Edric tucked the discreet note away in his kit among the parchments. “So, don’t accept any posting to an Order from the Prior here, hmm? Trust Quieto, very well – though we won’t be going back into that town! And co-operate with Poitain… should be easy to persuade the boys to head into Culario. They were talking about some fancy belts and boots.”
Later that morning, out in the cart-yard, staves cracked against each other or thudded on flesh. Carter’s louts and the odd lay brother watched admiringly as Verus put Edric through his paces, while Bardic and one of the stronghold soldiers traded practice sword-strokes. Nearby, Vorel ran his eye along a length of bow-stave. Soon, he would begin shaping it. In the shade – for already the day was warm – Celo and Morath lounged.
“Nice work, Edric, you’re really learning to swing as though you meant it.”
“Thanks Verus, I think that will do for today. In any case” – indicating a couple of grinning soldiers stripping down and testing staves – “it’s not just your stories they’re queuing for now!”
Edric, dressed and rubbing his bruises ruefully, received a summons to the Prior’s clerestory. Feeling some surprise and a tingle of tension, he followed the guide through the maze-like connecting passages and presented himself.
Cimbieda the Prior welcomed the youthful lay brother smilingly, and bade him seated. Turning over a few leaves of parchment to ensure he had the salient facts fresh in his mind, he began:
“I understand you are eager to become a fully ordained priest of Mitra, Edric.”
“Yes, holy father.”
The Prior interviewed Edric for some minutes, testing his knowledge of the temple’s laws and discipline. He then concluded:
“You will understand, Edric, experience shows that young lay brethren start with fire in their belly, but betimes they seek creature comforts that the true servant of Mitra rejects. That way leads to corruption. Many demons are willing to offer earthly gain in exchange for the soul of the priest of Mitra.”
Here, Edric nodded solemnly.
“But, the testing is concluded. It remains to send you to a, shall we say, secure order of Mitra, for your ordination.”
“By which I mean to send you to an order that is less likely to take sides in the squabbling of noble houses than some.”
“But there is just one little detail, Edric. It seems you’ve left a bit of a mess behind you in the town. Rumors of kidnaping. Hue and cry in the streets. Unseemly displays in the Council Chambers.”
“All of which can be explained, holy father.”
“I’m relying on it. I was going to send you north, to investigate the killing of the lieutenant-governor at Thandara. Now, I’m sending you back into the town.”
Cimbieda chuckled, not unkindly, and reassured Edric:
“It’s not as dire as it sounds, young man. Know first that we in the Inn sometimes act as a go-between, a neutral ground between Aquilonian town and Zingaran stronghold. Second, know that the Lady of Dimas, for reasons of her own which are good and proper I am sure, needs discretion around the business in the town. Third, know that the town has a problem with which you may help.”
“I begin to see daylight, holy father…”
“Further explanations had best come from an interested party. I’m expecting a visitor who will speak with you further. But before we part, Edric, may I remind you of the old saying about the gratitude of princes? You know it?”
“Well, much the same sentiment may apply to the gratitude of noblewomen. Don’t linger in this region too long.”
Out in the cart-yard, the soldiers from the stronghold were surprised to be joined by their sergeant. Their faces fell.
“Consider yourselves all fined, lads, back to barracks you go! I’ll just have a word to these lads.”
Verus, joining Bardic, folded his arms defensively. Morath and Celo bent an ear to the conversation.
“I hear good things about you lads.”
“Yes,” asserted Bardic calmly, “we are good at what we do.”
“Some of the gossip gets passed along. You got things done. It’s a shame I can’t offer you any coin for a place. But you’ll hear more about that from my marshal, Ulliberto. He wants to explain things. He’ll be over soon: I just wanted to warn you to tidy up and assemble.”
After seeking Edric’s counsel, the six companions found an area in the cart-yard from which the approaches to the Inn could be watched to some degree, and lounged in the warm early autumn sun, weapons not too far away. Eventually, three riders approached from the stronghold: a military-looking man dressed in a fine jupon on which the Dimas arms were picked out in gilt thread, and two pages.
As the marshal swung off his fine horse and gave the reins to a page, the six had a chance to assess him. He seemed cut from a different cloth than Malvolio the Seneschal, and different again from Fingold the Steward. Without ceremony, he dusted off a round of firewood and sat down, stretching his fine boots of Kordavan leather out before him.
“I expect you are wondering what fate has in store for you? I come in the name of my Lady of Dimas, for thought has been given to the future son and heir of the house.”
“It ill behooves Dimas – or for that matter Sapira or Kova – to announce that the son of the house has been wrested from the grasp of the other two. It would destabilize the region and most likely provide a cause for war for Aquilonia, egged on by Count Terentius. My Lady believes a workable alternative – with your co-operation – would be to have it known that the boy was stolen away by kidnappers long ago, and was rescued from those same.”
Here, a pause ensued as the six thought of various things that could go wrong with that idea, and what sort of co-operation was meant, and how much it was worth. “Co-operate by dangling at the end of a rope,” breathed Morath cynically.
“Let’s assume that the local gossip can be diverted along those lines. Your job, she proposes, will be to find the kidnapers’ hideout, and plant sufficient evidence of the lad’s stay to make a long imprisonment believable. Anyway, have a talk among yourselves, and see the steward about payment. Here’s a pass to the steward.”
With that, the Marshal passed over a small note, called for his horse, and departed.
* * *
Neither joyful nor malcontent with the 50 silvers apiece up front now swelling out their pouches, the lads trooped once again inside the Corn-Gate. This time, they were recognised and the steward’s covering letter swiftly secured them an interview with Valens, the one-eyed Watch sergeant. In a second interview at the Inn, they agreed to work as Valens’ agents in the town, to find and wipe out the ring of child kidnappers.
* * *
“That’s one of the prime dives the Cimmerian has been seen at. Doesn’t stay long. His cronies, when he’s here, are small fry – sometimes we have business with them and mostly not.” Valens swung at a gait born of many years on the beat, up the dingy street near the metals markets. The six, dressed in shabby clothes and shape-hiding cloaks, followed obediently. “There’s another place, that tavern,” continued the sergeant. “Up here, there’s another. Now I’ll take you up to the Wine precinct and show you one or two places there, and then leave you to it.”
* * *
After some debate, the six companions chose a classically simple strategy for identifying where the kidnap gang might operate: cause some trouble and see what fell out of it. Within the hour, Bardic was rolling around on the street brawling with a possible kidnapper, Celo was trying to get himself isolated and knifed, and Edric had heard enough remarks to get a street and a rough description of a house.
* * *
Celo slipped back along the nighted silent Wine-precinct street to where his now-armed comrades waited.
“I think this is the right place: the door is forted up and there’s a window just on this side of it that’s shuttered. I’d say the window is the place to bust in.”
Verus flexed his powerful shoulders and settled his steel cap more firmly on his handsome blonde head. So far, it had been a quiet evening for him. High time Nemedia showed its worth, by Mitra!
At the second attempt, Verus’ charge carried the entire window frame into the small house in a mighty dive. One occupant reacted by bringing a club down on the Nemedian, the other occupant headed to the back of the one room.
A writhing, smashing brawl ensued between Verus and the brawny defender, drawing in – and injuring – Celo and Vorel. But Morath, well-versed in traversing dark rooms, vaulted nimbly over the fight and sped to cut off the other occupant, now clambering up into the roof cavity. “Bardic! Roof!” he yelled.
Edric waited impatiently at the door as the Cimmerian swung himself swiftly up from window-aperture to eaves. From within the melee on the floor, an unpleasant, stomach-churning double crack sounded.
“Verus?” quavered Celo.
“I’ve got this one under control. Open the door!”
“Yes, please open the door,” begged Edric. The neighbours were not inquisitive but he was feeling dreadfully exposed.
Edric, Verus, Celo and Vorel sorted out their various injuries and ascertained the brawling occupant was past questioning. Meanwhile, Morath and Bardic had expanded their field of enquiries!
Morath chased his man down a step-way leading from the roof cavity of the small house down to the larger house on the street below. Bardic smashed his way into the step-way using brute force, not even noticing a poorly-aimed bolt that rattled off the tiles near him.
The Zamorian’s agile step allowed him to catch the fleeing man, and he stabbed vimfully at the wretch, who squawked in pain and fled away down some further stairs. Morath’s balance faltered, allowing Bardic to catch him up. Just in time! Another figure dropped from above! Both stabbed upwards, and the would-be ambusher fell in a world of pain, slumping onto the floor in a swift-spreading pool of blood. By the sounds around the house, other opponents were arming and organising, and Bardic and Morath held at the step-way entrance to await reinforcement.
Once Celo had drunk a cordial to speed healing, and the others had checked their various lumps and cuts, Verus, Vorel, Celo and Edric clambered up and through the step-way, uniting with their comrades.
The house appeared to be a once-gracious residence fallen on hard times. A rank smell of un-aired rooms and unwashed bodies pervaded. Dim illumination came from oil-lamps sparsely spread around. What followed was a bold but risky push from hall to room to stair through the surprisingly large house. Both Bardic and Verus were nicked by crossbow-bolts but the stiffest fighting fell to Edric, who was ambushed in a narrow corridor. The well-armed enemy stabbed Edric twice with a short sword, and things looked uncertain for the scholar until Bardic got behind his tormentor and dropped him with an overhand swing of his broadsword.
Bardic and Morath, and Vorel and Verus, hunted in pairs through the next two floors. Vorel dealt swiftly with a would-be ambusher, and Morath and Bardic chased the last two down into a rank basement.
There, the floor had been dug out to create a bear-pit, and a crude stand of seats had been built up. Opposite the stairway entrance, two large pens had been built. One held a bear. There, the injured fugitive tugged on the latch, while another, less panicked, defender urged him to leave off and help with the other pen.
“That bear won’t help you!” grinned Bardic hardily, “We’ve had bigger game for breakfast! But spill your guts to us, and we might let you live!”