Lee-Lack awoke to the smiling face of Yllyesh.
“Good morning,” he mumbled, sitting upright, his eyes still sleepy. “Why didn’t you wake me?”
“You were sleeping so peacefully, and since we’re in no particular hurry, I didn’t see the need to disturb your rest. Besides, it’s still early.”
The Mukthar had already broken his fast, but had left a tin plate with bread and some dried meat and cheese. The robber broke off a piece of bread.
“What are you looking at?” he asked as he saw Yllyesh staring down, almost in ecstasy, into the harbor.
“One of the little ships is leaving the harbor. You can see people on it.” He turned to Lee-Lack. “Aren’t you coming to watch?”
“I’ve seen ships taking sail before.”
“Well, I haven’t. From up here they seem so small.”
“If it’s one of the cogs that is leaving, it won’t be very large up close either,” Lee-Lack said, cutting off a piece of meat.
“Mostly wood,” Yllyesh murmured to himself.
“You’ll find ships are usually made of wood,” Lee-Lack said in a dry tone.
“The houses. I mean the houses. The quays too. The moorings. Wood and rope.”
“Yes, and your point is…”
“One torch and the lot would burn to a cinder. Look how close together everything is built, except there, where the terrain is higher near the cliffs.”
Lee-Lack had become curious and joined the Mukthar.
“I see what you mean. The few houses on those small meadows near that patch of wood would be spared if a fire broke out in the town, but all the rest would burn down.”
“One of the worst hideouts or strongholds I can think of,” Yllyesh said. “Being invisible from the sea helps you only so much.”
“On the other hand, the place is inaccessible to an army. The road down is too steep.”
“You don’t need an army. A unit of some fifty warriors would be enough.”
“Depends on who lives there. And how many.”
“Yes,” the Mukthar mused. “If the town is attacked by land, they could flee by sea—”
“And vice versa. But the main advantage of the place is probably that there isn’t anything worth risking your life for.”
“Are you certain your friends are in Tarbalainn?” Yllyesh asked.
“They should be, according to my late Grandmother,” the robber replied. “I wouldn’t call them my friends though.”
“Maybe they swarmed out over the region.”
“Woods and marshes. Unlikely. The attraction of Tarbalainn is that it is far from the other inhabited centers. There are no lords or regular authorities. Yet it offers the relative comforts and amenities of civilization.”
“However you want to call them, are you sure you can trust your former associates?”
“What do you mean?”
“Lee-Lash, I speak from personal experience. Oaths, meant to be kept forever, are often transient. Allegiances change. Yesterday’s friends can be today’s enemies. I tried to tell you a few days ago, when we left the Stone. Are you even sure they will recognize you?”
Lee-Lack suddenly felt unsure and on the defensive.
“I don’t want to alarm you,” the Mukthar continued, “but as far as I can see by what you told me, the reasons that kept the Renuvian Plains Robbers together don’t exist anymore. The warlord has put the county under a military governorship, and I can’t imagine that it will be easy, or even at all possible, to revive the Robbers as they were. To begin with—”
“I know, I know, the whole county is teeming with soldiers, and so are the Plains. The Renuvian Plains Robbers could only exist because Mirkadesh was a self-governing county and all the inhabitants were either members or accomplices, and because they all profited directly or indirectly by the existence of the robber gang.”
“Again, will they recognize you as—”
“I can explain why I look different, and they should recognize my voice when I lower it.”
“That’s not what I mean. Will they still accept you as their leader?”
“I don’t see why not.”
“I’m sorry, but I’ve seen respected leaders — revered ones, even — topple from their position when the balance of power shifted just slightly. And when the wolves close in for the kill the result isn’t pretty.”
Lee-Lack gave the Mukthar a sad grin.
“Those are the occupational hazards of every leader since time immemorial. I’ll have to prove that I’m still Lee-Lack Scarminckle, chief of the Renuvian Plains Robbers, real soon.”
“You’ll have to do it in a convincing way too. Your appearance—”
“After the first body hits the ground they’ll look at me with a new-found respect, believe me. And never mind how I look now.”
Yllyesh looked out over the sea.
“How beautiful it looks. How calm,” the Mukthar said dreamily.
“You should see it when it’s raging and wild in its terrible beauty.”
Yllyesh kept staring over the vast expanse of water.
“I’ve seen you looking at me,” he said. “I’m flattered. But… But don’t get too attached to me. I don’t bring luck. Not to myself. Not to my companions.”
“He’s going to leave me,” Lee-Lack thought. “By the Gods, he’s going to leave me.”
It felt as if a hand of ice had clutched his heart. It took several minutes before he trusted himself to speak.
“I don’t believe in luck, except in the kind I make myself. As for the rest… you’re your own master. Nobody and nothing is keeping you here.”
In his attempt to sound detached and carefree his words had come out harsher than he had meant them.
“I see,” Yllyesh said. “Maybe we should go separately into Tarbalainn and not make it obvious we know each other. You probably won’t be recognized at first sight. That will give you the opportunity to look around at your ease and listen to people. I’ll keep an eye on you from a distance. Although you won’t see me, I will be there.”
“But will you?” the robber thought.
“Seems like a plan,” he said, putting on a brave face and ignoring his dark forebodings.
There seemed no reason to tarry any longer. After a last check that he had packed everything, he dug out a purse from one of his saddlebags. He handed it to the Mukthar.
“Half our money. We agreed upon it.”
“We didn’t agree on that much.”
“Take it anyway.”
Yllyesh accepted the purse with both his hands. He didn’t know what to do with it.
“Put it somewhere safe,” Lee-Lack said. “When I’m gone.”
The Mukthar nodded.
“Good luck,” he said as the robber got on his horse.
Without looking back Lee-Lack rode toward the steep narrow road that led down into Tarbalainn.
“Will I see him again?” he thought.
His heart shriveled in his chest as his horse took the first wary steps on the way down.
It felt as if he were descending into Murokthil.