15.2


As soon as the seneschal had finished showing them their room, Roland let out a barrage of eloquent nonsense that roughly translated to 'thank you, now get out and don't come back', and shoved him out the door. Slamming it shut, he scanned the room for something to barricade it with and then turned his attention to his companions.

The bounty hunter had taken a blanket and a goose-down pillow from the larger of the two beds and had set about arranging them on the floor. From the looks of things, Foley and the seneschal had taken Roland's story to heart. Her apprentice was sitting on the other, smaller, bed, eyeing his master as he wrestled with his boots. There was a certain poutiness to his expression that made him look like he was sulking. In all likelihood, he probably was.

After a good minute or two of Eliah doing… whatever it was she was doing and Nathaniel, finally free of his cloak and boots, sitting there, staring sullenly at the back of her hood, Roland decided it was time to break the silence. He cleared his throat for attention. Face as solemn as a man at a wake, he waited for them to look up at him and said, "We need to be careful here."

A pillow hit him in the face.

"I don't want to hear that from you," said Eliah, grabbing the other pillow off the bed and fluffing it up as she placed it on the floor. "You're the reason we're in this mess to begin with."

The thief cocked an eyebrow. "Me? Did you not say earlier that you had no plan for dealing with Foley and his men?"

"I did, but that doesn't mean you had to have us escorted inside!"

"Escorted inside is better than skewered outside. You were worried about us becoming pincushions out there if something went wrong and I quite agreed. Far better for us to acknowledge their authority and voluntarily submit to it than to hope that they'd just let us go. Or were you planning to fight them?

"While I personally prefer diplomatic methods, I admit that I wouldn't have minded seeing you and them duke it out. Not many people get a chance to see the Crossroads Bounty Hunter in action without getting knocked out half-way through, you know. Come to think of it... how did you manage to get past all those squads of the Watch when you captured me? What with those broken ribs and all—"

Eliah groaned. "Do you ever stop talking?"

"I'll stop if you start." Roland jerked his head at Nathaniel. "Pout-aniel's face is going to freeze that way unless you explain yourself soon."

"It's Nathaniel," said the boy, the response all but automatic. He crossed his arms and lifted his chin. "You said later, Master. Now is later."

She sighed. Smoothing the blankets one last time, Eliah stood up. Her lips went tight for a moment, as if the words she were holding back tasted tart. Gritting her teeth, she forced them out.

"Foley and I, we've… crossed paths before. He knows what I am."

Nathaniel frowned. "I don't remember him."

"You wouldn't. It was back in Valles, before we met Tobias. I met him when I was… running an errand."

Nathaniel didn't look convinced, but before he could get another word out, Roland interrupted.

"You and Sir Horsehair 'crossed paths'?"

"Yes."

"I bet it was a night to remember."

"I certainly won't be forgetting it any time soon."

Roland's eyes widened. "You and Horsehair—?"

Eliah drowned him out. "Sir Foley of Serashold is a Vallesian knight. He serves Duke Cardell, liege lord of the Highlands and known supporter of the Immortalists." She glanced at Nathaniel, whose face had gone white at the words 'Vallesian knight', and then threw Roland a glare. "Now do you see what you've done?"

"Give me a moment. I'm still trying to wrap my head around you and Foley – pardon me, Sir Foley."

Nathaniel was shaking. "Why would a Vallesian knight be here? What business could one of those ba" – Eliah shot him a look and he quickly changed his words – "one of them have out here in the middle of the Free Nations?"

"Well, there is this flaky old piece of parchment called the Freeman's Alliance," said Roland, his voice wry. "Valles has been sending soldiers to protect the border nations from Quorris and Loren's slaver raids for centuries. But I imagine that's not what has your master so concerned." He met Eliah's eye. "You think Foley's here with Immortalists."

"So you were listening."

"Just because I'm using my mouth doesn't mean I'm not using my ears. You think he's here for you?"

"No. If Foley were on official business, then he'd be in colours."

"Official business? And here you had me thinking that I was the only criminal in the room. What did you do, Eli? A noble, I'd wager—"

Eliah glared at him. "The fact remains that as a knight, there is no need for Foley to be travelling incognito."

Roland shrugged. "He could have left service, become a sell sword. There's plenty of work for them these days – such as holding large farming settlements hostage for instance."

"No. He's too honourable for that."

Nathaniel let out a snort and Roland raised a brow.

"Sounds like your boy disagrees with you. Doesn't seem all that fond of the man, if you ask me."

"I didn't. Nathaniel doesn't think fondly of knights in general."

"Aah, so perhaps it was not you who slighted Sir Horsehair, but Sir Horsehair who slighted you."

"Horsehair's got nothing to do with it," Nathaniel muttered. Eliah let out an angry hiss. He spread his hands. "What?"

As Eliah proceeded to chastise her apprentice for following his bad example, Roland stroked his chin and he sorted through the facts.

She was right; he had made a blunder when he'd decided to sweet-talk Foley into letting them into the village. Of course, there was no way he could have known that – not without Eliah telling him, but that in itself was something to be disappointed about. Roland very much considered his ability to gather information through coaxing, claptrap and coercion a point of pride. With a little additional prodding, he probably could have avoided walking into this situation in the first place.

Or so he'd like to think.

In reality, whenever Roland tried to pry into her past, Eliah's mouth slammed shut faster than a bear trap, and the only people who guarded their traps like that were people with something to hide. As intrigued as he was by the bounty hunter's potentially seedy history, something told him that whatever secrets she and Foley shared would be best found out through wheedling on the roadside rather than from direct observation – especially if the knight was an Immortalist. Where there were Immortalists, there were Paragons, and when Paragons met Aeonari...

Well, he'd seen his fair share of clashes between the two and every single one had ended up bloody.

Snapping back into focus, Roland realised that Eliah and Nathaniel were still arguing. He looked from one to the other and then back again before opening his mouth to speak. Then, thinking the better of it, he turned and pressed his ear to the door instead. Drowning out the sound of the bounty hunter and her apprentice, he concentrated, listening for the scrap of steel or an intake of breath.

He heard nothing.

Satisfied that there was no one guarding the door, Roland removed the chair he'd used as a barricade, and stuck his head out into the hallway. It was as deserted as the village streets. The only people he could see were a pair of harried-looking servants furiously scrubbing down the floorboards of the foyer at the end of the hall under the watchful eye of one of Foley's men and a pair of guards chatting at the double doors on the other end.

Eyebrows knitted, Roland extricated himself from the door and found Eliah and Nathaniel watching him with identically dubious frowns upon their faces. He tilted his head. "Are you two sure you're not related?"

Eliah drew breath and he hastily held up a hand.

"Don't bother, love; I'll do it. 'Shut up, Roland.' 'Yes, Eli.' Now you can get all huffy, I'll stand here, look handsome and smile, and you can start putting on your boots back on, Nathaniel."

"It's Nathaniel."

"That's what I said. Boots on, Pout-taniel."

"I just said, it's—" Nathaniel blinked. "Wait."

"Roland," said Eliah, eying the thief as he opened the door a little wider and leaned out again. "What are you doing?"

"Such suspicion. Your lack of faith—" Roland caught the look on her face and sighed. "Forget it. I want the boy to put his boots on so we can go."

"Go?"

"Yes, go. You wanted to impress upon me that coming here was a mistake and congratulations, you've done it. But if you wish to stay and wait for your dear Sir Horsehair to remember you, then that's fine with me too – provided that I get to watch… from a safe distance."

"How exactly do you propose we do that?"

"Reunite? Well, you could always go find him and take off your—"

"Roland."

"—cloak. Of course, if Foley really is with the Immortalists then I suspect that doing so will cause quite a bit of unwanted commotion. It's going to be much harder to walk out of here if someone finds out what you are."

"Walk out?" There was a distinct note of disbelief in her tone.

"Do I hear an echo?" asked Roland, cupping a hand behind his ear. Eliah scowled and he shook his head at her with mock-admonishment. "It's not that unbelievable, Eli, my dear. Any pickpocket working a crowd knows to walk instead of run. Blend in and you'll get away. If you act like you're where you're supposed to be and doing what you're supposed to do, no one will suspect you. Talk like you know what you're talking about – or even like you don't – and you'll probably find out something useful too."

She scoffed. "Is that so?"

"Certainly. I've been doing it to you for days."

Refusing to give her time to ponder the fact, Roland continued on, "Of course, given your total lack of appreciation for the art of conversation and my dramatic flair, it's probably best if you leave any talking to me. Something tells me that in situations such as this, you're more prone to talking with your fists than your mouth."

Eliah scowled and made to deny it – then realised he was right and stopped.

"So you have a plan?" asked Nathaniel, standing up and putting on his cloak.

Roland winked and tapped his nose. "You'll see, lad. You'll see."

~x~

Leaving the log house was even easier than anticipated. Foley, a man of his word, had informed his men that the group would need to purchase supplies. He'd granted them leave to visit the necessary stores, with the small condition of a compulsory escort.

Eliah looked almost as sullen as the blacksmith as she pretended to help Roland peruse the man's kitchenware. Leaving the log house was one matter; leaving it with an armed guard was an entirely different one altogether.

Roland, for his part, was actually interested in the pots and pans. The guards were an annoyance, he agreed, but he was more than confident that Eliah could dispatch them. She'd already suggested it several times, but as far as Roland was concerned, the shopping was a more pressing issue. Amberfield was the only sizeable settlement on way to the Citadel and he doubted they'd find much in the sparse hamlets that littered the rest of the north road, especially if they were being pursued. Pots, pans and cooking herbs were his primary objectives and he saw no reason to knock out their guides just yet. It was all part of the plan.

Or at least that's what he said.

Roland had learned many things about his two companions while on the road. Most prominently, he'd discovered that Eliah's idea of cooking was catching a bird or other small game, putting a stick through it and throwing it into a fire. The end result was something that tasted like charcoal, and the look she'd given him when he'd pointed it out had been nothing short of murderous.

Tobias had tried to warn him before they'd left, and Nathaniel had been sensible enough to use his allowance and purchase some fruit, cheese and bread. But if they were going to be travelling another three days, Roland was intent on preparing food – preferably hot food – that was edible, and quite possibly teaching Eliah to do the same. If that was to be accomplished, he needed proper tools.

His lips quirked slightly at that. His plan had been to shake the bounty hunter and her apprentice loose when they reached the Citadel, and yet here he was thinking that he'd teach her how to cook.

The thief really did like the pair. After months of pulling small heists alone while he was escaping Loren and then being stuck doing jobs for Cyrus with Morinth as his new partner, company like theirs made for a pleasant change. It had been a while since he'd had someone hot-headed to tease. Someone hot-headed who wouldn't threaten to put several bloody holes in his chest when he tried, anyway. Sure, she threatened to knock him over the head from time to time or string him up to a tree or his horse by the ankles, but no matter how hard he pushed her, he'd yet to see her do it.

He flashed Eliah a smile. "Look at the finish on this, Eli. Perfect for the travel kit, wouldn't you say?" She glanced at it and made a noncommittal noise. Accepting that as a grunt of acknowledgement, he turned to the smith. "This is some fine craftsmanship. As good as the Vallesians, I dare say!"

The smith glared at him, glared at the armed escort waiting patiently by the door, and muttered something morose beneath his breath.

Roland caught the words and hastened to reassure him. "We're not here with the soldiers, sir. Just a trio of simple travellers passing through town. My wife will be sure to pay for everything we take." He ignored the withering look Eliah sent him at the word 'wife' and the way the crease in her brow deepened at the word 'pay'. If her expression was anything to judge by, she wasn't planning on paying for anything.

Not that it mattered to Roland, he'd make sure that she did either way.

With a conspicuous look at the guards, he lowered his voice and continued, "I take it that business has not been doing well since the Immortalists came to town?"

The blacksmith flinched at his blatancy. His eyes darted over to the guardsmen, but they stood at ease and continued with their small talk, giving no indication that they'd heard. Regardless, he kept his reply quiet.

"Yes'un. 'Twas was alright when it was just Foley. His men were about but we could go about our business. Saved us from beasts and brigands a few times too. Told us that he and his men were sent by Governor Ferris to help with repairs after the quake; had a writ from the man and everything! Then the Paragons and their Immortalists came." The smith spat on the floor. "Been trapped like rabbits in a snare ever since."

"Paragons?" repeated Roland, checking if Eliah was listening. If the dents in the goblet she'd been pretending to examine were of any indication, she was. He stepped to the side and blocked her from the smith's view. "There was more than one?"

The smith nodded. "Yes'un. Must have been five or six gone through here in the past week."

"Odd. They don't normally hunt in packs."

"Five or six of 'em, I swear! One of 'em even had the gall to come in here and confiscate half my wares!" He gestured towards the far corner of his store where Nathaniel was poking around.

The boy froze in the middle of examining a dagger he'd found on the floor and hastened to put it away. He fumbled with the sheath and dropped it, catching his shoulder on the table as he bent and dropping the knife as well. Reflexively, he went to catch it with his other hand. The blade sliced through his palm. The guards at the door jumped as he yelped, spinning and drawing their swords as they tried to identify the source of the noise.

The blacksmith backed up, holding his hands high and clear to show them that the commotion had not come from him. Eliah ran to her apprentice and Roland moved to calm the guards.

"At ease, sirs. The boy's just cut himself."

Spitting a curse that he'd learned from the Crossroads, Nathaniel held up his bleeding hand for them to see. Grudgingly, they relaxed.

"Sorry," said Nathaniel as Eliah seized his hand to look at his cut.

She cuffed him over the head.

"Ow."

"What have I told you about handling weapons?" she snapped, searching her belt pouches for something to use as a bandage. "Now we'll have to buy it."

"Nothing wrong with that," said Roland. He flourished a handkerchief as he appeared, pots and pans tucked under his arm. "I'll even teach to you to use it if you want."

The look Eliah gave him was murderous. "No," she said flatly as she snatched the cloth from him. "You won't."

He arched a brow at her vehemence but let the matter go.

As Eliah tended to Nathaniel's wound, Roland put his pots on the ground and stooped to examine the long dirk that had caused it. The knife looked crude but the steel was well-tempered and the blade well-balanced. The smith was good – lacking in finesse perhaps, but he knew what he was doing. With a quick wipe across the bottom of his coat, Roland cleaned away the blood and searched for the sheath.

Crawling under the table, he found it, and in the dusty shadows beside it he found a second, smaller blade. A throwing knife, judging from the size and weight - probably knocked down and forgotten when the Paragons had performed their search and seize. He pocketed it. No doubt it was as of good a quality as the dirk.

Scurrying out from under the table, he checked that Eliah and the guards weren't looking and dropped the dirk in with his pots. He hurried back over to the smith. "We'll take these."

"Two sovereigns for the lot."

Roland choked. "That's robbery!" The pots and pans were worth probably no more than a silver or two together and the dirk – fine as it was – would fetch little more.

The smith shrugged. "Like you said, trade's slow. Given the village's present company, I think it's fair to ask for compensation."

Roland sighed and shook his head. He fished around in his coat for a moment and pulled out a pair of coins.

Across the room, Eliah frowned as she caught the flash gold. Her hand dropped to her belt.

She sighed.

Walking Nathaniel to the door, she held out a hand and waited for Roland to give back her purse.