After the food was packed away and the dishes cleaned, the pages split up the duties of night watch. Ulrich chuckled and asked where the rest of them figured into the job. He was rebuked with chidings that all the old people needed sleep.
“Silence that disrespect!” Osa’s roar shook the walls of the courtyard. She drew in breath for another outburst until Constance crossed the distance in a blur, knocking the other woman to the ground.
“Be silent,” she said, walking away, “and get some sleep or I’ll help you into unconsciousness.”
Ulrich slipped over to Osa, speaking softly and pulling her into an embrace. She resisted for a moment before sulkily accepting his touch. Nima could hear his whispers. He was probably intent on smoothing things out. A few minutes later, the pair had lain down to sleep. Nima moved closer to Constance and share the warm cloak with her. The younger woman made her feel safe.
Nima woke to the smell of cooking food and heard Selig’s voice close by.
“You seemed to need more rest, so we let you sleep.” He handed her a mug of hot, sweet tea, which she accepted with grateful noises. Anse came over and sat next to her carrying two battered tin plates. He offered the smaller one to which she thanked him. He responded by leaning over and drawing her into a hug. It felt awkward and was relieved when he released her.
“So, she said, trying to divert attention elsewhere, “when will we visit the other camp?”
Osa snorted. “We should have already.”
Cullen, one of the pages, skewered her with a hard stare. “Our lord rushes for no one below his station.” The older woman glared at the boy, but kept silent. When breakfast was over, the group began preparing to begin the day. The pages helped Selig, Constance, and Ulrich into steel mail before donning rigid leather armor themselves. It was obvious that neither Anse or Osa were pleased with this martial display. Weapons were belted on and another page, Elijah, unfurled Selig’s banner. The black background, detailed with an empty pair of boots and a cloven shield, was ominous.
Everyone but Osa and Anse fell into step behind Selig, the former walking just behind the man, and the latter walking next to Nima. His behavior often made her nervous, often needing to make some manner of physical contact with her. No one had said anything about this, but she couldn’t imagine it escaping the notice of their companions. Nothing seemed to miss their attention. She continued walking with her eyes focused at the back of Selig’s head.
Ahead of the column was a large pavilion, somewhat threadbare, with Madalon sitting in a large gilt chair the size of a throne with Anatol and Jacobs sitting to either side in slightly less opulent chairs. Nima could faintly hear Cullen say, “She actually lugged that all the way here.” There was a brief round of sniggers from the pages until Constance made a soft snap of her fingers.
The mercenaries made an attempt to stand at attention, but they slouched in place and whispered among themselves. The retainers to either side of their lady looked to have regained their pompous arrogance. Both attempted to convey a sense of judgement, but they were laughably incompetent at looking wise and bleak. Selig stood with his arms crossed and gave the assemblage a cool gaze.
“Well,” he said, “talk to me. It will be a long day continuing our search of the area. A conference will encroach upon that opportunity.”
Madallon bristled at his tone. “How dare you speak to me with such disrespect in my own domain! I will be addressed properly from this point forward!”
She was interrupted before continuing her tirade.
“This is not your domain yet, for starters. The king has not confirmed your ascension as yet,” Selig said in a flat tone. He began to approach her, causing the mercenaries to reach for their weapons. In response, Selig’s retainers fanned out, each of them holding a heavy mace in their hands.
“Furthermore,” he said, “you will guard that whining tone when speaking to me. Even if you receive this as an inheritance, I will still outrank you. I am not your servant or an inferior. This place has seen some terrible occurrences and I am here to find out what. When we have finished, feel free to stay. We will not.”
He turned and walked away towards the north side of town where the keep could be found. The party fell in behind him, hanging their maces from belts. Madallon, Anatol, and Jacobs all began to scream their outrage, but were ignored. The main boulevard leads directly to the massive structure. Having focused on the town first, they had not examined it closely before now. The missing townsfolk was enough to deal with over the first few days after arriving. Now, as the group approached, it was apparent that there were two structures, connected by walkways.
Anse spoke with awe in his voice: “This is a magnificent structure for our lady.”
Ulrich snorted. “It is poorly constructed. This place is an older keep that was repaired. Probably it took the whole population to complete it quickly.”
A dark look crossed Osa’s face. Nima saw it, but let it pass without comment. Ulrich will never learn that he continues to drive a wedge between him and his lover.
Selig had stopped staring at the bleak stone pile before them. He was instead looking at the flagstones leading to the gates. Everyone began to gather around him, all staring at an inscription:
Up the hill
Go the feet
All the little children
The pages stood silent, knowing when to remain silent. Too many painful memories blanketed Nima, keeping her silent. Finally, it was Constance who broke the silence:
“We follow these children, then.” She stepped in front of Selig, immediately followed by Ulrich. They adjusted their shields and drew short, heavy-bladed swords. The pair took the lead, advancing toward the gatehouse.