Stépan Gladic roused his troop of young knights in training, nearly three dozen men in all, and set them to work preparing their horses and armour. Those who had made the long and hurried trip back to Douma with Duke Jiri were still tired and stiff, they grumbled to be turned out into the stable yard. Despite the privileged origins of most of this group, Stépan had forbidden them the service of squires until they completed their training. Until that time, they had the rank of common soldiers and they had to work alongside the common men tending the animals and their own kit. Stépan had set a personal example in their training, himself working in the stables and in the mud, training riders, teaching the use of sword and lance, shoeing the horses and seeing to their health. The regular cavalry troopers, mostly an experienced and competent lot who were used to Stépan’s egalitarian leadership, followed his example and looked at the young blue bloods with a mentoring, if sceptical, eye. Stépan managed to forge his polyglot group into a professional and loyal force of cavalry, probably the finest in Syldavia, and had produced a number of sound young officers. Duke Jiri had desperate need of both and so was happy to indulge Stépan’s non-aristocratic vision of command. His efforts were worthwhile, having produced capable and trustworthy officers such as Matija Cjerci, the messenger who had swum the Wladir in the night and evaded patrols to summon Jiri back to Douma. Most of the younger vassal knights living on feudal domains scattered through the Duchy had passed through the same training and they provided a stiff backbone for Hum’s small army.
Hearing the church bells clanging out the noon of the day, Stépan remembered the Duchess’ whispered command to him “…Be at the Market at Noon…”. He gave the troops, suddenly stern-faced, their marching orders and then walked out of the Bailey and down into the town to the market square. He stopped at a brewer’s stand at the edge of the market, where he bought a cup of thin beer and waited, looking over the crowd therein. It was busy with anxious townspeople filling baskets with food and necessities with a sense of anxious urgency. Across the market, beyond the stalls and people milling about, Stépan caught sight of a tall black-cloaked man standing in front of St. Gabriel’s Way, a side street Stépan knew well. The man looked straight at Stépan and touched his brow in salute. He then turned and disappeared into the side street. Stépan muttered to himself Naught but trouble and war awaits you down there, Stépan and then looked sadly up in to the arms of a tall tree in the middle of market. For a moment he watched larks flitting about the branches there and listened to their song. He was jarred back to reality by two loud oafs beside him at the brewer’s stand who, besotted despite the early hour, loudly speculated about the disposition of the rebels and of the intentions of both the Bordurians and of Duke Jiri. Stépan took a last sip of his tepid beer, put down his cup and headed off down St. Gabriel’s Way after the black-clad man.
Stépan quickly left the commotion of the market behind as he followed the twisting course of the ancient and narrow lane. Looking down the road and into courtyard gates, he saw no one except a few children and stay dogs. Finally, rounding a curve, Stépan finally came upon a place where the road widened and there was the black-clad man, tending the harness of a horse tied to a fence post. His cloak, tattered and made of plain cloth, was stained with road dust; the chape of a scabbard poked out from its dirty hem. His leather boots were considerably finer work. The horse was a powerful and well-made beast, dark charcoal in colour and as dusty as his master.
At Stépan’s approach, the man looked up. “Blessings upon you, Stépan Gladic”, ” he said quietly. He narrowed his eyes a little as he spoke, the affectation gave him a distinctly appraising look.
“And upon you. I have been half-expecting to see you turn up for some time now” replied Stépan. The tone of both was formal and a little chilly.
“Ha! Have you now? Well, I have been all over Hell’s half-acre for days on end now, looking for you, and your blessed Duke! I just missed you at Djordjevaro, you dropped quite out of sight after that…”.
“So much the better. We were trying to avoid being seen” said Stépan.
“Duke Jiri the hunter found himself the hunted, eh? He didn’t expect that, no doubt … Well, you did well to stay out of sight, I wager that the Governor would have found an excuse to keep you as guests if you had passed by Djordjevaro. I dared put my foot no further into that trap”.
Stépan remembered but did not mention the measures they had taken to remain out of sight, just two days ago .
The visitor continued “So, my good Stépan, what do have you to tell me, what are the Duke’s plans?
“We are to muster all available men immediately and march for Starisveta. The Duke leaves tommorow”
The visitor sighed. “Hmph… The Duke means to smash the rebel force?”
“He means to disperse them at least. It is his Duchy, would you expect less of him? The Bordurians are pressuring him to intervene”, said Stépan.
The visitor replied : “Of course they are. Look, I must speak in private with the Duke as soon as possible …”
Sépan interjected “Here? Now? Is that wise? My orders are to leave at once and the Duke is with his men, very much in sight… Besides, with that Baron Dokovic here, there must be spies as well”.
The visitor thought a moment. “No, you are right. It would be better to meet when he is out of Douma. I shall wait for him at the monastery of St. Narcissus at Starisveta, what is left of it. Can you bring him there? It is vital…”.
“Yes, this can be done” replied Stépan.
“Good, I will leave immediately” said the visitor, unhitching his horse. “You will not be molested at Starisveta so long as you do not attack. Good luck to you Stépan and godspeed. We shall meet again ar Starisveta.
“Good luck to us all, my lord” said Stépan
Mounting quickly, the man went off down the street in a clatter of hooves, nearly running over a beggar. And then he was gone.
An hour later Stépan was himself on the road to Zilusi with his troop of knights in training and a short wagon train of supplies.