Chapter 15: No longer strangers, not quite friends
The street in front of The Silver Oak had grown quiet. The shops had closed and people had either retired to their homes or had filled the taverns and alehouses, but even those were less noisy than usual. Ever since the army camp outside the city gates had grown, the place had lost its usual liveliness. It had a heavy aura, as if something unpleasant were expected to happen at any moment. The evenings were dull.
From the open window of their room, Kiran watched the hurried step of the passers-by, their hunched shoulders, their tired looks, whenever they raised their eyes. The closer to Fiodhin they rode, they had noticed in the previous days, the more serious the faces of people were. The city was different from what he remembered. Last time they had visited it was noisy and effervescent, much like Ardaena. Now it was almost spiritless. During the past days the weather had improved, but in the wake of those rains the temperature remained low. A cool breeze was blowing over the city and Kiran hugged himself, closing his eyes.
The Silver Oak was a modest inn, but clean and fairly affordable. One of Val’s old friends, the same person they had helped on their last visit, and whom they had gone straight to after parting ways with Bran and his men the day before, had recommended it. He would have given them his guest room, had he had a place to accommodate their horses, but since he had not, he had spoken with the innkeeper—some relative of his—on their behalf, and the man had rented them a small room in the attic, built for family guests. It was really small, but they were not sharing, and it solved the lodging problem for a while. Nevertheless, it was a temporary arrangement, until they would decide whether to stay in Fiodhin for the winter—in which case they should rent something by the month—or go somewhere else, and if so, where. Either required money.
They were not short of coin, in fact they had more than when they left home. Before reaching the city Bran had insisted that they had the right to claim a share in the booty, asking them to choose two of the five spare horses and splitting whatever was left of the money and goods acquired from Arne’s men. They had sold those horses that morning for a pretty sum. Now they had enough to afford a winter of comfort and leisure, but since the future was nebulous, the bulk of it was put aside for contingencies. And since renting and living expenses had a nasty habit of digging holes in one’s purse, they had to think of ways to fill it. Fortunately that same friend had proposed them to help him in his shop—and what else could a man Val knew be, other than an apothecary? A bookshop keeper, Kiran had laughed to himself—and they were considering accepting. They also intended to take a few trips to the neighbouring woods and gather some roots and other ingredients which were in season. Both would replenish their coin.
The old boards on the floor were creaking under their steps and the roof was low, sloping outwards. At that end the only place where they could stand without hitting their heads on the rafters was the gabled dormer, opposite the entrance. There was a bed on either side of the door and very little space to move about, but the room was clean and snug. On a stool by one of the beds was an oil lamp with three spouts. All wickers were lit. Another one was burning on the window sill, its flames flickering in the current coming through the open sash. The oil inside had a faint minty scent, which made the smell of the burning lamps less heavy. It pays to be friends with a chemist, thought Kiran, closing the window. Val was lying in bed, reading. The apothecary had lent him a couple of books, because he remembered Val’s obsession with reading and he trusted him to return them. Seeing that contented expression on his father’s face made him smile and, for a while, he stood there, watching him.
“Is something the matter?” asked Val, without raising his eyes from the book.
“You seem pleased. It makes me feel at ease.”
“Because otherwise you would feel…?”
Kiran took off the boots and sat on the other bed, crossing the legs and leaning his back against the wall. “Restless?”
Val lowered the book. “Any particular reason for that? Apart from the army outside the city gates.”
“…Various, I suppose.”
Now Val closed the book entirely, turning his full attention to his son. As he sat there, cross legged and with his hands quietly resting in his lap—in the fashion of Eina, when they gathered in the main room, and with the same effortless grace—he looked so similar to Arryn that Val could not help feeling a little nostalgic. Kiran had undone his hair and it was falling in loose waves on his chest, about a hand below the collarbone, emphasising the ambiguous quality of a yanee’s appearance. The orange light of the oil lamps was bringing out the reddish tones in it. Only his air was different: Arryn’s was always peaceful and gentle—indeed, all Eina seemed at peace with the goods and bads of life—but lately his was often troubled.
“I always took pleasure in our journeys, but this one makes me uneasy,” said Kiran, prompted by his father’s attention.
“Because it is a necessity, rather than a choice. Well, in a sense, they all were, since we must earn a living.”
“Only this time we don’t know when, or even if we will be able to go back. And we barely started.”
“When. I would rather think of it as a matter of when. But I understand your fear. This might be the most dangerous of our trips.”
“It’s not fear for my life, Val. I feel displaced again… I fear for you and I fear ending up without a family and a home.”
Val understood perfectly. Circumstances had forced Kiran to leave his home and loved ones as a child and, worst of all, they had no idea what had happened with his tribe afterwards. There was no way to communicate with them without exposing themselves. Now he had been forced to leave his second home and his friends. Val hoped it was a temporary situation, but who could really say what the future held? The Fates? That belief was not for him.
Regardless, he had made a promise, long ago, and he intended to keep it. It had become his purpose.
“I will do everything in my power to protect you,” he said in that low, gentle tone he used whenever the shadows in Kiran’s countenance were too dark. “That I can promise.”
“Promise me you will stay alive.” Kiran’s voice dropped almost to whisper, “That you will not leave me.” It was a childish request, he knew it, but the image of Val’s lifeless body still haunted his dreams. He had not told his father about it, yet.
Val shifted, adjusting his pillow so he could face his son better. “My boy, I will not leave your side willingly for as long as I breathe. And your parents—”
“I know. We must keep him safe at any cost.”
“Yes… But, think about it, the Vhareei helped you save my life back there, in the glade. You said he did so because he felt your wish to live, your safety depends much on mine. That means he will protect both of us, as long as we do our best to protect him. It makes me feel quite confident in our chances.”
Kiran felt a little foolish for allowing those thoughts to overcome him and grateful for his father’s words, for he knew they were not empty. That confidence was coming from the heart. He straightened his shoulders.
“You are right, I don’t know why I suddenly felt so dispirited. King Arne doesn’t know where we are and Fiodhin is heavily guarded. We are safe, the three of us.”
“Precisely. It goes without saying that we must be cautious, but fear weakens both mind and heart. That we should absolutely avoid.” His son only nodded. For a few moments none of them spoke, then Val asked, “What other reason?”
“…I think that sums up all of them.”
“The fear of being alone?”
“Of losing all which I hold dear.”
Val scratched idly his now shaven cheek. “Could it be you miss our recent companions?”
The question made Kiran’s heart flutter like a startled bird and he lowered his face, hiding in the shadow of the heavy tresses. He would not have admitted that, had his father not said it. Perhaps not even to himself. He had always thought additional company on the road was more a nuisance than an enjoyment, but those men had accepted them with all their eccentricities and secrets. They had grown to trust each other. It was a pleasant feeling.
He straightened, running a hand through the hair. A smile seemed to hang at the corners of his eyes, though it had not reached the lips yet. Possibly because it was guilty and he was trying to hold it back.
“Would you criticize me if that were true?”
“No, that is your talent. But I would wonder what you have done with my stubborn son.”
Kiran’s expression softened and the smile finally bloomed. “They are good men. Bredan always says so… I hope Ceri will get well.”
“He will, and sooner than one would normally do. I suspect the pain relief was just one of the consequences of Vhareei’s power. The king is growing stronger.”
“You think he will heal faster?”
“I certainly hope so. Besides, he can finally take a break and rest.”
“And they have good doctors.”
“They do… In any case, I told Bran where to ask about us, should they need our assistance with his friend. I have a feeling we will meet again.” He turned on his back and opened the book, paused, then leaned over the edge of the bed and handed his son the other book. “It will keep your mind busy.” He shrugged. “Or put you to sleep.”
It was a book about chemistry, a subject that interested both of them, but by no means a bedtime read. I won’t have much trouble falling asleep, thought Kiran, bringing the lamp from the window sill and placing it on the floor, near his bed. Then he snuggled under the blanket and opened the book.
“Val? Have I ever told you how happy I am Danaa found you that day?”
Val smiled, without interrupting from his reading. “Have I?”
The day after coming out of Daweldwig—that was the name of the forest, the farmer, who had been chattier in the morning, had told them—was the most pleasant since they left Keln. They were better rested, despite keeping watch, almost dry and, best of all, they had learned from their host they were three days away from Fiodhin. It would not feel as if they rode blindly anymore. In that landscape, especially through the forest, their map had been useless, but the farmer had given them good directions to reach Rufburn, a village on the Eastern Road, only a day away from Fiodhin. Master Combs from Keln had been right, they had taken a shortcut, albeit not the most pleasant one.
Before breakfast Kiran had undone Ceri’s dressing, discarding the withered leaves, and had wiped his skin again with warm water. The swelling was receding and the soreness was far less severe. The mere touch of his hands was softening it. Ceri had managed to sleep more than he had hoped, despite waking up a few times because he wanted to turn and could not. His comrades had helped him. Val had made him drink another mug of tea, but he had refused the pain powders, feeling confident in his strength to put up with another day after Kiran’s exceptional work. ‘Hold those for later, please,’ he had told the doctor. Bert’s arm, too, was less sore and the slash was scabbing. After the previous evening, Val had left the nursing in his son’s hands. All in all, everyone was feeling better and hopeful. The farmer had given them warm milk and cheese pies for breakfast, and fresh bread and smoked cheese for the road, feeling they had paid him too much for his help.
They did not ride much faster, because the road was muddy, however they were in the open and the weather was slowly improving. It was still cold, but the clouds were thinning and the rain had turned into sporadic showers. The road followed the gentle curves of the land through pastures and villages scattered in the valleys, crossing streams and meeting other roads. They saw cattle and sheep grazing and even met people working in their small fields of corn, at the edges of their villages. Around noon they saw the sun for the first time in four days, although the sky remained mostly cloudy. But even a glimpse of it had been enough to cheer them up.
There was no more tension between them, now that they had revealed their secrets, no more side-looks and awkward pauses, no more hostile questions and evasive answers. To say they were friends would have been an overstatement, but they were not mere acquaintances either, and certainly not strangers.
Bran was still serious, because that was his manner, but Kiran noticed he was not watching him with suspicion anymore, instead acting in the same way he had seen him among his men in the first days. Of course, he kept being sarcastic every once in a while. Bredan’s easy demeanour had lost that equivocal edge. Bert was Bert, he had always been amiable, and Ceri had reverted to his dispassionate self, but even he was chattier than he used to. After standing naked before them—for that was what it had felt like to expose his descent and his secret—Kiran had lowered his guard, tired to worry about the meaning of every word or look. He had nothing to hide anymore, except, of course, his yanee body, but that was none of their business. Thankfully, whatever his companions’ thoughts about it, they kept them to themselves and avoided the subject. Even in Val’s manner they sensed a very subtle change, a warming up. There was a growing sense of trust and fellowship between them and, as a result, everyone had loosened up.
That day they lunched. They sat on the green banks of a stream, gorging on the bread and cheese the farmer had given them—and, boy, did that cheese taste sweeter than any they had eaten back home!—and even from their own provisions, as if they had rediscovered the pleasure of eating. They took their time, enjoying the food, the chirping of birds, the jingle of cowbells, the wonderful smell of wet pasture. The horses were too busy to wander off, for they had fresh grass all around them and made the best out of that break. Before leaving Ceri swallowed some medicine. It felt too good to ride in that peaceful landscape and breathe that air. The pain would have spoiled it.
The road led steadily north-east, according to the map. Shortly after sunset they reached the village in which they planned to spend the night. They looked less haggard than the previous evening, albeit the stubble was turning into a beard—which only made Kiran’s smooth cheek stand out more—and the shadows beneath the eyes had not faded. But that calmer state of mind had lent them a friendlier air and the people met them with less reserve.
They were offered a place to sleep inside one of the houses, even though it only meant a pillow and a blanket on the floor, however they preferred the hay in the barn, claiming they do not wish to intrude too much. The truth was they wanted their privacy. Nevertheless, they agreed to sup with their host, for the family was chatty and very curious to hear stories of their travels. Bran was not keen on telling the truth about them, but Val had an engaging manner and plenty of interesting tales. Kiran’s participation was more substantial than before, adding a delightful enthusiasm to his father’s stories, which quickly won over the farmer’s children—Why am I surprised that the brat appeals to children? thought Bran. With their tales, humorous remarks from Bredan and plenty of questions from everyone else, they spent a pleasant evening and left a very good impression on their host. At night Kiran nursed them again, using herbs which Val had picked during breaks.
The following day was very similar. After that mirthful dinner and a resting sleep, they were in a very good mood. The weather kept changing for the better—not as much warming as clearing up—and, because the sun was drying the land, the horses’ step was smoother. Pastures were making way to orchards and rolling fields of rye and corn, villages were larger, people and carts could be seen more often on the road. But even so the places felt different from those along the main roads, what with their slow rhythm and uncommon calm. Just as the heavy silence of Daweldwig had made them feel far away from the rest of the world and its worries, so did the peacefulness of those hills.
Then and there they were not soldiers, but six travellers, riding across the country in the comfortable company of each other.
“I wanted to say this before, Doctor,” said Bredan, when they took a lunch break, “you have a great way with people. I rarely came across men like you.”
“Thank you! Coming from you, it is a great compliment.”
“There is no need to pretend. I may not know your story, but I can tell your talent is… persuasion. You read people like books.”
“Ha-ha-ha! Such an elegant way to put it. I am flattered.” Bredan was genuinely amused. “This talent runs in my family. It’s a convenient gift.”
“As long as you don’t abuse it,” said Bran.
Who, me? his friend rose his brows, while biting on the softened crust of a pie. The others snickered.
“In any case,” said Val, “when you meet so many people, you inevitably learn.”
“Well, you certainly know how to flourish your tales.” Ceri reached for a piece of cheese, grunting, and Val handed it to him. “That story with the snake was quite something. I almost believed it.”
“Yet it is true, every bit of it,” said Kiran.
“It can’t be, you made that up.”
Kiran shook his head.
“How could you eat a snake?” asked Bert. “What if it killed you?”
Val smiled. “Even if the snake is venomous, the poison is not in the flesh. It is safe to eat, as long as you get rid of the head.” He munched the last bite of his pie. “Mm, that was not bad.”
“You skin it, I presume,” said Bran.
“Of course. Skin it, remove the tale tip and the insides. Same as with any game.”
“Ugh! That sounds disgusting.” Ceri took a mouthful of water and almost spit it out, but he reconsidered and swallowed.
“Pigs are more disgusting, actually, but you still like pork chops and ham.” The remark turned all eyes to Bredan. “Have you ever seen one slaughtered? Ugh!”
“But you eat pork,” said Bert.
“Exactly. So, what does snake taste like?”
Val thought for a moment. “Hmm… similar to chicken, I should say. Not very flavoured.”
“And it has a lot more bones,” added his son, wiping his fingers on a handkerchief.
Ceri grimaced. “I would still not eat one.”
“That is your fear speaking,” said Val, “but I think their reputation is far worse than they deserve.”
“The farmer’s children found the story quite exciting,” said Kiran.
“Good for them.”
“They told me they caught a small one in their garden. A harmless species, obviously.”
“I heard that,” said Bert. “Children are surprisingly fearless, I noticed at my little nephews.” He smiled at the young Eina. “I think they liked you very much.”
“Like attracts like.” Bran took a few gulps of water and wiped his mouth. “Time to go.” There was no particular expression on his face.
His friend bit his lip.
Kiran stood up and stretched. “Children’s instincts are remarkably similar to those of animals. They can tell the kinder people.”
“Pfff!” burst Bredan.
Bert helped Ceri stand, both pretending to ignore the comments.
Val rubbed his stomach with satisfaction. “I feel much better.”
The land was flattening and they picked up the pace without even thinking. Not just because they hoped to meet the Eastern Road that evening, but they were eager to return among people and reach their destination. The last four days had seemed so unnaturally long—rather like weeks—that Bran had often wondered if they were late. Had he not kept count of the dawns, he would have been convinced their company was already in Fiodhin. Even Val and Kiran, despite their love for woods and long travels, wanted to reach the city. One of the privileges of travelling by themselves was that they could stop anywhere, if they felt like it, and adjust their pace as they saw fit. Accepting to ride with these men had meant relinquishing that privilege. But then, this was not one of their usual trips.
Rufburn was a larger village than Ulmaby. Large enough, in fact, that some of its most prominent people, such as the self-important owner of the Inn of the Sore Feet, affectionately called it their little town. It spread along the Eastern Road. The road coming from Ulmaby met this one another two days’ ride south from Rufburn, in Damerling—their company should come that way. The one they rode on met it in front of the Sore Feet.
They arrived at twilight. The inn’s shutters were open and they saw that most tables were occupied, but the customers were not noisy. In the last few hours they had noticed a subtle change in people’s air: their calm was not so much peacefulness as it was composure.
It was Bran and Bredan’s turn to make arrangements. At their entry the inn’s guests lowered their voices, their curious gazes following them from under lowered brows, from the door all the way to the bar, or in the form of furtive side-looks. If nothing else, Bran was too tall. Moreover, their bearing was military, even though their clothes were not. Enough soldiers had ridden on the Eastern Road in the last weeks that people could tell it. The innkeeper, a stout man about Val’s age, with a plump face and cheeks too red, was busy behind the bar. He stopped and received them with a courteous, well-rehearsed smile.
“Good evening, my lords, and welcome to my humble place! You seem to have travelled all day. Perhaps a warm supper and a nice bed would please you?” His manner was as polite as his smile, but there was no humbleness, either in his moves or his voice, or in the shrewd gaze of those small, hooded eyes.
“Good evening, sir,” said Bredan, smiling broadly. He did not need much to sniff a man and he had missed playing his games. “Indeed that would. Might I add, what a pleasant surprise to be received by a thoughtful and obliging gentleman such as yourself.”
“My lord, you are too kind,” said the innkeeper with affected modesty. “It is my duty to pay attention to my patron’s needs. Cale Mullen, at your service.” He made a bow with a hand on his heart. “My lord…?”
“My lord Fionn, a pleasure to meet you. Um, supper and bed for two, then?” Business first.
“Six,” said Bran.
Master Mullen’s eyes sparkled. “Six, then. Very well, my lords, thank you,” he said, clasping his hands. “I think I may have enough room for six more horses.”
Bran’s stern corrections were disconcerting the innkeeper.
The small eyes of Master Mullen became even smaller. “Eleven horses is no small matter… I know it is not my business to say this—and please forgive me for doing so—but,” he leaned closer to them, lowering his voice, “you do not look like merchants to me… Are you?”
“And what do we look like?” asked Bredan.
The innkeeper measured them with squinty eyes, stroking his carefully trimmed beard. “Hired soldiers?” he mumbled through his teeth, throwing a quick glance towards the tables. His other customers had resumed their talking, but he knew some were trying to catch their words. People were terribly nosy.
Bredan was not showing it, but he was beginning to enjoy the conversation. “What makes you think that?”
“Well…” trailed off the other, looking upwards at Bran, who was almost two heads above him and very serious.
“I have to say, Master Mullen, you have a sharp eye.”—The man smiled, half pleased and half uncertain whether he should, in fact, be pleased—“I wonder if we can trust you to keep a secret.”
“Certainly, my lord.” The innkeeper eagerly bent over the counter. One look at Bran, though, made him back away just as quickly.
“Ah, but this is a matter of such delicacy and… well, you have many guests… Perhaps we should not ask this much of you. We do not wish to bring you trouble.”
“We should go,” said Bran, turning to leave.
“Just a moment, my lord, if you please. It is not a… dangerous matter, is it?”
Bredan’s expression darkened. “Well, if someone were to gossip about it…” He paused for a greater effect. “I’m not saying you would, of course, but—” He glanced towards the other tables, “People are indiscreet. Tell them it’s a secret and you can trust them to impart it to the whole world.”
The innkeeper’s cheeks flushed brighter than their usual redness. “Discretion is a requisite for good business, is what I believe. Especially in my position,” he added, puffing out his chest a little.
“Absolutely. Well, then…” Bredan measured the man for a long moment, then leaned, waving him closer. “We are Royal Guards, under the direct command of His Royal Highness, Prince Feolan Tighal.”—Master Mullen’s eyes flared for a brief moment—“And, as I’m sure you already guessed, we are on a covert mission. I cannot divulge the particulars, you understand, but—” He bent forward and whispered something in the man’s ear. “As you can see, absolute discretion is imperative.”
“Certainly, but… well… I do not wish to be disrespectful, but do you have any proof?”
Bran stiffened and his scowl made the man draw back again. Bredan was offended.
“Forgive my incredulity, my lords, but I have seen all sorts of people,” Mullen hurried to add. “Anyone can pretend to be something he is not. My reputation is at stake.”
“I understand and I cannot blame you, sir,” said Bredan, softening. “Captain, do you think we could show Master Mullen our proof?”
Bran shot his friend a disapproving look. He thought the innkeeper was insincere, that his deference was hiding an arrogant, greedy character. Were it for him, he would have put the man in his place right from the beginning. Bredan’s games were too meandering and wordy for his taste, however, they were also more effective. Although sometimes his friend enjoyed himself a little too much. He reluctantly took out the prince’s letter, holding it in such a way as to reveal only the royal sigil and the signature. He folded it back when the innkeeper reached to touch the paper.
“Well, I must say! But that does look genuine.” Mullen’s face brightened. “I am most honoured to help His Highness’s trusted men.” Then he added, speaking in his usual voice, “It just so happens that I have a free room which I can put at your disposal. Unfortunately it only has four beds.”
“That shall suffice,” said Bran. “Thank you.”
“It is a superior room, I might add. The finest beds you will find in Rufburn. And I’m sure we can find room for all your horses. You need not worry about them, they will be very well attended to.”
“That is very gracious of you,” said Bredan in a silky voice. Then, lower, “Helping us is the same as helping the Prince himself. I shall personally let him know about your contribution to our delicate affair.”
“You are too kind, my lord, but—”
“We shall pay for your services, of course, just like anyone else.”
“His Highness appreciates honesty and solicitude. He is as generous with those who serve him well, as he is unforgiving with those who try to deceive him.”
Master Mullen wanted to protest, but reconsidered. “Of course,” he said, forcing a smile. It looked as if he had a tooth-ache. “It is my pleasure.”
Before eating they wished to see the room. It was modest, but clean, and indeed had beds slightly better than the ones in the Garrison. Arranged side by side, with no gaps between them, four beds were quite enough for six people. Most important, the room was all theirs and Master Mullen left them the key.
Bert slumped on the mattress. The cloth covering it smelled of cheap soap and fresh air, almost successfully disguising the mustiness of the old wool stuffing. “I nearly forgot what it’s like to sleep on a bed.”
“And I have not been so diverted in a while.” Bredan followed Bert’s example with a satisfied grin. “People are truly fascinating.”
“You just like to play with them.” Bran listened at the door for a moment. “Try to keep your voices down.”
“That innkeeper is too nosy,” said Ceri.
“They tend to be,” said Val. “Travellers means news.”
“But can we trust him?” wondered Bert. “It was probably wise to scare him a little.”
Bran went to sit on the edge of a bed. “Was it necessary, though?”
“Oh, please,” scoffed Bredan. “He would have ripped us off otherwise.”
“Because you mentioned His Highness.”
“His own suspicions were much worse.”
“I know. I still don’t approve of using the letter like that.”
“Was it not High-Captain Pryce who said to use it, if necessary?”
“I don’t like that man,” Bran said flatly. “We should be careful.”
“Hmm…” Bredan stared at the oiled timber on the ceiling. The orange light of the lamps was bringing out every crack and stain on it. “He is self-important, artificial, greedy, but not malicious.”
“As expected from a successful man in his business. But his pride exceeds his intelligence. I find his pompous manner delightful.”
“Tsk! That’s why I let you do the talking.”
“That is all well and good, but could you explain again why I must play some mysterious character?” Kiran moved away from the window and pushed back his hood. “I thought your mission required discretion.”
“Because he has a penchant for drama,” answered Bran.
“Because a little mystery makes our story more convincing,” corrected him Bredan. “Master Mullen is very intrigued, but he is also cautious. I daresay he will not venture to ask more questions or gossip with the other lodgers. He will be solicitous to his unusual guests, though. Even if lodging the prince’s men will not bring him more profit, partaking in their secret will make him feel important.”
“But why me?”
Bredan rose on one elbow. “Are you not the most mysterious of us?”
Indeed, when Kiran had walked into the main room, with the hood pulled over his face all the way to the tip of the nose, people had fallen silent again. His air and elegant deportment had caused a bit of a sensation, but the general reaction had been more favourable than that which had greeted the captain and his second upon their first stepping inside the Sore Feet. Bredan’s idea had had a surprising effect.
“Wonderful,” said Kiran. “Now I must eat with a hood over my face.”
The innkeeper’s behaviour confirmed Bredan’s words. He was attentive during dinner and in the morning, and very discreet. The horses were well attended to. And when they paid, he was fair in his claims for his services and assured them their secret will be safe with him. Perhaps he looked a little disappointed, but not resentful. Bredan praised him and his establishment, promising to recommend the inn and to put a good word for him with His Highness. That seemed to console Master Mullen, or at least his pride.
There was a familiar rap on the door. The signal. A tall, slender man went behind the door, silent as a cat, his hand hovering above the knife strapped to his belt.
The door opened and a short man slipped into the room, closing it behind him. He looked haggard and his clothes were dirty, his boots caked with mud. The one behind the door relaxed.
“News, sir,” said the short one in a raspy, huffed voice.
At the table near the window were three men, all of whom turned at the same time towards the newcomer. Two of them were standing, the third was seated. There was a map spread on the table, a large pitcher and two mugs. A pair of pigeons, each in a distinct colour, stirred and cooed in a birdcage on the window sill.
The seated person, a man who could have been past the middle of his life, with likeable, yet unreadable features and clever eyes, motioned towards the pitcher.
“Sit down and have some water first. You look awful.”
One of the other two, a fellow with a round face and fleshy lips, and a small scar at the right corner of his mouth, which made him look as if he were constantly smirking, poured from the pitcher into one of the mugs and handed it to his comrade. “You look like shite even by our standards, Ott. Is your mount still alive or did you have to walk here?”
The short man named Ott gulped down the water in one breath. “Thank you, sir.” He threw his comrade a miffed side-look, dropping on one of the beds without regard for the clean covers. “Hired horses to get here as fast as I could. The damn rain made the road a nightmare. Waters are swollen.”
The older man let him catch his breath before asking, “What news, Ott?”
Ott’s posture straightened. “We found him, sir. We met him in Keln, five days ago.”
The clever eyes dilated briefly. “How certain are you that it was him?”
“As certain as we can be with what we know. We could not speak with him, but he fits best. Has the right age, is a doctor and his name is Valan, we heard someone calling him.”
“And the woman?”
Ott’s shoulders stooped slightly. “There was no woman, sir—”
“No woman…” echoed his commander.
“—But he had company, five men, and we could tell they were young soldiers, all but one. That one was his son.”
“I thought he had no family.” The commander turned to the other men, who shook their heads. “Torben?”
“No sir,” said the third man at the table, whose voice sounded too soft for him. “No wife or children at the time. But that was fifteen years ago.”
“You said a man, Ott. Not a child, say, one of fifteen or less?”
“That one was no child, sir. Never seen a child so tall.”
“Sir,” said Torben, struck by a thought, “the beggar we spoke to in Ardaena last year said the same thing. When he told us about the… fiend, as he put it, he kept saying him.”
“And I hear about it now because…?”
“When we asked about it, he seemed confused about the gender. He said he was not himself that evening, that the person could have been just as well a woman.”
The man with the constant smirk snorted. “What sort of idiot would confuse the two?”
“We… assumed he was intoxicated. What with the dark streets and everything happening so fast, he couldn’t tell the difference. At least that’s what he said, but I think he didn’t really care.” The commander’s stare, unreadable though it were, made Torben regret his decision. Would their searches have ended sooner had he mentioned that detail? He doubted that. “But he did say the person was tall and long haired.”
The commander turned to Ott. “Did the doctor say that was his son?”
“The man they were speaking with did. And they confirmed. Sir, we couldn’t see him all that well, what with his hooded cloak and the rain and everything, but there was something about the son… I cannot put my finger on it, but even Fris and Ulfer thought he had a different air. There was something of the forest people in him.”
“Did you hear his name?”
Ott’s tired mind tried to recall the conversation he had heard five days back. “Um, I think it was… Kiran? Yes.”
The commander’s lips twitched and one corner rose. Only a little, as if he understood something the others did not. “Where are they?”
“They were heading to Fiodhin, but they took a different road. Our men are following them.” Ott stood with a soft grunt and came to the table to look at the map. He found Keln and then the road his comrades had taken the morning he had set off to Damerling, to bring the news to their commander. “This one. They must ride through the forest, Fris wants to make his move there.”
The man at the door came to look at the map as well. “That road leads to Rufburn,” he said. “They could be there by now.”
“Or not,” said Torben. “These are hills, the rain could have been worse there. Ott just said the waters are swollen.”
“Fiodhin,” said the commander, ignoring their talk. “Clever.”
Ott did not understand. “Sir?”
“A bird came in this morning. The message says the man named Valan was heading to Vessar.”
Torben puckered his lips and nodded. “He was expecting us.”
“Someone must have warned him. Them. So they left false directions.”
“Trying to throw us off their scent,” said the one with the smirk. His full lips stretched in a smug smile. “They thought they could outwit us.”
“In fact they did, Dagr,” the commander replied bluntly. “For eleven years. And even now they know we are looking for them, which means we made a mistake. Meeting them in Keln was a stroke of luck.”
“They are very confident to come so close to us,” said Torben. “I would not have expected this.”
The commander agreed with a slow nod.
“About time we had some luck,” huffed Ott. He closed his eyes, pressing them with his fingers.
“You should eat something and rest, Ott, you do look terrible. Dagr, go downstairs with him. And ask them to send some washing water here. We’ll set off to Rufburn before dawn.”
“Yes, sir,” replied Dagr. He opened the door and pushed Ott outside, “Off you go,” following him. “The pork chops are good—” His voice was cut off by the closing of the door.
“Erig, tell the innkeeper we shall leave tomorrow. No breakfast, but some travel food would be good.”
“Yes, sir,” said the tall, slender man.
The commander then turned his attention to the map in front of him, but the sound of boots pausing in front of the door made him raise his head. “Yes?”
“Sir,” Erig began hesitantly, “I know it’s none of our business, but…”
“If you know, you should not ask.”
The man bit his lip, turned, paused again, then reached to open the door.
“Go ahead,” said his commander, stopping his hand.
Erig turned and approached. “Sir, why is His Majesty so bent on finding this Eina? Eleven years is a long time to look for someone. It’s almost like an obsession.”
“It is an obsession,” said Torben. He had been on this hunt longer than others.
“Is she really that worthwhile? Or is she a danger to him?”
“Danger?” The older man leaned back in the chair. “You could say she is dangerous.”
“How dangerous can she be? She is running from us. Why don’t we just get rid of her?” The commander’s flat expression did not change, but the disapproving gaze made Erig bite his tongue.
“Because the King said we are not to harm a hair on her head and we do not question his orders, Erig,” replied his superior. “Or his reasons. Gods forbid that we ever break them!”
Fearless as they were, that reminder made the two man quiver. “Yes, sir.”
“I’ll tell you this, though—and only because the news did wonders for my mood—that Eina is or has something that is both valuable and dangerous. His Majesty’s obsession is proof of that value, but we don’t know how dangerous she—or he, apparently—is. Eina are strange enough as they are. We must be very careful.”
Erig nodded. “Forgive me, sir. I’ll make the arrangements for tomorrow.”
“See that you do,” said the commander, returning to the map.
“Sir,” said Torben, after his comrade left, “how can we be sure we found the right people?”
“We cannot, not until we talk to them. But this is our best clue so far.”
“And when we do?”
“Leave that to me.” He traced the Eastern Road with his finger. “Two days from Damerling to Rufburn,” he muttered. “Too long, Fris and Ulfer could indeed be there by now. We should move fast.”
“What do we do if they are not in Rufburn? I mean, if they get there before us, how long can they afford to wait?”
“They cannot,” said his superior, his eyes still on the map. “But since Fiodhin is heavily guarded, they will return to Damerling. Either way we shall meet.”
“But what if…” Torben trailed off, changing his mind. That wretched soul from Ardaena had not seemed in his right mind. Fear can damage people to a great extent. He had often felt they were on a sleeveless errand.
The commander raised his eyes. “Our mission always comes first. If that man and his son somehow manage to slip through our men’s fingers, they will most likely continue to Fiodhin. The city is protected, it’s the best choice they have.”
“We’ll go after them.”
“They may know we are looking for them, but they have no idea how many we are. If Fris and Ulfer fail, we’ll catch them there.” He took out a small purse and handed it to Torben. “See what else we have to pay and help Erig. And tell Ott and Dagr to hurry up.”
“I’ll send a message to Fiodhin,” he said, pulling a slip of paper from under the map. “Even if those two reach the city, they will not be able to leave it without our knowledge. Not anymore… In fact, not without us.”