Maiden By Decree (Part 20)
Maiden by Decree
What the Hell was THAT?
The locals don’t seem all that inclined to warn Roric of our approach.” Sestalphas noted as the army passed the fifth village they’d seen with no sign of anyone running to warn the so-called lord of the province.
“They don’t like him.” Garret answered then added. “In many cases, I believe the common folk actually hate my cousin. He levies taxes, takes whatever else he likes, and does nothing to insure that his ‘subjects’ are even kept at a subsistence level. The man cares nothing for anything that doesn’t impact on him directly.”
“That will come back to harm him.” Sestalphas nodded thoughtfully.
“It already has.” Garret affirmed while watching underfed, but very energetic villagers ambush and kill one of Roric’s men who had been assigned to some duty in the area before he could even get his horse to a gallop. “And I intend to add more harm to that.”
“So we will, my lord.” Sestalphas replied, trying to ignore the kicking of Roric’s man as the peasants hung him to convenient tree.
An escape! Mina hunkered down behind some convenient barrels and listened to the gossip from the townsfolk and shouts of the soldiers swarming over the interior of the castle.
“I see you’ve done it again, my lady.” She whispered in halfway amused admiration as some of the tales reached her. “The gods must love you dearly, as more than a few, including myself, do.”
Her thoughts on that line were interrupted when she spotted a tall, lean figure literally stalking towards one of the doors that talk had told her led to the dungeons of Arundel. A thrill of both rage and anticipation coursed through her like a cat walking up her backbone with its claws out to maintain purchase.
“Eel.” She whispered and her eyes gained a light that was far from pleasant to see, if anyone had been there to witness it.
Careful to make sure none noted her own progress, though in the present confusion that filled the courtyard, that was easier than child’s play, Mina followed the man through the door after waiting a few breaths to make sure he wasn’t going to come back out.
“What’s the great thing about my back scratcher?” Deirdre questioned, genuinely curious about why her companions had been so horrified that she’d used it as a mere bludgeon.
“Your ‘back scratcher’ is a very powerful artifact, my lady.” Anthalas answered.
“Okay, so it’s good for getting rid of an annoying itch and a few soldiers.” She shot back. “Tell me what makes it so special.”
“For one thing, which I will be quick to tell you is quite unnecessary.” The mage sighed. “It brings out the warrior in anyone holding it, and aids their attacks. Simple peasants have been told of killing fully armored knights with one of those in their hands – in one on one combat!”
“Like I couldn’t do that without help.” She snorted. “What else?”
“Such a thing is also said to be a gateway to magic.” Riddler answered before the mage could get out his response past the redness of face and gasps of absolute horror at the girl’s evident lack of proper decorum with such an object. A back scratcher indeed!
“Magic.” Deirdre thoughtfully and absently moved a strand of night black hair away from her face. “Enough to fight a prophecy?”
“In some cases.” Anthalas answered.
At the even more thoughtful expression on the girl’s face, Riddler intervened. “In your case, daughter, I doubt that a petrified hand of a god would change anything. A mere goblin claw would be utterly outclassed in an attempt to change what has happened to you.”
“Figures.” She groused then grinned. “But come to think of it, Garret is cute, and he has been really, really nice to me even when I’ve been a total – umm – bitch?”
“Like I said.” Riddler rolled his eyes.
“All right.” She shrugged. “Forget that ‘changing the prophecy results’ thing. What else is the claw capable of doing?”
“So many things that having it in the hands of a non-mage is a terrible waste.” Anthalas answered tiredly. “I don’t suppose you’d consider letting me have it?”
“And give up the best back scratcher I’ve ever found?” The midnight haired beauty gave him a look of absolute horror. “Think again, mage. If things get really dicey, I might – might – loan it to you. But I’d want it back.”
“Would you accept my assessment that such a thing is necessary?” The mage asked.
“Nope.” The girl shook her head. “You’re way too high strung for me to believe that kind of thing. Now if Riddler were to scream at me to loan it to you…”
The mage and thief exchanged glances, shrugs, and both decided to give up on that particular tack.
“I’ll rely on the thief’s judgment, then.” Anthalas sighed.
Eel started his search in the area of the cells. Though the area had been haphazardly cleaned up the still present mess told him that the casualty rate among the guards had been impressive given that only three escapees, who had to have started out unarmed, had accomplished it.
“The lady does manage to attract quality help.” He mused while searching for signs to indicate which direction the fugitives had taken once they’d finished with the guards. “Ahh, there you are.”
Faint scuffs on the floor led to a little or unused corridor and more telling was that the dust on the floor of that passage appeared undisturbed. “The mage is doing his job. Just not well enough. He should have gotten rid of your trail to the corridor, m’lady.”
The back of his neck prickled with the familiar sensation of being watched as he approached the corridor he’d spotted. The assassin tentatively dismissed it as something from the too late suspicious guards in the area, but diverted part of his attention to make sure he wasn’t being followed by someone else. Given the things that usually fell into place for his prey, he wouldn’t be at all surprised if someone was actually stalking him in this shadow and dark filled labyrinth.
“What?” Deirdre questioned as both Riddler and Anthalas stared at her as if she’d just tumbled off that figurative turnip wagon. “All I asked was for you guys to find a secret door or two. What’s the problem with that?”
“Well for one thing.” Riddler answered slowly. “Secret doors are called that because they’re difficult to spot at the best of times, which this isn’t, by the way.”
“Even if my power was recharged.” The mage added. “Most secret doors are protected from magical searches just because of what they are. You know, secret?”
“A mage and a thief who can’t find a simple secret door.” She muttered, then shook her head. “Okay, forget I asked that one. It just seemed that with this being a dungeon and all there would be lots of secret doors for us to find. Like it is under Jhalmar.”
“Oh, undoubtedly there are, dear lady.” Anthalas answered with a heavy sigh. “The major problem with that assumption is simply that without knowing where to look, what to look for, or the triggering mechanism, we may as well be trying to walk through a solid wall. We’d get about the same results right now.”
Deirdre sighed in her turn, let out a stream of swear words that would have had a sailor blushing or up ready to fight in response to them, and grimaced. “Okay, forget that idea. Now what do we do?”
“We keep looking in chambers for a stairway, or other access leading up.” Riddler told her with a smile that was gentler than anything he usually showed. “Secret doors or not, there have to be at least a dozen ways out of this maze that lead to the surface. The trick here is finding them.”
“That would have been easier if you guys could find secret doors.” She grumbled.
“So what do we do once we reach Arundel?” Sestalphas asked Garret as they rode through the countryside of Leslie. “Lay siege to a castle that is supposed to be our ally?”
“If we have to.” The knight responded then smirked. “But if all goes well, we already have someone inside, and I have plans that could make a siege unnecessary.”
“Peasants and tradesmen of all kinds go in and out of Arundel’s gates every day.” Garret grinned. “And I do believe there are men and women of both classes in this army. Am I right?”
“That’s underhanded, nasty, and brilliant.” Sestalphas said with an admiring look in his eyes. “You, my lord, fight dirty.”
“All that counts in a real fight is winning.” Garret grimly answered. “There is no such thing as ‘rules for gentlemen’ or ‘playing fair’ in something like this and there never were. Anyone telling you differently is a fool, and has probably lost an army or two to a commander who was less delusional.”
“That damned girl leads a charmed life!” Roric sighed as Bridgette refilled his goblet with fortified wine. “No matter what I do, she always manages to have someone nearby, or just plain dumb luck, to thwart my plans for her.”
“It will be all right, my lord.” Bridgette soothed, while taking a very carefully disguised non-sip of her own wine. “She is still in the dungeon, and your men will find her.”
“Or she could starve to death or maybe die of thirst wandering in that maze down there.” Roric’s mood brightened at that thought. “Or fall prey to one of the creatures that inhabit parts of the place.”
“Exactly so, my love.” Bridgette agreed while wondering how the assassin was doing with tracking the troublesome little bitch down.
“We’ve already been down this way.” Elenth complained to his sergeant. “The girl can’t possibly be hiding here.”
“Look at it this way, Elenth.” The sergeant answered shortly. “We’re searching, and diligently. If she isn’t here, that isn’t our fault, now is it? But if we widen the search, we’ll be walking through parts of this warren that haven’t been visited for years and there’s no telling what we’d run into doing that. Which would you prefer?”
“I’ll search this room.” Elenth answered as he walked through a door he’d been through twice already.
“Good man.” The sergeant answered.
Eel was wary, more so than usual. There was someone following him, he could feel it. But doubling back, stopping suddenly to hear a footfall that wasn’t his, or simply searching the surrounding darkness for a shadow that didn’t fit showed him nothing that shouldn’t be where he was.
He concluded that he was being stalked by a professional, and one who was more skilled than any he’d come across since that woman who had been trying to protect his target in both Jhalmar and Chalmnessa. But she was dead. Since he didn’t fear ghosts – no assassin could live long without losing sanity if they did – he dismissed that possibility and wondered who else the girl’s supporters could have set on him.
He was aware that he was being stalked. Mina knew that, and smiled to herself as she flitted back into the shadow of a wall as Eel searched. She wanted him to know, to worry, and in the end, to fear. When he’d moved far enough away to feel safe again, she breathed. “You won’t walk, crawl, or be carried away from this one, my old enemy. I’ll come here to gloat over your moldering bones in years to come and hope your spirit knows what I do.”
This one leads up.” Riddler assured Deirdre while he looked over the opening to a shaft that yawned both up and down. But the code to get through the bars is complex.”
“I think I have it.” Anthalas replied distractedly while looking at an inscription in the wall that looked like so many meaningless squiggles to the girl. “Give me a bit of time and I can translate this.”
“Oh, right.” The black haired beauty snorted. “Someone barred a door then left careful instructions on how to open the bars. I’ll believe that one when doves mate with cows and everyone has to watch for droppings just in self defense.”
“Nevertheless.” Anthalas returned imperturbably. “That’s what I think those writings are. I believe those are instructions to open the gate leading to that shaft for anyone who can read them. In times past, people weren’t as suspicious or apt to hide things like this, and this inscription is very old.”
“If it gets us out of here, I won’t argue.” Deirdre retorted with a disbelieving little smirk. “But while you two puzzle this out, I think I’ll go on down the corridor a ways and see if there’s an obvious way out that isn’t blocked or locked by ancient craft.”
“Be careful.” Riddler absently told her while running his hands over the locking mechanism of the barred gate leading to the shaft. “I’d really hate to have just met my daughter and lose her to some idiotic monster waiting in these tunnels.”
“You give me such a warm fuzzy feeling, daddy. She shot back.
“I’m glad, daughter.” Riddler chuckled. “Being wary is never a bad thing, even with relatives. Maybe that should be especially with relatives.”
“Point taken.” Deirdre snorted. “So I’ll just go look around a bit, but don’t worry, I won’t wander off too far. Or let some nasty, ugly goblin have his way with me, if that makes you feel any better.”
“Greatly so, daughter.” Riddler absently answered as he continued feeling out the very tricky latches to open the bars keeping them from entering the shaft.
“So glad you’re concerned.” She snarked before leaving the chamber to continue exploring.
Eel was more than wary. It was obvious that no one but his prey and her companions had been down these corridors for years. There was no telling what might be waiting to pounce on the unwary in this area.
But he was getting closer. The tracks in the dust were less diffused, meaning that his quarry had passed this way not too long ago, or else the dust would have settled into the edges of the prints they weren’t bothering to hide any longer.
The large lump of rock stirred, lifting a horny head and sniffing the air. Deciding that what had chanced its way for the first time in years was edible, it extended legs and opened its eyes.
Deirdre stopped and carefully held every part of her body still as a misshapen boulder suddenly opened its eyes and stood up when she got within fifty feet of the thing.
A maw that would have done a mythical dragon justice with all the long, sharp teeth it displayed, opened in a yawn, and the damned ‘rock’ stood up with four legs tipped with nasty looking claws while it was looking directly at her.
“Oh, shit.” She whispered, and turned to run in the direction she’d come from.
The guard squad, with a sergeant who insisted they go through long unexplored areas of the dungeon in the attempt to find the wayward female prisoner their lord wanted, stopped as one.
A slight figure wearing a guard’s tunic and ill fitting pants, but barefoot, barreled right up to them as if it was running from something worse that what they represented.
The person in the ill fitting uniform was obviously female, and luxuriously long and thick black hair fluttered in the air as she ran.
Deirdre hardly slowed for the guard squad between her and where Riddler and Anthalas were. She grinned at the men as she ran between them adroitly dodging any attempt to grab her while ignoring orders to stop and called back. “Hey guys! Can’t hang around or talk just now, and sorry for what’s about to happen!”
Just as they turned to give chase, a roar reverberated in the corridor behind them.
Anthalas’ concentration was broken when an even more disheveled Deirdre dived into the room and rolled across the floor. She then jumped up, slammed the door shut, and started pushing a heavy desk to block the doorway. An echoing roar punctuated with very human screams or pain and terror followed that.
“What the Hell was that?” The mage questioned a panting Deirdre as she continued pushing the heavy piece of furniture towards the door.
“No idea.” She shot back. “But it’s big, hungry, and was after me. I gave it guards to snack on first but I don’t think they’ll hold it for long. Now help me move this to block the door.”
“I don’t need these distractions.” Riddler put in.
“Ignore them and get the damned bars up.” Deirdre advised as she and the mage pushed the heavy desk to block the door.
The Troll Hound finished peeling the hard shell of the last morsel it had killed and took time to enjoy the chewy, flavorful filling once it had.
But the scent that had originally awakened it still hung tantalizingly in the air.
A sweet fleshed, tender virgin. It couldn’t resist that scent and began following it.
“Lady, we can’t pile any more in front of that door!” Anthalas panted while looking at the absurd pile of desk, furniture, and other odds and ends in front of the door leading back to the dungeon.
“Trust me, you don’t want what’s following me to get in here.” She returned while throwing even more onto the pile in front of the door.
“You’re overreacting here.” The mage answered.
“The thing ATE a squad of guards!” Deirdre shot back. “And that was just to follow ME!!!”
As if in answer, something hit the door with enough force to shake the piled up stuff blocking it. An ugly roar resounded through the room as that happened.
“Told you.” Deirdre looked at Anthalas and gave him a weak grin.
As the roar and screams reverberated through the corridor he was in, Eel halted his progress to assess just what was going on up ahead. It was clear that something nasty was prowling the area, and none of the screams had been truly feminine even if some had been high pitched enough to be from a terrified little girl.
“Guards.” He correctly deduced then smiled grimly. “I’ll have to thank their spirits for waking that and keeping it occupied before I stumbled into it.”
The really troublesome detail in all that was the tracks he followed led directly towards the sounds of mayhem. Mayhem the man had no intention at all of joining. So deciding, he settled down in a nicely concealed niche and prepared to wait until whatever the thing savaging the guards was decided to move on. Hopefully in a different direction than his hiding place was in.
The sounds of destructive mayhem ahead nearly undid Mina, but oddly enough, saved her as well.
A sighing chuckle from an apparently empty little alcove just ahead of her warned that it wasn’t empty at all. Worse, her abrupt halt had made a scuffling noise in the gritty dust all over the floor that should have warned her quarry of her presence. Fortunately, the roars resumed along with sounds of a battering ram pounding away at a heavy barrier just as she nearly stumbled to a stop.
Melting into the shadows against the wall several paces away from the alcove, she worried about what else the monster making all the noise was after and prayed her suspicions were wrong. But until the man hiding within that hollow area moved, she was pretty well stuck right where she was. Attacking him frontally in such a confined space would not go well at all for her for many reasons. But having the monster in human form at her back and stalking her was an unthinkable risk as of yet. So, forcing herself to stop fuming and calm her racing heart, breath and emotions, she did the only thing she could at the moment. Settled in to wait for her enemy to move first even if every sense she had tingled with the urgency to move forward in spite of the monstrous roars reverberating through the corridor like an echo from an open doorway to Hell.
“The claw, Lady!” Anthalas, sweat streaming down his face continued making rather silly looking gestures of pushing something away while he gasped out. “The Claw!”
“Here.” She answered handing it to him without waiting for confirmation from Riddler who was still working at the stubborn latches on the gate, though now he only had two more to get unlocked.
“No.” The mage briefly touched the thing then pushed it and her hand away. “Use it! I can’t hold the door much longer, without help!”
“Use it? Waaah!” She shouted as the upper planks of the heavy door splintered and fell out letting an ugly, tooth filled maw work into the gap. Without really thinking she hit the spot she hoped was a nose with the claw then danced back from another lunge accompanied by the crackle of breaking wood.
“Again, girl!” The mage managed to shout.
Deirdre failed to notice the slight golden glow emanating from the claw, but busy as she was could be forgiven for that. Lunging forward again, with all her weight behind the blow, she slashed across the thing’s nose again.
That time the creature pulled its ugly head out of the hole it had forced through the door with a deep, booming yelp and wailing roar of pain, leaving gobbets of greenish brown fluid and grey flesh behind as it did so.
Regaining his breath, the mage nodded with approval but warned. The blood is like acid for a few moments, don’t let it touch you, and be ready, the thing isn’t finished yet.”
“Somehow I just knew it wasn’t going to THAT easy.” She groused, but held the now brightly glowing claw like a readied mace. “Hey! What’s with the glow from this thing?”
“You’ve managed to tap into its magic, my lady.” Anthalas shook his head. “Stranger things have happened. Just be ready to use it about – NOW!”
An enraged roar shook the door before the creature even hit it that time, and more of the heavy planks gave way a little as it tried forcing itself through the still too small opening.
Deirdre just seemed to flow forward, slashing with abandon at the monster’s head and landing several blows in rapid succession with a speed she’d never shown before, not to mention a strength she’d never possessed before.
The beast literally yanked its now shredded snout out of the hole it had forced, shook its head, let out a grumbling growl, and decided, as much as it’s dimly lit consciousness could, that the treat it was after was too much trouble and painful.
But then again, it was still in a rage. And the current objects of that were still on the other side of that stubborn barrier. Roaring, it charged the door again.