The party walked back to the encampment in the town center. They occupied the southern part of the plaza while the rest of the expedition was to the north. As they approached, the nobleman’s pages stood waiting to assist. They helped remove the party’s equipment and everyone began seeing to maintenance, oiling blades and beating the dust from the padded garments. A few joined Nima in preparing dinner. She enjoyed their company, remembering better days.
Selig left his gear to the pages and set about to brew tea. His willingness to pitch in remained a wonder to the young woman. Even the elder priests she had known deeply enjoyed the ease of life that came with their station. She could see the disapproval on Osa’s face. The woman’s reverence for rank rankled Nima, especially since the other woman disapproved of Selig taking his share of the work rather than sitting at ease.
Nima shook the thoughts away and focused on smoked pork, rice, and bread. She took over the cooking early on and everyone seemed grateful for that. She had tasted their attempts and was quite willing to push them out of the way. She remembered Ulrich’s laughter when she nudged their lord out of the way to avoid eating another of his meals. Nima did not realize his station when she had done so and was mortified when it was pointed out that she had scolded an earl for his ineptitude.
Chores finished, everyone leaned back against their saddles to eat. All asked for seconds, making grateful noises when they found there was enough. They had brought provisions for weeks, so their priestess did not scold them for not leaving anything for breakfast. The thought that she was appreciated made the trip almost a pleasure. Anse and Osa put her off, but the others were easy to get along with. In spite of the stench of the pipweed, she bundled up in the fur cloak and curled up next to Constance. The squire was clearly the younger woman, but she felt like an older, experienced sister to Nima. The younger woman passed the pipe to Ulrich and Selig and smiled as she enjoyed the sisterly embrace.
The silence of the camp was broken by approaching footsteps. Selig and Ulrich were wreathed in smoke and remained silent as Anse and Osa jumped up to greet their visitors. Both were furious at their companions’ relaxed manner. A half-dozen men stood just inside the firelight. Four were mercenaries accompanying two retainers of the baronettes.
The elder man, Jacobs, stepped closer and grinned warmly at his greeting, going chilly when he turned to the relaxing quartet.
“Selig, Milady summons you to attend upon her.”
The nobleman exchanged stares with the servant. Jacobs’ stern look was undermined by his large, watery eyes. After a moment, he looked away, turning his gaze on Nima and Constance.
“You are a poor example to this young woman. She should not be allowed to be so familiar with another woman.”
Selig remained non-verbal, taking the pipe back from Ulrich.
“You overstep yourself, old man. Curry for her favor to your heart’s content, but recall that I am an earl and greatly outrank your pompous mistress.”
The reedy man beside Jacobs bristled with indignation, wringing his skeletal hands in consternation.
“Selig, we are on a blessed journey on the orders of the king. Even an atheist such as yourself can recognize our holy mission.” His face reddened when he heard a snort of derision from the group. Nima was mortified to realize that it was from her.
The mercenaries began to move forward, but Selig and his retainers were already on their feet. Ulrich and Constance began to advance on the priest. Cold fury and a dozen angry warriors drove the interlopers back. Even Nima was taken aback by the ferocity of the pages. Selig barked out an order to halt. The party stopped in their tracks and Selig walked up to the trembling priest. His arrogance failed him with the man standing nose to nose with the priest and the scraping sound of the mercenaries backing away.
“Listen closely, pisspot. I have not endured so much of life to be insulted by a vagrant like yourself. Madallon has surrounded herself with sycophants searching for an easy life and the two of you,” he said, gesturing at both the priest and Jacobs, “are at the top of that list. Keep your distance from my people. I won’t stop them a second time.”
Nima had not heard her lord speak so much at once, and the chilly tone caused her to shudder more than the implied threat.
“We will speak in the morning,” he continued, “after we have had breakfast. Not before.”
Jacobs took Anatol by the arm and led the priest and mercenaries back to their camp. Nima realized that Anse and Osa had held back when the rest stood to defend their lord. The mercenary company had them outnumbered, but Nima had no doubt that Selig and his retainers could mow them down as little more than a field of wheat. The mercenaries were little more than tavern louts, while her companions had spoken quietly of various campaigns and the comrades they had lost.