At Castle Crow
Edric raised his eyebrows to Mitra: his memories of the battle with the demon serpent were fuzzy at best, but Vivo’s version seemed even less like real history than his version of the recovery of the treaty! The meal to that point had been difficult: Vivo and Pras were even less tolerant of each other than on the trail, and protocol dictated they be seated quite close to one another. Sir Anled and Sagitus between them were playing diplomat, drawing Vivo on to recount his most recent heroics, leaving Pras the more free to speak to Cala of future plans.
The Journey to Castle Crow
Edric recalled his own difficulties with the colossus, after they all met up at the head of the secret valley. He had just resumed negotiations and had unwisely mentioned that same treaty. His five companions at the time were mostly incapable of exertion. Vivo’s party had been all but annihilated. After the demon snake’s attack he had been left with one retainer, the Hyperborean of foul reputation known as Erlik’s Dog. Shasur, the Hyrkanian detailed to guard the horses, made two retainers for Vivo. Cala’s party had fared slightly better, mainly by luck as her retainers had pointed out with many a crude jest. Pras of course she had been bodyguard to, then Motrac the almost-right had remained with the horses, and then Ginstar the Nemedian fighter, Dadanel the Bossonian ranger and Yemmi the sneaky Zamorian gutter-fighter made five followers for her. Ginstar and Dadanel seemed fit, as did Celo for his own party.
Perhaps Edric had been too long among fighting men: whatever the case, in mere seconds Vivo had drawn his great-sword, eyes blazing with anger, and Cala had stepped between the two to prevent slaughter. From that hour on, the six studied Vivo not with a respectful eye but with an eye to taking him down should the hero turn on his erstwhile allies.
Taking care to keep Cala’s riders between themselves and Vivo, the six rode drag behind the 16 or so mules and spare horses. Even when order changed, they kept others between them. The remainder of the day, and the next, proved uneventful as Motrac guided them towards Castle Crow and safety. Pras generally stayed close to the mules, directing the retainers with an experienced eye. He seemed a very capable traveler, and with danger past, much more visible and vocal. Shasur rode as wide scout, betimes joined by Cala who rode the magnificent Bhalkana warhorse Pras had bought her. She rode for the joy and the show of it, it seemed: contesting a target with Shasur and expertly driving arrows into it at the gallop, or coursing a hare and bringing it down with a single shot.
It was reassuring that Cala seemed to be keeping strictly to her word. Indeed, Edric realized with some surprise, it was not the adventuress they were now wary of, but Vivo, baron and supposed pillar of justice.
Thinking back, Edric could not in fact pin down the time or day that from the mists of legend that had grown around the heroic figure their feelings had crystallized into mistrust. As Bardic said, each yarn or ballad boiled down to Vivo surviving and moving on with whatever he wanted, at the expense of everyone else. Hieratgate with its cynical arena; Clampus, Fastwolf and Zpado the dubious henchmen; and the rapacious way Vivo gazed at Cala: these had all been indicators.
Evening camps were uneasy. Vivo would chew his meat and stare at Cala, booming out the occasional anecdote or heavy-handed compliment. Pras was never so obvious, but Edric noticed that he dropped hints of his wealth into each conversation. Cala had her own ways: a perfectionist with her gear – which none but her were to touch – and never allowing someone to walk behind her, and drinking only from small personal flasks, each sealed against tampering. Her anecdotes were told in a brief, almost throw-away style: for example, there was the time Morath diplomatically asked her why she seemed to target barbarians.
“Oh –as to that – early on in my career, I saw a barbarian – a berserker – fight on long past the point when any other man would have fallen from his wounds. Had he been put down as soon as trouble started, things would have been different. So I learnt from it.”
As the journey to Castle Crow progressed, Cala more and more frequently detached herself from the van and away from Pras and Vivo and closer to the six comrades. She mastered all their names and learnt a little of their own history. She laughed and joked with them, happy to show off her skills in unabashed enjoyment, and showing them techniques and sleights from her wide experience of travel and various fighting styles. In this, she preferred Alleto, whose fighting style was closest to her own and whose looks she liked, then Vorel, then the two rogues, then Bardic and had least time for Edric. Without becoming head-swollen over the attention of this charming and famous beauty, they could tell that she enjoyed their company – perhaps the animosity between Pras and Vivo was wearing on her.
On the third day, two dawns after leaving the valley, Edric had leisure and health enough to make his orisons to Mitra and receive blessings. Surreptitiously he healed himself, Vorel, Bardic Alleto and Morath. Though still weary, they now felt capable of surviving more than a few seconds against Vivo. “But, we would still need Cala to be on our side against him,” as Bardic bluntly spelled out.
At Castle Crow
Listening with skeptical ear to Vivo’s version on recent events, Morath did take one chance to speak to Pras. It was occasioned when Sir Anled spoke of the King’s whereabouts. It seemed the likeliest place to find the King was in the far east of the realm. Sir Anled offered to send a messenger speeding east. Vivo was inclined to go there himself, at once. Cala, Pras, and the five comrades present – Alleto having drawn the short straw for stable duty – were in favor of resting.
“I suppose you have contacts at court, Pras?” Morath asked across the table.
“Yes. I have several good friends in the King’s court,” Pras agreed with sour triumph.
A compromise was agreed upon: by which those fit enough to travel after a day would head out. They could see Vivo visibly counting up numbers in each party and being happy with the thought of it.
Celo paid hardly any attention: for some reason, the seating arrangements had seen fit to place him next to the sultry young Lady Gerda, who flirted with him throughout the evening.
Motrac the almost-right was also detached from this squabble. He had been paid up, and his job was over. Bardic and Vorel liked the look of him: he reminded them of Hal, the forester way back on the Zingaran border village. They confirmed he had no plans beyond hire as guide-guard around Hieratgate to Gunderland.
Yemmi grinned at Morath and Bardic. “All’s well then: we’ll rest and take our cut out safe-like,” he said. “What about you?”
“We’ll try our luck in the king’s service, perhaps,” Bardic suggested.
Yemmi nodded mock-sympathetically, gesturing in a time-honored fashion what he thought of royal soldiers. He dropped into the Zamorian tongue to ask Morath of any wider plans. “I’m squared up,” he added, “pity I settled for a 20th share though!” He used a couple of simple hand gestures to indicate how few were left to share with, drawing an amiable chuckle from Morath.
The five lodging inside the donjon felt that they needed some private words with Cala. That night, Celo attempted to put his plan into action as group representative. Like a ghost, he slipped down the passage towards the women’s quarters. Like a shadow, he hid from a brace of men at arms patrolling the donjon. And like an oaf he stepped back onto the passage and was immediately spotted by the men at arms on their way back. They gave him the right-about and ruefully, he returned to the men’s quarters!
Out of the Gates
The six rested long into the following morning, after Edric’s prayers and more healing. Had Vivo not been engaged in a loud argument with Pras, he would have been taken aback by the emergence of all six into the outer bailey, obviously fit and ready. It seemed that Pras’ miserly nature was reasserting itself: he wanted to continue bringing the mules. Vivo on the other hand still wanted to push on with best speed. Perhaps the thought that Ginstar and Dadanel, the fit pair remaining to Cala, were riding inferior mounts was also in his mind. There seemed no sign of Cala.
After a moment’s panic, Alleto, wandering out of the stables, directed Vorel there. Vorel discovered Cala, helmetless, walking her warhorse up and down, meticulously seeing to the last detail of her equipment’s readiness.
“I like what you’ve done with that bow,” Vorel offered. As on her own body, Cala had the Hyrkanian bow scabbard on the right, ready for a right-hand draw.
“Can I have a try with it?”
“Do we go there again, Vorel? No-one. Touches. My. Gear.”
“Uh… right then. Umm, you know that Pras is about to get killed by Vivo, right?”
“I dare say Vivo heard Pras mentioning his friends at court,” Cala returned casually. “But yes, time to go!”
She vaulted into her warhorse’s saddle and centaur-like, was at a fast canter by the time she reached Vivo and Pras. She reined sharply, bearing her steed’s head up and round, and it skidded on the flags and reared impressively:
“Haven’t you gone yet?” Cala laughed, eyes sparkling, then spurred on, out the gate, and down the winding road, faster and faster. The watching men at arms and archers cheered her to a man, waving their caps as her black curls streamed out like a banner behind her.
The others straggled out behind her: Pras last of all, since he had perforce frantically to make a deal with Motrac to return the mules to Hieratgate. Ginstar and Dadanel – as Vivo had guessed – could not easily keep up, while Shasur’s sturdy Hyrkanian pony coped more easily with the grueling pace.
By midday however, order had returned to the party. Cala’s wild flight down to the road seemed to have vented her feelings, and by the time they reached the fork that led to Hieratgate, Shasur was scouting ahead, Vivo and Cala next, then Pras on his excellent riding horse, Ginstar and Dadanel, and the six companions loosely in the rear. The lead riders drew up at the juncture.
As the six caught up, they easily perceived another argument in force: this, a more subtle one than the morning’s. It was a debate as to the fastest road east. Pras explained that the Ice-Spear road led north, then swung due east, offering a fast and good way east. Vivo decried such an idea, insisting that after Hieratgate the party could swing south, to join the perfectly good road along the border with Nemedia and thence to the capital.
“I only know, when I came west to Hieratgate, dogs ate my horse,” shrugged Cala. “I’m not risking this one. Am I, Yataghan?”
“You too, huh? We met those dogs too!” Vorel laughed ruefully.
“I know: you told me,” Cala reminded him.
Vivo was apt to debate the more, but Cala’s point about the dogs seemed to decide her. She pointed north. Pras fell in smugly behind her. Vivo’s brows bristled under his helm, and his teeth ground together, but he too followed her lead. The others trailed along behind.
“Vivo really has one prize in mind above others,” Vorel reminded his comrades. “That’s why he’s willing to go along with her.”
The afternoon shadows were lengthening when Shasur held his bow up, signaling a traveler, alone and afoot. It was Garamaine, a famed ranger in these parts, traveling back to Castle Crow on some business. He warned the caravan that a herd of wild oxen were on the move. If surprised or spooked by thunder, such beasts would stampede and trample. Vivo seemed scornful of such peril, but Pras was visibly affected.
On they drove: but sure enough, heavy clouds turned into thunderheads to the north, and thunder rolled across the sky and echoed off the hills. Within minutes, all could feel the ground shaking, and a dark mass of oxen came plunging towards them, miles in width. All they could do was ride the stampede out!
Vorel remained calm: he prided himself on being the best rider of the party now, and looping Edric’s reins in one hand, guided the two horses alongside the vast, hot, jostling mass and slowly out and away. Off to one side he could see Cala helping Pras in similar fashion; and in a third direction Vivo’s massive warhorse bearing the hero slowly out of danger.
Near the front of the stampede, Morath saw Ginstar the sturdy foot-soldier go under with a scream. Off in the dust, he could glimpse Shasur trying to work his pony clear: but being so low at the shoulder it was making no headway. Then Morath had to turn all his attention to his own preservation.
Alleto and Celo fell somewhat behind, Bardic even further behind them. His horse, still not fully recovered from the dehydrating camp in the valley, was nicked by goring horns! It rallied, putting on an extra burst of speed, and Bardic worked his way off to the side with vast relief: he had had few closer shaves.
It was evening by the time riders from Castle Crow rounded the survivors up: the flight had carried them all the way back into the Gates, within an hour of the castle. Sir Anled once again welcomed these unlooked-for and – again – filthy travelers and invited them to another evening meal.
Bardic and Morath, as fate would have it, were washing themselves off near Vivo. It was the closest they had stood to him in some days, and naturally they both kept a wary eye open. A movement in the shadows of the portal to the inner guard-room: Werhema, the pretty Mitran Novice – and common-law wife of Sagitus the Reeve-Chaplain – had emerged. Vivo raised his mighty torso, blowing and pushing his long hair back into place: Werhema paled and stared: as though she had seen a ghost: and vanished back into the donjon.
It was not long before this had been passed on quietly to Edric, Vorel and Celo, but idle speculation brought them no further along in their plans. Alleto once again found himself doing stable duty, and the other five found themselves seated in more or less the same placings as the previous night. Edric was seated next to Pras, and Celo then Vorel on his left. Cala was seated at Pras’ right and next to Sir Anled at the head of the table. Vivo naturally was at Anled’s right, and Vidica next to Vivo. A space was left for Haustyn, who did not arrive in time for the meal’s commencement, then Bardic and Morath sat roughly opposite their fellows. Erlik’s Dog and Yemmi, now the sole surviving retainers, were seated down from Vorel.
A comic interlude
Forgetting, perhaps, that he had bested Erlik’s Dog back in Hieratgate then spurned his company all the way back from Keniwec valley, Vorel turned to the morose Hyperborean and uttered a pleasantry.
“Pteor take you and yours and a pox on the horse you rode in on!” Erlik’s Dog rejoined with a snarl.
Vorel gave back an icy stare, waiting for the Hyperborean to make the first move. This poise was lost on the ruffian, who grabbed his knife. Abandoning the civilized forms of dispute, Vorel smashed a platter into the man’s head, sending him reeling back in his seat, then tipped him onto the floor.
“My old comrade! Are you all right!” Yemmi yelled, stooping swiftly over the fallen man. His fingers moved like lightning, and by the time Haustyn directed guards to escort Erlik’s Dog out of the hall, Yemmi was considerably richer. He winked at Morath with a cheeky grin, and Morath nodded in amused approbation.
Returning to the other end of the table, Haustyn joined Sir Anled in inviting Vivo to recount other adventures. The hero’s deep bass rolled out, with many a tale of deeds of arms. There seemed a common theme: all ended with Vivo killing everyone who had gotten in his way.
Save perhaps for Vorel, the companions surreptitiously tried to keep track of comings and goings. Where was Sagitus? What of Werhema’s reaction?
Edric, seated near Pras Rooduir and one away from Cala, noted that Pras would oft-times lean close to Cala. He could not see her face but could hear the merchant talking about the luxury he could make available to any woman he chose. Cala’s hands, visible to Edric from his vantage, toyed with her goblet. If hands were anything to judge by, she was relaxed and pleased by the attention. Edric noted with fascination the Hyrkanian draw-ring still fastened on her left hand, and the tiny scars on all her fingers.
Bardic and Morath, across the table, had a much better view. As Pras listed the silks, furs, gold, silver and rare stones his woman might expect, the frequent journeys to the big city to absorb culture and mingle with the best of society, and so forth, they admired her poise. Vivo was far from blind to this. He became less and less able to converse with Sir Anled and Haustyn. After seeming distracted for a few moments, he rose, and called for a toast:
“To my mistress, Cala Atenoel!”
Pras turned white, and said no more. The five companions reacted in muted but polite fashion, generally echoing the “To Cala!” portion and sipping a minimum. Bardic and Morath thought they had seen Cala’s amazing ability to carry a role slip, for just a fraction of a second. They sensed that things were coming to a head.
A sense of strain, even dread, seemed to be gathering about the family circle. Increasingly, glances and even stares were directed by table-servants at Vivo. Inevitably those seated were likewise affected. Though the evening meal continued, conversation became muted and sporadic even as various members attempted to lighten the mood. Eventually, it ceased altogether.
Vivo jumped to his feet, bellowing:
“What is this nonsense? Have I got the plague? You’re all looking at me as if I’m going to fall over dead!”
Then: he coughed: staggered: fell over in a fit.
Edric, reacting from instinct, leapt up and hastened around the head of the table. He leant into the thrashing giant, and was abruptly flung across the room by one flailing arm: crashing against a wall, the Mitran dropped unconscious onto the floor!
“Celo! You know something of leech-craft! Try to see what’s wrong!” Bardic exclaimed.
Celo took the hint; but, by the time he worked his way through the various household members attempting to help, and the men at arms attempting to hold Vivo down, several people had already had the opportunity to loosen Vivo’s hauberk. The treaty scroll tube was no longer concealed there, if it had indeed been on his person that evening. Vivo was no longer convulsing: his face, distorted in a mask of agony, was suffused: his tongue dark. Celo looked back grim-faced at his fellows:
“I’m pretty sure he’s dead.”
Bardic and Morath both looked over at Cala, who had remained at or by her seat throughout the crisis. As usual, it was impossible to read her. Bardic looked at the head of the table: spotted Vivo’s goblet, which, overturned, had rolled towards Sir Anled’s place. The Cimmerian reached over, picked it up, examined the remaining drops closely and sniffed them: but there were no lees and no suspicious odor.
As suspicions arose, various people were questioned or prompted. Morath’s suggestion of a lock-down of the castle was certainly acted on. Back in their chamber, the five threw ideas back and forth. Where was the treaty? What had Sagitus been doing during the evening? Would Cala make an attempt to break out?
Having obeyed Sir Anled’s summons to the andron, Edric glanced around: Pras Rooduir of course was there; Alleto too, looking disheveled and confused after another night in the stables. Then, he followed the gaze of his comrades: the treaty scroll tube was sitting on a writing-stand, right there in front of them!
“It seems that you are now the remaining claimants of this, the subject of the King’s quest,” Sir Anled explained with raised brow. “As for Cala Atenoel, she has renounced her claim and is leaving.”
The six comrades turned startled gazes on Pras, as the wealthy miser reacted in shock.
“Yes, I have ordered the gates open. She is going.”
Pras rushed from the Andron, tearing his hair. Bardic’s ears were keen, and the andron was near the bailey. He could hear the sound of Cala’s horse departing, and over it, the sound of Pras, screaming over and over:
“Cala Atenoel! Cala! Wait! – I love you! Cala…!”