12. A Mutiny and a Bounty

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Moribus paced outside the stone overhang with drawn sword, awaiting his master's return. Though the morning sun was blazing, it remained bitterly cold on the hilltop, and his breath frosted on the thin air. He held up the blade to regard his reflection in the pitted steel. Lack of sleep had left him looking red-eyed and feral. He breathed out heavily, clouding it over. Don't do anything rash, he counseled himself. Just play the loyal squire for a little while longer. But when he flipped the sword over, his haunted reflection returned. Is this what Pagun thought before he died? How long before the knight kills you too?

His overworked mind flipped back and forth between conspiracy and conjecture. So the knight had misled people into thinking he had slain hordes of dragons. What was the harm in that? As for killing, the injured Marduke had already been on death's doorstep, and there was no real proof he had done in his former squire, only suspicions. Accidents happened all the time, especially in a business as perilous as dragon-slaying. The hillside massacre was proof of that. On the other hand, if Lord Manerion did turn out to be a murderous fraud, then Moribus was in deathly peril. Even if he managed to survive, what did that make him by extension? So many questions, and so few paths that led back to Alvaron and safety.

What tormented him most was the thought that he might never again lay eyes on Meglinda again. He could picture her standing beneath the laurel oak, her almond eyes radiant in the sun. Would he ever get to stroke her pearly skin again?

He was still wrestling with these thoughts when the knight came around a bend in the path below, whistling a spritely tune as he tossed a stone in one hand. Moribus felt something rigid lock into place inside him, and he knew his course was set. He could endure the knight's insults and squally tempers, had grown used to them in fact, but this new jauntiness in the face of tragedy deeply unsettled him.

Moribus blocked the knight's path, holding his sword out before him. He had spent several sleepless hours composing a damning soliloquy for the occasion, but in the light of day, the words seemed overwrought and silly. "Stay right where you are," was all he could manage.

Lord Manerion stopped short. "Have you lost your wits, boy? What is the meaning of this?" He took a step forward.

"I said stay where you are!" Moribus cocked the sword. "Or so help me Rhojë, I will strike you."

"Easy there, boy." Lord Manerion spread his palms out placatingly. "If it's more lessons you want, I'm afraid the time for lessons is over. We've a real dragon to slay now, and that little tickle-stick of yours won't be of any use. So how about you put it down and go about your chores like a good little squire."

"I don't want any more lessons from you," Moribus said, marshaling his resolve. The knight sounded too calm, too reasonable, too much like his own inner voice urging him to back down. "I'm not putting down the sword until I get some answers."

"I see." The knight rolled the stone over his fingers as he coolly digested the situation. "Gone craven on me, is that it? Caught your first glimpse of death, and now you want to go crawling back to a warm bosom. Not that I blame you. Why, if I had a pretty damsel like yours, I would make a tent out of her skirts and camp inside them."

The knight had picked a bad time to make a bawdy jest. Moribus thrust the point of his sword underneath his chin. "How dare you speak of the Lady Meglinda like that!"

Lord Manerion raised his chin to expose more of his neck. "Go ahead and finish it, boy. Just make sure you get in a good, clean strike. I can't stand messy work. Just tell me one thing. How much are they paying you? If it's any less than a thousand crowns you were bought for too cheap."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Don't play me for the fool, boy. Who are you working for? Lord Tracheron? Lady Brandywine? The Legateen council?"

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