Sparhawk nodded, untying the two heavy leather bags from the skirt of his saddle.

‘I’ll take those up for you, my Lord,’ the porter offered.

‘There’s no need. Where’s Kurik?’

‘First door at the top of the stairs. Will you want supper?’

Sparhawk shook his head. ‘Just a bath and a warm bed.’ He turned to his horse, who stood dozing with one hind leg cocked slightly so that his hoof rested on its tip. ‘Wake up, Faran,’ he told the animal.

Faran opened his eyes and gave him a flat, unfriendly stare.

‘Go with this knight,’ Sparhawk instructed firmly. ‘Don’t try to bite him, or kick him, or pin him against the side of the stall with your rump – and don’t step on his feet, either.’

The big roan briefly laid back his ears and then sighed.

Sparhawk laughed. ‘Give him a few carrots,’ he instructed the porter.

‘How can you tolerate this foul-tempered brute, Sir Sparhawk?’

‘We’re perfectly matched,’ Sparhawk replied. ‘It was a good ride, Faran,’ he said then to the horse. ‘Thank you, and sleep warm.’

The horse turned his back on him.

‘Keep your eyes open, Sir Knight,’ Sparhawk cautioned the porter. ‘Someone was watching me as I rode here, and I got the feeling that it was a little more than idle curiosity.’

The knight porter’s face hardened. ‘I’ll attend to it, my Lord,’ he said.

‘Good.’ Sparhawk turned and crossed the wet, glistening stones of the courtyard and mounted the steps leading to the roofed gallery on the upper floor of the inn.

The inn was a well-kept secret that few in Cimmura knew about. Though ostensibly no different from any of dozens of others, this particular establishment was owned and operated by the Knights Pandion, and it provided a safe haven for any of their number who, for one reason or another, were reluctant to avail themselves of the facilities of their chapterhouse on the eastern outskirts of the city.

At the top of the stairs, Sparhawk stopped and tapped his fingertips lightly on the first door. After a moment, the door opened. The man inside was burly, and he had iron-grey hair and a coarse, short-trimmed beard. His hose and boots were of black leather, and his long waistcoat was of the same material. A heavy dagger hung from his belt, steel cuffs encircled his wrists, and his heavily-muscled arms and shoulders were bare. He was not a handsome man, and his eyes were as hard as agates. ‘You’re late,’ he said flatly.

‘A few interruptions along the way,’ Sparhawk replied laconically, stepping into the warm, candlelit room. The bare-shouldered man closed the door behind him and slid the bolt with a solid clank. Sparhawk looked at him. ‘I trust you’ve been well, Kurik?’ he said to the man he had not seen for ten years.

‘Passable. Get out of that wet cloak.’

Sparhawk grinned, dropped his saddlebags to the floor and undid the clasp of his dripping woollen cloak. ‘How are Aslade and the boys?’

‘Growing,’ Kurik grunted, taking the cloak. ‘My sons are getting taller and Aslade’s getting fatter. Farm life agrees with her.’

‘You like plump women, Kurik,’ Sparhawk reminded his squire. ‘That’s why you married her.’

Kurik grunted again, looking critically at his Lord’s lean frame. ‘You haven’t been eating, Sparhawk,’ he accused.

‘Don’t mother me, Kurik.’ Sparhawk sprawled in a heavy oak chair. He looked around. The room had a stone floor and stone walls. The ceiling was low, with heavy black beams supporting it. A fire crackled in an arched fireplace, filling the room with dancing light and shadows. Two candles burned on the table, and two narrow cots stood, one against either wall. It was to the heavy rack beside the single blue-draped window that Sparhawk’s eyes went first, however. Hanging on that rack was a full suit of armour, enamelled shiny black; leaning against the wall beside it was a large black shield with the emblem of his family, a hawk with flared wings and with a spear in its talons, worked in silver upon its face. Beside the shield stood a massive, sheathed broadsword with a silver-bound hilt.

‘You forgot to oil it when you left,’ Kurik accused. ‘It took me a week to get the rust off. Give me your foot.’ He bent and worked off one of Sparhawk’s riding boots and then the other. ‘Why do you always have to walk in the mud?’ he growled, tossing the boots over beside the fireplace. ‘I’ve got a bath ready for you in the next room,’ he said then. ‘Strip. I want to see those wounds of yours anyway.’

Sparhawk sighed wearily and stood up. With his gruff squire’s peculiarly gentle help, he undressed.

‘You’re wet clear through,’ Kurik noted, touching his Lord’s clammy back with one rough, callused hand.

‘Rain does that to people sometimes.’

‘Did you ever see a surgeon about these?’ the squire demanded, lightly touching the wide purple scars on Sparhawk’s shoulders and left side.

‘A physician looked at them. There wasn’t a surgeon handy, so I left them to heal by themselves.’

Kurik nodded. ‘It shows,’ he said. ‘Go and get in the tub. I’ll fetch something for you to eat.’

‘I’m not hungry.’

‘That’s too bad. You look like a skeleton. Now that you’re back, I’m not going to let you walk around in that condition.’

‘Why are you bullying me, Kurik?’

‘Because I’m angry. You frightened me half to death. You’ve been gone for ten years, and there’s been little news – and all of it bad.’ The gruff man’s eyes grew momentarily soft, and he roughly grasped Sparhawk’s shoulders in a grip that might have brought a lesser man to his knees. ‘Welcome home, my Lord,’ he said in a thick voice.

Sparhawk roughly embraced his friend. ‘Thank you, Kurik,’ he said, his voice also thick. ‘It’s good to be back.’

‘All right,’ Kurik said, his face hard again. ‘Now get in the tub. You stink.’ And he turned on his heel and went to the door.

Sparhawk smiled and walked into the next room. He stepped into the wooden tub and sank gratefully down into the steaming water He had been another man with another name – a man called Mahkra – for so long now that he knew that no simple bath would wash that other identity away, but it was good to relax and let the hot water and coarse soap rinse the dust of that dry, sun-blasted coast from his skin. In a kind of detached reverie as he washed his lean, scarred limbs, he remembered the life he had led as Mahkra in the city of Jiroch in Rendor. He remembered the small, cool shop where, as an untitled commoner, Mahkra had sold brass ewers, candied sweetmeats, and exotic perfumes while the bright sunlight reflected blindingly from the thick, white walls across the street. He remembered the hours of endless talk in the little wine shop on the corner, where Mahkra had sipped sour, resinous Rendorish wine by the hour and had delicately, subtly, probed for the information which was then passed on to his friend and fellow Pandion, Sir Voren – information concerning the reawakening of Eshandist sentiment in Rendor, of secret caches of arms hidden in the desert and of the activities of the agents of Emperor Otha of Zemoch. He remembered the soft, dark nights filled with the clinging perfume of Lillias, Mahkra’s sulking mistress, and of the beginning of each day when he had arisen and gone to the window to watch the women going to the wells in the steel-grey light of sunless dawn. He sighed. ‘And who are you now, Sparhawk?’ he asked himself softly. ‘No longer a merchant in brass and candied dates and perfumes, certainly, but once again a Knight Pandion? A magician? The Queen’s Champion? Perhaps not. Perhaps no more than a battered and tired man with a few too many years and scars and far too many skirmishes behind him.’

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