It was a subdued party that set out that same afternoon. The King clattered down the cobbled streets of Casoria, chin jutting forth, while the others followed. The entourage consisted of Creath, first cousin to the King by blood and Duke of the Nibban Highlands; Lord Dinnisee, second son of a well-connected family; Lord Gerlatch, Duke of Hiffert; and Lord Anjhest, ruler of the Andovers and March Lord of Banescale, a thin strip of land that bordered on the wastes of the Nevers. They were joined by Lord Alexy Ondred, a Bornish gentleman of high fashion but not unskilled in swordplay, and Perri, nephew of the falconer, who was in charge of the pack ponies. They’d left the hounds behind but had brought nets of every conceivable sort; the smaller pack pony bumbled and creaked with them.
The men broke camp the first night outside Saundry; the second night was spent in an open field. Although the wine was plentiful, none felt inclined toward conversation. The thought of the Eld Forest loomed before them. Only the King and Lord Alexy Ondred seemed unaffected by what lay ahead.
“How far, falconer?” William lounged on one side, cradling a bottle of Frennin White, a tart, potent wine he’d had packed especially. “Come now, another guess.”
“We should see the peaks of Ron Jonna, smallest of the High North Mountains, by tomorrow’s nightfall,” replied Garrion, his face moody in the firelight. “The Eld Forest lies directly in its evening shadow to the west.”
William sat up and spat into the fire. “We shall bag a bird before noon and ride home directly.”
“My thoughts exactly,” agreed Ondred. “Our prey is neither scarce nor intelligent. It should be a small matter to confine several to our nets.”
Despite the general apprehension, it was a mellow night. The air was warm and the crickets kept up a steady, comforting chirp. It was Creath who broke the silence.
“Upon our return, I’ll be repairing to my country estates.” He stared at his cousin through the firelight. “With the King’s permission, of course.”
William grunted, and spat again.
“I, too, have obligations,” agreed Anjhest sadly. “Horses, cattle, peasants. Life is a tiresome affair.”
“I’m to marry,” blurted Dinnisee. “She’s as freckled as a spotted pup, but with a large dowry. We will rub well together.”
“Your regard for duty would be commendable if it weren’t so sudden,” William regarded the three with a sneer. “Begone, if you will! But what of you, Lord Ondred? Have you no pressing matters to attend?”
Ondred replied with a shrug. “I live each day to the fullest, impervious to petty duty, changing fortunes, or the whims of the gods. I’m yours to command.”
Creath muttered an obscenity while William beamed. Until now, the King had viewed Ondred in an unflattering light, wary of his caustic tongue and overdress. This outing, however, had revealed the true character of the man. William now saw hard intelligence and refined tastes. A ruler would do well to surround himself with such men.
The King took a swig of Frennin White and mulled over an appointment at court.