They reached the manse a little before noon. It was built in a nook below the ridgeline, surrounded by trees above and beside it that reached down the slope to border the meadow where several horses and a cow grazed. Of the buildings there was the manse itself, a barn, what looked like a woodshed and an elevated pigeon loft. The buildings were surrounded by a low stone wall with a couple of gates in it and inside that boundary Tarrascotti could see chickens and geese going about their business. It looked every inch a solid farmyard, but as far he could see there was no actual farmland.
They were expected. It was a warrior priestess of Navira Sharptooth who met them at the gate, an older woman with greying hair and an athletic body. “You’re late,” she commented, humour in her voice, “two weeks late.”
“We would have been here sooner,” replied Katinka, “but our husband tried to get himself killed by a rabid bear just before we met him.”
“So your message said,” the older woman acknowledged. She looked Tarrascotti over, “He looks quite well for someone a bear tried to kill. You three must be good for him.”
“We like to think so.” Sofia was swinging herself down from her horse, “You must be Silvana.”
“I am,” the older woman opened the gate. “House Mistress Lucretia and Nella left two weeks ago to go to their new postings, so I’m afraid the house probably isn’t up to your standards. I admit I plan to show you around and leave almost straight away. I’m supposed to overwinter at Penoa but the stars have been bright and cold these last few nights – I think winter’s no more than a week off so I need to make the most of these few days.”
She let them into the farm enclosure and led them to the barn, talking the whole time – not from garrulousness but to convey necessary information as efficiently as possible. She covered stabling, the remounts in the field, the cow and the poultry, animal fodder and the carrier pigeons in the loft. Tarrascotti noted that his wives seemed to be taking the information in effortlessly. Apparently they all knew exactly what sort of establishment they’d come to.
Silvana surprised them all by adding onto her comments about pigeon breeding, “That reminds me, Katinka, your old pack sisters sent you a message thanking you for your recommendation and said the arrangement seemed to be working out well for this winter.”
“Recommendation?” That was Ellabetta but Tarrascotti and Sofia were looking at her curiously too.
“My pack sisters wanted a man to den up with them for the winter,” explained Katinka, “and I suggested Tarrascotti’s friend, Luca, the wolf priest. He’s smart, thinks as he ought to about what’s important, is good in a crisis, isn’t bad looking and I think he will make strong, healthy babies. He’s not attached and he needs to overwinter somewhere.”
“That description almost makes me wish I was going to overwinter with your pack sisters,” commented Silvana, “but at Penoa I can see my son and his family.”
“I thought Luca was going over the pass to Belhedi,” commented Tarrascotti. “He said something about a cave system there being important.”
“No-one can get through the low pass,” commented Silvana, “there’s been a landslide. The king’s men have been working on it for almost a month but it won’t be open again until next autumn.”
Tarrascotti did some sums in his head. “Given when he left the village, if he got anywhere near the low pass before he found out it was closed, then he hasn’t had time to get over the high pass. I don’t know how your pack sisters persuaded him to stay with them, my dear,” he told Katinka, “but if winter is only a week away, they may have saved his life. The high ranges in winter is no place to be alone on foot.”
“My pack sisters can be very persuasive when they want to be,” Katinka tossed a smile at him, “and the wolf priest isn’t stupid – the time might have been what decided him to accept.” Her eyes widened as the penny dropped. “Wolf priest, wolf cubs” and she giggled. “There were a lot of wolf cubs in my dream.”