Nigel narrowed his eyes to a thin slit. As an old drunk slouched in a chair, he drew as little notice as the broom propped in the corner. He leaned back his head, and the wall pushed his tweed cap down his brow.
Bounty hunters crowded around a table near the fireplace, rough men as hard as flint but not as sharp. Wedged between them, the spindly youth with a hefty price on his head sullenly poked at a bowl of stew.
Nigel scanned the tavern again and sent a glance up the stairs. The patterns wouldn’t so much as quiver if he got up and walked out, but he owed a debt to a good man. A dead man. Paying that debt could wait until the bountymen had downed a few more mugs.
As he settled back to bide his time, the tavern door sprang open. Crisp winter sunlight sliced through the tavern’s smoky haze. A distraction came striding in, carrying the brash and breezy sound of young men not yet blunted by life. Three young bucks scraped back empty chairs at Nigel’s table, paying the old drunk no heed.
Rhynn nobles, Nigel gauged from their tall boots and weaponry. Hawks of Aleron, declared the breclans beneath cloaks they shed in the tavern’s warmth. Nigel noted the clan sigils in passing interest. Callan, Gruder, and Buchanan. The last to sit was the first to speak.
“A round, Livvy,” the young Callan called out, his smile fading with a glance the bountymen’s way. “It’s Fehan, all right.”
The tavern and the village surrounding it were little more than a traveler’s stop on Falkender Road, but the land beneath it belonged to the Callans, and that put it under their protection.
“Fehan Elliott has a bounty on his head? That can’t be right,” said the dark-haired Gruder.
“What’s Fee gotten himself into now?” said the Buchanan, of average size for a plow horse, but conspicuously large for a man. He shouldered between his companions with the apologetic restraint of one accustomed to fitting his bulk into an undersized world and wishing it wouldn’t cower like that.
“He must be in a right bad mess to get a waiver from your father,” said the Gruder.
It was an understandable assumption, but no lord in Aleron had waived jurisdiction in the matter. Few could even be aware of the travesty yet.
“Da didn’t give any waivers. He wouldn’t,” said the Callan. He had a robustness that stopped short of brawn and a boyish face. Only the eyes merited a second glance. Pale grey and watchful, the eyes belonged on someone older and wiser.
“Too many of them to be here justly,” he said. “This has to be a nab and run.”
When the proprietor sidled up with their cups, the Callan drew her closer and nuzzled her ear.
“A friend of ours is here, Livvy,” he whispered. “We don’t like the company he’s keeping.”
“Can’t say as I blame ye.” Livvy sent a furtive glance across the room.
“Have a lad ready our horses. One of theirs, too.”
“Watch yerself, Lord Seth. They’re a rough lot.” Livvy wagged her finger. “Don’t go bustin’ up the place, ye hear?”
How quaint. Hapless Fehan had rescuers in abundance this day.
Nigel had to admit, Aleron bred them bold. Each of them had probably fisted a wooden sword on the day he was weaned. Even so, they were no match for hardened bountymen. Their eagerness to die could prove a useful diversion.
“What do you think?” asked the Gruder. “Pin the card?”
Lord Seth shook his head. “Mug shot.”
“Oh, I like that one,” said the big Buchanan. Quick for his size, he bolted to his feet, toppling his chair to the floor. He towered over the Gruder with a scowl that could make a gwynwulf tuck tail and run.
“Those are fighting words, Aengus. You got me riled now.”
“I meant naught by it, Gaven. You’re as good a shot as any.” Black eyes flashed with mischief. “Any but my sister.”
Nigel cracked one eye wider, intrigued as their names stirred a recollection. Fehan’s unremarkable eyes had gone as round as saucers behind the oversized spectacles perched on his narrow nose, making him look like an underfed owl. The bountymen shouted for more ale at the prospect of an entertaining brawl.
Gaven lunged, and Aengus dodged. Seth got to his feet with unhurried purpose.
“No busting up Livvy’s place, boys,” he said. “A wager instead.”
“Wager,” Aengus wheezed in Gaven’s chokehold. “Seth says a wager.”
Gaven grunted and let go. Aengus tumbled to the floor.
“All right, then.” Aengus dusted himself off and poked Gaven in the chest. “I wager I can set an apple on your shoulder and core it at ten paces. Without knocking it off.”
Gaven swatted him away. “I wager I can set a full mug atop your head, nick the handle clean off, and not spill a drop.”
“The winner takes what coin you have on you.” Seth sealed the preposterous wagers. He held out his hand. A waggle of fingers called in the ante. Clinking coins had bountymen setting down their mugs.
Under the table, Nigel’s fingers curled around his crossbow. He could take Fehan now and clear the debt his conscience wanted paid, but the encounter was becoming mildly interesting.
Aengus backed against a whitewashed plank wall. Gaven balanced the mug atop his raven-black hair, turned the handle out to the side, stepped back, and adjusted it again.
“Flinch, and you’ll get doused.”
“Aim well, or I’ll get dead.”
Aengus swallowed. Gaven steadied a silver pistol, and every eye in the tavern riveted on the spectacle. Sweat glistened on Gaven’s brow as he drew back the hammer.
Aengus dropped like a rock and caught the mug midair. He flung ale in the nearest bountyman’s face, and his backswing shattered the mug against another’s head. Gaven’s aim shifted, and his shot caught a man between the eyes. The luckless brute swayed, and his face met his plate with a splat.
Seth and Aengus rushed the table to the metallic song of swords unsheathing. Two more bountymen died in gurgled surprise. Anyone who claims death is ugly has yet to appreciate the beauty in a skilled swordsman’s dance.
Fehan was on the floor, scurrying away on his hands and knees. A chair splintered over Gaven’s back. Crimson streaked Seth’s sleeve. The ale-drenched bountyman leveled a musket at Aengus’ back.
Nigel’s crossbow twanged and the bountyman died.
Seth whipped around, and Nigel acknowledged him with a brisk nod as he loaded another bolt.
The last bountyman standing proved the smartest of the lot. He made a dash for the door. Gaven’s beefy arm caught and tossed him against the wall, and the man’s head painted a scarlet trail down the planks.
Being the smartest of bountymen is little to brag about.
More boots pounded the stairs, summoned from the rooms upstairs by the ruckus.
“Sweet Mother of Aurel,” Aengus muttered. “There are more of them.”
Of course, there are more of them. It was a big bounty. The Alerons hadn’t anticipated anyone choosing the carnal pleasures upstairs ahead of the tavern’s fine cuisine.
“Your horses, m’lords!” A lad threw open the tavern door, cheeks ruddy and breath misting in the cold that blew in with him.
“Run, Fee,” Seth shouted. “Get out of here.”
Nigel braced for the brutes distressed at seeing their bounty slipping away. He shouted the Alerons on, firing bolt after bolt to cover their escape, and backing out the door as they ran for the horses.
Seth hauled Fehan up behind him. When he jerked his head at the fourth horse, Nigel didn’t hesitate. Dodging an ax aimed at his head, he loosed one last bolt. As it found its mark in a hairy neck, Nigel vaulted to the saddle.
# # #
They rode hard, cloaks pulled tight against the biting wind, until night curled a blanket of darkness around them. With a sharp whistle, Seth Callan cut off the path and disappeared into a rocky cliffside. Nigel cut his reins sharply and followed. They filed into a cavern so narrow and obscured no one could find it unless he already knew it was there.
The cavern widened, and the Alerons’ boots hit the ground in tandem, crunching on a thin layer of ice and snow.
“What did you do, Fee?” said Aengus.
“Wasn’t me,” Fehan said, shivering. “A Surdisi lady showed up asking for the Pelican’s shelter. Da had to help her.”
“What? He took in a Surdisi lady?” said Gaven.
“I take it that didn’t go well.” Seth’s mouth thinned.
“Her husband’s a mean old bastard. Sent his men after her. They tracked her to us. Stormed the inn at midnight.” Fehan’s voice cracked. “They…they killed Da.”
“I’m sorry, Fee,” Aengus said quietly. “We didn’t know.”
“Your father was a good man,” said Seth. “Someone will answer for this.”
“Lord Edmund Southall will answer to me.” Nigel approached them.
“Should I know you?” Seth’s appraisal swept him, tweed cap to worn-out boots.
“The Pelican had many friends,” said Nigel. “And many owe him debts of gratitude.”
“You fought well back there, for an old man.”
“A soldier remembers when he must.” It was explanation enough. “The Pelican never turned away anyone in need of shelter, and Lady Patrice was running from an exceptionally cruel and vindictive man.”
“Killing Da wasn’t enough for Southall.” Fehan cupped his hands and blew through his thin gloves. “He bought up the inn’s debt, too. There’s no way I can pay it off.”
“That was the bounty?” said Seth. “They were hauling you off to debtor’s prison?”
“We thought you might have…” Gaven lifted a thick shoulder.
“Done something stupid?” said Fehan.
“Well, there is a bit of a precedent,” said Aengus.
“This one’s not your doing, Fee,” said Seth. “Get back on the horse.”
On his word, the others made ready to leave.
“Lord Edmund is a man of considerable means and scant mercy,” said Nigel, even as he wondered why he bothered. “He will pursue Fehan to the farthest corners of Innis. I have the means to make certain he does not find him.”
Seth set his boot in the stirrup, making no reply.
“If Southall finds Fehan, he will not simply kill him,” said Nigel. “He will lock him in his dungeon and take great pleasure in the pain he delivers.”
Seth gathered his reins and looked down at Nigel. It was the eyes again, old eyes set in a young man’s face. A thread in the patterns glowed brighter.
“We take care of our own.”