A/N: Thank you for everyone who's been reviewing, and sorry to ppl I haven't pm'ed in a long time :P:P:P:P:P Sadly I won't probably won't be getting around to that and replying to reviews for a bit, school's starting soon and all...I'll be really busy, but hopefully I'll have time and inspiration to update at least. Thank you for your patience and support! Seriously, I'm so glad people are still interested. :) Enjoy!
Into the Fray
Breaking the seal, Sean perused the letter with a furrowed brow.
"But these people aren't anyone significant enough to go to the trouble of kidnapping. And how exactly did they manage such a thing?"
"Well sir, it appears that they were kidnapped when outside of the castle grounds, walking to the village or at home or elsewhere. As for why they were targeted, perhaps to bring it to our attentions more sharply? As if they want to be noticed," mused the Captain.
"Who was kidnapped?" asked Halt.
"A few kitchen staff, three apprentice knights, and a stable boy. The one who was friends with the princess."
Sean nodded. "Yes, I know the boy. I was planning on asking him if he knew anything about Mychele's disappearance. Too late now."
Halt steepled his fingers. "Perhaps they want him for the very same reason. And the kitchen staff, were they male or female?"
"All the staff who were kidnapped were male," answered McNamara.
"That's something. May not be much, but if they were arbitrarily capturing random people, then there would be a mix. Do you have an ongoing report of the kidnappings?"
"Yes sir." The captain gestured to a guard who'd entered with him; he left and came back after a few minutes, holding a leather bound record book. The Captain took it and leafed through a moment, then handed it to Halt. He examined it, occasionally asking Sean a few questions for clarification. He looked up.
"With a few exceptions, all these people are male; this reminds me of that mission a few years ago when a bunch of miners were captured to build a bridge into Celtica for an invasion. I have a feeling that these kidnappings are for a similar reason: to serve the purpose of someone else, whatever that purpose may be."
Sean nodded thoughtfully. "That's a very probable theory Halt. I suppose now you will investigate to find out who this person is?"
Halt rose, drawing up his cowl. "That's what I came for."
That evening, undercover of dark, Halt left the castle and tracked through the woods to enter the town anonymously, instead of coming directly out of the castle.
Entering an inn, he seated himself in a good spot for observation and ordered a plate of food and a mug of coffee. Not that just having had one at the castle mattered. When the serving lad brought his food, Halt stayed him.
"Oy, laddie," he asked, thickening his brogue, "what's this talk I hear of strange happenings around here?"
"You heard about 'em sir? Well, folk say people been disapearin'."
"Disappearing? What do you mean?"
The boy glanced around furtively, as if the culprits might be within earshot. "They say people been hearing Dagda's harp."
Halt feigned surprise. "Is that so? The harp?"
The lad nodded vigorously. "Ay sir, The Dagda's harp. Folk hear it, goin' out to chop wood, or walking alone on the path, and fall sound asleep to its magic. Drop like a stone they do. An' nobody sees them again. They disappear."
"Surely not. Dagda's harp is a myth."
"Oh, it's no myth, believe me. My cousin's friend heard it himself!" he said, as if this testimony could leave no doubt. Halt could've laughed.
"You don't say?"
"Well, I guess the old myth might prove true."
Just then, the innkeeper bellowed for the boy, who hurried off as if just realizing that he'd been dawdling too long.
"Dagda's harp…" Halt repeated to himself, deep in a brown study. After a while, the tavern began to fill and Halt turned an attentive ear to the conversations around him.
"…Ay, an then let me tell you what the cowardly lout did!..."
"…nay, not so. Ah tried everything I know of and the poor ewe…"
"…never seen a better crop o' potatoes since me ol' gran'dad…"
Halt heard nothing of importance for a long while. As he started on his sixth cup, thinking what a long night it would be, he heard something of interest:
"Ay! And that was the last I saw of 'im!" several oaths followed. "He disappeared just like tha'! By my auntie's pinafore, the sound! I never heard music like it. But the worst of it was, I could see naught of where it came from." The man shuddered. Halt looked him over critically; the man was large, and though it appeared he'd drunk copiously, he wasn't intoxicated. "I tell you, I thought faeries or hobgoblins would come an' spirit me away."
The man's companion scoffed. "Oy, you don't expect I believe such nursery tales, do you?"
"You can laugh, but truth now, have I ever been the superstitious sort?" The other man shrugged apologetically.
"Well no, can't say so. But what then, surely you're not suggesting that this was The Harp or somethin' like that?"
"I dunno, but I do know what I heard, and I know that my son disappeared that same night. You tell me what you can make of it."
Other men pinking up on the conversation began to gather around, talking heatedly, some drunk, others hotly refuting the first man's supposed sighting, others confirming it, until the entire tavern was in a tumult of confusion, raised voices, and concerted faces. Fear worked a powerful effect. Staying removed from the confusion, a sudden contrary motion caught Halt's eye: someone moving with ordered direction, in contrast to the pell-mell motions of the other inn patrons. Sitting straighter, he honed his gaze on the swift moving figure. He saw a flash of steel, and moved with lightning speed to draw his own knife, prepared to throw-
A knife crashed resoundingly into the tabletop, a dark figure poised aggressively over it. Silence fell.
"You think this is happening because of The Harp? You know nothing," the unknown speaker said.
"Ay, that so?" countered an angry voice. "Pray tell then, what do you think I saw that night?"
"I don't know what you saw. But hear this well: your sons and fathers and workers have been kidnapped!"
Like every other pair of eyes, Halt could now see the figure of a boy clearly. A youth between the stages of manhood and boyhood, tall and strong.
A voice of derision answered the boy's statement. "Very clever lad, of course they've been kidnapped; by the spirit of the Dagda!" Shouts of agreement broke out and confusion threatened to regain his hold, but again the voice of the boy rang out: "I tell you, not so! I have seen it with my own eyes! My sister was among the captured, and her captors were no wraiths. Do you think they could've done this to me otherwise?" He pulled off his wollen cap, revealing a long gash on his forehead, surrounded by a nasty bruise. "I tried to stop them, but I was overpowered, wounded, and left for dead. How could a spirit have done that?" he challenged.
The first farmer spoke up. "Well then what d'you suppose I heard and saw that night? My son was taken from my very sight!"
"Aye!" joined another, "So was my son, and I heard the harp too! How d'you explain that, boy?"
The lad fought to make his voice heard in the following uproar, "I tell you, it was not a spirit!"
"You calling us fools?"
"Calling us liars are you?" the angry men swarmed around the boy, some grabbed at his tunic, striving to pull him from his perch. Fighting against them, he shoved left and right, eliciting furious shouts. One burly man took a swing at the boy, catching him on the shoulder. He gritted his teeth and lunged, but meaty hands restrained him. Suddenly, blows were raining left and right.
Halt decided to take action. Swiftly, he made his way through the madding crowd, deftly dodging the fists flying about him. The boy struggled against cruel odds; despite his resistance, he was beginning to be swamped. Halt dove into the fray, expertly swinging left and right, bobbing and weaving in perfect hand-to-hand technique; the knives remained sheathed.
Suddenly, the boy found himself back-to-back with an unlooked for ally. Wondering, he strove with renewed vigor as Halt masterfully maneuvered them through the crowd, men falling back around them at the vicious onslaught of the newcomer. Halt grabbed the boy's arm, dragging him away from an attacker he tried to rebuff, dodging a swing as he did so, ducking through the ranks, coming once more to his feet when he found the way impassible. The boy was no poor fighter, yet he suffered many hits, and his stamina was quickly running out.
They moved in this way through the crowd, fighting to the back door. Halt gave the boy a shove. "Go! Get out through the back, I'll meet you there."
The boy hastened at the command. Quickly turning, Halt drew his knives, brandishing them menacingly. All advances stopped.
"Now, if you are smart men, you will stop this brawl and not pursue us. You know what will happen if you aren't such smart fellows, now don't you?"
None dared to contest the grim burly man, or his flashing knives. Swiftly, Halt turned and disappeared from sight.
Once outside, he located the boy, grabbed his arm, and ran; he knew his threat wouldn't stop some of the bolder, and more intoxicated, fighters. He only stopped a moment to whistle for Abelard, but he didn't mount. The three ran away from the tavern and re-entered the town farther up. Locating a different inn, Halt entered and payed for a room. Once the door was locked, Halt finally turned to the boy; he had an idea who he was, but only one way to tell for sure….
"Your name, boy?"
In the dim light, he looked up from examining a wound.