Fronthe downed several beakers of wine, feigning not to notice the disapproving looks of her daughter. Yllyesh drank sparingly and Elricky nipped from her beaker once in a great while. The Mukthar suspected she only let the wine moisten her lips.
The young woman had fetched a stack of clothes and began to unfold them one by one so Yllyesh could appraise them.
“These garments are not rich or ostentatious, but they are well-made,” the Mukthar thought as he looked at certain items closely. Three colors predominated. All shades of brown, from light to almost black, and dark greens and reds. “In a forest, you could be standing within thirty feet of an enemy and chances are he wouldn’t know you’re there.”
He examined a shirt.
“Regular stitches, and the holes for the lace are reinforced with small leather patches. Nothing fancy, but quality all around.”
“They seem to be to your liking,” Elricky said tentatively.
“They are. Whoever made these clothes is not only an accomplished artisan but an artist.”
“Oh, now you’ve done it. My mother made these. She’ll be gloating for two weeks.”
“Four. At least.” Fronthe chuckled, then she gave Yllyesh a quizzical look. “Pinch him, Elricky. He might not be real. A young, handsome man with an eye for expert needlework and with silver in his purse. Pinch him, or better yet, invite him into your bed.”
“Oh Mother, stop it,” the young woman said. “For all we know Yllyesh might be engaged or married.” She caught the Mukthar’s eye and instantly colored red again. “Or he may be in love,” she added, with a barely masked tone of regret in her voice.
“I like these clothes, but I can hardly use all of them,” Yllyesh said to steer the conversation away from all things matrimonial. “Three shirts, two pants, and some underwear and socks. The quality is excellent, but the one wearing them before me was a bit more, eh, robust?”
“Yes, he is,” Elricky said, “but I’ll help Mother make the necessary modifications.” Over one arm she carried a cloak, still folded, with one hand keeping it in place.
“She doesn’t like to part with it,” Yllyesh thought.
“Show your friend the cape, Elricky.”
Reluctantly the young woman unfolded the garment which was far longer than she was.
“Try it on,” Fronthe said. “Help him, Elricky.”
Yllyesh rose and gingerly put on the mantle.
“There’s a hood — watertight, of course — and there are large pockets on the inside. You won’t find that often. It was actually Hroald’s idea. He thought it was far too easy to lose a purse.”
Yllyesh nodded and tried to close the cloak.
“There are two rows of wooden pegs to close it,” Fronthe explained. “The little ones on the right go through the buttonholes on the left. The strip on the left goes over them and the large pegs on it go through the leather loops on the right. Not even the winter wind gets through that.” She rose to muster the Mukthar. “Hm, it’s a bit too long. I’ll have to make the seam a bit larger. It’s far too wide as well. It could fit almost two of you, and that’s more of a problem.”
“Not at all, Mistress,” Yllyesh said. “I don’t mind the cloak being wide. Just see to the length, please, but don’t make it too short either. The hem should still touch the ground.”
“It will get muddy,” Elricky said.
“If you let the wind play under your mantle, you’ll look like a tent.” Fronthe rose. “Your decision, though. Get my needles, girl, so I can stick them where the new hem is to come.” She turned to the Mukthar. “You’re sure you want it that long?”
“That long and that wide. That way the cloak will hide my Mukthar boots and make me seem more bulky. If I put the hood on, even Lee-Lack won’t recognize me from a distance.”
“Please, see to the alterations of the mantle first. If possible immediately. I’d like to wear it this evening.”
“Ahem… I don’t think we have discussed the price yet,” Fronthe said.
It had taken only a few minutes to come to an agreement. Yllyesh had paid five moltar for the clothes and the necessary work to make them fit, and another three for lodgings for himself and his horse.
“You’ve let my mother rob you, Yllyesh,” Elricky said.
The Mukthar was standing on a chair, wearing the cloak, while Fronthe was adjusting the hem.
“I had expected him to haggle,” the older woman objected. “I started out asking the highest price.”
“Several times the highest price, Mother, and you know it.”
“It looked as if you didn’t want to part with Hroald’s mantle.”
“That’s neither here nor there, Mother. Hroald is not here, nor is he likely to come home anytime soon. If he does, we’ll make him a new cloak.” She turned to the Mukthar who was still wearing the garment. “It looks good on you.”
Yllyesh gave her a silent smile. Like almost everything, it made Elricky blush.
“I’ll start dinner,” the young woman whispered.
Yllyesh had gone to the barn to try on the shirts and pants. The shirts, like the cloak, were too wide but fitted well enough otherwise, but the pants were too long. All this was to be expected since the clothes were made for the man whose cloak had been too large for the Mukthar as well. Nevertheless, he was so disgusted with the ones he had been wearing he put on one pair of pants and tucked the hems in his boots. He folded the hems of the other pair inwards.
He hadn’t noticed it when he had stabled his horse earlier, but the barn was spotless. In fact, it was far cleaner that some living quarters he had seen.
“The pants are fine. A little too large maybe, but I’ll keep them up with a belt,” he said when he had returned to the house. “The legs should be shortened. Like this…” He showed Fronthe the trousers with the hems folded inward.
“Lots of room in the shirt as well,” she said.
“Leave them as they are. I like them loose.” He put his old clothes on the table.
“What should we do with these?” Elricky asked. “Wash them?”
“Burn them for all I care. Or keep them if you think you can find a use for them. As long as I don’t have to see them again, I’m happy.”
By the time his new clothes were ready, it was time to eat. Dinner consisted of a weak vegetable soup with a few bits of meat and coarse, brown bread. There was also a little bowl with cold bacon fat. Yllyesh followed the lead of his hostesses and smeared some on his loaf of bread. Against the Mukthar’s expectation, it tasted quite good. He was still hungry after he had finished his watery soup, but he decided against seconds. He didn’t want to inconvenience the women and decided to eat something more substantial at one of the inns.
It was early in the evening when Elricky brought some sheets. Yllyesh took them to the barn and went for his first walk through the town.
Elricky had mentioned two taverns. He had utterly forgotten their names but he was sure he would remember them when he saw or heard them mentioned.
The quay was quiet, but not entirely deserted. In contrast to Yllyesh who was ambling around, most people seemed to know where they were going.
“Ah. That’s one of them,” the Mukthar thought when he saw a black sign, crudely shaped like a duck.
He was still pondering whether he should enter when the door of the tavern opened and a man emerged.
The robber turned in the opposite direction and walked away without noticing his friend.
A few minutes later Yllyesh entered the Black Duck. With Lee-Lack gone, it was extremely unlikely anyone would recognize him, so he didn’t feel the need to hide. Privacy wasn’t an issue either, since he was there to learn whatever he could.
The Mukthar sat down at a large table that could easily seat twenty. He kept his distance from the three other men who were sitting there. Time enough to make new friends after he had eaten.
He asked one of the servant girls what kind of food they served. She looked at him to appraise what he was likely to be able to afford and suggested — to Yllyesh’s mild amusement — the duck stew.
While he waited, he scanned the room unobtrusively. It didn’t take long for his meal to arrive, and he paid for it promptly, before eating it, as he had seen another patron do a few minutes ago. The dish turned out to be a bowl of thick, fat broth with greasy chunks of duck, accompanied by a few hard loaves of bread. It was hot and surprisingly satisfying. He kept looking around from under his lashes and he noticed the round table in the right back corner, where a thin man with a leathery face and light brown hair mixed with light gray strands sat. He was looking up at a thickset man with sparse black hair, standing next to the table. Both men regularly burst out in boisterous laughter.
Yllyesh didn’t make much of it. They were obviously friends or acquaintances having a good time.
He asked one of the servant girls where he could relieve himself, and she gave a tired nod with her chin in the direction of the back of the inn where there was an inconspicuous small door. It gave out to an enclosed little court. To one side, against a wall, there was a large box like structure with several holes, one next to the other. Although in the open air, the stench proclaimed what use was made of them. A shallow trench was meant to be used for urinating, and the Mukthar was thankful that was all he needed.
After he was done, he opened the little door to enter the inn.
“You mean he was a robber chief?” Yllyesh overheard one of the men say. The Mukthar stopped in his tracks, leaving the door ajar.
“Yes. I was a member of his gang. He isn’t thirty yet,” another voice said.
“There have been younger pirates commanding ships.”
“Yeah, well, he always wore a disguise which made him seem older. He caught me off-guard.”
“You, Oldo? That’s a first.” A dry cackle followed. “What’s he doing here?”
“Looking for the flotsam of his robber-gang. You could say he has been in kind of a storm.”
“So he needed a port?”
“Yes.” Oldo laughed. “But not any port.”
“Tarbalainn is hardly any port.” Again the man produced a cackling sound. “So, he is young… Young and comely enough for…” the man let the sentence trail off.
“Oh yes. And if not, he could always serve with honor working his Glorious Majesty’s tar kilns.”
“His Glorious Majesty doesn’t pay nearly as well as the southern slave markets.”
“The problem is that we need to ask him some questions,” Oldo said. “Questions he may not be willing to answer. In which case we may have to, eh, motivate him.”
“And as a result he may end up damaged goods, yes?”
They laughed, loud and long.
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