The tavern dominated an area on the road leading out of the King's city of Lynset. It looked as though it had stood there forever, and might stand there for the rest of forever, providing that no strong breezes came along. It was, in fact, very sturdy, and the daily bar fights proved this as men were slammed into its walls. Taverns were the place to go to find a mercenary, or more aptly, a sword for hire. They would gather there at night, some actually sat there all day, waiting for a customer to enter.
Knowing this, a young squire in the service of a knight in the court of King Justin of the realm of Cyllewl, hurried towards this particular one, knowing that only the best frequented this tavern. Ryelle was a young boy, fourteen perhaps, only recently obtaining his rank of squire. On this particular night, he wore clothing that would not easily identify him, having shed the tabard bearing Sir Peter's device, for a simple one of a dark brown color.
Reaching the door of the tavern, Ryelle hesitated, knowing what he was about to do would have far reaching and long lasting effects, whether he triumphed or failed. But he had made his decision back in his small quarters next to Sir Peter's and there could be no going back. This was as matter of loyalty and honor. Ryelle pushed open the door with a certain resolve unusual for a boy his age.
Once in the tavern, Ryelle took a few moments to adjust his eyes to the dimly lit tavern. He made his way to the bar, passing by tables full of rowdy men and women who were drinking and gambling. The bartender sneered at Ryelle as he approached the bar, but he ignored it, determination fueling courage. Looking over the grimy bartender with a slight air of disdain. Ryelle put a coin on the bar, one worth quite a bit. At the sight of the coin, the bartender became a little more friendly.
"Wot ken I getcha, boy?"
Ryelle realized that he must play a part with this bartender to receive what he needed,
"Just some information."
The bartender grinned, showing his missing and rotten teeth, "Noaw, wot sort do ya need?"
"I'm looking for a sword for hire."
"Ya'd better be able to pay boy."
Ryelle gave a short laugh, "Of course I can pay. Do I look like a peasant to you?"
The bartender looked Ryelle over. He was clean, and neatly dressed, his unmarked his tabard was new, his leggings were perfect, his boots good leather and he wore a modest sword. "Sure, you ken pay. Wot sort o' job is it?"
This was where Ryelle had to be careful. He could not give too much away or he would surely fail. But if he did not explain himself well enough, he would not find the right kind of mercenary. "I need someone loyal to King Arden, and has a sense of honor."
The bartender gave a barking laughing, clapping Ryelle on the back, "Very few of the 'onorable types 'round heres, though everyone preferred 'Is 'Ighness King Arden over 'is brother Justin. But yore jus' in luck me lad, Sir Norden is 'ere today, she's the one fer you. She's sitting over there with 'er friends, Sirs Erec and Bryson." The bartender pointed over to a table where two men and a woman were siting quietly, quite in contrast with the rest of the tavern.
Ryelle nodded, "Thanks. The coin's for you."
The bartender smiled his gap toothed grin again and snatched up the coin greedily.
Ryelle turned his back to look at Sir Norden. It would be an understatement to say that it startled him to hear that this great knight was now a sword for hire. Sir Norden had been the first knight to be a commoner, women had long been knights in this realm although there had only been a handful. Sir Norden became a knight without ever having served as a page or a squire. She simply marched into King Arden's court one day and after swearing loyalty, informed the King of a cruel Duke that was causing his people hardships and extracting inhumane punishments for petty reasons. None of the nobility had dared tell their King, for fear of the Duke, and this girl, an armorers daughter, came and boldly told the King of the Duke's horrendous crimes, which the Duke denied. But King Arden had also seen some of the results of this cruelty, but could do nothing until a charge was brought against the Duke. The Duke demanded the King kill Norden for dirtying his good name, but Norden offered single combat, which the Duke gladly accepted, thinking that she would be easy to kill. He was dead wrong. Sir Norden slew him quickly and fairly. King Arden offered her a reward and she requested to be knighted.
And that was why Ryelle was astonished that she was involved in such a contemptible thing as being a sword for hire. Sir Norden had always been the most humble, chivalrous and unselfish knight in King Arden's court. It had come as a great shock to everyone in the court when the newly crowned King Justin discharged her form the knighthood shortly after his brother's mysterious death. He had claimed that Sir Norden had been saying things that were treasonous, but the knights all knew the true story.
King Justin had attempted to romance her one morning in the Great Hall. (He had been a widower for years after his wife died giving birth to a child that also died.) When she ignored his advances, the King became angry and drew his sword, threatening
her with it. The threats had no effect on Sir Norden and the King attacked her. She defended herself but did not return any attack on her King. Sir Erec and Sir Bryson, two friends of Sir Norden's, had been walking past the entrance of the Hall when the sound of fighting reached their ears. Without hesitating they drew their swords and entered the Hall. They came to Sir Norden's defense, demanding a reason from King Justin as to why he had attacked her. King Justin them had evicted later during a council meeting of all the knights.
And that was why three distinguished knights were sitting here in a tavern full of common rabble, reduced to lowly beggars. But the bartender's words proved that they were still highly respected by the usage of the title of "Sir".
Ryelle had never seen them while they had been at court, he had only been a lowly page and had seen little of anyone important, but as now as he approached them he could surmise a bit about their personalities by their appearances.
Of the two men, Ryelle knew that Sir Erec would be the smaller of the two. He was finely dressed despite his poverty. Sir Erec wore a purple tabard that displayed his device of a white unicorn's head over his loose black shirt. On his neatly trimmed blonde head was a smart black hat with one white and two purple plumes draping from its back, the plumes were almost larger than the hat. His leggings were black and looked new. His boots were a leather dyed purple and did not have one scuff on them. A neatly trimmed beard surrounded his mouth. Sir Erec's sword belt and scabbard were black, edged with purple. It could be ascerned that he often went hungry to keep up his appearance. He sat strumming a lute idly while conversing with Sir Bryson.
Sir Bryson was a stark contrast when compared to Sir Erec. He wore the same clothes that he had taken with him when he was evicted. His tabard was a fading green color that bore his device of a griffin. His hair was longer than Sir Erec's, but blonde too, and slightly wavy, a thing Sir Erec envied him. Otherwise he wore simple clothes with no apparent extravagance. Sir Bryson was also physically larger than Sir Erec, standing a head taller and he was stouter. Where Sir Erec was very elegant looking, Sir Bryson had the look of brute strength.
Sir Norden dressed as simply as Sir Bryson. Her tabard was green and purple with the device of a hunting hawk with its wings spread. She wore the sword made especially for her by her father, given to her before she left him to join the knighthood. She was a pretty girl with red brown hair cut to her shoulders.
As Ryelle approached them, they stopped their conversation to look at him. He stood at the edge of the table and took a deep breath, unsure of how to start.
Sir Erec addressed him, "Well what is it boy? We don't have all day."
Ryelle gulped, "Sorry sir, excuse my rudeness. I come to you looking for help. I have recently stumbled upon some information, important information, but can do nothing about it on my own. I need someone who is honorable, who is loyal to King Arden, or more specifically, Prince Larsen."
Sir Bryson reached over to a nearby table and pulled a vacant chair to their table.
"Sit boy. What do you know about the missing Prince?" King Arden's son, Prince Larsen, had been the ward of some noblemen since the age of five, he would now be twenty years old. When his father died, the people had demanded that he be found and crowned, but only the dead King and the noble knew where he was. And it seemed that the noble did not know of the King's death.
Ryelle sat and lowered his voice, "I was running an errand for Sir Peter, my patron knight, when I stumbled upon a dying messenger. He bore a message from the Prince to his father, he does not know of his death. The messenger was shocked when I told him. He begged me to go and tell Prince Larsen, and restore him to his birthright. I will not say where he is, for I believe that King Justin will try to kill him if he finds where the Prince is hidden, he did cast his own son from the royal house."
Sir Erec nodded, "You were wise not to tell anyone, but how do you explain you absence from the castle?"
"I told Sir Peter that my mother was ailing, I have a young sister and my father has been dead for years."
Sir Norden tapped the table with a finger, "This is extremely deadly information. King Justin has mercenaries scouring the countryside for Prince Larsen. You are lucky to stumble upon people with loyalty to King Arden, though it means death. We will need a variety of people with specialized skills to bring Prince Larsen home. Getting him will be easy, fighting King Justin will not. He has the entire realm in fear of him. What's your name boy?"
"Ryelle of Vennen, squire to Sir Peter of Darsden."
The three knights nodded. Sir Bryson lifted the tankard in front of him and drank from it before speaking. "Who should we bring Norden?"
Ryelle found it interesting that even these two men had such steadfast confidence in Sir Norden's ability to access a situation.
It was obvious that Sir Norden had been making up the list all the while she and the others had been speaking, because she spoke without hesitation. "Reynard."
Sir Erec nodded, "He'll come in handy."
Sir Erec poured himself some more ale from the bottle on the table, "Because he can pick any lock in the realm, and is a master of disguises."
"But who is he?"
"Never you mind. We are all nobody."
Sir Norden was continuing, "Red Jimmie."
"What's he do?"
"He's damn good with a sword, and a fearless fighter. But do you think he'll help with a prince, Norden?" Sir Bryson had a look of concern o his face."
"Yes. He hates Justin's rule as much as anyone and he'll listen to me."
"Why wouldn't he help a prince?" Ryelle was beginning to feel silly asking so many questions.
Sir Erec explained, "Red Jimmie is from Velret. Three years ago the King there died, leaving behind two sons, he named the youngest his heir, an unusual happening. The elder brother became angry and raised an army against his brother. The knights of the realm were split, some wanted to honor the King's wishes and others wanted to honor tradition. Red Jimmie chose tradition and the older brother. The older brother vanquished the younger brother, and then killed the families of all the men that had helped him, some say to prove his power. When Red Jimmie returned to his home after fighting, he found his wife and two children murdered. He was angry with his King, but knew he could do nothing. So instead, he burned his house, and before he left Velret he took out his dagger and scratched three deep wounds into his right cheek. He swore never to serve another King solely."
Sir Bryson chuckled, "You should have been a storyteller Erec, you look the part at least."
"Definitely, we can always use that fast talking charmer of a rouge," said Sir Bryson.
Sir Erec anticipated Ryelle's question, "Best archer around here and an expert on the court."
Sir Erec narrowed his brows, "An Enchanter? Do you think we'll need one where we're going?"
Sir Norden nodded, "A King doesn't put his son just anywhere to be fostered, there'll be magic and deception everywhere."
Sir Erec nodded, "Anyone else?"
"Ugly, really?" Sir Erec did not mask his disbelief.
"Definitely Ugly. He of all of us has enough reason to hate Justin. He's deadly with his daggers and knows more about this realm than the three of us put together. And just yesterday he told me he wished that Prince Larsen would hurry up and get found."
"Is that it?" asked Sir Bryson.
He nodded and tapped the shoulder of a man at the table next to him, "Sir Norden passing the word for Reynard, Red Jimmie, Atton, Ant, Little West and Ugly Dirty." The man nodded and began passing the word.
Sir Erec resumed strumming his lute, "How long do you think it'll take for them to get here?"
Sir Bryson rolled his eyes, "They'll be here soon after they get the word. Not long."
Ryelle interrupted the knights, "Ugly Dirty? No mother would name her son that."
"Ugly Dirty has no name. His father banished him from his household, therefore he can have no name until he redeems himself in the eyes of his family. Therefore, we refer to a description of him." Banishment was a common practice among well to do families to attempt to control unruly young men. They were stripped of their names, clothes, rank and turned out of the house until they redemed themselves in the eyes of their families.
Sir Bryson rose, "Shall we make ready our horses?" The other two nodded and rose.
"I don't have a horse, I usually borrow one from the castle when I go anywhere with Sir Peter."
Sir Erec looked Ryelle over, "Do you have any money?"
"I brought as much as I had."
"Enough to buy a horse?"
"I've never bought one before, I don't know."
Sir Erec held out his hand, "Let me see."
Ryelle removed his purse from his belt and placed it in Sir Erec's open palm. Sir Erec opened it and gazed down at the coins.
"There's enough here for a nag, leaving extra, in case you need it. you can buy one at the stables when we get our horses."
Twenty minutes later, Ryelle found himself astride a horse that had obviously seen better days. He was glad that it was not ill tempered, that was one thing he was not certain he could deal with. Ryelle was waiting with the three knights outside the tavern for the others to assemble. They too were mounted, but their horses were the ones that they had left the castle with, strong, powerful beasts with good stamina. Sir Erec's horse reflected his flamboyant personality, its trappings were of fine stuff and just as impeccably clean as Sir Erec's clothing. The knights did not speak as they waited, and Ryelle thought it best to hold his tongue.
It was dark on the path outside the tavern which threw very little light outwards. Ryelle's horse was next to Sir Norden's, with about a horse's width between them. He nearly jumped out of the cheap saddle that came with the horse when an unexpected voice came from between them.
"You called for me, Sir Norden?"
Sir Norden seemed unruffled by the sudden appearance of the voice, as did Sir Bryson, but despite himself, Sir Erec jumped a little.
"Of course. We can always use the skills that you have Reynard. We have a little quest to complete."
"Good. I was getting bored with masquerading as some of the nobility at court."
Ryelle was straining his eyes to make out horse and rider in the darkness. After a few fruitless moments he gave up trying and turned his attention back to the road. Another rider was approaching the gathering group of mercenaries. This rider was a woman, stocky with thick red hair and a bow slung across her shoulders. She too dressed well, although not as extravagant as Sir Erec. Ryelle noted these details as she passed through a patch of light from a tavern window, and wondered exactly which one of the multitude of strange names she was.
Sir Erec hailed her, there was an edge of happiness to his cultured voice, "Ant, how lovely to see you."
Ant nodded gracefully to Sir Erec, but spoke to Sir Norden, "What are we going after?"
"I'll explain tomorrow. There are too many ears here."
Ant nodded and fell in beside Sir Erec.
Very little time passed before the next person arrived. Seeing the tall rider approaching, Sir Norden nudged her horse out of the line of horses to meet him before he reached the group. Once her horse was beside his, Sir Norden held a whispered conversation with the rider.
Reynard shifted in his saddle next to Ryelle and spoke out loud to himself, "That'll be Red Jimmie, is my guess anyway. Wonder why she needs to speak to him." Reynard looked at Ryelle for the first time and Ryelle could just make out the man's features and at the moment he appeared startled, "You'll be our solicitor I suppose?"
"You better not be wasting our time."
Ryelle was taken aback, "I wouldn't dare think of it."
Red Jimmie and Sir Norden were now joining the group with another man walking close behind them. Red Jimmie brought his horse next to Ryelle's. He looked the boy over with a stern set of brown eyes. Ryelle met his gaze and Red Jimmie nodded his approval, Ryelle returned the nod. Red Jimmie was tall, lanky, dark haired and a lot younger than Ryelle would have expected. He had a prominent nose and brooding brows. The three white scars on his right cheek shone in the faint light.
"So, what are we doin' an' what's in it for me? I ain't doin' nothin' without a good reward, you know I'm expensive."
"They'll be enough for everyone if we succeed and it won't be necessary if we fail. Where's you horse Atton?"
Atton shuffled his feet, "I kinda lost it."
Sir Norden sighed and tossed him a coin, "Here, go and charm one out of the stable master. Red Jimmie, go with him and make sure he gets a horse and not a bottle of ale or a girl."
Red Jimmie handed Ryelle his reigns to hold and dismounted. Atton cowered slightly before Red Jimmie, and Ryelle realized that Red Jimmie was one of the few people Atton could not charm. Atton and Red Jimmie disappeared behind the tavern and the last two men Sir Norden had named arrived together.
One bowed to Sir Norden as he sat in his saddle, the other rode a horse worse than Ryelle's and his head was hung. The young man bowing straightened himself up,
"Sir Norden, how may I be of service?"
"We have a situation that requires many skills. It will be explained tomorrow. Ugly, the young man with the hung head looked up, "You mustn't be so submissive with us."
Ugly Dirty nodded and steadied his fidgeting horse. Sir Bryson addressed the other man, whom Ryelle deduced to be Little West, "We'll be leaving as soon as Atton gets himself a horse."
Little West brought his horse closer to the waiting horses, "That charmer's coming, is he?"
Ugly Dirty also approached the group, Ryelle noticed that he had a dejected but defiant air about him. When Ugly Dirty passed through the light from the tavern, Ryelle could see why they called him Dirty. His clothes were tattered and torn, his hair was an utter disaster, and dirt was carefully streaked across his face. Ryelle knew his appearance was purposeful, the dirt and worn clothes were a sign of humiliation and submissiveness, and the dirt on his face was carefully patterned, showing that perhaps Ugly Dirty enjoyed being disowned. Ryelle, however, could not sort out why the others referred to the young man as Ugly, because under the dirt, the young man was strikingly handsome. It took the straitlaced Ryelle quite some time to realize that it was a jest.
Atton and Red Jimmie were now returning, the former astride horse. Ryelle relinquished the reigns of Red Jimmie's horse to him. Sir Norden looked about her and posed a question. "Everyone ready?"
There was a murmur of affirmatives and one loud, cheeky no. Sir Norden glared in Atton's direction before continuing, "Ryelle, in which direction do we ride?"
Ryelle thought a moment, he was not entirely sure in which direction the hidden Prince lay. Recalling a map in his mind's eye, he chose one, "North."
"Then we go north."