A Mummer's Herald
Niko wasted no time in finding Grenn and informing him of the nature of their mission. Grenn and Grahem were so alike in outlook that they must be spiritual brothers - both brooding and dour. However, no one would mistake them for brothers in truth, for their looks were very different - Grahem being of a dark look, and Grenn being fair. From further north, he had come to Clearwater for much the same reason that Niko had - hearing about the new Draupaud family in the old manor, he thought he could secure a commission. Though his skills had not caught attention as Niko's had, he'd secured himself a relatively safe position, as he was handy enough with a sword, took direction well, and knew how to keep his mouth shut when he should.
And apparently he judged this one of those times, for he said nary a complaint as Niko secured his services, and rode in silence behind the young man as they first travelled slowly until out of eyeshot, then rapidly increased speed until it seemed that the wind itself must cut, ripping by them as fast as it was. In only a short while, the cottages began to be spaced closer together and they arrived in what must be a town square - though this were no proper town - and barely even a village.
Niko looked around, attempting to find the sign for the Song and Sheep Inn - or failing that, at least someone to point him to this 'Gabriel'...
He saw, to one side of the main marketplace (small as it was) a burned-out building. At a little distance was a ramshackle collection of wagons decorated in once-bright, now faded paint - with cheerfully garish pictures along the side and - if any one read them - the words 'The Giants of Pentos' - almost worn away by wind and weather.
People watched Niko's arrival with some suspicion.
Seeing no buildings that looked like an inn, Niko cantered his horse towards the nearest person, the bells in his hair heralding his movements. "Greetings. I was sent to find Gabriel. I was supposed to find him at the Song and Sheep Inn, but it does not seem obvious to me where the inn is. Could you perhaps direct me to the inn - or to Gabriel?"
It was Jemmy that he had stopped - and Jemmy shot a worried look across at Gabriel before replying.
"Why would you want to find Gabriel, Master?"
Niko hesitated, unsure about how much he should say. After all, Catriona had specified that he should talk to Gabriel, and he didn't want to decide too much in a situation he was not totally familiar with. His brow creased as he thought. He also noted the man's distress, and though he only used his peripheral vision, saw the people there, though he didn't know to which the look was directed towards.
"This one was told to find him to pick up a shipment for the Septa," he replied, finally deciding that a middle ground was probably best - especially with what he assumed from everyone's reactions was a potentially explosive piece of news. "She sent someone earlier, but he never returned, so since she is helping one of our wounded, I offered to come ahead and seek after them."
He then asked, "Would you happen to know where I could find him? Or perhaps you could point me in the direction of the Song and Sheep?"
Gabriel made an almost angry hand gesture towards the burnt-out building. "This is the Song and Sheep... Master," he said, with the slightest of pauses as he seemed to ponder and reject several titles. "Or what's left of it. Burnt to the ground, by strangers to this town." ~Like you,~ his glance said.
"Niko is fine," Niko said, seemingly unaffected by the man's response. "I am the 'master' of no man," he added, offhandedly, though his expression also added that the converse was also true, and the tinkling of his bells seemed to punctuate the statement. "Then would you know where I could find this 'Gabriel'?" he asked again. "As I said, I was sent by the Septa for supplies. And I have a message directly for him," he added. "The sooner we find him, the sooner we can be back to our wounded companion."
"Ahh, I see," Gabriel said. He was careful to maintain a little distance from the Dothraki, and his quizzical expression was obviously from trying to equate the man with his clothes and bearing. "I'm Gabriel. If the Septa wants supplies, I'll do what I can," and he made another half-gesture towards the inn. "Any friend of hers..."
By now used to receiving such stares, Gabriel's expression did not discomfit Niko. "This one thanks you," he said, bowing slightly from the waist. "The message seems to be more than a little disconcerting, and as such should probably be delivered in private," he added. "Is there anywhere we could discuss it?"
Gabriel glanced at Davin, then back at Niko. "Inside, perhaps," he said. "A few of the things the Septa might need might have survived down in the cellar."
Niko nodded. "Just show us the way," he said amiably, dismounting, and motioning for his companion to do the same. As they walked, he said, "My companion is Grenn - he came along to help me with the supplies, as I was not exactly sure how much the Septa would want to lay in." He looked around attentively as they walked, noticing everything. "This is a nice town," he said, after a while. "Are you the only Elder?"
Gabriel stumbled as he walked. "Not me," he said. "I just run a... just -ran- a business. People occasionally come to me for things, especially if they want to be pleasantly drunk and well-fed."
Niko frowned. "That is strange - this one was led to believe that you were an Elder in the village - and could get the message into the hands of the correct people," he said. As he spoke more, it became obvious that while he had a grasp of the language, much of his knowledge of it was old or impractical, just because of his sentence constructs. He looked askance at Gabriel. "How did your business come to such an end?"
"There are all sorts of malcontents about," Gabriel replied. "They appear to be looking for something. A couple of them set fire to my inn."
"This one can relate to that statement," Niko said, even as Grenn grunted his agreement. As they left the company of others, he continued in a low voice, "My party was ambushed on the way here by bandits, and apparently the same bandits ambushed the Septa. She was fortunate to have help at the time of the attack, apparently, but it is a bad time when even a Septa is not safe."
Gabriel didn't stumble; he just stopped. The look he gave Niko was completely out of character with the mild-mannered grieving innkeep. More calculating, for one, and he glanced to make sure they were out of earshot from the crowd. "Mariam? What ambush? Who was there to help her?"
Niko's gaze was appraising at this point as his eyes narrowed at the sudden change. He paused - only for a moment - but then responded, "The minstrel who was supposed to come into town for the supplies helped." He looked carefully at Gabriel's response to the mention of the minstrel.
After a moment, he continued, "I had met him before, and judge that he was not as much of a help as the woman with the bow." For some reason, he was now reluctant to name names - though Catriona had said seek him by name, Gabriel looked like a man who had a lot to hide. He had not seemed convinced when they said they came from the Septa, but he had heard Catriona call her Mariam - for him to be on a first name basis with her...
"This one is not sure why they went after the Septa. From what I understood, they were after a woman with a wolf. Even though they were stupid enough to mistake Shade for a wolf, they did not seem stupid enough to think that the Septa would be such a...."
He paused. Niko was not stupid - just young, impetuous, and several other derisive words the Wall had called him over the years. At time he was naive, and at times, he didn't think things through. But sometimes, when the right input sparked him, he was capable of amazing leaps of logic. For long moments he stopped breathing as his processing of data completely consumed all of his thought.
After a moment, he realized that he was in the middle of a sentence, and focussed back on Gabriel. He looked around, mirroring Gabriel's earlier calculation as he made doubly sure that no one was around. Then he looked back, seeming to come to a decision.
"This one was sent to tell you that The Bloody Mummers ride this way with a merchant - Hex - that they forced to accompany him. Why is a question there is no answer to at this time, but this one has a suspicion that they are in league with the bandits that attacked the Septa. But this one surmises that they were not after the Septa, but someone with her. That would leave either the minstrel - who seemed not worth the effort - they had their use of him when they ambushed our party."
He paused, his eyes opening wide as realization dawned on him. "Or the *woman*..." He looked at Gabriel again, updating his assessment of the man. "She trusts you. At least ... it seems so. She sent me to you. That would mean she knows you, and you know her?"
Finally, he made up his mind. "Catriona."
Gabriel smiled, without humor.
"Yes. It would be safe to say that we know one another. And are friendly, even." He closed his eyes a moment, then opened them. "The ruse is falling apart before it even gets started. That's... just... perfect." He made a movement of his head back towards the inn.
Niko felt like he had come in on the middle of a story, and struggled to catch up.
"We just pulled a body out of that inn. I just went to a lot of trouble to make it look like it's Catriona. Do you understand? For her protection. If word gets around she's dead, no one else will come looking. If... what... a minstrel? And whatever bandits survived that attack... wag their tongues, another kind of message is going to get out." He sighed in exasperation, then suddenly said, "What's a Shade?"
"So they *are* after her..." Niko said, nodding. "She does not seem the type to leave loose ends- at least as far as the bandits are concerned. She *is* a little more concerned with guest right than propriety in that case, so the minstrel *does* pose a problem." He shrugged. "Mayhaps you should tell her to use a name other than her own, if you intend her to be deceased," he said wryly.
"Shade... oh! Well, it is as implausible a tale as a woman with a wolf, I suppose, but Shade is the companion of my student- Aerin. I hesitate to say pet, because it is very much more than that. And Shade is independent enough to be beholden to none."
"But apparently, your bandits do not know the difference between a shadowcat and a wolf," he added disdainfully. "And she does not know the difference between duck and sweep, so has a strained shoulder for her troubles," he finished, frowning at the remembrance.
"But our Septa was gravely wounded in the attack, so your Septa- Miriam- has consented to look after her. And the Mummers, unhappily, were fording the stream at the same time as we were, so are now at the house of the Septa- within striking range of their target."
His sigh matched Gabriel's. "So what now?"
"The Bloody Mummers," Gabriel said, alternating looks down at the ground at at Niko. "I don't know... how many of them were there? Do you know?"
"Three that I saw, in addition to the leader. He may have had outriders, but I doubt it. More likely, he has spread himself thin attempting to ... complete his mission," Niko responded. "It occurs to me that if the minstrel is not an immediate issue, then you should continue with your plan. While it is true that if they see through the ruse they may be back, the immediate effect might be to move them along out of town."
"What say you?"
Gabriel nodded. "Yes, we need to get back as soon as possible. Both... all three of us," he said, glancing at Davin. "What materials did Mariam need?"
"Fresh milk and cheese was all that Ca... she mentioned," Niko replied.
"Oh." Gabriel smiled. "Won't find that downstairs, then. I know someone who'd have that, I can beg some milk and a wheel of cheese on the way out. A strange request, considering the circumstances..."
"I thought she was planning to feed everyone, but now that I think about it - you are correct. That is a strange request." Niko thought for a moment. "Well, a lot of things do not make sense about this whole thing, so one more mystery is not a big issue, I suppose. Where are your horses?"
Gabriel smiled a little wider.
"Don't generally use them," he said. "Not since I got my puppy. Speaking of, I'll call for him... them... on the way to Mariam's. Maybe they'll be close enough to hear me, maybe not. If they do come, they'll be helpful."
Niko looked at him with a mixture of confusion and disbelief on his face, then back to Grenn with a look of ~did he say what I think he just said~. Grenn, never the most loquacious of companions, merely shrugged. "We will lead the horses, in that case," he said, simply. He was growing anxious at this point- they hadn't been gone long, but any time is too long when an enemy is camped on your doorstep. "If you will lead the way to the supplies, we can get back before they can cause any mischief."
The supllies were quickly located and soon Gabriel had the small group marching around the edge of town and back in the direction of the Septa's house. If they were losing any time by taking a detour, it was made up by whatever smaller shortcut the innkeep was taking.
Gabriel had picked up a few other items, as well; a scabbarded short sword, a cloak, a bow, and a quiver of arrows. When they came as close as they would come to a particular treeline at the edge of the moor, he gave a long, piercing whistle.
"We'll see if Mist comes, then," he said, and led them onward.
For their part, Niko kept a sharp eye out as they walked. There was not much in the way of supplies, so they could have ridden, but Niko wanted to be on the ground, and Grenn followed suit.
"Most tend to keep their dogs near town," Niko said. "Why do you let yours roam with predators all about?"
The answer - two answers - came loping towards them; the direwolves, light and dark, as though they had been waiting beneath the shade of some tree for this.
Davin took a step back, making sure the big warrior types were firmly between the Giant and the direwolves.
Alarmed, one of Niko's blades appeared in his hand as if by magic, as he turned his side to face toward the wolves. The sliver of razored steel was held defensively, as he took his cues from the fact that Gabriel didn't seem alarmed. He shook his head at Grenn's motion, nodding to the horse, even as he struggled to keep his under control.
"Puppies?" Niko asked incredulously.
Davin chuckled darkly.
Gabriel smiled, even as he held his hand, palm down, in front of Niko's sword. "They're just babies, you know," he said. "That's Mist, and that's Keir. When they grow up, they should be quite... formidable. But I daresay they're going to want to help protect my friends."
"Well," Niko responded, "this one would feel fortunate to be counted among your friends." Grenn readily agreed with that statement, nodding his head as both of them resheathed their weapons.
Gabriel nodded in return, then turned to his direwolf. "Mist. Follow." He held his hand out, palm down, a signal for caution. He glanced at Keir, hoping that the other wolf would remember Cat's admonition to stay with Mist, then said to the others, "Let's get moving before Keir remembers who Davin is." He grinned at the dwarf, then took off at an easy lope. Somehow, it seemed a little faster pace than one would expect from a sedentary innkeep.
As for Niko, it seemed an easy pace for him. His unarmored legs and sandals seemed to make sense for him now, for it was obvious he was a runner, and kept a runner's stride. He had to remind himself to slow his pace at times, for he had not had an opportunity to run since they had left Clearwater, and it felt good. He looked over at Grenn, and saw that the guard was starting to have a bit of trouble, but the man looked up at him- determined- and Niko decided to say nothing, lapsing back into his thoughts as they ran.
If Grenn was having a bit of trouble, Davin long since seemed to have dropped out of the race. He had fallen behind and was now following at a brisk amble.
After what seemed only a short time, they were nearing the Septa's cottage. "Do you think it is a good idea to keep them with us on first approach?" Niko asked Gabriel, motioning back to the direwolves. "This one is not sure what the situation at the cottage may have turned into- and though able companions, they might cause a tense situation to become worse."
Gabriel nodded. "I'll be around," he said. With that, he turned aside a bit as they ran, so that their paths became more and more divergent. His aim was to go around and behind the cottage...
Inside the cottage, Shade looked up sharply and started to growl ...
Niko nodded in reply, and pulled up short soon after. As he mounted, Grenn had a curious mixture of relief and annoyance on his face as he followed suit. Niko shrugged. "Too many questions if we came on foot," he said in way of explanation as they rounded the front of the cottage.
As they approached, they could see the wagon at the edge of the Septa's garden. Derron Thorne seemed to be talking easily to a man mounted on a horse beside the wagon. The other men were positioned slightly behind the wagon. They seemed to be fidgetting a little - but not unduly.
After a look at Grenn, Niko galloped forward easily, taking in the area as he did. Getting closer, it was pretty obvious that the Clearwater soldiers stationed around the Septa's cottage were expecting a fight, and Niko winced at the obvious setup. Though he knew only what people said about the Mummers, he could pick up that they were apparently not incompetent, and would recognize when a place was set up against their arrival. But it *seemed* not to affect things, as nothing had broken out yet. He gave the supplies to Grenn, directing him to take them to Catriona in the cottage- at least that's where he assumed she was, since he didn't see her in evidence.
That done, he approached Derron, becoming more wary when he could finally make out that the man that he spoke to was Thelbane. Drawing closer, he waited to be recognized, keeping a close eye on the mercenaries- and a close hand near his swords.
(Niko's thread continued in Outside the Septa's House)
Before Gabriel'd performed a half circle he found himself confronted by two grim-faced men, who wore the same livery that Grenn did.
Both were armed, and wary. And both drew their swords.
"Now then," said the first. "What's all this? Sneaking up on the Septa, were we?"
"Back door guests are best," Gabriel said. He kept his hands away from the hilt of his sword. "Believe it or not, the Septa knows me. Ask her."
The guards frowned over this, but finally nodded - and Keary was escorted to the back door of the cottage, where they seemed prepared to let him knock - perhaps so they could gauge the response he got.
(Continued in Inside the Septa's House)