‘We could question the wounded,’ he suggested. ‘Maybe they could tell us something about this mysterious Styric who seems so interested in you and Flute’
‘They won’t be able to tell you anything, Sparhawk,’ she disagreed. ‘If what was up there on that hill was what I think it was, they won’t even have any memory of it.’
‘All right,’ he decided, ‘let’s ride then.’
It was midafternoon when they reached Kurik’s substantial farmstead just outside Demos. The farm showed Kurik’s careful attention to detail. The logs forming the wall of his large house had been adzed square and they fitted tightly together with no need for chinking. The roof was constructed of overlapping split shakes. There were several outbuildings and storage sheds all built back into the side of the hill just behind the house, and the two-storey barn was of substantial size The carefully tended kitchen garden was surrounded by a sturdy rail fence A single brown and white calf stood at the fence looking wistfully at the wilted carrot tops and frost-browned cabbages inside the garden.
Two tall young men about the same age as Berit were splitting firewood in the yard, and two others, slightly older, were repairing the barn-roof. They all wore rough canvas smocks.
Kurik swung down from his saddle and approached the two in the yard. ‘How long has it been since you sharpened those axes?’ he demanded gruffly
‘Father!’ one of the young men exclaimed. He dropped his axe and roughly embraced Kurik. He was, Sparhawk noticed, at least a head taller than his sire.
The other lad shouted to his brothers on the roof of the barn, and they came sliding down to leap from the edge with no apparent concern for life or limb.
Then Aslade came bustling out of the house. She was a plump woman wearing a grey homespun dress and a white apron. Her hair was touched at the temples with silver, but the dimples in her cheeks made her look girlish. She caught Kurik in a warm embrace, and for several moments Sparhawk’s squire was surrounded by his family Sparhawk watched almost wistfully.
‘Regrets, Sparhawk?’ Sephrenia asked him gently
‘A few, I suppose,’ he admitted.
‘You should have listened to me when you were younger, dear one That could be you, you know’
‘My profession’s a little too dangerous for me to include a wife and children in my life, Sephrenia.’ He sighed.
‘When the time comes, dear Sparhawk, you won’t even consider that.’
‘The time, I think, has long since passed.’
‘We’ll see,’ she replied mysteriously
‘We have guests, Aslade,’ Kurik told his wife.
Aslade dabbed at her misty eyes with one corner of her apron and crossed to where Sparhawk and the others sat, still mounted. ‘Welcome to our home,’ she greeted them simply She curtsied to Sparhawk and Kalten, both of whom she had known since they were boys. ‘My Lords,’ she said formally Then she laughed. ‘Come down here, you two,’ she said, ‘and give me a kiss.’
Like two clumsy boys they slid from their saddles and embraced her ‘You’re looking well, Aslade,’ Sparhawk said, trying to recover some degree of dignity in the presence of Patriarch Dolmant.
‘Thank you, my Lord,’ she said with a mocking little curtsey. Aslade had known them far too long to pay much attention to customary usages. Then she smiled broadly. She patted her ample hips. ‘I’m getting stouter, Sparhawk,’ she said. ‘It comes from all the tasting when I cook, I think.’ She shrugged good-humouredly ‘But you can’t tell if it’s right unless you taste it.’ Then she turned to Sephrenia. ‘Dear, dear Sephrenia,’ she said, ‘it’s been so long.’
‘Too long, Aslade,’ Sephrenia replied, sliding down from the back of her white palfrey and taking Aslade in her arms. Then she said something in Styric to Flute, and the little girl came shyly forward and kissed Aslade’s palms.
‘What a beautiful child,’ Aslade said. She looked a bit slyly at Sephrenia. ‘You should have told me, my dear,’ she said. ‘I’m a very good midwife, you know, and I’m just a little hurt that you didn’t invite me to officiate.’
Sephrenia looked startled at that, then suddenly burst out laughing. ‘It’s not like that at all, Aslade,’ she said. ‘There’s a kinship between the child and me, but not the one you suggested.’
Aslade smiled at Dolmant. ‘Come down from your horse, your Grace,’ she invited the patriarch. ‘Would the Church permit us an embrace – a chaste one, of course? Then you’ll get your reward. I’ve just taken five loaves from the oven, and they’re still nice and hot.’
Dolmant’s eyes brightened, and he quickly dismounted. Aslade threw her arms about his neck and kissed him noisily on the cheek. ‘He married Kurik and me, you know,’ she said to Sephrenia.
‘Yes, dear I was there, remember?’
Aslade blushed. ‘I remember very little about the ceremony,’ she confessed. ‘I had my mind on other things that day ‘ She gave Kurik a wicked little smile.
Sparhawk carefully concealed a grin when he saw his squire’s face redden noticeably.
Aslade looked inquiringly at Berit and Talen.
‘The husky lad is Berit,’ Kurik introduced them. ‘He’s a Pandion novice.’
‘You’re welcome here, Berit,’ she told him.
‘And the boy is my – uh – apprentice,’ Kurik fumbled. ‘I’m training him up to be a squire.’
Aslade looked appraisingly at the young thief. ‘His clothes are a disgrace, Kurik,’ she said critically. ‘Couldn’t you have found him something better to wear?’
‘He’s only recently joined us, Aslade,’ Kurik explained a little too quickly.
She looked even more sharply at Talen. ‘Do you know something, Kurik?’ she said. ‘He looks almost exactly the way you looked when you were his age.’
Kurik coughed nervously. ‘Coincidence,’ he muttered.
Aslade smiled at Sephrenia. ‘Would you believe that I was after Kurik from the time I was six years old? It took me ten years, but I got him in the end. Come down from your horse, Talen. I have a trunk full of clothes my sons have outgrown. We’ll find something for you to wear.’
Talen’s face had a strange, almost wistful expression as he dismounted, and Sparhawk felt a sharp pang of sympathy as he realized what the usually impudent boy must be feeling. He sighed and turned to Dolmant. ‘Do you want to go to the cloister now, your Grace?’ he asked.