The ancient gnarled figure seemed to hang over the small ornate crib. A thin sybillant mumble crawled through the air, almost lost in the soft breeze blowing through the large open window. From beyond the closed inner door came a forceful stride of hard boot leather on stone floor. With a sudden surprisingly swift gathering of robes the figure straightened and glided to the window and, with a final furtive glance, slid over the balcony rail and was gone.
The door burst open and a stocky man with unruly black hair and full beard glowered into the room. He clothes were of a resplendent forest green with yellow gold accents. A small silver clasp held his matching green cape at his shoulder. High leathern boots and a dirk with emerald-studded handle completed the outfit.
With a decisiveness equal to his gaze and solid gait, he strode across the room and drew closed the windows. The latch snicked down with a single deft move. He stopped briefly at the bed to peer in and then strode just as stolidly back out, closing the door quickly but softly behind him.
The musicians were playing a lively dance in the great hall, its vaulted ceilings echoing with their bright sound. Huge blazes filled the enormous fireplaces at each end of the hall and dozens of the greatest people in the land danced, ate, drank, and bellowed throughout the hall. None of them noticed the three small figures in travelling clothes that crept along the shadows in the upper gallery.
One, a slender youth of perhaps fourteen summers, appeared to be the leader, motioning the other two alternately forward or deeper into the shadows, his eyes darting all about taking in everyone and everything in the great hall below and noting each darker patch of shadow and more dangerous brighter spots.
The center of the three was stockier and perhaps a year or two older. He carried a large bulging brown pack over his short brown travelling cloak. He held attention only for the leader and swiftly and soundlessly followed each motioned instruction.
The final figure was similar in build and age to the leader but was obviously female and carried only two long bundles wrapped carefully in soft cotton cloths. She watched both ahead and behind but paid no attention at all to the commotion below. Her left hand kept moving to touch a small belt pouch on her left hip.
The entire transit of the gallery took the three figures perhaps fifteen minutes. But they succeeded in crossing unheeded. Once in the far hall they veered right into a spiral staircase leading down in deep darkness, only a faint glow from the winter’s night seeping through the two high windows. Their speed increased slightly despite the need to feel their way along as the chance of detection had decreased significantly.
At the foot, the leader paused to listen carefully in both directions of the unlit hallway it spilled into. The raucous party noise only made a dim impact and not another sound could be heard, not even that of the wind in the bare branches of the orchard in the courtyard.
With the lightest of a rustle the three figures hurried out of the stairwell and hurried down the hallway. A bit of light sifted through widely spaced windows on the courtyard side of the hallway. But they moved with a sureness of familiarity, pausing again at the end to listen at the outer door. Now, even the trailing sounds of the great party were absent but the soft winter wind was clearer. Also, across the solid oaken door, could be heard the quiet nuzzling of a horse in a nose bag.
Carefully the leader eased the door open and peered out. Except for a sturdy pack horse who looked languidly at the door the courtyard was empty. The three stepped out, the stocky one taking the reins of the pack horse and the entire party making a line for the open sally port beyond the orchard.
Daryth peered carefully through the dense gorse at the low turf cabin tucked into the edge of the clearing. His soft brown eyes scanned carefully from one end of the clearing to the other and back to the cabin. No smoke curled out of the central smoke hole. He slowly rose to his full height and called to his two companions in reedy voice, I think it’s empty; let’s go!”
The three had come about 50 meters (halfway) across the clearing when a gruff voice called loudly form their right, “Kin I he’p you young Sirs?”
Startled, the three turned to face the sound, hands on their weapons. “I’ll do ye no harm, if ye mean me none,” continued the voice. Still no form could be linked to the voice.
Daryth, his right hand still on his sword hilt and his eyes scanning the scrub desperately, called back, “We seek shelter for the night and a fire for dinner, nothing more.”
A huge, shaggy man with clothes made of rough hides crudely sewn together, separated himself from the brush and stepped into the clearing. “That we can share,” he boomed, a smile crowding onto his heavily bearded face. “And, mayhap I’ll teach ye what te look fer when comin’ to a place. Name’s Jorten.”
With that the shaggy man turned nimbly and strode purposely to the cabin, threw open the door, and squeezed inside. The three still startled companions shrugged to each other and followed somewhat more slowly.
Before all three had come through the entrance Jorten had a peat fire going in the hearth and a blackened iron kettle nestled on and iron grate. Somehow two small candles sconces had also been lit giving a dim yellow light to the now crowded interior. Tools of various kinds hung on the walls or rested on the floor. A couple other iron cooking pots were stacked next to the well-used fire pit as well as a pair of wooden spoons and a tin ladle. A small tub of water rested next to the door. A pallet of dry grass stuffed into a canvas sack was on the floor furthest from the fire. A single stump stool was the only “furniture” inside the cabin.