The valley seemed peaceful enough until Aiden realized just how quiet it was. He led Narak down the road past the fields, tended for the most part, but several uncharacteristically overgrown. The few people working there looked up in fear as he passed.
The gates to the fortress stood open and he entered. The vast compound was quiet and empty of ordinary daily activity. As in the fields, only a few Clanspeople moved about, gazing at him in mistrust. Aiden realized how he must have looked dressed in southern clothes, carrying strange weapons and leading a fine Calorin stallion.
Several dark figures who lounged on the stairs of the fortress arose and walked toward him. The obvious leader of the group swaggered forward. His clothes were of a style foreign to Braeton but he wore the blue plaid cloak of Clan Canich. His long, blonde hair was pulled back in braids, and he carried a battle-axe which suggested he was from Durna.
“Who are you?” the man demanded rudely in a clipped accent.
“You’re no Braeton and yet you wear the plaid, so maybe I should be asking the questions,” Aiden returned.
“Save your insolence or you’ll answer for it when you come before Adalwulf!”
“Och, it’s not Adalwulf I want tae see.” Aiden’s sudden irritation sent him relapsing into his thick brogue. “I’m looking for Ranulf.”
“All strangers must be announced before Adalwulf. He will decide if you may stay,” the man said arrogantly.
“Last I heard, it was Laird Gòrdan who ruled here and not this Adalwulf!” Aiden’s temper began to flare. “Now get out of my way!”
The Durnian’s jaw dropped open, apparently shocked that Aiden dared to stand up to him. He moved to grab Aiden and bring him inside, but Aiden took hold of the man’s arm, twisting it behind his back, and forcing the man to his knees. Another Durnian moved to help his leader but froze as the point of Aiden’s sword hovered at his throat.
“I’ve no intention of being bullied about. I’ll come and go as I please, and if you try and stop me again, it’s your arm you’ll be losing.” Aiden’s voice was dangerously low as he spoke to the captain. “Now, where is Ranulf?”
When the man did not answer, Aiden twisted his arm harder.
“Inside!” the man groaned.
Aiden glanced up to see a young man staring open-mouthed at the proceedings.
“You there! Get over here!” Aiden called and the young warrior hurried over. “What’s your name?”
“Alec, sir,” the man replied.
“Take my horse tae the stables and see he is well cared for. If he’s not, I’ll take it out on you personally,” Aiden said.
Alec nodded and led Narak away. Aiden gave the Durnian’s arm one last twist and released him.
“The same goes for you two as well,” he threatened the other soldiers. Sheathing his sword, he stepped through them and up the stairs of the fortress.
“Impressive, but you just made a powerful enemy out of Torsten,” said a tall, lean man standing by the huge oaken doors.
“It’s a talent I have of offending all the right people,” Aiden replied. “That great windbag will think twice before next time.”
The man laughed. “Still as cocky as ever, eh, Aiden?”
Aiden saw part of the wildcat tattoo under the man’s rolled up sleeve, and he smiled. “Afraid so, Davy.” He used the brothers’ inexplicable childhood nickname for Ranulf. Bounding up the remaining stairs, he wrapped his brother in a rough embrace, returned affectionately by Ranulf.
“So you finally decided tae come home then?” Ranulf asked.
“Aye, I promised I would,” Aiden replied. “Just like I promised you I’d find you first.”
Ranulf stood back and crossed his arms. “I can’nae tell you how good it is tae see you again! Where have you been?”
“Everywhere,” Aiden said. “I’ve been tae the South, Gelion, and spent time in Aredor. But that’s not important. Ranulf, what happened here?”
“I think it’s best if I tell you in private,” Ranulf said. “Let me find Tam first.”
A fire blazed on the hearth in the middle of the great hall. Benches were shoved against the walls out of the way. Sunlight shone through the few windows, illuminating the long hall and casting shadows among the heavy ceiling beams. Despite the fire and the warm afternoon, the hall remained cold and empty. At one end of the hall on a raised dais stood an empty, ornate wooden chair draped with a wildcat skin. Aiden stared at it for a moment, half expecting to see his father sitting there and glaring angrily at him.
“Here he is now! Tam!” Ranulf shouted at a figure crossing the other end of the hall.
Tamhas acknowledged Ranulf’s hail and came over to them. Aiden studied his younger brother curiously. A young man of twenty-three now, he had the same green eyes as the rest of the brothers. Tousled black hair framed an open face with a puckish grin. He was slim and muscular and carried himself with an easy grace.
“What’s happening? Torsten stormed through here looking for Adalwulf,” Tam asked Ranulf.
“Our new arrival managed tae upset him a little. You’ll now have tae deal directly with Adalwulf. He’s not easy tae bargain with,” Ranulf told Aiden.
“I’m not worried, Davy. I’ve always preferred being announced,” Aiden said.
“That’s grand, but Torsten won’t rest until he’s killed you.” Tam turned to Aiden.
“Don’t fret, Tam! I’ve faced worse than that scoundrel,” Aiden said cheerfully.
Tam frowned in puzzled surprise. “Do I know you?”
“Och, it’s a sad day when you can’nae recognize your own brother!” Aiden said.
“Unbelievable! Aiden, you’re back!” Tam exclaimed, stepping into an embrace.
Ranulf forestalled the flood of questions Tam was about to unleash by saying, “Let’s go tae our old meeting place, and we’ll tell you everything.”