The setting sun cast a long shadow of the wagon over the men in front of it. In turn, their shadows danced in front of them, stretched out over the road. Avarron watched the play of light and darkness as he once again rode alongside the wagon.
He wondered how the princess managed to keep Dace away all the time. No matter how much he disliked the man, he felt that she shouldn’t do that. It was better to stick together, with a mysterious killer somewhere on the road. He hoped he had not made a grievous mistake by sending Dann and Behr on a chase. They should have been back by now.
Asratorix beckoned him and he looked up from his musings.
“Forgive me, princess. Duty calls,” he interrupted her mid-sentence as she was trying to describe what she saw in the dancing shadows in front of them, and rode towards the old veteran.
“We’re approaching the gates of Soansford,” Asratorix told him.
In front of them a simple stone wall rose up. Caught up in his conversation with Lannvaire, Avarron had barely noticed they had entered civilization again. The forest had parted ways again for fields. It worried him to realize how adept Lannvaire was at distracting him.
“Thank you for notifying me,” Avarron said calmly, hoping to hide his embarassment.
Asratorix replied with a knowing smirk.
As he was about to spur his horse, Asratorix added: “Why don’t you take Rogan with you this time?”
Avarron agreed and turned to his squire. “Come with me.”
He stretched a hand out to the boy, helping him to climb on the back of his horse. As soon as he sat, Avarron spurred his horse.
“What’s going on?” Rogan asked.
“We need to arrange lodgings for ourselves, our men and the princess. Just like yesterday.”
“What about the Royal Guards?” Rogan wondered.
“I don’t think Sir Dace considers me capable of making a decision for him and his men. Of course, since he’s not riding along, we get first pick,” Avarron cast a grin over his shoulder at the boy.
“Heh, I’ll make a troublemaker out of you, yet,” Rogan teased.
“Not before I make a decent squire out of you,” Avarron laughed.
As they approached the gate, Avarron reigned in his horse. “And that means getting off the horse now.”
With a sour face, Rogan jumped off.
The town’s gate was manned by just one guard, though two others patrolled the wall. They wore the colours of Sohannis, the lordship that the town fell under. The lord’s castle was a little way downstream, Avarron knew, though he was unfamiliar with the man. Approaching the gate guard, Avarron introduced himself: “Hail. I am Sir Avarron and this is my squire, Rogan.”
“Well met, good knight. You seek lodgings for the night, I presume?” the guard answered with a short bow.
“Indeed. Not just for us though. I have…” he paused.
“Eight soldiers,” Rogan finished for him. Looking up at the knight, he added: “It’s Dann and Behr. They’re awesome. They’ll get that other dude and be here for supper. You’ll see.”
“Eight soldiers, indeed,” Avarron confirmed to the guard and paused a moment. Any mention of the princess would spread like wildfire through the town. “We are escorting a noble lady from the west, accompanied by two maids.”
The guard nodded. “The Rainbow’s End is an excellent inn, fit for a princess. It has it’s own stables, suitable for a wagon. Right across the street is another inn of the same keeper, called the Leprechaun’s Pot. It’s a good place to lodge your men close by, without the Rainbow’s steep prices. They’re along the main road, at the bridge.”
“Thank you, good man,” Avarron said as he slowly guided his horse through the gate.
The town of Soansford had been built around a small bridge over the Sohann, which flowed from the mountains in the north-east, all the way across the Kystan peninsula to its south-western corner, where it flowed into the ocean. It was not yet a large river here, but it flowed fast and strong. Small boats carried goods up and down the river from the town, which had prospered from the trade over both river and road. It had grown mostly along the road, the waterside being reserved for docks. It had a simple, wooden wall to defend the town from the raiders, with four gates: two for the road and two for the river.
The two inns were easy enough to find. Avarron decided to enter the Rainbow’s End. He was immediately greeted by a short man with a big smile and a rich, red and gold coat.
“Welcome to the Rainbow’s End, sir knight. You have just entered the best inn in town,” he said with wide open arms.
“So I’ve been told. Tell me, do you have a room suitable for a princess?” Avarron asked, somewhat suspicious.
“Looking to make your damsel comfortable, eh?” the innkeeper said grinning. “I’ve got just…”
Avarron raised his hand to stop the man. “Can you be serious for a moment? And discreet?” he asked.
The innkeeper frowned at him. “You offend me, Sir. Your privacy is secure in this inn.”
Satisfied, Avarron whispered: “I need a room for princess Lannvaire, accompanied by two maids.”
A gleeful smile appeared on the innkeeper’s face. “A princess in my inn?” he asked.
Avarron simply nodded. “Let’s keep that between us. I don’t like to attract attention. Now, I heard you also own the inn across the street?”
“Indeed. A fine establishment, though not as fine as this.”
“Excellent. Myself, my squire and eight soldiers will spend the night there, if possible?”
“Of course, good sir. You’ll have to excuse me while I go prepare the rooms for all of you though.” the innkeeper made a deep bow as he retreated.
At that point, a man clad completely in black with a hood hiding his face got up from his seat in the corner. Avarron had completely looked over him when he entered the inn. On his way out of the inn, the mysterious man slipped past Avarron and gave the knight a small nudge in doing so. Avarron looked over his shoulder after him, but the figure had already disappeared.
“Who was that?” he asked the innkeeper.
“Hmm? I didn’t see anyone,” the innkeeper replied confused.
“Check your purse,” Rogan told him worried.
Avarron brought his hand to his hip. The purse was still there, but a small piece of paper was attached to it. He quickly looked out of the door onto the street, but the man was nowhere to be seen.
“Thank you for your service,” Avarron told the innkeeper as he walked out, unfolding the note:
“Now that you have arranged your lodgings, I would ask you to come to the tavern just across the bridge. I have come from the north with important news. Do come alone. What I have to tell is for your ears only.”
Avarron looked over the bridge. On the other end was a tavern with noise and light coming from the windows.
“You’re not actually going there, are you?” Rogan asked. “You’ll end up shanked, like those two last night.”
“Possibly, but it it my duty to find their killer, and this hooded man seems to know something. Besides, I’m not sleeping,” he offered Rogan a reassuring smile. “On top of that, you’ll watch my back.”
“But the note said…”
“You’ll stay just outside the tavern and give a yell if you smell, see, hear, taste or feel trouble,” Avarron interrupted him.
“Now you’re getting us both killed,” Rogan complained, but followed Avarron across the bridge.
Carefully looking around, Avarron headed for the tavern. Slowly, he opened the door and entered. Rogan stayed outside, uneasily shifting from one foot to the other. Avarron looked around the tavern, but there was no sign of the hooded man. There were several groups of fishermen and sailors, playing cards or dice. A few tables in the corners were empty. One of them was half shrouded in the darkness of a blind corner. Avarron headed straight for that table and sat down at the lit side of it.
“You’re catching on quickly,” A voice from the shadows said.
No matter how hard he tried, Avarron could not make out any figure or form from the shadows. Not even a reflection in the eyes. “Who are you?” he asked.
“You do understand the concept of secrecy, don’t you?” the voice asked. Without waiting for an answer, he added: “Or did you also miss the part where I told you to come alone?”
“I’m here. Alone. He’s outside, unable to hear us,” Avarron defended.
“I suppose I should admire your interpretation of my instructions,” the shadow said amused. “You should be mistrustful of me. After all, two of your men are dead and I’m the most suspicious person you have ever seen. Yes, that is correct. Two. Not three, not five. I doubt you’ll see that deserter any time soon, though.”
“What do you know?” Avarron asked insisting.
The voice gave a small chuckle. “All in due time. I have not come all this way to help you play inquisitor.” he placed an object on the table, on the edge of the shadows.
Avarron slowly reached out and pulled it towards him, unsure of whether that was the intention. As he looked at it, he instantly recognized: a small crest portraying a wheel and a curved blade, just like the one he wore on his shoulder. The only difference was that this one was pitch black, with the image engraved in silver, while his was grey with bronze.
“This is my father’s,” Avarron said slowly.
“He is currently… incapacitated. And that makes you, temporarily, the head of the family.”
“What happened?” Avarron asked, but the voice completely ignored him: “There’s certain people that see this as a chance to erase every mention of your rather unpopular family from history. Now you understand my need for secrecy. And you should be careful as well.”
Before Avarron could ask any more questions, the chair on the other side of the table scraped over the floor. He could make out a very faint shift in the shadows as the man got up.
“Wait…” Avarron started.
“Fate waits for no one. I suggest you do not wait for it, either,” the man said as he left the shadows. His black clothes seemed to drag the shadows into the light. One blink of an eye later, he had vanished.
Avarron rushed outside, towards Rogan. “Did you see him leave?”
Rogan shook his head. “Nobody left through this door before you. Only dust blowing down the street.” He pointed to the east. A trail of dust flowed through the air, towards the east gate. Something about the scene struck Avarron as very odd, but he couldn’t figure out what. He slowly returned to the Leprechaun’s Pot. Rogan followed in his footsteps, without witty remarks for once.
Avarron turned the crest around in his hands. It was certainly authentic. Is father as seriously injured or ill, that he would send me the crest, he wondered. Unlikely. The crest signalled him as the head of the family. He didn’t say father was dead. Yet wearing it would give that impression. Is that what that messenger wanted? To make everyone think his father was dead? No, then he wouldn’t bring it to me here, two days away from Kynnard. Did something really happen, then? The messenger did seem to fear for his life.
That was no mere messenger, he reasoned to himself. There’s no telling there was any truth to his story. All of it reeked too much of politics. Just the word made his head ache. If there was one thing he had always tried to stay away from, it was the internal squabbling of Altraom’s lords. Bandits were slowly claiming the countryside, and all those lords ever seemed to do was try and take each other’s lands and status. And in ways that Avarron never even hoped to comprehend.
Lost in thought, he almost bumped into the inn’s door. As he opened it, seven familiar faces looked up at him. He let out a sign of relief, seeing Dann and Behr among the rest of his men.
“Can you tell me what you found?” he asked them.
Dann nodded, but Behr started talking. Together, they described their hunt through the forest and, in as much detail as they could, the remarkable burned spot in the forest. The others must have already heard the story as they were little surprised at the revelation. Unlike the others, who seemed to be mostly as confused as the trackers, Asratorix seemed to recognize something. And judging from the look on his face, it was anything but pleasant.
“Asratorix?” Avarron asked.
The bard raised his hand in objection. “Not yet. These two clues are not enough to bring legends to life. But something tells me you have a third piece to the puzzle. Would you mind sharing?”
In detail, he told of how he received the note, followed the man in black to the tavern, and received word on the ‘deserter’. He left out the message regarding his father. He would inform Asratorix and Cullean later, in private. After he described the man’s impossible disappearance, Dann immediately raised an eyebrow.
“That must have been about the time Behr and I arrived. There was no wind at all,” he explained.
There was a long silence, everyone trying to comprehend what was going on for themselves. Eventually, Avarron asked the bard again: “Does this confirm your suspicion?”
Asratorix nodded and said slowly: “There is one name that comes to mind: the legendary assassin, Tufas Rilata.”
They had all heard the stories. A man so vile that he enjoys his bloody work as assassin, and even made a deal with the devil to make himself invisible at will. The kind of stories used to scare children into obedience and give adults a chill around a campfire. But that was just the thing, they were stories. A good bard could tell them in such a way to make bold warriors tremble in fear, but at the end they would always remind themselves it’s just a myth.