It was all too easy. The soldier boy—an aristocratic youth with soft brown ringlets and feigned swagger—leaned in a rough stone doorway with a red curtain, talking to a pretty, curvaceous blonde who had reddened her cheeks and lips with a prick of her own blood.

Stupid, she doesn't care for your prowess in battle, Tara thought, If there's any to speak of! She walked casually closer down the crowded street, shaking out her black braid into crimping waves that ran down to her hips. To track a mark in a neighborhood of whores, make like a whore, her Da had taught her, spit on his memory and grave! Most of the neighborhood women knew Tara well, had fed her at times and lost a coin or two doing it. They tolerated her for her youth, and for the good heart that could be dug out when the girl was full and content. Now they grinned and whispered behind their hands, even if they felt a pang of regret at watching a soldier fleeced.

" 'Scuze me, Sir," Tara murmured, brushing slightly against the soldier boy. She let him catch her eye for a moment, did a little sweep with her black lashes, and then went on her way, quickly stuffing his purse into the binding on her swelling breasts. The whores snickered, and went back to their work.

And then the worst thing happened. Tara had not gotten fifteen paces away when she heard an elegant youthful voice calling, "Hi! Miss, wait a moment!"

Tara continued on ignorantly, smiling at those she knew, like the old widow who sold potions to the whores that kept a child from sticking, and a veteran of the earliest Orc attacks who had stumps for legs and begged his bread in the street. What think the Steward about that? Tara wondered, deciding to share some of her catch with the man once she shook her mark. Approaching the mean market of the poor quarter, Tara darted between lean-to stalls the sad-looking curtains that partitioned them. A ribbon maker cursed and wailed at her but she was small and quick, having learned long ago that speed beat size many a time.

But she did not know that the boy she'd robbed was a passionate hunter and tracker, and when she emerged from the curtains, leaving the furious merchants behind, Tara crashed into him.

"Aha, there she is!" the boy laughed, grabbing Tara by the shoulders.

"Get off me or I'll gut you!" Tara hissed. "Go see the whores for all that!"

"And how will I pay them, little miss?"

"That's your own affair!" Tara said, stamping down on his foot and bolting when he dropped her in shock. The young soldier turned on his heel and chased after her.

This is not happening! Tara thought, running now into the near deserted streets of the better parts of Osgiliath, the neighborhoods of the well to do who had taken their families and business to their other homes in the Great City. Where there were low walls she hopped them, where there was an ally she bolted through it. She had no desire to spend the night in the docks, locked up like an animal and hungry besides. Finally Tara no longer heard pounding feet behind her. She leaned against the rough stone wall of an abandoned house, catching her breath. Feeling the rough ridges in her back, Tara turned around and climbed to the roof. Finally, with a view of the street, the river, and the wide plain to the northwest, she felt safe enough to sit down and count her money. She loosened the leather thong and turned the purse out in her hand, spilling both silver and bronze into her palm. Her heart jumped into her throat: if she was smart, there was enough to eat for weeks! Tara could almost taste the bread—and meat!—she would buy. There might even be enough for a good coat, even though the war was making such things dear. Tara lay back on the stone roof and let the morning sun shine on her face, her lips curved into a wide smile. And then she felt the cold blade of a sword at her throat.

"Got you!"

Tara's eyes shot open to the sight of the soldier boy lording it above her, pinning her to the ground with his flashing sword. Her breath rushed out of her and she lay paralyzed, marveling in horror that after years of ducking her lushy, lusty father, not to mention all the pimps of Osgiliath, she would finally be raped on a rooftop by a soldier of Gondor.

The boy frowned and withdrew his sword, sheathing it. "Hey now, don't cry, don't be afraid! I was only playing with you."

"Playing!" Tara spat, still shaking. She jumped to her feet to face him on something like equal ground. She realized then that his purse still lay fat and full at her feet. "Sneaking up on a girl and pinning her down at the point of a sword is a game to you?"

"What do you call stealing a fellow's purse from his very hip, then making him chase you all over the city?"

"Survival!" Tara snapped. As ashamed as she was, she was helpless against reaching down and snapping up the purse. "And now I call it tax, for scaring the life out of me."

The boy grinned, a pampered youth who'd never known want at all. "My name is Darian, and you're welcome to the purse, though I'd rather you asked me for it. The only thing I ask in return is that you share a bite to eat with me in the tavern."

"Go back to Mela, if you want a fuck. I'm no whore."

Darian's cheeks colored slightly at Tara's coarse tongue, and she snorted in contempt.

"Sure, you can do it. You just can't talk about it, right?"

"I'm just not used seeing such ugly words come from such a pretty mouth. And I don't want to talk to Mela anymore, I'd rather talk to you."

"Talk?" Tara asked, arching her thin black eyebrows. "I don't 'talk' either. Or anything else you want to call it."

"Are you always so mean?"

"Are you always so rude?" she demanded in return, self-consciously braiding her hair with furious fingers. "Go back to your post and get some sleep. Aren't you supposed to be protecting us?"

"I will protect you. My other name is Orc-Slayer. Won't you come walk by the river with me? I've got some wine and some dried apples. D'you like apples?"

"You just don't hear, do you? I'm not some simple poor creature to eat out of your hand! I stole your money fair and I don't need your handouts. And I don't fuck for food. And since there's no other possible reason you'd speak to me, you might as well just step aside. I've somewhere to be."

"Back in the stews picking pockets?"

"Fuck you," Tara hissed, her cheeks flaming, her stomach aching miserably for wine and dried apples. She marched around Darian imperiously. He leaped before her again, pouting and making sheep's eyes at her. "Leave me alone!"

Darian laughed and replied, "Look, I'm really sorry. The truth of it is, I'm bored to tears here. The other men have all seen battle, and they are stoic and grave and rather comical to me. My mother made me join the service—it's what's done in my family, you see—but so far nothing glorious has happened, other than our rations arriving on time. I just want to make some friends my own age."

"I thought your name was Orc-Slayer," Tara sniped.

"It will be. I promise."

Tara stared hard at him. "You really have no idea, do you? When they come, you'll wish you were still lying in Mama's lap. And they will come back, as long as that sky is black in the east, as long as—" Tara shook her head, shuddering. "The Enemy," she murmured, afraid to say anymore. Then her grey eyes flashed and she said, "That's what you should be thinking about. Not girls."

"Maybe I'd rather think about girls," Darian admitted quietly. "If these are to be my last days, I'd rather spend them with a pretty girl than a pack of gruff old soldiers."

Tara closed her eyes in frustration. Now she was to pity him? "At least that sounds like truth," she said.

"It is, since you drag it out of me. And I don't want to pay a whore, I'd rather just talk to you. So what do you say? Will you walk with me on the riverbank? Unless you'd rather spend your day getting chased through the streets by a bunch of angry merchants? That haberdasher looked fit to split your skull when you knocked his table over."

"He's harmless," Tara replied, pursing her lips a little.

"What's this? She smiles? The sun has returned!"

"It never went away, you dolt. But—" she pinched her eyes shut incredulously, hardly believing herself. "If you'd like to buy me a good hot meal, I suppose it'd be my duty to accept. You are an Orc-Slayer, after all. Or will be, soon enough. But keep your paws to yourself, you hear me?"

"I'd never sully a lady's honor," Darian said with the upmost sincerity.

"A lady would complain to the constable. I'll cut your sword into a butter knife."