A/N: Okay, I finally have Alberich and Dielth's characters meeting, even though it will be a while before they recognize each other. Still, there are some subtle hints that I borrowed from previous chapters as well as the prologue of Exile's Honor and Take A Thief as well.
They were still a good way out of the fair when a single horseman rode up the path to approach them. Skif noticed him first, looking around the hilly area for signs of any sort of life. This was certainly different from Haven and the Collegium, where even at its quietest, you knew that you were surrounded by people. Here, he was sure that the sheep certainly outnumbered the people. From the raised hand which greeted them, Skif deduced this could very well be Talia and Myste's journeyman from the day before. It was such an open greeting that Skif had to smile at the man's enthusiasm and the sort of start that Alberich gave at seeing the young man riding toward them. It was one of the few signs of emotion that the Herald had given in the past day or so since he resumed his normal, if somewhat softened, appearance that had earned him the nickname "Herald Stoneheart". While a great strategy for battle and subterfuge, it certainly made for a disquieting travel partner, and seeing the shift to his shoulders when he started, Skif assumed that the shock was not as unpleasant as what Alberich had braced himself for.
"Well I see that you now have an equal number of Heralds and Companions. Although correct me if I am wrong in assuming Heralds you are," their guide added a touch coolly, meeting a rather steely glare from Alberich which would have made many Heralds flee in panic. "I cannot imagine anyone else who would be riding a Companion or being able to, simple Holderkin as I am."
Alberich's glare had not faded, and Skif was becoming honestly impressed with the young man's courage. And from this distance, it was clear that he was young, not too far from Skif's own age as far as years went. And while he looked softer and younger than he had in all the years Skif had known him, Alberich's face was still seamed enough with burn scars and cuts to give hardened soldiers pause. The sharp growl that bit through the oath that the Weaponsmaster barked was one that he had only heard him use when he went out in his personaes through the streets of Haven.
"How many know that there are Heralds coming?" he asked, the caution in his voice equally mixed with a rising annoyance and fear. Not that Skif blamed him for that since one misplaced word could end up with all of them dead. That was a lesson that Skif had come into the Collegium knowing. And one which the Weaponsmaster was unable to forget.
"None, sir. Even if the two Lady Heralds had not made that point clear, I would have kept your secret. Until these past few months, I wished nothing more than for my people to welcome the Heralds who came to us more openly. But now, I just want the fires to stop. I lost my mother to a fire due to her carelessness when I was a child. I would welcome an army of sheep if they would stop what it is going on here."
Sliding easily off of the horse he rode, the man simply took the saddlebag from beside his horse and untied it, handing the whole bundle to the Weaponsmaster unopened. Everything about the simple gesture and the words behind it were a complete challenge for them to trust him, but one which seemed to hinge solely on Alberich. The Weaponsmaster pulled out two jars of an oily brown substance that was almost as thick as syrup. At a nudge from Kantor, Alberich poured a bit of the thick liquid out, and Skif caught the sharp scent of pine coming from the stuff. While he had not worked very long with the horses in the Priory, even he could recognize the stuff as the thick pine oil which the brethren used as a fly ointment that was such an important part of caring for the horses as well. From the impatient shove that Kantor was giving the Weaponsmaster's hand, it appeared that the Companion knew what the oil was for as well.
More than that, Chosen. Cymry added smugly. If you remember your history, Companions bleach out any dyes within a few days, making them hard to disguise, but the oil needs to be applied far more often than that. And you should remember why you used to hate the stuff.
Skif stifled a chuckle, remembering his dismayed shout when he had tried to get the dark brown stain off of his hands, amusing the priests of Thenor to no end.
And unlike you, I do not have hands to put it on myself Cymry added with a rather pointed look at her Chosen.
Skif smiled and slid out of the saddle with the grace that riding messages for the Queen had given him. Cymry had a point. And it might be best to step in and introduce himself before their host crossed the line that moved from bold to arrogant. And there was little doubt in Skif's mind that the man realized how bold his actions were, and if it impressed Skif, it surely would have impressed Alberich. But while it was impressive to watch someone taking Alberich to task instead of the too frequent reversal, the Weaponsmaster's patience was not endless, and if he viewed this man to be an obstacle in spite of the gestures of trust which he had extended...
Well, I have seen Alberich remove anyone who he views to be an obstacle to a mission before.
Considering he had a knife to your throat before he Truth Spelled you and left you bound in the crypt where you were hiding, I would say that should be more than enough to remind you, Chosen.
However annoyed Alberich might be, it was clear to Skif as he approached the Herald that he was also rather pleased with the journeyman. Which let some of the tension slide out of Skif's shoulders. Grabbing a jar of the oil that was still in the saddlebag in front of Alberich, Skif stepped forward past the Weaponsmaster, with his normal cheerful grin to meet this unlikely source of help. And if his angle was one which placed him between the other two, well, that could not be helped.
"Journeyman Dielth, correct? I am Herald Skif, and since you have already met Heralds Talia and Myste, I will save my breath." He did not bother to introduce Alberich, not out of rudeness, but because if Alberich did not want the Holderkin to know or recognize his name, there was sure to be a good reason for that. Skif knew for a fact that he always used care to not give his name when he was in one of his many personaes. But, the Weaponsmaster surprised both Dielth and Skif, by dismounting and introducing himself with a slight bow.
"Herald Alberich, I am. Our host you are offering to be?" The voice, while the normal gruff tone that the Herald maintained, bore none of the menace that it would if there was a threat. And if between the four of them, none of the Heralds could identify an obvious threat in the man, then he was a better spy than anyone in Valdemar!
Well, if he's a spy, I will eat my hat! Skif thought with a sort of grim amusement.
Chosen, you do not own a hat. Cymry seemed ready to leave it at that though. Skif's early life among the back alleys of Haven and the sort of company he had kept at the time was, with a few startling exceptions like the Weaponsmaster and Myste, far less sheltered than that of most newly Chosen. Something which Cymry knew, maybe even better than Skif himself since she normally had to fight to convince her Chosen that someone was honest rather than the opposite.
"Yes. There are no inns around, and I house visitors more often than most families in the Hold, since my Household is a new one and has enough space to house the few merchants we get here. Your presence will not raise anyone's eyebrows. And I thank you for your trust, Herald."
Alberich gave a tight grim smile. "Long I should not have lived if trusting I was."
A lock of dark brown hair blew in front of Dielth's face, and the oddly angular features turned very grave, his gray eyes darkening until they were almost a match for the Weaponsmaster's. "Nor would have I." The features softened again, except for the eyes which remind dark and narrowed slightly at the edges. "At least a spy you know I am not. Otherwise there more than oil would have been in my pack. Weapons have I carried there before, but need I had not of them when I left for my errand."
The odd change in Dielth's speech raised the back of the hairs on his neck. He did not know who he expected to see, but all that he found was the fair skinned man with dark brown hair, an angular build and face, softened only slightly by his features, and eyes that would have been just as at home on a wolf's face as on his. There was no sign of deception, still that same startling openess which Skif had thought so bold, but he shivered at the words that belied the light tone.
I have heard words like that somewhere before. Bright Havens, I wish I knew where. Skif thought frantically, shaken by how someone as open and obviously trustworthy could be so layered.
You trust Dirk, Chosen. And he is no less complex than this man. Cymry pointed out.
Skif agreed mentally, keeping himself from nodding at the last moment. Cymry was right.
The eyes. That was it. It must have been the eyes.
"I am heading back to my work now that this and my errand are done." He gestured at the four of them and the now fully browned Companions and the sharp tang of the oil which was beginning to fade from the air. "Come with me, and I shall introduce you to my master. Now, let me see if the names are right." he added with a sharp lift his eyebrow the only indication that he knew they would not be the names he was given. "We have Laben Colmholding, a horse merchant here for the fair, his Firstwife Cathile, and their eldest two children who have come to help with the horses. Claura and Garin. Correct, merchant?"
Skif smiled as Alberich nodded. "You have a good head for names," he said, his accent suddenly a flawless Holderkin. "Shall we head to your master's then?"
Skif began to relax a bit as they rode off, trying to remember why the comment about the saddlebag seemed so familiar.
It must have been the eyes. Skif decided finally. Why else would he seem so familiar?