“My lord,” the captain said softly into Aidan’s left ear, “the last of the anticipated guests have arrived, and the manor is secure.”
“We may begin with the entertainment and banquet, then, in your professional opinion?”
“As my lord wishes.”
“Very good, Captain. Please resume your post.”
Apparently the captain’s ‘post’ was a step to the right and three steps behind Lord Aidan’s chair, where the imposing man stood ready, his hooded eyes set to look even more imposing than usual. Meanwhile Lord Aidan called over a servant whom Daniel guessed, by his age and bearing, to be the chief steward, and instructed him to put things underway. Only a moment passed after the man exited by a small door in the back of the hall before servants bearing great platters and trenchers of food began filing in from either side, and Lord Aidan stood to address his guests.
“Nobles, guildsmen, tradesmen, and honored guests, let me extend my formal welcome to you. If this is your first visit to Corngold Manor, please enjoy my hospitality, and if you lack anything, please do not hesitate to make it known to my attendants. There is much business to discuss later in the evening, but all business sours on an empty stomach, and so I hope you will sate yourselves on the meal my servants are laying before you now. As you begin your meal, I have a special surprise tonight. It is my pleasure to present the first troupe to visit Corngold this season, the Talented Tramps!”
Daniel had quickly grown tense during Aidan’s last statement, and even from across the room he caught Rebekah and William stir in dismay. The sword echoed his foreboding.
Behind the servants on the right side of the room, a procession of players filed in, all dressed in garish colors on fringed or flowing clothes. Under any other circumstances, Daniel would have been cheered and excited by their entrance, and it was clear the lord and all his guests were so, but now an icy hand gripped his heart. He glanced at Sir Reuben and, on a hunch, Aidan’s guard captain and saw that they, too, were grimly focused on the entering performers. Daniel was comforted, if only a little, to know that he would not be alone if trouble was afoot.
From his vantage at the head table, Daniel watched as Rebekah hunched down over her plate and draped her hair across either side of her face, doing what she could to hide the rest of her image behind a joint of lamb she grabbed from a passing tray. Daniel saw her whisper something to William, and the giant stood and moved farther down the bench. That was clever, Daniel thought. It was impossible that the huge man wouldn’t be seen, but a little distance might prevent his notice from drawing attention to Rebekah, and without her usual attire, the troupe might not recognize her in the torchlight. Daniel took a breath and tried to relax. Though the mystery behind the troupe’s designs on Rebekah’s life remained impenetrable, the motive couldn’t be so dire that they would risk making a move here, in a noble’s hall surrounded by guards, even if they did spot her. The sword still trilled uneasily, though, and despite his best efforts, Daniel remained tense. Resting his left hand on the pommel of his sword, he did his best to turn that tension into alertness. As he touched the steel, an image of Roland formed in his mind, and he looked over at the dark-robed man where he sat next to Rebekah. Roland’s eyes were wide, and he clutched a string of prayer beads and moved his lips silently. Daniel shivered. His own faith in Roland’s prophecies was nil, but the same could never be said for Roland. What could he have seen in his signs that would turn him from active divining to praying for dear life?
Only moments had passed, and now the players were beginning to array themselves around the cleared space between the tables in preparation for their first act. Most stuck to the edges, but one man, seemingly their leader, strode forward, a tall cad with a pointed beard and mustache and salt-and-pepper hair sticking out from under a garish, wide-brimmed hat of scarlet. He carried a staff in his right hand, tapping it to the flagstones in time with his steps to set a cluster of bells, which hung from the top of the staff by leather thongs, to jangling.
Daniel noticed Sir Reuben turn toward him and shifted to meet his eyes, only to find the knight was not looking to him but past him, to the captain standing resolute at his post. The two exchanged a concerned look, and Daniel followed their eyes. With a bit of direction from the sword as well, he noticed what the fighting men already had: aside from the red-clad leader, all the players were positioning themselves on straight lines between him and the various guards stationed about the room. Still, Daniel noticed, the guards were at more or less regular intervals, and it was natural the players would be as well. There was no doubt the captain had been overcautious when they had entered, and he may still be so now, not to mention that Roland had wrecked his and Reuben’s nerves with his dire warnings. Reuben stayed alert but silent, so Daniel did the same.
“My lord,” the chief player proclaimed, spreading his arms wide, “we thank you for the honor of performing in your hall. I am Armand, leader of the Talented Tramps. You have a reputation as a man of action, so without long speeches or other ado, with your permission we will begin our entertainment.” The lord nodded. “Please direct your attention to the acrobatic talents of Tabitha, Gazelle of the Near East!” As Armand spoke, he pointed his staff across his body, to his left, directing all eyes toward a lithe woman in yellow who immediately flipped her feet into the air and began walking forward and back on her hands. As all eyes fixed on her, Armand moved his staff to his right side, sweeping its end through a wide arc as he did so and inhaling deeply. Realization flashed upon Daniel suddenly, too fast to be sure if it was his own insight or the will of the blade pounding through his thoughts. With no instant of doubt he drew his blade and leaped onto the table, turning to the right as he did so and slashing downward before Lord Aidan. He heard a second inhalation from Armand as he whipped the blade upward in a diagonal block, and with each move he was rewarded with a faint tinkling as he batted a tiny dart out of the air.
Now the room seethed with chaos. The guards surged forward, shoving diners out of the way and leaping over tables. The players dove to intercept them; some managed to grab wrists or hands, or to defend themselves with props, but several were cut down by the guards’ steel. Rebekah had dropped her food and sat wide-eyed as William backed toward the closest wall, his eyes darting from guards to players as though unsure which skulls to crack. Meanwhile the captain had drawn his blade and was advancing on Daniel, but Reuben had pulled his dagger and moved to bar the way. Lord Aidan was between them both, sinking back into his chair, for which Daniel could hardly blame him, his blade having passed mere inches from the noble’s face. Before the captain could lay hands on him, Daniel leaped from the table and charged Armand, who slid another dart into his concealed blowgun and raised it to his lips. Even had he raised the weapon in defense, it is doubtful he would have accomplished much against Daniel’s sword when the spark of battle was upon it. Instead, the weapon was well within Daniel’s reach by the time he raised it to attack, and the shorter boy batted it out of the tramp’s hands to clatter harmlessly onto the floor. Armand held up his hands in surrender, and Daniel reached between his arms to grab a fistful of his red tunic, his sword arm cocked back and ready to deliver a fatal thrust.
“Hold!” boomed the voice of Lord Aidan. “Stay your sword, Daniel, Joseph the Miller’s son. I want this man alive.”
“He tried to kill you, Lord Aidan,” Daniel shouted back. He moved the edge of his sword to Armand’s throat and risked a glance around the room to see that the guards were subduing the remainder of the players-turned-assassins.
“I know he did, lad, and I would know why. And I will, before the night is done. Captain, apprehend the filth. Incarcerate them separately; if we run short of cells, appropriate the more secure of the larders or spare rooms.”
“Yes, my lord,” the captain rumbled.
Once the larger man had Armand in hand, Daniel lowered his blade and returned to the head table. The drums of war still pounded in his mind, and it was only with an effort that he quieted them and sheathed his blade, steadying his breathing and fighting the urge to repay the players’ evil intent.
“Well,” Lord Aidan said as Reuben also resumed his place, “that’s one audience I can cross off tonight’s docket. You’ve saved my life, young man, and by a feat whose equal I have never heard. I stand convinced of your blade’s identity. Let your friends gather to my side during the remainder of my evening’s business, and we’ll have this murderous affair sorted by midday tomorrow.”