A few days passed, and Morath completed his transaction. Nine fragile sachets of yellow lotus were now added to the arsenal. Their work of the previous week, and lesser rebel jabs at places of authority, had successfully drawn much more attention in the form of heightened patrols and more searches. Most of the conspirators stayed hidden, meeting in ones and twos as Capella’s elite mercenaries and devil-dogs combed the town for rebels.
Hirst the forester-cum-prospector however squired Bailey Zaid on the evenings she slipped away into the lower city for some vicious entertainment. Following Bardic’s advice, he suggested to Bailey it would be great fun if she brought him to the solstice ball a few days hence. And there, he explained, he would take her to heaven behind the King’s throne. Bailey was all in favor of such a plan and they arranged their tryst. She insisted on celebrating the plan with another loud outdoor knee-trembler, of course.
Hirst explained all this – minus the rogering – to his fellow conspirators two nights before the ball, in Drosht’s secret armory. The smith was putting the finishing touches to Bardic’s chain corselet, again.
“There. It’s not quite as good as new, but it’ll do. The original’s fine work, by Mitra! Though you can buy better, down in Koth” – Drosht
“Aye, I was on my way there when all this happened. My thanks Drosht” – Bardic
Drosht wandered away to see to his inventory – the rebel’s armory was large and well-stocked – while the lads fell to desultory planning as to how best to create a distraction. And in good time, Cass arrived. Wearing male guise, Cass seemed all business, sparing Bardic only a brief smile. She had been busy learning how to disable traps, and had also acquired a few extra pieces of intelligence.
“I have a better map of the wall defenses and an idea for the distraction. As I suspected, an escape tunnel leads from the treasury under the donjon, to a barbican guarding the lake approach where the slope would otherwise allow people to climb the wall. Exactly how we get from the barbican to the plaza depends on what we find and how much rope we have” – Cass
“I’ve been wearing silk rope around my waist, and Bailey thinks I’m a little stout” – Hirst
“Good, so the plan to get you inside the ball is proceeding? I’ll enter by myself, dressed as a courtesan. Some nobles bring their mistress or favored courtesan to these occasions. I’ll help you tie the rope. Oh, and do you have gloves?” – Cass
“Uh, no” – Hirst
“I thought not. I brought these for you – not made to measure but they fit a small man, so should be tight enough on you. They’re impregnated with waxes, so poison won’t get through them. What else? Climbing gear?” – Cass
“I plan to have some, but I’m not sure where to hide it” – Hirst
“There’s a limit to what we can hide. We’ll practice that but may need to do without. How about light? What have you got?” – Cass
“I always try to carry at least one candle stub in my bag of tricks” – Hirst
“That may have to do though I can bring a taper as well. What next? Guards? Morath – have you got the stuff?” – Cass
“Yes, nine Yellow Lotus bulbs.”
“So, can I have it please?” – Cass
“Err… I was thinking of disabling guards with them” – Morath
“Well, how many do you think you can spare?” – Cass
“I suppose if I need more than two we are in such trouble more won’t matter. Have seven” – Morath
“Great! I’ll bring those… Vorel, you can carve… you know, whittle?” – Cass
“I hand-carved my Bossonian Longbow, and made one for Celo” – Vorel
“You mean Hirst, I believe. Can you make me a sort of large pipe, such as some harlots use for smoking yellow lotus resin? I’ll show you how I need the bulb to work. It has to detach and become a mouthpiece” – Cass
“Ah: a blowpipe. I think I’ve seen the sort of thing” – Vorel
“Yes, the master-thief Taurus recently used one over in Arenjun. He blew yellow lotus dust onto lions, I hear. Then he and a Cimmerian scaled the unclimbed Tower of the Elephant, and brought it down in ruins” – Cass
“Taurus, I think I’ve heard of him” – Bardic
“Yes, he died there, but apparently the Cimmerian lives” – Cass
After a pause to digest this news, the planning returned to the distraction. Given the position of the escape route, an attack on the other side, where the path led to the temple, and where two bastions warded the path, was agreed.
“You’ll be under fire from crossbowmen on the walls the whole way” – Cass
“Well that brings back some ugly memories. The path is too long to just sprint. What can we use to get by?” – Bardic
Heavy armor was discussed. The talk seemed to be getting nowhere. Cass borrowed a pestle and mortar and crushed Hirst’s yellow lotus pellets (souvenirs of Shadizar) into a paste. Cass and Hirst had excused themselves and were discussing their side of the business. Drosht wandered over to look at the map. They explained their difficulty.
“Sounds like what you need is a mantlet” – Drosht
“Mantlet? Like a door on wheels, right?” – Bardic
“Aye, though most don’t have wheels. Let’s see…. [wandering back through his armory] ah, down here. Yes, a fine piece. Solid oak, faced with metal.”
The massive rectangle, a fine piece of Corinthian siege-craft, featured a small visor so that those behind it could peer out, and a folding leg so it could be propped up. It weighed around 300 pounds.
“I’m strong, you’re strong. We can carry it with us from the lower fort to the upper and be safe from crossbows” – Vorel
“You’d be under fire once you draw level with the main wall-tower guarding the path to the outer ward. It overlaps the upper bastion, I seem to recall, and they will be able to fire behind the mantlet” – Drosht
“Well, that’s still a whole lot better than before. Next we need a good length of rope for the wall” – Bardic
“And a grapnel. I’ll fasten a bracket on the mantlet so you can carry the two together” – Drosht
“Make sure the rope is knotted. We’ll be climbing in armor and carrying weapons” – Bardic
With the addition of a footman’s battleax to smash stubborn doors in, and a team of rebel volunteers to bring the mantlet up once the lower bastion was seized, the planning was as finished as it could be. As Bardic put it:
“We have a half-assed plan. Which is at least a quarter-ass more than usual” – Bardic
Into the dungeons
The solstice ball progressed merrily, few troubling themselves with thoughts of what the common folk thought of city affairs. Outside in the middle ward, servants and house guards made merry as their masters and mistresses danced and flirted in the great hall, or found an alcove to indulge their passion. Courtesans mingled with nobles, for a good discreet courtesan finds favor with many a nobleman.
One such courtesan had arrayed her hair in an extravagant bouffant, with silver wire bound through and delicate yellow bulbs laced onto the wire. She swayed extravagantly; her glossy lips parted in a faraway smile, and smoked a large pipe of yellow lotus.
Bailey Zaid, dressed gorgeously in the latest fashion, giggled as she dragged her lover Hirst behind an arras near the head of the room. Having ditched her companion, she couldn’t wait longer to indulge herself. As she ran her hands eagerly over Hirst’s chest, an arm snaked around her shoulders and a cloth was clamped over her face.
Cass lowered the unconscious girl to the floor. She ran a finger over her lips and then traced Bailey’s upper lip with it. She nodded to Hirst.
“She’ll dream dreams, and wake none the worse. She’ll probably even imagine loving you” – Cass
Having explained where he should get to, Cass drifted back out into the throng and Hirst crept unseen to the rendezvous. It was a short sequence of stairs down from the hall and under the donjon.
“This is the door. Once beyond, I have only a rough notion of what to look for. The treasury will be down amongst dungeon rooms and trapped passages. There may even be devil-dogs. So let’s work as a team, and do our best” – Cass
Hirst opened the locked door while Cass watched and listened, and then the two entered the dungeons.
The lower bastion
It was late, but the upper city was lightly awake, for some nobles, not caring to sleep in pavilions erected in the citadel middle ward, might return to their own mansions for further entertainment or rest, and their households had to remain ready. Guards were minimal, for most had accompanied their masters up to the citadel. A delivery wagon attracted no attention, and Bardic Vorel and Morath readied themselves as it neared the path up to the citadel. Bardic bore an arming sword as well as his great-sword; Morath a pair of short-swords as well as his daggers and throw-knives; and Vorel bore his Nemedian broadsword and short-sword at his belt and had arranged his Hyrkanian bow and quiver across his back so it could be drawn quickly.
As the “delivery men” unloaded the mantlet, the three commandoes leaped lightly down from the wagon and ran up the relatively short stretch of road between the last mansion and the lower bastion and up the short flight of steps to the door. Being fastest Bardic reached the door even as the guards did. He caromed off it and joined them inside the gate-chamber, cutting one down swiftly. The second reeled back from Bardic’s follow-on attack, then Morath joined the fight and the guard was cut down. Vorel trotted through into the first guard-chamber. As Morath joined Vorel, he caught the sounds of men descending the stairwell, and warned the Bossonian to make the killing quick.
Hearing this, Bardic pulled back outside, and clambered nimbly up the rear of the bastion. In spite of his great-sword, arming sword, hatchet, poniard and chain corselet, he scaled it swiftly and gained the roof to find it empty. A heavy trap led down to the upper chamber. Judging from the height of the bastion Bardic considered it would be only two levels.
Heaving up the trapdoor, Bardic clambered down, and was immediately shot by two crossbowmen. Another raised his spear. An NCO behind the three encouraged their efforts.
Not waiting for more pain, Bardic leaped down the remaining few feet and amidst his foes. His arming-sword smashed two down, and he plowed into the spearman before he could get “set.” Cutting through the man’s defenses with no more than a light scratch, the Cimmerian turned to the NCO and the duel began.
Below, Vorel held the foot of the steep stairwell. He knew that any advance up the stair would be difficult. Morath rushed past him and in a dazzling display of acrobatic skills, danced over the three men holding the stairwell, and kicked the topmost man back down, where he caused his mates below to stumble. After that the three were easy prey!
Vorel hurried to the top, to find that Bardic had not had the fight all his own way. The NCO had cut through Bardic’s corselet and blood was now running down his flank. Vorel flanked the man and they cut him down without further ado.
By that time, Morath had finished off all of the guards, and the trio could now encourage the rebels back further on the road to bring up the mantlet. There was no point waiting to see what the guards in the upper bastion or on the citadel walls had made of the assault. The next attack had to be carried out without delay!
Assault on the upper bastion
Morath trotted as close behind and between Vorel and Bardic as he could, as the mantlet was carried before them. Bolts hailed onto the metal fronting and as the range shortened, a few even punched through, to be stopped by the oak body. Peering through the visor, Bardic could navigate, and once he could see they were very close to the upper bastion he called a halt. They stood the mantlet upright on its prop, a few feet back from the low step up to the door.
Unlike the lower bastion, which merely guarded the road, the upper bastion straddled the road. From long usage, doors normally stood open and there were no steep steps. Now, the outer door was closed. As Drosht had predicted, it was not made of material that could be casually knocked through. Dropping the ax, Vorel helped Bardic pay out the grappling rope. As they readied for a throw, Morath cursed: a flanking shot from the citadel tower on their left had found its mark on him.
Bardic tossed the rope over and Vorel and he heaved on it so that the roof-top guards could not simply flip it back down. The grapnel bit deep.
“Wait till someone’s on it – then cut the rope” – NCO atop bastion
Hearing the instruction, Bardic ran to the side of the bastion, and climbed up the stonework as fast as he could. Vorel began shooting, using the mantlet as cover against the crossbows. Morath hugged the inside of the mantlet, feeling vulnerable. Then he heard a snarling and scraping and the door open. Warning Vorel, Morath ran to the rope and climbed up its knotted length rapidly.
Bardic ducked instinctively as a crossbow’s shot caromed off a crenel near him, and rolled over the battlement onto the roof. His great-sword sang as he raked it down from its over-the-shoulder position. Two arrows shot by him, one either side, to strike the two guards nearest. They drew back, alarmed, unable to contest the parapet. But their NCO rallied them, and they hefted their spears even as another arrow struck one. Three men faced Bardic: two with spears and an NCO behind them at the apex of the rough triangle they had formed. They were seasoned troops and were ready to support one another. He attacked!
A close call
Morath swung his heels up high and the first demon-dog missed its jump. He continued his climb, and rolled over the battlement. Bardic was to his left, cutting at one of two spearmen. A heavily-armored man wearing NCO’s insignia charged at him: Morath danced aside, flicking the man’s heel up as he careered towards the battlements. Unable to stop, he crashed over and down with a scream, abruptly cut off.
In spite of the warning Vorel was still surprised when two demon dogs burst out of the doorway and skidded round to leap at him. But his agility and strength prevented them from taking him off his feet, and he gave ground, sending shaft after shaft into them then dropping his bow and dealing damage with his broadsword and short-sword. The dogs’ handler, seeing his charges in trouble, threw his own weight and sword into the fray but he too was cut down, leaving Vorel gasping with the effort but relatively unscathed.
He was aware that something had smashed down upon the mantlet during his fight. Pacing over to the armored body, he saw that it was no-one he knew. The fall onto the mantlet’s upper edge had killed the man. Turning his attention to the door, Vorel saw that it was still open. He turned to retrieve his Hyrkanian bow, saw it lying under one of the dog’s muzzle, seized it up and cursed: in its death-throes the beast had snapped the bowstring. Shoving it glumly back into its scabbard, Vorel drew his short-sword again and ventured up into the bastion.
Above, Morath and Bardic had finished the two soldiers. Seeing that the trapdoor down was open, and not caring to be shot to pieces by the many crossbowmen lining the walls of the citadel looming above, Bardic threw caution to the winds and leaped down into the top chamber, great blade dripping. Morath followed at a slightly more cautious pace.
The remaining two guards were ready, and sold their lives dearly. Morath at least was unwilling to offer quarter. He paid for it! With the last thrust of the battle, a wounded soldier rammed his war-spear through the rogue and Morath joined him in death.
Bardic finished the soldier off, pushed back his visor and and looked about. Vorel had joined him, so that meant there were no enemies below. With a grunt, Bardic dropped his sword, stepped over to his fallen comrade and dragged the spear carefully out. Pressing a rag over the gaping wound front and back, the Cimmerian bent close to the Zamorian’s face.
“He’s alive, by Crom!”
Ripping the flagon of wine off his belt, he lifted Morath’s chin and poured the draft in full measure down the fallen man’s throat. With a splutter Morath came to his senses and looked about with a venomous gaze.
“You didn’t leave me a single one, did you?” – Morath