Taver arrives, bringing Gregor, and Bevin is already here with me. Hunk is impatient to tell his story, but I make him wait until Alan and Jes arrive.
“Do you need me,” Alan whispers, “I have already sent for Zar.” This time he really does need to whisper; he isn’t just talking an opportunity to get close.
“Yes, we may want your opinion. Zar will wait.”
“We rescued all of them,” Hunk starts with, what is to him, the most important part. “All eight of them. It isn’t our fault that four of them didn’t want to come here.”
“You expected payment for three, you will get payment for four. We will discuss payment for an additional four once I have heard your story.”
Hunk relaxes, and I realize he wasn’t really expecting to be paid for the extra hostages. At least I assume they are hostages too.
“Sloan knew the road, so we were able to travel quickly. (Sloan is Evert’s real name). We got there and camped in the hills waiting for his brother Jkas to arrive, but Dker showed up first, so we talked him into helping—otherwise he would have been in the house and on the other side when we tried to get Sloan’s mother.
“We promised to bring his baby daughter here.” Hunk stops for a moment, looking at me, waiting for me.
“You did the right thing,” I assure him, once I realize he is waiting on my approval. I don’t understand why he wants approval, I have already promised to pay him for all four hostages.
“When we told him we could remove the compulsions, he asked us to remove his right then, but Sloan started waving his arms and shaking his head, so we talked Dker into waiting until Jkas got there. Then we cleansed all three of them. Didn’t even take half of the blessed-herb-water your priests fixed for us.”
“Dker and Jkas entered the manor for their ‘visits’, and protected the women while we attacked. We burned the manor with the guard’s bodies inside to confuse things.”
“You didn’t take any prisoners” I can’t tell if Taver approves or disapproves his tone is so bland.
“No, they weren’t under compulsion, they served the Wassak because they wanted to.”
“The Wassak? Wassak isn’t a name?”
“No, it’s what he says he is. No one knows his name, or so they told me.” Hunk is really trying to be helpful.
“We were camped about a half-day travel from the manor, while the others tried to decide what to do, when Rage arrived. We had done a good job of hiding our tracks, but, well, Rage is a Sorcerer.”
“He was ready to kill us all, when he heard his daughter laugh. Figured out we weren’t mis-treating her. Scared everyone except Dker when he walked into camp. I doubt if there is anything scares that Caeel warrior except threatening his baby daughter. But then Kthyn ran and hugged her father, so there was no fight.
“We took his compulsions off too. We decided you wouldn’t mind since you have your own Sorcerer.”
“Alan is a Mage.” I stare at him a moment, trying to decide why my opinion matters since I have already promised we would pay him.
“Then they decided to send their women here and go kill the Wassak.”
“Problem?” I ask Taver.
“By now the swamp-wizard knows you are not dead, and that his wolf-man was subverted. He probably assumes we know whatever Kymr could tell us. This doesn’t change the situation much.” Taver looks at Hunk, “Do you think they can succeed?”
“No. Dker and Rage are seriously dangerous men, but this Wassak has defeated both of them before.” Hunk pauses again. “We gave them provisions, anything we had they didn’t. All of the priest’s cleansing water. We even gave them some of the money you give us.”
He looks around as if waiting to be called a liar. Got to admit I didn’t think he, or any of his men, were that charitable.
“Why?’ Jes speaks for the first time, and implies by his question that he believes Hunk.
“Investment.” Hunk looks around and realizes only Jes seems to understand. “We thought you would approve.” Hunk is looking at me, not Taver. “And it isn’t like we felt like dying trying to stop them.”
Hunk keeps looking at me, expecting something of me. “I will have your money prepared, and give you escort back to your camp.” Hunk nods, but his expression is carefully blank. “I approve of the decisions you made,” I continue, feeling my way, trying to figure out what else he wants, expects.
“He thought he was serving the righteous lord of Blythe,” my Sword decides to offer his commentary.
Oh well, damn it. Hulk is a damn big, full grown mercenary, not a lost puppy. But he seems, they seem, to have followed me home.
I drag Taver outside. “Could they be useful?”
He stares off into the distance for a moment, and I can’t tell if he is seriously trying to think of a task, or if he is just thinking I am crazy. “We could put them to searching the cleared but untilled areas around Misthold for signs of more graves. It wouldn’t upset them as much as it does our own forces.”
That is actually a good suggestion, which still doesn’t eliminate the possibility he thinks I’m crazy.
“You do know that Rage and Dker will come for their families, if they survive.”
“Maybe, someday, but Hunk and his men are here now. I’ll worry about the others later.” And anyway, I think but don’t say, they may both end up dead.
I leave it to Taver to make the offer, but Hunk kneels before me, offering me his thanks, and promises of good behavior. It makes me very uncomfortable. Abelonians don’t kneel, except when swearing fealty. Then I realize, with shock, that is exactly what he is doing.
I stumble through some words of acceptance of his assurances, awkward and uncomfortable, but still seemingly good enough for him, then I go to tell father that a mercenary band has followed me home from Blythe.
Taver leaves Hunk in Gregor’s hands, and accompanies me in my search for father. Alan goes to deal with Zar, with Jes following him, interested in the process. Jes has been more comfortable admitting his Shaman powers since father accepted Alan. I probably need to make sure Jes knows father’s ire is only toward demon-summoning Sorcerous powers.
I get to delay confessing I’ve adopted a mercenary band because a City Guard Captain has arrived with news. The murderer has been identified.
“There you are,” father doesn’t say ‘finally’, but everyone hears it anyway. He looks toward the door as if expecting someone else.
“Where are Alan and Jes?”
“Dealing with Zar,” I remind him.
“Well I want you to go with Captain Cabl. He has identified the murderer and secured his rooms. I want Alan to heap search it, and you there just in case.”
Father doesn’t say ‘in case of what’ but I can easily fill in the rest of his thought. He doesn’t want the murderer to be a normal man, he wants him to be evil, demon-possessed, corrupted. Someone apart from the rest of mankind, and hence rare, assuring another of his type will likely never be seen. I don’t think father will get what he wants, but I don’t argue with an order that will have Taver explaining the mercenaries and not me.
Alan’s door is guarded. They will not stop me, of course, but I’m not stupid enough to distract Alan when he is trying a new spell—or any spell, so I wait outside. I jump just as much as everyone else when Zar yells. But I still don’t go in.
Jes opens the door, and asks one of the guards to fetch a healer. “The side-effects of the spell were painful, but not deadly,” he assures all of us, assuming we care.
Maybe I do care, he did find and end the murderer. I slide in before Jes can close the door, but there isn’t anything interesting to see, just Zar slumped against the back of a chair, pale but grinning as he looks at his arm. It is red, as if burned, but tattoo free. Alan is also examining the arm, and frowning.
“It shouldn’t have been that painful, or that hot.” He is annoyed; his spell mis-behaved.
“But it worked.” Zar doesn’t seem the least bit disappointed. “It did work, right. The tattoo won’t come back?”
“The ink is gone,” Alan reassures him.
“It didn’t want to leave,” Jes adds, “It fought.”
“Father has a task for us, searching the murderer’s rooms.” I interrupt because I really don’t want to think about tattoos with an opinion. In fact, I think I have had enough to do with tattoos for a very long time. I really hope Rage and Dker manage to kill the swamp-wizard, and I can ignore tattoos for the rest of my life. I don’t think I will get what I want either.
I am mildly surprised Zar doesn’t want to go with us. He is content to stay and let the healer soothe his arm, having no interest in the man he killed once the killing has been accomplished. He ignores the guards who watch him. We are going to have to decide what to do with him. Mother wants to shove him over the border into Halft. It will be a long time before she forgives Afred of Halft.