The pottery shattered as it hit the stone wall and the wine splashed out in a liquid corona, staining the fine fabric of the hangings and seeping over the floor like blood flowing from a wound. The music slid to a discordant halt as the musicians scattered quickly and a single shriek from one of the serving girls ended the tune.
Jariq Zarengor sat still, holding the cup which he had been filling from the wine jug, a motionless figure in a sudden sea of movement as the other patrons of the inn decided it was wiser to be elsewhere. Ralik stood by the wall, arms folded watching, as the Harkeran Vavasor drew his sword and continued shouting.
“You can’t seduce another man’s wife and expect to get away with it.”
The Harkeran noble was sober enough, even if high in emotion, but Zarengor had been drinking steadily since they had arrived at the inn. Ralik straightened up slightly and unfolded his arms. He saw another Harkeran was moving forward, one hand reaching under the dark blue cloak he was wearing. Zarengor seemed not to have noticed and was frowning very slightly, as if confused by what was happening. He gestured with his empty hand towards the bench beside him.
“I have no idea what you are talking about, but if you have a problem, why not sit down with me, have a drink and talk it over. We can get some more wine – ”
He was not able to finish before the Harkeran lunged at him and was instantly sent sprawling backwards as Zarengor exploded into motion almost faster than the eye could follow, tipping the heavy wooden table forward into his assailant and in the same fluid movement, turning as he rose, drawing his sword to bring the point to the throat of the second man before his own blade had even half-emerged from beneath the blue cloak.
The second Harkeran released his sword hilt and leaving both hands spread wide, stepped back carefully, reading certain death in the steady brown eyes. His companion groaned beneath the table and tried weakly to push it off. Zarengor seemed to have forgotten him completely, slamming his sword back into its scabbard and striding from the room. Ralik detached himself quietly from the wall and made a less noticeable exit by another door as people surged forward.
As he left, he noticed it took two men to lift the heavy table. The voices of the Harkerans followed him out, mutters of fear and admiration, of condemnation and simple envy. Ralik had a passing moment of gratitude that he was not of the kind to inspire such feelings in others.
Outside it was dark and the air was cold. Ralik took a moment to find his charge since Zarengor was braced against the wall, his lean body almost invisible against the rough stonework.
“Don’t you have a home to go to?” The Black Vavasor’s voice sounded weary. “I am old enough to be out on my own, you know.”
Ralik said nothing. There was nothing to say. It was easy enough to understand the level of frustration that the other man had to contend with.
“Don’t you just love these Harkerans? They think themselves so civilised and superior – regard war as unreasonable, think a man who can write poetry or design a building is of more value than one who can use a sword, they regard their women as their equals in all things and even give legal rights to their slaves and their animals.” His voice was very slightly slurred betraying the amount of alcohol he had consumed. “But when it comes to good old-fashioned affairs of the heart, they are as quick as the next man to leap to the wrong conclusions and draw their blades.”
Ralik watched a group of young Harkeran noblemen leave the inn. They were obviously looking for something, or someone and two carried lights.
“It is getting late, Honoured One,” he said carefully. Zarengor, when drinking, could be persuaded but never pushed.
“Then you go home,” the other man suggested, his voice quite friendly, “I was thinking of finding another Harkeran matron of high standing to ravish, your Castellan’s wife perhaps.”
Ralik stiffened at the insult but said nothing, knowing it was deliberate, knowing Zarengor was goading him and knowing also it was the frustration and the drink that spoke through him. The Harkerans were getting closer and the mood Zarengor was in, it could easily end with blood on the street – their blood.
“Death of the gods, Ralik, what does someone have to do to get under your skin?” Zarengor sounded amused more than irritated.
The Harkerans had heard the voice if not the words and were moving now with intent. Ralik moved closer to his charge, who seemed to notice the threat for the first time and groaned aloud.
“Oh joy, children with swords and pistols. Just what I needed to make my day complete.”
The five young men, none of whom could have seen more than twenty summers, moved to confront them, throwing the burning torches to the ground and two of them had drawn swords, a third rested his hand on the butt of a finely crafted pistol. Zarengor still rested against the wall.
“Tell them I’m not hungry, Ralik, I have eaten enough babies today.”
“I’m more a man than you are, butcher,” the ring leader called out. Zarengor laughed briefly.
“Of course you are, that’s why you have your four friends with you. Brave child, go home to your mother and suckle some more then you might grow up big and strong one day.”
The Harkeran made a sound of incoherent fury and launched himself forward. Zarengor barely seemed to move away from the wall, his sword suddenly in his hand and cutting down through the youngster’s guard, drawing blood on his shoulder. The Harkeran stepped back, but found he could not escape the blade which seemed to be everywhere. Then as his sword went flying and he tried to jump aside, Ralik’s own blade came up and caught the death cut at the last moment and moved ready to parry again as the deadly blade disengaged.
“He is only a boy!” Ralik said the words urgently and ungently, part of his mind furious at Zarengor for allowing himself to drink to the point of such judgement loss and for the rest, afraid that he himself might now become a target for the feral sword. But the Vavasor seemed to come to himself, hesitating to attack through Ralik, and the youngsters took advantage of the moment to escape, disappearing into the darkness at speed.
For a moment, the two men stood facing each other, swords in their hands. Ralik waited with the point of his own blade towards the ground in a defensive gesture. He could not afford to surrender any advantage, Zarengor, drunk or not, was by far the superior swordsman. Then the Vavasor sighed and lowered his sword slowly.
“We should find the ponies,” he said heavily, sliding the blade back into its sheath. Ralik allowed himself to relax and stepped back carefully before putting his own sword away.