Before Rusty caught up with the group, Sargon the rat sidled up to her. He lay his paw upon her arm. She jerked, startled.
“Madame Bard, if I may have a word?”
Rusty shivered. She hadn’t smelled his approach. “If you want.”
“When you encounter a battle, do you, ah, write a song about it?”
“Sure. It’s how I make my coin.”
“And you’re worth every penny. Such splended melodies! But let me make sure I’m understanding correctly: if we were in battle—all of us—you would write a song? About the battle?”
Duh, she almost said, but she bit her tongue and nodded instead.
The rat didn’t reply.
“Oh, right—Yeah. Uh huh, I’d write a ditty.”
“And—let’s say…if a rat were to be part of the battle—helping conquer evil and such—do you suppose you would write a verse about that rat?”
Rusty’s face went odd. For a few seconds, she walked in a trance. Was this weirdo a fan?
“Or—perhaps just a line! You know. To broaden the appeal to other clans.”
“I…” She glanced down. He was gazing up at her with puppy-kit eyes—or would have been if he’d had anything in his eyes. Her hackles shivered again. She bit her lip. “I follow the music where it takes me. If it inspired me to add in something about a rat, I’d put it in.”
The rat let out the tiniest squeal of joy, bunching his crabbed hands into fists.
“O thank you, Madame Bard! You’ve made an old rat’s year!”
And then he scurried off to speak with the bear.
The hill’s grass disappeared under a footpath that wound up being the village’s main thoroughfare. They went down into the valley, past scraggly-looking fields.
Seeing them, Simon shrank. “This is bad.”
“What’s wrong, squire?” said Thane. “Smell getting to you?”
“No, sir—those fields—that’s winter barley.”
“Is it? Scraggy-looking.”
“It’s not that—don’t you see? we just walked past six fields of weeds!”
Thane stared at him blankly.
“No farmer’d ever let his fields get that bad!” Simon said. “Something’s wrong.”
Thane didn’t know how to answer.
The company went on in silence.
* * *
The dirt road leading into the village proper was almost blocked by enormous wagons with the purple stamp of the King’s crest on the side.
“What, do they take in the imperial laundry here?” said Rusty.
“Too far out of the way,” said Thane.
“It’s like the village where I grew up,” said Simon. “They probably don’t even have a cutler.”
Zeke stuck his nose to one of the cart’s wooden sides. “Smells like wine. So-so vintage. Maybe from Rabbit River?”
“Wine? No way they could afford that,” said Rusty. She kicked a wagon wheel. “Not four wagons’ worth of it, anyway.”
“The Wyld is not concerned with money,” said Brun.
Zeke had shimmied up to the top of the wagon and was sniffing around. “Think there’s any left?”
“Let’s see,” said Thane. He reached for a hinged panel on the side.
“I can break—” said Brun, but he stopped when the panel opened up without a struggle. Thane stuck his head inside. “Empty.”
“They didn’t lock it?” said Rusty. “But it’s imperial property!”
“Dunno,” said Thane. He pulled his head out. “Nothing more to see here. Let’s move on, shall we?”
Stacks of unopened wooden crates had been shunted to either side of the road. One crate, though, had been left open near one of the wagons further in. When they peeked in, stains at the bottom revealed where bottles of wine had stood packed inside it, but it was empty.
Further up the road they came to the marketplace, an open square of dirt bordered on all sides by empty stalls and even the backs of peasant houses. In the center of the square stood a stone well, though there was no bucket or rope in sight.
The pack began investigating the stalls. Some mouldered with soft apples and other abandoned foodstuffs, while others—like the one a wooden sign reading “Lily’s Linens” hanging off the front—looked like the stall owner had locked up for the night and simply hadn’t yet returned.
Simon looked up from a sprouty potato. “What’s that over there? On the ground?”
The entire group gathered around a purple length of cloth that had been strewn in the dirt.
“It’s a banner!” said Thane. Aside from a few pawprints, the golden words still shone as if someone had unpacked it that morning:
Royal Wine Tasting Festival
“That explains this,” said Rusty, holding out a paper she’d found behind the paper-maker’s booth:
“Is that paper I hear? Do read it, would you dear?” said Sargon.
“It says, ‘Drink to the health of your king! This coming evening, sample a special vintage of Armellian wine, harvested from the king’s own palace vineyard. Cub-sitting provided.’ ”
“Pfft!” said the possum. “If that’s what the king drinks, then I’m a cat! I’ve had better wine back in the swamp.”
“Mneh, some folks’ll drink dishwater as long as there’s a fancy label on the bottle. Glug-glug, you know?” said Rusty.
“Let’s not drink anything while we’re here,” said Brun.
“I don’t think we can,” said Simon. “The well looks dry to me.”
The rat’s blind eyes popped open. “Well?” he said. “There’s a well here?”
“Behind you, a few spear-lengths,” said the bear.
The rat pointed. “And what’s in front of me here?”
Thane gave him a funny look. “Me, old fellow—but past me, there’s the wall to a house, covered in ivy, but it’s all dried up and grey now.”
“Ah!” The rat pointed to one side, “And over here, is that the woodpile?”
Slowly, hackles raising, everyone turned to look. Winter had laid the woodpile low, but sure enough, under a little oilskin tarp, there lay cut logs, perfect for a fireplace. They silently turned back to the rat.
“How’d he know that?” Zeke whispered.
“Well, yes, that’s someone’s wood,” said Thane. “But you don’t think we’ll be here that long, do you?”
“Stuff the banner in between the wood, will someone?”
When nobody moved, the rat went to all fours. Raking his fingers across the dirt, he soon found the banner. He gathered it into a bundle so he wouldn’t trip, then walked with confidence to the woodpile, nose quivering the entire time. He went too far, though, and stubbed his toe on one of the logs. He paused to growl in pain, then threw the banner out in front of him. He bent low and began feeling the wood through the fabric, poking and stuffing it into the gaps between the logs until only a purple tail stuck out, draping in a heap on the ground.
Sargon stood back, arms akimbo and sniffing the air in an arc. He almost looked like he was admiring his work. “Sir Brun?”
“I am not a knight.”
“Do you still have the flint I requested?”
“Yes, and no gold or trade for it.”
“Just so long as you have it on your person. Now, is that a garden I smell?” He turned towards an alley next to the ivy wall and stuck out his arms, waving them in the air before him. “Help me, now.”
The bear rolled his eyes and went to the rat. Smelling him, Sargon took hold of his arm.
“Come along, everyone. Now’s not the time to split up.”
Rusty made a face and waved her paws around her head. It was a clear comment on the rat’s sanity. But when Thane went to take the point position, the rest of his pack followed.
Chapter 7 arrives tomorrow at noon, Pacific Standard Time! What do you think will happen next?
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