Normally, people stared at the painted man longer than did the minister. Taken aback by the extent of Wulfrik’s markings. His tattoos. Blue eagle feathers. One for every man who fell to his sword. Some of the feathers were large, and some were small. And the largest of all went down from the base of his skull to his hips.
Yet Wulfrik did not instill fear within the minister, even with the bone needle sticking out of his deltoid. The stranger didn’t blink. With a stoic look, he answered Reuben, “I can assure you, it will most certainly be worth it.” And as nonchalantly as he entered, the minister left.
The tavern doors creaked closed behind the more-than-intrigued sell-swords. They stepped into a thin film of snow and mud, and were welcomed by a cool dusk. Autumn air. Still air. It reminded Wulfrik of home. Though he was far from it. The ice-capped mountains and verdant valleys were nothing like his country.
And cold weather was fine enough for Wulfrik, his feathers kept him warm. Even for Reuben who came from a warmer climate. And regardless of how thick their bearskin coats were, Wulfrik felt a chill run down his spine. Saw his breath in the black twilit sky.
Then he looked all around him, and listened carefully to the lurking shadows. He heard not the shit of an owl or the hoot of a man. Two creature comforts could at least be heard if not seen, even at this time of night. One if not both. But everything was scarce. Even a foreigner like Wulfrik knew that well enough. We walk out on our own two feet, but we’re not free, thought Wulfrik.
Reuben clearly sensed something too. Something amiss. He put his hands to his waist, slowly curling his fingers around the hilts of his blades. Wulfrik wasn’t sure if Reuben could see something that he himself did not, but he put a hand on his friend’s scarred shoulder to steady him.
“Easy, little brother.” Wulfrik uttered quietly, though Reuben was not related. “I suspect a dozen men. I can feel their arrows aimed at me. Bow strings fully drawn…”
“Take it easy?” whispered Reuben. “You feel their aim, I see a man behind me with a sideways glance, and you want me to relax?”
Wulfrik smiled, and simply asked, “How fast can you run whilst drunk?”
“I can hold my liquour,” Reuben grimaced.
“So long as you haven’t tasted any of it.”
Capitulating, Reuben released his grip on the daggers and took a breath. And he and Wulfrik continued to follow after the minister, which wasn’t far. But yards from the bar was a waiting carriage. A driver used a firesteel to light a torch as they neared.
“Who are you?” Reuben asked boldly.
The minister replied cryptically and without even turning around, “A man who follows orders.”
“Does the man have a name?”
Reuben nearly snapped at the man, who refused to give a straight answer, when Wulfrik asked, “Do your men follow orders?”
The minister paused before he climbed into the carriage, then said. “So you noticed them. Well done. Sharp ears or sharp eyes?”
Wulfrik answered the minister with an unrelated, though more pertinent question of his own, “Have we truly been summoned, or were we lured into an execution?”
Suddenly, a number of black and dark brown stallions trotted toward the carriage. Some armed and mounted, some with open saddles. Wulfrik assumed the latter were for the archers.
“They are here for my protection. Surely if we wanted to kill you, we would have tried by now?”
The deep brown eyes of Wulfrik studied the mystery man, trying to learn his secrets. His weaknesses. But the man’s simple garb, and bald face left little to the imagination.
“Then are we to join you, or will we be towed behind your wagon?” Reuben scoffed.
“As I understand, you gentlemen prefer to ride, so ride you shall. My liege wishes to speak with you himself, and I have important affairs of my own to deal with.”
In regard to other business, both Reuben and Wulfrik looked into the dark carriage, and saw the outline of another figure, in the dim torchlight. As they strained to better see this being, the archers trudged slowly toward their horses, drawing the mercenaries’ attention. Reuben and Wulfrik each had six to seven archers direct their weapons at them, as Wulfrik suspected. And they wore full plate. Four of them even held mechanised arbalests.
However Wulfrik ignored the bowmen, trying to read the unnamed minister’s stony grey eyes once again. His mannerisms. His posture. But they all revealed nothing, except that the man was either a fool or a genius. But Wulfrik didn’t think he was a common man. In fact, Wulfrik believed him to be something sinister. Some beasts walk on all fours, some touch the ground with two. And some move so gracefully near the ground their feet and hands never do, thought Wulfrik.
“You’re no minister are you?” said Wulfrik.
The minister smiled now, exposing all of his yellowed teeth from ear to ear, and said, “Yet that is my appointment.”
“Minister for what, then?”
There was no answer. The minister banged on the inner wall of the coach, signalling for the driver to leave. The coachman quickly obeyed, and with a pull on the reins, the horses ambled on.
“Well, I feel relieved. Not worried at all,” said a sarcastic Reuben. “What’s your take?”
“A man with no name is cause for concern,” Wulfrik replied as he accepted a horse from one of the riders.
“My thoughts exactly. We best ask to be paid in advance.”
Effortlessly, Reuben leapt onto his horse’s back. A long-haired steed.
“What did you think of the man, Reuben?”
“Treacherous. When I looked into his cold grey eyes I saw nothingness. Like the man was devoid of all life.”
“Yes… ” said Wulfrik removing the saddle and harness completely before climbing onto the brown colt, “I’ve seen hard-hearted ministers before. But he’s no minister, or politician. Nor is he a man.”
“What then?” inquired Reuben who had never seen Wulfrik shiver.
Wulfrik looked through the dark. At the riders, the archers, and the silhouettes of the cliffs around them in the dim moonlight. Finally, he looked back at Reuben and without elaboration answered, “A dæmon.”