I’m still accompanying the mournful procession of the guards and their toiling charges. Since dawn the rain driven horizontally across the flooded steppe has settled in, lashing our faces in a sad mockery of our guards’ disciplinary measures, blinding us to the extent that we almost bump into a group on horseback heading in the opposite direction. We only realize that the contingent is a royal party when we recognize the purple cloaks spattered with mud that some of the riders are wearing.
“They’re in an awful hurry. Something has spooked them. “
“Find out what,” I order Jacob, and he questions their breathless escort in whatever language they have in common. “An attack,” he reports. “They’re fleeing back to Itil with the Princess Tilde before anything happens to her. I suggest you take the princess under your protection, my lord, to avoid any further problems. We can deal with these aggressors on our own,” he asserts with a rueful glance at the heavy burden his captives are dragging, and he points to a muddy trail on the left. “This is a short-cut that should take you home quickly, my lord.”
I accept the errand without question and also the respect and title/rank he has bestowed on me, as of right, as my due (don’t ask me why) and set off for home (where? Itil, I am informed) with my royal charge and her immediate companions. Just who the attackers might be, Vikings on the loose down the River Volga or more likely the first presagers of the Rus liberation, I can’t rightly say, but they will bear down in strength for certain on poor Jake and Izzy, as attested by the grievous wounds suffered by the former. And Izzy gave his life.
The citizens claim Itil is a multiethnic, cosmopolitan city, but its rulers are taking no chances as we’re met at the citadel and conducted via a retractable and well-defended pontoon bridge into the presence of the Council, whose august members take us below, well away from the gaze of court officialdom. Through musty corridors we are led (the querulous mutterings of the worthy princess being ignored), down and down until we emerge into what can only be termed a cavern. Despite the sumptuous tapestries that adorn the walls and the table meticulously laid for the meeting with wine glasses ready, despite the discreet lighting that flickers on welcomingly at our approach, there is no way the council members can conceal a certain gloom in these underground proceedings. Just what are they trying to hide that can’t be disclosed in broad daylight?