From the shade of a canvas tarpaulin stretched between two spears a warrior stumbled to her feet, groggy and sweating under the weight of her padded gambeson. She strained her eyes against the noon-time sun as two strangers crossed the meadow, then roused her companions with a hurried call to arms.
Cole watched nervously as the forest twilight came to life with a dozen figures surging to action, struggling into mail courselets and casting about for weapons. The woman who had warned the camp snatched one of the spears that was holding up her canvas sun-shade, causing the whole thing to collapse behind her.
“I still think we should have scouted from a distance. They don’t seem happy to see us.” Cole hadn’t put an arrow to his bow yet—Eleanor had ordered him not to—but he felt like they were walking into a den of wildcats.
“Confidence is a Pact Keeper’s best and only armor at times like this,” Eleanor chided. “You’ll have to learn that if you continue in my service.”
A shouted Challenge from the gambeson-clad warrior halted the pair as they came within spitting distance of the camp. “Stop where you are! Not another step.” charcoal hair tousled and red in the face, she backed up her words with a sturdy boar-spear leveled at the visitors. “Just who do you think you are, walking up on us like that?”
Faced with the broad point of the hunting spear, Cole’s heart quickened. His hand tightened around the antler grip of the skinning knife at his belt. This wasn’t going to go their way, he could already tell.
“I’m a Pact Keeper,” Eleanor answered, each word measured for its weight. “I’m on business here on behalf of the Crown and my order. This is my Guide, Cole.” She glowered at the warrior, as if waiting for her to challenge the simple statement. Back in the woodline, the other members of the armed company had gathered their weapons and equipment and were striding out from among their tents.
“Your pardon, Pact Keeper, but you took us by surprise.” the warrior rested the boar spear’s haft across her shoulders and nodded to the gathering throng of fighters. “You gave the us all a scare.”
The sudden change in the warrior’s demeanor surprised Cole, the way the fight had gone out of her the moment Eleanor had revealed herself as an agent of the king’s peace. He let his hand fall away from the knife grip and took in the group that had assembled around them.
Ten in total, they were rough and imposing. Men and women, all of them had a sturdy build and carried an assortment of blades and bludgeons that would make any armourer sick with envy. Most wore at least a quilted gambeson doublet, the quilted wool stained and wareing through in places. A few were decked in shirts of chainmail, the links patched with cord and wire where a cruel blow had split them. One, a stocky man with a coarse beard, sported a dented breatpalate. A mace, blunted and deformed from use, hung at his waist.
“What do we have here?” growled the man with the coarse beard. “You roused the entire camp for an old woman and a boy, Dana?”
Dana, the sentry who had met them, tensed up at the man’s questioning. “She’s a Pact Keeper, Ula,” the warrior hurried to explain. “The Slatelander boy’s her guide. She said she had some kind of business with us.”
Ula’s gaze shifted between Eleanor and Cole as he seemed to mull this over. “Fine,” he snorted. “Come with me, Pact Keeper. The rest of you, try to act like proper soldiers for once and make this camp decent.” The fighting company’s captain trudged through the meadow grass back towards the dappled shade of the woods and the rest sifted away towards their bivy area. Dana, dragged her canvas sheet a little farther out of the beating sun and set about erecting her makeshift tent between a pair of mountain pines.
Cole tagged close behind Eleanor as they followed the captain into the encampment. Cookfires smoldered among the trees and the rich, fatty scent of roasted duck reminded the tracker that he’d barely eaten all day. It was easy to become caught up in the task at hand, and their pursuit of the curse-wrought beast had taken them across miles of the Slateland’s rugged wilds.
A pair of swamp hounds wandered between tents and firepits begging for scraps. The lanky, hairless canines were a common breed in these parts, though you didn’t see them much once you got into the high mountains. With their keen eyes and long snouts, they were good for catching small game. A brace of waterfowl hanging from a tentpole suggested that this pair had been doing its part to feed the small fighting company while they traveled through the foothills.
A riding horse kicked at one of the dogs when it wandered too close. The startled hound yaped loudly and skittered away. It looked like every one of the soldiers had a mount, with a couple set aside for baggage. Hitched to stakes and low branches, they tilled the ground with their hooves and grazed on the sorrel that sprung up across the woodland floor.
Ula lowered himself onto a fallen log and gestured to some well-stuffed saddlebags that lay against a nearby tree. “Take a seat,” he grunted. “And before you ask, no. My fighting company has not signed a contract with the rebel lords. We don’t plan on signing with the Crown either.”
“You’re mercenaries?” Cole asked, resting on the lumpy saddlebags. It felt amazing to get off his feet after a day of trekking and fighting. “Who do you work for?”
Ula gave Eleanor a sympathetic look, “Your boy’s real quick on the uptake. He’d fit right in with my bunch of louts.”
Cole’s cheeks flushed with embarrassment and only grew redder when he noticed Eleanor half chuckle at the jab.
“Anyhow,” the mercenary captain continued. “The lad’s right, we are sellswords, but we just take small-time contacts. I learned a long time ago not to get caught up in the roil and churn of king’s and nobles’ ambitions. It’s bad business.” Be shook his head dolefully. “You’re too young to remember the Autumn War, aren’t you boy?”
“I’ve heard the stories.” Cole leaned forward, intent on the scruffy mercenary’s rambling yarn.
“The Slateland lords and a mess of other eastern nobles declared against the king back then too. Folk who didn’t know any better threw their lot in with the rebels and paid for it with everything they had.”
Eleanor fixed Ula with her gaze. “Then you of all people should know better than to cross an agent of the Crown, so tell me why you brought your company all the way out here.”
Ula quelled under the Pact Keeper’s threat. Cole could tell he was a man who liked to talk and this likely wasn’t the first time he’d talked himself into trouble. The mercenary captain took his time in answering: “We’re out here making a sale”.
“A sale of what?” Eleanor demanded.
Ula pointed towards the saddlebag that Cole was sitting on. “In there. It should be near the top. Have a look lad, you’ll know it when you find it.”
Cole unfastened the leather flap of the saddlebag and dug through its contents. It didn’t take him long to uncover a large twine-bound parcel among the spare clothes and bags of barley. The item was hard and blocky and measured about a foot on each side. It was wrapped in deer hide and secured with a knotted cord. The tracker undid the string and folded back the hide wrapping to reveal a clay tablet covered in line upon line of carefully scribed runic markings. Most were unknown to him, but he could tell from the style of the characters that they belonged to the First Language.
While the words on the tablet escaped him, Cole couldn’t miss the astonishment on Eleanor’s face. He held the tablet out to her. “Lady Eleanor, you know what this is?”
She took the tablet and studied it for a time, not answering. Instead she plied Ula for more details. “Where did you find this?”
The mercenary captain scratched his beard and looked up into the pine forest’s canopy. “Would you believe me if I said I stumbled on it in a temple ruin by the coast? We were camped there a few months ago and it seemed like it might be worth something.”
“And who’s the buyer?”
“It’s a friend of mine from the old days, but I’ve already told you enough. A man’s entitled to his own private affairs. Why don’t we drop this? The two of you can join me and the lads for supper and be on your way. Aiden’s cooking up the rest of the mallard’s tonight”
“I don’t think you understand, marcenary. I need to know exactly who you’re selling this artifact to.”
Ula’s easy and cheerful mood turned cold in that instant. Cole’s hand slipped unconsciously to the hilt of his knife as the mercenary captain and the Pact Keeper eyed one another.
The tension broke suddenly as a hunting horn sounded in the distance and hoofbeats echoed from across the meadow. Ula rose from his seat on the fallen pine log where he had been speaking to Cole and Eleanor. “It looks like you’ll get to meet my buyer yourself. You can put your questions to him if you’re so eager.”