Maiden By Decree (Part 19)
A Kidnapping Gone Bad
Or: I’m Still Making This Up as I Go!
Lookouts shouted and Garret, atop a small hill, shaded his eyes while looking towards the pass with the comment. “I count all the drivers and herders coming out.”
Selstalphas watched the opening to the pass with a nod and added. “It looks as if some of the sheep made it, too.”
“So they did.” Garret chuckled with a shake of his head.
“Your orders, my lord?” Sestalphas questioned.
“Prepare to move out.” Garret answered with a wicked grin and mayhem flashing in his eyes. “I think we’ll be able to move through the pass without much in the way of problems by the time all the troops and auxiliaries are ready to move.”
Sestalphas motioned to a group of runners standing by and nodded to them. “You heard the man. Start passing his orders.”
“Which way?” Anthalas questioned as the sounds of armed men grew closer.
“That way.” Deirdre answered, pointing to a corridor running off at a ninety degree angle to the main one they were in. “It looks as good as any other direction and a lot better than staying here. Unless you’re ready to blast our company once they show up, that is.”
“I wish it was that easy.” The mage sighed while moving into the corridor she’d chosen more or less at random. “I have to gather the energy and I used up all I had when that bunch decided they wanted me dead.”
“So how long does that take?” She questioned.
“That depends on what kind of shape I’m in, which isn’t wonderful right now. I’m afraid they haven’t been feeding me very well, and it’s been quite a while since I had a decent night’s rest, so don’t expect me to be able to do much anytime soon.” He replied.
“In that case.” She grimaced while gesturing at the passage she’d pointed out earlier. “Let’s go!”
Both men watched her retreating backside then listened to the approaching guards, nodded to each other, and pelted down the corridor Deirdre had already gone into.
“It’s kind of dark in here, don’t you think?” Alanthas questioned while trying to peer into the shadows around them.
“That’s the idea.” Deirdre answered a bit acerbically. “Dark -- guards looking down the corridor don’t see us. Get it?”
“Well, yes.” The mage answered carefully then added. “But do you have any idea of the kinds of things that wander around in the dark in a dungeon as old as Aruendal’s is?”
“No.” Deirdre answered shortly and added. “Even if I did, those would be preferable to what Roric has in mind for me, don’t you think?”
“I don’t have the – umm – equipment to worry about that kind of thing.” Alanthas admitted much to Riddlers amusement.
“It could be arranged, I’m sure.” The raven haired beauty shot back. “Just try being a nubile young beauty with connections to the throne around that bastard. I dare you!”
Alanthas used his imagination, shuddered at what that showed him, and quietly answered. “Never mind, I get it.”
“Shhhh!” Riddler cautioned them both, and the trio waited quietly as the guards found their dead and wounded comrades then began searching for the perpetrators.
Alanthas rapidly moved his hands while muttering a few words that were very difficult to catch, and their tracks through the dust were obscured as a light breeze smoothed over the area they had just run through leaving the dust appearing undisturbed.
Deirdre gave the man an approving pat on the shoulder after that, and Riddler just grinned, though that was difficult to see in the darkness that mainly ruled the corridor they were in.
“Now what?” Anthalas questioned once the hue and cry of the newly arrived guards had faded into the background.
“We find a way to get ourselves out of here.” Deirdre matter-of-factly answered.
“Easier said than done.” The mage replied. “These dungeon passages are extensive and I don’t think anyone alive knows where all of them lead any more. Let alone what might be in them.”
“So much the better for us, I would think.” Riddler put in while giving the corridor ahead of them a speculative look. “If even the guards don’t have a reliable map of some areas, that would give us an advantage in this That and there have to be more accesses to the surface that most people aren’t aware of.”
“It could take us a long time to find anything like that.” Anthalas cautioned. “What will do for food and water while we search?”
“Well, we could use this as a start.” Deirdre showed them a cloth bag she was holding. “Some guardsman is either a really heavy eater or this was for several of them. I grabbed it in all the confusion earlier. Anyone hungry right now?”
The trio examined the loot with the help of a small mage light Anthalas conjured, to discover several loaves of bread, a wheel of cheese, some dried meat, and some fruit and something that appeared to be a rough kind of trail mix.
“That’s my girl.” Riddler approved as she began parceling out admittedly small amounts of food to each man and some for herself.
“This will help.” Anthalas admitted through a mouthful of bread and cheese. “But what about…”
Deirdre interrupted him by holding out a full water skin with a smirk. “There’s one with wine in it, too.”
Sentinel Pass was an eerie place, innocent enough in appearance, just another gap in the mountains with the usual brush, fallen boulders, gravel, and a few scraggly pines. But the silence was astonishing. No bird calls, no animal noises, just the soughing of the wind as it whistled merrily through the cut in mountains.
“Is it usually this – quiet?” Sestalphas questioned as he and Garret sat their horses at the southern entrance of the pass and watched the troops, laden wagons, and livestock cautiously working their way into the ill reputed pass.
“I think the quiet is a good thing just now.” Garret answered softly. “>From what I understand, whenever anyone so much as enters the pass movement can be heard in the rocks above, soon followed with trolls roaring and the crash of boulders bouncing off the pass’s floor. Not to mention the screams of whoever was fool enough to risk crossing here.”
“You have no idea of how much that reassures me, my lord.” Sestalphas wryly answered.
“It should reassure, my friend.” Garret laughed. “Rock trolls are notorious for being unable to hold their liquor, and that wine I gifted them with would knock a seasoned sailor back with one drink.”
“I hope you’re right.” The former guards captain sighed.
“I am.” Garret slapped the other man on the back, grinned and urged his horse forward with a called back. “I’ll be at the head of the column, you make sure everyone gets through and accompany the last of them.”
“With pleasure.” Sestalphas answered with a grimace while thinking that they’d have to use another way to get home. Risking a passage through hung over Rock Trolls was definitely NOT in his job description.
“I found some lanterns, fully oiled, too.” Riddler announced as he passed each of his companions one of the items. “Along with extra oil, tinder, flint, and a few firesticks if we are in a hurry to light them.”
Once the lanterns were lit, Deirdre looked over the mass of rubbish occupying the room they were in hoping to find something useful. She was rewarded with one find, which she gingerly picked up, wiped the cobwebs – and a few disgruntled spiders – off the thing, hefted it, swung it experimentally then relieved an itch in the small of her back with it. “Ahh, this has to be the ugliest, most tasteless back scratcher I’ve ever seen, but it works.”
She pushed the object, shaped to look like a withered forearm and clawed hand ready to strike, into her belt and continued digging for useful items.
“What do we do now?” A Sergeant questioned as he and Garret warily watched a contentedly snoring rock troll.
“Go around him.” Garret shrugged.
“But it’s lying all across the path.”
“Then we do it very carefully.” Garret responded and demonstrated by leading his fretting mount to the side and partially up the gentle slope beside the track. “Like this.”
“This was a magical laboratory!” Anthalas excitedly told his companions as they continued digging through the debris and trash where Deirdre had found her back scratcher.
“We need to get moving, mage.” Riddler told the man. “I’m as acquisitive as the next man, maybe more so, but need I remind you that our goal is getting out of here, not studying a shambles that hasn’t been touched in years, maybe centuries?”
“But the things I could learn from whatever writings we find!” The mage shot back. “Think of it! Magics, spells, potions, that may have been lost for untold time may be just waiting for me to find them!”
“If this place is any indication.” Deirdre eyed the scorched stone walls, broken and partially burnt furnishings, along with shattered glass retorts as she put in. “All you’d find in here is a recipe for disaster.”
“But an intelligent mage could learn so much from whatever went wrong in here!”
Deirdre and Riddler shared a disgusted look, took one arm of the mage each, and physically dragged him out of the ruined laboratory while ignoring his struggles and protests.
“Might I suggest finding another route home?” Sestalphas asked Garret once the last straggler of their army had emerged from Sentinel Pass.
“Good idea.” The knight agreed then grinned. “I for one don’t have any wish to confront hung over rock trolls and from what I hear and have read, their hangovers last for weeks.”
“Like I said.”
The small detachment of guards had found, and attacked Riddler and Sestalphas when Deirdre was off relieving herself in private. Riddler had taken a pair of them with his dagger and short sword while Anthalas was actually giving a decent account of himself with a hardened oak staff he’d found.
Swearing as she pulled up the ill fitting pants and headed for the sounds of fighting, Deirdre pulled out the only thing she had available for use as a weapon since she hadn’t replaced the broken dirk she’d been using. Brandishing her back scratcher, she rushed to help her companions.
One guard was moving in behind Riddler while that one was over-occupied with the pair in front of him. It was quite clear that even if the man was aware of the opponent behind him, he was far too busy with the pair in front to give that one enough attention to avoid a killing blow.
Deirdre took care of that by the simple expedient of whacking the sneaky bastard in the head with her back scratcher. To her surprise, the ugly thing not only knocked the guardsman down, it ripped his steel helm to shreds and came back from the attack with its claws red with blood.
“Wahoo!” She screamed while taking down another guard trying to edge in behind the mage.
The fight was quickly finished, but both Riddler and Anthalas were staring at her with halfway horrified expressions on their faces.
“What?” She asked a bit testily. “You two needed help, so I jumped in.”
“But the guards you hit, lady…” The mage trailed off.
“Oh, come on, I didn’t hit them that hard!” She shot back.
“Did you use that?” Anthalas questioned while gesturing to her back scratcher. Riddler just nodded his agreement to the question.
“Do you have the least idea of what you’re holding in your delicate hand, and were using to flatten our opponents?” Anthalas questioned.
“A really ugly backscratcher?” She asked suspiciously.
“It’s a petrified goblin claw.” Riddler answered carefully as he began sorting through the weapons of the downed guards and found what he was after with a satisfied grunt. He offered the slim mace to her with a grimace. “Here, use this next time.”
“That…” Anthalas gestured to the ugly back scratcher or petrified goblin claw with something like reverence. “Is worth a king’s ransom. AND YOU WERE USING IT TO BRAIN GUARDS!”
“So?” She questioned sweetly while examining the ugly thing. “I just thought it was a back scratcher someone with really poor taste had made, and it worked. That persistent itch at the small of my back? It reached it, eased it, and now I feel wonderful! No more itch.”
Anthalas spluttered, while Riddler gently took the thing out of her hand and carefully pushed it back through her belt. “Please, just use the mace in the future, could you?”
“Can’t scratch my back with this.” She countered while hefting the mace.
“Back scratching is fine.” The thief answered with a smirk that showed he was barely hiding his amusement. “Just don’t use it for a weapon again, all right?”
It had been a long ride through territory that had to be considered hostile. But now the goal had been reached and the dark clad figure observed the castle and lands spread through the shallow valley less than an hour’s walk away.
Making certain the chosen observation point was not easily seen from the castle or its environs, the figure removed personal items from the tack of the horse ‘borrowed’ from a nearby town, stroked its nose then with a light slap sent it home.
If this mission was successful, horses would be available in plenty to return home. If it failed, horses wouldn’t matter.
Once the borrowed mount was well gone, the figure settled into a more or less comfortable position to watch for things like guard rotations, numbers, positioning, and possible points of ingress that wouldn’t be covered at critical times.
After several hours of watching, Mina nodded in satisfaction and settled back completely out of view for a short nap. She couldn’t move further until nightfall. But then, oh then, there were debts to be paid, deaths to avenge, and some very personal payback coming. She firmly reminded herself that her first priority was to discover where Deirdre was being held and somehow get the girl out. Personal business would wait on that.
“What do you mean, she’s gone?” Roric shouted in a rage at the unfortunate guardsman who had brought him the news of Deirdre’s escape.
That particular sergeant, who had lost the roll of dice for who would brave the anger of their lord, shook his head helplessly. “We don’t know, my lord. Her cell was still locked, but the only person in it was young Carter, stripped of his uniform and unconscious, wearing the gown the lady was in when we ‘escorted’ her to her cell. The thief and mage have managed to escape as well.”
“Then what are dithering around here for?” Roric questioned with dangerous quiet then shouted. “FIND HER!”
“Searches are already in progress, lord.” The sergeant answered, while taking the last shouted command as a dismissal carefully bowed and began to back towards the door and relative safety of returning to Arundel’s labyrinthine dungeons.
“Don’t bother taking them alive, either.” Roric commanded. “I want to see bodies when this is finished. Their bodies. Understand me?”
“Of course, my lord.” The man retreated and was out the door faster than some could jog forward.
Bridgette watched her future husband rail, throwing things and nearly frothing at the mouth with an unpleasant smirk that she carefully hid from him whenever his attention fell on her. She refrained from the usual womanly prerogative of ‘I told you so.’
Turning casually to catch Eel’s attention, gesturing with a small tilt of her chin for the assassin to follow, she quietly left her lover to rage until he tired of the tantrum.
Outside the chamber she gave the assassin a cool, appraising look. “Find her, kill her. I don’t care about the others. Just make sure you kill her.”
“As you wish, my lady.” Eel gave a short, nearly insolent bow in response.
“Do it, and bring me some proof, though I don’t want to see her body. Leave it to rot wherever it falls and I’ll reward you myself.” Bridgette nodded. “Fail in this, and skilled assassin or not, I will personally make sure you regret it.”
The man held no doubt whatsoever that she wouldn’t be able to accomplish that, and departed her company with a chill running up and down his back. That woman was the more deadly of the pair he was working for, that was clear enough. On his way to carry out her orders, he also started formulating plans for his own escape if he once again failed at killing the damned girl.
Bridgette wore a thoughtful expression once the assassin had departed as she turned to once again listen to her intended’s anger winding down.
“Ahh, Roric, such an easily manipulated fool to be in the position you’ve already reached and especially for the one you aim for.” The expression on her face turned to one of cruel amusement. “Besides, no body, no proof. I think it would be good for you to have doubts as to whether dear little Deirdre is dead, or alive and plotting your downfall from the shadows. Oh, yes, I think that would be very good for you, darling.”
“Move out.” Garret ordered once the forces he commanded had reorganized following the passage through Sentinel Pass. “We have time on our side right now, but Roric is going to find out we’re moving against him all too soon. I want us to be as far along as possible before that happens.”
“King Cedric is not going to be happy about this, my lord.” Sestalphas finally brought himself to the one thing about all this that really made him uncomfortable. “Marching against a fellow noble is not something that would endear you to the throne.”
“Roric isn’t a fellow nobleman.” Garret answered flatly. “He’s a usurper who has somehow managed to get his father out of the way to gain free rein in Leslie, and I’m damned if I’ll allow him to spread his influence any farther than it has reached already.”
“I’m not disagreeing with you, my lord.” The other admitted. “Roric is a blight that will need to be removed sometime. But we both know that isn’t the only reason you’re doing this, don’t we?”
“The man has tried to murder my betrothed at least once.” Garret grated out. “And I know he has her in his filthy hands right now. Full scale wars have been started with less reason. This is just going to be a response to a raid on Chalmnessa.”
“Quite a response.” Sestalphas replied.
Looking out over better than half of Chalmnessa’s available fighting me, their supplies, and camp followers, Garret nodded. “That it is, my friend that it is.”
Mina flitted from shadow to shadow, making skillful use of the deceptiveness moonlight gives to things as she approached her chosen entry point to Arundel Castle. There was more activity than she had expected, in fact, the place was in an uproar that shouldn’t have started until someone spotted Garret’s army approaching. Fortunately, the uproar appeared to be aimed inward instead of at the surrounding countryside.
What that might involve, Mina had her hopes, but wouldn’t count on those or allow them to make her any less cautious. Following a judicious reappraisal of her entrance strategy, she elected to proceed as planned.
Guards stationed around the walls failed to note the extra shadow carefully moving up the castle wall until it paused at the lip of the rampart, then flowed over and inside like liquid darkness.