Yllyesh took a deep breath before he opened the little door. It made a squeaking noise and the two men at the table stopped talking. The Mukthar went straight to his place at his table without looking back and ordered a beaker of weak beer, for which he again paid right away.
Only after a few minutes did he dare look in their direction. The men had resumed talking but now they were saying their goodbyes.
The one with the thinning black hair pinched a servant girl in the behind while making his way to the door.
“I charge for that, Oldo, as you very well know,” she said, but she didn’t seem to be too upset. Or surprised.
“In a few days, sweetheart, I’ll have money aplenty.” Oldo leered at her and winked. “Enough for you and your sisters.”
“I have many sisters.”
“I must bring me some brothers then.” Oldo guffawed with a throaty, oily voice as he exited the Black Duck.
Without undue haste, Yllyesh rose, adjusted his cloak, and followed the robber outside.
It was still early in the evening and there was not much cover to be had on the quay. The Mukthar looked left and right. Oldo was walking in the direction of the fishing boats. Yllyesh followed him, fervently hoping the man wouldn’t look over his shoulder. After a few minutes the town gradually made way for fields with here and there patches of bushes and trees. The Mukthar hid in the first available one and sighed with relief. From his hiding place he had a clear view of the quay to where it took a right turn.
When Oldo disappeared beyond the curve, Yllyesh looked first in the direction of the town to see if anyone was coming in his direction, then he walked, at a deliberately slow pace to the nearest patch of trees. There he waited a minute and then proceeded cautiously to the next one in the same manner.
At last he came to a spot from which he could see all the way to the end of the quay, to the farthest berth where a large ship was moored. Closer, but at a good distance from the black vessel, some smaller ships, cogs, were moored. Oldo was nowhere to be seen. Just to make sure, Yllyesh looked back to where the fishing boats were lying, pulled upon a narrow stretch of pebbly beach.
“He can’t have reached that large ship. There wasn’t enough time. He must be on one of the smaller ones.”
Still cautious, but much faster, he made his way to where the cogs were moored. He noticed a black building, almost leaning against the rockface. He hesitated, but it was unlikely that the former robber could have gone over there without Yllyesh noticing.
Unlikely, but not impossible. The Mukthar decided he would first take a look at the smaller ships.
The cogs were berthed at landing piers with enough distance between them to accommodate a ship on either side and leave ample room for maneuvering.
Although the Mukthar waited for a few minutes nothing moved on the decks of the ships. Whoever guarded them must be inside, probably drinking, he thought.
On the last pier only one cog was moored, to the left side, as far away from the others as possible. Yllyesh was about to change his mind and go inspect the black building when his eyes caught a shimmering on the waves. He soon discovered it was the reflected light that came from an open hatch on the left side of the ship.
Hiding behind the nearest tree he studied the cog. Very faintly he could hear voices now, though he couldn’t tell how many or what they were saying.
Looking around, the Mukthar deliberated whether he would risk going onto the pier and boarding the ship.
“Wood. The pier. The ship. Both made of wood. Creaking wood. Maybe they won’t hear me over the sound of their own voices.” He frowned, racking his brains. “The rippling water won’t cover any noises, but it won’t creak and if I’m careful it won’t even splash.”
He sighed and took a deep breath before running silently from his hiding place to the water. At this place the water came to a bank made of rough boulders. He sat down on one and let himself slide slowly into the water. He grimaced with the sudden cold that seemed to paralyze his muscles and make his veins run with ice water.
The cog was moored with the bow to the land side. Unfortunately, the open latch was in the aftcastle.
The water was deeper than he had thought and, after a few feet, Yllyesh couldn’t stand on the bottom anymore. The overlapping planks of the hull afforded next to no support, but, precariously clinging to them, he advanced inch by inch. He had to clench his teeth to prevent them from chattering.
Even when he was right under the open hatch he still had to strain his ears to understand what was said inside the cabin. As a precaution he let himself sink as deep as possible with just his nose — and his ears — above the water. In an emergency he could submerge completely, although the thought alone sent an extra shiver down his spine.
“When does the Cormorant sail?” a gruff voice asked.
“In a few days, Hustav. No worries, our men will arrive later this evening. So, there’s still time,” a second voice replied. Yllyesh had heard it before, in the Black Duck, so it had to belong to Oldo. “In fact, there will be time enough to arrange a meeting with Lee-Lack Scarminckle.”
“Our former chief. I still can’t believe it. A young man, you say?”
“Youngish. Not yet thirty. But it’s not as if he ever looked ancient. Besides, we always knew he wore a disguise.”
“He had a temper. A terrible temper.”
“Not anymore, or so it appears. Maybe it was part of the disguise. To discourage people from asking questions.”
“What does he want?” Hustav asked. “He can’t be seriously thinking about reviving the Renuvian Plains Robbers. Not with the place swarming with the warlord’s soldiers.”
Yllyesh recognized Oldo’s oily, boisterous laughter.
“It doesn’t matter what he wants, does it?”
“It might be entertaining to hear him out, though. And what about his brother? What are we going to answer when he asks about Norri-Nack?”
“Oh… Norri-Nack went away one day and he never came back.”
Again the throaty belly-laugh. This time he was joined by an equally low, but harsher sneer.
“Near enough to the truth,” Hustav said. “As far as it goes.”
“I said it before and I’ll say it again: it doesn’t matter what Lee-Lack wants or what he believes.”
The Mukthar heard the sound of metal clanging against metal, followed by the unmistakable gurgling sound of drinks being poured into beakers or cups.
There was a pause while the men were drinking.
“So, you just want to capture him and send him after his brother?” Hustav asked.
“Not exactly. Do you remember how he lorded it over us? How he treated us? Well, maybe we should pay him back in the same coin.”
“Ah, that’s what you’re after.” Hustav gave out a short snort. “I never figured you to be the vengeful type.”
Both men laughed out loud.
“Not just revenge, my friend. That would be vulgar. No, no. Do you remember how the feared Renuvian Plains Robbers met their end?”
“Vaguely. There was this battle in and around Mirkadesh. I specifically remember you and I dying — or at least being wounded mortally.”
“And I recall you telling some compassionate youngster to care for some old man first. Your wounds weren’t that serious, was what you said if memory serves, although you were spattered with blood.”
“My wounds, like yours, were so slight as to be non-existent, and the blood was not my own or yours. It wouldn’t have done for word to get around.”
“Indeed, it wouldn’t have,” Oldo concurred. “But all that was not the end of the Robbers. Not the final end. That only came when Lee-Lack Scarminckle buried the sad remnants under tons of rocks.”
Yllyesh’s cold, white fingers almost let go of their precarious hold.
“That can’t be true,” the Mukthar thought.
“The chief himself caused the cave-in? Are you sure?” Hustav asked.
“No. Not entirely. But I have heard stories that Sanduvar Blacktooth, Lee-Lack’s predecessor, had mechanisms built that could cause the destruction of certain passageways through the mountain. Soon after completion, the men who had built the devices disappeared. Lee-Lack must have known about those mechanisms. How could he not, seeing that he was Sanduvar’s lieutenant?”
There followed a pause.
“Now that I think about it, didn’t Sanduvar himself, eh, disappear without anyone knowing what had happened to him?” Hustav asked.
“Oh, someone knew. Believe you me, someone definitely knew.”
“Yes, the one arranging the disappearance.”
“Exactly. Probably the same one who succeeded him as chief of the Renuvian Plains Robbers.”
“Still, it’s all just conjecture.”
“Yes, it is. Listen to this, though. I ran into the chief’s grandmother in Dermolhea.”
“He never mentioned her.”
“No. His brother, Norri-Nack, did. Once. Lee-Lack is close mouthed. Lee-Lonia is too.”
“Wait… Lee-Lonia? You know her? You know her by name?”
“Yes. Some of us did. She used to mediate between the representatives of the merchant firms and the Renuvian Plains Robbers whenever Lee-Lack deemed it too difficult or simply unwise to negotiate himself. You see, some of us had to know.”
“I didn’t.” Hustav put whatever he was drinking from down with a bang on the table.
“There was a hierarchy—”
“Yes, I know. The chief, his sergeants—”
“Another hierarchy. One known only to Lee-Lack himself.”
“Yes, and it seemed like favoritism. Made me bloody nervous, it did, not knowing what was really going on.”
“Which was exactly what he wanted,” Oldo said. “Anyway, she recognized me and asked a thousand questions about the Battle of Mirkadesh. Who died and who survived. Of course, she wanted to know how I happened to still be alive. I told her I was knocked off my horse and was unconscious for hours, and when I came out of it, everything was over. I doubt she fully believed me, but she stopped interrogating me. Then I started asking her some questions of my own. She wasn’t very forthcoming, especially where it concerned her grandson, our esteemed chief. She did say however that he was poorly, and that was why she was in Dermolhea. To buy medicines for him. She even showed me some pills.”
“Those could as likely have been for herself as for Lee-Lack.” Hustav harrumphed. “Why couldn’t he get them himself, I ask you? I doubt he was that sick.”
“Ah, yes, my friend. Maybe his time was otherwise employed. Lee-Lonia said he was traveling. She didn’t know where. She didn’t know why.”
“He wasn’t looking for us, that’s for sure. We would have heard something. Anything.”
“Indeed. Can you think of something our chief would want to do all by himself?”
There followed a silence, and then Yllyesh heard a metal object fall on the wooden floor of the cabin.
“No,” Hustav cried out, exasperated.
“Yes,” Oldo replied in a calm voice.
“When the boys return, we’d better meet them in the woods before they descend into the town. We’ll be on our own there. We definitely have to meet our chief in private.”
“And not just to put him in fetters on the Cormorant and deliver him for a nice sum to His Glorious Majesty’s tar kilns. He’ll need some persuasion before he tells us what we want to know.”
“We and the boys can take turns persuading him,” Hustav growled.
“Seems we will have us some little talk, then.”
“We most certainly will. A little chat about Lee-Lack’s gold.”