In which the townsfolk look forward to a bonfire party
Ewan studied the map that the wizard had drawn of the castle and nodded.
"No problem," he said.
The rest of the day passed with aggravating slowness. No one said anything much. Whatever was said attracted replies that were short and sharp and, in Valarien's case, pointed also. They dozed fitfully, conserving energy for the evening, but derived no benefit from the rest. At last the light began to fade and Ewan prepared for his mission.
"Don't kill anyone unless you - um - absolutely have to," the wizard urged. "Remember, these are not evil people, just misguided."
He had nothing to say, however, when they saw the poster in the taproom announcing the adjudication of Kai's hearing and forth-coming execution. He was also noticeably silent when they arrived at the forecourt of the castle and found that quite a number of people had already taken up positions to gain the best view the execution.
There was plenty to keep them entertained already, for a fine pyre was being built in the gathering gloom, and there was much delighted gossip about the treat in store. A man was describing, with great relish, the way the villain's entrails would come tumbling out, steaming, on to the cobbles. The wizard was grim-faced with disapproval.
"Ghoulish!" muttered under his breath.
He shot the man a look that, surprisingly, did not cause instant petrifaction. In spite of all this, he did not deviate from his instructions regarding the shedding of unnecessary blood. The ghoulishness had its uses. It enabled him and Leon to hang around the castle without arousing suspicions. Indeed, the two guards at the great door exchanged cheerful remarks with the merry-makers. This was a propitious sign, since it indicated no expectation of any attempt at a rescue.
Ewan slipped unnoticed into the castle and found a shadowy alcove to await the changing of the guard. As the returning guards passed by, a gold coin rolled across the narrow corridor. Together they pounced. As they did so, a small glass sphere shattered at their feet releasing its sweet soporific vapour. Sighing happily, they toppled forward into a deep and untroubled sleep. Next morning, much refreshed, they awoke in a store-room and in possession of only one uniform.
In the guise of a guardsman, Ewan headed straight for the cell which Valarien had indicated on his map as Kai's - and pulled up short. The cell was empty. Of course, it was not inevitable that Kai would have been returned to the same cell, but somehow, they had all assumed that he would. Ewan frowned. What now? He squared his shoulders and marched smartly around those parts of the castle that had been scanned by the eye spy. No one challenged his right to be where he was nor to do what he was doing. Otherwise, his patrol was not a success.
He went next to the guard room. Here he struck lucky for a lady bearing a covered tray was standing in the doorway in agitated conversation with the sergeant. It appeared that the compassionate lady had brought food for the prisoner. The sergeant was trying to explain just why it was that she could not take it to him in the condemned hold. As "regulations" featured heavily in the explanations and the lady was perversely refusing to comprehend said regulations, Ewan felt that here was a potential means of reaching Kai.
"Aw, go on, sir," he said gruffly. "A couple of us could escort the leddy. What 'arm could it do? 'E'll be dead in a few hours - an' oo's to know anyway?"
The sergeant hesitated.
"Well, I dunno," he said. "I suppose yo're right All right, then. Take Jobard with you - and don't hang about, lad."
Ewan smiled at the lady as they waited for Jobard. It occurred to him that she didn't look altogether satisfied with the outcome. Had she some ulterior motive for her errand, he wondered? If she had, she could pose a threat either to himself or to Kai.
"After you, mate," Ewan rasped as Jobard appeared and himself dropped back to walk with the lady.
"Friend o' the blighter, are yer?" Ewan asked conversationally.
"Friend? Oh no, me dear," the lady replied with an innocent air that was just a little overdone. "Never seen him before in me life. Just doing the poor man a good turn."
"Got something tasty under there, 'ave yer?"
"I think he'll find it to his liking," she responded with a faint self-satisfied smile.
Definitely more to this than meets the eye, thought the nightranger. He leaned a little closer. With a broad wink, he whispered conspiratorially in her ear.
"Got a knife in it, 'as it?"
The lady started, and nearly dropped the tray.
"N-no, of course not," she blustered. "Whatever put that silly idea into your head?"
Ewan responded with a knowing smile.
"Anyway, the sergeant's already checked it," she added, staring rigidly ahead.
As Jobard turned a corner, Ewan slowed his pace and laid a restraining hand on her arm. He felt her stiffen slightly.
"Friend of Kai," he said in a soft, toneless voice.
Now it was her turn to wonder as they followed the guard round the corner. Was it a statement, or a question? She'd already denied him once. Was he trying to trick her by using Kai's name? Had this man not believed her. Did he mean himself, rather than her? His voice had changed, too. She did not reply. It was all very puzzling and there was no certain answer.
The condemned hold, deep within the building, was a small squalid cell with stout iron bars across one end denying the prisoner any privacy. A torch was burning outside. Kai was sitting curled up in one corner, with his head resting on his forearms. He looked up on hearing Jobard demand entry of the gaoler. Ewan thought he saw a fleeting look of recognition cross Kai's face and wondered which of them had caused it.
The gaoler, a stout, unkempt and elderly man, stood up and grumpily set down his tankard on a rickety table. While he was unlocking the cell under Jobard's stern gaze, Ewan picked up the tankard.
"All right if I have a mouthful?" he enquired as the gaoler swung the door open.
There was a snarl of anger. The tankard's owner rounded on him, snatching the vessel from the nightranger's lips. Glaring resentfully at the impudent fellow, he downed the contents in one lest he try it again. Ewan followed Jobard and the lady into the cell, coughing loudly and shuffling his feet through the straw to conceal the sight and sound of the gaoler's sudden collapse.
It was not successful. The corpulent fellow demolished the table as he went down. Jobard turned abruptly to see the cause of the disturbance.
"Can't take 'is liquor," Ewan explained smoothly.
Jobard looked suspiciously at the prostrate gaoler - then at the nightranger. His eyes opened wide in sudden enlightenment.
"'Ere, who are you?" he asked, reaching for his sword.
His eyes opened wider in panic, as his hand failed to locate the weapon. He looked down and his face encountered Ewan's sword hilt.
The nightranger's face was deadpan as Jobard dropped unconscious to the floor. Kai was already on his feet.
"Désirée! Ewan! How on earth did you two get together?" he asked in amazement.
The rescuers looked at each other in some amusement and, as one, shrugged their shoulders. Two guards and a lady had gone to the condemned hold. Two guards and a lady returned.
After Désirée had left the castle, it only remained to retrieve Kai's hauberk and sword which had been added to the castle's armoury. This proved to be no problem. Guardsmen acting like guardsmen attract no more attention than flies in a shit-house. For all intents and purposes, they were invisible.
Out in the fresh air once more, Ewan and Kai rejoined a jubilant Leon and a rather po-faced wizard. Kai was impressed by the size of the pyre, now completed.
"Shame it won't be used after all that hard work," he remarked nonchalantly. "and won't they all be disappointed."
"Oh, I don't know Imber flammarum dekiday," he muttered, surreptitiously waggling his fingers in the direction of the pyre.
Little slivers of fire showered down upon the neat mound, igniting the tinder-dry faggots and rapidly producing an impressive conflagration. The wizard's forbidding expression slowly melted into one of grim enjoyment as the cheerful chatter turned to shrieks of terror and the blood-thirsty sightseers took to their heels.
Kai swallowed, feeling suddenly queasy. They had meant to extract every ounce of suffering, for there was no green wood to provide a merciful release through asphyxiation.
"Come on, it's time we - um - weren't here." Valarien's voice broke the spell that held them mesmerized.
They repaired to Désirée's lodging house. They all wished either to make or renew their acquaintance with that redoubtable lady. Désirée had been expecting them. Supper was all ready and yes, she could find room for all four.
Kai gave her a smacking kiss on the cheek which she received with obvious pleasure. She stood back and regarded him appraisingly.
"We shall have to do something about all those bumps an' bruises, me dear," she said seriously. "It's the least I can do after the way you saved Beau an' me. They really went to town on you, though, an' no mistake."
She was volubly delighted to meet Leon and Valarien, too.
"Well, me dear," she said, on being introduced to the latter, "you don't look much like a wizard to me! You ought to have a long flowing robe and a fancy hat. I think I might have something to suit in the attic. I'll see what I can find after we've eaten, for I'll swear you must be famished by now what with all the excitement an' all."
She became aware of four faces grinning at her.
"Have I said something funny?" she asked, puzzled.
Amidst the light-hearted good humour, Valarien banished the illusions.
"Ooh, me dear!" she exclaimed, for the wizard was a good deal taller, and the barbarian a good deal scruffier than on their arrival. Furthermore, the wizard was dressed just as he should be by her own reckoning.
Supper was a delightfully happy affair; the food was excellent and accounts were exchanged. Thereafter, they moved on to stories of past exploits. Truth was an elastic commodity, and stretched further as the wine sank in the bottle. For the most part, Désirée listened, her attention rivetted by their tales of derring-do, but from time to time added some anecdotes of her own career on the stage.
To listen to, they were hilariously funny. At the time, they must have caused her a considerable degree of embarrassment and discomfort. There had been several narrow escapes too, when the natives had turned hostile. Kai thought wryly that her career had not been dissimilar to his own, drifting from one catastrophe to another...
They slept well and awoke late the next morning much refreshed. Désirée, who had been up betimes, had left a fine breakfast for them. The euphoria of the previous night had dissipated and the serious nature of their mission took over the breakfast conversation. Kai in particular, the horrors of his look into Valarien's crystal burned into his memory, was keen to be on the road as soon as possible.
"It seems as if something is working against me, trying to prevent my return to Gyldenburg," he remarked dourly. "It should have taken less than a week to reach here, yet it is nearly two months since we left Claresso."
"I feel certain you're right," Valarien agreed.
He looked sad. More than anyone had he been affected by the happenings of the intervening period.
"Return to Gyldenburg?" Ewan asked in some surprise. "Have you been there before, then? I knew Valarien had been across the ocean. I didn't realize you had, too."
"I think perhaps, the time has come to tell them the - um - whole story."
Kai gave Valarien a hard look. The wizard's face remained inscrutable.
"Perhaps you're right. It might help to keep them out of mischief. Well then, Gyldenburg is - was - my home. I was born in Castle Malleckay. King Walden IV of Belsaria is my father."
'Them' looked at Kai in great surprise.
"Well, me dear, you don't look much like a prince to me!" said Leon.
"Have you no respect?" Kai grinned, as the laughter faded.
"No. It's part of my charm."
"I suspect," Kai continued seriously, looking at the wizard, "that my father no longer lives?"
Valarien gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head and a shadow fell across the warrior's face.
"I'm sorry, Kai."
"It's all right. We were never really close. Perhaps if we had been It's just - he was so... strong, so... full of life - like he would be there forever... "
He paused meditatively.
"I must have been around fifteen when the trouble started, though I didn't notice it at the time. My youngest brother, Kieran it is Kieran isn't it?"
The wizard nodded.
"Kieran was a bright lively child - quick to learn and very inquisitive - forever into mischief, innocent mischief. There was always fun and laughter wherever he was, but as he grew older, he began to change. He became surly and withdrawn - not overnight. It was very gradual. And he would disappear for hours at a time. No one knew where nor would he ever say. Mother put it all down to his growing towards manhood, but I knew she was worried. He started using foul language, too - really foul language, not the sort that twelve-year-olds normally come out with to try the shock effect. He even bad-mouthed mother. Serlo, my second brother, gave him a sound thrashing for it. The next day, he - Serlo - went down with a fever. He recovered with time, but never really enjoyed good health thereafter. No-one connected the two events then...
"It was about a year later that Athol died - there were nine of us, by the way - six sons and three daughters. Athol was the fifth son. I am the third. At the time, it was thought that his death was just a tragic accident.
"A few months later, Serlo's fever recurred, this time fatally. Again, there was no suspicion of foul play, then Kieran made a mistake. I was to be his next victim. I'd just acquired a new horse - Firefly. He was a splendid animal, very high-spirited - they said he couldn't be ridden. I had all the confidence of a nineteen-year-old. Cockiness, if you like - very like Leon, in fact," Kai said with a humorous look in the barbarian's direction.
"We had our ups and downs initially, at least, I did. We soon came to an understanding though he still wouldn't let anyone else ride him.
"One day - it was the autumn boar hunt as I recall - Firefly was particularly skittish. I couldn't understand why. I'd had him for several weeks by then and thought we had a good working relationship. He made several spirited attempts to unseat me and the rest of the party thought I'd bitten off more than I could chew. I knew I hadn't and wondered what was amiss. He was clearly unhappy, so I dismounted and checked him out while the others rode on into the forest, laughing at my imagined chagrin. Under the saddle blanket was a sharp piece of flint. It had already cut deep into his flesh, so it was the biggest wonder he hadn't thrown me and bolted. I gave up the hunt, and walked him home.
"Kieran was in the stable. He looked at me as if I were a ghost. I knew, then, who'd put the flint there. I suppose he was waiting for Firefly's return so that he could remove the flint and no one the wiser. As it was, he offered to groom Firefly for me. I told him not to bother and gave him the flint back. He was taken aback for an instant, then tried to bluff his way out of it, but he knew I knew.
"I did a lot of hard thinking afterwards, I can tell you. Things started to slot into place. It seemed that Kieran had his eye on the throne. He was fourteen by then. Already, two of those who stood in his way were dead. It could easily have been three. It was astute of him not to remove Reyner first. While the heir survives, all's well. It was then that I connected Serlo's first illness with the thrashing he'd given Kieran and felt myself to be in great danger. He'd reacted fast on that occasion, and with less cause...
"I considered laying my theory before father, but setting aside the repugnance of going behind someone's back, I couldn't see him giving it any credence. I had no proof, just circumstantial evidence, and Kieran had never shown his dark side in father's presence. He was still father's blue-eyed boy, while I Well, I had been somewhat rebellious - insubordinate, father called me - and while we had recently reached a better understanding of each other, he was still - distant.
"I couldn't see him taking my word against Kieran's, nor could I think of any other solution to the problem in the limited time that was left to me. It seemed that, one way or another, the kingdom was going to have to manage without me. As I'd much rather it managed without me alive, I decided to leave that night. It was a bitter decision "
Kai lapsed into a reminiscent silence, gazing down the long corridor of time. Oblivious of his present surroundings, his face took on a distraught look that quite shocked his companions. No one spoke, fearing to interrupt an intensely private moment. Eventually, Kai became aware of three pairs of eyes upon him, all opened wide in concern. He gave a shaky laugh and, as one, they breathed again.
"Sorry," he said, "I was miles away."
"We could see that. Are you all right?" It was Leon who spoke.
"Yes thank you." Kai smiled warmly at him. "Well, before I left, I went to see Merle. She's my sister and we were very close "
He bit his lip, and looked away for a moment.
"Anyway, I told her... what I've just told you. I was concerned for Linden, and for Reyner - and for Reyner's wife, Heloise, too. She was pregnant when I left. If it was a son
"I asked Merle to keep an eye on things for me. It was gone midnight, by then, and I hadn't eaten or drunk anything since my return - didn't dare. I took only what I could carry - and left. I took Firefly too. I couldn't leave him. Together we rode away from Gyldenburg, and I put that part of my life behind me. In a way, it was as if I had... died."
His voice had dropped to a whisper. After another weighty pause, he continued.
"I travelled east and crossed the Halcyon Ocean. I wanted to be well beyond Kieran's reach - and the temptation to return. Since then, I've spent all my life travelling. My education, my training, had equipped me well for a military career, and I'm now as you see me. Just a common mercenary. Period."
There was a gaunt look about his battered face. The other three regarded him with compassion. It had clearly been an immense strain to dredge up memories that had lain dormant for so long.
Suddenly it seemed as though a dam had burst. Every emotion, every sorrow, every pain, that had been ruthlessly pushed to the back of his mind came flooding out. Choking back a sob, he fled from the room. Leon leapt to his feet and would have followed had Valarien not held him back.
"No. Leave him be. Your presence would not be - um - welcome at this moment. We will await his convenience and give him whatever time he needs."
Up in the privacy of his room, Kai wept. It was something he should have done long years ago when he had first bereft himself of everything and everyone he had ever loved but there had been no time to grieve and the pain had been too intense, too deep.
As the days of his flight became weeks, the feeling of unbearable loss had been buried under the exigencies of day-to-day survival. The wound - long hidden - had never healed. Now it broke open with a violence that left him bewildered and shaking, yet with the tears came a bright light into his heart. He was going home...