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The Quest - Chapter 4by Glen Sprigg
CHAPTER 4 - Specularum
The Westron Road stretched from Specularum to Luln, one of the young Duke Stefan's first attempts to civilise the wilderness that had been Traladara. To the people of Karameikos, it was a symbol of the continuing improvement of their way of life. Now, to Alexius, it was just another road.
The knight rode along in silence, ignoring the crisp afternoon air or the beautiful blue sky that defied the winter storms that had been constant over the last month. The countryside was blanketed in the dress of winter, the fields waiting patiently for the warmth of spring to clothe them in the verdant colours of life. Alexius shielded his eyes from the bright sunlight that reflected off the snows. He could see the city walls in the distance. He would be in Specularum before nightfall.
He had been delayed long enough on this trip already; he had been asked to spend an evening at dinner with the commander of Riverfork Keep, which had cost him nearly a full day's travel. Two days ago, he had been required to assist some villagers whose homes had been raided by an orc tribe that was hiding in the forest. They had attacked again while Alexius was there, and he and Valen had made short work of the raiding party. The two survivors had warned their fellows to avoid the region for a while.
Alexius did not begrudge his duties as a knight, but at the moment he wanted little to do with them. He only wanted to get to Specularum and present his report, then try to find some direction in his life. The meeting with Serrah's spirit had done little to soothe his anguish, and even her final words had seemed hollow to him. How could he avenge her when Ludwig and Bargle had vanished to parts unknown? He hadn't the slightest clue where to start looking.
The remaining miles to Specularum passed quickly, and Alexius arrived at the gates shortly before sunset. The guards met him before the gates and saluted him.
"Welcome home, Sir Knight," said one. "You appear to have had a long journey."
Alexius nodded. "I bring word from the Ambassador to the Shires. Will you send a messenger to the palace to inform Minister Yarol of my arrival? I'll be staying at the Silver Bear Inn, on Westron Alley."
The guard saluted again. "It shall be done at once, Sir Knight. Will you be at the Hall of your Order at all tonight, Sir?"
Alexius nodded again and passed through the gates. He resisted an urge to slump down in his saddle; his misery was private, and not to be shared with the common folk of the city. He had, he reflected with an inner grimace, the Order's reputation to uphold. He sat straight in the saddle, and Valen nearly pranced down the road. They passed the Foreign Quarter and entered the city proper.
The city was quieting down now, and the street merchants packed away their wares for the night. Alexius followed the main road, riding past the High Palace, the home of King Stefan. Torches had been lit atop the walls of the stronghold, and Alexius could make out the silhouetted guards on their nightly patrol of the king's stronghold.
Alexius had no real desire to see his fellow knights at the Griffon's Hall, but tradition bore down on him, outmatching his reluctance. He had been a knight since before the war that had shattered so many lives, and even in the darkest despair after Serrah's death he had not forgotten the knights.
The Hall of the Order of the Griffon was a majestic structure, its fortified stone walls a sturdy reminder to the people of the city that the Knights of Karameikos would be on guard for their safety. Alexius rode up to the gates, where he was greeted by two guards.
"Welcome home, Sir Alexius."
Alexius grunted. "It's good to be back," he said, but the words were empty of meaning. He dismounted and entered the Hall. When he had divested himself of his heavy winter cloak, he went to the main gathering room of the Knights.
Inside were about a dozen men and women of varying ages, all involved in a deep discussion. One of the women noticed Alexius' entry, and stood up to greet him.
"Hello, Alexius," she said. She was a fair-haired woman of about thirty years of age. Around her neck she wore the symbol of the Church of Karameikos, indicating her standing as a priestess.
"Hello, Aleena," replied Alexius. "How have things been in the city?"
"Busy. There's talk of civil war in Rockhome, and there has been almost no news coming from the dwarves since New Year's Day. The last we heard, their ancient King had come back from the depths of the earth to rule them again. King Everast didn't agree with that decision, and that's the last we've heard."
"Sorry to hear that."
Aleena looked at him carefully. "What happened in the Shires, Alexius?" The other knights stopped their discussion to look at the new arrival with expectant faces.
"Nothing?" repeated Sir Althinus. "I thought the Black Eagle was going to be tried and executed."
"He was tried."
"And he wasn't killed?" exclaimed Aleena. "They let him go?!"
"No. He escaped." Alexius gave them a brief outline of what had transpired in Shireton. "I'm making a more complete report to His Majesty tomorrow," he concluded.
Aleena shook her head. "Oh, Alexius, I'm sorry." She reached out to take his hand, but he jerked it away. She looked at him in surprise.
"I'm fine, Aleena. I don't need sympathy or pity. If you'll excuse me, I have a room waiting for me at the Silver Bear."
"You won't be staying here tonight?" asked Althinus.
"No. I only came by to pay my respects. But I'm not going to be in Specularum for long."
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to find him and bring him back in chains to face justice."
"Where will you look for him?" asked Aleena. "He could be anywhere."
"I'll start at Fort Doom. There might be some clue or hint as to what happened."
"And if there's not?"
"Then I'll try something else."
Before the discussion could continue, Alexius abruptly turned and walked out. He retrieved his cloak and left, riding Valen through the darkened streets of Specularum to the Silver Bear Inn. As he rode, he thought about the knights. He knew they were trying to help him, but he didn't want any help. They were more than just comrades in arms, though. Aleena and he had been friends when they were younger. Then Alexius had left Threshold to find his fortune. He had found Serrah instead, and happiness.
He realised that he had been inexcusably rude to them. He would have to return in the morning and apologise. Regardless of his personal feelings, his oath required him to treat all knights and other nobles with respect, even the ones that didn't deserve it. Like a certain baron several years previously, on the very day Alexius attained his knighthood.
"His Grace, Baron Ludwig von Hendriks!"
The herald announced the arrival of Duke Stefan's cousin as the swarthy black-haired baron strode into the Duke's throne room as if he owned it. Rumour had it that he did in fact covet the Duke's throne, but those rumours were generally grouped with the absurd ones about his treatment of the local population in his barony. Such stories were common throughout Karameikos in the early days of Duke Stefan's reign, when the local Traladaran people found themselves subject to the Thyatian nobles who accompanied Stefan to the new land of opportunity.
Alexius Dannelaran and his bride of two weeks had arrived only minutes before the man who referred to himself as the Black Eagle. Alexius was dizzy from all the things that had happened to him. The day of their wedding, he and Serrah had received a summons from the Duke himself, ordering him to present himself at the capital city on this day to receive a knighthood for his meritorious service to the Royal Family. They had been in Kelvin that day, and had been married by Desmond Kelvin himself, son of Baron Kelvin.
Von Hendriks glared at Alexius, for no reason the warrior could discern. The Black Eagle was known to have a mercurial temper, but Alexius knew of nothing that had brought him to the baron's attention. Indeed, he and his companions had stopped a vicious band of slavers called the Iron Ring, rescuing a great number of people from their clutches.
"So you're the hero that shut the slavers down, are you?" asked the baron in a smooth voice that didn't match the sharp look he had given Alexius.
Alexius was nonplussed by the question. "I didn't consider myself a hero, your Grace. I only did my duty to my liege the Duke. But to answer your question in the spirit it was intended, I did lead that band of adventurers, and we did destroy the Iron Ring."
"Not all of it," corrected a tall, slender woman with long black hair. She was dressed in the robes of a Karameikan Church novice. "There have been other sightings of the band, and more disappearances." She shook Serrah's hand. "I am Magdel, assistant to Patriarch Jowett. I am pleased to make your acquaintance."
"As am I," replied Serrah. Alexius bowed formally to her, but the Black Eagle only stared at her.
"So these slavers are still roaming about. Guess you weren't as thorough as you thought, eh?"
Alexius could not fathom the Baron's hostility. "If we should encounter them again, your Grace, we will do our best to complete the job we started. Slavery has no place in Karameikos."
Brother Kanterius joined them. He bowed to Magdel. "Greetings, Sister. How fares our blessed patriarch?"
"He is old," replied Magdel with a smile. "And if you'll take a look over in the corner, you'll see a certain Patriarch making all the friends he can in the hope that Patriarch Jowett will shortly take an eternal nap."
Alexius glanced over. Kanterius nodded. "Alfric Oderbry. Is he still considered a candidate?"
Before anyone could reply, the Black Eagle grabbed Alexius by the shoulder. "Watch yourself, hero. I know for a fact that there are some powerful people connected with the Iron Ring. You may have made a larger enemy than you know."
Alexius tried to extricate himself from the baron's grip, but Ludwig's fingers were like a vice. "I shall keep that in mind, your Grace," he said, refusing to show any discomfort.
"You seem to know a great deal about the Iron Ring, your Grace," said Serrah, fixing the baron with a steely eye. "If you know so much, why don't you tell his Grace the Duke so these people can be properly dealt with? Or perhaps you'd rather the Iron Ring continue their efforts. I hear that slavery is alive and well in Fort Doom."
"Serrah, enough," said Alexius. "One doesn't make such statements about the Duke's cousin, particularly in the Duke's throne room." He finally pulled himself free of Ludwig's grip. Ludwig merely glared at Serrah, venom in his eyes.
"Yes, there can be...consequences," he said. Without another word, he left them.
"My, that was interesting," commented Kanterius. "What's his problem?"
"He's a slaver himself," answered Serrah. "He trades in them through his barony, and sells Traladaran peasants to Thyatian slavers or anyone else who will buy."
"Serrah!" exclaimed Alexius in shock. "Do you know what you're saying?"
She nodded. "Beware, my love. The Black Eagle has more enemies than friends, and you've just been added to his list."
How right she had been, thought Alexius as he stopped Valen before the Silver Bear Inn. Ludwig was too arrogant to completely hide his motives, but Alexius had not seen them at the time. Had it been because he couldn't bring himself to believe the accusations levelled at a fellow Thyatian? The Traladarans had always resented the coming of their Thyatian lords, but over time that attitude had softened somewhat. Serrah herself had been the daughter of mixed parentage.
He dismounted and handed Valen's reins to the stableboy. As he approached the front door to the inn, he saw a small girl in tattered rags shivering near the entrance.
"Please, noble sir, a few coins for a room? It's sure to snow again tonight, and I have no home to shelter me."
Alexius hesitated at the door. The girl could be no older than fifteen, and if she had nowhere to go, the snows would be the least of her worries. Specularum was a fair-sized city, and the nearest public shelter was a good distance away. She would be easy prey for the dangerous men that haunted the streets at night.
He opened his purse and counted out eight silver cronas. Handing them to her, he said, "This will get you a room for the night. There is an inn three blocks from here. Be careful, and stay within the torchlight. If you hurry, you can be there in a minute or two."
"Oh, thank you, sir! Thank you!"
"What are you doing here, anyway? You said you have no home, but surely the home you did have wasn't around here."
"No, sir. I lived in the Old Quarter, but when my mother died I had no one left. Our home was taken by a man we owed money to. He wanted to take me with him, but I was afraid of him and ran away. I wanted to ask the innkeeper for work, but I'm not permitted inside to see him." She plucked at her rags. "I know I'm not a noble girl, but I'm not what they said I am, either!" Her eyes flashed with a spark of anger. "I want to work, but I won't sell myself, I promise that! I am a good daughter of the Church, Sir Knight!"
"I believe you," he said. "How long have you been standing out here?"
"I went in a few minutes ago, but the guard wouldn't let me stay inside, even to warm myself. They made me leave, and then I saw you approaching."
"I see. What is your name?"
"Lucinda, Sir Knight."
He nodded. "I will escort you to the inn I mentioned." He removed his cloak and wrapped it around the girl. He walked with her back to the stables and summoned the stableboy. The boy hurried to bring Valen out to the knight. Alexius helped her to mount.
"Sir Knight, why are you doing this for me?" she asked in a hesitant voice. "I'm only a poor homeless girl."
"A knight's duty begins with charity," he answered. He said no more until they reached the Golden Rain Inn. He helped her dismount, and threw open the door to the inn.
Inside the inn, chaos reigned. Alexius ducked underneath a chair that flew across the room. Shielding Lucinda with his armoured body, he pulled the door closed to get her out of the cold. A burly man swung another chair in a wide circle, very near to the entrance where the knight stood.
Alexius grabbed the chair by a leg just as the man was about to smash it over another man's unsuspecting back. The attacker turned to glare at him, raising a fist to swing. Then he caught sight of Alexius' armour and crest, and faltered in his attack.
A few other patrons also noticed the knight standing in the door, but some either didn't notice or had drank too much ale to care. A fat man with glazed eyes threw a punch, which Alexius easily sidestepped. The fat man staggered and fell to the beer-soaked floor. Alexius turned back to Lucinda.
"Apparently this inn has changed somewhat since I was here last."
"It's all right," she replied. "I'll be fine here, as long as I can find the innkeeper and pay for a room."
Alexius pointed at the fat man on the floor, who had begun to snore. "He's right there."
They went back outside in the bitter cold. Alexius hesitated for a moment, then led Valen back to the Silver Bear. When the arrived, he helped her down from the horse, and the stableboy took charge of Valen again. Alexius led Lucinda back to the front door of the inn.
"You'll come in with me, and I'll speak to the innkeeper myself. I'll pay for your room, and give you some money to buy clothes and a meal. The innkeeper is a reasonable man, and winter is a busy season. I'm sure he'll hire you, at least for the season."
"You-you would do this for me?"
She hesitated. "What would you want in return for such kindness?"
He turned and looked at her, his eyes meeting hers. "A promise that you won't go wandering around Specularum in rags in the dead of winter."
She looked at him for a moment, and nodded. He opened the door, motioning Lucinda to go in first.
"I told you already, girl, your kind isn't-" The guard stopped as he caught sight of Alexius' armour. "Sir Knight! This is an honour! I'll let Master Minicus know you are here right after I get rid of this trollop."
"I'm not a trollop!"
"She's with me," interrupted Alexius. The guard stared at him. Alexius returned the stare with one of his own.
"If you say so, Sir, but Master Minicus doesn't like having her kind in here."
"That will be enough."
"Yes, Sir Knight." He took Alexius' sword, and opened the inner door, and a cheery warmth greeted them. Alexius led Lucinda inside, and motioned her to take a table near the fire. He went with her to the table, then went up to the bar alone.
"I would like to speak with Master Minicus," he informed the barkeeper. The man nodded and went into the back. He came back with a portly man of about fifty years, with iron-grey hair and a wide grin.
"Sir Alexius! What a pleasure it is to see you again! How has life been treating you?"
"Not as well as I would like," admitted the knight. He turned and motioned toward Lucinda. "This girl was trying to get inside to ask you about work."
Minicus frowned. "I run a respectable establishment, Sir Knight. I don't permit such women in my inn. There are inns more suited to that sort in the Old Quarter."
"She's not looking to bed your customers. She wants to work. She says she's lost her mother and her home. She's also got nothing but rags on, and it's cold enough outside to make a frost giant shiver."
"She may claim it, but that doesn't make it true. Would you risk your own reputation like that?"
"Call it instinct, but I believe her. From the look of things, you could use some help. Spring will be here soon, and you'll have the caravans coming to the city.
"I'll pay for a room, and some clothes for the girl. Quarter her with your own girls. They'll be able to tell if she's telling the truth."
Minicus looked dubious, but then nodded. "As you wish, Sir Knight. Shall you need a double room for the night?"
Alexius shook his head. "Let her eat a meal, then she can start working. I'll pay for the food."
"Very well. What will you be eating?"
The food was excellent, and Lucinda barely spoke as she wolfed down her meal. Alexius noticed several of the inn's patrons eyeing the girl with disdain. One man made a lewd suggestion, loud enough to carry through the common room. Lucinda froze in the middle of chewing, her eyes darting about the room. Alexius stood up, and the room went silent.
"It appears that at least one of your customers lacks manners, Minicus." He glared at the offending man, who squirmed in his chair under the unrelenting gaze. "I suppose he is not aware that you do not permit that sort of woman to enter your inn. Since she is here, she obviously isn't that sort of woman. Therefore his remarks would be considered a gross insult to this young woman's honour. Since I have taken it upon myself to assist her in a time of need, it falls to me to defend that honour, and I shall discharge my knightly duty in every way necessary. Have I made myself clear?" The man's head bobbed up and down several times, and a thin sheen of sweat formed on his brow.
Alexius nodded. "Good. Let that be the end of it." He resumed his seat and continued eating. Lucinda looked at him with apprehension. "Would you really have fought him?"
"Him? No. He is a Court Lord, a minor nobleman, which means he is bound by the codes of honour that all nobles must respect. But he's no fighter, and challenging him would make me look like a bully. he doesn't know that, and I'm not about to enlighten him."
After the meal, Minicus approached their table and took Lucinda to the back of the inn. She came out a short time later, wearing a serving girl's dress and a smile that reflected the firelight. Her brown hair was combed and still damp from being washed, and her face was clean.
"I don't know how to thank you, Sir Alexius. You've been so wonderful to me."
"Just remember what I told you."
"I will," she promised. "Now I have to go help the cook. I'll see you in the morning?"
He nodded, and she smiled again. Minicus ordered her back to the kitchen, and she hurried off. Minicus sat down with Alexius, a rueful grin on his face.
"I don't know where you get those instincts, but they look to have been right on the mark. My wife and my eldest daughter took a shine to her right away. I've never seen anyone so excited about scrubbing floors before."
Alexius smiled. "I'm glad to hear it. I'll be taking my room, then. I'll be up early. I'd like my armour polished by the time I finish breakfast. Also, I'm expecting a message from the High Palace tonight. Have the messenger brought to my room."
"Of course, Sir Knight," replied the innkeeper. "If you're satisfied, then, I'll have my daughter show you to your room."
"Thank you, Minicus."
"The honour is mine, old friend."