The five fugitives followed their ten rescuers down the steep flights of steps from their exposed position into what was clearly part of the wagon-yards of the city. Carts, wagons, wheels, and stalls of beasts of burden sprawled up the slope and ahead, as far as they could see. Pairs of rescuers gestured each to follow in a different direction, some of them calling in poor Brythunian. Their maturely ravishing leader called instructions in accented tones:
“Follow those you have been assigned! They will guide you to safety!” – Sasha
She took charge of Celo and, followed by a leanly-competent looking second named Legalszo, raced away through the wagon-yards and up into steep-walled streets and alleys. Even as they lost sight of the others Celo could see one of the devil-beasts scrabbling its way over the high wall, and squads of armored soldiery fanning out across the wagon-yards. Above, Palena rose, tier by tier, up to a shimmering waterfall, tumbling from the uppermost fastness, where a mighty-walled citadel squatted.
Vorel found himself in the charge of a fat, sweating man named Ollos and the red-head of the pair of lads among the rescuers. Neither seemed to be capable of making the kind of speed they would need to escape devil beasts. Vorel looked around for inspiration as he ran, and his gaze lit on a line of mules, still with blankets on their backs.
“I can ride anything with four hooves – as long as it’s not a donkey. Or an ox” – Vorel
Swiftly, he untied three mules, and assisted his guides up onto the back of two. Vaulting up onto the third, he kicked it into motion enthusiastically. The mules brayed in protest. Steadying his cased Hyrkanian bow and arrows, and swapping the leads to that hand, Vorel seized a dray-pole as he rode past a wagon-yard. He used it to belabor the three beasts and keep them to a good pace, outdistancing the devil-beasts… for the time being.
Morath followed a sweaty-pated, burly oldster named Drosht and a young squirt – this one waving a wooden sword – up a steep, stepped alley. It was blocked by a cart laden with night-soil. This did not seem to worry his guides.
“You climb from here, Gordy will guide you the rest of the way. Don’t bother about me” – Drosht
As Morath scrambled up onto one of the flat-roofed houses he saw Drosht kicking the blocks away from the cart’s wheels, and pushing it downhill. Gordy raced ahead, jumped with all his might, and landed in a sprawling roll on the other side, losing his grip on his sword. A useful-looking long knife also dropped from his belt. Bleeding from a skinned knee, Gordy gestured Morath to jump as well, and began picking himself and his weapons up. Taking a run and leaping as high and long as he could, the Zamorian rogue cleared the gap easily. From the vantage point he could see back down into the wagon-yards, where Cass was in trouble.
Cass had misjudged the situation, or her guides had lost their nerve. A hue and cry had arisen, and instead of being able to slip away through the wagon-yards, they found themselves being driven back. Two devil-beasts, each with a handler, were quartering the area, scenting. Morath could see that they would be cut off and trapped in less than a minute!
Not bothering to explain to young Gordy, the Zamorian sprinted back down a zig-zag of alleys and into the wagon-yards. As a crowd of angry stall-holders ran past he yelled loudly:
“They went that way!” – Morath, bluffing mightily
The mob disappeared into the maze of alleys he’d come from. That left the devil-beasts. Morath could hear their snarling, and after a few more twists and turns ran into a yard where both teams were fast closing in on Cass and her guides. To their credit, the guides were putting their bodies between Cass and the fangs of the beasts. Timing his run easily, Morath rammed his sword down the back of one of the handler’s breastplate just as he sicced his beast onto a guide. The man collapsed with a hoarse scream. His beast, unleashed, ripped into the luckless local, snapping a leg and jumping on the downed man to tear into his gut.
Cass tumbled past the beast and handler, and something weighted whizzed round her head and connected with the handler’s helm with a thud. His knees folded. That beast too took a piece of the guide’s leg, but the man, in an impressive display of guts, tore free and hopped away.
“I lead them away! You go North Market, Silk Row, back of Shawl! They lead you safe! – Heroic red-shirt
Blood on the road
Meanwhile Celo had been led by Sasha and her second to what was obviously a pied-a-terre for some other, larger, woman who used male disguise from time to time. Fetching a variety of clothes out of closets, Sasha persuaded Celo to undress down to his breeks while Legalszo stood guard outside. He could not help noticing that she took a very hands-on attitude to this process. As he finished dressing, Celo heard Legalszo mutter what seemed like bad news to Sasha. She tensed and invoked the names of several deities.
“We must not linger! The chase is close – some of our people have been slain!” – Sasha
Within a short time the couple, arms linked, walked back through the alleys and markets of lower Palena. A variety of lookouts, all normal citizens to Celo’s eye, passed back word. They mounted to a road and heard the tramp of booted feet. Then: the ring of sword of armor and the screams of dying men!
A short time previous, Bardic realized he would have to do something rash. His guides, an oldster named Ulysz and a powerfully-built young man named Callipsos, had guided him with the minimum of fuss through a number of alleys, and then doubled back, rising higher. The last stretch, apparently meant to fool the devil-beasts, was an easy climb along a wall overlooking a broad road, probably the city’s main artery. But they would need to move quietly along the wall, because of the squads and half-squads of soldiers passing nearby.
A slight chink of chain or scrape of gear, and one of the soldiers looked up. The squad was a full one – half a dozen heavily armored spearmen, with two sub-officers or NCOs. Bardic looked down upon them and thought them not too many: with a furious roar he leapt into their midst!
Bardic’s descent knocked one to the ground and his great-sword cut through two more. To his surprise his two guides jumped as well. But after the initial shock, the spearmen fanned out and thrust home their spears. Ulysz fell bleeding to the ground. With the wall at his back and a half-circle of foes before him, Bardic leaped out, swiped another down, and leaped back. He was speared again! So too was Callipsos, who fell trying to club one of the NCOs.
Then with a gallop of hooves, Vorel arrived! Using his dray-pole as a makeshift lance, Vorel knocked one of the NCOs hard, and was past them before they could react. Using his awesome riding ability he reined the mule around and galloped back, drubbing another guard with the pole.
Celo and Sasha arrived on the scene. Calling in Cimmerian to let Bardic know help was on its way, Celo sprinted in behind the wounded NCO. Bardic cut the man down and Celo and he dropped the next. The two surviving guards backed away, spears leveled against any charge. Sasha stooped to check her fallen warriors. Ulysz still had breath, and between the four of them they carried him to safety before further squads could arrive.
Within a couple of hours and several safe-houses later, the five fugitives were assembled and ready for explanations. Their hosts were unprepared for theirs.
“So… you are not the holy man Emaber?” – Sasha, to Vorel
In reply Vorel grunted in annoyance, grabbed out his Hyrkanian bow and spanned it. His comrades pulled his arms down before he decided to send an arrow through her.
“It’s so strange: we had a description: aging, silver hair balding, burly, carries a staff. You fit all those. And you all speak Brythunian” – Sasha
“We speak other tongue too, some better. You try me Nemedian, speak good” – Celo
A week of hiding and resting passed, and Bardic, now fully mended, joined the others in meeting “Reballah Irongut” the woman whose strong will had knit together the disparate elements in the liberation movement. She had been pitched into the movement when her husband, a humble butcher, had been killed by soldiers. Strapping on an iron skillet for protection, and seizing a cleaver, Reballah had waded in, slaying a soldier. The rest was history. Her followers ranged from the fiery noble idealist Sasha, through sturdy artisans like Drosht the smith, and down to brats like young Gordy. Drosht had proven an excellent quartermaster and had amassed a secret armory, ready for the revolution. Gordy and his fellow boys supplied keen lookouts, and Sasha gave some limited entrée to the world of the nobles.
Reballah explained the politics. Palena’s weak-willed king was under the control of Chamberlain Martain Capella. Capella had raised taxes and hired best-class mercenaries owing to an eastern threat – a satrap named Munthassem who had become a crazed tyrant. Then had forced the temple of St Grisiel to hand over the Jade Apples. They were now in the Citadel stronghold. More recently, devil-beasts had been brought up from Koth. Thanking her for the sketch, the comrades responded.
“We’ve roughed out a plan. We all have our reasons for helping, not least because they killed our horses” – Celo
“They’ve made me very angry. All I ask in payment is one silver piece in advance, another on completion” – Morath, to Reballah
“Some of us may have been cursed, and we hear that the Jade Apples can remove such things. Of course we’re not sure of that, we don’t have our priest friend Edric with us” – Celo
“Don’t trust any priest, save for the priestess of the shrine itself. She is said to be a seer and can say what is real and not real” – Reballah
“Can we meet her? That will help us plan” – Celo
“Of course, dear one. I will arrange it” – Sasha
Celo’s life had become a little more complicated of late. Sasha had taken him as a lover. While this offered a lifestyle that was a hundred times better than his recent bouts in various dungeons, she did tend to take a controlling hand in decisions. She believed that once the Apples were restored to the shrine, the people would rise up and force the king to throw out the chamberlain.
Others were less sanguine.
“What we need to do is kill this Capella mug. Then his whole organization is ours” – Morath
The priestess of St Grisiel – the patron saint of the shrine – was a serene and very old woman. She assured them that the Jade Apples had the power to restore anything, no matter the curse. Without going into detail, the comrades left her with a strong word of hope for the future.
Another week passed. Cass had been weaving her “magic” inside the city and had begun receiving reports from various contacts. The nobles, almost to a man, supported Capella, and provided most of the officers for the soldiery. One or two stood out. On the side of evil there was Lord Luiras, a sadistic lordling who took pleasure in seizing commoners, torturing and killing them. He led a coterie of like-minded and was protected by his family. On the side of somewhat good was Lady Bailey Zaid, a young devil-may-care noble who might be susceptible to a handsome face and who might bring that handsome someone with her to a noble ball.
Soldiers were by no means all corrupt. Guard captain Rodus, one of the few common-born officers, was aggressive but loyal to the city. Soldiers patrolled in full patrols of about six, led by one or two NCOs, or stood guard at key points in half-sections of three and one NCO. Less-skilled crossbowmen were drawn from the citizen militia and were static guards at the gate and lesser gates or strongpoints. Overall, numbers of strength might be 200? But the proportion of skilled mercenaries to crossbowmen was uncertain, at this point.
The devil-beasts were obtained from Koth, and had Kothic handlers. As to which magician might have summoned them, possibilities included Lil’endras and Pelias, but were uncertain. They were caged in the city, but also patrolled up into the citadel wards. Only two or three had been killed, so as many as ten might remain.
The Yoko factor
With this information, Cass added a further element.
“I also found where they stored our saddles and gear from the horses. And I really want my saddle back” – Cass
The others noted that she moved comfortably into the crook of the Cimmerian’s mighty arm and whispered a private explanation to him. At some point over the last few weeks, Bardic had helped Cass break through her shackling grief and in the tear-stained aftermath she had given him her body. They were about to find out that this made a difference to her opinions. She dug her heels in, and made the saddles’ recovery a precondition to her help in the citadel.
Speaking mainly in Cimmerian so that Sasha and other rebels could not offer opinions, the five fugitives worked over possible plans. The citadel was unapproachable from the temple side: its blank walls towered 60’ above the concourse or plaza where until recently the Apples were displayed on special holy days. The remainder of the circuit could only be reached across the artificial lake, either by swimming or through a barbican and outer ward. There were three drawbridges that could be raised in times of trouble.
Other than a risky swim or an insanely risky climb, duplicity seemed the best way in. There, the susceptibility of Bailey Zaid might play a role. For a lark, she might well let at least Celo in, if he could win her over.
Once inside, guards could be dealt with, especially if the right ingredients could be found.
“Can you get me an introduction to someone that can supply us with Lotus dust?” – Morath
“I was going to ask if you wanted tools of that kind. Does any of you have alchemical skills? No? Then my knowledge of poisons may have to do” – Cass
“I have a rough plan. A diversion may be needed. The inside team steals the Jade Apples and smuggles them off to the temple. Once they appear, the priestess can claim it’s a miracle. So there can’t be evidence of the theft” – Bardic
“I could help inside” – Celo
“How good are your trap-disabling skills?” – Cass
“Mmm. Not great” – Celo
“Well, I may need to lift the Apples myself” – Cass
“What about killing Capella? You’ll need us inside for that” – Morath
“But Bardic’s plan is for stealth. And once the people rebel the king will remove Capella. There’s no need for killing” – Cass
“Cass is right. This is not a revolt against the king; it’s a revolt against a corrupt advisor. No blood need be spilled inside the stronghold” – Vorel
“Well it sounds like you expect us to be spilling our blood outside in this diversion” – Morath
“That’s up to you. I like Bardic’s plan. We slip inside, and slip away with the Apples, leaving no evidence of how it was done. No killing!” – Cass