Presently they moved off together toward the knights’ camp. As they passed into the trees, a furious clamor erupted above them. The branches were alive with black wings.
“Rooks again,” said the goyle. “Is it not consistently held among many cultures that these are birds of ill omen?”
“You’re the expert in such matters,” Gorlen said. “I find more than enough worry in every present moment without looking ahead to ones I cannot avoid.”
“It seems ominous that they have chosen to lurk above the knights’ camp, while leaving the other travelers in peace.”
“Observe the richness of crumbs and scraps these knights scatter about them, and you’ll wonder why half the continent’s flocks don’t follow them wherever they go.”
And indeed the camp was littered with so much debris that it looked as if the knights had been stationed in the spot for a month or more. Apparently they burned little and buried less, but cast their waste into the road or let the wind carry scraps of it to catch in the greythorns. A short way into the trees, Gorlen spied a rangy fellow squatting, and such an assortment of dark lumps on the forest floor that made him very glad they were not the knights’ neighbors. Apparently the ill-kept camp with its noisome odors soon lost its appeal to the birds as well, for in a squabbling plunge the rooks abandoned the trees, winging off to merge with the darkening sky.
The knight in question stepped out of the trees, hailing Gorlen and Spar, and recognizable now by the overelaborate facial coif, whose tips he curled with a spittle-wetted finger, as the very knight who had invited them to sup. Shed of metal vestments, he moved as if he wore the stiff plates within his limbs as well.
“Glaustus Apf,” he introduced himself, and received the names of his guests with the same stiff bow that Gorlen had previously attributed to bulky platemail. “Allow me to introduce my brothers!”
Apf led them to a blazing fire, where several dozen older men and youngish aides-de-camp sat consuming or preparing varieties of grilled and spitted meat. Superficially, the Knights of Reclamation appeared to be strangers to hunger or hardship; but the flesh of their faces and arms, free of armor as they took their ease, told a different story. They were battle-scarred, with awkward limps and lumpish limbs that bespoke poorly healed fractures; some lacked eyes or other formerly symmetrical sensory organs. And yet those eyes that remained intact were unhaunted by the trauma of war that Gorlen had seen in other soldiers.
As he quietly gnawed an ashcake and drank strong wine from a silver cup, preparatory to launching his first ballad, Gorlen learned that they were not veterans of any particular war. They owed their fealty to a rather more abstract power.
“That which the Knights of Reclamation seek to reclaim is the rightful treasure of our lord (his name is known only to initiates, I’m afraid). His house (whose name is also a close-held secret among the knights) was looted so long ago (the particular date is well known to those who have taken vows) that provenance is difficult if not impossible to prove. So nefarious were the looters in their scheme to disperse our unmentionable lord’s holdings that they stripped the goods of all identifying marks, in some cases melting them down and recasting them as entirely different valuables. Gems were prized from scabbards and the scabbards hammered into new shapes. The new items were sold, traded, stolen yet again, and made their way into new treasure-houses, into banks, into the homes of those who have no idea what sort of contraband they harbor. It is our duty to make these unwitting accomplices aware of their property’s true owners: which is to say, ourselves. We travel the world with one goal: to reclaim and retrieve every relic that once belonged to our master, and thus restore his worldly wealth, in the hopes that once reassembled, he will manifest himself again in corporeal form and reward us for our service. In the meantime, as a loan against that day, we draw a small bit of income from canny dealing in such valuables as we have thus far recovered.”
“Then this lord of yours…was the victim of an enchantment?”
“Why think you that?” asked Apf, leaning forward to pull a bit of meat from the end of Gorlen’s skewer, noticing at that moment the bard’s one stone hand, but saying nothing.
“Believing that once his kingdom is reconstituted, at least financially, he will enjoy a resurrection of some sort, suggests there is a spell to be lifted.”
“Well, we claim no such certain knowledge. I admit, it is a possibility. These events all took place many years ago—who can say what entailments might have been placed? But there can be no doubt that re-amassing the entire sum of his vast wealth will result in some benefit.”
“Beyond those you already enjoy,” Gorlen said, with a gesture to the luxury items that surrounded them, making it obvious that his comment was purely rhetorical. It was clear that a great deal of their “canny dealings” had involved the conversion of their reclaimed treasury into armor of the costliest sort. It was no wonder that they wore it about their daily affairs, and travelled the road as if caparisoned for battle. Their weapon racks were dazzling, blades with gem-encrusted hilts, fancily filigreed with all the precious workable metals. And if their martial gear was splendid, their dinnerware was no less so. Such expenses might have seemed reasonable ones for journeying knights, but beyond them, Gorlen glimpsed heavily bound chests and lockboxes, stored under guard in several of their tents, as other of the knights swished in and out between the curtains. All this would have been safer in a fortress or lord’s keep, no doubt, and yet the itinerant knights could claim no such haven or redoubt.
“Am I correct in assuming that your earlier offer to Spar involved assisting you with some act of…reclamation?”
“As to that,” said Apf, with his companions watching him warily to see that he did not betray them to the uninitiated, “I cannot say, as you are not of our order.”
“I am obliged to take no vows, nor undertake any task in service of unseen entities,” Spar pointed out. “Therefore I could not have assisted you in any event, if it depended on initiation into your lucrative mystery cult.”
“Conveniently, certain subordinate clauses in our strictures allow us to press—or rather, contract for the services of free agents such as yourself. At which time we would have acquainted you with information essential to the task.”
“Considering you sought the services of a goyle and not a more tender mortal like myself, I venture that some sort of physical hazard is involved in the pursuit of your quest.”
“There usually is,” said Apf. “Thus our armor. But in this case, we anticipated the possibility of RATHER MORE GOD DAMN IT!”
Apf’s voice had been rising as he spoke, for he was forced to make himself heard above a steadily building clamor.
The rooks had returned, again swarming the trees above the knights’ camp.
“These!” he said, turning to Gorlen and Spar, but pointing into the serrated canopy. “These pests, malodorous and deafening as they are, have inadvertently delivered us the next leg of our quest!”
“How so?” Gorlen called, peering up against darkness upon darkness, lit somewhat by the fire and somewhat by the luminous clouds beyond the greythorns, which cast the infested branches into violet silhouettes.
A quivering blob of whitish gel showered from the trees as one of the rooks relieved itself directly above Glaustus Apf. He ducked but failed to avoid the cloacal burst entirely; and there was an odd sound when it struck him, as something ponged against his pate then bounced to earth. He gasped and plucked it up, holding it out to the firelight, heedless of the slimy blotch that matted his thinning hair.
“Ye gods, they even shit the stuff!” he cried.
The knights at the fire gathered to study the object in Apf’s palm, and Gorlen’s amazement was easily the match for theirs.
A bright red gem, skillfully faceted, small but cunningly cut so that it formed a lozenge, lay cupped in his hand. Apf brought from his pocket a second gem of deep blue, similarly cut, slightly larger, and placed it beside the red one.
“This one we found yesterday, dropped by rooks as they squabbled over a flattened rodent in the road. Now, that was already clue enough. But from this I deduce the towers they haunt, however perilous, are so full of riches that they cannot help but swallow gems as they peck about. They must build nests of the stuff. Imagine the rookeries!”
Gorlen found it odd that Apf, previously taciturn, would be now so forthcoming. Perhaps it was the rapacious look in his eye that made him bold; he appeared not to care that Gorlen and Spar stood among them.
Or perhaps it was the realization, shared by Gorlen at this very moment, that there was now cold sharp steel at his throat as two of the knights took him firmly by his arms.
Apf looked up from the gem and grinned.
“I’m afraid the time for asking your goyle’s assistance has come and gone,” he said. “We must insist upon your company.”
Spar gazed impassively at Gorlen. “This may have been the delay I sensed in the fire. I blame the imprecision of charcoal. On the other hand, the rooks delivered a second and clearer warning, yet we pressed on in spite of it.”
“Our blades would break upon you, goyle,” said Apf, “but if I have not misjudged, then you will not let your fleshy friend here come to harm. And so for the next few nights at least, you will accept our hospitality, in exchange for which you will perform certain tasks befitting those impervious to pain and trauma.”
“I hope you will understand,” Gorlen said, “if I retract my previous offer to enthrall your company with pleasant melodies.”
The road was rocky, and the crags and ruined walls above them heavily infested with rooks, which rose up in spiraling clouds then swirled back and forth like the tattered furls of a morbid banner. Gorlen could not remember this many birds when he and Spar had made their way through the passes mere days before. The birds had proven themselves reliable heralds of poor luck, and their continued presence made him gloomy about his immediate prospects. He sought some comfort in the more likely explanation that the raucous birds were simply attracted to shiny objects, for the Knights of Reclamation were nothing if not shiny.
The rooks thoroughly haunted these peaks, and indeed they were about the only life in evidence, apart from a local species of silver-eared marlymonk that skulked among the rocks. Also among the rocks, Gorlen spied cleverly concealed spring-snares made entirely of twigs and native fibers—quite effective, to judge by the evidence of the occasional marlymonk carcass or pecked-clean skeleton. He thought of the rook’s nest, and the similar trap that his egg-theft had triggered. Of rather more sophisticated construction, broken walls now slumped where once vast keeps had stood sentinel above the passes. The builders of these towers had long since passed into whatever it is that history is called once it has been completely forgotten. And the wild things had reclaimed what had once, beyond dispute, been theirs.
It was the sort of reclamation Gorlen heartily endorsed, compared to that in which the knights engaged. To a turn, despite their incredible portable wealth, the men were impoverished in spirit: gruff, laconic, and unsympathetic to his needs. He stumbled along with a close guard of armed soldiers and at no point were his kidneys more than a few inches away from sharp weapons that would just as soon pierce them. A few times, stumbling, he nearly skewered himself.
Spar had an easier time of it, Gorlen supposed, although he could not confirm this since Apf marched the goyle in the vanguard of the column, while Gorlen trailed near the rear, with only the loot-laden wagons behind him. The treasure chests had been strapped to the beds of open wagons, as if to display the knights’ pride in all they had repossessed. Had the skies been bright, knights and goods alike would have formed a dazzling promenade. As it was, the party gave only as good as it got from the sky…which was not much. The clouds looked (and behaved) like dirty dishrags poorly wrung then stretched out between horizons to drip.
By late afternoon, Gorlen could no longer be sure they were retracing tracks he and Spar had already followed. They appeared to have come somewhat off the main road, following old cart paths among low plates of mossy rock. How Apf and his crew chose their way, he had no clue until a commotion stopped the train, and the knights entrusted with Gorlen’s care decided that they were tired of being left out of the decision-making process. They pushed forward, Gorlen caught between them like an iron nail suspended between magnets of equivalent power.
Knight Apf, again in full regalia, had a knee up on a roadside boulder and was leaning forward to examine another scintillant blaze of color—the brightest discovery of the afternoon by far. It was down in a cranny, where it must have been dropped (or excreted) by one of the avian legion. He reached into a tangle of grasses, plucked it out, held it aloft. Suddenly the day had a small but perfect blazing sun. The orange stone was perfectly round, a flattened disk that Gorlen identified as worth more than all the coins his purse had ever held, or was ever likely to.
“My brothers!” Apf proclaimed. “If you still harbor any doubts that we are on the right track, put them aside now! The creatures of the air cannot help but shower the riches from their rookery wheresoever they fly!”
“I wonder if there might be another explanation,” Spar said, catching Gorlen’s eye and quickly assessing his companion’s condition. Aside from the imposition on the forward progress of their main quest, no harm had come to either of them. This state of affairs appeared unlikely to continue for long.
“We have winnowed through them all,” Apf stated. “We are not rash, believe me. I suppose that it would not violate our initiatory rites to share a bit more information, now that we are fully committed to the trial ahead of us.”
He looked to his fellows, as if awaiting their permission, but none challenged his right to tell Gorlen whatever he judged fit. “One week ago, as we made our way through a pass just north of here, we noticed the generally ruinous character of the local habitations and began to consider the possibility that some of our ancestral treasures might be secreted somewhere among them. Upon reaching the lowlands, we inquired among the residents whether there might be any rumors of hidden barrows or treasure tombs. Those we questioned disavowed knowledge of any such legends—but did so with such bland insistence that we grew suspicious. Even the few we skewered and skinned professed ignorance right up to death’s door; and they took their secrets to the darkness, damn them. We were now completely certain of our course—for such potent vows, held to the limits of mortality, conceal the most fabulous treasure.”
“What an unshakable faith you possess,” Gorlen remarked.
“We had everything except material proof! But then, two nights ago, as we sat trying to determine our course, the blue stone I have shown you all but fell into our laps. It could have come from nowhere but these flocks, so plentiful in these parts; and thinking back, we recalled the wealth of rooks that dwelt among the ruined country we had left behind. To think we had almost continued on without a second glance at the region! If not for this accidental discovery, we would have passed on oblivious to the wealth that certainly awaits us.”
“How fortunate, at least for you,” Gorlen said. “But I fail to see what assistance my friend and I can offer.”
“Ah…that is because you are innocent of the perils of reclamation,” said Apf. “It cannot have escaped even your naivete that most among our number have suffered numerous physical indignities.”
“I assumed these were the normal accumulations of a career conducted on a battlefield.”
“Oh, each plundering is a battle, yes indeed. And we have all of us given fingers, legs, hands, eyes, yes—and even lives—in the struggle to regain what is rightfully ours.”
“I do not think I much like what you have in mind for my friend,” Gorlen said.
Apf shrugged. “Such is war. And I believe it shall not be far or long before we meet our foe.”
Nor was it.