the update. 


You must login (register) to review.