My brothers and I followed Ironsides into the dim of the house, Vaudrin and Quill entered behind us. Sunshine from a window above our heads provided ample light for the entryway and central hallway of the manor. I looked around. The lower half of the walls was bare stone, the upper was coated in plaster. The entryway was wide, and there were two doors leading into rooms on either side. Iron Sides ignored these and led us down the hallway until it reached the great room. This room was lit by four windows at the moment, but there were also lamps hanging from the ceiling and a generous gray stone fireplace. An assortment of chairs draped in blankets and furs were grouped around the fireplace. In the middle of the room was the dinner table. It was at least twelve feet long and made of thick slabs of knobby olive wood which had been sanded until it was as smooth as glass. Two benches ran down either side and two large chairs sat on one end. Six hunting hounds were sprawled under the table, they leapt up and ran to greet us when we entered.
“Please, sit.” Ironsides gestured to the table. “I will call for food.” He left us to the wriggling of the hounds and went out a door at the back of the room.
Quill bowed slightly, “Take your rightful places, my lords, my lady.”
Namal and Ayglos bowed in return and walked to the table. There was more than one acceptable way to arrange seating, and normally such things would be determined in part by the nature of the visit and relationship with the host. Namal chose to sit on the right bench, and indicated that Ayglos sit on his right. I sat to Ayglos’s right, and Quill and Vaudrin sat across from Ayglos and I, respectively, leaving the seat across from Namal empty. Perhaps for Ironside’s lady, or if he had a chief warrior or advisor he would want in attendance.
Ayglos leaned in, “Does Iron Sides have a proper name?”
Quill and Vaudrin hesitated.
“Ironsides is his name,” said Vaudrin.
“I think the family name is Bairdwynder,” offered Quill with a shrug.
Iron Sides re-entered the room and to our surprise took the seat across from Namal rather than the seat at the head of the table. “Food is on its way,” he announced cheerfully. “Your people have been arrayed in the day laborer’s hall and will also taste my cook’s wizardly food. She is a miracle worker in this times when spices are hard to come by. Now, I have only one question for you: Are these women with you by their own will?” He leveled a stern glare around the table, but especially at Quill and Vaudrin.
“Yes. We rescued them from the garrison at”—Quill began.
“Stop,” Ironsides held up his hand, “That will suffice. I haven’t decided yet if I want to know what Dalyn’s royal guards are doing this far afield.” He pointed at me and my brothers, “Or who they are.”
“Fair enough,” Quill leaned back. “May we spend the night here? We have traveled hard these past several days. Even your barn would be a welcome refuge.”
“That, I can provide,” replied Ironsides, shedding his stern looks and allowing a smile. “Some of you can even have beds—though I can’t sleep forty in the house! And I am still well situated so I can bolster your provisions a bit for wherever you’re headed.”
“We would be grateful,” put in Namal. “Our path has taken unexpected turns, and we did not prepare for so many mouths to feed.”
“Sounds like a marriage,” laughed Ironsides.
Before anyone could react to Ironsides’s joke, the door to the kitchen opened and a pair of maidservants came in carrying platters of food –two each—and two boys around the age of ten scuttled in behind them carrying plates and silverware. Immediately the delightful smell of roast lamb and garlic filled the room. My mouth started to water and I breathed deeply, it had been a lifetime since I’d had roast lamb. The maidservants skillfully placed the platters in the center of the table and the boys breathlessly plunked the plates and silverware in front of each of us.
As the boys turned to scurry away Ironsides reached out and caught the boys by their britches and tugged them back to him. The boys dissolved into giggles as Ironsides’ arms closed around them. “Friends, these are my sons: Alam and Wyck.” The lads squirmed, laughed, then straightened and stared at us with bright eyed curiosity. “They were supposed to stay in the kitchen, little rascals.” He growled gently at them, and they giggled.
“We were helping!” announced the taller one.
“We’re sorry, sir, we told them to stay behind,” one of the maidservants paused close to Ironsides and scowled at the boys.
“I thought as much,” Ironsides turned the boys around to face him, “There now, you’ve seen the strangers, head back to the kitchen and eat your supper.”
The boys had evidently been hoping for a different verdict and their shoulders drooped. “Yes, sir,” they replied. Their unison that much more impressive considering their gloomy tone.
The boys both kissed their father on the cheek before heading back to the kitchen, this time the maids shooed them along before them. I caught snatches of soft scolding as they exited and the door closed behind them. I looked after them wistfully. Ayglos and I had once haunted the kitchens of Galhara. Cooks are very good friends to have–although they will make you earn your handouts. Or at least ours did. There were times when all four of us would loiter in the kitchens and she would task us with preparing herbs–we would race to see who could strip the most rosemary or lavender.
Ironsides’ voice brought me back to the present. “My apologies,” he said, a smile lingering on his face. “I had thought it would be better to keep my lads out from underfoot—considering the times and not knowing what errand you’ve been about. They are good boys, but like all children have a nose for secrets.”
“Sadly a wise choice, I’m afraid,” replied Namal.
“Say no more,” grunted Ironsides, “Let us eat and be grateful for peace tonight.”
I was certainly grateful—the roasted lamb was as perfect as it smelled; moist and laced with garlic. There was also a spinach pastry drowned in butter, and flat bread with tomatoes, hummus and a bowl of pesto. I ate as if I’d never had food before—and I ate too much. No one talked much during dinner. Ironsides occasionally commented about farming or the weather, but most of us were happy enough to commune with the food. After we finished, the maids came back in and Ironsides asked them to show us to rooms, since we were clearly tired.
My limbs were heavy and I felt like a round decanter brimming dangerously full as I followed one of the maids down a hallway and into a modest little room with a bed. She showed me also where the wash house was, and where the lamps were. I thanked her through my food-stupor, and as soon as she left I kicked off my shoes, collapsed on the bed, and burrowed under the blankets. I was awake just long enough to coo over the touch of a real mattress and then I slept without dreams.