At the great tree
Edric leaned out of his saddle to examine the finger-post more closely. “You’re right, Vorel,” he affirmed, “That says six leagues to Locknotch.” The incised distance seemed to overlay older, perhaps much older, carvings. A forgotten language or something more sinister? Edric shrugged and waited for the next couple of riders to file past him, so he could resume his place in the party order. Alleto nodded amiably as he jockeyed his fine mare past: thanks to Edric’s diplomacy, Pendleby had arranged a quick horse-trade and once again the Zingaran’s mount was the best of the lot.
Evening had darkened the always-dim, tree-shadowed trail when the six riders came in sight of a monstrous tree marking a trail crossing. So large around it spanned, that men had fashioned comfortable benches out of a segment facing the trail, and a hearth of large flat stones blazed with a cheery log fire. A wagon, donkey unhitched, stood off to one side. A man, dressed as a mendicant, hailed them and bade them approach.
Bardic and Vorel swung down and looked around the clearing suspiciously. “Where’s your friends? Come – bring them out! ” Bardic challenged. Vorel could see the traces of only one other, so was not surprised when a forester, bow in hand, emerged from hiding once the mendicant was satisfied the riders meant no harm.
As the pair were travelling across-trail and not from Locknotch they could add little to the meager store of knowledge about the stronghold, save that it was ruled by a priest and garrisoned by a military force. The mendicant, who seemed to combine the talents of lay priest, herbalist and bard, sold the six several powerful elixirs: it seemed a wise investment.
The following day took the riders up steeper hills and through even denser woodlands. Bardic, at the front, raised his head and sniffed the damp air. “Something has died around here – eyes open!” he grunted. A low menacing growl came from where Vorel rode at the rear, off to the right. All of the horses shied or bridled! Vorel fell off, but retained his clutch on the reins and bow. The others slid or vaulted off as their characters dictated, whereupon most of the horses bolted!
Before Vorel or Celo could bring their bows to bear, a huge beast, wolf-like in shape though barrel-chested and ears small in proportion to its massive skull, sprang upon Vorel’s mount “Shorty” and as the wretched creature bolted into the trees, savaged its withers. As the horse fled past Morath, his short sword licked out, scoring the beast’s flank. Vorel and Celo’s bows sang and two arrows buried themselves in the rank hide! The beast thrust its muzzle down over Shorty’s flank and tore away a great chunk of leg, bringing it down screaming: then sprang away into the gloom!
To fight such a mobile and lethal opponent seemed foolhardy: once Morath and Vorel had recovered the tack and saddlebags, and Bardic and Alleto had rounded up the remaining five horses, the march resumed with Vorel taking over “Curst,” previously Bardic’s mount.
The sun was low, near-hidden by treetops as they neared the dominant hill atop which Locknotch lay. A hail came from up the track: three rangers approached. The six companions studied them narrowly as they approached: shorter and darker than the average Aquilonian, these were obviously locals. Greetings were exchanged.
Edric set aside his instinctive distrust of Locknotch inhabitants and made a conscious effort to be charming and draw them out. The older and more experienced of the three, Istri by name, proved quite easy of speech. He confirmed that they were indeed locals. The three were on the hunt for the great wolf, and were disappointed to learn that they still had a job to do. The six declined an invitation join the hunt, and secured more information about the stronghold.
As had earlier been told, Locknotch was in the charge of a priest, Venari by name. Istri agreed that he was a priest of Mitra, but implied that he was not the epitome of such. The secular command fell to the sergeant-at-arms, Umbar, whom Istri described as a hard bastard and would-be baron. His men were also hardy rogues, and the six were warned not to make themselves targets for forced recruitment.
Istri recommended the Inn that lay at the foot of Locknotch: cheered by this volume of gossip and evidence of lax security, the six finished their trek in twilight and checked in.
With most of their heavier gear stowed in the stables, the six walked up the roadway to the stronghold not long after dawn next day. To all but close inspection, they appeared mere common louts and low-grade guards accompanying their priest. Two guards, clad in a rough livery and equipped with shield and spear, stood at the main entrance of the compound where the roadway pierced a fence of palings. They gave the six no more than a cursory look. Vorel glanced back over his shoulder as they passed in: a ditch, carrying spillwater from a well and horse-trough, ran beside the entrance road, offering reasonable cover at night. The shrine, their immediate goal, rose immediately to the left of the entrance.
Edric entered the shrine, and most of the others followed, though Vorel remained outside. Several traders and women were already in the single chamber, and most left as the five men entered. Celo’s sharp eyes probed the dim, bulb-shaped chamber: the statue, or rather bas-relief, to Mitra, at the far side facing the entrance, seemed somewhat perfunctory. Other statues and statuettes and altars seemed as frequently used. No-one seemed to be paying Edric any special attention as he made a libation at the shrine of the virgin, a local saint apparently. Celo could not spot any goat-like devices, and there were certainly no snake-like or coiled idols or designs to be seen.
Outside the shrine, Vorel’s attention was drawn away from the keep’s main gate as an unremarkable trader stopped on his way out. “You appear to have done some hunting,” the man remarked pleasantly. “True enough: my bow and I are close companions,” Vorel agreed. “There’s not much in the way of game around here… there are few ibex left in these hills,” the man continued. It was the watch-sign! “The wily ibex is still to be found in remote parts,” Vorel countered. “The Inn below is private and they serve a decent noon meal: join me there: but meantime, have a good look around Locknotch.” The trader moved on, and Vorel realized that even having spoken to him, he could hardly recall the man’s face.
The six gazed around the compound, which was already bustling. Inside the paling left of the main entrance lay a number of ancillary buildings: beyond the shrine, a bake-house giving off a delicious aroma, a smithy, forge already beginning to glow as ‘prentices got the big bellows working, wood-turners and a wood store and finally what was probably a shed for storing junk. Opposite loomed the main keep: long, fairly low, and looking fairly massive in the morning light. People – mainly women, children and traders – moved freely between the keep and the ancillary buildings. Beyond the well, which itself lay a good fifty feet inside the main entrance, grooms worked on horses.
None of the six entered either keep or donjon, and once Vorel satisfied himself as to the standard of weapons the smithy had to offer, they returned to the Inn. Having obtained a private booth, the agent shared a midday meal with them, and got down to business.
The real mission
“I have your payment for this leg of your journey,” he assured them. “It’s time to reveal what the real matter is. I’ll explain briefly, pay you, then you can decide whether or not you wish to take on this, the true mission, and then we can discuss terms.”
Morath studied the agent in admiration. The man was not only instantly forgettable; he was impossible to read beyond the emotions he let play on his seemingly honest face. Morath gave up his study, and let his ears do most of the work as the spy continued his initial explanation:
“I’ll set out the situation, then you can ask me questions, then I’ll move on to the mission details should you accept.
“To put it plainly, you have been selected for your excellent work in extracting a hostage in delicate circumstances. Count Terentius is at odds with my lord. He has stooped to methods below the civilized level, in kidnaping my lord’s daughter. My lord needs you to rescue her from Locknotch.
“Terentius, as you may know, is a baron in favor with King Vilerus. His preferred method is to work through second parties, so that he can…”
“Plausibly deny any wrongdoing?” queried Vorel sarcastically.
“That’s very good! Yes, ‘plausibly deny’ is an expression I may use,” the agent responded, noting the phrase down in a tiny aide-memoir. “So as in the case on the Zingaran border, where he used a local house, so here: the priest Venari, who is not one of Mitra’s shining exemplars, is acting as Terentius’ agent, safely here near the center of the kingdom and far from Terentius’ own lands.”
Glancing around, Morath could see that Bardic for one was instantly in favor of the mission, Vorel and Edric too. Morath exchanged a look with Celo: “What’s the money like?” the look meant. The agent continued:
“A ransom has been demanded, at an exorbitant sum completely beyond anything my lord could afford. He is, however, able to put forward a sum to enable the rescue. I’ll get to specifics about that, should you agree to take on this leg.
“So the choice for you is to either take your due payment here, or go on your way – North, I think? – or accept this final leg of the mission, in which case I will discuss the details of the mission and payment for it. I’ll step out now, and secure your due payment.”
Vorel rubbed his chin as the others fell to discussing gaps in the agent’s information and possible consequences from high-born enemies. It occurred to him that this was the first non-clerical intelligence network he had struck. Could it possibly help him with information about his parents’ murder?
The agent returned and counted out piles of gold and silver for each person. Edric summed up for all by inviting the agent to proceed, as all were interested assuming the price was right. They settled on an offer of six thousand apiece save for Vorel who asked for three thousand plus information. The agent slid out a thin cloth tube containing gems, shared them out, and then began hauling out thin rolls of parchment: maps of the various parts of Locknotch.
“The girl is ten,” he informed them, “and my investigations have led me to conclude that she is held below the storage level, in a deep cellar or oubliette. Food scraps are sent down each day. Two guards stand at the entrance to the oubliette, but the duty is unpopular: and they keep a watch-fire burning: there’s something unpleasant below: something like beasts.
“Umbar, the sergeant-at-arms, is a nasty piece of work. He’s a capable fighter, though I would think that any two of you could deal with him very quickly. He has a good second-in-command and a couple of good sergeant types, then about nine or ten real fighters with them in what’s called the Warrior Hall. It’s reached from an internal stair from the common quarters, where the rabble and their women and children live. There are probably about ten common men at any one time there.
“The grooms who watch the horses often sit around the parapet until late at night. Though there’s a postern at that end, they would most likely see anyone trying to open it. The main gate is guarded, and there’s an internal portcullis further along the entry passage.
“There are only two entrances that I know of into the lower levels. One runs from the watchtower above the Warrior Hall all the way down to the store level, and from there, there’s a connecting passage to the cistern below the donjon. A stairwell from the cistern runs all the way up the donjon – right up to what’s called the Viewing Chamber, where it’s said the priest lives and casts his mystical spells.”
“What’s in the first level of the donjon? We saw quite a few traders and soldiers going in?” queried Edric.
“The minor armory, where routine stores are dispensed, and dry stores such as cloth. There are quite a few shelves and racks, and two old soldiers act as store-keepers. Venari, the priest and ruler of Locknotch, lives in the donjon along with a couple of clerks and the old soldiers. The clerks live on the second level, and as far as I know, Venari lives on the top level.”
“So – that could be the best route! Now – what we need is a plan to gain admittance to the donjon stairwell.”
A fitful moon masked by low-hanging clouds left pools of darkness at the entrance road. As one of the two guards moved to relieve himself in the drainage ditch, a dark-garbed, sword-wielding figure rose and sliced its broadsword two-handed into the luckless fellow! A clothyard shaft cut off his choking grunt: Vorel smoothly nocked another as Alleto leapt past Bardic and agilely thrust his own broadsword into the second guard! Again, Vorel’s arrow finished the guard off.
Bardic and Alleto dragged and rolled the corpses into the convenient ditch, which as Vorel had suggested, had made enough cover for them to approach to close range. Vorel gazed around the compound: off in the distance, grooms continued to chaff each other and idle, and other stronghold inhabitants peacefully went about the occasional night chore. If there was a watch up in the watch-tower, they hadn’t noticed the loss of the entrance guards. Vorel breathed a sigh of relief and motioned to Edric, crouching much further below, to follow up.
Bardic and Alleto, weapons poised ready to strike, slunk over to the donjon. The door cracked open, then swung wider: Morath grinned and beckoned them into the store-room. Passing Morath, Alleto looked around: Celo was leaning on the counter, looking a bit pale.
“All safe?” Alleto murmured.
“Taken care of,” Celo assured him in a low tone, trying to sound nonchalant. In truth, this was his first cold-blooded killing. He and Morath had crept out of their hiding place among the stores, and slit the throats of the sleeping store-men. The diversion worked out the previous night had worked perfectly: he and Morath had spent an uncomfortable eight hours hiding, and the store-men hadn’t suspected a thing. At least they died quickly, Celo comforted himself.
“So – the stairs down lie open!” Vorel breathed, entering the store-room and studying the stair-well.
“And up, as well – let’s keep it quiet!” reminded Edric.