As the others half-slept under the eaves of an inn, Signi sat a little apart from them, fully awake despite her heavy eyes. She had her knees cuddled up to her chest to keep warm and all she did was listen, listen to the sound of the city slowly waking up.
Signi was not one for quiet thoughtful moments. As a small child in the Raven Feeders, lusting after adventure and glory, she’d quickly decided that the greatest heroes were those who spent the least time worrying about whether they were right or wrong and instead done what they thought was right and then made it clear, politely but firmly, that they would violently correct anyone or thing that it was wrong. Thinking and deliberating ended up in compromise and slowness. So she’d resolved to do without those things and concentrate solely on forceful action, something that came naturally to her anyway.
But sometimes life went quiet and despite herself, she’d think.
She’d accepted Stefan’s offer out of a greed for greatness. To be the first shieldmaiden sung about through all the southern lands was a lure she simply couldn’t pass up. She’d even argued Magni into going with her. Now that they’d reached the southern lands though, Signi was no longer quite as sure. Not only did no one seem to know what was going on, but the answer to every problem seemed to be trickery. It wasn’t that she insisted on violence as a way of solving every problem – no, that would be beyond stupid. Just that she, Signi, wanted to earn her reputation for heroism fair and square. So much of what she’d done in her life had been exaggerated – or diminished – that she sometimes wondered why she hadn’t gone insane and started screaming in people’s faces every time they asked about the stories.
Normally, that wouldn’t bother her. Signi would simply make them do things her way. But this time, that wasn’t an option, not while Caol was there. She couldn’t do things her way if he was busy doing them his way and, try as she might, she couldn’t find the argument to change that. In fact, most of the time, she didn’t even think to argue at all until later. Everything he said seemed to make so much sense, even when he was suggesting they should sleep hungry next to an inn’s midden.
The question was whether she was going to do something about that, and the fact it was even a question unsettled her deeply. Before she could consider it though, she heard the jingling of mail and the stamp of men marching and she was up onto her feet. She slipped into the shadow offered by the neighbouring building and crept closer to the street where the noise was coming from. A squad of guards marched by, not a single one of them looking at the grey-robed woman stood a bare five yards from them, heading straight for the inn. Signi waited until they’d entered the courtyard before following them silently. They knocked on the door, hard enough to cause the pine to rattle, and waited for the innkeeper to appear. When they didn’t appear quickly enough, they rattled the thing again.
The door creaked open. “Yes?”
“The Lord-Commander’s business. Open up.”
There was a pause, then the door swung back and a broad shouldered woman with iron-grey hair and a sardonic grin was stood there, a lantern hanging from her wrist as if were a flail.
“What do you want then?”
“Did you have any late guests last night?”
“No one came here after sundown.” The woman folded her arms. “What’s it to you, anyway?”
“We’re looking for thieves. Foreign, most likely. The Captain thinks they’ve disguised themselves. You might want to warn your guests to be careful out and about, or the patrols will sweep them up.”
“Well, I doubt they’re any of mine. Is that it?”
“Of course not,” the guards’ leader snorted. “Captain wants the place searched.”
The innkeeper shouted something but Signi didn’t hear what, for she was already running quietly back to the alley. She found the rest of them already opening their eyes and getting to their feet, roused by the shouting.
“What is it?”
“Who are they?”
“Do we need to move?” said Caol.
“Yes,” she said, both loving him and hating him for getting to the point. They led the small band of bleary-eyed pretend prelates down the alley and onto the next street, turning away from the inn as she explained the situation to him. “It was the guards. They said they were looking for thieves and asked if she had any late arrivals last night, particularly foreigners. They’re searching the place – I thought they may well send a few around the back in case anyone tried running away.”
“It’s the sort of place where people run when they see the guards all right,” Caol agreed distantly, talking more to himself. “Do you think they were truly looking for thieves, or for us? They’re probably not going to admit anyone sneaked into the city if they can. Thieves though…”
“Does it matter? If the disguises hold, they won’t find us. Someone discovers we’re fake monks, we’re done for anyway,” Signi muttered. “Just make sure we don’t say anything out of place. What if we claim to have entered the city today when they’ve shut the gates?
Caol nodded then motioned her to silence as they came near a group of labourers, bent double under the weight of the sacks of rubble on their backs. Signi walked by them in silence and wondered what Caol wasn’t telling her.
It was after a frustrating morning that the band headed down into the claustrophobic streets bordering the west bank of the Sacred River.
First they had discovered that the city had indeed been sealed. Then they discovered that all of the city’s inns were being searched and told to take no new guests without reporting them. Something had spooked Knight’s Town’s rulers and nobody was quite sure whether it was their minor invasion, or something else, and that in turn seemed to be slowly spooking everyone.
Stefan had a good idea what that something else might be – it was bumping into his gut as he walked. He also had a feeling someone was watching him, but that wasn’t unusual in what was cheerily referred to as Cutthroat’s Corner. Not that the feeling particularly bothered the Skald. After all, the point of his whole profession was to be watched; the people of Cutthroat’s Corner were far from his first hostile audience. Which was just as well, as the man Caol was leading them to see had a reputation for levels of hostility rarely seen outside starving rabid animals.
He paused at the door to a particularly dirty-looking inn and looked at Caol, who nodded. Stefan didn’t breath deeply, as there was nothing about the area to encourage such an act, but he did square up his shoulders before pushing the door open.
The best word for the interior was, Stefan decided after a second’s thought, greasy. There was a cheap shininess about everything in the place, including most of the patrons he could see, and a slightly rancid taint to the air. He swaggered forwards, well aware that in such places it wasn’t so much predators and prey as predators and even bigger predators. He was new to their territory, so someone would try to bite him, just to establish how things were. He could only hope that the biting remained metaphorical rather than literal.
“Wine, please,” he said to the silent barman.
“What’s a monk doing drinking wine?” a voice from behind him asked.
“Monks are permitted to drink wine,” he said without turning.
“Oh, really? I didn’t know that, what with me not knowing a lot of monks. Don’t get many monks down here.” The voice let that one sink in before making the point clear. “What’s a fucking monk doing down here anyway?”
Part of Stefan simply wanted to stand there and be mesmerised by the man’s voice. He’d never heard a man actually snigger constantly when speaking before. He wanted to sink down on his knees before him and beg him to teach Stefan to speak just like him. He could make a fortune with that voice.
Instead he turned around, adopted a pose of cool superiority and declaimed “Your ignorance, my child, is none of my concern. Keep silent and let it stay that way, lest I be forced to chastise you.”
There was an appreciative murmur. The crowd generally agreed that it was more sporting when the incipient victim at least had some idea of what was coming next, even if they had no idea at all what sporting meant in other circumstances.
“So eager to get to heaven, brother?” the voice said and there was a silken rustling noise from somewhere in the shadows.
“Who said my love was heaven, child? Many a monk is sworn to heaven but some of us, dark and bestial in nature, whose love is hell on earth. Such are we! Do not try me further,” Stefan finished with an ominous fashion only to look around and see everyone looking blank and confused.
“Tasteless wretches,” he muttered, then sighed. “Show them the weapons.”
Before any of the cutthroats there could react, there was a sudden profusion of every type of edged weaponry, glittering in the light like polished stars.
“Are there any further questions?” Stefan said, giving Magni a gentle shove in the back.
The giant barbarian looked at him in confusion then grinned. He stepped to the front of the group, standing as tall as he could, shoulders thrown back, head scraping the ceiling. His cowled head went back and forth as if seeking out any fighters. Think about it, he silently said to them. Think about whether you really want to fight with me. Stefan could see them thinking about it and reaching their conclusions, one by one, as to the desirability of peace. The room took on a quieter, almost sulky air. This wasn’t how the game was meant to be played.
“Let’s put the weapons away before anyone gets hurt. Well then. In which case, if I may have that wine, and if someone could get me to… what was the name of the man?” Stefan turned to Caol.
The quiet became a hush. Stefan beamed, pleased to see some respect at last. He turned to the innkeeper, who he now noticed needed more sunlight and raised an eyebrow. The man nodded hastily, producing a flagon of wine and waving at a man in the shadowy crowd. One of the cutthroats, a small man with vulpine features and red hair, emerged.
“So you want to see Ulfric?” It was the sniggerer.
“Does he want to see you?”
“Would I be here otherwise?” Stefan picked up the wine. “Lead on, foxface.”
That earned Stefan a very dirty look, which he happily ignored, because foxface was doing what he’d been told. He’d done his part of the mission. It was now up to Caol.
They left their weapons in the small antechamber preceding Ulfric’s room in the care of a man who was nearly the size of Magni before proceeding on.
Ulfric’s quarters were surprisingly spartan but everything of decoration there, was of the highest quality. Two golden statues of ferocious looking hounds with ruby eyes lay on the front of his polished walnut desk. The wall hangings were strips of indigo silk and thread of silver, connected by shining chains. And on the desk itself before the very ordinary looking man with the thinning grey hair were a row of diamonds, each of them being inspected with the most ferocious scrutiny.
“Explain quickly why you’re here,” he said with the same precise ferocity.
“Hello old friend,” Caol stepped forwards and pulled down his hood.
Ulfric looked up, his eyes every inch as cold and brilliant as the diamonds in his hands.
“I’m not sure friend is the term I’d use.” A knife appeared as if by magic in his hand. “Perhaps you’d like to explain, Caol, why I shouldn’t start cutting until I get my money’s worth.”
Caol could almost hear the muscles tensing behind him. He perched on the desk and picked up one of the diamonds, turning it over and over in his fingers.
“I lost money too that day, remember. I didn’t cheat you. And you’ll never get your money’s worth if you kill me,” he said, keeping a good watch on the knife out of the corner of his eye. “I want to buy information. And, with a bit of luck, I’ll be able to pay you what you lost some day as a result.”
Ulfric’s brow furrowed. “You come to me for mere information? Have you forgotten who I am?”
Not a chance of that, Caol thought silently to himself. Knight’s Town took a very dim view of criminality. To survive and thrive as long as Ulfric had was a mark of achievement as impressive as any number of giants’ heads hung up around a hall.
“You’re the only person in this city I trust,” was what he said instead, “And the best informed here too. And the most interested in me being rich.”
“The third one is the charm.” Ulfric inclined his head a fraction, then the knife disappeared again. “I believe the common term here is ‘Show me my fucking money’.”
Caol pulled out a full pouch of gold from under his robes, set it down on the desk, opened it enough for Ulfric to get a look, then picked it up when he want to take it.
“If you want this, start talking. If you want all of it, I’m going to want good maps and provisions too; the country’s a little rough around here. Me and this little band of bastards want to know about every sort of turmoil going on for the next hundred miles that might offer a lot of gold to a few daring types. Deal?”
“Deal,” Ulfric extended his hand and they shook. “The main source of trouble these days is the Grand Prince Kreizmar. He fancies the idea of reuniting the old Empire and is butting heads with the mountain barons over the idea. It’s mostly just border raids at the moment, but there’s a war coming there. Doubt that fits what you have in mind unless you’re minded to turn mercenary though.”
“Not really, no.”
“The mountain barons aren’t as assiduous in their troll hunts as they were; there might be something there if you do find yourself down that way. That’s the only real trouble going on down south for the time being. North, well you know that better than me, but nothing. Some mad rumours of a dragon on the coast, but that’s probably only in their wine-dreams. East is all forest. West, well, I imagine you know what’s been going on there since you’re here.”
“We don’t actually,” Caol interrupted. “We were on our way to Copper River when we got lost.”
“Your lucky day. There’s a plague there. Even if you made it there and survived, getting out would be the Father’s own task. Most of the villages there have taken to shooting everyone they don’t know. Just be thankful it hasn’t spread here. Or the walls would have been a lot better guarded than last night,” Ulfric laughed, a pleasant sound with no humour. “Yes, I know about that. They’re not going to admit it publicly, but a few people have talked about two guards found unconscious on the eastern wall last night. They don’t know what they’re looking for but, well, it seems fairly safe to me to make a few assumptions now. Don’t worry though. Your secret is safe with me. In any case, it’ll all be forgotten about soon, what with the miracle.”
“Miracle? What miracle?”
“Really? You’re all dressed as monks and no one’s talk to you about it?”
“I’ve not been doing the talking,” Caol said then stared at Stefan.
“What? I’m just trying to get information quickly. People always get a little religious talking to monks, I try not to pay attention.”
“Perhaps if you’d tell me?” Caol turned back to Ulfric.
“The Monastery of St. Carolus. Apparently last night, some of the monks had a vision. They saw the saint as he was at the time of his martyrdom. He led them all to the chapel there then disappeared and took the chalice there with him, leaving behind nothing but a blood stained habit. Of course, I didn’t believe it – but no one’s admitted to stealing the chalice, so maybe it is,” Ulfric finished with a thin smile. “People tend to answer when I ask, after all.”
“An age of miracles,” Caol agreed with a cynical laugh and resisted the urge to gouge out Stefan’s eyeballs. “So, how much do I owe you?”
“Actually,” said Ulfric, “You could put your gold away. I have a better idea.”