The room was loud with voices raised and the clink of pewter ale jars. Smoke from the candles upon the table, from torches on the wall, and from the improperly drafted fire in the huge fireplace filled the low-beamed room. The scene was at once jolly and reckless, boisterous and enthusiastic. Quentin found himself grinning heartily not ten steps inside the door.
Theido propelled them both toward a long table standing just a few paces from the hearth. Contrary to what Milcher had insinuated, there were plenty of places at the table; most of the guests were taking liquid nourishment this evening. But the innkeeper had been right— they were just in time. No sooner had they settled themselves upon the rough bench at the far end of the table than platters of steaming food appeared. The heaping plates of meat and vegetables and several kinds of bread and cheese were served by a stout woman with a ready smile and red cheeks and a thin, gawky boy who lurched clumsily as he smacked the pewter plates down. “Careful, Otho!” called the woman amiably. “You had your supper; now let these fine gentlemen eat theirs in peace.”
The comical pair retreated to the kitchen then, only to reappear at frequent intervals to pester the diners with more food and drink. “Eat!” the woman scolded. “Eat, eat, eat! Please! You’re not eating!”
As the diners finished, they left the board to others who sat down at their places. Theido and Quentin, at Theido’s command, ate leisurely and with slow deliberation. Theido’s watchful gaze swept over the roisterous scene, alert to any hint of discovery. But even his quick eyes failed to see a small, dark man appear at the door like a shadow and slink into a darkened corner. The spy left moments later, undetected.
After a while Milcher, the busy little proprietor of the inn, stepped around to see how his newest guests were accommodated. “You will be staying the night with us, I trust?” he asked.
“Yes, you will have us at your mercy,” replied Theido with a grin.
“Good. I thought so—I have already stabled your horses for the night. But who’s this?” he exclaimed, noticing Quentin’s benevolent stare. “I don’t think you’ve introduced me to your friend, Theido.” He beamed down upon the boy with a face red from running on his endless errands.
“Haven’t I?” said Theido casually. “Well, I thought you knew. This is my nephew, Quentin.”
“Oh, of course! I knew it all along, didn’t I? But my, so big already. Hasn’t he grown.” With that the little man was off again, buzzing like a bee in some other corner of the noisy, crowded room.
“Let us hope no one else takes an interest in my family life tonight. Milcher can talk more than any twenty women. I would rather our little visit was known by as few as possible.”
“You think someone might be looking for us?” The thought had just occurred to Quentin.
“It is likely. Whoever killed Ronsard, or had him killed, must know by now that the secret he carried did not die with him. Although we cannot be sure. Maybe they did not know about the message.”
“You mean he was not attacked by outlaws?”
“No, lad. Or at least not altogether. Outlaws may have been hired for the deed, but they would scarcely have gone up against a king’s knight without better reason than his purse. Even an outlaw values his life more than that, I think. No, it was probably someone who knew what he carried, or suspected his mission.”
“Prince Jaspin, maybe?” The intrigues of court were new to Quentin, but he found himself irresistibly drawn to them. His quick mind leaped ahead to all sorts of possible collusions, a fox in a yard of plump chickens.
“Maybe. It would not be the first time he has used others for deeds he would not do himself. But I think there is some other—I cannot say why. I feel it here.” He pointed to his stomach. “And now, if you are well stuffed, we might as well be off to bed. We must still find a way to guarantee our private audience with the queen tomorrow.”
Milcher returned and bustled them off to their room, where his wife, the jolly, red-faced woman, had laid aside the bedclothes of a high, sturdy bed. A smaller, more portable pallet had been placed near the fireplace, which warmed the apartment. The chamber was square and plain, but private and cozy enough. There was no window, a feature Theido had requested.
“Sleep well tonight, good guests. Sleep well!” said the innkeeper, closing the door to their chamber and tiptoeing quietly away.
“I would just loosen my belt if I were you,” warned Theido as Quentin, seated on the edge of the pallet, began pulling off his tunic. “Tonight we must be ready for anything.”
Not far distant, high up on the hill in Askelon Castle, a candle burned low in a spacious and richly appointed bedchamber. The floors were of white marble and the walls hung with exquisite tapestries depicting the occupant’s favorite pastime: the hunt. A magnificently carved table spread with a vast cloth of dark blue embroidered with thread spun from silver supported a surface littered with maps and scrolls of parchment. At one end of the domed room—for it was the uppermost chamber of the east tower—a crackling fire burned brightly in an ornamented fireplace overhung by a heavy oaken mantel carved with the crest and blazon of a previous resident.
A melancholy figure sat hunched in a great chair with a high back and wings on each side to keep off the draft that seeped through the old castle walls. The chair, more a small throne, was drawn near the fire, but its tenant seemed to draw neither warmth nor comfort from the dancing flames. Instead he stared dejectedly into the blaze, with a tall horn cup of wine, untasted, in his hand.
Prince Jaspin scarcely stirred when the sound of a sharp rap reached his ears from the outer door of his private chambers. A breathless chamberlain presently returned with the news that a certain knight wished audience with him. Upon learning the man’s name, Prince Jaspin exploded.
“Send him here directly, you old fool! I have been waiting days to hear his news, and you keep him cooling in the corridor like a side of beef. I should have you flayed!”
The chamberlain, well accustomed to his master’s fits, did not hear what was said in his absence, leaving at once to bring this most desired visitor before the angry prince.
“Tell me, Sir Bran, what news? Have you found him yet?” Jaspin leaped from his chair as the knight entered.
“Yes, he is here—in the village,” the knight said, bending low from the waist in a quick bow.
“In the village! Where? I shall seize him at once!”
“I would caution you against such a move, Your Grace. It would attract too much attention. We do not know how many there are—he might have brought some of his men with him. Anyway, it is better done in daylight.”
“Yes, I suppose you are right.” The prince settled back into the silk cushions of his chair, much pleased by the news. “We must not blunder the opportunity as we did the last.” He paused and asked casually, “Are you certain Ronsard is dead?”
“Quite certain.” The knight, dressed in a fur-lined cape and gloves over a rich tunic of fine brocaded linen, began removing his gloves. The chamberlain brought a chair and took away his cloak. The powerfully built knight poured himself a goblet of wine from a standing flagon and downed half of it in one swallow. “You do live well, my prince,” he said as he sat down opposite Jaspin.
“Those who support my cause will not need neglect their appetite for finery, I can assure you. Have I told you, Bran, I am thinking of giving you Crandall for your efforts? What would you do with it, I wonder?”
“Give it to me, and you shall see,” retorted the knight.
“You are anxious, aren’t you?” The prince laughed. “Yes, by and by we shall see. I would give it to you now, only that spoiler Theido—or whatever he calls himself—is still loose and roaming about. We cannot have him coming forward and pressing his claim . . . How awkward that would be.”
“I can deal with him,” sneered Bran, pouring himself another goblet of wine.
“As you dealt with Ronsard?” the prince jibed.
“You will remember we did not know it was Ronsard until the very encounter. Anyway, with his wounds and the freezing cold, he did not go far. That I know.”
“But you never found the body, did you?” the prince said firmly.
“It was snowing, by Zoar!” the knight snapped angrily. “Do you not believe me? The snow covered everything within the hour. His horse wandered off and left him where he fell, and the snow covered him.”
“Yes, yes, I know. The snow—you watched the ambush from some distance . . .”
“And by the time I got there, I could find but two of my own men!”
“Well, it is over. Now to put an end to our other problem, this outlaw leader—what do they call him?”
“The Hawk,” said the knight sullenly.
“Yes. Strange this Hawk suddenly showing himself—and so close at hand. How do you explain it?” insinuated the prince in a sly voice.
“I do not explain it!” The knight banged his silver goblet down upon the arm of the chair; wine sloshed up over the rim, wetting his hand. “Happenchance—it’s a coincidence, nothing more,” he said, straining to control his temper. “Or perhaps one of the worthless robbers I hired for this . . . this transaction returned to his den and wagged his tail for his master.”
“Possibly, possibly. There is no honor among dogs, you know,” Jaspin quipped.
The prince sipped his wine and sat silently for a time, gazing into the fire now beginning to dwindle. “I suppose we shall have to ask our friend Hawk tomorrow.”
The knight smiled quickly and drank deeply of his wine. “Yes, we will hear the rascal sing tomorrow.”