Harvest House Publishers
“He never even fought.”
“Never fought!” The friendly innkeeper just laughed, and kept on pouring. “You don’t give up easily, do you? He bested a hundred warriors, maybe more. Rolled ’em off the decks!”
Dog Blestoe shook his head, watching his mug fill again with amber liquid. “I just got back from Mann. Met some men who were on that ship. And they say he hid up in the rigging until the fight was over. Never did draw his sword.”
Cap Hillis set down his pitcher, wiped his bald head with a tattered dishrag. He glanced around the tavern to be sure no one had overheard. No one had. Laughter and loud conversation filled the small space. His inn was packed, every table full, more standing. It was a godsend.
“Hey, Cap!” a fisherman yelled from across the room. “These folks here want to know how Packer stabbed the Firefish!”
“You tell it!” Cap called back with a dismissive wave.
“No, I can’t remember. Someone got eaten, right? Come on, Cap!”
More voices joined the chorus. “Aye, tell it!” “Tell the story, Cap!”
Then someone added, waggling an empty mug, “And we’ll all buy another round!”
Cap grinned and nodded. “Be right there!” His guests laughed and raised their mugs in toast. “Hen, more ale by the windows!” Hen Hillis hurried toward the appointed table, a clay pitcher sloshing in each hand.
It had been this way, more or less, since early spring, since news got around the kingdom about the Trophy Chase, the victory over the Achawuk, the slaying of the Firefish, the duel with the assassin, and most of all, the great school of beasts that Scat Wilkins would pay men in gold to go hunt.
As the legend grew with every telling, people came to Hangman’s Cliffs, the hometown of the young hero who could swim under a ship’s length in one breath and outduel an assassin who could outduel a swordmaster. And so Cap recited the stories again and again. Packer wouldn’t speak of these things himself to his own townspeople, let alone to strangers, but all knew he had told Cap everything. The innkeeper’s word was final; he was the loremaster, keeper of the flame.
Now Cap turned back to Dog, leaned in, spoke in a loud whisper.
“Some men in Mann! Only you could find folks who might say such a thing. The boy’s a hero everywhere. And he’s sure a hero here!”
“Fine. No harm you making a little coin on tall tales. But Tooth and me, we know what’s what.” Dog nodded knowingly at his old drinking partner, Fourtooth.
“Yeah,” the old man said thickly, “we know what’s what.” But he glanced glumly at the crowd of patrons, all having a better time than he was.
Packer had been recruiting for Scat Wilkins while wedding plans were being made and a little cottage in the woods fixed and painted. It didn’t take much doing. Winter had been mild up and down the coast, and while the stream through Cap’s little pub in Hangman’s Cliffs had slowed, it had never frozen over. Not just fishermen came, but dockworkers, sailors, farmers, tradesmen, and drifters, all to enroll in the famous Firefish venture. Packer would ask a few questions, write down some names, and send them to the City of Mann, to John Hand.
As the weather grew warmer and the stories of the Trophy Chase spread wider, men who had no intention of enrolling arrived, then wives and children came with husbands, widows came alone, as did men of means and women of uncertain affiliation. Cap and Hen Hillis had started renting out rooms and drawing up plans to build more. It seemed that everyone wanted to be in Hangman’s Cliffs, to hear firsthand about the voyage, to meet the hero, or if not the hero, then the heroine, the girl who had followed her true love into great dangers and escaped them all, cleared Packer Throme’s name, and won his heart. And whoever they were, however or why ever they came, they all ended up in Cap’s pub. Those who would and could, also ended up in Will Seline’s church on Sunday mornings.
Not a single fisherman had sailed to find a single Firefish as yet, but the streets of Hangman’s Cliffs were already being paved, if not with gold as Scat Wilkins had predicted, then at least with the footprints of men and women weighted down with the stuff and willing to spend it here, just to say they’d bought ale or cider or soap in a neighborhood of such historic dimensions.
Now the general clamor in Cap’s pub grew intense, and faces were drawn to the front windows. A few words filtered through the din: “Carriage!” “Royal crest!” and “King!”
Cap threw his towel over his shoulder and pushed his way to the door. He stepped outside to find a gleaming black carriage trimmed with light blue, mud-spattered but brilliant, parked directly in front of his inn. It was emblazoned with the royal coat of arms: the intertwined initials N and V laid across a ship’s wheel, pierced with a sword.
Horses whinnied and stamped. Cap felt a surge of panic. He wiped his hands fiercely on his apron as he assessed the sorry state of his little place of business: the warped and mud-trodden boards of his small stoop, the chipped and cracked plaster of his front wall, the faded and peeling sign of the Firefi sh above the door. He was planning to fix all this, plaster it, paint it up. But now that he had the money, he didn’t have the time.
And now a royal coach…was it really King Reynard himself?
But before he could scourge himself as thoroughly as he would have wished, the driver opened the carriage door, and out grunted a very wide man wearing pale-gray silk clothing that looked a lot like pajamas. He had a royal-blue velvet vest trimmed in a sky blue, and he trailed a royal-blue cape. He was perhaps sixty years old, his face clean-shaven, puckered, and pallid, his eyes deeply bagged. His expression was one of either extreme discomfort or unfiltered disdain, Cap couldn’t tell which.
The man stood unsteadily for a moment, then put a hand to the small of his back, wincing as he stretched. “Awful way to travel,” he said.
That being a royal sentiment if he had ever heard one, Cap took a knee and bowed his head dutifully. He wished he had a hat to remove.
“Yokels,” the man said.
Cap looked up, startled.
“Stand up, man! I’m not the heavin’ king.”
Cap struggled to his feet.
The stranger eyed Cap carefully, then spoke in confidence. “He’s much fatter than me.”
Cap nodded. “Yes, sir.”
“I’m his herald.” The man said it as though the job had been punishment for some offense. “You have ale inside, I hope? ”
“Yes, sir. Sure do. Good ale, too. Come in, come on in!”
The pub hushed as all eyes followed the royal visitor to the bar.
He ignored them as best he could, even as they made way for his bulk. Cap hurried around behind the bar, filled a mug, and handed it to his guest. “Won’t you sit down? ”
“Mmm,” the man shook his head as he drained the drink in three swallows. He set the mug down, and put both hands on his stomach.
He paused, then belched deliberately. “Not bad.”
“Thank you.” Cap was pleased. “Another? ”
As Cap refilled the mug, the man turned around to look at his audience. He nodded, then sniffed. “Any of you Packer Throme? ”
Each man shook his head silently. Except for Dog, who rolled his eyes.
“Well, anyone know where I can find him? ”
They all nodded, but no one spoke. The man looked at the floorboards, apparently willing patience into himself, then looked at Cap.
“I know you can speak.”
“Sorry, sir, we’re not used to having men of such…high esteem as yourself around here. We’re just poor fishermen who rarely—”
The herald cleared his throat.
“Yes, Packer Throme. Well. He’s a bit indisposed at the moment. Well, more than a moment really. And more than a bit. You see, he’s just gotten married. Two weeks ago or so I guess it’s been now, right, Hen? ” Hen nodded, the fl esh of her face jiggling in vehement agreement.
“Right,” Cap continued, “but he’s still in his honey month, and there’s not man nor woman here who would interrupt him unless—”
“He’s in his what? ”
“His honey month. It’s a tradition around here. After the wedding, the bride and groom, ah, well, they need a bit of time to themselves, you know? Most of us can’t afford to go off on a grand trip, so we all pitch in and make sure they have food brought to their door. And other than that, we don’t expect to see them. For a while.”
For the first time, a trace of a smile crossed the herald’s face.
The smallest tip of the corner of his mouth crept slightly upward. “A month? ”
“Give or take.” Cap smiled sheepishly. “I guess we’re not so busy out here as you are in the city.”
“Sounds like the Thromes are plenty busy.” Laughter filled the pub. The king’s messenger raised his mug, squared himself, and suddenly looked quite regal. “Well, then…here’s to Packer Throme and his new missus,” he boomed, “and to this village! Greetings and honor to you all, direct from Mann and His Majesty the King!”
The room erupted into relieved and delighted cheering. They all raised their mugs and drank, inspired by the power in the herald’s voice, and the sudden prestige that had engulfed them all. Even Dog drank, before he remembered himself.
The herald raised a hand, which silenced them. “I have a royal proclamation to read to you, which I shall do one hour from now on the front stoop of this fine establishment!” The pub erupted again, this time into an excited buzz as the herald turned back to the bar, motioning Cap close. “I’ll need Mr. Throme here at that time.”
The herald stared, his eyes suddenly hard. “Orders, directly from Crown Prince Mather.”
“Yes, sir,” Cap said. “One hour.”