Part 3 - Knife In The Dark

Well that changed things. Cuthred chewed his lip pensively. His father had told him dozens of stories of how the gods' wrath would fall on those who turned travelers away from their homes. But this is not our home, he thought. Even so, as he saw Emeric's expression softening, Cuthred knew he was right. He nodded, slinging his axe at his belt and then grabbing hold of the door to help Emeric swing it open.

Let it not be Toli, he prayed. Turning away the weary traveler in a storm was a black enough deed. Welcoming him in only to spill his blood would be an unforgivable crime, no matter who it was.

Rikard's feet pounded on the stone steps as he bounded down toward the base of the tower. He heard the old doors swing closed with a boom, only to creak open again. His hand gripped the hilt of his sword with deadly purpose. Whoever it was that could force the doors again the combined wills of Emeric and Cuthred would have an angry Stromlander, full of the presence of his ancestors' hall, to reckon with.

The two young warriors hauled on the handles of the heavy oaken door, causing the iron hinges to groan loudly in protest. Icy rain slanted in, forming into a misty cloud that filled the entrance hall. The door scraped open, revealing four shapes huddled in their cloaks, trying desperately to shield themselves from the beating rain. They moved quickly into the hall, then pushed the door closed. It banged into place with an ominous thud that instantly dulled the chatter of the storm outside.

"Thank-you." It was unclear to heroes who spoke the words, but it did not come from a voice yet heard. One of the cloaked shapes stepped forward, removing its hood with two gloved hands. Beneath a bedraggled mop of thick brown hair was the gaunt, pale face of a man. His dark eyes were shadowed by prominent brows, and his bony nose was crooked. He licked his swollen red lips, and cleared his throat. The others removed their hoods, save the woman who was now standing separate from the others, tethered at ankle and wrist.

She was cloaked in rags; weather-worn and soaked through by rain. She had no skins and no furs and her feet were bare and muddied. The freezing air had colored her lips violet and her cheeks scarlet. Though it was her eyes and not her complexion that was most intriguing about her, for they were dark, drawn and grey – the color of stone and steel; unblinking and focused on the strangers.

The flesh at her wrists was mauve and russet; bloodied, scabbed and raw. The backs of her hands, her wrists and even her neck were inked in dye and showed patterns of serpents and circular patterns and other things. Her forearms were bruised and though she stood apart from the men, and would seem to be their captive, she showed no fear of them; only equal measures of malice and spite.

"Thank-you," the gaunt-faced man said again. He nursed a bloodied lip with the back of his hand. "We crossed a river a day ago; the bridge was nothing more than a few pieces of wood strung together with rope. Ah, I slipped. None of our horses would cross with the rain. The river was already like to burst. We're on our way to the coast. My name is Vigdis. This is Kettil and Bruide. The girl is my slave."

Cuthred looked the bedraggled crew up and down while keeping one hand close to his axe, though there was no outward sign they were anything but grateful to be out of the rain. And even if they were looking to cause trouble, he doubted they were in any shape to be causing much of anything.

"I had my own adventure with the bridges here," he said, offering Vigdis a smile. "Though somehow we were able to get our beasts across. Save for that one, which decided to take a swim with me."

He nodded at the other men as Vigdis gave their names, pointedly kept from looking at the girl or the livid wounds from her shackles. What a man did with his own slaves was his business. Though his father had never treated one so poorly. And his father's slaves had never looked at him with quite so much venom, either.

"Not much to eat but there's a fire, at least. You can take off your cloaks and dry them."

He cocked his head, watching the newcomers. "Heading back home to Linden?" It was as much statement as question. "I'm surprised how many of us there are wandering about Stromland."

Tristan's own footfalls followed the echo of Rikard's as he trailed down the stone stair way, only far enough back to ensure he didn't run in to the other man. He moved off to the side as Rikard paused and his hand went to his own sword, his grip somewhat lighter, his eyes glued to the scene before him. It was his usual measuring gaze, cast over each of the newcomers equally to study them as much as he was able. He said nothing to the men, no greeting or even much of an acknowledgment that they were there beyond the stare he gave them.

As he finished studying the woman, though, his gaze went from measuring to one of near disgust and was re-directed at the men. There was no effort to hide it, he was displeased, and he didn't seem very interested in whether or not his look caused discomfort to the new arrivals.

Emeric watched the group come in with some interest, but scowled as he saw the state of their slave. His father had owned one, but never had he taken care of one so poorly. The young man, however, listened intently as Cuthred asked his questions, wondering what story this little group had to tell.

Rikard skidded to a halt, sword aloft, as his eyes caught up with his racing mind and took in the much more benign sight than he had anticipated. He drew in a couple of ragged breaths before crooking up the corners of his mouth in a bit of a smile. "Pardon our greeting; we get so few visitors these days," he quipped as he slid his blade back into its sheath. Dark times leap to dark conclusions too often... he counseled himself privately.

"No," Vigdis said in response to Cuthred's inquiry. He said the word slowly, and with more than a touch of irritation. He looked down at his hands, then slowly peeled off one wet glove. He shook it out before peeling off the other. When he was satisfied, he looked up at Cuthred.

"No," he said again; this time with a more level tone. "We have just come from Linden. I don't ever want to see that barren, gods-forsaken land ever again." As if to emphasize his words, he spat. "We are on our way to the coast, to charter a ship northwards. I have an uncle I need to see about... an inheritance."

When Rikard spoke, he turned to address the man. He inspected the man with a quick glance, but let his gaze linger over the warrior's sword. He slowly raised his gaze to meet Rikard's. "Quite funny, actually. I can hardly blame you for your suspicions. These are hard lands; harder than the last time I was here. I'm familiar with this land, though not overly fond of it. It is an uncouth place, with... rustic folk." He emphasized the word rustic with a particular disdain directed towards Rikard.

"If we are going to be keeping company together, may I know your purposes?"

Several moments after Rikard comes to a halt, Braithe comes down behind the men, ducking a bit to examine the newcomers. Even by the low standards she held men to, these appeared to be slightly below pond scum. Still, she couldn't fight back a smile at Rikard's comment.

"Oh, you have jokes, do you? And where's that sense of humor been? Perhaps from now on we can trade off, you can be the funny one for a bit and I get to scowl."

Tristan continued to remain silent, the same look of disgust on his face as he continued to eye the men from his potion. He'd seemed to have turned away from the woman for now, his gaze settling first upon Bruide and then likewise upon Kettil. The sound of a sword being returned to it's scabbard finally caught his attention though and he turned his gaze on Rikard and gave him a single, pointed look. A flick of the eyes, and as he did so the fingers of his hand drummed lightly upon the hilt of the sword at his hip, his gaze turning back to the two men who had accompanied the speaker.


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