In which Valarien acquires a new skill
Scipius bade them a reluctant farewell, wishing he were going with them. His final act had been to cloak the wizard in an illusion more in keeping with the other three. It would last so long as Valarien used no major power spells.
Despite being equipped with a first rate mount, Valarien still rode like a sack of potatoes. Wildfire gave the barbarian a reproachful look and hung his head in shame.
"I know," Leon said apologetically. "We'll have to do something about that, won't we?"
"I dare say it would take a bloody miracle," Leon continued in placating tones, "but we can try, can't we?"
Ewan, who had seen nothing of the barbarian's outstanding mastery of the animal world, gave his companion a very funny look indeed. Kai relaxed just enough to smile.
They followed the main west road and were accorded cheers and friendly waves as they went. Larenna's citizens were applying themselves with gritty determination to their unaccustomed labours in the fields.
One such was Ardino Eques, and Valarien reined in to talk to him. The Lascan knight was puzzled at first, but the wizard's voice was unchanged, and he rapidly put two and two together.
"Been visiting Scipius, I see," he laughed.
He was delighted to know that Valarien was alive and well and, apparently, none the worse for his ordeal. He expressed his regret at being obliged to disappoint his friend in his new venture.
"Next time, maybe," he said. "I think you'd better go. Your friends are getting restless. By the way - nice piece of horse-flesh. A definite improvement on your usual old nags!"
"Thanks," murmured the wizard without enthusiasm.
"Wish I was going with you. It'll be more fun than farming," he grimaced.
"Don't knock it. This is no - um - joy ride, I can assure you!"
"Well then, may the best of good luck go with you. I hope we meet again some time - when things are a little more peaceful."
"I'll - um - drink to that! Adieu."
A little further on, they came upon a large water meadow. Under the interested gaze of several well-fed cows and their offspring, Leon took the wizard in hand. Kai protested the loss of time and evinced little faith in either pupil or tutor. Leon was unabashed.
"You have to admit there's plenty of room for improvement," he pointed out, "and we'll gain time in the long run. Besides, you owe it to the horse."
"Well, in fairness, you can't lumber a horse like Wildfire with a rider like Valarien, and not do something about it."
Kai, obliged to accept defeat, did so with a very bad grace. Valarien was somewhat ambivalent about the outcome of the dispute. On the one hand, he wanted to be a little less awkward on the back of a horse - on the other, he had a deeply ingrained sense of insecurity when perched on top of one of the unpredictable things. Once Kai had capitulated, he found that a whole flock of butterflies had taken up residence in his insides. By his skittishness, it seemed that Wildfire was being similarly plagued.
Leon grinned his appreciation of their apprehension which did nothing at all for the wizard's confidence. He proved to be a patient and conscientious teacher, however, and both horse and rider did their best to co-operate. Nevertheless, the improvement was only a very slight one, and Kai's increasingly sour expression didn't help.
The barbarian sat back and watched as horse and rider trotted round the field for the umpteenth time. There was a look of intense concentration on his face. Abruptly he came to a conclusion. Kai, watching the watcher, asked acidly if he'd now decided that it was, after all, a complete waste of time.
"Not in the least," Leon responded placidly. "Just watch this."
He trotted over to the rather despondent wizard.
"I think I see the problem," he said. "You aren't quite in tune with the horse's rhythm. You're moving against him instead of with him. It's only a very slight discrepancy, which is why I didn't spot it sooner, but it's just enough to unsettle the horse and sap your confidence. Bit of a vicious circle really."
"I'm a lost cause, then," Valarien stated, looking glum.
"Not at all," Leon responded bracingly. "I'm going to try something. Trust me."
Valarien voiced his willingness, though his expression was anything but trusting. Leon chuckled.
"Relax," he said, soothingly, "and close your eyes."
"Just do it - please."
The barbarian gave him a lazy smile, and the wizard surrendered. What Leon did now was to lay one hand on Wildfire's forehead and one fingertip of the other on Valarien's. At once, the wizard began to comprehend the essence of the horse - to feel as it felt, to see as it saw. It was almost an experience of divine revelation. At Leon's instruction, he kept his eyes closed.
"Now - walk on," said the barbarian.
Valarien dropped his hands a little and Wildfire moved off at a sedate walk. At further commands, the pair moved on to a rising trot, an extended trot, and finally, a brisk canter around the field. It was probably the fastest the wizard had ever travelled on horseback. He found it wonderfully exhilarating - couldn't imagine how he'd failed to appreciate it before. Crowing with delight, he dug his heels into Wildfire's flanks, and the equally delighted animal responded whole-heartedly. Together, they thundered past their companions at a full gallop and soared over an intervening hedge like a great bird.
Kai watched with mouth agape in disbelief while Leon looked unutterably smug. Even the normally phlegmatic nightranger looked impressed. Kai closed his mouth and looked at the barbarian, noting the look of self-satisfaction. No doubt he would be dining out on this one for months.
"I thought you didn't have any truck with magic," he remarked, unwilling to produce outright congratulations. Leon looked swollen-headed enough as it was.
"That wasn't magic," Leon said seriously. "It just comes naturally. When I was quite small, I found I could communicate with animals somehow - make them do what I wanted them to. I don't know - perhaps it is a kind of magic. I hadn't thought of it that way before."
A rumble behind them announced the return of Valarien and Wildfire, then silence as they flew over the hedge again. As one, they wheeled around and gently cantered back to the rest of the group. Valarien's face was alight, his eyes shining. His thanks came tumbling out amongst a plethora of 'um's that rendered his speech almost incomprehensible. The message came through loud and clear nevertheless, and his genuine pleasure couldn't help but communicate itself to the rest. It lifted the mood of the whole party.
After that, they made excellent time. In less than six days, they were within sight of the western border, and the fair land of Varraine. They passed Pontino, the last town in Lascany, in the middle of the afternoon. Ahead lay Harlonne on the River Sharreine.
Harlonne was a prosperous town built around, or rather, beside a fine, stone bridge. Naturally, as this was the only crossing point for a hundred miles or more, the Harlonians charged a fee for the use of their bridge - at least, Lord Bayard did. Most of their prosperity, however, derived from the large volume of trade which passed, willy-nilly, through the town.
At dusk, the gates were closed against such undesirable visitors as came with the darkness. Around the eastern gate was a sturdy barbican which guarded the bridge, and was the only building on the left bank of the river. The western gate of the town was set into a stout stone curtain wall, some fifteen feet high.
The travellers could have reached Harlonne before nightfall, but Valarien, drawing a little ahead with Kai, advised against it.
"I recommend that we - um - slow down a little. That way, we can justify making camp a few miles short of the town, since the - um - gates would close before we arrive."
"Why should we do that?" Kai asked, mystified. "It's all very well for you, but after five nights of sleeping on tree roots, a comfortable bed wouldn't go amiss."
"I had a feeling you were only listening with - um - half an ear when Ewan was explaining himself back in Larenna. I mean, he's very reliable mostly - but - a wise man will keep him away from the - um - lure of a good tavern..."
"Yes, now you mention it, I do recall reference a number of hostelries. I take it Harlonne is a good place to avoid?"
"Well, the - um - 'Serendipity Inn' certainly is!"
"Looks like it's the tree roots again, then."
Valarien was not the only plotter, however. Ewan had fond memories of the 'Serendipity' and was unwilling to pass up the opportunity of revisiting it. He was astute enough to realize that the wizard would not look favourably upon this idea, and the warrior was in a strange mood since his experience with the crystal. The barbarian, on the other hand, was a lighthearted companion, full of the joys of living. Ewan felt sure he would appreciate the chance of a little bit of a lark.
"Ever been to Harlonne?" he asked, when the other two rode on.
Leon shook his head.
"Fancy a little excursion tonight? I know one or two good places."
Leon gave him a sideways look. "Sounds like fun," he said. "What about the other two?"
"I don't think they'd really want to bother Do you?"
"Not really," Leon responded with an impish twinkle.
Despite the wizard's best efforts to slow their pace, Harlonne loomed large quite soon, and his rather convoluted explanations as to why they should make camp now rather than risk finding the gates shut against them, sounded unconvincing even to his own ears. He was consequently quite relieved to find them accepted without question.
He should have been suspicious. Leon, as was his wont, had been off hunting and returned with a couple of well-fed coneys with which he made a tasty stew. Ewan came over to lend a hand dishing up and, unsighted by Kai and Valarien, added his own 'seasoning' to their portions. Leon looked a question and received a broad wink by way of an answer. Presumably, the nightranger knew what he was doing.
"Reckon we'll all sleep well after this," Ewan said, handing out the doctored plates.
"Yes, an early night would be most welcome," Leon agreed, yawning hugely.
"Don't overdo it," Ewan muttered in his ear, as Valarien gave him an odd look.
By the time, they had finished, two of the party at least were only too glad to turn in, and were asleep before the light had left the sky.
"Valarien's going to kill you when he finds out," Leon remarked as the truants mounted up.
"I know - but it'll be worth it," Ewan grinned back.
A slender crescent moon hung low above the town when they arrived. The gates were long since closed, but Ewan was unperturbed. They tethered their horses by a small thicket along the river bank. Making good use of the shadows, the pair slipped around the back of the barbican where there was a narrow shoulder of land below the first arch of the bridge. A light grapnel flew over the parapet and lodged firmly there.
"I get the feeling this isn't the first time you've done this," Leon whispered conversationally.
"Right. It's more fun this way - and it keeps me in practice."
The nightranger shinned silently up the rope and on to the bridge closely followed by Leon. For a few moments they crouched in the shadow of the parapet but there was no sign of life. Quickly, they scurried across the bridge and into the town. Most of the inhabitants seemed to be settling down for the night and the shutters were up. However, in a certain quarter to which Ewan led the barbarian, there was light and life and laughter. In the open, Leon had en excellent sense of direction, but among the maze of narrow alleyways, he was very soon lost.
"Next right," Ewan said at last, and around the corner was the 'Serendipity'.
As they reached it, a drunk hurtled through the door, collided with the wall opposite and subsided into an untidy heap. The man-mountain responsible glowered at the ex-customer and rubbed the taint from his hands. He registered the presence of the two new-comers. Bowing slightly, he stepped aside.
"Master Ewan, isn't it?" he said. "Come to entertain us all again, sir? Only I 'opes as you'll be a little more circumspect this time, sir - if you takes my meaning?"
He jerked his head towards his late customer as he spoke. Ewan smiled faintly as they stepped inside. The interior was considerably more salubrious than the general seediness of the area had led Leon to expect. The barmaids were all delightful from the blushing maidens to the buxom beauties. Several of them knew Ewan quite well judging by their saucy comments. The test of a good tavern, however, is its liquor. Leon was of the opinion that here was the finest he had ever tasted.
"Worth the rollicking we'll get in the morning?" Ewan asked.
A lively young lady bringing a second flagon, greeted Ewan with great familiarity. Laughingly, she reproached the stallion for leaving his little mare. Well, he knew where the stable was, she said archly, and whisked away amid an fragrance that owed nothing whatever to horses. He watched her trip up the wooden stairs.
" 'Scuse me," he said to Leon, and followed her.
He had not been gone long when a stunningly handsome woman appeared. The 'Serendipity' employed the services of Mimi Laverne, chanteuse. Her beautiful low-pitched voice was sensuously alluring - as were the songs she sang. She drifted around the taproom, caressing the drinkers as she sang, seemingly to each individual - promising all, yet beyond the reach of all. The calls on the bar staff trebled. She was well worth the staggering fee she charged the management. Leon found himself the focus of her attention at the end of her last song which faded into loud and enthusiastic applause and ribald comments.
"Lucky bastard!" said a voice behind the barbarian as Miss Laverne settled herself on his knee.
"I 'ave not seen you here before, I zink?" she said in sultry tones.
"Er, no," Leon agreed, his voice slightly higher than usual and his pulse racing.
He was aware of envious eyes all around the room and felt exquisitely embarrassed by the close proximity of this sophisticated siren. The girls he had lusted after in the past had been country girls - some coy, some teasing - but always, he had made the running. Now, the mighty hunter found himself the quarry - and under the interested gaze of a leery and lecherous audience. For once he was at a loss as to what to do next, or rather, in what manner. Not so the lady. In a blur, it seemed, he found himself being spirited away into some inner sanctum amid bawdy jests from the rest of the crowd.
Once alone with her, he felt that he would then have the upper hand, but no. In her softly furnished boudoir, the lady still led the way. She gave him an experience such as he had never even imagined among his innocent and unskilled rustic sweethearts, and left him physically and mentally drained. He'd been 'had' and he knew it. Furthermore, he'd enjoyed it, and so, she said, had she. Then she left.
Outside the room, he heard a brief skirmish ending with an infuriated squeal - female. Before he could work up the energy to investigate, the door swung open and Ewan stood on the threshold. A money pouch dangled from the tip of his dagger.
"You need looking after," the nightranger remarked.
With a slightly crooked grin he tossed the pouch to its owner. Leon grinned back. He felt that his education in the arts of love had more than compensated him for the loss, if it had remained a loss. He left her a tidy gift in recognition thereof.
"If it's any consolation, she caught me the same way the first time I came here," Ewan said as the two returned to the taproom.
A lusty cheer greeted the return of the barbarian with much suggestive waving of forearms and comments which left nothing to the imagination. He hoped he wasn't blushing.
As the ale flowed, Leon was quite entertained by the gradual change in his companion from man of few words to life and soul of the party. Mimi Laverne returned to entertain the clientele once more. She lingered around the barbarian, or so it seemed to him, then moved on to the nightranger. Ewan joined in enthusiastically. He lurched to his feet and grasped her around the waist. Singing along rather unmusically, he led her in a lively jig. This went down very well with the crowd. Leon sank back in his seat, hoping he wouldn't be connected with this raucous reveller. Ewan the Silent?
A tap on the shoulder from a very large gentleman separated the exhibitionist from his partner. Ewan, bowing again and again to his public, staggered back to his seat amid appreciative cheers and jeers and the real show went on.
Mimi settled on the knee of a callow-looking youth amidst more ribaldry. Leon found himself looking on with envious eyes and joining in the lewd yells as the scarlet-faced lad was led away. Then he frowned, wondering if he'd been regarded in the same light. It was a somewhat lowering thought.
Directing his thoughts along a safer track, he asked his boozy companion where they would shpend the nigh', for people were beginning to drift away.
"Dunno," was the unhelpful response. Apparently feeling that a little more information was required, Ewan added, "S'ppose we could try the 'Naughty Nymph' - or the 'Bridge of Thighs'."
Ewan's reply was a dirty laugh.
"Soundsh all right to me. Lead me to 'em."
As it was unlikely that either of the pixilated pair was capable of taking full advantage of the services on offer at these establishments, it was perhaps as well that they reached neither. They had lurched no more than twenty paces from the 'Serendipity' when Ewan unaccountably buckled at the knees and slumped to the ground. As Leon leaned solicitously over his fallen friend a sharp blow to the back of the head removed him temporarily from the living world also.