Chapter 13: Herald
I left Hippolytus to his work and began making my way back to the stable. As I walked, I pondered my conversation with the crusty fire mage. Clearly, he knew Balthazar, but I’d never heard my Father mention him. When he insisted that I should tell Balthazar, “Hippolytus has paid his debt”, I very nearly asked him what he meant. Fortunately for me I was able to restrain the question, as I was sure the crotchety Hippolytus would have seen my innocent inquisition as insolence.
It was now just past noonday and I had expended half a day on errands. I was considering extending my stay in Elk Haven so as to get an early start in the morning. In fact my mind was set on just that course of action as I approached the village Post Oak. The Elk Haven’s Post Oak was an ancient weatherworn tree near the center of town where fliers, missives, and general announcements were posted for the public’s notice. Every village had one and some villages had several.
I first noticed the pounding of the hammer echoing on the cold air. When I looked to find the source of the clanging, I saw a herald wearing the livery of the Duke of High Glen tacking a missive to the tree trunk. Before he could catch sight of me, I ducked into an ally between two fences and waited for him to leave. When I was certain that the herald was gone, I slipped out once more and made for the tree at a leisurely pace.
Now I was truly thankful that it was past the noon hour. Those in the village that had stopped work to take their respite at the noon table were back to their labors. Children, who spent the morning hours at play, now napped giving their caretakers an hour or two of blessed peace. Even the village dogs, which could be found annoyingly under foot at most times of the day, seemed to be elsewhere at the moment. The Post Oak stood all alone.
I walked with purpose towards the tree, finding the freshly posted missive without effort. The Duke’s device filled the top quarter of the page and below it, the body of simple text.
His Grace, the Duke of High Glen now seeks the aid of his people.
A very important citizen has gone missing and it is feared that skullduggery is afoot. His Grace is offering a handsome reward for any information that helps the Glen Guard find one Kerri, the apprentice to the most revered, Master Balthazar of the Light.
She is seventeen, slight of build, with copper eyes, and long golden-brown hair. Direct all reports to your local Sheriff.
I looked calmly in all directions, and when I found no one watching me, I snatched the notice from its tacks and crammed it into my belt purse. Skullduggery indeed!
I quickened my pace returning to the stable in no time. Argo sensed my distress and danced uneasily in his box stall while I gathered his tack. A rustling in the hay loft nearly caused my heart to stop. I looked up warily only to be greeted by the furry striped head and golden-green eyes of the cat dragon greeted me from the shadows.
“Be calm Companion,” Uriel soothed on a rumbling purr as he made his way down from the loft.
“Calm,” I sputtered, “a herald from the Duke’s court is wandering about posting missives about my unfortunate disappearance … and you expect me to be calm.”
“I am well aware of the herald,” he informed me. “I saw him earlier, when he took his lunch over at The Three Boars Tavern.”
“Unity preserve us,” I hissed as I hurriedly slung Argo’s saddle onto his back.
“I took the liberty of doing a bit of spying,” he continued to purr smugly, “after all, who pays any attention to a stray cat. Anyway, he asked about you and …”
I squealed at his revelation and, in my distraction, I accidently pulled the saddle chinch too tight. Argo snorted his displeasure and glared at me with one disapproving brown eye.
“Sorry,” I apologized as I loosened the leather strap until it was just snug. Argo snorted again and shook his shaggy head in acceptance of my appology.
“If you would let me finish,” the cat dragon scolded lightly, “he asked about you, but no one amongst the crowd had any information for him. After his meal he made his way to the Post Oak where you spotted him.”
“Did he ask the innkeeper about me?” Surly he had, if he used the stable for his horse while he went about his duties. Innkeepers could always be relied upon to provide invaluable information about both a village and its visitors.
“He never visited the inn,” Uriel purred. “As soon as the herald entered Elk Haven, I made a point of following him … discretely of course. He took his horse to the blacksmith and left it there to have a broken shoe replaced while he attended to his affairs. He left via the Western Road, on his way to Finnrest.”
For the first time since I saw the herald, my heartbeat slowed to a normal rhythm.
“I would recommend remaining for another night in Elk Haven,” the cat dragon continued calmly, “we wouldn’t want to end up inadvertently sharing a campfire with the inquisitive herald … now would we?”