‘He was well when last I saw him.’ Conn was amazed that his voice remained soft and friendly.

‘You are very young to be trusted by Garshon.’

‘I did him a service.’ Conn glanced again at the wall behind Diatka. ‘You have some very unusual ornaments. Where does that come from?’ asked Conn, pointing to the bronze shield. Diatka turned.

‘The lion shield? It is a nice piece. It came from a burial mound in the east. I had thought to sell it in Stone. The eyes of the lion are rubies. Very valuable gems.’ He turned back. ‘You are not drinking your wine. Is it not to your taste?’

‘I was taught to wait for my elders to drink,’ said Conn.

‘Ah, a good upbringing. These days so few people seem to care about such courtesies.’ Diatka lifted his goblet and drank deeply. Conn followed him. The wine was rich and red, full of flavour.

‘It is very good,’ said Conn. ‘Perhaps the best I have tasted.’

‘It is from the south,’ said Diatka. ‘So, tell me, young man, why are you telling me lies?’


‘Rigante hides are always sold by Banouin, as indeed are the trinkets made by Riamfada. You were not sent by Garshon.’

‘No, I was not,’ admitted Conn. ‘I travelled here with my friend. He came to see you last night. Now he is dead. How did that happen? How did they catch him so quickly?’

‘I drugged his wine,’ said Diatka. ‘Then, while he was sleeping I sent a servant to Carac. It saddened me to treat poor Banouin in that fashion, but, as I said, trade has been difficult and I had been forced to use most of his gold to remain in business. In short, I could not pay him.’

‘You had him killed for money,’ said Conn. ‘What kind of a man are you?’

‘I am a merchant. I deal in trade. And I made a trade with Carac. Needs must, young man, when poverty beckons.’

‘I shall avenge him,’ said Conn. ‘I will kill you very slowly, and with great pain. As you are dying perhaps the thought of the money you made will bring you relief.’

Diatka chuckled. ‘I do not think so, young man. I am long in the tooth, and knew instantly you posed a danger to me. Your wine was also drugged. Try to move your legs. You will find you cannot. The legs are the first affected, then the hands. Lastly you

will fall unconscious. Unlike Banouin you will not wake up, for I gave you a very large dose. There will be no pain.’

Conn took a deep breath, then rose from his chair. Diatka was startled. His eyes widened and he also tried to rise. His hands gripped the arms of the chair, but he did not move. ‘I switched the goblets,’ said Conn, ‘when you were telling me about the shield. A lion with eyes of blood. Did you know that a witch told Banouin not to accept wine if he saw such a beast?’

‘No, no, no,’ whimpered Diatka. ‘I cannot die!’ Conn moved to a shelf and pulled clear a long, linen scarf. Approaching Diatka he slapped down the man’s flailing arms and swiftly gagged him.

Then he moved to the fire, lifting a poker and thrusting it deep into the flames. ‘Oh you will die,’ he said, his voice cold. ‘I saw my friend, hanging from a hook. They had put out one of his eyes. With a hot iron, I think. Soon you will know how he felt.’ From outside came the sound of children’s laughter, and the patter of feet as the group ran by. Conn turned the poker in the flames. ‘You hear that sound, merchant? I promise you that the days of laughter for the Perdii are close to an end. I will do all in my power to wipe your tribe from the face of the earth. I will hunt them and kill them as if they were vermin. Know this as you die!’

Pulling the red-hot poker from the coals he advanced on the stricken man.

Ruathain was close to death when Arbon and two other herdsmen found him. He was sitting propped against a tree on the edge of the woods at High Pasture, unconscious, a bloody knife in his hand. Four dead Pannone warriors lay nearby. Arbon ran to his lord, and knelt by his side. Ruathain’s green tunic was drenched with blood. Ripping it open Arbon found four stab wounds, two high in the left shoulder, a third under the right collarbone, the fourth low down above Ruathain’s left hip. Ruathain’s eyes flickered open. His face was grey and drawn, his eyes fever bright.

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Categories: David Gemmell