Dide blinked and looked around. It was midday and he sat in the middle of the town square along with the rest of the party as they usually did on days that were not raining or snowing. Today the sun streaked thin through the grey clouds, imparting a mild warmth that was just enough to provoke germination of the winter vegetables languishing in the fields.
A couple of tables sat between them, roughly piled with flasks of harsh liquor and cold roasted meat. Ernat sat hunched forward, desultorily carving his initials even deeper in the table that was already covered in an arabesque of his work. The others slouched or sprawled as was their wont as chickens pecked around their feet.
Drunk, as usual, Dide thought. And only midday, if that. He looked at the diffuse glow of the sun and tried to calculate the time. How long have we been this shit-faced, he wondered. Five days, five weeks, more? He could not remember. His entire time since that first night after the gypsy visit had blurred into a haze.
Dide squeezed his eyes shut and shook his head. Then stretched them open and tried to stand. What the hell was going on? Women were nearby. Some were working: carrying and fetching. Others hovered as if they expected something of him. Many, perhaps all, he recognised as one he’d taken: but when? And who were these kids that scampered nearby that gambolled over to call him Dad? He slapped one away as the snot-nose tried to crawl in his lap and he pushed himself away from the table. He tipped backwards and landed on his back in the mud.
“God’s teeth,” he bellowed and staggered to his feet.
In a fury he tried to draw his sword but it stuck in the scabbard. Looking down he found that his sleave was ragged. So was his tunic. His trews were torn at the knees, and his boots had split. How had he not noticed this? What the hell was happening?!
From a nearby fence Dide heard the familiar, ‘Farrrk,’ of a crow. There were three of them perched in a row and they seemed to be taking a particular interest in his confusion.
“Devil take you, bastard,” he said and drew his pistol. But the spring was unwound, the pan unprimed and rust defaced its surfaces.
“Faaaaark,” repeated the biggest of the crows, who then threw himself into the air and, followed by his two brethren messengers, fled north.
Dide followed their path with his eyes until they focussed on the castle, perched on a sheer outcropping up an impossible mountain. His jaw dropped and he wondered how he had not noticed this outlandish structure before. Or had he? Something tickled his memory, but the enormity of his sudden sobriety came crashing in upon his senses.
“Get up, you ugly bastards,” he shouted, and heaved the table nearest to him on its side, spilling the food and drink into the mud.
Eduare lurched to his feet and started to say some placatory sentence that just from his look Dide suspected would be pathetic and unworthy of hearing. Without allowing the words to form Dide brutally kicked Eduare in the guts. The younger man fell to his hands and knees and started to vomit.
Ernat looked up from his carving and his eyes took on a harder glint. Changing the grip on his dagger he stood. His eyes said murder, but they were also the eyes of someone in a dream. As he stepped around the table Dide knew that Ernat was a better knife fighter than him, but this was not a sober Ernat. This Ernat was, as were they all, drugged, or enchanted, or something.
“You can try, chief,” Dide said, “but not before I’ve beaten you awake.”