They realised that she was gone when the minstrel finished singing and no drinks came round for the table just below the salt. A quick search found not dereliction as her mother had first suspected but disappearance. The Companions, the guests of honour second only to the king, deserted the high table and went to search for their friend.
When they too returned unable to find her it was Prince Richard, the Kings uncle and always at his nephew’s side, who asked the pertinent questions.
“If the young lady was so important to the quest, why was she not a guest of honour too?” Prince Richard asked this pensively while regarding the wine in the depths of his goblet.
Lady Jais, the missing one’s mother and wife of the castellan, Sir Jais, said tartly, “It would have done her no kindness to have her at the high table, Your Highness. My daughter has no dowry, she will always have to work for her living so there is no point in her learning to play the great lady. If she’s going to get a husband, it will be a man like those at the table she was serving at.” The war captains, guard captains and watch captains had been seated there. “For them, the ability to live in equanimity for months while trekking vast distances might be an advantage, but they’d still,” she added savagely, “Prefer a wife with lands or a fat purse in dower.”
“Could she not make her own way in the world?” The prince seemed to be examining his finger nails. The king was said to keep his uncle close because he had planned not to give up the regency.
“As if she’d ever garner enough for even a steading of her own,” Lady Jais sounded exasperated, “Doing that. It would be very well at her age, or even mine, but if she lives to be an old woman, whose fire would she sit beside? Who would care for her?” She shook her head, “No, Your Highness. Hard work, an earned place in a household and hopefully a husband, followed by children will serve her better.”
“So what did she do on this great journey that merited an honour she didn’t receive?” continued Prince Richard, looking hard at the heroes. “Specifics please, not just the heroics of keeping you from sickening yourselves with poison mushrooms, bad meat and the like.”
“Because she was with us, Queen Rosemane let us pass through her lands,” volunteered the first.
“Queen Rosemane’s views on the supervision of men are well known,” the king interjected drily, “What else?”
“She watched our backs in that fight in Corusc,” said the second, “And none of those blasted bats got away.” The others murmured agreement.
“What did she use,” interjected her mother, “A frying pan?”
“Yes,” was the calm response.
“Oh,” piped up a third member of the group, “And she got the Shale to help us in the final confrontation with Morarc.”
“Indeed,” the prince was very interested, “What was his price?”
The two leading heroes looked at each other, then one answered, “She never said anything about a price.”
“The Shale,” pointed out the Prince flatly, “Is one of Them. They never do anything without due payment.”
Elsewhere, Aisna stood in the doorway looking up at the...knight on his great horse, just outside threshold. “Of course I came,” she was saying, “We have a bargain. You’ve kept your half of the deal, now its time for me to keep mine.”
“Very well,” the voice was very male, “Take off your shoes and stockings, leave them on that side of the door and climb behind me.”
The Prince was saying, “So the only thing she would have had to bargain with was herself.” The Companions and her parents looked at each other uneasily. “Stop looking for the girl, and look for her footwear on this side of an external doorway.”
“But...,” her mother had blanched.
“Go look, if you truly want her back there may be time to get to them before he takes her on the Moonlit Path.”
Aisna put her hand in his proffered one, her bare foot on his stirruped boot, and by both their efforts she was swung up astride onto the expanse of saddle blanket behind him. “You’ll want this,” he said, shook out the roll of cloth that he’d held before him and with a practiced flick, settled the cloak around her. “Do it up, tuck it around you, then put your arms around me.”
“If we want her back?” Sir Jais, appalled, spoke for the first time.
“Your wife has pointed out that this daughter has few prospects,” Prince Richard said smoothly, “This would settle her future.”
“What would you give him instead of her in payment of the bargain?” It was the king who spoke, looking at the castellan and his wife steadily with his famous blue eyes. “She did us all a great service, I would have dowered her for a good man. What would you offer a man who wanted only her in return for his help? Come to that, if it’s her he wants, what could I offer him?”
Someone ran back into the room, “Sire, Highness, m’lords and ladies,” he bowed, “We’ve found her shoes and stockings at the east postern. Marsen has set off on foot after them. Aldburgh has called for the horses but the mist is rising.” He left in as much of a hurry as he’d come.
“There is something else to be considered,” the Prince spoke as Sir Jais was lowering his now sobbing wife into a chair, “She is light on her feet, is she not? Her journey shows she is capable of some amazing things. Almost to her majority and not married? And perhaps she is a little difficult?” Lady Jais nodded. “They are the lords of light and air. The Shale is one, perhaps she is too – they are born among us sometimes.” Lady Jais’ tears redoubled. “Perhaps he regards this as a rescue for one born among the folk of earth and fire?”
Marsen ran as fast as he could in the moonlight and rising mist, following the great hoof prints. He wished he’d not eaten and drunk so well tonight, but this was important. He could tell from the tracks that the horse was only walking, he should be able to catch it. Finally ahead of him, “Aisna, wait!” The horse stopped and both riders turned their faces towards him. When he reached them, he could not speak at first, just huff and puff to catch his breath.
“Well?” The male rider’s voice had an odd echo to it, as if he were speaking with more than one voice. “Do you think to trade me for her?”
“She’s our friend, we were worried,” he panted. “Aisna, what’s going on?”
“I agreed to go with the Shale if he helped us against Morarc.” She shrugged, “It’s time to pay up.”
“But you didn’t say good bye,” Marsen pointed out, “We are friends."
“I’m sorry,” and she sounded it, “But I had to go then or be in breach of our agreement. Goodbye, Marsen and please say good bye to the others for me.”
“We have to leave,” the male rider hesitated, “If, as her friend, you wish to see her again, you might look for us at the Lowe river crossing, the day after autumn equinox in any year.” He moved the horse on and Marsen was soon alone in the rising mist. The image that remained with him was of a knight bearing home a lost child.