Echoes of Midnight

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Thirteen

Fights were common inside the Owl’s Cauldron. Fear grew with each patron as the commotion rose to an octave. A High Lord came. It was a gripping sight while Stefan approached one of the thugs.

“Where will you keep her?” asked Stefan, his hand on one side of his hip. The hilt of his sword felt rough to his fingers, wary and tight for a clash.

“It is no concern of yours, High Lord. She’s a valuable good to Ribald now,” the thug retorted and flashed his dirty teeth in menace.

Stefan did not waste time on politeness. He simply grabbed the thug by the collar and threatened him with the muscles of his jaw ticking.

“I. Said.” Stefan enunciated each slowly. “Where will you keep her?”

No response. Stefan moved his hand to his neck and gripped him tighter.

“Ribald’s going to kill you, my lord. He will stop at Allafech by the morrow and off to Aquafirth if the lady is lucky.”

“Allafech? That’s where you and your treacherous brothers hide?” asked Stefan. Intent on finding Greta, he loosened his grip from the thug.

It was a quick mistake on his part when a flash of blade caught his eye. The High Lord already knew what it meant. He drew his sword and it whooshed by the air – nearly cutting a strand of the thug’s shoulder-length hair.

“Do not test me, thief.”

The High Lord sneered with utter loathe to the thug who grinned his filthy teeth at him. He was demanding a fight. Stefan could tell from the way the thug gripped the hilt of his weapon.

“If you are eager for a duel, rein in your man’s parts and fight me!” spat Stefan, oblivious to the growing tension around the tavern.

Its patrons paused as they slowly witnessed how a High Lord glared over the burly thug. A fight they rarely saw; for High Lords never left their castles for amusement.

With Stefan’s encouragement, the thug pounced on him. But the High Lord was a man of strategy. He knew his reflexes too well; just in time for the thug to jab a dagger to his left. Stefan predicted the move and sidestepped over to the right. He stretched his legs before him and swept the thug’s feet over his own.

“Not brave enough? Tell that to your master Ribald once I catch up with him,” threatened Stefan with his glaring blue eyes.

“Percival!” he cried over his shoulder.

Footsteps rang over the wooden floors of the tavern as Percival came into view. He was ready. With his breeches and leather coat, Percival looked like no ordinary tavern keeper but a warrior. One foot forward than the other and a hand on the hilt of his sword. It was a knight’s stance as Stefan arched his brow over.

Percival bristled on the apprehension. “The fun had just begun, brother. For a stubborn fellow like him, I dare say my beastly dogs can t-“

“Not a chance, Percival. Bring him over to the stables. This man is not used to persuasion; perhaps, it’s time we teach him one.”

*****

Far from the Owl’s Cauldron, High Lord Stefan and Percival stood a few feet away from the thug. Much were needed to be done and the stable was the perfect place for it. No slaughter, only a High Lord who would go to great lengths to keep a thug for questions.

To seek a woman? Ha! The High Lord of the Mudwick castle was not fond of involving himself with females, travelers included. But why did he change his mind over a mere mortal? Stefan pondered as he moved forward.

Thwish!

The sound flew with the humid air, like an arrow leaving the bow. On Stefan’s palm was an apple bough – a crop for punishing misbehaving horses, and men such as the thug before him. He stared down at the outlaw and pressed the bough to his jaw.

“What brings you here?”

The thug in turn spat at Stefan’s direction. His spittle dripped in rivulets as Stefan’s eyes burned with wretched anger. He whipped the thug by the right calf. The outlaw groaned in pain and cracked a manic laugh. It was no surprise. Stefan had already caught him unaware as he whipped the other calf.

“Do not mistake me for a foolish man. What brings you to Bellevedere?”

Despite the blooming bruises on his skin, the other man grinned when he realized that insults and impertinence to the High Lord were his only weapons. No dagger, not even a strip of a rope.

“It seems you have forgotten something, my lord. I am a Marauder, and we do not fear men like you,” the thug raised his voice at the latter. “You want us to fear you? Not in the devil’s name. We want your coins, your women, and the babes we are going to breed from them!”

That snapped Stefan in a blink. He threw the bough at Percival and drew his sword. He swung the blade and cut one wrist. Blood spurted from the gashing wound as Stefan took one step back from the thug.

The flesh came away quickly. Left with a single hand, Stefan nearly covered his ears as the thug cried. It was one thing to insult a High Lord but to announce a dark motive? It undid Stefan like never before.

“Your aims do not make you a man. You’re a monster, much less than your master Ribald. Who is he and why did he come to Bellevedere?”

The thug moaned and writhed in response. He was tied to a post among the hay; but now that he was left with one hand, the pain fevered to a pitch.

“Ribald is not a fool, High Lord,” the thug sneered with the title.

A mutinous reply. For Stefan acted too quick. He pointed his sword to the wound and pressed the tip to the flesh. The blood squelched, numbing the thug to his own pain.

“Y-you c-cannot defeat Ribald. He’s getting stronger nowadays now that he has a slaver in his midst.”

“Who?” inquired Stefan. “Tell me about the slaver. Is he from the other villages or perhaps, the Old World?”

“I am not acquainted with the slaver. When Ribald talked to her in the woods, they were both shadowed and hooded.”

“Her? Are you saying that the slaver is a…woman?” Stefan wondered, confirming his suspicions on the three women he knew so well.

He deemed it right to sentence the thug as a single-handed man. The High Lord was not a man of mercy nor salvation. When he saw the thug’s eyes turned white as he slumped to the ground, Stefan did not feel guilt, but only revenge.

“Percival,” he called. The tavern keeper kept to himself and stopped beside the High Lord.

“Tell me, how long will it took for us to go to Allafech?” Stefan wondered as he put his sword back to its scabbard.

“Two morrows, my lord. With the horses, we can take a detour through the mountains and get there by sunrise.”

Stefan nodded in return, while a plan slowly formed in his mind. He would rescue Greta. Help her go home, but would he sacrifice his long years of knighthood only to break one curse? Would he choose to save Greta for honor or selfish reasons? For bringing his love back from the dead?

Reigning in his senses, Stefan turned over to Percival. “Ready the horses and send a pigeon for Erik.”

“Aye, brother. What are we going to do to this dirty scoundrel?”

“Perhaps now is the time to feed him to the dogs,” the High Lord paused as he saw Percival grinned. “…and Percival?”

The other man craned his head.

“Make sure he’s dead. He brought madness to your tavern and stole a lady from me.”

Upon his command, Percival tended to his duties immediately. Stefan hid a smirk on his behalf while he considered his options. His plan would work. Only time would tell before he caught the three women involved in the fray. The fates would surely pay for their betrayal.






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