Blood on the flagstones
The young guard paused in his bid. Across the table, his comrade frowned: the pile of beans was growing beside him and he was on the verge of having enough to trade in for a softer duty. Maybe not the beer-run, since only the veterans scored that one, but perhaps gate duty, out in the fresh air and away from the hideous menace lurking just beyond the heavy barricade to his left.
“Your bid, penis-face – Set got your tongue?”
“Shuddup, pig-breath! I heard something – could be Optio’s comin’ down?”
“Great! We could do with another tot of rum!”
The young guard began swinging round on his stool, but before he could rise, a dark-clad figure bounded around the inner curve of the stairway and flicked a throwing knife at them! With startled cries, they leapt to their feet – but even before they could get their short-swords into action, other attackers swept down and ended their young lives!
Vorel stepped back up a few steps as his comrades gazed around the guard chamber, taking in the slumped wall on one side and the barricade at the end. He listened: it seemed the slaughter had not alerted anyone, this far below Locknotch. Or had it? Was that the sound of a door?
The progress of the six rescuers had been steady since Alleto knocked out and tied up a luckless clerk who had followed them down to the cistern. A long level shaft between cistern chamber and beer-cellar had been empty of keep-folk, and the suspected store-rooms had been exactly that. They had decided not to investigate the beer-cellar and had crept as silently as possible down the shallow, ancient steps that bent round to this guard-room.
Alleto looked with interest at the barricade. He traced the rope-work with his fingers to be sure:
“I can see how to get this out of the way quickly, my friends! Just say the word!”
Edric stroked his chin thoughtfully, stepping aside from the growing pool of blood on the floor. The holy symbols of Mitra and Ishtar on the barricade suggested unnatural necromancies were penned up beyond. Muttering an incantation, he passed his hand over his quarterstaff, and the iron-shod head glowed brightly. Edric thrust it cautiously through the barricade… and withdrew it, as with a snarl something raked at the light! A pair of eyes glowed beyond the barricade: eyes at a man’s height!
Vorel signaled urgently to Morath, who stole up to wait in ambush. Someone was definitely approaching: but off their guard, singing a lusty soldier’s song. As he rounded the bend, Morath struck: then Vorel’s bow thrummed, and the armored soldier slumped. A lantern fell and guttered out, and a costrel of liquor rolled across the flags. Morath finished him off, and rifled the man’s purse.
Bardic, Alleto and Edric arranged themselves as a sort of battle-line, Edric just behind the two armored warriors. Celo and Vorel readied their bows to use the height of the stairs to offer support, while Morath stayed back as rearguard. Holding his lantern aloft, Alleto flung back the barricade!
From out of the Stygian dark, barely-pierced by Edric’s light and Alleto’s lantern, a man-like figure leapt, rammed claws through Alleto’s fine armor, and sprang back, away into the dark! The three struggled to assimilate what they had seen: had the creature been a man, or some demonic hybrid of a man? Snarls and weird titters sounded from beyond: whatever it was, the creature was not alone!
Celo attempted a shot into the gloom, without apparent result. The front rank advanced, Edric poised behind them. Three beast-men leapt forward: there was a struggle: heaving breast-to-breast: a choked rasping scream: and one of the beast-men fell, his head shorn from his shoulders by Alleto’s broadsword! The other two sprang away again… seven more creatures, painted in the fashion of hyenas, raised their muzzles and screamed their rage.
Step by step the two fighting-men advanced against the fury of the beast-men. At times, Edric’s staff would lash out past them to score a hit on a hyena-man. Celo, once advancing too far forward, found himself surrounded by slashing claws and saved himself only by a prodigious feat of acrobatic tumbling. The beast-men clutched steel claws, affixed to an iron bar, in each fist: strong and swift beyond the range of mortal man, they could lash out with either, with blows capable of punching through even Bardic’s chain shirt.
Alleto, Bardic and Edric advanced in unison. Vorel and Celo sank shafts into exposed flanks. Though they would attack and spring away, and hide behind the three curiously-carved pillars supporting the massy vault, one by one the ten beast-men fell until only three remained.
Behind the maelstrom of the battle, Morath kept guard. He heard shouts from above: “Optio? Optio!” – It seemed that the alarm was spreading!
Perhaps through the red mists of rage the hyena-men realized they had no chance: bleeding as they were from half-a-dozen deep gouges, Bardic and Alleto showed no sign of wavering. The three leapt to a close: one fell, cut asunder by the Cimmerian’s blade, then the last two sank down under the blows and arrows of the others.
“We need to move – I’m hearing the guard being organized above!” snapped Morath, as Edric began studying the pillars.
“Surely pre-Hyborian… what… yes, right! Is that door unlocked?” Edric responded, raising his light again. Over at a large door near the end of the vault, Celo turned:
“I’ll have it open in no time. I can hear whimpering inside – this should be the girl’s room.” He laid out his master-crafted toolkit, essential for persuading massy locks such as this one.
Across the corner from that door, Alleto pushed his lantern at another sturdy barricade. It seemed to lead to a straight shaft, and beyond, a suggestion of steps up. “I think we have an exit option!” the Zingaran announced excitedly.
The door swung open. Bardic stepped forward, battleaxe un-slung. “Hey – not bad quarters! This is like a rich family’s cottage back in my village!”
Indeed, though no attempt had been made to ease a child’s stay with ornament or plaything, the chamber beyond was reasonably large, comfortable and clean. A young girl crouched in the farthest corner, terror obvious in her thin frame. Edric stepped forward:
“Child, be comforted! We are rescuers, sent by your father. Your father, who told you tales of the magic cat and the Marquis…”
With a glad cry the girl rose, and took Edric’s hand. Edric turned to Bardic:
“Bardic: can I leave it to you to carry the child should we need to run?”
“I swear it: by Crom it shall be so!”
The six arrayed themselves in single file as Alleto cut away the second barricade and they approached the stair-well. Celo ghosted at the front, ahead of Alleto. Ascending, he realized they were about to pass the beer-cellar. He could hear the soldiery, still being assembled. Signaling to Alleto, he nimbly ran the last few steps, threw a knife at the nearest soldier, and continued up.
Leaving the girl with Edric, Alleto and Bardic charged into the cellar! Blood sprayed across the walls as soldiers fell left and right. Reaching the end of the vault, the two warriors turned at bay. Vorel and Morath slunk round the fight’s fringe, picking off exposed fighters.
A lone soldier, sobbing with fear, fled down the shaft towards the cistern: in the beer-cellar, the gurglings of the dying stilled. From the stairwell, the last clatters of running feet could be heard as Alleto and Morath, acting as rearguard, followed the other four.
Celo rolled past Vorel and looped Morath’s silken line around a merlon atop the watch-tower. Vorel lunged again, then winced as steel replied in kind: the soldier may have been unawares until the six reached the top, but he seemed a competent fighter. But no match for a desperate Bossonian!
Vorel stabbed his short sword in again and kicked the dying man away. Bardic, carrying the girl, was already down the rope and Celo was fast on his heels. Edric, more clumsily, worked his way over the crenellations and slid down to the upper parapet. Vorel checked that his longbow was secure, and followed.
Bardic instinctively ducked back as a quarrel zinged off the crenellation beside him: a lone sentry had taken a shot from ambush! Cursing softly under his breath, the Cimmerian gathered the child up and with her riding piggy-back, raced at full speed away and around the far end of Warrior Hall. Rising beyond, the donjon seemed to leer over him, its height made more sinister by flickering lurid glow from the cleric’s viewing seat, where ‘twas rumored, Venari had concourse with demonkind!
As Morath and Alleto landed and readied themselves to follow the first four, the crossbowman landed his bolt true and deep into Morath. Cursing to one of his nameless Zamorian demon-gods, Morath yanked the bolt out and set off at top speed after the others: there seemed only harm to be gained by delaying now!
Seeking some shelter away from blast or bolt, Bardic raced all the way along the parapet and around to where the keep by design bulged out over the hill-slope below. Celo with the second rope was far behind. Bardic patted the girl’s wrists reassuringly:
“Hold tight, little one: we do this for laughs in my country!”
More like ape than man, the Cimmerian swung up and over the crenellation: the girl squeaked once, then clamped her eyes shut against the abyss. Bardic clambered down the sheer face of the keep wall, to land softly on the sward: steep it was, but not too steep, allowing him to run for the horses!
It was dawn: after a night in which the keep, alarmed, had sent its few remaining guards to horse, to spread alarm across Pellia! Rumor, flying faster than any steed, told it that armed intruders carried a great prize south. But north-east of Locknotch, the agent and six drably-clad hardy rogues waited among the trees at edge of clearing. Riders approached. One of them had a girl cradled in his brawny arms.
“Well met… and well done,” the agent said, studying the six newcomers with the girl. Most had gashes roughly bandaged; all were spattered with dried gore. He nudged his horse in and around. “I have your payment,” he announced, “show me the girl: is she well?”
“Aye, she is fit, but her mind has been weakened by her ordeal,” Edric explained. “They penned her in a chamber guarded by men ensorcelled to believe themselves beasts. We had to slay them all to win through to the girl.”
“And then, there was a bit of bother getting past the soldiers,” commented Celo, still pale from his blood loss.
Bardic kneed his Curst forward. The ill-tempered mount threw up its head, but was too tired to shy. The Cimmerian leaned over; handed over the girl as gems were handed to him.
“The tales I hear of your kind are not exaggerated! My thanks!” The agent backed his horse off, and he and his six companions, still watchful-silent, made to leave.
“Wait – there was a matter of information about my family…” interrupted Vorel.
“My apologies Vorel: I gave this some thought over the past couple of days. I can’t help you: my lord has no network in the north, and that is where answers must lie. You must needs be content with the same 3,000 final payment as the others.”
Vorel grunted in disappointment: but true, 3,000 would be of some help easing the pangs of disappointment. The agent, the girl, and the riders, faded from view amongst the trees.
“So… east?” Vorel queried, looking over at Edric. The cleric stroked his chin.
“Aye – east! Then Nemedia and the north!”