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Chapter 9

Rowena walked beside Duncan on the way back, chattering and guiding him around corners and up narrow streets. Duncan was paying more attention to landmarks than he was to his immediate surroundings. Before long, he trod on someone’s foot.

“Ouch!” Duncan received a shove that nearly knocked both him and Rowena sprawling. “Watch where you’re going, you great lout!” He caught his balance and spun in a crouch to face a burly workman with a stained leather apron, arms spread. “Come on, then,” the other man spat. “Let’s see what you got, clansman.”

Duncan laid his hand on the hilt of his knife as his eyes narrowed. He stared into the other man’s eyes, unblinking. His opponent’s face paled a little, but his chin set and he didn’t back down. Duncan was aware of the crowd beginning to gather around them, but he kept his gaze fixed on the other.

“Stop it!” Rowena thrust between them. “Both of you, just stop. Sigard, this is a friend of Master Josten’s. Duncan, Sigard’s master does work for mine.”

After a moment of consideration, Duncan took his hand from the knife hilt and straightened. “Well enough,” he said. “I’ll not bear ill will against someone who knows Josten. And in truth, I did tread on his foot, although not with intent.”

The workman also straightened and wiped his hands on his apron. “A friend of Master Josten’s is a friend of Master Adalbert.” He thrust his hand out. “Sorry I shoved so hard.”

Duncan joined his hand to Sigard’s and returned the pressure he felt the other exerting. They stood smiling as their hands ground on each other. After a few moments, a note of grudging admiration entered Sigard’s eyes, and he nodded. “A strong hand you have.”

Sigard broke off the grip and Duncan let his hand drop. “Rowena, a good day to you. And to you, Duncan.” He nodded again, then walked off, whistling.

The crowd around them broke up, with what sounded to Duncan like disgruntled muttering. He looked down to Rowena, raising an eyebrow and nodding to the side at the people.

“Ah, pay them no mind.” She grinned at him. “They were hoping for a fight, you see.”

“Just a fight,” Duncan massaged the hand he had reclaimed from Sigard, “or a fight involving a clansman?”

Rowena sobered. “Mainly a fight, but a clansman would have added zest to it.”


She shrugged. “Clansmen are odd, most people think.” Duncan felt the cold begin to rise again. He grappled with it, finally forcing it back down. Rowena looked at him with head cocked. “You’ve got that look again.”

Duncan was taken aback. “What look?”

“The one that looks like your eyes are augurs that will bore through the granite walls of the city. The one you get when you’re mad about something.”

“How do you know I’m mad?” Duncan turned his eyes to hers. She stepped back.

“Because your whole face changes. Your lips get thin, your eyes narrow, your jaw muscles bunch up. It’s obvious.”

Duncan became aware of the tension in his body. He straightened up, forced his hands to open, and took a deep breath. His muscles relaxed in a slow wave.

Rowena nodded. “That’s better.” Duncan bowed to her and waved a hand at the street in front of them. She started off, and he matched her steps. “So, how come you get so angry so often?”

Duncan sighed. “Because I’ve been exiled from the clans.”

“Exiled?” Rowena stopped and looked up at him. “What did you do? Hit a priest, or something?”

A raw chuckle forced itself out of Duncan’s throat. “Nothing like that. I did nothing wrong. I defended my cousin when someone attacked her, but there were circumstances that had me called before the clans’ council, and there were enough clan leaders who didn’t like my clan that I got exiled.”

“Oh.” Rowena chewed on her lip for a couple of steps. “Sounds like politics.”

“What’s politics?”

“That’s when the leaders in the city or the noble families of the kingdom argue about whether this should be done or that should be done or whether anything should be done at all. Money is usually involved, so things can get pretty nasty. There’ve been riots in the streets here in the city before, although not for a lot of years.”

“Politics.” Duncan rolled the word around in his mouth, and decided he didn’t like the taste of it. “Sounds about right.”

“So can you do anything about this exile?”

Duncan sighed again. “No.”

“Then you’d best learn to deal with it. If you keep getting angry three or four times a day just because someone says something about the clans, you’ll get an apoplexy and die.”

“I’ll keep that in mind,” he said.

“You do that. And here we are.” Duncan looked up to realize they were standing in front of Master Josten’s horse yard. Rowena started digging bundles out of her net bag and handing them to him. “Coat, shirt, shirt, pants, shirt, pants, purse. I think that’s all of it.” She rolled up her bag and started to walk off, then turned back, digging in her sleeve. “And here’s what’s left of your money. Put it in that purse and tie it to your belt. Never keep more than a few bits and pennies in it. Keep your silver in the other bag, and keep it hidden. There are those who like to steal purses around.” She stuffed the kerchief in his hand and turned away again.

“Wait. Your cloth . . .” Duncan called out.

“Keep it,” she said over her shoulder. “Everyone needs a kerchief now and then.” In moments, she was out of sight in the crowd. Duncan sighed, hoisted his armload into a more comfortable position, and walked into the horse grounds. When he arrived at Swiftwing’s stall, he added the shirts and pants to his saddle bags, tying the coat on top.

Swiftwing looked around at him and blew air through his lips.

“I know,” Duncan said. “You’re not used to just standing in one place all day, are you?” He stepped over and scratched the horse’s poll, leaning his own head against Swiftwing’s neck. “I’m not either.” He sighed as he stepped back. Swiftwing reached his head around for Duncan to scratch under his jaw. “I don’t think I like this city, old son. Too many people, too much noise. You’d think no one had ever seen a clansman before, from the way they act.”

“Most of them haven’t.”

Duncan looked over his shoulder to see Mortz leaning on the stall gate again. “Truly?”

“Aye. I mean, yes, there are plenty of you clansmen in the city because of the Highland Guard, but that’s different. They’re part of the court, part of the king’s establishment, so it’s not like they’re really clansmen, although they are.” Mortz spat into the straw. “But other clansmen wandering around the city on their own, that just doesn’t happen very often. You’d best get used to people looking at you and talking about you for a while. Eventually you’ll become old news and they’ll look past you instead of at you.”

“May that day come soon!” Duncan’s voice was fervent.

Mortz chuckled. “Long day for you then?”

“For all that it’s only been half of a day, aye; it feels like the longest day of the year.” Duncan smacked Swiftwing on the shoulder, and walked over to the stall door. “Were you born in the city?”

“No, I came here as a man grown.”

“How long did it take you to learn your way through the streets?”

Mortz laughed. “Oh, it was probably a year or more before I knew where I was all the time. I doubt it will take you that long, though. Master Josten said you were experienced as a hunter and all, so you’ll learn the streets and lanes and landmarks soon.”

“Is there someone here who can show me some of it?”

“Aye,” Mortz said. “The lad that the master sent for Rowena, young Kem, he’s often a messenger for the master, so he knows his way around right well. We’re not so busy right now, so I can let you have him for an hour or so a day for a few days. That should do to get your head straight.”

“My thanks,” Duncan bobbed his head. “I can’t hide in the horse grounds or in Master Elward’s school all the time.”

“Truth,” Mortz nodded. “So you will work for Master Elward now?”

“I’m to begin tomorrow at the second hour. When is that?”

“The second hour after full daylight.”

“Ah. An early riser, is Master Elward?” Duncan asked.

“I’ve not had dealings with him, so I can’t tell you. But if he’s like Master Josten, he’ll not waste much of the daylight. Coins don’t drop from the sky like rain; they must be pursued.”

“I’m beginning to see that.” Duncan nodded again. “And if you have no coins, your life will be miserable here in Nika.”

“And like as not be short.” Mortz spat again.

“I’m beginning to see that as well.”

“You don’t use coin in the Highlands?”

“Not so much as you do here. Among ourselves, we mostly barter. And as long as a man can hunt, he can eat and gather skins for shelter and clothing. So they don’t have the same importance to us they do to you city folk.” Duncan changed subjects. “I learned today where the cloth merchants are. What else do I need to know?”

“Hmm. Where to find food, I suppose, and where to bathe.”


“Bathe,” Mortz repeated.

“But the river . . .”

“No,” Mortz said with firmness. Duncan was now confused. All that water running through the middle of the city, and it wasn’t for bathing? “The Eigil River is the city’s sewer. Don’t even walk in it, much less bathe in it or drink it. It’s liquid filth.”

“Oh. Then where do I bathe?”

“At the baths, of course.”

“The baths.” Duncan eyed Mortz, wondering if he was being mocked. “You have special places for bathing?”

“Aye.” Mortz’s expression was matter of fact. Either he was telling the truth, or he had a good mask to hide behind.

Duncan shrugged. “After days on the road, I suspect most would urge me to bathe at that.”

“I’ll show you tonight,” Mortz promised.

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