“What a lying, conniving triple-crossing son of a…”
“I did mention something about Stygians and trust, Vorel,” Edric murmured, “but we know much more now than we did before he tried to get us arrested for conspiracy to kidnap. We are sure the lad Noct is our rescue target, and we know that the town watch now think we are kidnappers – so we need to be really clever about this.”
“I don’t think you should have promised him more silver, Edric, a knife to the kidney would be a more fitting payment.”
“I’m happy with my strategy, Morath, let’s just leave it at that.”
“Hey, we really need to catch up with Bardic and Verus,” Celo exclaimed, “There’s not that long before the half-holiday is over and the boys have to return to the house.”
“We’ll wait for them at the Inn, they should be back soon. I don’t think they’ll linger too long with their ‘girlfriends!'”
* * *
For Messalie and Twist life could be no sweeter: on the arm of a strapping man apiece, savoring the envy of not merely the other two trulls but the lower maids as well. Meanwhile their escorts Bardic and Verus scanned the crowd keenly. If, as they’d been warned, the Watch were trying to connect them to this supposed kidnap gang, they could be arrested on some flimsy excuse. Or, if the “watcher” Morath and Celo had noticed returned with friends, they could be attacked.
Then they felt, more than saw, a change in the demeanour of the two trulls. Where before the two had been as sisters, linked arm-in-arm, some strange unseen force had separated them: and where they had exchanged glad looks, now it were as over daggers drawn. Bardic followed their glances over to where a strapping, Cimmerian-looking fellow had become visible in the festival crowd.
“Ah, this must be the father,” he commented “and this is where we step… awayyyy!”
The two comrades hastened back to the Inn, where Edric briefed them. After brief debate Vorel and Edric, feeling the most marked of the six, gathered everyone’s gear and departed west out the Corn-Gate, while the other four sought the Kova lads down at the Wine-Gate. The agreed rendezvous was a stream, not far outside the charter-town’s lands, where a stand of withies grew.
“Crom’s guts!” Bardic rumbled as the four realised the wine-stall favored by Kova was empty.
“Like I was saying earlier,” Morath reminded them, “if I were a boy on a half-holiday, where would I go?”
Bardic slapped a couple of coins down on the counter, and asked. As the tapster hesitated, more coins followed, and he admitted he had heard some of the youngsters the previous night, daring each other to some mischief in the Council Hall.
The four walked swiftly down the streets into the crowded Council precinct, Bardic’s pantherlike stride taking him ahead. Only minutes remained before the half-holiday ended! Attempting to appear nonchalant, he paced into the Hall. Yes! Five boyish figures capered around a dais.
“You Boy!!” Bardic roared tactfully.
It was perhaps not the right tone to take. All five fled like rats surprised by a terrier. Rushing forward, Bardic seized two, while Verus Morath and Celo managed to stall two more. As each boy in their grasp stammered out his name as demanded, Bardic realised that the fifth boy, fast escaping the precinct through the crowd, must be Noct!
A hurly-burly rush along the winding street, packed with the well-to-do still enjoying the festival and the servile classes returning to work, ended as Noct – for it was indeed he – dashed to the gutter-channel beside House Kova and tried to swarm up it. Bardic sprinted past the two Kova halberdiers at the front approach and clambered into the filthy channel, collaring the boy and sliding back down encased in gutter-slime. Morath smoothed away the halberdiers’ intervention by explaining they were Watch-bound to turn in the lad for a crime. Then the four pulled the kicking, screaming bundle away to the wall-walk.
At length, as the lad’s volume increased and the uneasy stares of onlookers grew more fixed, Bardic slapped a bulging purse into the boy’s filthy hands. Veins throbbed in the Cimmerian’s forehead. “There’s 200 there! now are you going to agree to be a noble or aren’t you?!?” While Noct’s attention was fixed raptly on the purse, the four hastened to the gate.
“Ishtar’s tits! That stench!”
“Ohh… Pteor smite my nose!”
Thus variously the Watch reacted to Bardic and Noct’s presence, and the four gained egress with surprising ease. They turned out into the vineyards, and up the hill towards the west.
* * *
“Duck down a bit further, Edric. Now scrunch over left behind the rock. Now, don’t move.”
With Edric’s untutored body hidden as best he could manage, Vorel allowed himself to relax, boots washing in the stream behind him, and peered out from behind the withies. The patrol of four town horsemen had been joined by an outrider from the south-east. They all appeared to be waiting on the road, right at the boundary between town charter land and noble estate. Then he felt, as much as heard, hoofbeats approaching from the west. A full pennon of horse, perhaps ten riders, approached!
With patience bred of long hours on the hunt, Vorel watched the pennon canter lazily to the road, gaze up it, and eventually trot south-east around the town. Then Edric’s head popped up from behind his rock, and as he identified the pennon heraldry as being of Sapira, the town horsemen spotted him – and sent an outrider cantering to investigate!
* * *
As the four – and newly-appointed nobleyouth Noct – stepped away out of the last vineyard, the keen-eyed among them also spotted that same pennon. Hastily, Celo and Noct pressed back into the vines while Bardic Verus and Morath turned and jogged south.
The pennon of riders easily caught them up, and invited them back to Sapira. But Bardic, backed up by Verus, refused. They loudly insisted that the land they trod on was Dimas land, and Sapira had no say. After some odd hesitancy and muttered discussion, amongst which could be heard “The boy’s not with them…” the Sapira riders wheeled about and cantered west. Hoping that Celo, Vorel and Edric were keeping up their parts just as ably, the three comrades walked on toward the Monkish Inn at Dimas.
* * *
At the stream, two extremely wet comrades watched the town riders depart again, in mixed vexation and relief. While Vorel had held onto his own gear, and Edric had his kit still slung, the town riders had pettishly confiscated all the other gear they could be bothered swiping! It was in revenge for their refusal to be arrested in land outside the town’s charter. Still, they had their liberty, and new gear could be bought.
Once the road was clear Vorel led Edric swiftly along the trail of the Sapira riders. He read the tale of the confrontation as a scholar reads an open page, and the two caught up with the first three on the way to Dimas.
* * *
Long Celo waited. At last, the outrider patrolling the fields passed on to the south and east and was lost among the vineyards. Encouraging Noct (who still held his hefty bag of coins talisman-like) the young rogue set off, finding the horsemen’s trail easily but making little of it, save that no bodies marked it. Which, as he remarked to himself, was good news.
Eventually, gaining the road and remembering that it must lead back to Dimas, Celo led his charge triumphantly back to unite with the other five. They had performed the task requested of them, against great odds! Small wonder that they chuckled with glee as they cleaned up, and made their way up to the stronghold.
* * *
Pleasantly surprised by the lack of treachery, and touched by the Lady’s scarce-concealed emotion at her meeting with her boy, the six companions accepted their payment and began replacing lost gear and purchasing anew. They looked forward to drinks among friends and good company at the Inn, where their tale – or as much of it as they could safely reveal – could be told.