‘You missed a good story in the inn last night.’
Helm shrugged. ‘I have little time for storytellers. They’re all liars.’
Tolg sat down beside the shepherd, both watching the sheep. ‘Oh, this storyteller is new. He hasn’t visited our village before.’
Helm muttered his thanks as Tolg passed him the wine bottle. Helm drank deep; watching sheep was a thirsty business.
‘Anyway,’ Tolg said. ‘This storyteller told us a new tale – about the Queen of Amboria.’
Helm stopped drinking. ‘Where?’
‘Never heard of it.’ Helm swallowed, even though he was clutching the bottle in both hands where it rested on his lap.
‘This story was about the Queen of Amboria. According to the tale, they say she was so beautiful her face launched a thousand ships. ‘
Helm turned to Tolg. ‘How?’
‘I didn’t know. Apparently, the king of this place, Amboria, kidnapped her from her rightful husband in some other land. The other king – her proper husband – was so angered by this he sent a fleet of ships to get her back from this Amboria place.’
Helm didn’t reply. He’d handed the bottle back to Tolg. Storytelling was a thirsty business too.
Now Helm was rubbing the stub of the finger he’d said a wolf bit off long before he and his wife arrived at the village.
Helm and Ariana were newcomers in Janera, but they’d fitted in well. At first, many of the wives suspected Ariana and her beauty. But Ariana had eyes for only her husband, Helm. Soon she was good friends with the women in the village, much as Helm was popular with the men. His only fault being that he seemed to prefer the company of his sheep on the hillsides to the company of men in the Inn.
‘The army laid siege to the city for more than a year, trying to get their queen back. Many hundreds of soldiers on both sides died. The people in the city starved. But still they would not give up their new queen.’
‘Really?’ Helm did not seem impressed. ‘All that for a woman?’
‘You have a beautiful wife,’ Tolg said. ‘What would you do for her?’
‘Anything.’ Helm shook his head. ‘Everything.’
Helm nodded, still massaging his finger stump as though it pained him.
‘Eventually the city fell. The fighting was vicious, hard and deadly. Both armies fought each other to the death for each building or ruin. The siege army broke through the last of the defenders, all of them weak with hunger and disease.‘ Tolg watched the sheep for a while. He took another drink. ‘The king and his troops broke through to the palace. They killed Amboria’s king. At last, the other king would get his queen back. They broke down the doors to her rooms. But the room was empty. The queen had gone. Disappeared completely.’
‘That’s not much of a story,’ Helm stood.
‘Wait… there is more.’ Tolg stood too. ‘There was a mystery.’
‘I don’t have time for mystery.’
‘But listen. Apparently, this Queen was never seen again. She disappeared. When they checked the bodies they found the captain of her bodyguard had disappeared too.’
‘Sounds like this storyteller fooled you all with some made up nonsense.’
‘No. he swore it was true.’ Tolg said. ‘I’ll tell you something else. This bodyguard had a nickname. Ninefingers, they called him. It seems he’d lost a finger, just like you. Isn’t that an interesting coincidence?’
‘People lose fingers all the time.’ Helm turned to watch his sheep grazing on the hillside. ‘I knew a man once lost three fingers to drink.’
‘To drink? How?’
‘He came back home two days late from celebrating selling his sheep flock at the market. His wife slammed the door on him.’
‘He was using the door jamb to hold himself up.’
Tolg winced. ‘That reminds me, I must get back home before my wife forgets who I am and slams the door in my face. Anyway, how is that beautiful wife of yours?’