Brandt bit back a curse when he heard the pounding on the door and the running footsteps of the innkeeper. He had pushed the man too far with the mirror and everything, he knew it at the time but he hadn’t been able to contain his fear for Keri. And now his lack of self control had come back to hurt them all.

Exactly like Aeldrich, the weapons master, had warned him.

Taking a deep breath to steady himself he pushed away from the doorpost he was leaning against, and nodded to Syts.

“Will there be time to dress appropriately?” he asked.

The old bard thought it over carefully while he got off the be and on his feet with more difficulty. “If you hurry,” was the eventual reply. “I can stall them for a little.”

Brandt nodded and left the trashed bedroom, hurrying into the room he’d shared with Oboru.

“No armour,” Syts called after him.

Brandt raised is hand in acknowledgement.

The bard’s admonishment made sense, Brandt had to agree, but he didn’t like to make himself so vulnerable. If talking to the guard was going to turn ugly, he needed his armour and his swords to have a chance to get the others out of the city. He had to admit though that even a poorly trained standard squad of city guards would have little trouble cutting him down if it came to violence, and that the old man’s warning to be non-threatening would significantly decrease the chance of things getting out of control.

Even if he himself did not want to lean on unearned respect, the bard had earned all the respect he got, and more. Last night, before everything turned into a nightmare, again, he’d listened to Syts and Keri playing and singing together. The old man was as good as his master’s robe proclaimed him to be, and having listened to several masters, including this one, he was by no stretch of imagination the lesser to any of the younger masters.

The big surprise had been Keri though. Since their first meeting she’d presented herself as a common wandering minstrel, but the way she’d matched Syts note for note, belied that suggestion. And now the court bard showed up and they just happened to know each other. There was a lot behind that unpresuming façade she presented.

Kind of like himself, really.

We’re a company of secrets, he thought with wry amusement, and a little chagrin. The first question really is not what we’re hiding but why.

Shrugging off the distraction he grabbed his pants and leather jerkin and hurriedly put them on. The jerkin was meant to be worn over his mail so it fit rather loosely over his under-shirt. There was a tightly knitted woollen jumper somewhere in his pack that would give a better civilian impression, but it had been so long since he’d last worn it that it probably was in need of the services of a tailor before he could wear it again. Assuming he could dig it out in the short time he’d given himself to get ready to face the town guards.

Giving it up as a loss of time he didn’t have to spare, he stuffed the rest of his clothes back in his pack, grabbed his mail and sword, and headed out. He had no idea how he was going to be received and he did not feel like leaving his gear in the inn. Not with an innkeeper who had called for the town guards over his earlier behaviour. If the guards were to be unreasonable he’d likely not see his gear back if he left it behind.

The old bard winced at seeing Brandt coming up to the front door, where he stood shivering in his night clothes, not actually armed and armoured, but carrying evidence of his mercenary profession in his arms.

“Guards,” he acknowledged them politely. He didn’t feel particularly polite, but he had learned to at least convincingly hide his true feelings, and there was no reason to antagonise these guards who were only doing their job. Hands crept closer to sword hilts as he came into view.

“Ah … Brandt,” Syts said. “Good of you to join us.”

“Finally,” the leader of the three man squad said coolly. “Let’s go.”

“Excuse me?” Brandt said, allowing some of his annoyance to show through. “Would you drag Master Bard Lonwellyn through the snow like a common criminal?” He didn’t add the warning that the King would hear of such a thing and would be royally displeased with the insult paid to his personally appointed court composer and musician. From the way the guard blanched he didn’t have to.

“He doesn’t have to come with us,” the squad leader said, still coolly,

“Yes he does,” Brandt replied with equally cool finality. “He can much better explain what happened here last night. And I would be greatly surprised if it will be somebody else who brings word to the King.”

Syts looked annoyed at Brandt, but did not contradict him.

“Of course master … Lonwellyn … if you would please hurry to dress into something more appropriate for the weather,” the guard said, throwing a poisonous look at the innkeeper who was hovering nearby. “There have been some concerns, and we would like to ask you and your … companion some questions.”

The old man nodded his head graciously, “of course. I will take only a moment to get ready.” Belying his polite words he did not hurry off, walking up the stairs at an ordinary, almost sedate, pace.

“Are you his bodyguard?” the squad leader asked Brandt.

He replied sourly, “I should be. His appointment as court bard was meant to be both an honour to his skill, and to keep him from finding more trouble.”

“Trouble?” The guard became even more alert at the one word question. No doubt they had a night that had been at least as stressful as Brandt’s had been.

“The Countess candle,” Brandt replied shortly. “And The bandits of Graystone Ford.”

“That was him?”

He nodded, “rumour has it. Along with other … acts that aren’t sung about by half the Kingdom.”

The guard swore under his breath.

Brandt felt that about summed up the situation quite neatly. He could practically see the moment the guardsman decided to hand this problem off to somebody with a higher rank than him.

It was the same moment the suspicion hardened in the guards, that it was no coincidence that a master bard had arrived at the same time as inexplicable events. Brandt shared some of those trepidations and suspicions. The old man had not told them much about his motivations, not even when pressed by Oboru, though he had seemed to be talking a great deal.

“Does the master need much guarding?” There was a slight pause in the question that suggested the town guard had initially meant to call Syts by another title, probably one not quite so respectful. His question also made clear that he had decided not to believe Brandt’s denial about being a bodyguard.

“Not as much as is feared,” Brandt admitted, as much to himself as to the guard. “But more than he himself thinks he does.” He didn’t disabuse the guard of his notion, as being thought a bodyguard would give him both a measure of anonymity and of protection.

The guard clearly was curious, but he kept quiet. In his mind the problem was now political and he, as rank and file guard, wanted nothing to do with it. That was left to they younger sons of the minor nobility and the rich who bought into the town guard as officers. He was now only going to escort the old bard to the headquarters, politely, and keep a close eye on him. Brandt heartily wished he could pass off involvement in this mess as easily.

Syts was true to his word that he would get ready quickly, though he walked down the stairs as calmly as he had ascended them. With a silent nod he told the town guard that he was ready.

Without a further word they set out, two guards in the lead and one following them. This made it appear much more like they were escorting an important visiting dignitary than they were arresting a suspect.

Initially Brandt stuck close to the bard, close enough that he could whisper a question, “why didn’t you tell them who you were?”

Syts smiled enigmatic. Long enough for Brandt to feel his annoyance solidify in a scowl, before finally answering, “I’m not here in an official capacity.”

“That explained exactly nothing,” Brandt said to himself. Rather than risking to show more of his annoyance, he fell back, as if he was the fourth guard escorting the bard. If the old man wanted something else from him, he should not be so mysterious. Brandt had avoided politics as much as he was allowed his entire life, and if he wanted he could play the dense warrior just as competently as any career officer.

Outside the inn the streets were freezing, as was to be expected given that the snow was pile up knee high in places. Still, given how they had been driven inside the previous evening from heavy snow and storm wind there was much less snow than Brandt expected. The temperature was also higher than he had thought it would be. The pale winter sun was already dropping below the black stone walls and equally black buildings in places. It couldn’t possibly have been strong enough to warm up the air from the lethal cold of the night.

Whatever freak weather was blown down from the dark mountain, it is gone, he thought. It begged the question if the cold and the dark had been related. Brandt had no idea, and he couldn’t ask the self proclaimed mage, nor the even more mysterious and unsettling Talya. Or he could but not without causing a whole host of new and worse problems for them all. After all three of his four companions he had to keep as far away from authorities as he could, and Keri was in no condition to deal with officious men of high rank and low common sense.

On their way through the town they passed several crews of poorly dressed men, guarded by alert town guards with weapons at the ready.

Noticing his glance the second time they passed such a street cleaning crew, the town guard walking next to him explained, “anybody arrested at the fair for misdemeanours and minor crimes gets to pay off his fine by working for the city.”

Brandt looked at the thin clothes the miserably looking men were wearing and shivered in sympathy. “Never run out of people?”

The guard grinned, “there’s always more stupid folk to replace the ones who learned their lesson.”

“And the rich?” Brandt hazarded.

“Used to buy themselves out of gaol, but the Mayor decided a couple of years back they should do their hours too,” the guard’s grin was bordering on vicious. “Made him real unpopular with the merchants, but the town folk love him for it.”

Brandt grinned in reply, despite himself. The notion was a good one, and he felt the King would do well to enforce it in the entire country. He had to wonder though how long the merchants would hesitate to exact their revenge the moment the Mayor seemed to stumble. Probably not long from what he knew of the rich merchants. They were even more viciously political than the high nobility.

With that little exchange the town guard relaxed ever so slightly, and Brandt knew he had become accepted as alike to them, a soldier working for his supper and who earned his rank and skill instead of having bought into it. He hadn’t set out to do it for that reason, but it would make his position with the town guard a little less complicated. Assuming of course the officer in charge wouldn’t toss him in goal and make him work off his debt to the innkeeper by shovelling snow in his linen under-shirt. One of them or not, these town guard were professional. Far more so than most of the guards he had met during his time as a mercenary, first on his own and later with ‘s troop.

When they reached the guard’s headquarters at the main square of the town the mood again shifted subtly. The guard hung back half a pace, creating a slight difference between them once more. Not enough to demote him from ‘one of them’ to ‘prisoner’, but enough to make it clear that he was being escorted to this place, and not entirely voluntarily so.

There was a fair crowd of people clamouring in front of the guard house, no doubt spooked by the unnatural happenings of the night and seeking reassurance or protection.

“What do they expect the guard to do about people who won’t wake up?” Brandt muttered, not meaning to actually say it out loud. He felt more than he could see the attention sharpen of the guard who was escorting him.

The squad leader stopped short of the crowd and turned around, “my apologies Master Bard for the lack of accord, but we’ll use the back entrance rather than try to force our way through that.”

Syts laughed, “I’ve been a travelling bard for far longer than I’ve been appointed to the court. Don’t worry about my inflated ego. I get enough fawning from obsequious innkeepers and minor nobles telling me how great and important I am. Truth is that it used to be I entered guard houses from the back door, so it’ll feel quite ordinary to me. Besides, that looks like a riot waiting to happen.”

Brandt fully agreed with the last statement, and so did the squad leader despite his misgivings at bringing in the King’s bard like a common criminal. Brandt didn’t know Syts well enough to offer an opinion regarding how accurate his assertion was about having a sordid past and no ego that was easily bruised. He’d avoided Court as much as he could, a state of affairs that everybody seemed to have been more comfortable with.

Reaching the back door was not a matter of cutting through an alley, because of the labyrinthine design of Glivenr, but other than the one narrow street where the snow seemed to have piled on waist high, both streets and alleys — and in the city there was less difference between the two than in any other in the Kingdom — they could walk easily. It was a flat black door in a wall of the same dull dark grey, nearly black, stone blocks that most the city and all of its walls were made of. The result was particularly forbidding even in a city as gloomy as Glivenr.
The back door of course was cleared of snow, since that was where the groups of forced workers had started. It also was guarded and barred. The street itself was empty, nobody wanted to hang out near this particular gate and the town guard discouraged loitering. Probably with nightsticks and an invitation to shovel snow for a couple of weeks.

Approaching the door the squad leader held up his hand, and the guard next to him moved to stop Syts and Brandt from following, while the leader approached the door guards alone. They spoke softly for some time before he returned and the door guard approached the door, again alone. Brandt couldn’t see what was happening but he presumed he spoke to somebody at the other side.

After that they had to wait long enough for the sun to drop below the houses and the street turning from chilly to distinctly cold. The door did open eventually and they were escorted inside.

There was a small antechamber, a sensible precaution against the cold in a mountain town, where two more guards were waiting for them. These two looked a lot less friendly than the three that had escorted them from the inn. They didn’t quite have their clubs out, but their hands were resting on the handle and they looked eager to use them. Instinctively the three original guards tensed up and dropped their casual pose. Even the guard next to Brandt dropped further till he was fully behind

Things must have been worse than I thought, Brandt thought. He couldn’t see the expression on the old man’s face, but he imagined it was the same concern he felt. The bard didn’t give the impression that he missed much of anything that was going on around him.

This was going to be a worse interview than he imagined, and he hadn’t set his hopes high stepping out of the inn.

Brandt dragged an expression up that he hoped wasn’t too unfriendly, but he knew his face was better suited to looking commanding than to looking friendly and harmless, courtesy of his great grandfathers ancestry.

Past the antechamber was a short corridor in the same featureless black stone blocks with a black door at either end. With both doors closed and barred it would be impossible to see a thing, though Brandt expected that the guards could open up the ceiling from the second floor, should ever an attempt to free prisoners make it past the back door. Glancing up ever so briefly he noticed the outline of a trapdoor in the ceiling, confirming his suspicion.

It didn’t make Brandt feel any better realising that the guard house was protected by such defences as if it would need them. He should have at least heard some rumours about such degree of unrest in one of the Kingdom’s major strongholds that justified this level of defence in a guard house. Granted it had kept him oblivious of many things that he had never paid much attention to events. He had in fact been subtly discouraged from getting involved with politics. It had taken a long time for him to realise just how much he was controlled by those he thought of as his friends.

“Wait here,” came the curt order,interrupting his thoughts.

Brandt looked around, finding himself in the ready room. Several tired looking town guards were sitting on uncomfortable chairs, a couple more were getting into their uniforms. To one side there was a door to a hallway with cells on either side. To the other side were two closed doors with a bench between them. A final door led to the front of the guard house, he presumed. It too was closed.

“The Lt will call for you when he is ready.”

None of the guards made any move to leave though. That was a bit excessive, all things considered. He had given over his sword before entering the guard house and had made no move to either resist or flee. And the old man looked like he shouldn’t be able to walk without the aid of a walking stick, though Brandt knew that was clever acting on his part. They clearly weren’t going to walk out of a guard room full with actual guards. Having five guards looming over them was completely unnecessary, even more so with two of them looking more than ready to club them into submission without provocation.

“What happened here?” Brandt whispered into Syts’ ear after the were seated.

“Shut up,” the burlier of the two angry guards snarled.

Since he now had his club in hand Brandt shut up.