Roland and Reuben returned an hour later with clean clothes and more food. Daniel and the others ate and changed quickly, the latter becoming a ritual of turned backs and building trust necessitated by Rebekah’s gender. The group then took the opportunity to rest for another pair of hours before the time came to set out for the audience with Lord Aidan, which was to be preceded by seats at his banquet. Roland gave instructions for their setting out, but Daniel voiced a concern.
“We can hide in cloaks as best we can,” Daniel said, pointing to himself and Rebekah, “but William is a head taller than even you, Sir Reuben.”
“It’s true,” the knight replied, “that our friendly giant may well be sighted by the watchful eyes of foes. So it is that speed will be a greater ally than stealth on this sortie. If we endeavor to move with utmost dispatch, we should gain the safety of Lord Aidan’s manor before any enemies can deploy for an ambush along the way.”
“Agreed,” Roland answered.
“Agreed,” William rumbled, nodding. “What does ‘dispatch’ mean?”
“He means we should go fast, William,” Rebekah explained.
“Oh.” William frowned, and if he was wondering why Reuben didn’t just say so, in so many words, Daniel couldn’t blame him. After buckling the sword about him and settling his cloak so the weapon’s form was hidden as best he could manage it, Daniel left the room, following behind and to the right of Sir Reuben. Directly behind the knight walked Rebekah, with William to her left. Roland brought up the rear.
Daniel looked at Rebekah as they made their way down the stairs to the common room below. Her eyes were hidden in the shadow of her hood, but he could see the grim set of her jaw. She’s still afraid, he thought. He’s said all he could to reassure her, though. The best thing he could do now was to stand strong and guard their right flank, just as Sir Reuben had instructed him.
As soon as they stepped out into the street, the sword set up a steady drumbeat, a perfect rhythm that focused his attention on the surrounding crowds. Twice passers-by came closer than he would have liked, and his hand strayed toward the sword hilt, but the steady beat never quickened into the drums of battle, and the strangers walked on without trouble.
After what seemed an hour of wary progress that couldn’t in truth have been much over five minutes, the band arrived at the iron gates to Lord Aidan’s manor, a verdant, walled expanse in the center of the city. Sir Reuben addressed the pair of halberd-wielding guards who barred the way. “Sir Reuben, Knight in Errantry, presenting myself and my companions to the Lord Aidan, here and expected by prior agreement.”
The guards held their halberds crossed at the closed gate as a large man wearing the cape and plume of a guard captain stepped from behind the right gatepost. He spoke in a rough voice through the bars. “You are well met, Sir Reuben, but I was told to admit three in total, and you are five.”
“Do the extents of my acquaintance strain the good lord’s largesse?”
“They do not. Yet these are turbulent times. Do you vouch for the honor of these extra two, to hold their fate as your own should any laws of hospitality be broken?”
“I would not have brought them thus, otherwise, Captain. You impugn my honor to ask.” Reuben’s voice was even, but his words carried a heavy accusation, especially coming as they did from a noble to a hired fighter. Daniel tensed, ready for trouble.
“No offense meant, Sir Knight,” the captain replied. “A knight-errant lives by chivalry, but a guard captain lives by orders. You would not begrudge me following mine, I think.”
“I would not,” Reuben nodded. “May we enter then?”
“With Lord Aidan’s welcome and blessing,” the captain said, forcing his gruff voice into something bordering on kindness. He unbarred the gates, and the guards pushed them open, stepping to either side to flank the group’s entry, their halberds held in salute.
“Is that normal?” Daniel asked under his breath after they were through the gates and out of earshot.
“Not entirely,” Reuben answered. “Something has the guard captain on edge, I think.”
“And what do you think of that fact?”
Reuben threw a backward glance at the guards closing the gate. “I don’t know the man well, but I do not mark him as one easily startled by darting shadows or noises on the wind. If the man is on his guard, then I believe we are obliged to be likewise. What say you, Roland the Seer?”
Daniel looked over his left shoulder at the small man and saw that his bearing was tense, his eyes roving from side to side, covering all the ground approaching the manor house. “I am ill at ease,” Roland replied. “My foreboding does not leave me, and the signs remain in turmoil. I feel as though I’ve marched knowingly into the lions’ den!”
“Rest easy, then,” Daniel quipped. “Surely Daniel has nothing to fear from the lions’ jaws, by your own prophecy, Roland, dubious though it is.”
Roland nodded a bit too quickly, as if to reassure himself, but it was Rebekah who said what Roland must have been thinking. “Daniel comes unhurt out of the lions’ den. That doesn’t do much for the rest of us!”