Monday, June 19, 2006

Episode 13: Tidings Most Foul

"Mine is a long story," Gundar's guest said, "and this is neither the time nor place for the telling."

Gundar put his hands on his hips. "Tell me now, or remain behind!"

"All in good time, all in good time." The little one reached inside the bits of burlap and extracted a worn leather bag bearing a mystical-looking monogram in silver. "Here -- I took this from that fool Netheniel. You may have it as a token of my good faith."

Gundar glanced inside and whistled softly. It contained at least a dozen gold and silver coins.

"Enough here to get me hung," he said, considering his options. Should he return Netheniel's money rather than risk being accused of thievery? If he did, would his act of charity win him a useful friendship, or make him the object of suspicious scrutiny?

"You would do badly to entrust yourself to Netheniel," the little man said shrewdly, reading Gundar's thoughts on his face. "He is a charlatan -- a seller of useless potions."

"And you are a thief," Gundar growled. "How does that make you a better man than he is?"

"Come now," the little man said in a coaxing tone. "Throw your lot in with me, and I will show you a great adventure."

The military horns began to blare out a lively tune. The troops stepped out briskly, their steel-bossed leather helmets glinting in the sunlight. Whatever decision Gundar chose to make, he would have to make it forthwith.

He untied his own money pouch and dumped the contents of the bag into it. Two coins dropped into the long grass. Gundar swore as he tossed the stolen bag away.

The little man reached down and felt the earth. "Here's one," he said, holding up a silver coin.

Gundar grabbed it and added it to his hoard. "Never mind the other. Into my sack with you, or I will leave you behind."

The little man scrambled into the sack. "Before you settle us in an inn for the night," he said to Gundar, "buy a needle and thread from a pedlar. I must improvise some garments."

Gundar did not reply, but jogged after the troops. He exchanged no further words with his guest, and kept a covert eye on Netheniel, anticipating the uproar when potion-seller discovered that more than his magic ferret was missing.

The morning passed uneventfully. Lunch consisted of bread, cheese, and more herbal brew. Gundar took care to be at the head of the line, and slipped away to share food and drink with his secret companion.

The sun was less than half-way to the horizon when the travellers arrived in Calligena. The troops marched smartly down the main thoroughfare with a fine show of military force. Gundar slipped into a side street, unwilling to risk being searched if Netheniel noticed his loss and complained to the captain. He soon found himself in a small market square and stopped to buy needle and thread, as well as some sturdy blue cloth that would be softer against the skin than burlap. He took the opportunity to ask if anyone knew of the whereabouts of Basilea Lexa and her mentor.

"Gone this morning," a young woman told him as she nursed her infant. "I saw her myself -- pale as death, she was, lying in a wagon padded with silk, with two healers beside her and a dozen warriors keeping guard. The Archmage did what he could to help, but from what I hear, she continues in mortal danger."

Rumours and wild fancies, Gundar reassured himself. Women are ever wont to dramatize.

"Do you know where they took her?" Gundar asked, his voice hoarse from the lump in his throat.

"To King Tantalos' palace, no doubt," the woman said. "Princess Laesta has retained the finest physicians in the land to search for the secret of eternal youth."

"And Archmage Arestasis?" Gundar asked. "Did he go with her?"

"I did not see him."

"Thank you," Gundar said gallantly, masking his unease. "You have been most helpful. I have only one more question. Do you know anything of a certain Pier Drost? I have a message to deliver."

The woman took the baby from her breast. "Surely Fate smiles upon you," she said. "Pier Drost is my husband, and this is his son. You can give your message to me."

"That cannot be," Gundar said. "The one I seek travels with his master Prince Vogol."

"Indeed he does," the woman said proudly. "He is a very important man -- a diplomat. We are together only infrequently, but, as you can see, we have made good use of our time."

Gundar's heart sank. Poor Marcelle!

"You look troubled, good sir," the woman said. "Is something amiss?"

"It is nothing," Gundar said hastily. "I was wondering to myself how he could bear to deprive himself of such a lovely creature as you."

The woman blushed. "That is most gracious of you to say. He did, indeed, speak of setting me up in his mother's estate in Veogellandt. But it is far away and his mother is old and testy. Pier thought I would be happier here."

"That is most considerate of him," Gundar said, striving to keep the sarcasm out of his voice. That scurrilous excuse for a turd probably has a wife in every land he's visited, and more besides. If I ever meet him face to face, I will tell him of Marcelle's yearning heart while I twist my dagger in his gut.

"What is the message?" the woman asked.

"I regret to say," Gundar said, "that it is very private -- a diplomatic secret."

"I understand." The young mother smiled with innocent pride. "When a man is as highly placed as he is, one cannot be too careful."

"Do you know where I might find him?" Gundar asked.

"He is attending Prince Vogol at King Tantalos' palace. The king is in the field with his troops searching for his daughter, while the nobles continue the trade negotiations in his absence."

Gundar thanked her and asked if she knew of a moderately priced inn where a man night get a good night's sleep without being overly troubled by rats and the vermin they carried.

"My uncle Mercurios keeps a proper establishment, and brews a splendid ale to boot," she said, pointing down the street. "It is only a few paces from here. Tell him that Aurelia sent you. That should merit you an extra mug of beer."