Rolf stumbled over something hidden in the snow. His guards let him fall. His hands bound in front of him, he managed to soften the impact but still hit head down in the snow. He struggled to sit up. He rubbed at the snow on the side of his face. Blackie would’ve warned me before they caught me. Rolf pushed forward with his hands but couldn’t get up.
The three men stood back and watched. After another failed attempt, Rolf sat back and looked up at the only one who’s spoken. “Help me.”
The big man jerked his head, and the other two set their weapons against a tree and lifted Rolf free of the snow.
“Move.” The lead guard, carrying the burning brand he’d lifted from Rolf’s fire, strode ahead.
The others waited for Rolf to follow. He was tired and hunger. But most of all he was worried. Worried about the cold; worried that he’d failed. He hadn’t fully recovered from his misadventure in the snow the day before. He stumbled again and stopped, still standing. One of his guards prodded him with the butt of his spear. He trudged forward. The brand gave very little light, sheltered as it was by the leader’s back. Had the wind been up like two days ago, the torch would have blown out by now.
The four of them tramped a silent line through unbroken snow heading what Rolf assumed was straight toward Burg Altz. As they battled the gullies and banks, he feared the others had not escaped. Only a few hours had past between him first seeing the hunters and his capture. And he was sure there’d been more than three approaching when he first saw them. The others must have back tracked to Silvester’s hermitage. “Lord, help them escape,” he muttered.
“What you say?” the leader asked without stopping or turning.
“I was praying that we get to safety.”
“No need to concern yourself about that. It’s what happens after we get there that you should worried over.”
“You’ve crossed the Dragon, boy. Nobody crosses the Dragon.” The big man turned toward him. “If they hadn’t told me to bring you back alive, I’d do you the favor of a quick end right here.”
“You’d just kill me?”
“Naw.” The gaps in his teeth showed in the flickering light. “I’d have to lug your carcass back to prove I got you. We’re almost there.” He turned and walked away.
Rolf stared after him long enough to prompt another poke to his ribs. He stumbled forward. Over the next rise, he saw the orange glow of watch fires. He must not have been two miles away when they caught him. He’d backtracked right into their hands.
“Hello, the castle,” bellowed Rolf’s lead guard when they were close enough that the bulk of Burg Altz showed through the gloom. “I got the boy.”
“Just the one?”
“He was all we saw. Fulco’s after the rest. He back?”
Rolf prayed again that Columba and Jordanes had escaped.
They tramped across the lowered bridge. The leader released his men to warm and took two new guards from the watch to escort him and Rolf to the tower.
Captain Ulrich met them inside the double doors. “Take him to the audience chamber.
So Rolf returned to the Dragon’s fancy room. Only the lead hunter stayed with him as the other guards departed. The leader untied Rolf’s hands but reminded him not to try escape. Shortly the captain and other guards entered.
“Strip him,” Ulrich instructed the guards. The men removed all Rolf’s clothes except his brais. He shivered.
The captain examined each item carefully. Sniffing and re-stopping the jars. When he found the pockets with the snares and fire starter, Rolf despaired keeping anything hidden. Ulrich ran his fingers along each seam. He stopped as he examined the hem of Rolf’s jerkin. He fingered the cloth carefully, then pulled his knife to cut the stitching. Rolf held his breath. Ulrich examined what he’d taken from the hem, looked at Rolf with an almost sad expression, then laid the three silver coins next to the contents of Rolf’s pouch on the floor.
Silver. Rolf had never seen three silver coins together. His mother had trusted him with a treasure. He blinked trying to block the tears.
Apparently satisfied that Rolf’s clothes hid nothing else, he pointed at Rolf himself. “I said strip him. Brais, too.”
The soldiers completed Rolf’s humiliation with practiced indifference. Ulrich fingered even the toe seams of his leggings but found nothing. “All right, Warin, tell his lordship we’re ready.” The man who’d led Rolf’s captors left the room.
Rolf shivered and covered himself with his hands folded in front of him. Without looking behind him, he knew when the Dragon and steward entered the room. A wave of shame swept over him. He didn’t know how the Dragon did it, but his presence awed people. Rolf squeezed his eyes shut attempting to resist. It was useless. Even though he only looked like the man Konrad, the aura of the Dragon overpowered Rolf. Lord, protect me.
“Back so soon?” Konrad walked around Rolf, looking down at his clothes and equipment, then he sat in his Roman magistrate’s curule chair. “What do you have to say for yourself, young man? I received you yesterday, listened to your pitiful cant, let my benevolent nature overpower my reason in releasing you to go home rather than letting you rot in my dungeon, and now here you are again.”
“It was your men who brought me back, your lordship.”
“It won’t do, Rolf.” The Dragon leaned back, extending one foot in front of him. “You evaded my men who followed you yesterday. Did it not occur to you that I dispatched men to assure you safely left my lands? At any rate, you evaded them, then today you evaded another patrol, obviously trying to lead them away from your dwelling place—an illegal and inappropriate intrusion into my lands.”
“But Silvester’s a harmless hermit. He—”
“Silence!” The Dragon spoke quietly. “If you cannot speak the truth, don’t speak at all. I know what Silvester is. He’s a spy. Sent by my enemies to watch and report my legitimate actions as baron of the upper Altz valley. If he looked innocent to you, it’s because you’re a gullible young man. You were deceived.” Konrad rested his elbow on one knee. He studied Rolf’s face. “Are you ready to tell me who you really are and why you came here?”
Rolf started to speak but found himself unable to.
The Dragon waved his hand as if shooing a fly. “You may answer my direct questions.”
“I told you—” Rolf started louder than he intended as he felt he had to overcome some block. Had he really prevented my speaking? “I told you, my lord, my father sent me here to recover the family sword.”
“You did, and you did not lie in that, but there’s more. The very fact that you are resisting me warns me there’s more. I shall return you to the second dungeon, and this time I will discover what you are hiding. A cold night without food or water may render you more cooperative tomorrow … or the next day.”
Someone knocked on the door. Ulrich looked to the Dragon for permission, got a curt nod. Ulrich opened the door and talked to the man beyond. Rolf could not make out what they said but detected the excited tone of the man’s report.
“My lord,” Ulrich said. “The other patrol is back. They, too, have been successful.”
“Excellent. Bring them up. Perhaps seeing his fellow conspirators will refresh Rolf’s memory.”
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