Chapter 2: Foreboding
A long, deep sound resonated through the air, tolling the noon.
Bredan dropped on the stone bench with a dull thud and wiped his sweaty face with a cloth. The padded vest was unbearably warm and he unlaced it with trembling fingers. He was exhausted. They had been fencing for the last couple of hours without a break and Bran had fought as if they were enemies. More than once he had caught him open and had taken advantage, merciless, striking harder than usual. His stern friend was stronger than him and knew his weaknesses. That day he had seemed determined to exploit all of them.
The weather was cold, unlike the week before, but that was normal for the season. A bright haze surrounded the sun, barely visible above the clouds, and the light had a depressing, grey hue. The crisp autumn breeze was ruffling their hair and shirts, drying the sweat and prickling the skin, but, since they were heated from the exercise, the sensation was invigorating.
Bredan rubbed a sore spot on his side. “You didn’t have to hit so hard,” he said bitterly.
“You leave too many openings,” grumbled Bran, sitting. He had been ill-tempered and insufferable all morning and the other soldiers had been clever enough to keep their distance.
“What is wrong with you today? Nay, the whole week!”
Bran seemed to mull over the question, but made no answer.
“Fine, go ahead and sulk. I’m too tired for this.” Bredan stood up to leave, but a thought stroke him. “Does it have anything to do with that evening?”
“I don’t want to talk about that here. Let’s go somewhere quiet.”
“I need a drink, you made me sweat like a horse.”
Bran thought for a moment and opened his mouth to speak, but he saw a soldier coming towards them and changed his mind.
“Captain, Senral Keer wants to see you.”
“Where is he?”
“His workroom, sir.”
“Tell him I’ll be right there.”
“Yes sir.” The soldier saluted and turned around, on his way greeting another group that was training.
“The Bog and Barrel,” said Bran hurriedly, fastening his gambeson and grabbing the sword. “I’ll see you there in two hours.” He left the training ward with long strides. The Senral disliked to be kept waiting.
Bog and Barrel was a small tavern on the southern bank of Arburn, in the Lower Trade, hidden among the wood workshops. It was a decent enough place, not very crowded during the day, and the ale was good. The owner had a barrels workshop and ties among breweries, so his was not as watered down as that sold in many places from the Lower Trade. Bredan had known it for a long time and it was one of their favourite places when they wanted a drink and privacy from their comrades or curious eyes. The taverns in the Upper Trade were fancier, but they also had more ears.
Inside a couple of customers were discussing trades, but most tables were empty. Since it was well past noon, people had finished their lunch break and had gone back to work. The owner was in his workshop, next door; he had left the place in the care of his girls, as he always did until evening. Bredan picked a corner table, near the window, and waved one of them. She came to him beaming.
“Greetings, my lord,” she said with a curtsey.
“Greetings, fair lady,” bowed Bredan and she giggled with pleasure at that. Bredan was a ladies’ man and the formality was just a game, for they were well acquainted, but she still blushed every time he called her fair. Not that she was a bad looking lass.
“You have not graced us with your presence in a while,” she complained. She had learned the fancy speech of the Upper Trade and delighted in using it when given the chance. Which happened not very often in that part of the city.
“My apologies. Unfortunately duty comes first.”
“In that case I forgive you. Would you like to eat?”
“Is there anything left?”
“I’m sure I can find something for you,” she flirted with a skittish smile. “Some smoked fish, maybe? Cheese?”
“Fish sounds good, thank you. And the usual drinks.”
She looked around, then outside. “Where’s your handsome friend?”
“He’ll be here shortly—what do you mean, handsome? What about me?”
“Two servings, then,” she said, pretending to ignore the question, but the flushed cheeks spoke in her stead. She went behind the bar and returned shortly thereafter, carrying two pints. “This just came in this morning,” she said when she set them on the table.
“Thank you, my lady.”
The doorbell chimed and Bran let himself in.
“Good day, Captain,” she greeted him, but this time it was customary politeness, not playfulness. She had seen Bran many times and thought very well of him, but his aloofness was a little intimidating and she dared not behave in the casual manner which Bredan’s easiness encouraged. That day, more than usually, Bran had a grim air about him.
“Good day, miss.” His expression softened a bit and he managed a faint smile.
Bredan had told him, on numerous occasions, that no matter his own problems, he should not punish the people who have no fault in them with disagreeable manners. Especially those who always treated him with kindness and respect. It reminded him of his mother’s teachings and he made efforts to follow that. The girl smiled back, understanding, and left them alone.
“I took the liberty to order some smoked fish. We have not eaten anything.”
“What’s with that face?” asked Bredan, after Bran took his seat.
“We’re going on a mission.”
“Brilliant! I was growing bored.”—Bran frowned, clearly displeased—“Oh, spare me the lecture. You need a change of pace, too.”
Bredan raised his mug. “To adventure. And a smooth mission,” he added, in answer to his friend’s grimace. “Cheers!”
The ale was not bad at all.
“So, when do we leave?”
“Tomorrow, if everything is ready. We will escort an embassage to Astur, to discuss some new commercial treaties.”
“Isn’t that the Master of Trade’s province? Why send us?”
“Because His Highness Prince Feolan is joining the party.”
“Oh! Who are the others?”
“The Master of Trade and the Lord Chancellor of Affairs.”
Bredan whistled. “That’s quite the assembly.”
“It is,” agreed Bran.
The girl returned with the food, placing before them a plate with smoked bass, two wooden trenchers—worn and stained from use, but fairly clean—and a few loaves of brown bread. She also brought some hard cheese and sliced apples—“From the house”—and two old forks. “Thought you might want these,” she said with a smile, before retreating. Folk usually ate the fish with their hands, but Bredan detested the smell which persisted on his fingers hours after eating.
“Thank you, darling, that’s very kind of you,” he answered for both of them.
They ate in silence for a while. Bran was nibbling at the food absently, his mind elsewhere, but Bredan was hungry. The morning exercise had left him without strength.
“So why the gloom?”
“I have an unpleasant feeling about this.”
“Why? We’ve done this before.”
“Father was anxious, I could tell that. He has not told me everything. That alone is odd,” explained Bran. He was a straightforward man, a trait he had inherited from the Senral. No wonder he was concerned. “And, as you noticed, such an honourable assembly just to negotiate trading treaties seems a bit excessive.”
Prince Feolan was the King’s second son. His brother, First Prince Aydan, was heir to the throne, but the Second Prince was just as involved in the country’s affairs as the first. He was intelligent and a talented diplomat. They had met him in person, but only because he liked to fence with the guards every once in a while. In his mid thirties and surprisingly unassuming, he seemed to appreciate their company, often times debating on political or military subjects after the training sessions. On the former he was vastly superior, but claimed their opinions, uncorrupted by court interests, sometimes offered him a fresh perspective.
“You suspect a sensitive matter?”
Bran nodded, stabbing the fish with the fork. “We will learn more this evening, I hope.”
“Then stop worrying for the time being. You butchered that poor fish.” Bredan pushed away his trencher and picked a slice of apple. “But in that case,” he mused, “I wonder that they wanted us for the mission.”
“Do you feel unprepared?”
“Oh, now you’re suddenly confident!”
“It was not us I was concerned about.”
“Well, you know what I meant. If you are right, isn’t it reasonable to assume they would choose men with more experience?”
“It wouldn’t surprise me if we were the youngest.”
“You see my problem, then.”
“It was His Highness’s request that we be part of the escort. I suspect it’s one of the reasons Father is anxious.”
That was an unexpected honour and Bredan froze with a piece of cheese half-hanging out of his mouth, eyes wide with astonishment. He was lost for words and looked so silly that Bran choked on his food.
“I never would have... thought... something could shut you up,” he managed to say between chuckles and coughs, pushing his own trencher away and drinking to stop the fit.
It was the first time Bran laughed that day, strained and short as it was, but it brought to Bredan’s mind their talk in the training ward. Was his friend still willing to say what had bothered him the whole week or would he keep it to himself, he wondered.
“Tsk! You caught me off guard,” he said, after swallowing the cheese. “Any idea why he chose us?” Better not jump to the other subject too soon. He had learned patience and diplomacy were the only ways to make his friend talk.
“I’d rather not speculate. Father is expecting us at sunset. There will be a meeting in his workroom, I’m sure we’ll learn the answer.”
“That leaves us a few more hours.” Bredan waved the girl at the bar for two more drinks.
“We must be sober,” warned him Bran.
“Absolutely. But who knows how long this mission will take? This may be our last peaceful day for a while. Let me at least enjoy another pint.”
“I thought you missed a bit of excitement.”
“I did. I do. But it’s a good excuse,” he said with a smirk.
They were silent while the girl brought them the drinks and cleaned the table, moving quickly and without a word. Her face was smiling, but apparently she knew when to talk and when to be quiet. Good girl, thought Bredan, thanking her with a nod and a grateful look.
“What do you think about that man?” Bran asked abruptly, when they were alone again. “You wanted to know about my mood.”
“So it is about that. I told you I liked him, he was witty.”
“I disagree, but never mind me. I want to know what you make of him.”
“I’m surprised we are having this conversation a full week after the event.”
“All right.” Bredan paused for a gulp of ale, thinking. “Not a high born, but well educated. His bearing and manners were fine and naturally pleasing.”
“Pleasing? He was patronising us!”
“Arguable. Your opinion is very subjective.”
“Very well then, go on.”
“He was articulate and clever with the words; I liked his sense of humour.”—His friend scoffed—“You wanted my impression.”
“Impertinent,” echoed Bran.
“Not from Ardaena, I daresay. There was something in his speech.”
“Not quite… Something about the quality of his voice, though I cannot say what.”
Bran’s thoughts went back to that evening, but all he could recall was that insolent tone which had grated on his nerves.
“Quite good looking,” Bredan went on.
“Very young… Come to think of it, he was rather outstanding. One rarely finds such qualities in a person so young.”
“Yes, he certainly reminds me of someone.”
“I have no idea whom you mean, but thank you.”
Bran sniffed. “Since you took the time to admire his looks, did you also notice there was not a trace of hair on his face? Not as though he were freshly shaved, but rather like a woman’s cheek.”
“Heh, that’s what the cooking comment was all about. But now that you mention it, yes… Wouldn’t that make him just a boy?”
“Then he would be the tallest boy I’ve ever seen. Even I was shorter at sixteen.” Since adolescence, Bran had been taller than the boys his age.
“No, no, he was older. Five or six years your junior, perhaps.”
“It doesn’t matter. What else?”
“Hmm… he was a tad slippery.”
“It takes one to know one.”
Bredan pouted. “That was unnecessary.”
“I don’t mind a tad slippery, obviously,” said Bran, “but that man was lying through his teeth. That cut on his neck was fresh. We came to his aid, what reason was there to lie about it?”
“You think he was assaulted with a knife… Perhaps he was embarrassed. He seemed the proud sort, who would not admit he needed help, especially when the robbery failed. I’m certain he told the truth about that.”
“Proud or not, anyone in his place would have been relieved, but he was exactly the opposite. He dismissed us. Why was he so anxious to get rid of us?”
“I think you’re reading too much into it. You took offence at his behaviour.”
“It’s not just that.” Bran’s lips pressed together, as they always did when he wished to seal his thoughts, which only roused his friend’s interest more. At last he made up his mind. “Tell me, did you—” He paused again, searching for the right words. “Did you feel something about him?”
Another time Bredan would have made a joke, but this nervousness was uncharacteristic of his friend. “I don’t understand.”
“When I first lifted the lamp to his face, I felt… something.” Bran’s gaze drifted to the drink in front of him. His hands were cupped around the mug. “Something terrible.” He squeezed the mug as if someone were about to steal it from him.
“Just say it!”
“Fear,” finally blurted out Bran, colouring slightly. “I had a horrible feeling of fear when I looked into his eyes. Just for a moment. But it was very strong.” He was a little embarrassed for admitting it, but, more than that, he was concerned. Fear was an emotion he was not accustomed with.
Bredan chose his tone with care. “I didn’t sense anything strange… There was clearly some tension, he was nervous—in such cases one would simply attribute it to hurt pride or embarrassment—but I felt no threat from him. I’m not saying he was honest, though.”
“It was brief, I don’t think I would have paid much attention to it, were it not so intense. You know me, Bredan, I’m not easily shaken. But that…” Bran waved a hand towards an imaginary thing, “it was like a… surge of terror that washed through me. My heart almost stopped. I swear I never felt anything like it before. It was… unreal.”
“Perhaps it was?” That earned Bredan such an insulted look, he reconsidered. “Of course not, you’re too rational for that.”
The tavern was quiet, the earlier customers had left long ago and the girls were busying themselves behind the counter and in the back room. Outside people went about their businesses, talking loudly. The noise from the workshops filled the street: axes chopping wood, saws, chisels, planes and, above all that, the steady, resonant banging of hammers.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d say you imagined everything.”
“Do you remember that terrified cry?”
“Just before you called to them, yes. What of it?”
“I’m willing to bet it was the mugger’s.”
“You think he felt the same thing you did?”
“I think he saw something I didn’t.”
Bredan shuddered, but then he realized. “That, um, strange moment, was it before I came back?”
“You were chasing the bastard, yes.”
“That explains why I felt nothing. No wonder you were not yourself since then,” he muttered in his mug.
“I have no desire to meet him again—”
“You truly dislike him.” Bredan could not help a little smile.
“—But that moment keeps coming back and I’ve had no peace of mind since then. I must find out what happened.”
“I cannot see how. We have no idea who he is, no name, nothing. It’s been a week, as far as we know he might have left Ardaena. He could be anywhere. Let it go.”
Bran emptied his mug in one gulp. Let it go. Easier said than done. But then his face brightened. “The Miller’s Inn! Didn’t he mention he was staying there?”
“Going there for dinner, at least. Did you look into it?”
“No, I just remembered.” His brief enthusiasm vanished. “How could I have forgotten?”
“We don’t have time before we leave. Let’s hope the innkeeper will remember something when we come back.”
Bran was disappointed and that made him surly again. But not as much as before. Finally letting out what had gnawed at him for a whole week made him feel better, as if a darkness had lifted from his heart. He could breathe easier.
“Finish your drink and let’s go. It don’t want to be late.”
They paid and thanked the girls again and Bredan promised to visit them more often. Then, with a relaxed step, they walked towards the bridge and back to the Garrison.
The light coming from the window gilded the room, softening its bleak appearance. The wind, which had blown all day, had scattered the grey clouds and the western sky was burning with shades of gold and red. Bran watched it, lost in thoughts. Across the city, the bells were tolling the sixth hour of the afternoon. The sound of the door interrupted his musings.
“Took you long enough.” He turned to Bredan, who discarded the clothes he had worn earlier in a corner. His hair was damp and there was a fresh smell of soap coming from him. “We’re not going to the ladies.”
“It doesn’t mean I have to stink,” retorted Bredan.
He was always more fastidious than others about his appearance, a habit he had from home, most likely. Bran liked to pick on him for that—a sort of revenge for constantly being teased himself.
Bredan came closer and sniffed him, which made him draw back, revolted. “You washed too,” his friend said with a silly grin.
“Of course I did!” snapped Bran. “But I don’t need a whole afternoon for that.” He walked towards the door. “Stop fooling around, the Senral is waiting for us.”
“Aye, aye, Captain,” mocked Bredan, following him.
The officers of the Royal Guard did not bunk in the Garrison with the soldiers, with a few exceptions. Bran was one of them. But they had workrooms there and this meeting was set in the private office of Senral Keer, in the north wing. The two men stopped in front of a heavy wooden door. It was so old that its natural colour had faded into a dull, grayish shade of brown, but the wood was still solid. It had no ornaments other than the iron hinges and handle, which had been wrought—by an overzealous smith with artistic ambitions—into intricate shapes resembling vegetation. Bran took a deep breath.
“Nervous?” teased him Bredan.
In answer he knocked: three short, loud raps.
“Come in!” they heard the Senral’s deep voice.
The room was not very large and, like all rooms in the Garrison, had an austere look. One of the walls was shelved from floor to ceiling and was filled with books and scrolls. Besides those, there was only a plain desk and a round table with six chairs, three of which were occupied by Senral Keer, head of the Royal Guards, High-Senral Baran of the Laeden Army and High-Captain Pryce, Bran’s superior. The air was heavy, and not just from the thick smell of oil and old paper. The men around the table had fallen silent at their arrival and were studying them with grave, scrutinizing eyes. They made their formal salutes. Another person was standing by one of the tall windows, and when he turned to face them, Bran and Bredan dropped on one knee and bowed.
“Your Highness,” they said with surprise.
Prince Feolan came to the table, motioning them to stand up. The stubble, the hollow cheeks and the shadows under the sunken eyes betrayed the late hours spent at candle light, but those dark eyes were as lively as always. They had heard he was a tireless man, seldom taking a break from the kingdom’s affairs. His Highness pointed towards the free chairs, but they waited for him to take his place before sitting.
“Now everybody is here,” said the prince. “Senral Baran, these are the men I told you about: Captain Bran Keer and his Second, Bredan Fionn.”
That detail impressed Bredan, he had not expected that His Highness would remember his full name.
The High-Senral nodded in silence, but his brow quirked at hearing Bran’s name, so the prince explained, “Captain Keer is the son of Senral Keer. Captain Pryce, I believe you know these men.”—Their superior nodded as well—“Perfect! Now that all introductions were made, let’s get to the pressing matters. Senral Keer?”
Bran’s father was much older than one would have expected, but only his grizzled hair, the furrowed brow and the deep folds running from the prominent nose to the corners of the trimmed beard attested to his true age. He was tall like his son, but broader, and his features were strong and less pleasant. Bran had inherited his mother’s looks and his father’s temperament and impressive height. The Senral had the same severe air, but his build and hard face made him look even more intimidating. No wonder he is so serious, with such a father, thought Bredan.
“In the past few weeks we have received intriguing news from our ears in Astur. They noticed some activity that could indicate—but this is only our speculation—that King Arne is preparing for something. We fear he might have war in mind. If, why and with whom is impossible to guess at this moment, and we are still collecting intelligence. For now the activity is discreet and seems limited to a few places, nonetheless it raised our concern.”
“Our relationship with Astur has been good,” stepped in High-Senral Baran, with a pleasant, velvety voice. “Perhaps not as close as that with Vessar or Therras, but we do have trading agreements. The commerce between our countries has steadily increased over the last decades. Though our history is no stranger to conflicts, there have not been any major ones in the last generations. The defunct King Frode was a wise and sensible man, if not very open. But his son has a different mind.” High-Senral Baran was older than Bran’s father, but did not possess the same impressive air. His bearing was less rigid and more elegant, in fact without his uniform one would have taken him for a gentle, respectable grandfather, rather than a military man. He was reputed to have a brilliant mind.
“I know I asked this before, but would it be unreasonable to assume your men could have misunderstood what they saw and given a threatening meaning to what is, possibly, harmless activity?”
“It is unlikely, Your Highness, those men are not novices.” Everyone knew Senral Keer was very scrupulous and demanding, and those assigned with gathering information had to be approved by him, personally. He answered for them. “But Astur is different, so we are taking into account the possibility. We must learn more. It might turn out we worried for naught—I hope it will—but I would rather err on the side of caution, then be right too late. However, we must be careful that our concerns are not apparent, lest we be the ones to give offence and stir a conflict.”
“Of course,” agreed Prince Feolan.
His manner was informal in that it did not reflect his royal status, nor did it claim the customary deference. Rather it indicated his respect for those older and wiser than him, and his goodwill towards the younger ones.
“High-Senral Baran is right,” continued Senral Keer, “King Arne is not like his father. He is more reserved and distrustful, it is hard to tell what he thinks. And even harder for our men to get close without raising suspicions. He is reserved, but not unintelligent. We want him to let us in, and what better opportunity for that than a renewal of our treaties?”
“And a friendly visit from a royal member,” added the prince with a self-satisfied smile.
“Well, yes,” said the Senral, but it was clear the idea did not please him.
Bran and Bredan were listening in silence—a little overwhelmed, both by the sensitivity of the subject and by sitting in such company—as was High-Captain Pryce, one of the Senral’s most trusted captains, whose presence had probably been requested with regards to the escort. Planning the mission was the responsibility of wiser minds, although why the two of them had been chosen to take part in it was not clear yet.
Prince Feolan finally turned to them. “The party will consist of three people: the Master of Trade, the Lord Chancellor of Affairs and myself. There will be a handful of attendants and domestics, just the minimal number necessary for the trip. I don’t want a large company. The guards will also be kept to a minimum.”
“Your Highness,” said Senral Keer, “forgive me, but I cannot consent to that. It’s dangerous. We should add more people.”
“Why? This is a diplomatic visit. Besides, the purpose is to discuss commercial agreements, not political ones. We should have no reason to expect danger or hostility and King Arne would not expect us to bring a large escort. Doing so would only raise suspicions. We must not suggest him, in any way, that our presence has other reasons, or that we know anything we should not. Is this not what you said earlier?”
“Your Highness, I must agree with Senral Keer,” said High-Senral Baran. “King Arne has a reputation of being unpredictable. We cannot take any chances.”
“The whole mission bears a risk, but we have no choice.” Prince Feolan pointed a hand to Bran’s father, “And it was you who came up with the idea.”
“Of the mission, yes, but Your Highness was not supposed to be part of it.”
“My presence will reinforce the message of friendship. And, anyway,” added the prince, leaning back in his chair, “Father has already consented.”
“The King has consented on the condition that we do not take unnecessary risks. Having a proper escort is part of it.”
“Which is why High-Captain Pryce is here. We shall have a proper escort—small, but made up of the best men, under his direct command. Captain, I hope you have taken care of that.” The prince was as stubborn as a mule and, once he had made a decision, no one but the King had a chance to convince him otherwise.
“We have twenty men, Your Highness, all experienced,” said High-Captain Pryce. “Very good fighters, both with a blade and bare handed. I carefully selected them with Senral Keer. They have been informed and will be ready anytime. I also have a few other in mind, should Your Highness reconsider their number. Of course,” he added, “none of them have been told the real purpose of the journey.”
“And that brings me to you,” turned the prince to Bran and Bredan. “I want you to be part of the escort, but only for the sake of appearance, because your task is different. I want you to gather intelligence. It is my understanding both of you speak Asturan.” He paused, waiting for confirmation—they nodded—and then continued, “As my personal guards you will have access almost everywhere I go, but not as many eyes on you.”
They bowed. “Yes, Your Highness.”
Inwardly, Bredan was jubilating; the mission was promising to be more exciting than he had anticipated. However, he could not show it in front of this assembly. “Your Highness, am I permitted a question?”
“Certainly. There is no need to concern yourselves with ranks tonight. I welcome any question which pertains to our mission and any suggestion which might help us.”
“Thank you, Your Highness,” he said, with a bob of the head. “Is there anything in particular that we ought to be aware of? Any specifics about the activities Senral Keer has spoken of? If we know what to look for, we shall be more efficient.”
“The reports suggest an increase in the mining activity, in particular iron mining. It may seem irrelevant—indeed, it could be just something temporary—but so far nothing suggests a similarly growing need in the domestic use.”
“Perhaps it is intended for trade?”
“We thought so as well,” said Senral Keer, “but there have been no significant changes in the trade, as far as we can tell. However, there have been sightings of small transports of iron bars from Fargos.” Astur’s southern neighbour, that is.
“Is that unusual?” Bredan was not very knowledgeable about the economy of their neighbours.
“Since they have the means to extract the metal themselves, it is,” answered the Senral.
“Not to mention more expensive,” added the prince.
“You suspect they are gathering iron for weapons,” realized Bran.
“It is a reasonable explanation. But there could be others, perhaps more harmless, that we are not aware of. That is why we must learn more.”
“If so, should there not be an increase in the production of charcoal? And the use of wood?”
“Absolutely,” said the prince. “Bloomeries need it to smelt the metal. But they can also use water. The reports do not mention anything, but it is quite possible that we are witnessing the early stages of preparations. It doesn’t mean it cannot happen in the future. Just as it doesn’t mean that, should this mission invalidate our worries, we shall not continue to keep an eye on our neighbours.”
Silence fell on the room, as if the prince and their superiors wanted to let the news sink in. Prince Feolan was the one who broke it.
“You probably wonder why I chose you for this, when we have more experienced men.” It was a rhetorical observation. He knew they were, though their superiors seemed just as curious about his reasons. “I like you,” he said, smiling candidly at Senral Keer’s indignant frown, “you have inquisitive minds. You are observant and quick to understand. You are also young and good looking—not your merit, of course, but it’s always a good addition; it opens doors more easily.” He turned to the two senrals. “I know you think they are too inexperienced—many said the same about me—but with youth also comes resourcefulness. I believe that is a valuable quality.”
Senral Keer sighed with resignation. He had no arguments against his Prince, none, anyway, which could stand against the other’s stubbornness, and that seemed to amuse High-Senral Baran.
Prince Feolan was pleased. “You have a charming tongue,” he told Bredan, “I happened to hear it in the training ward. And a gift with people. Use them.” He looked at Bran. “You have a subtle eye for details and a sharp mind. We need that. We need your best qualities. I chose you not on a whim, but because I noticed you and I trust my own judgement. And, despite his scowl, I’m sure Senral Keer agrees with me.”
Bran’s father did not answer, but to those who knew him, and everyone at that table did, his expression was a confirmation.
“Now you know what information we have, but I want you to keep your eyes open to everything,” concluded the prince.
“Thank you, Your Highness.”
“We still have time to talk about it before we reach Astur. High-Captain Pryce will join us and you will report to me and him. No one else. Mind you! Nobody,” he stressed the word with a tap on the table, “besides the King and the First Prince, knows what we discussed here tonight. Not even our honourable companions. The Master of Trade is convinced renewing the treaties was his idea. In part, it was. We should not change that, so don’t let your tongues slip.”
“Yes, Your Highness.”
“Very well. You may go now, we need you fresh and ready tomorrow. Captain Pryce, if there is nothing else, you can retreat as well.”
“Your Highness, you need rest, too,” said the Captain. “You have not slept enough in the last days.”
“Thank you, Captain, I appreciate your concern. I must discuss a few more details with the senrals, but I shall.”
The three of them stood up, saluted the prince, the senrals, and took their leave. High-Captain Pryce went to his own workroom, but Bran and Bredan paused in front of the door, not really knowing what to do. They should have gone to their room to prepare for the next day, to sleep, only they were too agitated to do any of those. They needed a walk, fresh air to clear their minds and steady the fast beating of their hearts. Without even talking to each other, they started in the opposite direction of their room.
The heavy door of the office opened and closed.
Senral Keer’s deep voice stopped them short. He had followed them outside and was approaching with a decided step and a hard look.
“Whatever His Highness asks of you, remember that your duty is to the Royal House. If anything happens—anything!—His Highness is your first priority.”
“I’m talking to both of you.” He turned a fierce look to Bredan.
“Yes sir,” he answered firmly. The Senral’s gaze sent shivers through his spine.
“Good.” Senral Keer turned to go back to his meeting, but stopped before the door. “And, Bran, tomorrow morning pay a visit to your mother.”
“Will there be enough time?”
“I don’t think you will leave too early.”
“Then I will.”
“…You should come home more often.”
“Be careful,” said his father in a softer voice, just before going in, as though he did not really wish to be heard.
Bredan thought there was a faint tremble in it. He let out a long breath of relief. “What was that?”
“His heart,” answered Bran with fondness, and the corners of his mouth raised ever so slightly, leaving his friend confused and speechless for the second time in a day.
The tavern keeper dropped the pints on the table a little louder than usual. He liked neither the two strangers who looked like lower class, though their skin was too healthy and smooth for it, nor the dirty beggar in front of them, whose smell was nauseating, but he liked the sound of coins in his pouch. “Make it quick,” he grumbled and left. Good thing there were not too many customers, but soon there would be. That stinker better be gone by then.
The dirty man grabbed the pint and greedily gulped half of it, smacking his lips. “I haven’t got one in days,” he mumbled to himself. “So, whaddya want? To twit me like the rest of ’em?” He spat on the floor. “Gallan blister their foul tongues.”
“We want to hear what happened that evening,” said one of the strangers in a surprisingly soft voice for such a stern looking fellow.
The beggar snorted. “Aye, hear the blabber of a Fates rejected wretch.” He took another gulp of ale. “It right cursed me, that happened. Said it would find me if I told any, said I’d meet a horrible end. And look at me!” He opened his arms. “Gone to the dogs. I was not much afore, but I was no beggar. Oh, no, I ain’t talkin’ about it.”
“Tell us what you saw and you will have decent food till summer.”
The man eyed the strangers with suspicion, but at the sight of a small pouch in the hand of the one with a soft voice, his stomach growled. He reached for it, but the other put it back in his cloak.
“It shall be yours if you talk.”
“You won’t believe me anyways,” mumbled the beggar. “Just like them. But I know what I saw and they can all go screw ’emselves.”
“What did you see?”
The two men’s faces were as readable as two stones on the side of the road, but at least they appeared to take him seriously. What was there to lose? His life? He had barely made it through the last months, but the winter was not over yet. He could die of hunger or cold any day. The beggar closed his eyes.
“Oh, what I saw was no man, I’m tellin’ you. Don’t know what it was, but no man.”
“Why do you think that?”
“Never seen eyes like that. Burnin’ like fire. Glowin’.” His eyes widened. “Starin’ at me like ’twas gonna roast me, I’m tellin’ you. Thought I was done.” He shook his head. “That power…”
“Like ’twas a storm in it. Like…” The beggar’s gaze grew distant. “I don’t know… never felt anything like it afore. Terrible power… Couldn’t move and ’twas not even touchin’ me.” He shuddered, hugging himself, his fingers curling in the rough, grimy sleeves. “A thing of nightmares. A fiend.”
It looked as though he were not going to say anything else.
“How did she look like?” asked the other stranger.
The beggar blinked, confused. “Who?”
“That person you were talking about,” the man said impatiently.
“Person?” Had they been listening to him? “Used to be, mayhap, afore that fiend took him.”
“Him? So it was a man?”
“Yes… well, may be… I don’t know. ’Twas dark and I couldn’t tell. Only saw his back until he turned those accursed eyes to me.”
The stranger snorted. “Can’t you tell the difference?”
“I was not… entirely meself,” admitted the beggar.
“What about stature?”
“Oh! He was tall and a fine one, aye. Walkin’ nice, like ’em hoity-toities, ’cept his clothes were common. Smelled right good, too. Had long, fine hair that smelled good.” He laughed bitterly. “And there I was, thinkin’ I’d have me way with him a bit. Thought it was me lucky day.”
“You keep saying him.”
“Him, her, what’s it matter? If they’re fine, I don’t care.”
The stranger drew back, repelled.
“Anything else?” asked the first man.
The beggar gazed absently at the wooden mug in front of him. “He wasn’t lookin’ it, but he was strong. Shook me off like a rag-doll and I ain’t no stripling. Then he turned those eyes to me and I thought that was it… Then some guards showed and he told me to scoot.”
“He let you go?”
“Would I be sittin’ here, drinkin’ with you fine gentlemen if he didn’t? ’Twas a very near thing, I’ll tell you that.” He grabbed the mug with a shaky hand and downed the ale, wiping his mouth with the rough sleeve. “Been cursin’ that day ever since.” For a while he just looked at his dirty hands, scratched and scabbed. Then he held one out.
“I told you all I saw. Now gimme the coin you promised.” The soft spoken man took out the pouch and dropped it in his hand. He snatched it before the other could change his mind, weighing and fingering it. He took out a coin, then dropped it back. “Thank you,” he said simply, hiding the pouch in his clothes. “Don’t know why you’re so curious about it, but I’d stay away if I was you.” He stood. “Fates have mercy on me, ’tis the last time I flap me mouth about that cursed thing.”
He scuttled off, bumping into a customer who was just entering the tavern, then disappeared on one of the snowy side alleys.
“Are we going to let him go?”
“He’s miserable enough,” said the soft spoken man. “He won’t last long. We have more important things to do.”