|Four riders surrounded Conan and Meta as they stood with their backs
to the tree. The horses were lathered and their nostrils flared as they
pranced in place. They wore no mail, but their saddles were the tall, heavy
kind used for war. The riders wore the white shirts, leather breeches and
colorful belts of the herdsmen, but the sheathes of broadswords hung by
their sides. They coiled their whips as they held firmly to the reigns.
The man who spoke had hair as black and stiff as his mount's mane.
"I said, identify yourselves and explain your presence on the private
preserve of his grace, the Duke of Edoc-rab!"
"We are simple travelers. I am called Conan and my companion is Meta."
The horseman eyed the BNA crest on Meta's sun shade. "I see you are
acquainted with the information vendors who hold market in the town."
"Yes," Meta smiled. "We are, in fact, information literate ourselves."
"Then you must come with us," he smiled showing crooked, yellow teeth,
am sure his grace would not want you to pass through without offering his
The leader motioned to one of his men who scowled darkly, but gave up
his horse to Conan. Meta rode sideways in front of the saddle, clinging
precariously to the high pommel. A horseman rode on either side as they
galloped over the sea of grass. The other two, sharing a horse now, brought
up the rear. Soon they saw the castle rising from a spot of high ground
where the river cut through the plain. It was built of stone gleaned from
the rocky land. Blue and white flags waved from the tops of its six towers.
The river had been diverted into a moat and into irrigation supporting
gardens and an orchard below the castle. A caravan of enclosed wagons,
each pulled by a team of four, was crossing the drawbridge and coming toward
them down the road so that they had to give way and ride in single file.
Conan counted ten wagons and twenty men riding escort. Oddly, none of the
riders nor wagons bore any coat of arms.
The guards saluted smartly as they entered the castle. Footmen ran forward
to take their horses. Across the courtyard, Conan could see the kitchens.
Smoke rose from three chimneys. Before the kitchen stood a huge table at
which a dozen women chopped vegetables or kneaded bread. Below the table,
older children sat peeling potatoes while younger ones played in the dirt.
many people live here, Conan thought, to require so much food?
They were shown into a large entrance hall. Two guards followed them
in and stood silently on either side of the door. The walls were decorated
with animal skins and weapons of the hunt. A rug with black and white stripes
of varying width ran the length of the room.
"A wealth of trophies," Meta commented. "the Duke must be a very successful
"Yes," said Conan still looking at the rug. "But have you ever seen
a rug with a pattern like this before? It reminds me of something..."
A footman appeared from a door at the end of the hall.
"His grace will see you now."
© 1993, by Hadley V. Baxendale