In The Absence of Eagles: Book 1 of the The Chronicle of the Shires

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Chapter 21: An Entertaining Evening

Instead of following the servant who waited outside the study to show them to their quarters, the leader of the group waited in the entrance hall for Rebekah and the lady of the house to leave. He then excused himself going in again to speak with Nevest Sirhc about a matter of unfinished business. “My Lord, we are in need of a boat to cross the Bay of Tirzah. Do you have access to one or know of someone we might be able to hire one from?”

“Now why would you want to go that way?” the man replied nonchalantly. “There are far more pleasant routes than that nasty course.”

“Nevertheless that’s the way we must continue our journey. Are you able to help us out?”

“No, I cannot,” Sirhc responded glibly and without care. “I do not concern myself with such base things, so am at quite a loss as to how to assist.”

Mitt Cela, tired of the conversation, bowed low. “I think I’m ready to retire to my chamber now My Lord,” he concluded. “Thank you for your hospitality.”

The ladies looked with curiosity at the grim-faced Mitt Cela as he joined them outside the study, but were not interested enough to ask any questions. Instead the group followed several servants up to the guest wing of the manor. While Belac pointed out various interesting works of art to Rebekah impressing her with his knowledge of culture, the remainder carried on a hushed conversation.

“We have to find a boat,” Mitt Cela said emphatically. “Without one we’re virtually trapped in this district and it’s only a matter of time before Mephistopheles’ army comes here.”

“I’ll find us a boat for the passage to Mahl tomorrow,” Umim volunteered.

“You?” Hai’asi asked with surprise. “How do you propose to do that?”

“This is a town that has more than culture and leisure about it. There are also fishermen and traders who come here for supplies. I know where they gather so I’ll go and find one to take us.”

Though Umim was still viewed with suspicion they seemed to have little choice.

Hai’asi looked unconvinced at the man. “That’s fine,” he interjected. “I’ll come along to keep you company since I’d like to see more of the town.”

Umim saw through the captain’s sudden interest in Tel Melah. “Suit yourself,” he replied, shrugging his shoulders. “After we have cleaned up a bit we can set out.”

The party then broke to go to their individual chambers in Sirhc Hall before they would go to the gathering of their hosts.

In the room the two scouts shared Thummim immediately began to question his older brother with rising anger. “Why are we still looking after them? They don’t care about us you know. They don’t even like us. In the end all will die at the hand of this dark force so why can’t we profit from it instead of perishing?”

“Thummim we pledged our word,” Umim reminded him. “Besides, don’t you realize by now, our only hope lies in this mission? There’ll be no place for man if we don’t succeed and I fear no place anyone can hide. No, we’re tied to them. Not only that, we have a part to play in this whole enterprise.”

Umim looked at his still unconvinced younger brother and changed course. “Don’t you want to do something different? For how many years have we been wanderers, vagabonds? How long have we been unwelcome unless there was an unsavory task to perform? We’re accepted here, we’ve been given responsibility. It’s an opportunity to make something legitimate and noteworthy of ourselves. That’s worth more than any gold to me.”

The speech did little to impact the shorter of the pair. “Accepted?” Thummim retorted with a cold look in his eyes. “We’re being patronized brother and only being used. We’ll be thrown back onto the slagheap once our use is done. I say we sell our services as we always have, to the highest bidder. Besides, you can’t buy Kintail Deer with a noteworthy reputation, only with gold and I want both.”

“You always were impatient and one for mischief little brother, even when you were a young lad,” Umim noted, placing a hand affectionately on his brother’s shoulder. “Mother was always having to keep an eye on you. Don’t you see? With our service here we’ll end up with more than we’ve ever had before. With reputation comes legitimacy, which leads to success and comfort. For too long we’ve been settling for table scraps, now we have within our grasp the whole feast.” Looking seriously at his brother Umim concluded, “Listen, I won’t be gone long. Stay in our room and wait for me.”

Thummim’s eyes didn’t change but he wore a face of acceptance. “You’re right again, of course, big brother. I guess I’m wrong about many things.”

Opening the door and seeing Hai’asi in the hall waiting for him, Umim smiled affectionately at his brother, patted him on the back and left to go to the place where he knew those who kept boats would congregate. Several minutes after he had departed Thummim slipped out of the manor unseen and into the darkness.

The great hall of the manor was brightly lit by dozens of candles hanging from silver chandeliers and wall sconces. A warm fire blazed at one end of the handsomely appointed room adding to the light. Nearly twenty colorfully dressed guests were in attendance at one of the many well-known gatherings at Sirhc Hall while nearly as many servants were on hand to respond to their every whim. The attractive crowd sat at four elegantly set, long tables, covered with snow white linen on comfortable overstuffed chairs. Lord Sirhc and his sister presided with another couple on a raised dais overlooking the whole room. Roast boar, Kintail Deer, fowl, and all manner of culinary delights were brought out to tempt the palates of the guests. Fine wines and ales were available to wash the repast down. All and all it promised to be an excellent evening.

Several people had asked about the newcomers who sat among the guests instead of at the head table but most were more interested in telling about themselves than inquiring about others. Traveling guests were frequent in the hall of Lord Nevest Sirhc so the presence of the party from Carnelian didn’t raise any real attention.

Once the feasting ended it was time for the night’s entertainment. Lady Noner performed first. She began to sing a robust song in a strange tongue accompanied by four musicians situated in a gallery above the room playing stringed and woodwind instruments. The strength of her presence shone through not only in a clear singing voice but also in her magnetic personality, which came out in her number. The whole of the assembly sat enraptured by the performance. Her finale was greeted by enthusiastic cheering and calls for more. Instead she lightly waved off the attention, allowing another woman to step forward and play delicately upon a harp.

Rather than return to her seat at the head table Lady Noner went over to where Mitt Cela sat. “Did you like my number?” she inquired, playfully tossing the ringlets of her golden blond hair back and forth.

“It was an enchanting piece m’lady,” Mitt Cela replied truthfully, “though I didn’t understand the words. What language was it?”

“Oh that? It was in one of the auld tongues. I know them all quite well. That one was a love song.” Then sitting beside him, she asked, “You don’t mind if I sit with you for a while do you?”

Mitt Cela knew he had little choice so nodded his head in approval. The loner then became engaged in conversation during the duration of the performances of the other women who chose to allow their talents to shine.

The time for individual performance seemed to end and the musicians began to play dance music of varying tempos. Couples filled the floor beginning to dance about in a very elegant, polished fashion.

Lady Noner politely turned down a request to dance given by a gentleman who had come over to seek her hand. Afterwards she stared at Mitt Cela with a look of inquiry upon her pretty face, seeking an invitation, but was met by silence. “Are you not going to ask me to dance?” she asked bluntly, no longer able to stand the delay.

The response stunned her. “No I am not m’lady.”

In truth Mitt Cela had been drawn to the woman. It was hard not to be. She possessed beauty to be sure and a certain charm although it all seemed overshadowed by an air of conceit. But his duty overruled his personal desires. Besides he didn’t like this place. It was unnatural that these people would be carrying on in this fashion when so much destruction was taking place all about.

No, Mitt Cela thought to himself, I’ve pledged to lead and to watch, no more. That was what he would do and he felt it especially important this night for some nagging reason.

“You cannot be serious…you, you would not refuse ME?” Noner questioned incredulously, a note of edge in her voice. Then seeing his gaze rest upon Princess Rebekah she spat out in irritation, “You will not dance with me because I am not fair enough, is that it?” Her face lit up with jealousy. “I can now see you have eyes only for another, faithful protector.”

Mitt Cela had been surveying the room as she spoke but then his eyes returned back to the angry lady of the manor. Not wishing to offend the woman he attempted to explain. “You are mistaken m’lady. You are very fair. I do thank you for your particular attention this evening. You’re very kind to notice me, but I cannot dance.”

The woman huffed, folding her arms petulantly. She had been clearly offended and would allow no explanation.

Mitt Cela allowed his fatigue and growing annoyance with this act of immaturity to spill out. “Listen, I’m not here to participate in some whimsical activity. I’m here to watch and at the request of your brother. My role is as protector of the princess, not for the personal amusements of others, regardless of how high they may be.”

Annoyance in the eyes of Noner turned to rage. “What does she need to be protected from? The drudgery of your simple company I warrant.” In an obviously foul mood, she asked more to confirm than inquire, “You still will not dance with me?”

“I still will not dance.”

She noticed his hand was resting on a long dagger carried concealed within the folds of his tunic. “You dare to bring a weapon into my hall, into my celebration?” she exploded, allowing her wrath to spill out. “What form of barbarian are you that you would do such a thing?”

“I’m a protector and must be prepared in all circumstances.”

“I am a protector and must be prepared,” she mocked him. “Bah! Mindless drivel! What base and brute thinking you possess. What a narrow and singular mind bent on all things foul and unsavory.” Noner’s voice rose as the withering assault intensified. “You are not worthy of my halls I declare! I wish I had never laid eyes on one so dull as you. I am counting the hours until you leave my home and brightness may return to it.”

Mitt Cela looked down at the polished wooden floor under the verbal barrage while several people close by began to watch the scene of the delicate hostess berating the powerfully-built man with the scar on his face.

Noner, finally running out of invectives to throw at the man, stormed off leaving him sitting there humiliated and stone-faced.

Princess Rebekah had heard the whole exchange since she’d been sitting across from him. Stunned by what had just happened, she looked over at the recipient of the attack but could not speak.

As if knowing he was being watched Mitt Cela lifted his head. There was pain in his eyes, which made Rebekah shudder in sympathy. She gave him an embarassed smile, still unable to speak. The red-faced bounty hunter nodded his head gently in response as if he understood. He then stood up to get a mug of ale, removing himself from the stares of those who were about him.

“Princess Rebekah,” a hesitant voice said so only she could hear, “would you do me the honor of dancing with me?”

Breaking the anguish of the moment she turned to see Squire Belac standing in a slight bow with an embarrassed look of anticipation on his face. Though stunned, she rose and took his offered hand. “It would be my pleasure,” she replied.

Belac too had witnessed the unfortunate scene with Mitt Cela and could see the pain it caused the princess. He had not given his spontaneous action more than a thought for if he had his natural caution would have caused him not to do it. He’d wanted to distract her from what had just happened but also in truth be close to her. So throwing caution to the wind he made the bold declaration, not expecting it to be accepted, and was now reaping its rewards. Light-headed, heart pounding, he led her onto the dance floor. While unnoticed by the assembly he felt that at this moment he was in the center of the world.

Awkwardly assuming the dancing position, he became aware of the sweat beginning to bead on his hand. In a panic he looked over at Rebekah who didn’t shift her position but instead gave him a dazzling smile. As they began to move together it was as if he were gliding on clouds. Fortunately, Belac had some skills as a dancer so the steps came automatically since the intoxication of the moment carried him away to a place he’d never been before. If he could have frozen that moment in time it would have been his most prized possession for eternity.

As the blissful scene took place, a more evil one brewed just outside the manor. Cloaked in darkness, a shadowy figure slipped to the side of the building with five heavily armed men. “The one I kiss is the one you seek,” he instructed. “The others are of no consequence do with them as you wish.”

The group glided past the lifeless form of the Keeper of the Door lying dead with his throat slit. Unchallenged, the dangerous group entered into the manor, the sounds of the party drawing them closer.

Mitt Cela stood with his back against a pillar trying not to draw any more attention. Sipping a mug of ale he began to feel better. He noticed that Nevest Sirhc seemed to not be in the room which was surprising for the gregarious host. But the sight of Belac and Rebekah dancing together interrupted his wondering at that. Catching the squire’s eye he raised his mug in salute to encourage the youth since it seemed the youth was wondering if Mitt Cela approved. Then shifting his attention he saw Umim enter the room without Hai’asi, which seemed strange.

The bounty hunter began to feel the weariness caused by the lateness of the hour and strain of the journey so hoped the princess would retire soon so he could get some rest. Seeing the happy look upon her face as she danced though he doubted that would happen and rather hoped that it would not. It had been many days since he’d seen her smile that way, which made him feel good.

The happy mood changed quickly to one of caution.

Mitt Cela saw someone working their way towards Rebekah and Belac then stand only feet away. It was as if an alarm began to go off.

Belac became aware that they were being watched about the same time. As the couple shifted position in a dance form he felt the princess being grabbed and was shocked to see Thummim plant a kiss upon her lips.

“What are you doing?” were the only words he could get out as the lanky scout punched him hard in the face causing the unprepared squire to crumple to the floor.

Shoving people aside, two rough looking men emerged from the crowd, moving aggressively to get to the woman Umim was trying to take away. As he pulled, the attacker was unable to move since Belac, blood streaming from his nose, held onto the scout’s legs as hard as he could. As the men reached the scene of struggle one of them viciously kicked the squire several times in the ribs but still he held on. Both then began to pummel Belac about the head and body with their boots until he finally slipped into unconsciousness. Two more men joined the attackers as Thummim pulled the stunned princess along ensuring no guest got in the way.

A mug flew out of the crowd, hitting one in the head. Then Mitt Cela flew out of the shocked crowd who silently watched what was happening. With dagger drawn he sprang at the assailant leading the group knocking him to the floor. The others drew short swords from beneath their cloaks and went after him. Mitt Cela parried the first swing, ducking under another. He sidestepped quickly and thrust hard. This dance was one he had mastered.

Though hard-pressed, he fought like a lion, dodging lunges and slashing in response. Two of the men went down under his blade but he had been cut deep on the arm so was losing blood.

Then with a roar Hai’asi entered the fray, axe in hand, swinging freely catching the others off guard. Thummim, letting go of Rebekah, fled the hall. The others broke to flee since they knew their attempt at abduction had failed. Hai’asi became engaged with one and Mitt Cela had another, the third remaining trapped by a crush of party guests. In a panic he saw the colorful and distinct form of Lady Noner. Grabbing her, the assailant pushed the frightened woman in front of him, using her as a shield.

Mitt Cela dispatched his quarry and slid over to block the escape of the other. Crying and screaming, Noner was being driven steadily forward towards the exit. Mitt Cela though wouldn’t allow the pair to move any further. Unfortunately his short dagger didn’t allow him to do anything other than parry the thrusts of the skilled fighter he faced. Any strike would surely hit the woman.

With Hai’asi locked in his own battle and Belac lying motionless on the floor with Rebekah kneeling down holding onto him Mitt Cela stood alone. Still, he fought on not allowing the other to escape, receiving no aid in the struggle from any of the spectators to this colossal fight. Though a losing battle, he would not give up.

Finally reach and a superior weapon overcame skill and the attacker found his mark. Sliding off a block he buried his sword into the left shoulder of Mitt Cela. Dropping his weapon the leader of the group fell to the floor under his wounds. The attacker triumphantly tossed Lady Noner aside like a rag doll since being of no use to him anymore. The shaggy haired swordsman raised his weapon to deliver the death stroke to the man who had fought so valiantly to save the woman.

Mitt Cela, grimaced in pain, waiting for the final thrust with open eyes. As the anticipated blow began the attacker grunted in mid swing. With a surprised look on his face he fell forward, crashing onto the floor. Standing behind him was Umim, bloodied dirk in hand. The scout then knelt down and helped the badly injured bounty hunter to a sitting position. Grabbing a piece of linen from a nearby table he held it to the freely bleeding wound in at attempt to stop the flow.

“You saved my life,” Mitt Cela said weakly.

“You would have done the same for me,” Umim replied.

“I don’t know if I would have,” Mitt Cela replied honestly despite the searing pain. “Thank you.”

Lady Noner pushed her way past those who tried to comfort her to the fallen man. Unhurt but hysterical, she even shoved her brother aside who had returned to the room upon hearing the disturbance. Reaching him she fell at his prostrate form. “Oh Mitt Cela, please don’t die,” she cried out sobbing. “Please forgive me! I treated you so terribly, now you lie there bleeding for me.” She gulped air between sobs. “I’m so sorry for the way I acted. I’m so sorry.”

She put her hand on his shoulder and Umim, understanding her plight, allowed her to take the makeshift bandage used to stop the bleeding.

Gaining control of her emotions Noner grabbed a servant who tried to help her. “Pay no attention to me,” she shouted, pushing him away, “I’m fine. Find the apothecary now and bring him here!”

Moments earlier Hai’asi dispatched his opponent with a final swing of the axe. Unable to get to the other side of the room in time, in anguish he could only watch what happened to Mitt Cela. With surprise he witnessed Umim’s actions. Although realizing there still might be danger about, moving over to the wounded man Hai’asi wanted first to comfort the distraught Noner and calm his own fears. “Don’t you worry m’lady. It takes more than that to put Mitt Cela down.”

The wounded man grinned in pain. “It’s good to see you’re okay,” he said through gritted teeth.

“Pah, my dance took longer than I had expected,” Hai’asi responded, shrugging his shoulders, “or I would have been able to help you with your partner.” He then realized Umim was listening to the conversation. “I saw our new friend here take my part instead,” he pointed out acknowledging the man. He’d never trusted Umim thus far on their journey. But now, looking with new eyes at the scout, who bowed his head in response, the captain of Amethyst realized how wrong he’d been. “Well done Umim, thank you,”

Getting serious and realizing the gravity of what had happened Hai’asi looked from Mitt Cela again to Umim. “Come, let’s look around to ensure there’s no more danger or treachery.” A new bond of trust had been established.

With that the pair left to check the grounds and the rest of the manor for Thummim or other attackers.

Belac regained consciousness with a start finding himself lying flat on the floor his head being cradled in the lap of Princess Rebekah. The petite young lady held him, dabbing his bleeding nose with her own silk handkerchief. He smiled in bliss, not feeling the pain of the vicious assault anymore. Closing his eyes he didn’t want to move from the position or have the moment end.

Elsewhere, a lone figure rode furiously out of town on the road to Tel Harsha.

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