The Returning Heroes
Hudig’s archers let the castle garrison know in plenty of time: the foray to the hermitage was returning. It looked fairly battered and had obviously lost horses, and were two less in strength, but had three prisoners.
“We got the supplies through to holy Percali,” Brother Edric reported tiredly. “Actually,” he added candidly, “he and his novice wandered down through the middle of a major battle, thanked us for the supplies, took them off us, and wandered back.”
“What?! In the midst of a battle?” Sir Anled marveled.
“We hadn’t quite put all our foes to flight when he met us. He’s protected by the warding power of Mitra, of course,” Edric explained.
“What of your losses?”
“Oh… let’s discuss those somewhere in privacy.”
“All right. Speaking of privacy, I have something to tell you in confidence as well.”
Cards on the table
Edric’s briefing to Sir Anled and Sagitus his Reeve, was that Brother Keth had successfully broken off from the party under Morath’s guidance. Given a few days, the pair would return, hopefully with Garamaine. To minimize the chances of the Damsons learning of this mission, it would be best to act as though the pair were missing in action. Edric expected to use his powers to ensure that they kept in touch.
Sir Anled revealed that the Royal Ambassador was expected. Negotiations with Aquilonia over the exchange of territory were about to begin. He did not think Graf Semren would be traveling, given his advanced years and the need for the exchange to appear low-key.
It was the dark of night two days later when the castle gates were hastily opened and swiftly closed after admitting riders and a palanquin. Bardic at least had been expecting the move: he had enough knowledge of the castle patrols by that time to see that forward patrols had made every effort to clear the north roads. He had also noted that even Haustyn, not yet fully recovered, was stumping around checking guard stations.
Edric was roused from his bed by a servant. Dressing hastily he followed the man into the withdrawing chamber, off the andron. A woman started up from her place as guest of honor and stopped, as though startled:
“Edric! What have you done to your lovely beard?”
“Kelvie? What are you doing here?”
“I see I have no need to introduce you to Her Serenity, the Ambassador to Aquilonia,” murmured Sir Anled diplomatically.
“Huh-hmm. You do get around, your Serenity.”
Kelvie dimpled attractively. Her blonde hair shone from lavish treatments and her sweetly mature rondure was now clad in costly silks and furs. Her splendid blue eyes devoured Edric from head to toe as she took his hands and kissed him modestly on the cheek.
“Ooo – you’re all scratchy!” Kelvie complained in bad Nemedian. “Now, sit down with us and tell me all about this Order of the Eastern Reach you seem to be having trouble with.”
“Er, yes… there’s not a lot to say… rules of my Order prohibit much discussion…”
“I don’t mean, blab lots of secrets, silly! I mean what’s taking you so long? His Highness was under the impression that you would have pushed them out of the Roaring Pass without delay. But here we are, about to start talking with Aquilonia about land swaps, and this pesky order is still hanging about spending his Highness’ silver and generally making trouble.”
“We’re working as fast as we can, without taking foolish risks,” Edric replied, stiffening somewhat under the implied vote of no-confidence – and the near proximity of the lovely Kelvie. “And what did you mean, his Highness’ silver?”
“Until such time as the land west of the river gorge is exchanged for land south of the Gates, the silver from the silver mine is his Highness’s. And that’s the silver the Friars are coining and buying mercenaries with and paying off Aquilonian courtiers with. Didn’t you at least shut the mine down?”
“Uh, it seemed about to close when we left it. We’re quite sure… or at least it seemed at the time… that the Damsons would not get any more silver. The foreman left, some of the gang bosses left, and the manager met with a fatal accident.”
“Oh Edric! Your good intentions are so… good they pain my heart! But good intentions butter no bread! Well, let’s hope the silver is all they have left and their coffers are empty.”
Edric paled at the thought. He was depending on finding plenty of illegal coin, to cover all the remaining payments to his crew.
“In any case, Kelvie… uh… your Serenity, I’m just waiting on better intelligence concerning possible ways into the fortress. I should know more within the week.”
“That will be much too long,” Kelvie replied firmly. “His Highness wishes to present Aquilonia with a finished work – all the Damsons, as you call them, put to flight and no impediment to his most August Majesty taking possession of the Roaring Pass.”
“You see, Edric, it would weaken our realm greatly if the Roaring Pass is still held by what is essentially a royal Aquilonian force, after gifting all lands west of the river, and our interest in the disputed lands, to the Aquilonians,” Sir Anled elaborated.
“I’m sure you can delay proceedings,” Edric caviled.
“A finished work,” Kelvie repeated firmly, re-phrasing it in Shemitish in case there was any misunderstanding of her attractively poor Nemedian.
A day later, and having evaded squads of roving mercenaries, Morath returned with Brother Keth and Garamaine, the strange hermit-ranger. Keth greeted them all joyfully, waving his arms expressively and offering a heartfelt thanks to Mitra that they had all survived. Morath slunk away into the shadows, to check that his hoard was still tucked away safely.
The men of Edric’s band of desperadoes studied Garamaine curiously. Some had seen him before; to others he was an unknown; all knew that Edric was placing a good deal of faith in his veracity and pliability. He appeared to be a shaggy-haired Gunderman, clad in rawhide and homespun.
Black Hudig carried out a small keg of ale. “Second part of the payment,” he grunted. “Likes to take some home.”
“I suddenly like him a lot more than I did,” Celo commented.
“I was just about to say the same thing,” Bardic exclaimed, producing a leathern tankard from somewhere.
Garamaine sighed contentedly, wiped the froth off his beard, and looked quizzically at Edric.
“Friar says you want to know about Fortress trails.”
“Yes, O Garamaine,” Edric said respectfully. “Your vast experience of this land suggests you must have watched the Damsons – who are evil – in their comings and goings.”
“Watched them, aye.”
“Dropped a couple, too, as was stalking you. Hudig here vouched for you last year. Kept an eye on you when you journeyed round through hereabouts, early summer.”
“Uhh… thanks! So you are willing to tell us of any other way we can get into the fortress?”
“Much good may it do you! No, t’other entrance is t’other side of pass, through the disputed lands. Good trail from Amuran’s, by Uthric’s, into a valley. Surprised your lads didn’t see it.”
“How long would it take for you to lead us over the mountains to that entrance?”
“Won’t do it. Too late in the year now. Well, I’m off.” So saying, Garamaine nodded to Hudig, shouldered the keg, and departed, leaving Edric gobbling with frustration behind him.
“Not you – he never stays,” Hudig explained helpfully. “Doesn’t like crowds.”
“Garamaine! Surely there’s some other way in?!?” Edric called to the retreating back. Garamaine paused in the ward gateway, turned back and replied:
“I mind there was something my Da told me: said as how there was Demon Tunnels that come up below the fortress.
“Don’t try the river,” he added. “Comes in strong, and ends in some kind of…” He lifted his free hand, and twirled his finger around in a vertical whirl.
“Whirlpool?” Celo asked.
“Aye, that was it. No matter how strong you be, you’d be killed.” Without further ado the strange man turned and departed.
The Path Chosen
Having prayed to Mitra for guidance, Edric laid the options out for his fellows and hirelings.
“The oracle says, ‘Through serpent’s eyes the path is revealed’ and Mitra, while providing wise guidance as always, has left it to us to determine whether this is worth proceeding with. My own stock of knowledge suggests that it could be that the demon-serpent of Keniwec would be indicated. I feel there is something I may have missed, but reflecting on this at length has led no further.
“The options would seem to be, beggar myself waiting until the season improves for a journey back to the disputed lands; set out east into the hills through the remaining mercenary bands and into the ape-and-poison-haunted valley; or just have a crack at the gates. So as you can probably guess I’m thinking it’s the gates. And I’m open to suggestions as to how we tackle it.”
Not many suggestions were tabled, but Hod, surprisingly, suggested they could pose as mercenaries wanting back-pay or some such. According to the prisoners they had captured, up to 200 mercenaries had been hired and the Damsons would never be able to pick one from another. Morath pointed out that guards could be overcome with Yellow Lotus powder. Yemmi simply suggested a look at the gate before he could venture an opinion as to a way through.
Yemmi’s Desperate Deed
It was the gray of pre-dawn the following morning when Edric’s eleven desperadoes peered cautiously up the last stretch of trail leading to the barbican-style fortification guarding the Damsons’ main entrance. Save for Kuruk, they no longer had their horses: Zekias and some of the castle grooms had returned north with those. A few dangled flagons or clutched the heavy tools that would likely be needed to work through fortress doors.
At some stage in the past, the sheer or even overhanging mountainside had been extended with crafty masonry right over the mountain trail known as Roaring Pass. Its ends had been sealed with heavy valves, massive timber reinforced with bronze, set deep enough into the masonry hoarding that anyone attempting to break in could have all manner of deterrents thrown down onto them. Most of the year these stood open, but now the eastern gates facing the insurgents were closed.
Surprisingly, Yemmi seemed merely dubious rather than hopeless. “Yer, I could squiggle through th’ murder holes over th’ door. But then wot? Depends on wot Morath c’n bring ter th’ party, don’t it?”
Morath presented Yemmi with two vials of Yellow Lotus and ran briefly over how it dispersed and the likely effects. As Yemmi stole towards the gates, Morath glanced around. He and Celo were lightly armored, for their job was to follow Yemmi’s lead and get across to the western gates as swiftly as possible. Edric and Keth still wore their homespun habits, with mail shirts underneath. All of the others were heavily armored – although Kayan Haduk had simply slung his hauberk-disguise poncho-style. Hod seemed as happy as he’d ever been: the layers of scale and mail marked a high point in the Bossonian’s wealth. If things panned out, he had five bastard swords to sell, later.
Fewer than a hundred heartbeats had gone by when the sound of a man squealing in terror, accompanied by the clash of metal on metal, reached Bardic’s keen ears. He slipped his helm on and raced forward as fast as his burden of armor allowed. The gates had been pushed open a notch! Sliding his great-sword in point first like a gigantic two-handed stiletto, Bardic prevented the cross-bar within from dropping back into place. Beyond, Yemmi’s squeals and squawks continued unabated! Then with a surge of effort, Bardic forced the bar out of its socket and pulled the gate open. Half a dozen Damsons lay prone or staggered about dazed by the Lotus dust, but three had not been caught by its effects and were trying their best to chop Yemmi apart. The Zamorian was using all of his gutter-fighting expertise to avoid being killed while landing the odd telling stab – but he was telling the world in no uncertain terms how he felt about it!
The invaders rolled over them and left the Damsons dead or dying. Morath tossed Yemmi his sword and jogged forward with Celo into the relative darkness of the tunnel. Their ears and eyes were tuned to the highest pitch: if the other guards weren’t deaf, they must have heard Yemmi’s heroic infiltration! Meanwhile the heroic Yemmi swiftly combed through the fallen men’s pouches, fingers a blur, before swigging a healing potion that Edric had allotted him and rising to follow his fellow-rogues.
They were in!