The two men stood there staring at one another as the gate’s echo faded away into the pre-dawn light. Around them, flames licked at the Kargish tents and wisps of ash floated in the air like gray snow. They cut curious figures. One holding a long knife with a gambeson unmarred by use, the strange curving contours of a Kargish helm on his head. The other, dressed as if he had ambled off the streets of Iron’s Bay save for the thick, castle made sword belt, dented helm and the blade he held awkwardly in his hand. Each of them were half one thing and half another.
“They’ll be looking for us.”, Alsitair said, returning his knife to his belt.
“Do you think they’ll…”, Gyles attempted to the slide the sword back into its scabbard and succeeded after a moment, “…do you think they would weaken their defense by sending men out?”
“No, Gyles. I mean they’ll be looking for us. You and me. The man who murdered their Ambassador and the man who investigated it…..and when they don’t find us among the living or the dead, they’re going to start looking for us.”
“Well, we’ve no food or water or shelter and we don’t have the skills to get it. I’d say we go to Edmunton and hope that Aedan is close…..besides, I need their church bell.”
“Come, I’ll tell you as we go. It seems like my daydreams weren’t wasted after all.”
They walked east into the face of the rising sun, Alistair excitedly explaining how he planned on using the church bell to hold a mixture that would be capable of blowing open the gates of the keep. The man known as The Alchemist explained the physics, how the mouth of the bell would be placed against the gate and create the only direction that the explosion could go. Gyles did not understand much of what his companion explained but it was clear that Alistair believed his own words. He grew more and more animated as he spoke, gesticulating with his hands and eventually ending his tale with a loud clap of his hands.
By the time they reached Edmunton, they had a plan. They would collect the church bell and prepare Alistair’s device while watching the road for Aedan and Roderick; from there they would join the returning party and return to the keep. They wondered how long they would have to wait for their friend’s return.
The villagers greeted them with enthusiasm which transformed into confusion and then concern. What few people of Edmunton that remained, fed the returning “heroes” and listened to their advice to bury their valuables and run at the sight of the Kargs. Then the villagers had scattered. With Gyles’ help, Alistair brought the bell down, dug a small hole to keep it upright and set up shop on the steps of the church. With little to do but wait Gyles went off to sleep within the church.
The sun rose, reached its peak and then started its descent into the afternoon while Alistair worked, adding pinches and shavings to the growing mixture in the bell.
And then the dust cloud rose in the west. The cry went up among the villagers, “KAAAARGGS!”
Gyles had just made his way to the church’s open door frame; he pulled his arms down mid-stretch and raced back inside to collect their things. Alistair did his best to return the glass containers to their places in his satchels before hurriedly slinging them over his shoulders. He dug his hands into the dirt and lifted the bell from the bottom, taking off in a lurching run after the villagers. Gyles stayed ahead of him but never far as they crossed the fields and followed the people of Edmunton into the safety of the treeline.
Out of breath, they watched the small figures of the Kargish raiders become recognizable silhouettes, then watched those silhouettes go from house to house with nothing to show for it. When they had made their fruitless search of the buildings, patches of fire burst into existence among the faint figures. And as the Kargish raiders returned in the direction they had come, the people of Edmunton watched what was left of their village burn.
Their dinner that night was a mixture of berries, bushy green leaves and the scraps one family had brought from their home. Afraid to light a fire, the group ate and sat and waited in growing darkness. There were few words, children were hushed when they spoke and the single baby was almost continuously rocked to avoid any crying. The men drew lots using sticks and a watch was set. Alistair slept heartily for the first time in nearly a week, unbothered by guilt or drink.
In the morning, he returned to his work on the church bell while Gyles’ stood his watch in addition to his own. By mid-morning, uncertainty and quiet panic had begun to set in among the villagers. Gyles watched it and thought about how best to choke it out. He did not want to interrupt Alistair’s work so his mind turned it over and over again while he watched for any sign of the Kargs or Aedan.
Fortune smiled on them. Before the young smuggler needed to act, a dust cloud – meaning only one thing – rose from the south. Before long there was a strange reunion on the road; some dozen knights and their men at arms, Aedan, the Lord of Ironbark, Alistair, Gyles, and two dozen villagers mixed chaotically. The events at the keep and village were retold to Baron Roderick, who cursed the invaders.
“My lord, their villainy is now on display for all to see but I have always known it. It is the same evil that slew my family and ruined our lands. I will not let the lands of the Ironbank share the same fate as Arondel.”, Aedan scowled, “We will return the keep to you.”
“If we lay siege or act against the keep, they will use Roger against us.”, Alistair said flatly.
“Roger?”, asked Baron Roderick.
“Roger Winton, my lord – the Heir of Summerfield.”, Gyles explained, “He is one of many friends that I have inside the keep. Is it possible to sneak in and rescue them?”
“Yes, my lord, it is your keep – do you know of any hidden passages intended as an escape route?”
“Yes, there is one but it is small and would accommodate no more than a handful of men. I did not think to mention it because it would be almost impossible to cross the courtyard and open the gate from where it enters the keep.”
“There is no need to open the gate from the inside.”, Alistair’s eyes glittered as he smirked, “If you use the passage, Aedan, you and Gyles can concentrate on your rescue. We can open the gate when you are ready for us.”
Aedan and Roderick paused to look at Alistair.
“The mixture in the church bell; in simple terms, when it is set alight, it will create a great push of force – think of a battering ram but one made of fire. That push will break open the gates.”
“Forgive me, Master Alistair, but that seems the stuff of children’s tales. I have never, in all my years, heard or seen such a thing. I cannot trust the retaking of my keep to such a…a…gamble.”
Aedan placed a hand on Alistair’s shoulder, “Baron Roderick, I know my friend. If he says it will open the gates, it will open the gates. I give you my word.”
Alistair carried on without waiting for the Baron’s acceptance, “When you and Gyles are ready for us to attack the courtyard, send Omen into the sky. When she shrieks, I will open the gate and Roderick’s men can charge in.”
The Baron was taken aback; in a single exchange Alistair had made an impossible promise, refused to recognize his title, and ordered his role in the attack against his own keep. As the Baron drew in a breath to protest, Aedan looked at him.
“As I said, my lord, it is your keep. Do we have your agreement in what we have proposed?”
What had started as a protest, came out in a sputtering agreement to the man that had saved Edmunton. What food could be spared was handed out amongst the villagers, and a pace was set that delivered the group to the keep just as the sun was setting, ensuring that no formal parley could begin.
Roderick’s men began setting up their camp, while Aedan selected two of the knights to accompany Gyles and himself. When they were ready, Baron Roderick took them through the woods in a wide circle around the keep. Fifty paces from a creek, he swept foliage away from a large collection of boulders, revealing a small square door nestled into the ground. He passed a large iron key to Aedan, explained the passage, wished them luck and returned to his men.
One by one, the four men squeezed into the passageway beneath. Deformed from lack of use and the shifting of the earth, what had once been a simple walkway had become a twisted tunnel. They were forced to turn sideways, duck, bend, and crouch in order to reach the iron door that lead to the keep’s mausoleum. The lock of the door protested the key’s turning but Aedan’s strength prevailed, and the door opened to reveal the inky darkness of the tombs beneath the keep. The torches they had lit seemed so small in the vast darkness, marked by the ends of coffins and stone plaques.
They moved through the crypts as quietly as they could, each jingle of mail or slap of harness seemed to echo endlessly. When moonlight began to filter into their vision, they doused their torches and moved on – now, even more slowly. When they reached the open mouth of the tombs, they let their eyes adjust and surveyed the scene. Aedan knew that sixty men had arrived with the Norns and not all of them were fighters. They had likely lost some in taking the keep, some were needed to monitor both the still working servants and the jails, and even more were sleeping. That did not leave many Kargs awake for patrol duties. Those that they could see stood atop the walls, laughing and jeering in the direction of Roderick’s camp. None patrolled the courtyard or manned the main doors to the keep which could be seen from their vantage.
They hatched a plan in whispers and then slunk out of the tombs, clinging to the shadows of nearby walls. When they had almost reached the servant’s door to the keep, a Karg turned to face the courtyard. Aedan held a clenched fist up and the line behind him came to a halt. The Karg faced down, ensuring that nothing was beneath him before loosening his breeches to relieve himself. They waited while he finished, the only difference between being seen or not was whether the Karg looked up. He did not. He finished and turned to resume his conversation with his companion. The group slipped into the servant’s door.
Aedan let Gyles overtake him in the lead and the young smuggler led them down one hallway then another, and eventually to the tightly wound staircase that he had now traversed multiple times. When they reached the jails, a quick glance around the corner revealed a pair of Kargish guards engrossed in conversation.
Gyles and Aedan exchanged a series of hand motions and mouthed words. The two knights retreated up, far enough to be hidden by the curve of the stairs. Aedan pulled his shield and sword into place but stayed where he stood. Gyles, Omen still on his arm, stepped off the stairs and into plain sight of the Kargs, doing his best to act surprised. The two invaders jerked their curved swords from their scabbards and rushed at him. Gyles dashed up the stairs, passing Aedan and the knights.
The first Karg took Aedan’s shield in his face when they rounded the corner. He collapsed backwards onto the floor, his nose a bloody ruin. Aedan descended and turned, poking with his blade and forcing the remaining guard to turn and back up the steps. Aedan followed, drawing the Karg’s attention to him while the two knights descended from behind him. He was captured before he had time to understand what had happened. They gagged and bound the Kargs, took their keys and opened the door to the cells. Within they found a bedraggled Father Mattias and a bruised Soren.
“What happened to your allies? What are you doing down here?”, Aedan eyed the merchant suspiciously.
“They are trying to decide if I am still useful now that the idea of trade is off the table.”
“I promise you, Master Soren.”, Gyles spoke while unlocking the cells, “If you continue to aid us, we will make sure your claims are honored. Have either of you seen a red-haired scullery maid?”
“She talks a lot?”, Soren asked as he stepped into the hallway.
“Yes, that’s the one.”
“She brings the food to the guards and picks up their dishes. She’s probably in the kitchen.”
They had a brief discussion about what Mattias and Soren had seen, their understanding of who was where and ultimately decided that they would bring them to the kitchen, leaving the knights there to defend them in case of their discovery. When they had seen to that, the knight and the smuggler made their way to the second floor, and then followed the sounds of raised voices in the otherwise quiet keep.
The door to the lord’s solar was slightly ajar, lamplight spilling out into the dim hallway. Without servants to light them, only a handful of guttering torches remained in the passages. Gyles pressed tightly to the wall, craned his neck to catch a glimpse of the scene within. Roger Winton had been loosely tied to one of the plush chairs; both he and the furniture were spattered with blood. One eye was swollen shut, bruises covered the opposite cheek and his lips were split and bleeding. A massive Karg, dressed in gray leathers, paced back and forth, uttering broken questions to the Heir of Summerfield. One of the two Norns looked on impassively, a metal wand thrust through his belt.
Gyles motioned for Aedan to look for himself. The knight peered inside and then nodded at the hooded hawk clutching Gyles’ arm. The young smuggler nodded back, slid close to a nearby window and gave Omen her wings.
* * * * * * * *
Lord Roderick returned to camp, gathered his men and did his best to prepare them.
“There will be a hawk’s cry – that is your signal to ready yourselves. Throw off your blankets and ready prepare to charge at that moment. Then there will be a…”, the Baron looked at Alistair, “a thunder clap and the gates will open. When you hear that sound, we take the main gates.”
There were mutterings among his men but they nodded and prepared for the night’s work. Some ate, others pretended to sleep. And while the Kargs along the ramparts watched what was happening in the camp, they failed to notice the single figure carrying a church bell, who crept up to the base of their walls.
When Omen’s shriek came, Alistair heard the Kargs shuffle on the wall; he moved. He put the simple wooden tripod down into the dirt, kicked its feet apart with his own and then settled the bell into its resting place. He pulled it forward so that the mouth of the bell set flush against gate, lit a wad of oil-soaked wool with his flint, and jammed it into the hole he had made in the bell. He smiled in satisfaction and then realized he had not thought about his escape. He ran.
Kargs shouted behind him and the muted thumps of missed arrows echoed from either side as his breath echoed in his ears. Somehow, above it all, he heard the hiss of pressure fighting to escape through the small hole. He knew what that meant and threw himself forward, flat against the ground. There was a muffled whump and a terrible cracking sound that followed, then a single distorted gong of a church’s bell. He felt as if someone had slapped him, open handed, over both ears.
He rolled over. The Kargish bowmen looked around in confusion and those few who had regained their senses had shifted their attack to the stream of armored men who poured towards them. The gates creaked slowly open, a barrel sized hole missing from their center and the beam that held them shut. He had done it; the mixture had worked.
The bell was nowhere to be seen until Alistair twisted and realized that it had blown backwards, passing over him and felling a nearby tree with its impact. Still lying flat on his back, he pulled his tattered tri-corn hat to his head and began to laugh hysterically as the sounds of fighting filled the air.
* * * * * * * * *
Aedan watched the hawk disappear out of the window, heard its shriek and began to count. 1…2…3. He unslung his shield…9…10…11…and slowly pulled his sword from its scabbard…17…18…19. He looked again into the room…22…23…24. The giant Karg walked in the same half circle…28…29…and then backhanded Roger Winton…30. Aedan pushed the door open with the back of his shield and stepped into the light.
“You’re time here is over, it is time to pay for what you have done.”
The hulking Karg pivoted easily, an elaborately decorated handaxe appearing in his grasp. His eyes were endless pits of black, with skin the color of fresh fallen snow. The bone ridges of his skull were pronounced and almost graceful. When his lips parted to utter a counter-challenge in his own tongue, they could see his teeth came to points.
The Norn reached for his wand….and then a muffled thunderclap and distant shouting.
The two warriors surged forward at one another; warchief and knight colliding. Gyles flitted across the distance where the Norn was bringing his wand to bear in what seemed like slow motion. Suddenly, the young smuggler was there, knife pressed to the Norn’s neck, the wand still half way between his belt and the warriors before him, “No wand, no talking, or you die.”
The Kargish warchief loomed over Aedan, bringing his axe down in quick, terrible strikes. Aedan caught them on his uplifted shield, each one pushed him further back. The feeling in his shield arm faded away with the blows, rendered numb by the punishment. When he could spare a strike with his sword, the Karg nimbly batted it away with a backstroke from the axe. The head of weapon was covered with intricate swirls and its top shaped like cresting waves. It hammered Aedan’s shield again but this time the knight let the blow carry him down quickly to one knee. He jammed his blade straight forward, below the Karg’s defenses, into his belly. The blade bit deep and kept going. The giant gurgled and gave one last chop with the axe before reeling backwards onto the floor.
Roger twisted and turned his head in the chair, trying to see through his single eye, “Ser Aedan? Gyles? Gyles, is that you?”
Aedan glanced up to make sure Gyles had the Norn in hand before untying the Heir of Summerfield, “Yes, you should be safe now, Lord Summerfield.”
“Roger, did this one do anything to you with his…words? His sorcery? Did he need his wand?”
The battered face nodded, “He doesn’t need the wand. His words hurt your ears, they make your stomach turn over. Don’t let him speak.”
“Aedan, can you…knock him senseless?”, Gyles said from behind the Norn’s ear.
As soon as the words left his mouth, he felt the Karg struggle beneath his knife. The first syllables of Kargish words washed over Gyles like nails on a chalkboard and then stopped. Aedan smashed his helmeted head into the Norn’s unprotected face and the sorcerer went slack into Gyles’ arms.
The young smuggler lowered him to the ground, “Roger, where is the other Norn?”
The Heir of Summerfield licked his bloody lips in what passed for a smile, “I shot him with the crossbow, like you said Gyles. He was resting in the other room; they didn’t like to be far from one another.”
Roger motioned to a closed door, another chamber attached to the solar. Aedan’s blade re-appeared in his hand and Gyles unbuckled the sword belt and offered it to the heir, “Take it, you can use it.”
The battered young man buckled it into place and drew the weapon, hanging back from his rescuers as they quickly moved to the door. When they reached it, the knight and the smuggler paused, listened, and nodded at one another. Aedan threw the door wide, leaping through it, Gyles following. The other Norn was frozen mid-step between his makeshift bed and where they stood. He was shirtless, his abdomen wrapped in tight white linens but the blood had begun to seep through.
The Kargish sorcerer turned and ran towards the window, speaking words aloud as he went. His voice seemed to vibrate the air and scratch at the insides of their ears. Gyles pushed past Aedan, throwing his knife at the fleeing figure in a desperate play. It went wide, bouncing off the window casing as the Karg dove through its opening like into a child into a pool.
As he went, his body rapidly shifted and changed – arms shortened, torso shrinking – and where there should have been a man falling to his death, there was instead there was a bat. It flapped its wings and began to glide off. Gyles raced to the window, looking frantically into the sky, and then shouted the command word.
Omen dove, hitting the unsuspecting bat with a downward dive that broke bone and rattled the wizard’s senses. In one smooth motion, the hawk continued the pair’s descent, driving the bat into the stone of a nearby balcony before landing atop it. Talon and beak tore at the bat’s flesh until suddenly, it was no longer a bat but a man – his lifeless body ruined by long bloody rents and torn holes.
Omen shrieked and returned to Gyles’ outstretched arm, awaiting her reward.