The thatch roofs of Kedenburg rose around the traveling companions. A wicker fence, trampled in places, ringed the village, and on the high ground near the edge of the settlement, a wooden stockade prodded at the sky with its timber fingers. From its palisade hung a forlorn royal pennant, limp in the still air.
It had been a short journey from the foothill clearing where they’d fought the rebel soldiers and lost the tablet, and with horses taken from the mercenary’s camp the miles went by much more easily. Beside them, Ula, the sellsword captain, led his own colt by the bridle.
Cole was glad to have him, as the stocky mercenary’s war stories enlivened their time spent on the road. The tracker chewed on a crunchy nugget of briar root as he idly listened to Ula recount the time his company had gone after a band of outlaws near the border town of Velden. They’d done it for a pittance, but ended up regretting it when the outlaws sprung an ambush and made the company really fight for their coin. Ula had just begun to explain how he’d gotten a long scar on his forearm as they came within view of the stables by the inn.
The young tracker took the reins from Eleanor and was about to see to their horses, when the pact keeper stopped him. “Keep your eyes open. The Royal Army’s hold here isn’t as strong as that pennant on the fort might lead you to believe.” Before he could ask what she meant, the Pact Keeper shewed him on his way.
* * *
Examining his surroundings with greater attention, Cole led the tan and dappled colts to the stables. Peering furtively down the alleys and side streets around the square, he made out the occasional mark of violence: the straw of a thatch roof singed, a doorframe hewn and broken, too many empty houses and too few folk.
On reaching the stables, he handed the horses’ reins to a stable boy with matted hair and a loose cotton chemise, passing the lad few sticks of silver. The stable boy looked at him suspiciously as the notched slivers of sterling fell into his palm. It was too much for the care of a few road-weary colts.
“This town’s seen some fighting. Where’s the royal garrison? What’s been going on here?”
The stable boy spared a nervous glance at the stockade near the edge of town. “They don’t patrol anymore, just stay holed up in the fort. There’s only a few of ‘em left after the fighting last month.”
The boy turned to go, but Cole caught his sleeve. “Fighting with who?”
“Duke Henry and his yellow-jackets. You’ll see ‘em if you stick around long enough.” The boy tugged free of Cole’s grip, but offered one more piece of advice: “If you’re a royalist, I wouldn’t go talking about it. The crown’s not popular here.”
“Thanks.” Cole nodded slowly. “I’ll watch what I say.”
* * *
Returning to the inn, Cole sought out Eleanor and Ula. Inside it was dim, muted sunlight filtering through yellowed velum window-covers. Bundles of bay leaves and mountain sage hanging from the rafters gave the common room a heavy aromatic scent. Townsfolk took their ease here and there, nursing mugs of beer and carving up loaves of rye bread and sweet butter. Stairs led to a second story loft with more tables and a scattering of patrons. The inn keeper welcomed the newcomer with a terse wave but then went back to feeding the fire in the hearth, where an iron stewpot simmered away.
Casting about the poorly lit interior, he spotted Eleanor looking down at him from a table on the second floor. Ula sat across from her, his boots propped up on the railing as he drained a pewter tankard. Cole nodded once in her direction, then set about climbing the stairs.
“I told you what to look for. Now tell me what you’ve found.” Eleanor solicited the report in a hushed voice as the tracker joined her at the table.
“You were right.” Cole glanced around, then lowered his own voice and leaned toward her. “The Royal Army isn’t in control here ,. In fact, they haven’t been for a while. And those soldier’s we fought? They belong to some duke. Henry was the name.”
Ula leaned in, beer on his breath. “You hear anything about Thrace, lad?”
Before he could answer, Eleanor cut in. “Who is this Thrace to you, the one you were trying to sell the tablet to?”
Ula peered into his tankard, as if unable to believe that it was already empty. “I’m surprised you don’t know him, Pact Keeper. He speaks the First Language just as you do. We ran together during the wars, but he said he’d joined your order since then.”
Eleanor shook her head. “The name sounds familiar, but it couldn’t be the same man.”
Cole grimaced and waved the scent of beer away, then sat straighter in his chair “There’s no way he’s a Pact Keeper.” He turned his head and looked Ula in the eye, “The order answers to the king.” Could a rogue like this Thrace really exist?
Their conversation was cut short as the owner of the inn set a pot of thick stew on the table. Slices of carrot and ribbons of cabbage bobbed in a fatty broth. Cole snatched a bowl from the old fellow and ladled out a portion for himself.
Ula dredged the pot with the ladle and whisked his finger around in the contents, evoking a frown of disgust from Elanor. “There’s not an ounce of meat in this pot.”
Eleanor narrowed her eyes at Ula, then dug in her bag for some silver while turning her attention back to the white-haired proprietor. “More importantly, I don’t believe we ordered anything.”
The owner gave a slight shake of his head and held his hand out to stop the Pact Keeper. “Don’t worry m’ lady, I ain’t chargin’ ye for this one. But ye’d best be leavin’ after ye’ve finished.” He pointed to a table on the first floor where a group of sturdy men, day-laborers perhaps, were drinking. “Those fellows, they were asking about you… if you get my meaning.”
Once the inn keeper left them, Eleanor pushed her chair back from the table and stood. “You heard the man, let’s go.”
“And miss out on a good fight?” Ula patted the haft of his mace.
“If we’re lucky.” The Pact Keeper made for the stairs.
As they descended from the upper level of the inn, one of the day-laborers got to his feet. A sinewy brute with gnarled fists, he set himself between the three outsiders and the door. Chairs clattered to the ground as his companions rose behind him.
Cole stopped short of the large man. “It’s alright. We’re on our way out, friend.”
It was a customary way for Slatelanders to address each other, but the brute wasn’t having it. “Lad, you’re no friend of mine, and you aint going nowhere.” A razor-edged falchion sprung into his hand.
Ula leapted forward and slammed into the fellow. Catching the brute’s wrist in his hand, he pushed the falchion aside and smashed his mace into the man’s ribs.
The man doubled over and toppled to the floor.
Behind them, the others drew their weapons and charged.
Cole yanked his skinning knife from it’s sheath and crouched low, ducking the iron head of a club. As it whistled past, he lunged, driving his blade into the attacker and forcing him back.
Nearby, Eleanor was busy with her staff, warding off blows and keeping others at bay. A man wielding a needle-thin dagger charged her, but she stepped back, whipped the staff around, and jabbed the end into his stomach.
“Ooof!” He stumbled back, then slumped, shards of broken crockery raining down on him. The inn-keeper tightened his grip on the handle of what had been a pitcher and glared as the remaining troublemakers.
They paused, looked at each other, and fled the inn.
A moment later, everyone else left in the place followed, leaving the Pact Keeper, her companions, and the inn keeper, alone.
Cole knelt next to the man with the falchion. There was a fat purse on his belt, the leather straining against too great a load. He cut the straps holding the coin purse and weighed it in his hand. It was heavy indeed. As he opened the bag, the tracker let out a gasp. These weren’t sticks of silver but of gold, more than he’d ever seen.
Eleanor plucked a flaxen sliver from the bag. “That officer passed through here. He must have payed these men to see that we didn’t follow him back to the duke’s castle.” She dropped the gold back into the pouch.
Cole tucked the pouch into a pocket, then wiped his knife on his pant-leg before sheathing it. “We’re close on his trail, then. It’ll be a chase, but maybe we can still catch up.”