(Thread continued from Morning Outside Marshend Niko and Merivel)
As Hex was eating, he saw Gwendla leave the old man on the far side of the fire and walk towards him. The hedge knight and the squire both looked somewhat surprised at her appearance.
Hex kept his eyes on the approaching woman as he shaved another sliver of dried meat. “Gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me for a few moments, my traveling companion approaches and we must see to our wagon before we leave for Marshend.”
The dornish inclined his head slightly towards the knight and squire, then moved to intercept the crannog before she reached them. “Lady,” he said in greeting. “Fairly met, I trust the steward kept all safe through the night..”
Gwendla nodded. "He did," she said, although her eyes on his face were grave.
"My father could stay here until he is quite strong again," she said. "He knows marsh thatching - and the Septa's barn needs a new roof. But ...
"What are you wishful to do, Hex?"
"To earn gold and serve the gods," the dornish answered as he continued to walk with the crannog away from the knight and squire. "Like any man."
Once Hex was satisfied they were beyond the ears of their guests, he continued in a more serious tone. "I would learn what lays behind our shared... dream? If that's what it was."
The dornish ran his fingers through his hair. "I am not a religious man, Gwendla, and if that was a vision sent by the gods I am ill equipped to discern it's meaning. Are we meant to seek out a sword or simply be warned that one will cross our paths? Was the stag meant to represent a person to be found or aided? Was the vision even meant for me, for I seem a poor choice for prophet or disciple, or am I simply to assist you?"
"Perhaps we, or I, should ask the septa for guidance." Hex flashed a wry smile. "But that is not my nature. I have a cousin who's counsel I would trust, but he is far to the east in Holdfast. The knight and squire travel, or at least travel first, to Marshend and I planned to travel with them at least that far. In the village I may be able to send a raven to Holdfast, and also see if the rest of my cargo is there. If you would like to come along, we could put some of that silver your father had such little interest towards purchasing supplies for his stay at the cottage."
"I will come with you," she said steadily. "But the Septa is wise beyond her years and may be able to advise us. But ... "
Suddenly she stiffened, staring at a patch of grass.
"There's someone there," she said in a low voice.
(Catriona's thread continued from The Return: Catriona, Derron)
Catriona had been patiently watching the cottage, waiting to see if the hedge knight and squire were leaving soon. A bit of porridge would do the trick before her journey, but not if the accursed strangers were still around. She had stayed hidden in the grass, wondering whether her yearning for action would lead her to depart before breaking her fast. Then she noticed Hex and Gwendla making their way in her direction, talking in a low voice.
She stayed hidden until they drew close enough for her to address them. But then the angle of the woman's gaze, and the stiffening set of her shoulders as Gwendla spoke to the man beside her made the hunter aware that she had been spotted.
"Fear not, it's just me, Hex," Catriona called out softly. She parted the grass before her just enough for the Dornish and the woman to catch a glimpse of her face. Those further away might have thought it was just the wind flickering through the grasses. "I have word of our mutual enemy."
Hex kept his face towards Gwendla to maintain the appearance of conversation but spoke to the hunter. "Something with a tragic ending?"
"Perhaps someday soon, but not yet," Catriona replied with a grim chuckle. "Unfortunately the eel has slipped away to the north, moving along the eastern shore of the lake in the direction of Clearwater, swimming with a handful of his kind. Given my fondness for eel pie, the steward is sending a welcome party on horseback should the fishing prove better at the keep than along the shore."
Again the grasses rustled slightly, as if another breath of wind had flickered through, but this time almost as if pointing towards the center of the cottage. "Are the strangers who rode down from the hills of any interest, or have I been avoiding a hot bowl of porridge for naught?"
"As to our guests, the apprentice may be the master in disguise though to what purpose I cannot say." Hex replied. "I planned to accompany them as far as Marshend, to look for the rest of my cargo and gather what infomation I can as to the eel's companions."
"As to the other, perhaps a raven should be sent with news before you depart. We still don't know his full strength or capacity. Clearwater could send a fishing party south as you move north, or at the very least be warned to be on the look out. Will Niko travel with you?"
"If you find a raven that knows its way to Clearwater, I'm sure the steward would be happy to use it," Catriona replied from the grasses. "As for Niko, he'll travel faster without me by horse on the roads. I'll see what I can net along the waters, where the muck often pulls too much for hooved beasts."
Hex considered briefly, then continued. "And what of your new apprentice? Have you asked her to follow you to Clearwater?" The dornish flashed a tight grin. "In fact, she's headstrong enough to follow you regardless of an invitation, particularly if the young captain is going as well. Perhaps the steward should arrange to divert her before you head out."
"Aerin," Catriona uttered the girl's name with a sigh of resignation. "She is likely to do whatever comes into her mind. Cheers to the steward if he can figure out a way to distract her. If she trails after me...." Her voice drifted into silence for a moment. "I'll keep her safe somehow." A slightly puzzled tone accompanied her next words. "And speaking of wayward ones, I doubt that blasted ministrel and Callon will stay out of trouble, either."
A soft chuckle escaped Catriona. "But if the Old Gods see fit to make mischief, I'll dance for their amusement with the partners of their choosing."
"Good hunting to you, Hex," she added. "And to you as well, Gwendla. May you someday soon return to the safety of your home, whether that be where you left, or where you make it."
"Do you mean then to hunt alone?" Hex asked. "Or with some of the steward's farmers in arms? Thelbane is a professional soldier, one we all had under the knife and still he runs free. I mean no disrespect, but to treat him as anything less than a capable, practiced killer is to invite tragedy."
A grim chuckle came in answer.
A strong gust of wind blew by, flattening the grasses where just moments before Catriona had been lurking. The woman was no longer in view. But impressed rather deliberately in a spot of dirt were two prints -- one human, the other that of a large direwolf, side by side.
(Catriona's thread continues in Traveling North: Catriona)
Gwendla drew a swift, shocked breath and moved closer to Hex.
"Was she ... no. No. I'd have felt it from the green dreams if they were one."
"A wolf woman?" Hex asked. The dornish made a snapping gesture with his wrist, sending his heavy shield deep into the turf between the two prints. He ran his fingers through his hair, tying the loose strands into a knot at the base of his neck. "I don't believe so. A skilled animal trainer and stealthy hunter seems more likely."
Hex reached down for his shield. He pulled it free with a sharp twist, tearing up the ground and obscuring the prints. "Now, should we speak with the septa regarding things metaphysical? Or perhaps secure the wagon for a trip to Marshend? Or, frankly, whatever you will."
Gwendla gave a little laugh. "Marshend," she said. "Let's not tangle with matters metaphysical, you and I." She smiled up at him ... was it possible that green eyes could be warm?
"Let's secure the wagon. It's a good day to travel, I'm thinking."
"Ah, where one finds wine," Hex answered. "Metaphysics can never be far behind. Secure it we shall, while I still have one, and make ready for Marshend." The dornish made a flourish towards the horse barn and fell into pace with the crannog.
The wagon was soon readied and they set off, leaving the old m,an in Mariam's charge and headed for Marshend.
"Do you want to catch up with the hedgeknight and his squire?" she asked, nodding to the couple who were already nearly on the horizon (not that great a distance in this land of dips and folds in the hills). "Or should we let them precede us?"
Hex snapped the reins over the horses to speed their pace. "Far enough away that you and I can still speak privately, should we wish to, but close enough for either of us to call for aid if needed." The dornish answered. "A short, certain bow shot is my general preference."
Gwendla laughed - the first time he had heard her laugh clearly since their journey together had begun, It was a delightful sound.
As the wagon proceeded, Hex continued. "So, if you have your choice will you seek to solve the mystery of our shared dream or return to the marsh?"
"I shall seek out the mystery," she said at once - and then hesitated. "Partly because among my people it is my task to seek out such mysteries. And partly ... "
"Then here's to partly," Hex said. "If only we'd brought the wagon with the best vintage we could toast on it. So are you a priestess among the crannog?"
"Our term is not priestess," she said slowly. "Amongst us, some are gifted with the green dreams. I am one - my brother was another. We are held in some respect, and some fear. I saw danger with you - but not my death." She smiled suddenly. "Not yet, anyway."
"I'm glad it works out so well for you," Hex replied. "Would I prove too much the egoist if I asked how I fare? Are these dreams like the one we shared? If so, I suspect interpretation is as important as the vision."
If I were cautious, I should tell you were safe while you were true to me," she said with a smile.
Then she touched his arm with sudden urgency. "Look - they've stopped. They seem to be arguing."
"I've found caution to be an over rated virtue," Hex replied, then snapped the reins to speed their progress towards the knight and squire.
They both turned as the cart approached, and suddenly the knight wheeled his horse and began to gallop towards them. This seemed to take his squire by surprise - but then the man sudddenly drew his sword and set off in pursuit of the knight, both of them thundering towards the wagon.
"Hold on," Hex said as he loosened the whip at his waist. The dornish pulled sharply on the reins with one hand to turn the harnessed horses between the knight and squire. As he did so, he unfurled the whip and cracked it sharply on the opposite side. Hex then drew his arm back to sail the whip back again.
The Squire's horse panicked most satisfactorily, plunging and bucking. However, the horse drawing the carriage seemed somewhat alarmed too, and Gwendla was fighting to bring it under control. The hedgeknight was behind them now ...
"Gods' da ...er .... bless your knight, ser squire." Hex called out as they attempted to calm the wagon's horses. "I take it he was suddenly taken with a mission, as if I didn't know better he seemed determined to drive my horses from the road."
The Squire reined in his horse with a skill that was impressive, and glowered at Hex. "Why do you impede my way, merchant?" he demanded roughly.
"Impede your way?" Hex answered. "Gods, man, your knight almost ran us off the road. And now his squire wishes to take me to task? Well, I'll have none of that. I may have to tip my hat and thank your ser for his consideration in barely failing to break our necks, but I'll do no such thing for his servant."
The Squire scowled, and drew his sword from its place on his beslt.
"Stand aside," he said angrily. "Believe me, I am no stranger the the melee, and it will go hard with you if you pit yourself against me."
"Ride around us, ser squire, it will cost you but a second and save a world of grief." Hex answered. "The difference between melee and a true fight is the same as between this sunny afternoon and the bitter cold of winter."
The dornish made a curling motion with his wrist and the braided leather whip curled itself around his shoulder. "In melee no one tries to skin your face from the bone or break your mount's knees only to drive a blade through the base of your skull while you lay helpless on the ground."
"The lady and I have been held hostage and brutalized by men with swords for near on half a year, and I have had my fill of it."
"Honor is no stranger to compromise, squire." Hex held the whip handle in a firm but easy grip as he stared at the man on horseback. "Ride around us."
The Squire half-sneered. "What does a merchant of Dorne know of honour?"
But he was eying the whip uneasily.
Then suddenly he jerked the reins to ride in a wide circle around them.
Hex turned to watch the squire ride past, dropping his hand from the whip to rest on his bow only once the man had passed ten long strides. The dornish kept his eyes on the retreating horseman as he said to the crannog. "Knights and squires, eh? Like an old married couple."
Once he was satisfied the squire would not suffer a change of conscience, Hex sat down and faced forward. "On to the village?"
"Must we go there?" said Gwendla. "At least - must we stop? Couldn't we head back to my own land? I have news for Howland Green."
"Aye, well, I have no idea who that is." Hex replied. "No slight intended, some of the finest men in Westereos wouldn't know me from Bran the Builder. However, a trader needs goods to survive and half my cargo remained with Thelbane's men when we left camp. It will be a hungry year if I just abandon it."
Gwendla nodded. "We stop then," she said. "I owe you our lives, and I'd not have you lose your livelihood to pay for it."
She leaned forward on the seat. Cresting the brow of the hill, they could look down at the small town on the shores of the lake - an excellent vew. "Is that Marshend? There look to be sellswords in the streets ... "
"It is Marshend," Hex replied. "And unless I miss my guess the armed men are Laughing Knives in the service of the Riverwolf. Not an immediate threat, as far as I know, and may likely discourage any action by Thelbane's men. If they are about."
With that, Hex gave the reins a gentle snap and guided the wagon towards the village.
Gwendla gave a little laugh of relief, and sank back in her seat. As they came to the village, they found a simple barrier had been errected, manned by two of the sellswords and a villager, who seemed to be in some amity (they broke off from a game of dice bones to amble up to the wagon.
"You have business in Marshend,friend?" said one of the Knives. There was determination to do his job but no hostility in the question.
"Aye, friend," Hex replied. "Trade goods to sell, maybe purchase as well for a run over to Clearwater. We've had a long run from the south country and I wouldn't turn down a hot meal and a fair price in the bargain."
Hex eyes shifted over to Gwendla before he continued in tones more suited to a hen pecked husband. "And if your game continues for awhile, I might wander back after we've secured the wagon."
The Knife shook his head. "There's little enough pleasure you'll have in Marshened today. And if you sell your wine, it'll be for funerals rather than feasts. There've been sellswords here - nott us, for we come with the Hardy blessing, helping young Master Godwyn Hardy to keep order here. But a foul deed was done this mourning - fishers from the town were most foully murdered."
He glanced at Gwendla as though reluctant to say more.
"The lady and I were ill treated by a group of ruffians on the road north." Hex said. "One of them claimed to be one of Vargo Hoat's Companions, though I couldn't swear to the truth of it."
Hex looked to Gwendla, and then back to the Knife. "Have the killers been caught? We hope to make our way to Clearwater, but the road by the fens is difficult enough without the extra worry of cut throats. Do you think we should take a room in the village and wait things out?"
The Knife spat in the road reflectively at the mention of bandits.
"It's hard to say," he said. "We've cleaned out the village - and Master Hardy is chasing more off in the fens. But they're like rats - no matter how many you kill, soon betimes they'll come swarnming again."
He looked at them, considering. "The village is pretty full, what with all of us lodged here. But if you've money or goods enough to pay, I daresay one or two of the lads would bunk up together for the sake of the lady. Then you could have a word with Master Hardy when he returns, and maybe one or more of the village folk who knows more like what your chances will be."
Hex paused for a moment and then said. "Well, perhaps we'll head into the village and at least try for a hot meal at the public house. Likely as not there will be some locals around there.' The dornish reached behind him and pulled out a bottle of red, handing it over to the swordsman. "I'd be grateful if you'd take this for your time and trouble."
Then with a smile, Hex added. "And if it's to your liking don't be bashful about passing on a good word. I can always use customers."
"Pentos has come to Marshend?" Hex asked a smile touching his lips. "Your inn is in good hands, I'm sure the only thing they're missing is a reliable source of excellent vintage."
"With your leave, I'll make my way over," the dornish said, and then with a last glance at the dice. "I hope to see you later."
The guards waved them through and they began to make their way down the slightly shabby street. Here and there they saw members of the Laughing Knives, armed and giving the wagon a more than cursory glance. But several of the Knives seemed to be helping out the townspeople; they passed one shack where a young Knife was mounted on the roof trying to repair the thatch whilst two of his companions, firmly on the ground, shouted instructions whicgh they, at least, found hilarious.
"These giants," said Gwendla, a little worriedly. "Who are they? How do you know them?"
"Troubadours," Hex answered. "Nary a giant among them, but a little fluffery helps to gather the crowd. Our paths have crossed from time to time, where there's wine one will often find performers and vice versa. Pleasant enough folks, entertaining as any I've seen north of Old Town. Keep your eye on your purse," the dornishman smiled. "But they'd say the same of me."
The wagon came to a halt outside the inn. A small figure was sitting there in the sun, or rather half lying back on the steps of the inn. A child in size, perhaps ... but the jug of beer placed close by suggested that this was no child but, rather, Davin, the famed leader of the Giants of Pentos.
Hex looped the reins before him and called out in a friendly tone. "Is this a Giant I see before me? Or are the rumours true, and all my childhood heroes are reduced to mere merchants?"
Davin sat abruptly upright, pushing his strange hat back on his head, a broad grin crossing his face.
"So," he said. "Man of Sand come to paddle in the marshes, I see! What ill wind has driven you to harbour here? Is your wine all turned to vinegar so you think to sell it to peasants?"
"Even vinegar would be ambrosia compared to the mulled treacle and twigs that passes for spirits in these parts," Hex replied. "In fact, I have a wagon load of my finest, or the finest that would suit the local palate. Including some Lentrian red and a dollop of the Fire for those of a more disciminating taste. Such as an inn keeper who may be in need of a reliable supply of high quality, reasonably priced grog."
The dornishman stepped down from the wagon, and paused to assist Gwendla if required. "As to the wind, it was foul enough for a time. I am expanding northwards in any event, as my conscience drives me to expose these poor northerners to a quality vintage. However, the young lady and I were coerced off our respective paths by a group of sell swords. And while we've managed to terminate that relationship, some of them made off with the rest of my cargo."
Davin scratched his chin. "There's nought like that I've seen," he admitted. But I've not tried tihe cellars to their fullest yet. Annieketta's here - come in and have a sup of ale. Then we might explore together."
"A generous offer, and one I'm glad to accept." Hex replied. "And before it's thought I've taken complete loss of my manners, may I introduce Gwendla late of the crannogs. Lady, may I introduce Davin, leader of the Giants of Pentos."
Gwendla and Davin greeted each other - if not with outright friendliness, then at least with amiable curiosity on both sides. And then a whirlwind raced from the open door of the inn and over to Hex, hugging him fast.
It was Anniketta.
Gwendla looked startled.
Hex returned the embrace, and then held the girl back to look at her. "Anniketta, a warmer welcome I've never had." He said with a genuine smile. "I half expected to find you as some settled village woman with a shawl on your head and patterns on your feet. Does seeing old Hex bring back such fond memories of the road?"
She laughed. "It does indeed. I am not made for a settled life, and thought to be on my way once my ankle was healed - I broke it, you know. But the townspeople were kind to us here, and we thought to repay them in their trouble."
Hex was aware that she was covertly looking at Gwendla.
"Where are my manners?" Hex said. "Anniketta of the Giants of Pentos, let me introduce Gwendla of the Crannog and vice versa. Davin had just suggested we move inside for a light libation and further discussion. I don't suppose you have heard tell of an errant wagon load of spirits?"
(Continued in MorningInsideMarshendGabrielHex)