The following morning Gyles was pleasantly surprised to find Soren at Lord Summerfield’s breakfast table. The young smuggler had planned on tracking him down today but instead he had been delivered over eggs and bread. They exchanged pleasantries and bantered small talk amidst the soft clinking of silverware of plates; the two young men and the merchant twice either of their ages.
“My Lord Summerfield”, Soren wiped his mouth with his napkin, “I understand there has been an investigation over these last few days and I heard a rumor that poison had been found in the Ambassador’s chambers. Is that true?”
Roger’s lips tightened.
Soren continued, “I had hoped that the entire business was some kind of accident…spoiled food, perhaps, or that another party was responsible. That seems to be further and further from the case.”
Gyles cut in before the Heir could say anything, “I probably should not comment with the investigation still ongoing but I will say this: I am with you. I had also hoped for some other explanation but everything has begun to add up. The only thing that I can think of is that some other tribe is trying to make trouble for the Kord but we don’t know enough about the Kargs to figure that out. Perhaps you could share what you have seen in your travels with them.”
“Certainly, certainly.”, the merchant nodded, “But as I hear you now, our plans still proceed as agreed?”
“What plans are you referring to, Master Soren?”, Roger shifted in his seat.
“The manpower for the mines and the cartage, Lord Summerfield. If you believe that the Kord may not be the guilty party, our plans should proceed. Should they not?”
“Yes, I think that makes sense.”, Gyles interjected, remembering the Heir’s outrage at the poison, “You should continue to honor your words.”
The merchant seemed pleased; Gyles wanted for it to settle in before continuing, “When we have finished here, perhaps we could walk the walls. I am very interested to hear of your travels.”
Soren agreed, and when Lord Summerfield had concluded the meal, the two men – one merchant, one smuggler – took to the ramparts, wrapped in their cloaks against the brisk Spring morning air. Gyles questions began simply, designed to invoke trust; all men liked to speak about their own successes.
Soren had run trade routes between Iron Bay, through the Isle of Elinore and into the east beyond. The Kargs had approached him during his time on Elinore; they needed someone who understand the markets and the men involved in the iron trade because they had come to participate in it. He had agreed to aid them because he saw a road to wealth, prosperity and powerful friends – both human and Kargish.
Slowly but surely, Gyles began to ask for details; follow on questions from a rapt listener, trying only to better imagine the scenes. Facts began to emerge: Kargs had no crossbows, only bows and arrows. Mail was uncommon, most warriors wore leather and furs. Their ships held no secrets beyond their curved shapes, and the Norns carried metal sticks with a crystal on its end.
“And what does the metal stick do?”
Panic flashed across the merchant’s face. He had been speaking freely, lost in his own retelling and had stumbled into a conversation that he should not have, “I…I shouldn’t discuss this any further. They seem tight lipped about the Norns, such discussions are forbidden by the Kargs.”
Gyles stopped and turned to look at him, “Listen, if you want to help get to the bottom of what has happened here, I need to understand how and what the Norns do.”
Soren leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “If I reveal what I know, it could cost me my standing with the Kargs. I want assurances from Lord Summerfield that he will grant me the same kind of preferred access to the iron ore that the Kargs have agreed to…then I will tell you what I know.”
“Lord Summerfield is a good man looking for the truth. He will be happy to reward those who are loyal to that cause. Besides, I am sure when Lord Roderick arrives to rule on this, it will be better for you to have acted on behalf of your people.”
The merchant licked his lips, “Fine. Agreed. Let us go to the Heir now. I would have his word before we speak any further.”
And so they did. Lord Summerfield received them in his solar whereupon they explained their conversation and assurances Soren sought.
“You are the investigator and your words have been wise since the…. Incident, Gyles. I will do what you ask. I will speak with Roderick when he arrives about protecting Master Soren’s rights to the iron ore.”
Once again, the men exchanged pleasantries and parted. This time, they withdrew to Gyles’ chambers where Soren barred the door.
“I have observed a number of customs related to the Norns.”, he removed his hat and took a deep breath, “All Kargs treat twins as but a single person and there is one name shared between them. It is said that all twins, all siblings born at the same point, possess… powers.”
“Sorcery?”, Gyles prodded.
The merchant shrugged, “I have not seen such a thing, nor have I seen what their metal rods will do. I have seen…. I was not supposed to be listening, you understand? I speak a little of their tongue. When we travelled, deep in the night, one of them would be into a trance and the other would speak to him. The twin in the trance would answer back but it was…. not his voice.”
“What do you mean, not his voice?”
“It was not the sound of his normal voice, the words were slow….deliberate, as if he were concentrating but speaking at the same time. I was not supposed to be listening, I said that didn’t I? That is how they speak over impossible distances. I believe the creatures called Moirai can do this as well. This is how they were speaking with the Ambassador here at the keep. This is how they knew you before they arrived.”
- * * * * * * *
Alistair eyes slowly opened, revealing the darkness of his room set against the blazing sunlight peeking out from beneath his closed curtains. He rolled over to face the interior wall. His head throbbed in a combination of confusion and pain, as he exhaled and threw the covers off.
He shuffled to his desk, shaking out a combination of powders and leaves into the remains of a parchment. With shaking hands, it took him several tries to complete the rolling of the homemade cigarette. He cursed himself for not having better foresight, lit the end of it from a nearby, guttering candle and collapsed into the chair. He exhaled a cloud of hazy green smoke, while his eyes lingered on his notes from the last few days; shaky scrawl that not even he could read.
Gyles has the bloody book and he can’t even read…or put ink to paper. Who made him my wetnurse? Telling me when I’ve drunk too much when he wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for my good graces. I was studying at Laewes when he was in his crib.. I’ve broken forts and sunk ships and he thinks he can keep a book from me? Ungrateful, arrogant….now where’s that wine….
- * * * * * * *
Aedan had lost the better part of yesterday to Branmore’s scheme; between the duel itself, returning the woman to the village and then finding men to bury him, Aedan was behind. He urged his horse on but the second horse, unused to him as a master and laden with wargear, complicated the matter and prevented him from fully galloping.
He should have reached the bridge today but instead it would be tomorrow, and beyond that another day and more’s ride to the Lord of Ironbark’s manor. He did his best to keep it from his mind, but wondered: just how long would three dozen Kargs sit on their hands when their jailed companions were only a stone’s throw away.
- * * * * * * *
Gyles was chatting with Soren and Father Mattias over lunch when Alistair stalked into the room, taking long draws off of his homemade cigarette. He moved in a direct line towards the smuggler but Gyles hopped to his feet, excusing himself from the conversation. He met Alistair halfway to the table.
“Ah Alistair! Good to see you. We should speak in the hallway so we don’t interrupt the others.”, Gyles said with forced cheeriness.
Despite his mild scowl, Alistair let the young smuggler guide him out into one of the side hallways.
“What do you think you are doing, Alistair? Walking around like some wild animal, drunk or high or both.”
“Nevermind that, Gyles. I have been thinking about the book.”, he took a long inhalation from the cigarette, and exhaled the smoke, “And I want to look at it.”
“And you will… as soon as you are in your right mind and I can be sure you won’t use it for smoking or cover it with spilled wine.”
A servant passed them and Alistair leaned forward to hiss, “I’ve sailed on four of the world’s seas, drunk stolen brandy on a beach at the edge of the world. I’ve been in bars and seen things that would ruin other men and you think I can’t hold my wine well enough to read the bloody book? You and I both know I’m the best chance we have to make heads or tails of it. You can’t even read, Gyles.”
Gyles refused to rise to the bait, “I know that you’re one of the smartest men I’ve met. I know that we need you….the real you, the real Alistair. We need your mind…to be….to be sharp.”
“It is sharp, I’ve dreamt up a….a device like no one has ever seen before. I have drawings and notes.”
“You can’t read them, Alistair. They’re drunken scribbles, your idea is going to be lost because you can’t shake…whatever this is…off.”
Alistair clenched his jaws, knowing that every single word from Gyles’ mouth was the truth. He was out of control, his dream was drifting away – further from recollection – each day. He exhaled, shoulders slumping, “Fine, Gyles. Fine. I’ll…stop.”
“And when you do, we can look at the book together.”
“My word is not at question here. If I say I’ll stop, I’ll stop; let me have the book now.”
“Fair enough. It’s good to have the real Alistair back.”, Gyles whispered, “I’ve become fast friends with Soren. I spent all of yesterday with him.”
“And what can he tell us?”
The two men walked towards Gyles’ quarters as the young smuggler retold everything that Soren had imparted to him.
“So he has no idea what they are doing with the iron or their interest in it? He just saw a road to wealth?”
Gyles nodded as they stopped outside his rooms, “Precisely, which is why I asked the Heir to protect it and he told us everything.”
“Well, that means he can be bought back by the Kar-“, Gyles knocked the cigarette from Alistair’s hand as he moved to put it in his mouth.
The two men stared at each other for a long moment.
Alistair cleared his throat, “…that means he can be bought back by the Kargs.”
“Yes…”, Gyles turned to open his door, “…unless someone poisons him first.”
- * * * * * * *
The guards at Baron Roderick’s gates informed Aedan that was expected; a hawk or falcon had arrived before him detailing his impending arrival. They took his horses without question, a second mount with a matching set of wargear could only mean one thing and the knight did not look like he was in a mood for retelling the tale.
With four days of dust and dirt still clinging to his surcoat, Aedan was taken directly to the Baron’s solar. The Lord of Ironbark all but beamed upon the knight’s arrival.
“Thank the Father you have made it safely, Ser Aedan. It is hard to imagine that we spoke only a fortnight ago.”
“Indeed, my lord, things have been strange. It began with the mines. A terrible creature, the locals called it a Manitcore, had ravaged Edmunton and devastated the countryside. It has slain horses, and many of the villagers and trapped the miners within the safety of their halls.”
The Baron sat numbly, “Ser Aedan, would you believe if I told that such a creature was almost our family crest…before choosing that of Ironbark instead? The Manticore is a thing of legend.”
Aedan nodded, “Yes, my lord, but it is no more. Thanks to the ingenuity of my companions, Alistair and Gyles, we managed to put the creature down but there have been other….complications.”
“There is more?”
“Yes, Baron Roderick, I am afraid there is. The miners while safe from the Manticore in the tunnels, were slain by some kind of…sorcery. When we discovered that, we went to the keep to inform your noble cousin, Lord Humphrey.”
Baron Roderick sat expressionless, unsure of whether the worst news had already been delivered or was yet to come.
“We found Lord Humphrey negotiating with a group of Kargs. They had offered to provide men and wagons to get the iron ore flowing again, in exchange for control and access to the mines. Lord Humphrey was inclined to bargain with them but we…my companions and I…argued against it. He agreed to seek your decision…and then he was struck down by the same sorcery as the miners.”
“Is he…is he alive?”, the Lord of Ironbark sat forward in his chair, gripping the handrests.
“No, my lord. We were all affected by some kind of poison or sorcery but he took the brunt of it and the Kargish Ambassador was slain when he tried to kill Alistair. The rest of his men have been put in the dungeon but now three score more Kargs have arrived; the men intended to help at the mine and some kind of…sorcerers…as he described them. They are now camped outside of the keep.”
Aedan held up a hand, “My lord, the Kargs have a merchant among them and they wish to press their case for this bargain. I was clear with your cousin and I shall say the same thing here: the mines are the lifeblood of Ironsbay and should not be under the control of anyone not sworn to our crown.”
“I…I…agree, Ser Aedan. I am guided by your words because I share their roots. We must go and… deal with this situation. We must secure our mines and open them for commerce.”
“One last thing, my lord.”
“By your own words, Baron, these are strange days. Your cousin’s Captain, Branmore, was in league with the Kargs in some way. He ambushed me on my ride here and though it was not my intent to do so, I slew him in the exchange. Things seem…not as they appear at the keep; I would urge you to haste, Baron Roderick. I do not know what the Kargs will do or how patient they will be.”
Baron Roderick rose, face lacking color, and pulled the nearby cord, summoning his servants, “I will give instructions now, we will take tomorrow to prepare and gather what is necessary and leave on the following morning at dawn. Please, Ser Aedan, see to yourself and your comforts. I owe you much more than either of us could have known.”
- * * * * * * *
For two days, Alistair and Gyles tried to make sense of the Kargish language and entries in the book; all without success. Each night, after hours of fruitless attempts to piece together patterns, Gyles would retire and Alistair would seek any part of the keep where people were still awake and socializing. He dared not be alone with his thoughts so he would force himself to stay awake until he knew that sleep was assured by exhaustion. It was on the second night that it happened.
His exhausted dreams were sprinkled with violence, Kargs climbing impossible walls, men on fighting on the decks of ships, the sharp clang of metal clashing. Far away voices screaming, “The Kargs! The Kargs have are coming. The Kargs have taken the keep!”
The slow dawning that they were not sounds from his mind, but from the hallway. The Alchemist sat bolt upright in bed, met with the distant clang of metal on metal, the smell of smoke and shouts just beyond his barred door.
He cursed his weak will as he pulled his clothes on and then his gambeson over top of it; how could he not have seen this coming. Kargs stewing outside the wall, all but watching Roger ready the fire for their burning. Alistair pulled the vial of Manticore venom from his satchel, upended it over one of his rags and ran it along the edge of his blade before sliding it into sheath. The venom had just dropped back into the satchel when the knock came from his door.
“Alistair, wake up, we need to go.”, it was Gyles’ voice.
Alistair flipped the bar off with one hand while jamming the rest of his tools into his bags. Gyles entered with the crossbow, locked and loaded, and his own backpack slung into place.
“I’m ready. What have you seen?”, Alistair said, throwing the satchel over his head and shoulder.
“We have to get to Roger, then the prisoners.”
The two men made their way through the halls. No fighting had made its way to their floor but people ran up and down the hallway, clutching clothing and keepsakes to their chests. Roger Winton, the Heir of Summerfield, was standing in the doorway to his quarters, flanked by guards.
“Gyles! What has happened? What should we do?”
“You should take your guards, go inside, bar the door”, Gyles handed the crossbow to the young man, “And shoot the most important Karg that steps through your door.”
Panic flashed on Roger’s face but he nodded, and ordered his guards inside. He uttered a ‘good luck and godspeed’ before his face disappeared behind the closed door.
“Well if they are here, perhaps we should be there. What we set their tent city alight?”, Alistair said as Gyles drew his knife from his belt.
“You do that.”, Gyles thumbed the knife’s blade, checking its sharpness, “I’m going to take care of the prisoners.”
“I’m going to take care of the prisoners. Now go.”
They clasped hands briefly and then went their separate ways.
Gyles made his way down the tightly curling staircase, deeper and deeper into the bowels of the keep. The sounds of fighting grew louder as he descended and then faded as he made his way into the earth. At one point, a dead guardsman had fallen onto the staircase through an open doorway, freshly defeated from some unseen Karg. Gyles pressed himself against the stone, praying that his opponent did not come to ensure the job was finished. He did not, and the young smuggler continued.
Right down to the very doorway he had used only a few days earlier to access the jail cells….except this time it swung open on its hinges. The jailors’ corpses were scattered, left where they had fallen in bloody pools and the cells were empty. Gyles cursed and started back up the stairs.
- * * * * * * *
Alistair slid his back along the wall as he descending the gently curving staircase into the main hall. Kargs and Ironbark guards fought here and there, bodies littered the floor. For a split second he thought he saw a lighting strike’s flash from outside. He stepped off the last step as a nearby Karg put his curved sword through the guard’s neck he was fighting. The guard’s collapse left Alistair directly in the Karg’s line of sight.
The Alchemist burst off into a run, racing out of the main doors of the keep. He ducked around the corner and skidded to a stop, ready for the Karg to come barreling out after him. True to form, the swordsmen came around the corner and found himself too close to bring his sword to bear. Alistair made a quick flick of his wrist, slicing the Kargish man across his cheek, and then pushed backwards to give himself distance.
The Karg growled, inhaled and took a single step before screaming in pain. His free hand went up to clutch as the seeming innocuous slash and in a moment more, he was on the ground writing in pain. Alistair kicked the man’s helmet free, slid it into place on his own head and did his best to walk like a Karg across the courtyard and out of the main gates. He breathed a sigh of relief as he reached the tents without drawing any more attention. A quick search told him that the Kargs had thought ahead, there was nothing that they would miss. He emerged from a tent, cursing and then suddenly drew his knife as a figure appeared.
Gyles put his hands up, “They already freed the prisoners.”
Before Alistair could respond the pre-dawn air boomed with the sound of the main gates closing, and rattle of chains being locked into place.
- * * * * * * *
The hawk’s shriek forced Aedan to look up from his saddle. Aedan could not, truthfully, tell the difference between Gyles’ bird and any other hawk but he supposed only Omen would land if given the chance. Aedan slowed his horse and slid from the saddle, walking some distance away from the horses.
He wrapped a saddle blanket around his mailed forearm, then made the particular clicking sound that Gyles’ had taught him. The silhouette in the sky banked, then descended in a frightful dive that ended with a bird standing on his forearm. He united the small piece of parchment wrapped around the bird’s leg and then flung his arm skyward, launching Omen back into the air.
The bird circled once or twice, shrieked and flew off. Baron Roderick appeared at Aedan’s shoulder, “The same bird. What news?”
“That we are too late.”, Aedan looked up from the childlike drawing of a burning tower and curved swords, “The Kargs have attacked.”