Excerpt from Irith Queen
Hayley hesitated for a moment. “Lead on, my lady,” he said.
She wasted no time then. Turning, she left the main road and led the way down a side street, walking quickly and looking about her cautiously. Hayley followed her, and the rest followed him.
When her dasher had fallen in behind the others Gail let go of her sled and came past to catch up with Alken who was directly in front of her. “Alken!” she said when she was close, her voice little more than a whisper. “Did she just say Arlen Bresh?”
“I think so,” replied the Kanedonian, after he had gotten over the initial shock of Gail’s first words that day. “This must be the Harlon that the merchants spoke of.”
“What on earth is he doing here?”
“How should I know?” said Alken. “Not even the Bandits seem to know. Why? What’s he to you?”
“I went with Anne to visit him before we came to Vestrodge,” replied Gail. “He was in Thorangel then.”
“Thorangel!” said the Kanedonian. “What’s he doing here then?” then his words of a few moments came back to him. “Never mind,” he muttered, returning his attention to their leader.
They had come several streets over and now their guide made another turn into a larger street. They had only gone a little way when they came to a place where a large building of some sort was divided from the road by a walled courtyard. Here she turned in, and they followed. The moment Gail had passed through with her dasher the gate closed behind them and a bar dropped.
The courtyard was wide and empty. The dashers came together in a haphazard cluster, and the travelers came from among them warily, with their hands on their weapons.
There were twenty or thirty men on the grounds, some of them guarding the entrances, others peering out over the wall, and still others eyeing the newcomers suspiciously. None of them were Bandits.
Their guide now turned to face them, and removed her cowl. She was young, perhaps in her late twenties. It immediately became clear to them why she had covered herself in the street for she had long almost blonde straight hair – a thing unheard of among Bandits. As she looked at their guide, Gail now recognized her as the bartender in Hembrage.
“I am sorry for the secrecy,” said the girl. “I am Elissa, the first mate of the Der Anjet. Captain Bresh is waiting for you inside. Your animals and equipment will not be touched. I believe the Captain has a business offer for you.”
“I am sure he does,” said Hayley warily. “Freyn, let your guards stay with the dashers and our ward.” By our ward, he meant Leordon.
They began walking toward the house, but before they had gotten far, the doors opened, and Arlen Bresh came out. As if in rebellion to the Bandit culture about him he was dressed in as Pirate-ish a fashion as could be devised, complete with a cutlass at his side. Hayley was the first one he addressed. Taking the old man’s hand in greeting, he half bowed, saying as he did, “My lord, Caval, it is good to see you again.”
“Well met, young Captain,” replied Hayley, a little wryly. “I see you’re still getting around.”
“With more success these days, fortunately,” replied Bresh with an awkward laugh. “And I see you’re still keeping a fine company.”
“These are my granddaughters,” said Hayley, “Freyn and Gail.”
“The queen of Gaeline,” said Arlen Bresh, looking Gail up and down. “Fancy meeting you here. But I suppose it’s to be expected that if Lord Caval is to appear he might as well have you with him. And in that case,” he turned to Freyn. “This Freyn must be a queen too? Perhaps the Freyn who rules Kanedon.”
“The same,” said Hayley flatly.
“I see,” said Arlen Bresh, his joke cut from under him. “And who are they?” he indicated the Kanedonian warriors.
“Freyn’s guards,” said the old man.
“And the injured one – is he a guard too?”
“See for yourself, Arlen,” replied Hayley sternly. “I think this one you’ll recognize.”
Arlen Bresh shrugged, and going past them, he went among the dashers as a merchant might have, appraising products and their values. Then he came to the sled where Leordon lay, and when the Pirate saw his face, he stopped, and his smug act fell away. He turned about and his face had gone white. “Caval,” he said, still unmoving. He seemed to be locked somewhere between hatred and fear. “Where is his sword?”
“It was destroyed,” replied Hayley calmly. “Last night, by the daughter of Lord Gretnert.”
Arlen stood frozen for a moment longer. Then, as a man waking from a dream, he shook himself. “See that they’re fed and rested,” he muttered to Elissa. Then, without another word, he turned and ran past them, back into the house.
Elissa watched the captain leave, a look of puzzlement on her face. “Come with me,” she said to them. “Your business will have to wait a little.”
“We are in no particular hurry today,” said Hayley politely.
“I have seen that,” replied Elissa. “But you do not yet know your danger.” She was leading them around the side of the house where an awning had been set outside of the kitchen doors. “My Lord Caval,” she said, “Captain Bresh owes you a great debit. We both do. It has been reported that you are asking for horses and, if you will accept them, we will be pleased to make you an even trade – horses for your current mode of transportation.”
“We need five horses,” said Hayley, “and we have only four dashers to trade. In Vestrodge three dashers are traded for two horses.”
“I know,” said Elissa. “We have four steeds here at the house, and three more aboard Der Anjet. You may take them all if you desire.”
They had come to the awning, and found that beneath it was set a table with benches. Elissa called into the kitchen, and the staff replied from inside, saying that a meal was in preparation and would be served soon.
“Your offer is very generous,” Hayley said cautiously.
“Not so, Lord,” replied the girl. “We will still be in your debit, I think, when all this is done. But the matter of gifts is of secondary importance.” She took a seat at the table, motioning for them to join her. When all were seated, she leaned across the table so that they could speak quietly.
“Four days ago there was an imperial ship that came through the narrows and anchored out in the bay. It was a great ship, and sent ashore many landing parties to the different towns. The soldiers were heavily armed and they spilled more than a little Bandit blood. We’d only been here two days when they arrived, and most of the Bandits said we had brought them, but we had not been followed. We harassed the soldiers as we could with our few numbers for there were more than a hundred of them on the ground and we have only thirty. Nevertheless, we made life so miserable for them that in two days they returned to their ship and left, tired and diseased. It gave us quite a good standing among the Bandits. But,” she lowered her voice even more. “The ship has not left through the narrows. What’s more, by our reckoning fewer men returned to it than what came from it. Perhaps as many as fifty soldiers stayed aground and for all our skills we have not been able to find them.’
“To make matters worse,” she continued, “your coming was not unlooked for. When they first landed, we got a hold of one of them and beat some answers from him. He said that they’d come from Legionair; that they’ve built a great camp there for the invasion of Vestrodge. He said also that at Legionair they caught a Vessergen hunter, and learned that he was of a band of fugitives flying north through the snow. They’re here looking for you, Caval, and now that they know you have come, we think they will land their ship and swarm these shores until you are found and killed – that is if they cannot overcome us with the fifty that they already have ashore that have eluded us.”
“Then the hunter was caught,” said Hayley gravely. “And no word has gotten to Vestrodge.”