As the sun’s light crept deeper and deeper into the courtyard, Roderick’s men pushed deeper and deeper into the keep, aided by the knight and the smuggler who were already inside. By the time that dawn had become morning, the keep had been retaken. They found the Moirai sitting passively on the edge of his cot in what had once been the Ambassador’s rooms; his caretaker, Rogosh, missing from the both the living and the dead Kargs.
Gyles oversaw the binding and gagging of both the surviving Norn and the Morai.
“The gags are not to be removed for any reason. If they must have water – and I mean must – it will be done only with a knife to their throat. If either make so much as a grunt while they drinking, you must cut their throats. Their words will twist your mind and bend you to their will.”
The would-be jailors, selected from among Roderick’s men-at-arms, looked at the young smuggler with wide eyes and blank faces as they nodded and carted the strange Kargs away. Aedan and Gyles delivered Roger into the care of the Keep’s healer, an older man who had taken refuge in the kitchen by pretending to be one of the cooks and then went to find Alistair.
The Alchemist was staring idly off the courtyard walls in the direction of Edmunton. Not far from him, Lord Roderick oversaw the remaining men-at-arms as they gathered the dead for burning. A wagon had been placed sideways across the damaged gates, ensuring that they would stay closed despite their damage.
“Ser Aedan, Master Gyles.”, the Baron nodded, “I am afraid to ask but…did you find the Heir of Summerfield?”
“We did, just in time. The Kargs were torturing him.”, Aedan glanced at the men working.
“Ser Aedan, modest again. Lord Roderick, Ser Aedan challenged the Kargish warchief to combat and skewered him like a spit on feast day.”
Aedan inclined his head.
“It seems as if your reputation as the Hammerhand is well earned, Ser Aedan. My thanks to you yet again, and to you Master Gyles and Master Alistair. Master Alistair’s….device….was a strange thing to behold but powerful. It did as he said it would and blew open the gates with a great thunderclap.”
Alistair cast a sidelong glance at the smuggler and smirked but did not turn to face the conversation.
“Baron, I hate to burden you with more news but we have captured one of their….sorcerers, and another creature they call a Moirai. I believe the sorcerer, they call him a Norn – that he is able to weave his sorcery through the eyes and mouth of the Moirai, even when they are separated. So, in some ways, they are both sorcerers. We captured, bound and gagged them both. What is it that you would have done with these men? They are very dangerous.”
Alistair made a fluttering motion with one hand and then rolled his eyes in silence.
“You seem to know more of them then I do, Master Gyles. So as any good captain might, I would have your counsel on the matter.”
Gyles inclined his head in gratitude, “With some help, I would like to put questions to the captured Kargs and determine how they managed their escape. If my thoughts about the Moirai are proved true, I would say they should be executed as soon as possible. Should it be public, Baron?”
Now it was Lord Roderick’s turn and gaze out into the misty distance. He thought for a moment, “No, I should think everyone has seen enough bloodshed in these past few weeks. Do it privately, if your inquiries lead you to such a decision. I trust Ser Aedan can assist you in such matters and will swear for your findings.”
Both the smuggler and the knight nodded, bid farewell and descended the stairs to the courtyard. The Alchemist peeled himself off of the walls and followed quietly in their wake.
It took Gyles only a few hours to find a handful of kitchen staff who pieced together the tale of the escape. It turned out Marissa was the source of their knowledge.
She had arrived to pick up the dishes from the evening meal, chatted with the jailors and was just ascending the stairs when it happened. There was shouting behind the thick wooden door, and the two jailors quickly threw it open to investigate. Peeking around the corner of the stairs, she had seen the Moirai standing on its tiptoes, body taut, shouting in a voice that was not its own. The guards had drawn their weapons just as the cell doors had flown open. The Kargish bodyguards had been ready and they charged out. Marissa had not stayed to watch the end of the tale but others confirmed that the Kargs had crept out and opened the gates for their waiting companions.
From there, Gyles and Aedan had recruited Soren and Alistair for another venture into the dungeons. As he had done before, Gyles had a table and chair placed in a nearby room and then asked that Kargish soldiers be brought there one by one. Each Karg arrived to a crowded room of unfriendly faces – Aedan held the dead warchief’s axe, Alistair stood with arms crossed and narrow eyes, and the youngest of them all sat across the table and would not take his eyes from their own. Their former ally barked sharp questions at them in their own tongue, demanding that they break one of their most sacred taboos.
It was the seventh Karg who bent to their will and answered their questions. Among other things, he told them that it was not just Yardros that could weave his magicks through the Moirai in their dungeon, but that any Norn could do so. Gyles ordered the jailors to give the man extra rations and to make sure the other prisoners saw as much.
When Alistair and Soren departed, Aedan and Gyles shared a long look of understanding. Without speaking, they wound their way up to the courtyard and secured one of the small sheds used to store wood and hay.
“How should we do this?”, Gyles said aloud without removing his gaze from the floor of the shed, “I have made the sentence, so I should deliver the punishment….but I am afraid I do not have the skill for it.”
“There are no crowds to see this so there is no need for something fanciful. Make it simple. Draw your knife across their throats like you are slaughtering a pig.”
The smuggler exhaled forcefully, “I have not done that either but I get your meaning.”
They returned to the dungeons – in what had become a familiar journey – and spoke with the men-at-arms there. The Norn was given over to them, and the wizard was marched up through the stairs and out into the woodshed, where he was forced to his knees by Aedan. Gyles produced a long knife, and let loose a slow breath.
“Yardros, Norn of the Kord, you are found guilty of theft, torture and waging war against the Barony of Irons Bay….”
“And the murder of Lord Humphrey.”, Aedan added flatly.
Gyles glanced up and then back to Norn, “Your sentence is death.”
The young smuggler moved swiftly. The tip of the blade drew blood on the side of the Norn’s neck, and Gyles’ will washed away with it. His hand froze and the sorcerer, knowing now his fate, began to howl behind his gag and struggle beneath Aedan’s grasp.
Aedan drew his own knife with his free hand, “This is how you do it, lad.”
He drew it across the sorcerer’s throat in a sudden wash of blood that splashed across their boots. The wizard’s legs twitched between Aedan’s own feet before settling into stillness. They repeated their grim business a second time, this time bloody-booted and retrieving the Moirai. In the dimness of the woodshed, Gyles repeated the charges, his findings, and the punishment but he did not attempt to mete it out himself.
For a second time, Aedan’s knife did its work.
- * * * * * *
By sunset, the keep had regained some sense of order. The courtyard still bore the marks of last night’s battle but the bodies had been disposed of and things put back in their places. Lord Roderick’s dinner table was a motley assembly – a battered Heir of Summerfield, the merchant Soren, the three companions, Roderick’s own captain, and a handful of knights that had performed admirably in the battle. He thanked the assembled men for their efforts in throwing down the Kargs, raised his glass in a toast and the meal commenced.
Among the quiet clinking of silverware and conversation, Gyles raised his voice, “Lord Roderick, I have news from the prisoners.”
The noise around the table slowed and stopped as the knights and captain turned to face the young smuggler.
“We questioned several of the Kargs earlier today. Our guesses were confirmed, it was the Norn and the Moirai who used their sorcery to escape the jails and open the gates. They were too dangerous to have among us….so they have been executed.”
Roderick nodded slightly among the murmuring of the table, “I trust in your decision, Master Gyles.”
“The Kargish fighters also told us that a larger force has already been summoned to aid them here; they have already sent for their people.”
“Their messages fly faster than any birds.”, Aedan said flatly.
“Indeed, they do, Ser Aedan.”, the young smuggler agreed.
“How is that, Master Gyles?”, Lord Roderick’s brow furrowed.
“Yes, how is that Master Gyles?”, Alistair said as he lifted his cup.
“The men known as Norns…the twins…enter a waking sleep; it allows them to communicate with one another across great distances.”
Alistair rolled his eyes and the knights around the table continued to murmur.
“Such insights will aid us in our battle against them. Thank you, Master Gyles. We have long known that the Kargs have their run of Eastvale so it would not surprise me if their allies came from there. We will dispatch scouts tomorrow.”
“My lord, I would like to continue questioning the prisoners with your permission.”
“Of course, Master Gyles. Your work has already yielded benefits, I would welcome more of it.”
“Thank you, my lord. Maser Soren, has been very valuable to us and to the Ironbark’s cause.”, the smuggler motioned to where the merchant was seated, “He told us much of what we know and he speaks their language. We would not have been able to question the prisoners without him”
“Yes, Lord Summerfield has mentioned him. It is the Heir’s opinion that Master Soren receive particular rights to the iron ore of the mine. If what you are saying is true, I am inclined to grant them.”
“Very much so, Baron. While the mines are reopened, we could make use of his skills and knowledge of the Kargs here at the keep.”
Lord Roderick nodded.
Soren lifted his glass, “My thanks to many of you at this very table. Baron Roderick and Lord Summerfield for your trust in me and the honor of houses. And Master Gyles, for showing me that I had chosen poorly.”
Roderick, Roger and Gyles lifted their glasses in return.
“Gyles has reminded me of something that Soren said.”, Alistair sat back in his chair, shortened finger tapping on the arm, “He said that he has never seen a Kargish crossbow, and that mail, even among their best fighters, is rare. I think that tells us something very special about them.”
“What is that?”, Aedan asked his friend.
“It tells us that they cannot construct the same things that we can. Perhaps they cannot properly build a mine shaft, or the pulley of a crossbow. Perhaps they have lost that knowledge, or never had it. Perhaps the only way they have ever acquired such things is by force.”
“It explains why they fought so desperately for the mine and its iron.”, Aedan offered.
“Yes, but the crossbow is the secret.”, Alistair smiled devilishly, “If they have no crossbows, they have no siege equipment. No knowledge of how to build such mechanisms.”
Confused looks surfaced around the table.
“I would think if you built two trebuchets within the safety of the courtyard, the Kargs will not only be terrified of the destruction they cause, but they will have few ideas on what to do about them.”
The confused looks turned into smiles and chuckles as Lord Roderick responded, “A fine idea, Master Alistair. We should embark upon it. Ser Aedan, while you recover from your injuries, would you be willing to lend us your mind? I would appreciate having someone who knows the enemy as well as you do at our counsels.”
Aedan inclined his head, “Of course, my lord. Thank you for the invitation.”
“Lord Roderick, what will become of the villagers? They have no homes or fields to return to – could they not be given duties here in exchange for shelter? Perhaps they could aid Alistair’s efforts; I am sure more than one of them can put a saw and hammer to use.”
Once again, the Baron of Ironbark nodded in contemplation, “I had overlooked them in the business of retaking the keep but you are correct – you have a wise and thoughtful mind, Master Gyles. Are you sure you are not from some lost, noble lineage? You would make a fine lord.”
The nobleman smiled warmly, which elicited good cheer from the men gathered around his table – all of them, that is, except for the man known as The Alchemist.
- * * * * * * *
When dinner had finished along with the conversation, and men had drifted off in their separate ways, Alistair found himself facing the familiar door to the keep’s solar. I am sick of being in noblemen’s solars. The thought flashed across his mind as he knocked and was admitted.
He found Roderick seated at a desk, a great map of the Ironbark lands unrolled before him. He looked up, “Master Alistair, have you come to discuss your plans for the courtyard?”
Alistair smirked, “Of a sorts. I am afraid we are not all men of means, here, Roderick. I am not Aedan of Aerondel, or Roger Winton. A month ago, my good friend asked me to help him and I agreed, without any thought of wages.”
The Baron of Ironbark shifted in his seat, his lips began to purse.
“We have done good work in good faith. But I am a tradesman, not a man of wealth and what you ask me to do here, is the very nature of my craft.”
“And you wish to be paid for it?”, Lord Roderick steepled his fingers.
Alistair ran the fingers of his left hand over his mustache and beard, “If sellsword captains and bands of treasure seekers are capable of paying my fees, I expect you should be as well….so, yes.”
Roderick’s eyes narrowed in a flash of anger. He inhaled sharply, “These are special days, Master Alistair. I would urge you to remember that. The House of Ironbark will pay you for your work and in exchange for those wages, you will oversee the repair of the gate and as well as the construction of two trebuchets…”
Alistair let a smile creep across his face.
“…and you will address me by my God-given title from now on.”
- * * * * * * *
In the days that followed, the keep buzzed with activity. The villagers of Edmunton were assigned duties; some to replace men and women that had been killed and others to the construction efforts. Alistair oversaw the selection of trees and their preparation for use in both the gate and trebuchets. Scouts were dispatched to spy along the Eastvale borders. Gyles took over a small room on the main floor of the keep where he and Soren would question Kargs. Preparations were made for the Heir of Summerfield to travel to the Duke’s Court in Iron’s Bay. Aedan drilled the fighting men of the keep, offered his thoughts to the war council, and conveyed messages between Alistair and Roderick after the cooling of their relationship.
On the eve of Roger’s departure, Gyles found him preparing for the journey. The young smuggler held a familiar crossbow by its middle.
The Heir of Summerfield smiled; a single cut had been stitched shut across his check and the bruises had begun to yellow, “Two of my old friends.”
Gyles smiled warmly in return, “Well, much like you, one of them must go home.”
The smuggler extended the crossbow to Roger’s outstretched hands.
“It belongs to a man named Cole, he sought sanctuary at the Church of St. Taegon. They will be able to find him and return it. Tell them it has new stories – it was repaired by The Alchemist, slew the manticore that ravaged their village and struck down a Kargish sorcerer. And now it is coming home to serve them once more.”
Roger smiled as he looked down at the weapon, “It seems a fearful thing when you say its lineage like that; a weapon meant for adventurers and conquerors of lost lands.”
“Don’t even think about keeping it.”, Gyles grinned.
The two men broke out into laughter.
“If your travels bring you to the Summerfields, Gyles, the doors will be open to you and yours. Please do not hesitate to make use of our hospitality.”
They clasped hands and said their farewells. Roger would venture into Iron’s Bay, relay the events at the keep, and then head west to return to his family’s holdings.
In the wake of his departure, efforts went into full swing. The courtyard was filled with the noise of hammer and saw, alongside the shouts of men as they battled each other under Aedan’s watchful eye. Gyles woke and lived each day speaking nothing but Kargish and with Soren’s aid, they worked their way through each of the prisoners, questioning them about war efforts and the traditions of their people. At mealtimes, Alistair would join them and the entire affair would be conducted exclusively in the foreign tongue of the invaders. Aedan was absent from such proceedings, preferring, instead, the company of fellow knights and the talk of war.
Messengers arrived a week after Roger’s departure, and the troops that they had spoken of, a week after that. Scouts came and went, relaying the movements of Kargish fighters in Eastvale. Soon, the trebuchets towered over the walls of the courtyard and Gyles did most of the talking when they questioned the prisoners. Their mealtimes had gone from stilted, stuttering affairs to smooth conversations. The war council had less and less to speak of, their best ideas and plans already decided on. And each night, in the quiet of his own room, Gyles would sit, eyes closed, on the floor or in his chair, trying desperately to find that state of waking sleep described by the Kargs. And each morning, he would awake, stiff necked and none the wiser for his efforts.
It was on one of those nights, after the arrival of the Duke’s troops, that the trio found themselves together in one of the side halls, discussing the progress of their various ventures. The scouts had most recently reported a large Kargish force moving decidedly towards the Ironbark lands, and so, the discussion had turned towards what would clearly become a siege.
“What should we do?”, Gyles asked as he refilled their cups.
“The only way I’m part of a siege is when I’m out there.”, Alistair jerked a thumb towards the window, “I didn’t agree to stay holed up in this keep like a rat. I have a trade; there’s thieves and sellswords out there that are waiting for my help.”
Aedan chuckled, “I agreed to help Lord Roderick with his mines and that has long been done. His preparations are coming to a close, and he has not offered me a position in his household guard – not that I would take it. There is little one more sword here would achieve. Besides, the ghost of vengeance has made me restless; I think it is time to find Ydreck.”
“Didn’t the Kord say that the Malagor were in the Duke’s Court? Perhaps we could go there and lure the Malagor into revealing his location.”, Gyles settled back into his chair.
Alistair made a wry face, “That seems very risky; things would have to go just right for us to get what we wanted. I have a different idea.”
Aedan sat forward and returned his cup to the table.
“We know the Malagor colors and we know where they were last. I say we head into the Bay, and find someone who’s seen those red flags somewhere recently. I’m guessing they’re somewhere around Aerondel still, so we stop and see if your woodsmen would lend us a hand and then we go apply some…. pressure to the Malagor.”
“And make it look like the Kord did it.”, Gyles smiled innocently.
Alistair raised his hand, palm up, in Gyles’ direction, “See? Everyone wins. We get one step closer to Ydreck, you get to put a few more Kargs to the sword, and we make them even madder at one another.”
Aedan inhaled and the hint of a smile ghosted onto his face, “Yes, that’s a good plan. Are you sure you can find someone in Irons Bay who will have seen them?”
“If we can’t find someone in the Bay who’s seen the red-cloaks somewhere, then they’ve gone back to wherever it is they call home.”
- * * * * * * * *
April had come and gone when their work was done. The trebuchets were complete, stone shots carved along with a handful of glass globes filled with flammable liquid. Every Kargish prisoner had visited Gyles no less than three times, and the defenses planned for the keep had long since been drilled into its fighters.
The trio made plans for their departure and there was, once again, a terse exchange between the Baron and the Alchemist, this time over horses and debts owed. But with assistance from Aedan and Gyles, the dispute was settled without harm and the three men left the keep astride mounts.
They were not a stone’s throw from the gate, when a distant voice grew louder and louder, “Master Gyles! Master Gyles!”
They slowed their horses and looked back to see one of the Edmunton villagers chasing them, a large burlap sack clutched to his chest. He arrived, chest heaving, “Thank you… thank you, my lords for… for stopping.”
Alistair opened his mouth to correct the man but Aedan shot him a sidelong look. Alistair made a disgusted sound.
The man straightened up, recovering from his chase, “Master Gyles, you nearly forgot this. I almost forgot it myself what with all the work in the keep and the catapults. I finished it some time back.”
He put the burlap sack on the ground, reached inside and pulled out a leather hauberk the color of soft gold. Its front was a series of four overlapping layers of riveted leather and over each shoulder, a single piece of sand-color chitin acted as a pauldron. The golden fur of the manticore surrounded the chitin, buffering the wearer against its hard edges.
Gyles took it gingerly from the man’s hands and held it up before him, mesmerized, “It is… magnificent. My gratitude is not payment enough for such handiwork.”
“But saving my family, and my village and my home…. it is. Thank you, Master Gyles, and Master Alistair and Ser Aedan.”
They tied the bundle to the back of Gyles’ saddle, exchanged mutual gratitude a second time, and then resumed their journey.
The return to Irons Bay passed without incident, and although much had changed in their own worlds, the city itself was exactly as they had left it. It seemed blissfully unaware of the blossoming war just beyond its walls. Aedan’s wounds had recovered greatly but not yet completely, and so he made his way to his cousin’s home for more reasons than one; to retell the story of the mines, warn about the war and make use of his spare bed.
And while the landless knight enjoyed a respite from revenge and fighting, Alistair and Gyles spent their days pouring over the dead Ambassador’s journal. Their earlier attempts had left their heads swimming, but now the words on its pages were familiar sounds. For a week, they pieced together its once-secret messages.
The Ambassador, it seemed, had been fascinated by the sorcery wielded by the Norns and, despite cultural taboos, had recorded every thought, rumor, and tale he had heard. He had gone so far as to describe the power of the metal wands wielded by the twins, a metal tube with a crystal atop. The book claimed that the Norns could feed their energy into the wand and that it would produce a great gout of flame, consuming the crystal in its process. Alistair seemed to grow more and more impatient, the more they discovered – it was, effectively, one man’s musings about sorcery and the distinct lack of any science. In the end, it was decided that Gyles should take the book and use it as motivation to continue his studies. He did his best to hide his excitement.
And each night, when Gyles returned to his own apartments, Alistair ran errands of his own. First, it was to find the man that financed merchants and trading vessels – a man known as “Sterling”. He had curiously welcomed The Alchemist and even more excitedly agreed to the loan that had been proposed.
With Sterling’s livres in hand, along with money from both Gyles and Aedan, Alistair had spent the following nights visiting the back alleys and hidden shoppes scattered throughout Irons Bay. In each place, he obtained only a handful of ingredients – slowly rebuilding the selection of poisons that he had drunkenly dumped into the wind at the Ironbark Keep. It took him ten night and all the cash that he had begun with, but his satchel had finally been refilled with small glass vials and jars.
And throughout it all, Gyles and Alistair pressed their friends and contacts: Had anyone seen the red-flagged Malagor recently? Had they heard or seen a man who’s war sigil was a pair of crossed swords and wolf’s head? Nearly two weeks after their return to Iron’s Bay, someone had an answer. The crew of The Lonesome Jewel had come ashore talking about the very same flags.
It had not taken Alistair long to track down the crew of the ship, or its purser – and sometimes navigator – Kaleb Varley. Once, long ago when they were both fresh faced and young, they had crewed a ship together; the engineer and the bookkeeper, two educated men surrounded by chaos and curses.
Aedan, Gyles, and Alistair strode into dockside tavern called The Bookseller & The Nun. The shingle outside had long since been eaten away by salt and time, but the remains clearly depicted activities that no nun should not be participating in.
There were a few sidelong glances at the man with a warrior’s gait wearing mail in a dockside tavern, but those eyes were quickly returned to their cups. Alistair led them as they approached a man seated at a table with few other sailors.
“Kaleb Varley, we’re from the Harbormaster’s Office, here about your taxes and port fees.”
The man sat upright and twisted in his chair to find the Alistair grinning from ear to ear.
“Alistair? Is that you?”, the man scanned Alistair from bottom to top, taking in the tattoos and shortened fingers.
“Oh yes, it’s me. Kaleb, these are my friends, Ser Aedan and Gyles.”, Alistair turned his head towards his companions, “This is Kaleb Varley, the man with the money aboard The Lonesome Jewel.”
Kaleb rose to his feet and the men exchanged handshakes.
“I have to say, Alistair, I didn’t ever imagine that you’d count a knight among your friends.”, he paused realizing what he had said, “Uh, no disrespect to you Ser Aedan….I meant all of it towards Alistair.”
Aedan slapped the man on the shoulder and settled into a chair. The others followed. The fellow sailors decided that they wanted nothing to do with the strange reunion and relocated to another table. Drinks were brought as Alistair and Kaleb swapped stories about the intervening years.
“So we’ve heard that your ship has seen the Kargs with the red-flags recently?”, Gyles started gently.
“Oh aye, but you see them…the Kargs, I mean…more and more all over. A whole band of them have set up as merchants in the Sparrow Isles, just as plain as you and me.”
Alistair and Aedan exchanged glances. Alistair’s family had made their fortune on trading in the Sparrow Isles and his mother was from one of the few noble families who claimed it as their lands.
“But did they fly red flags?”, Gyles asked again.
“Hmm, hard to recall. I’m not sure I saw any flags in their shop, but maybe. Why the interest in those Kargs?”
“Those Kargs are called the Malagor.”, Alistair took a swig of his tankard, “And let’s just say we have.. business with them.”
“What Alistair means is that they have destroyed my family and my home, and I mean to have my revenge upon their captain. A Karg named Ydreck.”
Alistair rolled his eyes and slapped the table with an open palm. Gyles smirked from across the table.
“I’m sorry to hear that.”, Kaleb paused to lick his lips, “They were talking about some kind of gathering on Elinore for their captains….called it a…versammlug… or something like that.”
Alistair glanced at Gyles, “A gathering…to count voices?”
“You speak…Kargish?”, Kaleb stared at the two men.
Alistair shrugged, “Have you seen them anywhere else that you recall?”
Kaleb started to shake his head and then stopped, “Yes, they were crawling all over the Driftwood Strands…out in Avanale. Had their boats beached there and a camp just inland. Half expected them to come out after us as we went by. You know, the word is that they burned the navy in Alport? Sunk the whole lot of them.”
“That sounds promising.”, Alistair raised his eyebrows and looked across the table at Aedan, who nodded ever so slightly.
“Kaleb, we need your help. How do you feel about horses? Or Avanale in the Summer?”, Alistair grinned wolfishly, “Or how about a large sum of money?”