The temporary alliance between stranger and guildmaster ended at the feet of a stone lion.
Over the course of the long evening trek, Wilhelm had said little to the wanderers that had followed his men here. His attention had been fixed on determining the best path that could be taken by such a large group of travelers in the forbidding darkness. His men provided counsel from time to time, which he accepted. But he had not told him what they might do once the two parties reached the Great Highway.
Wilhelm’s distrust of people made him reluctant to tell them his thoughts. Perhaps he anticipated a robbery or a sudden demand for accommodations within town. Instead, the vagabonds declared their intentions to set camp near the road upon which they stood.
Wilhelm’s men looked at one another, perplexed. “Some of this land is viewed as private property,” the guild leader protested.
In the darkness, the grey man’s eyes gleamed. “By a troublesome lord perhaps?”
The apparent amusement the man seemed to derive from the warning surprised the hunter. Again, Wilhelm urged the leader of the ragged band to reconsider his choice. “In these parts, lords are not kindly disposed towards ordinary folks.”
“Oh.” The minstrel’s mouth worked over slightly before resolving into an apologetic smile. “We acknowledge your warning, good sir. And we thank you for your kindness and concern. Regarding remuneration–”
The guildmaster pushed away the bag of coins that had materialized between them. “We did not operate as guides. If anything your large numbers scared off potential predators and nosey travelers. We are equally in your debt.”
These words appeared to please the other man. “Well then, Guildmaster Wilhelm. Should our paths cross again and you are in need of a meal or favor, please ask for Marrok — the grey minstrel.”
The guildmaster might have returned the smile if the man had not invoked both his name and title. He had taken great care not to reveal it to these strangers. But Marrok and his followers were observant and shrewd. He wondered which of his guild members had been so inconspicuous in their own conversations.
Wilhelm responded with careful courtesy. “If you ever again have a need for guides, we are amenable to certain arrangements. Call for us at the hunter’s guild up the road past the town.”
He bowed stiffly before both parties went their separate ways.
* * *
Under the cover of night, the exchange in the woods did not go unremarked. In spite of the late hour and darkness, the large group of travelers was observed long before they had reached the highway. They were a shining mass of lights and rain of footfalls to the creatures of the woods.
But for half an hour as the wanderers built fires and shelters, they did not see what watched them.
They settled down at the edge of civilization, drawing their furs around them. Mothers slept. Children dreamed.
It would have been idyllic if it were not for the sudden laughter, rippling from pitch blackness.
The low and mocking noise floated up from somewhere by the creek, stirring the guards to alertness.
“No,” Marrok muttered, too late as the sound circled around them. A few of the guards had broken flank, melting into the darkness to track the source.
For several moments, the camp could hear only signs of pursuit — a scattered crunching of feet upon the snow. And then came the sound of wings beating the air as birds were uprooted from the trees, flying up towards the dark sky to blot out what poor stars might dare to shine.
The fires sputtered from the wind they created. Slowly, they recovered, illuminating a large figure standing in the middle of the camp. “Now, now,” this tall, cloaked figure chuckled while pushing a stick into the back shoulder of the man who the minstrels called their leader. “Did you not hear what the guildmaster said?”
The interloper was greeted with shouts. A circle of guards drew cautiously around the stranger and their leader, now his hostage.
It was the grey man who did not react. His expression was calm as was his voice when he spoke. “I take it you are one of the lords who chases people off his property?”
“Yes, I believe so,” the other man lifted his staff from the other man’s shoulder and stepped back slightly, allowing the others to see his face. He smiled, flashing his canines for their benefit. “Considering no other full-time residents live this way, I am the surly lord of which the good man speaks. And what is this get up all about?”
“Minstrels,” the man named Marrok responded as he turned cautiously around. “That’s how we are known now.”
“I overheard that,” the Count shook his head. “Wolves don’t sing. They howl.”
“Well the Wolves of the Northernlands don’t exactly inspire much trust wherever they go. Better to be minstrels than vicious hunters.” Marrok sounded somewhat impatient. “So are we welcome or not? We are all confused by your manner of greeting.”
“Wolves aren’t known for their manners,” came the arch response from Wolfram. “But, if you were not welcome, a herd of lions would have tackled you a long time ago and thrashed you all about.”
A murmur ran through the assembled wolves. Marrok the grey crossed his arms over his chest at this apparent nonsense. “I’ve never seen real lions. Tigers, yes, but those are creatures of a warmer land.”
Maximilian seemed bemused by his distant cousin’s confusion. “If you minstrels give up this idea of camping, I do know of a lord who might be in need of the services of a few hundred minstrels over the course of the next few months.”
There was a visible sign of outward relief on part of these “minstrels” as they processed the welcome they had received. They looked to their leader, who laughed before punching his own palm with his fist, signifying his acceptance of the deal. “So be it.”
As the guards and men scattered to rouse the others and break camp, Marrok pulled his cousin aside confidentially. “No sane man would jump into the middle of a pack like that. You are starting to act like the first Wolfram.”
“He was a peculiar one, cousin,” Maximilian shook his head. “But he was quite sane, I assure you. It’s been a while since I’ve seen your men. I wanted to see how well they’ve been trained.”
They quietly watched them for a few moments, each knowing that as hard as they may have trained, the Count had demonstrated they had yet more to accomplish.
“Hopefully you and your group aren’t the only ones–”
“No,” Marrok shook his head. “I don’t think so. I expect at least two other major houses to appear. But some of the others, I’m not sure. They are too far gone from us, too besotted with their city life or their new lives to bother with old promises from the past.”
“Then we’ll have to make do,” Wolfram said aloud.
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