Yulen glanced up from the diagrams and sketches scattered over the table in front of him. For some reason his Second appeared more agitated than usual. Yulen’s brows knitted as he lifted his chin. “Yes? What is it, Cole?”
“Sir, we have guests at the front gate. They’re asking for Atty.”
This time one eyebrow traveled skyward. “Are they...” Yulen began.
Mastin nodded. “Yes, sir. They’re from Wallis.”
The Second turned and followed the Battle Lord outside and to the main gates that were opened. Standing outside, just beyond the gates, two men in a single horse-drawn wagon sat waiting. As Yulen drew closer he immediately recognized one of the men, and a big smile creased his face.
“Fortune Kalich! Welcome back to Alta Novis. Please, come inside!”
It was apparent the one man was relieved at such a positive response. However, he remained cool and aloof. His companion also seemed surprised by the warm greeting, although he continued the scan the battlements overhead for any sign of aggression or trickery. They had willingly and purposefully come to the compound seeking help, but they knew there was always the chance they could just as easily find a sword at their throats or a knife in their intestines.
Several months had passed since they’d returned Atty to this man she claimed was her husband. Since then they’d received no word from anyone, which was why they had expected the worse.
It wasn’t until present circumstances forced them to realize they needed help, and they needed it now. And the only possible person who could help,if he would help, was the Battle Lord of Alta Novis. Atty’s husband. Thus, with prayers and hopes that this man, who had taken one of their own to wife, would give them what they sought, they had set off on their mission.
The decision had created major havoc and turmoil within the Mutah community. Which was why Fortune Kalich had volunteered to be the one to approach D’Jacques, as regrettably as he’d hated the prospect.
Slowly, and with obvious caution, both men climbed down from their wagon. Fortune started as a soldier took the reins of their horse. Yet the warrior displayed no visible signs of distrust as he calmly began to lead the horse into the compound. Giving the Battle Lord a wary glance, the Mutah introduced his companion. “D’Jacques, this is Bertrand Fairchild, a friend and fellow member of the hunters caste.”
Yulen greeted the man with a deep bow of his head. “I’m honored to have you here. I hold an especially high regard to those of the hunters caste.” He held out a hand to direct them into the compound city. “You’ve had a long journey, and I’m sure there’s a very good reason for it. Come inside for something to eat. How long do you plan to stay at Alta Novis?”
Fortune bit down on the inside of his cheek, hoping it would quell his nervousness. The last time he had been inside the tall, fortified walls, he had been accompanied by over a thousand armed Mutah warriors. Today, it was just him and Bertrand, and a covert glance at his friend proved he was just as jittery. However, they were damned if they’d let D’Jacques become aware of their hesitancy.
“With luck, we hope to be back on the road to Wallis in the morning,” Fortune responded.
Yulen paused in surprise. “So soon? Surely you can stay a couple of days. I know Atty will be delighted to see you when she returns.”
Returns? Fortune narrowed his eyes at the man. “She’s not here?” he asked, unable to take the chilly edge from his voice. If the Battle Lord noticed his caution, he never showed it.
“She should be back shortly. She’s usually back around this time if she leaves out before dawn.”
Yulen continued to lead the two men past the stables and the soldier’s barracks, down the narrow road to the main lodge. As they passed the other soldiers they got the stares and occasional guarded looks they expected. But something had changed since his last time inside, Fortune realized. Something that neither frightened nor put him on guard. Something...tangible.
It was Bertrand who picked up the thread of conversation. “You mean she’s no longer here? Or just temporarily absent?” he repeated.
Yulen shook his head and smiled. They’d reached the main hall. Directing them inside, the Battle Lord called out for food and drink, even though it was clear midday meal had been some hours before, and the evening supper was still a couple of hours away. “I meant she’s not here at this moment,” he finally answered.
“But she does live here?” Bertrand emphasized. His eyes scanned the walls of the main hall where a vast array of armament hung in sections around the room. In particular he saw where the outline of a crossbow on a nearby wall gave mute testimony that the weapon once had graced that spot. He nudged Fortune with a double-jointed arm, and nodded at the image.
Yulen gave them a small, amused smile. He had seen where their investigation had taken them. “Yes,” he answered in a softer voice. “My wife and I reside here. In this lodge.”
My wife and I. The acknowledgment set Fortune’s teeth on edge.
The Battle Lord led them over to one of the long tables near the fireplace. Several large sheets of paper with drawings and diagrams on them were scattered across the planking. Yulen carefully gathered them together and rolled them back into a tube, which he secured with a length of leather lacing.
The two men took a seat across from him as a large, matronly-looking woman brought them a tray. Giving each of the newcomers a bright smile, she looked over at the Battle Lord for confirmation. “Will that be all, sir?”
“Yes. Thanks, Berta. That should hold them over until supper. By the way, what are we having?”
The woman snorted. “What do you care, sir? You’re going to eat it anyway. But if you’re so determined to know, it’s the two ground lizards Madam caught yesterday.”
At Yulen’s pained expression, the housekeeper raised a hand to reassure him. “Trust me, sir. Once you see how she’s having us fix it, you’d never know it wasn’t farm-raised.”
Yulen chuckled. Turning back to the men eating at the table, he noticed their wide-eyed expressions but made no comment, allowing them to continue with their meal uninterrupted as he went over to stand before the small fire.
It was only the early part of September, but the evenings were beginning to turn chilly, if not uncomfortably cold. Although there was at least another couple hours of sunlight left before dusk, a wind had kicked up from the northwest, bringing with it the smell of another change in the weather. Yulen suspected it would be an early and long winter for them.
A fresh-faced soldier entered the main hall and approached the Battle Lord to let him know the visitors’ horse had been settled for the night, and the wagon was left tied to the stables. “Shall we go ahead and resupply them with provisions, sir?” he added.
The comment surprised the Wallis hunters.
Yulen shook his head. “Not yet. Thank you, Hampstead. That’ll be all.”
The soldier nodded and hurried out. Fortune watched him go. “What was that all about, D’Jacques?” the man asked.
“You mean about the provisions? Why shouldn’t we supply you for your trip home?”
Fortune pulled his hands away from his meal and got to his feet. “What kind of trickery are you pulling, D’Jacques? Why the niceties? Why the hospitality?” He waved at the tray of food. “Is this stuff poisoned? Is that what you have planned? To keep us off-guard and unsuspecting while you manage to have us conveniently disappear?” He was not prepared for the flash of sorrow and anger that appeared on the man’s face. But he could not let go of forty-seven years of oppression quite so easily.
“Where’s Atty, D’Jacques? Where’s my goddaughter? Where is she, in truth? Why not go ahead and admit to us that you’ve done something with her? Why not tell us she’s dead, and we’ve managed to fall for your—”
Outside the main hall’s large double doors that had been left propped open came the cry Yulen had been waiting for.
“Battle Lady about!”
Before the call had faded, a familiar and beloved figure literally came bouncing into the room, all out of breath and flushed with her latest conquest.
“Yulen? Where are you? Oh, there you are! Oh, God, Yulen! Have you tried this crossbow? This thing is marvelous! Come outside and look at what I bagged—”
Atty stopped dead in her tracks as she spotted the two men sitting at the nearby table. Her eyes widened in shock. “Fortune? Bertrand!” Squealing with delight, she tossed the crossbow onto a nearby table and descended on the hunters with undisguised joy, hugging them both in turn and smothering their faces with kisses.
Fortune could only stare at the woman, speechless. Not only was she alive, she literally glowed with health and happiness. Gone was the woman of five months ago, a creature pale and weak after battling a major poisoning. Vanished was the woman who had begged at the feet of the Council of Elders to be returned to the enemy stronghold, to the man she claimed had total possession of her heart.
Even more astonishing was the realization that her hunting prowess and abilities appeared to be even stronger than before, despite the surety they were supposed to fade away with her deflowerment.
Atty saw his look of incredulity and snapped her fingers in front of his face. “Hey, Fortune! You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” She giggled again, giving him another squeeze for good measure. “Oh, you guys look wonderful! What brings you to Alta Novis?” She leaned back and glanced at her husband for an answer, seeing as the other two were a bit on the dumbstruck side at the moment. He answered her with a quick shrug.
“Atty?” Fortune swallowed thickly. His hands cupped her beaming face, and he stared into her bright eyes. Several tendrils of dark, indigo-colored hair had escaped her braids. He tucked them behind her ears. Finally accepting the fact that she was whole and happy, he pulled her into his arms to hug her. “We’ve missed you, girl,” he murmured against her cheek.
“I’ve missed you all as well,” she whispered in return. Suddenly, her mercurial mood became playful. She stepped back, pulling on his hands and jerking on his arms to bring him to his feet. “Come outside and see what I caught!” She danced away from them, heading for the door. They had no choice but to follow her outside.
Already her kill had attracted the attention of the soldiers in the compound. But, then again, whatever she brought back usually attracted a lot of attention. Today was no different.
The snake was a good twenty feet long, and at least as big around as a man’s thigh. She had tied a rope behind its head and dragged it back to the compound behind her horse. Yulen observed the crossbow’s arrows protruding from each slitted eye.
“Two arrows, Atty?” he teased with a grin. “Getting extravagant now?”
Atty gave a noncommital shrug. “Damn thing wouldn’t go down. Besides, they were little arrows. Snakes don’t know they’re dead when you hit the brain.”
Something in her tone of voice gave Yulen pause. Leaning over so he was close to her ear, he whispered, “If ever, for one minute, I think you’re putting yourself in unnecessary danger, I’m personally going to lock you in our bedroom for your own safety.”
“For a week?” she giggled, and glanced up at him from the corner of her eye.
“Ohhh, at least,” he promised, smiling.
Behind them the Mutah hunters watched the interaction between the two. Although they couldn’t hear their conversation, there was no way they could deny the obvious display of affection between husband and wife.
Reluctantly, almost grudgingly, Fortune Kalich felt the tension of his distrust begin to loosen, uncoiling like the snake that had given up its life at Atty’s hands.
“Hey, Atty! You know the old saying!” someone called from the crowd of soldiers. In unison, they began to chat the old saw. “If you kill it, you clean it!”
Atty rolled her eyes before flashing her husband an apologetic smile. Her Ballock dagger slipped into her hands like a live animal thirsty to do its work. Without another word, the warrior woman walked over to the carcass, slicing through the rope that attached the snake to the saddle of her mare with a single stroke. As a soldier took the horse’s reins to take the animal to the stables, Atty began the task of disemboweling the creature before hacking off its head and skinning it.
Yulen turned away to return to the main lodge as several women from the compound hurried past him with large bowls to hold the meat. Silently, the two Mutah hunters followed him inside.
As they entered through the doors, they found the Battle Lord issuing orders for them to be directed to their own quarters. “Dinner will be in a couple of hours. I know the road from Wallis is a long one. Berta will show you to where you can rest and refresh yourselves until the meal is served. Afterwards we can sit down and discuss why you’re here.” He flashed them a quick but apologetic smile. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a few things to tend to.” The two men watched as the man hurried upstairs to his own suite of rooms, closing the door behind him.
It was the servant woman who’d brought them a tray. She gave a little wave for them to follow her, and led them to a room on the opposite end of the main lodge. When the men entered their room, both hunters started and turned to stare at each other.
“This isn’t what I was expecting,” Bertrand admitted to his friend. Compared to what they expected, the guest room was opulent. There was a single bed, but it was enormous, and with a thick mattress. Their furnishings also included a bowl with a washstand, and a small writing table with two chairs.
“Neither was I,” Fortune reluctantly conceded.
They removed their weapons belts and outerwear, and took advantage of the bowl of fresh water to get rid of the grime of the past few days from their faces and hands. Bertrand found that one of the windows overlooked the main corridor leading to the soldiers’ barracks. He gestured to Fortune, who joined him.
There was little trace left of the snake except for the pools of blood that several servants were quickly covering with dirt before scooping it up for removal.
“Do you think there’s a chance he’ll offer his help?”
Fortune let out a small, whistling sigh. “I think our prayers have been answered, old friend.”
It didn’t surprise him to see tears welling up in his companion’s eyes. If truth be told, he felt like having a good cry himself.