2 Bitros 861
THE WINTER DAY dawned bright and clear over Lykos, flooding the city with unseasonable warmth. As the day's heat penetrated the windows, shutters were thrown open to the sun and restless children spilled out into the streets to play. Their mothers went about their daily tasks with a cheerful air, cleaning their homes with a spring like vigor while their men dawdled over the outdoor chores.
The late winter sun warmed the brown flagstones of the courtyard, but Aldrok Bartranson had no time for it today. In the stables horses were being saddled and hunting gear checked, but not his. On any other day he'd be riding beside his king while they refilled the larders of the city and castle, but not today. He had other orders.
Striding up the steps, he coughed as a servant flapped a dirty rug on the landing. Ignoring her apology, he brushed the dust from his clothes and kept going.
Gods, he should be going on that hunt! His blue-gray eyes darkened. Saryd was changing things. Hanal would go in his place.
He was sure Hanal had maneuvered Saryd into that. Saryd had even ordered his son and heir to stay behind. That wasn't like him. It didn't matter that Edwin had been caught in a misdeed. It still wasn't like Saryd to deny his son the thrill of a hunt over something so minor.
Two guards snapped to attention as he entered the king's suite. Aldrok barely noticed.
After rapping three times on the wooden inner door, he opened it.
"Off, villains! My champion comes."
Aldrok stopped in the doorway, grinning to see his lord under attack and helpless on the floor. The king's enemies, twin two-year-olds, were doing their best to hold their father down.
"Off, I say!" Saryd grabbed the twin on his chest and tossed him to Aldrok.
He caught him with practiced ease and tickled Myka until he screamed for help.
The odds evened, his king turned his attention to the other attacker and soon had Rykar giggling for mercy.
When the boys were breathless, Aldrok grinned at his king and made a sketchy salute somewhat hampered by the twin in his arms. "Are you rescued, my lord? Or are you besieged by women as well?"
"Not at all." Saryd grinned back, undismayed by his kinsman's informality.
"I have the tax roll," Aldrok said, flourishing the scroll.
"Good." Saryd of the Wolf, King of Lykos, gave him a quick smile. "Just a moment," Saryd said. "Boys."
The twins obeyed, returning to their toys with wide grins for their father and uncle.
Saryd brushed back his thick dark hair with an impatient hand and strode over to the window facing the courtyard. He took his time watching the activity of his people in the winter sun. He already wore his black leather leggings and a bright red tunic was stretched across his wide shoulders. A servant held the black leather gambeson etched with the wolf's head and crown of the king.
"Let me." Aldrok took the gambeson from the servant and motioned for him to step back.
Saryd shrugged into it with practiced ease, settling its black leather across his broad shoulders. "Get my boots, boys."
His twins left their toys to bring his boots to him. The firstborn, Rykar, held one for him, but Myka had other ideas.
"Up, 'Rok!" Myka imperiously demanded, his arms reaching for him. "Up!"
Aldrok laughed. Laying the scroll down, he tossed the two-year-old into the air, then balanced him on his knee. The boy chattered at him as if he'd been gone days and Aldrok listened, proud of this twin.
Myka was identical to Rykar in all things physical, but there the resemblance ended. Myka was better at talking and Rykar was faster to take action. Aldrok felt more akin to the younger twin and thought Rykar to be more like his Uncle Marus.
Bouncing the boy on his knee, he was rewarded with a startled squeal and a demand for more. He looked up from their game to see Saryd watching them with a guarded smile.
"I'll never get over how he likes you," Saryd said. "You would think someone has told him he'll be your heir."
"Oh, but I did," Aldrok retorted and lightly touched the twin mark on Myka's right hand. A series of three dots, tattooed there after his birth, showed Myka was the second born. "Right after he was born."
"I think he remembers."
Turning to his servant, Saryd gave quick instructions. The man escorted the twins out.
"The tax roll." Saryd nodded to it. "Read it while I lace this up." He tackled the loops on his gambeson, fishing one through the next and on up the side of the black leather armor.
Aldrok rapped the scroll on his palm.
"Six holdings haven't sent in their animals yet. Three owe us fifteen steers and two owe us ten. The last one is small and can only provide three."
"Forget the last one," Saryd said. "If we don't need them, they can pay us more next year. I want runners sent to the first three with an order for them to bring their animals in. That should keep the city in red meat for a while."
"And the castle?" Aldrok prompted.
"Reserve one steer. I don't want it slaughtered, though, until it's needed. If the hunt goes well, I may hold it back for the Planter's Feast."
"Yes, my king." Aldrok wasn't surprised by his decision. Saryd had been ruling Lykos the same way for twenty-four years. In a week, maybe two, he would send for the last animals. After that, they would be calling for fallow cows and applying them to their owner's new tax debt. Meat was always in short supply this time of year, but Saryd's strategies ensured that it was available in even the worst winters.
"I want you to stay here and take care of that." Saryd met his eyes. "And mind the castle. I want Hanal with me."
"I understand." Aldrok started to help him with the lacing on the sleeve.
"No, you don't." Saryd pulled his arm away. "You think I'm putting Hanal before you and even my son. Say it, Aldrok. Dana has."
"All right," Aldrok said. "I think you are favoring Hanal and Edwin should go."
"He would go, but--" Saryd ran his hands through his black hair. "Damn it, Aldrok. He's my heir and I can't let him get away with hitting women. What would the people think if they knew the heir treats women like that?"
Aldrok snorted. "Saryd, he hit his sister and Dadra admitted she provoked it. She's older, stronger, and a pain in the ass. If you had a sister--"
"Well, I don't." Saryd went back to his lacing. "And I want Hanal with me today."
Aldrok knew better than to argue any further. When Saryd was in a good humor, they were like brothers instead of king and prime minister, but not when he was like this.
"Will you take Edwin?"
Saryd shot him a sharp look. "No. I won't let him off--not today."
"Where is he?"
"In the soap room shaving soap for the laundry. If he wants to behave like a churl, he can work like one for a few hours."
"So he misses the hunt and that? Saryd, why?" Aldrok was incredulous. "This can't be because he hit his sister!"
His king hesitated, then shook his head.
"It's not," Saryd confessed. "I want him here today. And if he gets it through his head that Hanal is a poor man to follow, even better."
That he understood. Like Saryd, he hadn't been pleased when Hanal returned to Lykos three months ago. Saryd's youngest brother was flawed. Aldrok was never sure whether it was because his mother had been so protective or if he'd learned to scheme on his own, but he didn't trust Hanal.
"I don't intend to dally over this hunt either. We need meat, not sport."
"Yes, my king." Aldrok frowned. It wasn't like Saryd to treat a hunt like a chore. He enjoyed the sport as well as the necessity. "Should I be wary?"
Saryd sighed and sat back, running his hands through his dark hair. "I don't know. I--I'm just edgy. It feels like the whole world is waiting for something to happen and it's made me jumpy."
"And bad tempered?" Aldrok prompted.
"Yes!" Saryd paced the room. "I don't like having Hanal back. Edwin's been listening to him and I want that stopped. Dana is still pregnant and I would just like to--" He stopped and grinned at him sheepishly. "Pretty bad, huh?"
"Real bad. Maybe you should shave some soap, too." Aldrok grinned back, but it faded quickly. "Seriously, Saryd, if you think something is wrong, maybe you should send them out and stay--"
"No! I need this hunt as much as they do. If I don't get some of this out of my system, I'll be snapping at you next."
"There's always the weapons' yard," Aldrok suggested. "I can still take you."
"I know." Saryd didn't rise to his bait. "The seasons are changing and that's probably all. Once Dana delivers, everything will be back to normal."
"Until she breeds again." Aldrok felt a stab of envy. His half-sister was proving more fertile than a cow with six pregnancies and four living children. His own wife had quickened twice and died with the second child.
"There won't be a next time," Saryd said. "Did she tell you this latest one is a boy? With the twins, that makes four. More than enough sons for any crown."
"Yes, but you've promised Myka to me." Aldrok quickly responded. "If he's not needed."
"True. Would you like this other one, too?" Saryd asked. "He won't get much from me."
"We'll see." Aldrok briskly changed the subject. Saryd had promised him the younger twin when he was born. It was a good arrangement. Myka would back his brothers and would inherit Aldrok's wealth, not his father's. As a result, both twins would be richer. This fourth son, though, might go begging. Who was it that said a man with two sons was rich, but a man with six was a beggar? He couldn't remember.
"I'm ready," Saryd announced. "Walk with me."
The guards in the anteroom snapped to attention as they went by, then one fell into step behind them. Saryd paid no notice, but strode through the castle halls with a smile to a person here and a comment there.
Aldrok followed, noting the answering smiles. Saryd might be hard on someone occasionally, but he was no tyrant. His people genuinely liked their king.
The bright sunlight made him blink rapidly as they came into the courtyard. It was full of men, horses, and ladies bidding their men farewell. Some boys waited nearby, openly envious of their older brothers joining the hunt.
Edwin was noticeably absent. His cousin, Alan, scowled from his place among the boys. Like Edwin, he was being forced to stay behind. Alan's brothers, Maryk and Wilam, were already mounted.
A full sixty men were gathered, waiting for their lord. When Saryd appeared on the stairs, wives and children hastily finished their goodbyes and stepped back. At the foot of the steps the king's bay stallion pawed the ground impatiently.
"Brother." Hanal came forward too quickly and Saryd scowled. "It's a good day for a hunt."
"It is," Saryd agreed, then turned to his waiting lords. "Three bands today, my lords. I want each band to bring in five deer. The largest buck gets the prize!"
"Yes, sir," a chorus of voices answered and there were wide grins. They were eager to be off.
"Garth, you take the first band," Saryd said, singling out one of his lords. "I'll take the second and Marus can--"
"Brother, I'd like the third," Hanal quickly interrupted. "Let Marus back you today."
Saryd paused, surprised.
Aldrok's surprise equaled his. Hanal did go on hunts, but only because it was expected. He'd never volunteered to lead a band before and Aldrok questioned his motives now. Was he trying to get back in Saryd's good graces?
"Very well." Saryd motioned to the third band. "But get those five deer, Hanal."
"Yes, my lord," Hanal answered, then turned away.
"You aren't expecting him to get five," Marus said. "He'll be lucky to find one."
"He's got good men with him," Saryd told his younger brother. "If they can't get them in spite of him, I'll want to know the reason why."
Marus looked unhappy. Two years younger than Saryd, he'd always led a hunting party. Now he had no option but to see the honor go to Hanal.
"Cheer up, Marus." Aldrok smiled. "Your sons are with him and Maryk is a good hunter."
"Yes, but I'd just as soon have Hanal where I can see him," Marus complained, then turned away.
"It looks like you aren't the only one edgy," Aldrok said to his king. "There might be a Foreseeing."
Saryd snorted. "No, just Hanal. I don't have Foreseeings, but Hanal is enough to make anyone edgy." He leaned lower in his saddle. "Aldrok, if Hanal comes back before I do, keep him away from Dana. I don't want her worried when--"
"Understood." Aldrok stepped back.
"Where's Edwin?" Hanal reined his horse nearer, a surprised look on his face. "Surely, he's going--"
"He's not." Saryd's tone brooked no argument. "Let's go."
Aldrok retreated up the steps as the gates opened and the troops of hunters filed out. He'd do more than keep Hanal away from his queen. He started to turn away, then paused.
What was Hanal doing riding up there? The orderly procession was ragged, the second band drifting into the first. A guardsman nodded at something Saryd's youngest brother said, then Hanal was reining his horse back into its own place.
Feeling a chill creep up his spine, Aldrok resolved to beware.
Copyright © 2001 by Ellen Anthony