For the first time in months, Dylan decided to venture down to Will’s tavern. He knew that he was always welcome there, for the people loved him dearly. Usually he’d take Tabea along, but her sickness kept him from doing so tonight. Three nights ago Stev and Alisande had arrived. Now his foster sister was acting strangely, he’d noticed, peering around dark corners, looking for someone. That red mark on her forehead had faded slightly, but the more it did, the more uneasy she became. He thought about talking with his wife about it, but, no, it would just worry her and she would get even more sick. He remembered his talk with Stev the night before...
...The lord slowly ran one hand through his thick, reddish beard, staring at the large map over the fireplace. He was wondering about Roanna again. Where was she? Sometimes he thought he could sense the presence of a dark force in his castle, especially near Alick’s room. He’d seen an old hag hobble across the front courtyard the day that Stev returned. He hadn’t thought of it at that moment, but now he realized that he’d never seen her here before. Who was she and what did she want here? A quiet knocking cut through his reverie.
“Come in!” he called quietly. The door opened to reveal a very worried Stev Pulleny.
“Good evening, ambassador,” the lord greeted him warmly.
“Good evening, m’lord,” the sandy-haired man returned. He paused for a moment to close the door and then walked up to the fire-place.
“Dylan, I’m worried about Alisande.” The tone of his voice made his friend realize that this was very important indeed.
“What’s wrong with her?” he asked, his brow furrowing.
“She’s been so detatched, ever since the first evening we arrived. She came back to our room near midnight, confused and scared. She said she couldn’t remember what had happened to her that evening.” The lord’s face became even more pensive. “I comforted her and she seemed okay the next morning, but I’m still very worried. I haven’t let her out of my sight since then. Right now she’s with Tabea and the children. I told her to wait there until I came to get her. It seems to me that she’s very mixed up, Dylan, perhaps enchanted.”
“There’s too much of that going on around here for comfort,” the lord snapped, turning back to the map. “I’ll talk with her tomorrow”...
...And that he had, coming away just as puzzled and worried about it as Stev was. There had been a slight stirring inside him, like a warning, when he’d first entered the room, but she seemed all right, just confused and scared. She’d clung to him like a child would to her father or older brother and confessed that she didn’t know what happened. And I promised to help her, he remembered. The only way to do that now is to get an inside scoop on the gossip at Will’s. Yes, that was still the place to find out what the people were really thinking and that was why he had been there so often since he took the throne of Carrock again. There it was in front of him now. It had been repaired and enlarged in the last ten years, some of the money from subventions by the grateful lord himself. For that reason his first mug of ale or goblet of wine of the evening was always “on the house.”
The warm air of the communal room washed over him as he opened the great doors. He took a deep breath of the smell of tobacco, ale, and food, just glad to be here again. Will was behind the long bar and now squinted in his direction. Suddenly he recognized the tall, powerful figure.
“M’lord Dylan!” he cried joyfully, waddling out from behind the counter. “It’s a pleasure to have you here again!” He came and bowed low before his ruler. Dylan raised him up and took his meaty hand.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, Will?” he returned with a bit of melancholy. The round face of the bartender glowed with joy and satisfaction at seeing the lord of Carrock.
“Yes, m’lord, but now you’re here again.” He turned and escorted Dylan to the long bar, where several men reverently made room for him. More than half the people there hadn’t noticed his arrival, which was fine with him. After all, he’d been sequestered away in his castle for the last eight months, caring for his sick wife. He’d grown his beard during that time and few recognized their lord in his plain clothing. The pudgy bartender placed a big mug of frothy ale in front of Dylan and smiled away, his bald head fairly shining with delight.
“How’s m’lady?” he inquired.
“Not much better, Will, but I’ve seen some strange things at the castle and heard some even stranger. I wanted to know what the people are saying.” His old friend nodded gravely.
“There’s not much good being said, m’lord,” one of the men sitting next to him explained sadly. “Word has it that the lady is sick because of sorcery.” Will leaned on the bar.
“Word even has it that a sorceress is abroad.” Dylan raised his eyebrows. The innkeeper nodded solemnly and began his tale.
“Michael Dubris, the one who married Prisca Pulleny, told me about it just this morning. Four days ago an old woman came to his farm, looking for Alisande Pulleny. She said she was a far-off aunt or something like that and had something to give the girl before she died. Prisca believed it all right, you know how she is — hardly out of her teens and ready to believe anything anyone says, but Michael tried to probe deeper, asking the old woman’s name.
“‘What’s that to you?’ she snapped at him and gave him a very queer look. She then said something very wierd.
“‘The lady won’t get well until the children have returned to their rightful guardian.’ And then she just vanished into thin air — poof! She must have been some kind of witch or something. Say, are you all right, m’lord?” Dylan had gone quite pale throughout the story.
“There must be more, Will, more about the old hag.”
“There is indeed, sir,” his neighbor agreed. “Two nights ago an old woman came and asked for lodging in my barn. I granted it to her gladly, but found that I’d forgotten to give her a blanket. I went back with one after she’d gone in and laid wanted to knock on the door. For some reason I didn’t. I just opened a small hole that I’d made as a child and looked into the barn. As I did I saw the old woman straighten up and become a tall and beautiful lady.” The lord grabbed the farmer’s arm.
“Describe her!” he ordered urgently.
“Well, she was about as tall as I am and had long, gray hair that looked a bit white in places. Her face was very young, but her eyes were quite sunken in her face. She was dressed in wide black robes.”
“Well, I straightened up, afraid to go in, but decided I’d bring her the blanket anyway. So I knocked on the door and a few moments later the old hag opened it and rudely took the blanket from me. This morning she was gone and one of my sheep was dead, missing part of a side. It was like someone had carved himself a good chunk from it while it was still alive.” He shook his head. “Poor beast.”
“I’ll say,” Dylan returned. “I think we are about to solve this mystery. I have a bad hunch that I know that beautiful woman you described.” He gazed at the men around him for a long moment.
“I also have a story to tell you, my friends, and I want to know what you think about it.” With that he quickly recounted what had happened to Alisande three nights before. There was quiet muttering from the four men listening before the farmer ventured to speak again.
“Did you see an old woman around the castle at all, m’lord?” he asked.
“Why, yes, that same day, in the early afternoon, before I went out with my kids.”
“Perhaps she’s behind this. Could she be the sorceress?” The lord rubbed one hand through his heavy beard.
“It might well be.” He drained the rest of his ale and looked around at the men. “Very well, my friends, I would like to ask you to keep a watch out for this woman. Tell Will as soon as you see her and he’ll contact me. I’ve got to return to the castle.”
“But not alone, I hope,” one of the men said, his dark eyes sparkling.
“Well, I don’t think I’ll be in any danger,” the lord returned truthfully.
“Would you mind if I go along, Lord Dylan?” There was something in his voice, a soft intonation that the nobleman had missed for such a long time, then it came back to him, the brown face and black hair, the small moustache and goatee — Savoy. He nodded in recognition.
“By all means, sir,” he answered with a laugh. The Scholar rose from his place and tapped a slender young woman sitting beside him on the shoulder.
“Come, Lora, we’re going with his highness.” Dylan took one moment to admire the beautiful being that the little girl had become. He remembered carrying her back to Wiston through the darkness as a five or six-year-old.
“You really have grown, fair maiden,” he remarked with a laugh. She smiled, her bronze face shining and full lips revealing a set of even teeth. Her eyes were hazle and long hair, dark as the night, was pinned up. She wore pants and a tunic and held a light cloak in one hand. The only jewelry she had were two silver earrings that nearly touched her shoulders. To Dylan she was the epitome of the beauty of the southern lands.
“Shall we go?” her father asked and the lord nodded. Now some of his problems would be over — hopefully.