“Drain the cup while the ale is bright,
Brief truce to remorse and sorrow!
I drink the health of my friend tonight–
I may cut his throat tomorrow.
“Tonight I fling a curse in the cup
for the foe whose lines we sundered–
I may ride in his ranks when the sun comes up
And die for his flag I plundered.
“Kisses I drank in the blaze of noon,
At eve may be bitter as scorning–
And I go in the light of a mocking moon
To the woman I cursed this morning.
“For deep in my soul the old gods brood–
And I come of a restless breed–
And my heart is blown in each drifting mood
As clouds blow over the mead.”
Thus sang the soldiers of the Dimas stronghold, a cynical mercenary’s song. Verus, whose good looks and companiable manners made him swiftly popular with fellow fighting men, soon learnt that the Dimas estate had lost its lord in the Year of the Wildcat, four years previous, and these fellows were all fairly new to the area, raw mercenaries and only just enough in number to guard the stronghold itself. Verus regaled them with his own story, ending with the amusing episode of the Great Boar. Roars of laughter erupted as he described Edric flailing at the great beast with his fists, and Vorel flying gracefully through the air onto a knotty root. It’s always funnier if someone gets hurt.
“I thought we agreed to never mention that again,” Celo commented wryly.
With Ildon the Bard – a pretty sort of young man – acting as Master of Ceremonies, more well-known roundelays and doggerel verses were sung by those seated around the common room fire. Finally Ildon’s own more trained voice closed the general merry-making with a ballad. Soldiers drifted away back to their lawful duties and the rest of the company broke into cosy chats or restful silence as they pleased. Verus, inclined to be merry and sleepy after the venison and wine, was rescued from returning to the soldiers’ barracks, and rolled himself up in his cloak to sleep.
“So it was your arrows we saw in the trail!” Vorel exclaimed. The abashed forester, who had warmed to the Bossonian over dinner, confessed that he had indeed known of and tracked the great boar, but not only had he failed to send a shaft home, he had fled, and then pretended to know nothing but a rumour of the beast. “Save for the last, you acted wisely,” Bardic proclaimed, thumping him on the shoulder.
Kabas, the lead merchant, probed Edric closely regarding the trail south, trying to determine the risks of that shorter trail, against the costs of swinging back north to Thandara. He paid Edric for the information, though Edric was left feeling time-pressed, for he too needed information about the Inn they were staying at, and the estate as a whole. He had promised as much to Chrysos, the village priest.
Morath, who had remained keenly listening to as many of the conversations as possible, found himself studying Sarcol, the second merchant of the little caravan. Probably a Zamorian, he concluded. Her certainly spoke Zingaran with a Zamorian accent. Their eyes met: Morath realised that Sarcol was perfectly aware of being studied. Though the merchant’s face was no more readable than a statue’s, his eyes were those of a man who has killed, and often.
“A word with you,” Sarcol requested. As Morath drew within quiet earshot, he continued in Zamorian, “I know your den.”
“My former den.”
“Aye. ‘Twere best your fighting-man there” – indicating Verus with his chin – “kept his tongue more firmly in check. It were ill that he spoke of you coming from the east.”
“Such is general knowledge,” shrugged Morath. The other indicated by a sardonic lift in his brows that he had said enough.
“Bel’s luck to you.”
On edge in spite of his casual reply, Morath kept himself cat-napping through the night. He made sure that he watched Sarcol away with the rest of the small caravan before dawn.
The devotions of the monks, heard not seen, woke most of the company. Taking it as a good omen Edric sought out the Prior, and his status as a lay brother gained him a brief audience. The Prior had relatively little to say about the running of the place. More was gained from lay brethren. All this Edric stored up.
Then with clothes as tidy as could be achieved, the six trooped up to the barbican and were readily admitted, having the Steward’s ring as token. Within an hour, they were ushered into the Lady’s audience chamber, a pleasant panelled room where warm daylight came from several long windows. As they were fed and watered the lads eyed the Lady surreptitiously or boldly as their natures dictated. A typically Zingaran elegance was evident about her delicate olive complexion, raven tresses and sparkling dark eyes. Even though possibly ten years older than the oldest of the company, her beauty did not fail to move them.
Once the servants had withdrawn, the Lady explained the delicate mission for which she asked their aid. Thirteen years ago, before her marriage, she had had a lover and a male child had been born. To avoid scandal she had kept the birth secret and the child had been sent away with an old family nurse, into Poitain.
Four years ago her lord died leaving her alone to rule the estate. This was challenged, mainly by neighbouring Sapira though also by Kova to the south. The dispute over the river-port, in which the death of the Justiciar had been such an unlucky turn, was an example of this.
Some time ago word reached her that Sapira had learnt of the affair, found the child and were thinking to use him against her. Now, with her husband gone and mourning over, she thought to rescue the child and return him to his place as her rightful son. Hearing of the company as resourceful rescuers, she sought their aid in the matter.
There was little she could tell them as to their starting-point, other than that the nearby charter town seemed to be the place the boy had ended up: as opposed to the Sapira estate itself. Her factor, who represented Dimas in the town, could perhaps be of assistance.
As soon as the six had finished asking relevant questions they were shown out and met to discuss terms with the steward. To their delight, very serious money – twenty pounds of silver each, half payable in advance – was offered. The steward however had little detail to add. The factor’s name was Ya Pasha, the town was under Aquilonian royal charter, and probably had its own laws. Wine and grain were the chief trade goods. A ferry ran across the Shirki there to Poitain.
The lads compared notes, and deciding that the Lady was genuine in wanting her son returned alive – though it seemed to them she held scant hope of their succeeding – they accepted, and went forth on their new quest.