Didrik gave a sigh of relief as the road widened and he caught his first clear view of Kingsholm. The high walls were gray and forbidding, meant to discourage potential attackers, but to him they were a welcome sight. These were his walls, and this was his city. He knew every yard of the long walls, and every one of the streets and alleyways. Blindfolded he could be set down in any part of the city and instantly know where he was using just his hearing and sense of smell. The city had its dangers, but those were things he understood. And here, at least, he had a reputation of his own that made him formidable. Not to mention the full weight of the guard behind him.
He urged his horse to a faster pace, ignoring the curses of the few pedestrians who had to scurry away or risk being stepped on. Had he been in a proper uniform they would have yielded at once, but the hardships of the past months were reflected in his garb. He wore a dark blue cloak that had been gifted him in Duncaer over his much abused uniform. Stephen had acquired plain but serviceable clothes for them both in Kronna's Mill, which they had worn for the past fortnight. But Didrik's pride insisted that he appear in his uniform when he made his report to Captain Drakken.
At last he was forced to slow, when their way was blocked by a knot of people. The southern gate was only partially open, forcing those entering and leaving to file through a narrow gap that was flanked by a pair of guards. Didrik waited their turn with some impatience.
"I'm for a hot bath, a fresh-cooked meal, and then I'll sleep for a week," Stephen declared.
It was a tempting vision, but Didrik had his duty. He had to seek out Devlin and inform him of his return. Then once Devlin released him, he would have to make his report to Captain Drakken. It would be many hours before he would be free to seek out his own quarters.
"You'll be at the Singing Fish? Or staying with your sister at the palace?" Didrik asked. It was possible that Devlin might wish to speak with Stephen, though unlikely.
"At the Fish," Stephen replied. "Solveig would insist on hearing every detail. Time enough to see her on the morrow."
At last they reached the front of the queue.
"Anders Kronborn, you wretched sod, what are you doing here?" Oluva called out.
Didrik, who had opened his mouth to greet her, closed it firmly. Her left hand was resting on her sword belt with two fingers pointed down, the hand sign for caution.
He looked over at the other guard, but the man was a stranger to him. Too old to be a novice, yet what else could he be? The leather of his sword harness was unworn, and his cloak unstained by weather or the exigencies of service in the poorer quarters.
Was it her comrade Oluva did not trust? Or the possibility of spies in the crowd? What was going on?
"It's been a long time. I never thought you'd have the nerve to show your face," Oluva continued.
"A man has a right to go where he pleases," he said, scratching his chest with his left hand, as he signaled explain.
Stephen, for once, was silent, and he gave thanks for the minstrel's quick wits.
"I can't believe you kept your old uniform. Captain Drakken isn't going to be happy to see you. We may be taking on newcomers, but there's no room for a man who cheats his bunkmates." Oluva's hand made the signal for an unknown enemy.
Didrik shrugged, as if he were well used to such insults.
"That bitch Drakken may not want me, but there's plenty of work for a man who can handle a sword," he declared.
"And who's this?" Oluva asked, jerking her thumb towards Stephen.
"My cousin Jesper. My aunt asked me to ride herd over him, to keep him out of trouble in the city." Didrik smirked.
"Setting a wolf to guard the lamb. Well, it's none of my concern. Stay out of trouble, and stay away from the palace." Her eyes caught his and held his gaze. "You have no friends there, understand?"
Oluva made the handing for betrayal.
Didrik swallowed hard, not needing to feign his sudden fear. "I understand."
"Enough chatter," the unknown guard said. "Ride on, then, you're holding up these honest citizens."
Didrik nodded, not trusting himself to speak. He forced himself to ride off slowly, still slouched in the saddle, as if was indeed the rogue he had claimed to be.
"What was that all about?" Stephen asked.
"Not now," he growled. Not here. Not until he could find somewhere safe. And then he had to figure out what to do next.
His thoughts whirled around and around, but they kept coming back to Oluva's grim face as she flashed that last sign. Betrayal.
It was his worst fear, come to life.
Copyright by Patricia Bray. All rights reserved.