“What did you call me?” The broad-shouldered, homespun-clad man rose like a thunderhead from his seat. “Cummon, Nat, I dare you ta say that again!” His voice rumbled across the crowded taproom, stilling all other conversation.
The object of the thunderhead’s wrath stammered, “Hold, Borl, hold now. I didn’ call you nothing. Sit down, straight? Sit down and have another.” The man’s reedy voice and weedy body seemed ill-suited to weathering the storm brewing to his right, though he lifted his own tankard of ale as an offering to the gods of tempest in the form of Borl.
“You said ‘stink’!” roared Borl, reaching down past the sacrificial ale to plant an acre of palm on the supplicant’s chest and giving it a shove. The crash as Nat tumbled off his stool punctuated the rest of Borl’s revelation. “I don’t stink, Nat! Nothing wrong with it and I did!”
Bard Nakaz watched the squall break from across the taproom of the Waning Moon Inn. He smiled to himself as he ate another forkful of the excellent stew that was his dinner; he was usually the entertainment in places like this, and it was a nice change to be the audience instead. Nakaz watched the other two farmers in the group with Borl and Nat rush around the table to help their fallen companion while Borl continued to rant about the virtues of hard work and its natural consequences. Nat regained his feet and all three took up the chants of placation, trying to return Borl to his previous, quiet self.
It was difficult to hear what the three farmers said to try to calm the fourth, what with the storm of Borl rumbling so loudly. Nevertheless, Nakaz heard one try again to offer Borl a drink. It was unfortunate that the farmer chose to use those exact words. Borl, who’d clearly had far too much ale already, misheard once again.
With a roar the offended farmer lashed out with a closed fist, and the unlucky companion was tossed as if by a fierce wind across the nearest table. “Don’t stink! Don’t care!” were Borl’s only comments before his other fist lashed out at his other friends. They were fortunate enough to dodge the first flurry of blows.
Nakaz saw two men approaching the enraged farmer from behind. He could tell by their confident stride and purposeful looks that they were employed by the inn to keep the peace at times like this. Nakaz also knew that if Borl caught sight of them, they would have a much harder time getting the farmer under control. He knew that it was time to stop being part of the audience.
Nakaz stood quickly. He was a tall, handsome man with blond hair, green eyes, and a large nose, but he didn’t expect his appearance to catch Borl’s attention. His clothes were well tailored, and showed off his physique to every advantage, but that wasn’t going to divert the enraged farmer either. Neither would his bardic credentials, blazoned across his vest in the harp-and-star motif. So Nakaz employed the only instrument he had to hand: in a voice trained to fill large halls and carry across the conversation of crowds, he said, “Ho, Borl. Why don’t you bring your stink over here and see how far it gets you?”
The stormy farmer stopped and stared. Before he could take any other action, the enforcers stepped up on either side of him and twisted his arms up behind his back. With practiced ease, they had Borl moving toward the door before he could start to struggle. From the bewildered look on the farmer’s face, Nakaz was sure that Borl was still trying to figure out who had taunted him from across the room, and why.
Nakaz sat back down and returned to his meal, satisfied with the resolution of the situation. He toyed briefly with the idea of writing a song about Borl’s imaginary stink, but decided that it was a better tale to amuse his fellow bards with than something to be immortalized in rhyme.
Presently, a short man with a long beard and no hair came up and said, “Pardon me, sir bard. I’m Drenist, the owner of the Waning Moon. I would like to thank you for your help earlier. Since you’re already lodging for free, I wondered if you would accept this bottle of one of our best lots of Starshine. It’s distilled from local corn and our twist is that we age it in ale casks. We all swear by its potency and taste. I hear tell that there is even a shop in Magnus that carries it.”
Nakaz fell easily into his best courtly manner as he said, “Thank you, Drenist, for your thoughtful gift. I am sure that your Starshine is fit for the royal table. I was, of course, only doing my duty, but I will accept this in the spirit that it is given.” The bard was not fond of the bite of distilled liquor, but he knew that he could find the Starshine an appreciative home.
As the owner bowed and left, Nakaz reflected on the evening so far and decided that he was glad he had stopped at this particular inn on this particular early-summer evening. Then again, his choices had been limited to the inn and sleeping under the stars; the decision hadn’t been a difficult one.
The Waning Moon Inn was one of those inns that were dotted around the kingdom at convenient places to halt a journey where neither town nor village were present. The inn was situated beside the Iridal Road where it ran across the northern tip of Duchy Magnus, in the middle of Baranur. The road was used by several major trade routes and it connected several Royal Roads as well, so that the inn saw plenty of custom. It had accumulated so many out-buildings — stables, blacksmiths, storage sheds, small shops selling trail needs — that it resembled a tiny hamlet all by itself. Nakaz knew that if the location continued to be an important stop it might eventually become a proper village.
The inn’s location guaranteed prosperity, and it was obvious that Drenist put his profit back into his business. The taproom of the inn was large, well lit, and very clean. The food was excellent, and the range of ales behind the bar rivaled some taverns in Magnus itself. The room Nakaz had been given was comfortable in size and appointment, and when he had protested being given what seemed to be the best room in the inn free of charge thanks to his profession, he had been assured that all of the private rooms were of the same quality.
Nakaz finished his meal without any other interruption. He left his table to take his gift bottle to his room and to visit the privies out back. When he returned, he saw that his table had been taken by a group of newcomers. The room was even more crowded; there were very few empty stools and no empty tables. Since he wasn’t ready to retire to his room just yet, he surveyed the possibilities and chose a table at which there was only one customer. Nakaz decided that the young-looking man with short, brown hair and a thin mustache wasn’t too involved with his tankard, and his expression was relaxed and friendly, not brooding or self-absorbed, so the bard walked over to the table.
Reaching his target, Nakaz said, “Your pardon, milord. Might I share your table for a while?”
The young man looked up and smiled before he could possibly have registered the harp-and-stars. A moment later, he said, “Of course, sir bard! Stay as long as you wish.”
Nakaz sat on the other side of the table and said, “Thank you. Let me buy you a drink while we introduce ourselves.” He gestured, and one of the waiters swiftly delivered their order. “I am Nakaz, a bard as you’ve already noted.”
“Pleased to meet you, Bard Nakaz. I am Lord Yeran Reshilk, at your service.”
Nakaz lifted his cup, and said, “Well met, Lord Reshilk.” He took a sip to complete the toast and continued, “What brings you to the Waning Moon this evening?”
Yeran set his tankard down and wiped his mouth on his finely-made sleeve. He turned his brown-gold eyes on Nakaz, and the bard thought he could see a hint of pain in their depths as the lord said, “I’m returning home after concluding some family business. You might even say, concluding my family’s inheritance.”
Nakaz didn’t immediately reply, waiting for the young man to continue on his own. When Yeran remained silent, Nakaz put on his best “And …?” expression. The young lord glanced at him, and laughed. “Oh, I do apologize, sir bard. I should know better than to torture a servant of the harp-and-stars so. Believe me, I am not reticent out of a desire to tease a bard with a bare hint of a tale. Most of my peers are well versed in my family’s plight, and need no recitation of our woes, so I have learned to keep them to myself.
“But on this, probably my last visit to the Waning Moon, I’ll tell my tale once more. I doubt, though, that you’ll get much of a song out of it, friend Nakaz.”
Yeran took another pull of his drink, and set the vessel down with a deep sigh. Squaring himself to the table, he rested both forearms on its top and straightened his back. Staring into the depths of his tankard, he began.
“The Reshilk clan, for a clan we were once, is very old. There were Reshilks here before there was even a Baranur. But the clan was never large, and when our land became part of the kingdom, we didn’t resist the change. In fact, my ancestors allied with the invaders against their neighbors, earning the reward of a barony under the newly-formed Duchy of Arvalia.”
Yeran looked up, flicking his eyes toward Nakaz before letting his gaze wander around the room. He continued, “Reshilk never really prospered as a barony. Maybe we were cursed by our ancestors’ coat-turning; then again, perhaps we simply never had the head for politics that our new neighbors did. However it was, we were never able to expand our holdings. Again and again, marriage contracts were arranged that ended up with Reshilk on the high side of the scales. Money, land, resources — we never seemed to end up with more of anything no matter how hard the negotiation.”
The young lord’s eyes returned to the bard as his hands gripped his tankard and lifted it again. Though Yeran’s tone of voice was light and even, Nakaz saw that hint of pain behind his brown eyes again. The vessel soon warded those eyes from his scrutiny, and Nakaz turned his gaze to the table.
Yeran set the cup down, hands still gripping it, and went on. “It was inevitable, possibly even foreordained. My great-grandfather was the last Baron Reshilk.” Nakaz noticed that Yeran’s knuckles were white around the tankard. “Loryad couldn’t pay the tithe any longer; he didn’t have the land to support it. He sold his title to Arval in return for the lesser one of Lord, and instead of owing fealty directly to Arval, he became a vassal of Baron Tendian.”
The young lord drank again. Nakaz signaled, and Yeran’s drink was quickly refilled. Now slumping somewhat over the edge of the table, Yeran continued, “The trend continued, however. The lands that Loryad governed were split in half when his daughter married into the family to the south. My father had only one child, me, but he had a gambling habit to take care of as well. His debts fell to me to settle when he fell from his horse and broke his neck three years ago.
“The revenge of those ancient clans was finished by those creditors.” Yeran’s voice shook as he said, “I had no choice. I tried everything else … everything! But it wasn’t enough.”
The young lord paused. He was bent over his tankard, his eyes closed, his hands tight around its girth. Nakaz reached over and put a hand on the young man’s shoulder, and with that touch, all of the tension went out of Yeran in an instant. The lord sighed deeply and straightened, smiling somewhat grimly at the bard. He lifted his cup, but set it down again before drinking. He seemed to gather himself, and when he continued, his voice was steady again.
“I’ve just come from selling my lands, friend Nakaz. I’ve exchanged the last of my heritage for enough money to lay my father’s debts to rest for good. The land went to my uncle, with the permission of Norin Arval, the duke, of course. So in a sense it is still in the family.” Yeran laughed ruefully, and said, “But not really. I’m the last Reshilk, Nakaz. All I have left is my townhouse in Magnus, and a title I couldn’t pass on to my children should I ever have any. A pitiful end, don’t you think?”
Nakaz was about to deny Yeran’s self-deprecating claim when the young lord said, “Oh, wait!” Yeran made a fist and showed it to the bard. “I almost forgot, I do have a shred of heritage left. Look here, Nakaz, this ring. It has been in my family from the earliest days. Our legends say that it’s even older than the Reshilks, and that it is some kind of key. Frustratingly enough, they don’t bother to say to what.”
Nakaz drew the hand closer and examined the heirloom. The ring was silver, set with a strange looking grey-blue stone the like of which Nakaz had never seen before. The band was wide, tapered wider for the stone’s mounting. That taper was decorated on one side with an odd symbol that looked something like a star and something like a leaf. The other side bore a stag crowned with an impressive set of antlers leaping over a mountain cat.
Releasing the fist, Nakaz said, “That’s some heirloom, Yeran. Maybe not as impressive as a barony, but I’ll wager that Arval doesn’t possess anything nearly as old.” The young lord grinned and nodded, looking at his ring, but Nakaz felt the tickle of an elusive memory started by the ring. There was something about the star-leaf, the cat-leaping stag, and the strange stone that resonated deep in his memory. He tried to coax that memory up, but nothing responded. It bothered him that he couldn’t remember; he was a bard, he was supposed to be able to remember! With a sigh, he let it go; he knew that it would come to him in time.
“And,” said Yeran, drawing Nakaz’ attention away from his reticent memory, “there’s also Tremid, my only remaining servant. His family has served ours for six generations.” The young lord shook his head wonderingly as he said, “I’ve let him know that he’s free to find a better employer, but he refuses to leave my service. I guess that makes him part of my heritage, too.”
Yeran lifted his head, looking over Nakaz’ shoulder. He said, “That’s Tremid over there, where the hirelings and servants usually group together. He’s the one with the red hair and blue vest.”
Nakaz turned to look, spotting the loyal Tremid easily among the more drably-dressed folks gathered in the corner farthest from the front door. He was about to compliment Yeran on being able to inspire such loyalty when he caught sight of the man sitting next to Tremid.
The bard’s memory needed no prodding to recall where he had seen that face before. The man in question was tall, thin, and handsome. He had light brown hair and wide brown eyes over a narrow chin and cheekbones. Nakaz had last seen the man just about three years ago during one of his own visits to the Bardic College. He recalled the dinner well, as he had been in the company of his sometime-lover Shorel at the time. The entrance of the eighth-stave bard named Kethseir had caught his attention immediately, and he had paid a great deal of attention to the very attractive man seated across the room from him, much to Shorel’s annoyance. The man had left early the next morning, denying Nakaz the chance to meet and, hopefully, impress him. In the intervening years Nakaz hadn’t heard a word from or of Kethseir, which wasn’t unusual; there were too many bards for him to know and keep track of every one.
His recollection of Kethseir brought other memories with it, starting with the death of Shorel. Two years had passed since the trouble in Barony Frasilk that had resulted in his lover’s death. The matter had been settled to everyone’s satisfaction, including Duke Othuldane when Nakaz had communicated the situation to him. Nakaz had continued with his circuit duties despite his loss, for which he had been praised upon his return to the Bardic College. He hadn’t felt particularly praiseworthy, though. In truth, since having found the strange stone sculpture that had belonged to Shorel, he hadn’t been bothered by his loss. It wasn’t that he felt comforted by carrying something of Shorel’s with him; rather it was like he had gained something vita lly important to him, something that made him more whole than he had been before.
Along with that gain, however, had come the sense that he wasn’t yet complete. There was something more out there to be sought. He was fortunate in that his profession allowed him to travel with greater freedom than most; he was sure that he would have been riding the trails of Baranur in search of that something whether he was a lord or a lowly peasant.
“Nakaz?” The bard blinked himself out of his reverie, and turned back to Yeran, who continued, “Are you all right?”
“Fine, yes fine. Sorry, I was distracted there for a moment.” Nakaz tried to gather his thoughts and return to his former frame of mind, but he couldn’t manage it right away. To cover for himself, he said, “I’m glad to have made your acquaintance, Lord Yeran. I hope we will have time to talk further before you leave tomorrow?”
Yeran said, “The pleasure has been all mine, sir bard. And, I won’t be leaving for a few days; the creditors arrive on the second of Yuli for their money. So if your duties don’t take you away too soon, I’m sure we will have time for more conversation.”
“Excellent. I look forward to it. Now, if you will excuse me?” Nakaz rose, shook hands with Yeran, who had a firm handshake, and left the table.
The bard took a trip out back again, more for time to think than from need. When he returned, Lord Yeran was no longer in the taproom. Nakaz was glad; he had other things to concentrate on.
The room was less crowded now, and the bard had no trouble finding a table to sit at by himself. He looked over to the servants’ corner, and was pleased to find that Kethseir was still there, still in the company of Tremid. They seemed to be talking animatedly, getting along like fast friends.
Nakaz studied the other bard, who presented something of a puzzle. Kethseir was dressed in traveling clothes of a common cut, nothing as elegant as he had been wearing that time at the college. His hair was cut differently, and he had a thin mustache that made him look even more alluring, but there was no visible sign of his bardic profession about him: no stars and harps on his vest or belt, no instrument visible, no pendant of rank around his neck, nothing. That wasn’t completely unusual; Nakaz had hidden his profession during the Frasilk situation.
The other thing that was different about the man was his entire demeanor. He found it difficult to imagine the proud, well-dressed man of three years ago dressed so commonly and fitting in with the servants around him as if he had been born to that life. The only conclusion that Nakaz could draw was that Kethseir had a task that required him to go about in disguise. Nakaz respected that, but he still wanted to meet the handsome man if at all possible.
There were many ways to accomplish that, of course. He could wait until Kethseir was alone, or change his own clothes so he would blend in better with the company Kethseir was keeping. Or he could use the silent speech.
For times when actual conversation was inconvenient or impossible, bards had a means of communication that involved only the movements of fingers. Based in part on the fingertalk that enabled the deaf to hear and the dumb to talk, but different enough that it wasn’t as casually known outside of those educated at the College of Bards, it didn’t involve quite as much motion and symbolism as did fingertalk. It could be executed with only one hand, and the movements were subtle enough that an onlooker wouldn’t see more than normal fidgeting. Partly because he didn’t want to disturb whatever Kethseir was involved in, and partly because he wasn’t highly motivated to get out of his seat, Nakaz decided to use the silent speech.
One obstacle was, of course, that Kethseir was on the other side of the taproom. Obstacles were there to be overcome, and the silent speech had methods for overcoming this one.
Nakaz began trying to catch Kethseir’s eye, but nothing he did elicited a response from Kethseir beyond a glance in his direction. No signal, from the most casual to the most dire, was responded to. Not a hint of recognition passed when their eyes briefly met before Kethseir’s gaze continued its steady sweep of the room.
Finally, Nakaz had to admit that either Kethseir had an overriding reason to not respond to his signaling, or the man didn’t understand the silent speech. Nakaz found himself intrigued. Given the meaning of some of the signals he had sent — ones that meant disaster, sent in desperation — it seemed more like the second option than the first, and he didn’t see how that was possible. Unless Kethseir wasn’t a bard … but that was impossible! Nakaz had seen the man in the Bardic College itself, sitting down to eat with all of the other bards in residence at the time. The man had even taken a turn at entertaining, though Nakaz remembered his own evaluation of the man’s talent as nowhere near eighth stave. Could it be true? And if so, how and why had Kethseir been in the college in the first place?
Nakaz determined to track this mystery to its source. He had no intention of letting Kethseir slip away in the early bells of the day. He intended to follow the presumed-bard until he knew the answers to the questions he was still formulating.
The amount of sunlight flooding into Nakaz’ room the next morning told the bard that he had overslept badly. The mistake was understandable: shortly after he had retired to his room the evening before, he had been visited by two willing and eager women. Both were servers in the taproom whom Nakaz had noted during the course of the evening, and they were sisters as well. Nakaz had been persuaded to accept their invitation into his own room, and their activities therein had lasted well into the late bells of the night.
Excuse or no, his quarry, Kethseir, wouldn’t even have had to rise early to evade the bard’s scrutiny. Nakaz cursed in frustration, and flung himself from the bed. He threw on some clothes, paused long enough to adjust his tunic and hair into an acceptable appearance, and then dashed down the stairs into the taproom.
He looked around at the sprinkling of fellow late-risers just beginning their breakfasts, but didn’t see his quarry. He headed for the bar to ask an employee, but he realized that he didn’t know how to identify Kethseir; he had no idea what the man was calling himself here. In desperation, he headed for the stables, hoping that one or another of the ostlers or stable boys could describe those who had departed that morning.
Luck was with him though, for as he rounded the corner of the inn on the way to the stable yard, he caught sight of Kethseir. The tall, thin man was walking toward the stables with Yeran’s servant, Tremid, and four other people who were unknown to the bard. Even though none of them looked ready to travel, Nakaz followed, remaining unseen.
Inside the large barn, the bard watched as the others inspected a group of horses in one particular area. A short while later, Kethseir broke away to examine a docile, black horse with a jagged blaze on its nose. Nakaz saw the man check the feed and water, nod approvingly, and return to the group after giving the horse an affectionate rub between the eyes.
When the others had left, Nakaz found one of the stable boys and asked, “Do you know who that horse belongs to?” He indicated the black with the jagged blaze.
“Ah, yeah, sir,” the tow-headed child said. “That’s Kresh’s horse, it is. He was just here, you musta missed ‘im.”
“Thanks, lad,” said Nakaz, handing him an oval quarter-Common for his trouble. The bard returned to the taproom and ordered his own late breakfast, trying to plan how he was going to introduce himself to ‘Kresh’.
By ninth bell, with the sun just a few finger-widths from the horizon, Nakaz was again very frustrated. He had been trying all day to catch Kresh alone, but he hadn’t yet been successful. Either the man was avoiding him or the bard was just completely unlucky. Kresh was always with the group that had visited the stables or in the company of two other men who looked rougher than the servants and hirelings that Kresh had been sitting with the previous evening. Yet he seemed just as friendly with the toughs as with the servants.
Nakaz had run out of patience, but not out of options. It looked like he wasn’t going to get to corner Kresh here, so he needed to make sure that he would be able to track the elusive man down once Kresh left the inn. Nakaz entered the stables once again, and, after making sure that no one was around to watch, he slipped into the stall with the jagged-blazed black horse. Working quickly and expertly, the bard wedged a piece of soft metal into one of the black’s horseshoes. It wouldn’t hurt the horse at all; it was designed to alter the print the shoe would make, adding a large star to one edge. It wouldn’t be difficult to pick such a hoofprint out even from the myriad that surrounded such a popular inn.
His fall-back plan in place, Nakaz was returning to the inn when he heard voices coming from around the corner.
“… place is three days away,” said a somewhat dull voice, with a droning undertone.
“The appointment is on the fifth of Yuli,” responded a second voice, more musical and lilting, yet still very masculine; a very interesting combination in Nakaz’ estimation.
“So …” began a voice the bard recognized. The recognition was confirmed when three people appeared around the corner: Kresh and his two tough-looking companions. Both had dark hair, and neither topped Kresh’s shoulder. The shorter of the pair had an impressive beard: thick, covering his entire face, it hung halfway to his belly. The other had a narrow face that bore a scar across his left cheekbone and nose. They fell silent at the sight of the bard, nodding politely as they passed. Kresh still betrayed no flicker of recognition of Nakaz, even passing this close.
Wondering what appointment they had been discussing, as well as which voice belonged to whom, Nakaz continued on his way back into the inn.
There were no time-bells rung at the Waning Moon Inn, but Nakaz guessed that it was somewhere between the seventh and eighth bells of night as he walked silently back to his room after a visit to the privies out back. He hadn’t bothered with a candle, so he was essentially in the dark, with only the moonlight seeping under the doors to show him the way.
There was a slight increase in the light in the hallway from behind him, which swiftly vanished with the click of a closing door. He heard a soft voice say, “You shouldn’t have done that.” The voice was lilting, and yet manly, and Nakaz recognized it instantly.
The dull, droning voice said, “I got it, didn’t I?”
“Yes,” said the first voice, which was growing fainter. “But he said …”
Nakaz wondered what the two were talking about. They seemed to be arguing, but there was no heat in their voices. He contemplated going after them to learn more, but a yawn convinced him that there wasn’t any reason to suspect them of anything just because they had been seen in the company of the mysterious Kresh.
Nakaz returned to his room and swiftly fell asleep again. It seemed as if no time at all passed before he was jostled awake by a hand on his shoulder.
He opened his eyes to find Tremid standing over him, looking worried and guilty in equal measure. The servant said, “Come quick, sir bard. It’s Lord Yeran … He’s … he’s dead.”
Nakaz threw back the covers, slid into his trousers and followed Tremid down the hall to Yeran’s room. He absently noticed that it was just as well-appointed as his own before hastening over to the bed that the young lord lay on, covers thrown back to reveal his sleeping clothes.
That Yeran was dead was evident: there was a knife standing in his motionless chest. There was surprisingly little blood, but Nakaz judged that the knife had been expertly positioned to still the lord’s heart instantly. Death must have been swift and painless from the peaceful expression on Yeran’s face.
Nakaz turned to Tremid, who cowered behind him. “When did this happen?”
“Beggin’ your leave, sir, I don’t know. I returned just now and found him like this.”
Nakaz pounced on the admission. “And why weren’t you in your lord’s room, Tremid?”
The servant looked at the floor, wringing his hands constantly. “I … I’m sorry, sir. I … I was in Kresh’s room, sir …”
“Why?” demanded Nakaz.
“He done me a favor, it was, sir. We been talking a bit, him and me, and I was wishin’ once over some beer that I could spend a night wit’ a serving girl like my betters. After all, with the gentry like my master, or the rich caravan-leads, or even such as yourself, sir, what chance does a lowly servant have?
“Well, Kresh says he doesn’t think it fair either, and he arranges it for me. Last night, he took me to his room and there was Mattie, which I’ve been wanting to bed for months. He gave me a smile, and left, and …”
“Yes, fine,” said Nakaz. “You were tempted, and succumbed. Let’s move on. Is anything missing? What about the money Yeran was going to pay his creditors?”
Tremid looked shocked. He said, “I … I didn’ check, sir, just went to fetch you, as you’re a bard and all, and friendly with him too.” The servant darted over to the clothes cupboard and opened the wide doors. He pushed aside two cloaks, and there was a stack of wooden boxes. Tremid touched each locked hasp, and then shifted the top box slightly. He stood up and said, “It’s right here, sir. Not been touched, from the looks of it.”
“Not a robbery”, thought Nakaz as he turned back to the body on the bed. Yeran’s hands were folded on his stomach, but something about that seemed wrong. The bard looked closer, and it became clear. The middle finger of Yeran’s left hand was bare save for a white band of flesh where his heirloom ring had rested.
Nakaz said, “Take me to Kresh’s room, Tremid. Now.”
The room was smaller and more plain, and on the side of the inn facing the stables, making it somewhat less desirable for the noise and smell when the wind was right. But it was also completely bare of anyone’s possessions. “Was it like this last night?” he asked.
Tremid looked around in wonder and said, “No, sir. No, it looked like Kresh was staying here.”
“What about this morning?”
The servant hesitated, and then said, “I don’t remember. I wasn’t thinking about the room, just about the night, and getting back to my station before Lord Yeran woke up. It … it might have been like this.”
Nakaz thought for a moment, and decided on his course of action. “Tremid, go get the owner and let him know that your master has been murdered. I’m going after the culprits.”
The bard returned to his room and packed up his belongings swiftly. He went directly to the stables and started to ready Riesta, his horse, for travel. He noted in passing that the black with the jagged blaze was gone.
He asked the stable boy who came over to help him, “When did Kresh leave?” He pointed to the black’s empty stall, in case this lad didn’t know the name of the horse’s owner.
“Maybe a bell before dawn, sir. Him and his two friends, they came in all quiet. We’re never fooled, though; we can tell when someone comes in trying to skip his fare. Orik went to the inn to check, but they’d paid, so we let ‘em do our work, and watched ‘em go.”
“His friends, the one with the scar and the one with the beard?” asked Nakaz.
“You didn’t see which way they went, did you?”
The boy hesitated, and a sly look came into his eye. “Would I get a better tip if I had?” he asked.
Nakaz stared hard at the child, who blinked and looked at his feet. “No sir, no … It was still dark and all, and none of us watched them past the gate.”
The bard mounted his horse and said, “Thank you for being honest.” He tossed the boy a Common, and urged Riesta on her way.
Nakaz found that his insurance had paid off right away. He easily picked out the starred-horseshoe print, and followed it away from the Waning Moon Inn. The tracks led east along the Iridal Road, and the bard followed. As he rode away, he heard a clamor start up behind him: evidently, the news of Lord Yeran Reshilk’s death was now common knowledge. He had to fight his instincts to ride back; bards were trained to bring order to chaotic situations by being the calm center in the storm of disaster. He had been trained to ask questions and gather information; he had been schooled on how to calm people and get them thinking along the necessary paths. This time, though, Nakaz knew that he was doing his best to help the situation by chasing the murderer, and he turned to his task.
The tracks of Kresh’s marked horse continued to follow the Iridal Road for about a bell before turning off to the north. Nakaz took the small dirt road after them, his full attention on the ground and the hoofprints. So it was that, almost half-a-bell later, he was startled by a shout of “Halt!” from in front of him.
He looked up and halted Riesta at the same time. Blocking the path were two men on horseback. They looked even rougher than Kresh’s distinctive friends: their hair was ragged, they bore beards that were scarcely more than a five-day unshaven face, and their clothes would not have looked out of place on a Magnus ragpicker.
The one on the left said, “Well met, stranger. Hand over your purse and your saddlebags, and you’ll leave with your life.” He lifted a small-sword into view, and though he held it expertly enough, it was so shiny and new-looking that Nakaz knew it hadn’t been in his possession for very long.
Nakaz didn’t respond immediately. He wasn’t completely sure, but he thought that these men were too conveniently placed for them not to be in the employ of Kresh. He didn’t want to take the time to fight them, but he also didn’t want to leave their potential menace so close to the Iridal Road. As he sorted his options, the silence of the road was broken by the jingling of their horses’ harness as they shook their heads nervously and pawed the ground. Nakaz took a closer look at the silent brigand, and saw how tightly he was gripping his reins, and how wide his eyes were.
Nakaz smiled as he shifted his seat slightly and leaned forward. He tapped Riesta on the side of the neck three times as he whispered a command in her ear. Then, with a final tap, Riesta jumped forward and reared up, giving out a loud trumpet of challenge and churning the air with her front feet.
The bard was, of course, expecting the move, so he remained in place on Riesta’s back. Neither of the ruffians had expected it, and what was more, neither of them were horsemen of any kind. Their horses reacted to Riesta’s challenge by bolting, and the brigands hit the ground before Riesta’s forefeet did.
Nakaz rode on, leaving the brigands to whatever fate awaited them. Without horses, they were no longer a menace on the open trail — anyone riding could flee them, and anyone walking was no longer at a disadvantage to them — and he didn’t much care if they had been injured by their falls. They surely deserved whatever they got after taking Kresh’s money to delay any pursuit.
Nakaz rode as fast as he could while still keeping track of the hoofprints. He had no real idea of where he was or where he was going; he only hoped that he was riding faster than Kresh and his companions or the chase was going to last all day.
The sun had reached its apex when Nakaz heard voices coming from ahead once again. This time, it wasn’t more brigands, it sounded like arguing. He slowed his pace, and approached the sound.
He quickly noted that the voices were Kresh and his companions. The first thing he made out was Kresh saying, “… need to do that!”
“It was easier, Kay!” said the dull, droning voice.
“I told him not to, Kay,” said the lilting voice. “And my back was turned when he did it, so I couldn’t stop him!”
“You’ve said that already, Ariks,” said Kresh’s voice, “and I believe you. This is between Hiron and me, straight?”
“Sure, Kay, sure,” said the lilting voice.
“Now, Hiron, you know I don’t like messes, and killing Yeran made a mess,” said Kresh.
Nakaz had reached the edge of a clearing, and he saw three men on horses on the other side of it. He watched Kresh toss a small bag onto the ground, and say, “There’s your pay, Hiron. You did your job and got me the ring, but I don’t wish to travel with you any longer. Farewell.”
The man with the beard glowered at Kresh and dismounted, while Kresh and the scarred one reined their horses around. Nakaz kicked lightly at Riesta’s flanks, and shouted, “Hold, Kresh!”
The man on the black horse turned toward Nakaz, and he scowled fiercely. Then, as suddenly as a summer cloudburst, he grinned. Reaching over, he slapped the riderless horse on the rump, causing it to race out of the clearing. Then he sat back up in his saddle and said, “Well, sir bard, we meet again. I admire your tenacity in following me, but I have no intention of waiting for you to cross this clearing before I flee. But let me give you something else to think about: all I’ve done, to your knowledge, is steal a ring, while that man on the ground there is the one who murdered Lord Reshilk. So, who do you follow?
“Good luck and fare well, sir bard.” Kresh gave him a mocking bow, and was galloping out of the clearing in an instant.
Hiron stood still for just a moment too long. Nakaz had really been given no choice, and he was swiftly beside the killer, binding Hiron’s hands behind his back. He looked toward the path that Kresh had taken and wished he could be in two places at once. The trail would be too cold by the time Hiron was turned over to the royal authorities, even with the marked horseshoe. Kresh had given him the slip again. Nakaz wondered if he would ever cross paths with the false bard again.