Maiden By Decree (Part 17)
Or: I Really Need to Find a Better Class of Kidnappers
”Tell me how this happened.” Garret surveyed the splattered gore, and disheveled bed then turned to Chalmnessa’s Guard Captain with a look that would have cracked granite. “How did anyone, let alone more than one person, get in here to do this without being spotted before they reached this point or when they were leaving?”
That worthy, Sestelphas, frowned and returned Garrets gaze steadily with one that was just as hard, and furious. “They walked in through one of the posterns during the night. One of the gate keepers, Sham, was involved. We found his body outside the gate hidden under a tarpaulin being used to protect some lumber. His wife and daughter were found a short while ago, also dead, and this was in Sham’s home.”
Garret gave the note, on an irregular piece of foolscap a looking over then fought off the urge to shred it. Instead he carefully handed it back to the captain. “So, they got in with Sham’s help, then killed him, how did his wife and daughter die?”
“It wasn’t pretty, my lord.” Sestelphas answered grimly. “Both of them were raped, probably before they were killed.”
“And your guards?” Garret was staring at the bed, and bloodstains showing on the remaining bedclothes.
“Four were killed outright, their throats slashed, two others might make it, but the healers aren’t certain about that yet.”
“Damn.” The knight briefly closed his eyes, worrying both about Deirdre and the integrity of the Ducal residence’s security. “All right, for starters, anyone, and I mean anyone with gate access after sundown with the exception of the guard is to be moved, with their families if they have any, into the palace. We’ll find room to house them.”
“Already being done, my lord.” Sestelphas answered. “My men are already gathering them and bringing them here. Getting them settled and their belongings moved will take a bit more time, but it’s being seen to.”
“Good.” Garret nodded as his thoughts turned to his missing betrothed.
“I’m sure she’s alive, my lord.” Sestelphas gently told him. “If the intruders’ aim was simply murder, they would have done it here, and not bothered to carry off the body.”
“I know, but that doesn’t help me at the moment.” Garret answered then offered the captain a weak smile. “But thank you for saying so. I also trust that you’re beefing up the night guard?”
“Oh, yes, my lord.” Sestelphas nodded ruefully. “Your father, the Duke made certain, very certain, that I understood the importance of that only a few hours ago. It is being done, believe me.”
“I do, Sestelphas, I do.” Garret sighed. “It looks as she put up a fight here.”
“Oh that she did, my lord.” The other answered with a pained smirk. “We found a man’s finger in the bedding earlier.”
“She must be furious.” Garret managed a half hearted laugh. “Taken from a place where she actually was beginning to feel safe. I almost feel sorry for the kidnappers.”
“I can only say that the bastards deserve what they got, and will most likely get, if what I’ve heard and observed of your lady is any indication.”
“Probably true.” Garret nodded. “I just hope she has the sense not to antagonize them enough to really harm or kill her in a fit of anger.”
“Your lady is smarter than that, Garret.” Another voice entered the conversation while Brent moved to stand beside his brother and placed a hand on the elder’s shoulder. “I have people tracking the kidnappers now. My best trackers, as a matter of fact. Who have orders not to return until they either have something or they’ve searched for years.”
“Thank you, Brent.” Garret gave his brother a weak smile. “I have faith in you and your people. They’ll find something.”
Chalmnessa’s spymaster nodded. “I do hope so. If not they will hear about my – disappointment with them. The kidnappers made it easy until they left by the northwest postern gate. There was a clear trail of blood droplets that were
concealed but not well enough. My trackers have spread out from that gate.”
“Roric.” Garret breathed out the name like a curse. “It had to be that gods forsaken trash.”
“That would be my first guess, brother.” Brent agreed. “But without proof we can’t very well assemble an army and march on him in Lindsay without starting a civil war and if he is responsible, he knows that all too well.”
“Yes he would.” Garret sighed. “I trust you’ve got people working on getting that proof?”
“Of course, brother.” Brent answered simply. “If Roric is behind this, we will know of it within the week.”
“Well, I think I’ll gather the Duchy’s army for ‘maneuvers’ in the meantime.” The knight growled.
“That would be good.” Brent agreed. “Just have your ‘maneuvers’ at some point that isn’t crowding Lindsay’s borders.”
“Give me some credit, little brother.” Garret grumbled.
“I know.” The other soothed. “I just had to make certain it was said. By the way, how is Mina faring?”
“She’s alive. Barely.” Garret answered. “The healers tell me she was lucky, the blade missed her heart or any major blood vessels, but it did penetrate a lung.”
“Has she managed to say anything as of yet?”
“Just one word, or name.” Garret answered. “Eel.”
“I know the name.” Brent nodded with a worried flash in his eyes that was quickly suppressed. “A bad one.”
“I know.” The knight answered quietly, feeling even more afraid for his beloved as he thought about whose hands she was in.
“We’ll get her back, Garret, and alive.” Brent promised.
“Gods, I hope so.”
“We have her, my lord.” Eel told Roric. He’d ridden ahead of the mule drawn cart his hirelings were using to transport their charge to Lindsay. “Though I still think it would have been better to kill her in her bed. That one is going to be nothing but trouble if you ask me.”
“Trouble I can handle.” Roric answered with a slow smile. “So long as it is in my grasp and I can control what it does.”
“As you say, my lord.” Eel inclined his head without voicing any other reservations, of which he had more than enough, regarding keeping a certain young woman alive. “She should be here within three days.”
“Good.” Roric smiled at the prospect. “I imagine the lady will be somewhat surprised about what my plans are for her.”
“I don’t wish to know those, my lord. Until you make it happen.” Eel answered simply, then bowed and left the room.
“Arrogant bastard.” Roric whispered. “In time your usefulness will be finished. I do look forward to that moment. I really do.”
Bridgette moved to his side from the alcove she had been secreted in once the assassin had gone. “I still don’t like what you have planned, my love.”
“You worry too much.” Roric pulled her into his lap and kissed her hard on the mouth. “You are the one I love, dear one. The lady Deirdre is but a means to an end. You will be able to torment her to your heart’s content once she arrives.”
“If you insist.” She pouted.
“I do.” Roric gave her bare arm a painful squeeze. “Don’t question what I’m doing here.”
“Oh, I would never do that, my love.” She answered quietly.
“Arrrgh—Oww!” Hess shouted in outrage. “She kicked me again!”
“You’re still talking without squeaking this time.” Grindle answered with no trace of sympathy while giving his bandaged arm and hand a look that his eyes shied away from. “I still wonder just where she spit my finger out.”
“Mruumph, nump!” Sable added through the swollen jaw he was sporting.
“What?” Hess gave the trio’s putative leader a puzzled look.
“He said.” Grindle responded with more authority than the situation warranted. “That the gold we get for delivering this one intact will make your crotch and stomach feel a LOT better.”
“Could I just, maybe you know, bruise her a little?” Hess plaintively asked.
“Nrrmphh!” Sable emphatically answered and even Hess understood the NO in that response.
“Oh, Garrret!” Jessica hugged her brother, her voice choked with tears.
“She’ll be fine, Jess.” Garret hugged her back then added to himself. Gods I hope and pray it is so. Then he added aloud. “Can you see my Deirdre just giving up? The bastards didn’t kill her, or they would have just left the – body -- for us to find. They, someone, have a reason for keeping her alive. We’ll find out who that is, and get her back.”
“I hope you’re right.” Jessica answered.
“I am.” Garret grimly told her. “And once I find out who is behind this, all the gods in the universe won’t be enough to protect them.”
“I believe you, brother.” Jessica responded then questioned. “Didn’t the guard find a finger in her room?”
“Bring it to me.” Jessica told him. “I can do a working with it and possibly find where the person it belongs to is, or is going.”
“I thought you’d say that.” Garret gave her a humorless smile as he produced something wrapped in cloth. “Here it is.”
“Then I have work to do, dear.” Jessica answered, taking the cloth wrapped item and gently escorting him to the door of her apartments. “Now go find something to do besides worrying, and I’ll do what I can. I’ll let you know in a while about the results of my efforts.”
“Lady.” Grindle gingerly approached the still tightly bound and gagged form in the bed of the cart. “We aren’t going to hurt you, we’re just getting paid to take you to the one who contracted us. If you behave I’ll even take the gag off so we can feed you and get you something to drink.”
Deirdre glared at the man then nodded with a heavy sigh. Her mouth felt as if a rather unkempt army had marched through it, leaving their garbage behind.
“So you won’t bite, kick, or scream?” Grindle questioned.
“Mmmmph.” She answered while shaking her head in a negative.
“All right.” Grindle responded while very carefully removing her gag.
“You guys are in Sooo much trouble.” She rasped once the gag had been removed, then demurely asked. “Could I have some water?”
Grindle, having removed the gag, waited for a few breaths to see if she was going to scream in spite of her agreement, then put the spout of a water skin tentatively to her mouth.
She took it like a starving baby takes its mother’s nipple and slowly, carefully drew in the sweet, leather tasting water.
“We’ve found their trail, Garret.” Brent informed his older brother quietly. “They do seem to be headed in the general direction of Lindsay, but for the moment that means nothing other than that being the original direction of their track. It appears they are using a mule drawn cart, so they can’t be moving very fast.”
Garret stared at his brother’s image through the crystal his sister had crafted for rapid communications in time of need. “Thank you, Brent. All the same, I think the maneuvers my troops are having will drift that direction now. Just as a hint to Roric that if he has anything to do with this, things could become very uncomfortable for him.”
“I would advise against that just yet.” The younger of the pair answered with a frown. “If Roric is responsible such a move could make him feel forced to kill Deirdre instead of doing whatever he may have planned for her.”
“Oh, just a small drift, Brent.” Garret grimly looked at his brother’s image. “No more than a few miles, that could be attributed to shifting troops, and would get us to within a day’s march of the Sentinel pass without arousing needless suspicions.”
“You’re going to take an army through the Sentinel Pass?” Brent questioned almost incredulously.”
The Sentinel Pass ran through the rugged Lonmer hills, reputed – properly – to be infested with bellicose rock trolls who indiscriminately jumped on anyone and everyone trying to use the pass.
Garret shrugged. “I’m prepared for that. We have suitable bribes aplenty with us.”
“I certainly hope so, brother.” Brent sounded doubtful.
“I know the planning was spur of the moment.” Garret grinned nastily. “But I did plan.”
“You always do, Garret.” Brent shook his head with a sigh. “I just hope that what you’ve done is enough if things come to that.”
“They will be.” Garret promised, with more than a hint of promise of mayhem for whoever it was the force he commanded ended up being aimed at.
“See that they are.” Brent answered simply then added. “I want her back, too.”
Deridre glared at her captors from the bed of the cart, but that was all she could manage. “I’m losing feeling in my hands and feet here!”
“If you’d behave.” Grindle shot back. “We might consider untying your hands and feet. But you won’t do that, so deal with the numbness.”
The man rubbed a fresh bruise on his cheek much to her satisfaction. “So we’d be crazy to untie you because you won’t agree to at least be civilized about this.”
“Civilized?” She shot back. “You sneaked into my room in the dead of night, killed my best friend, and I don’t know how many others, wrapped me in a bloody sheet, and THEN threw me over someone’s shoulder and had the unmitigated gall to run while I was there! That person has a really bony shoulder by the way. So don’t even try talking to me about being civilized!”
“My shoulder isn’t bony…” Grindle automatically responded then groaned. “Will you stop that? We aren’t supposed to hurt you, just deliver you to the man who paid us to snatch you. Can’t you take it easy on us here?”
“No.” Deirdre answered simply. “You guys are in more trouble than you ever dreamed of falling on your idiotic heads. Garret won’t rest until he finds you, and really puts a major hurt on each one of you! That is if I don’t get loose first.”
“Lady, your arguments aren’t mitigating the reasons we keep you tied so tightly.” Grindle pointed out.
“Oh, yeah.” Deirdre grimaced and even blushed. “Sorry. Here, try this. Oh, yes sir, I’ll be nice if you just untie my hands and feet so I can feel them.”
“Not falling for it.” Grindle shook his head. “No way, no how.”
“What happened to trust in this world?” Deirdre opined.
“Without additional difficulties cropping up, your package should arrive within three days, my lord.” Eel told Roric. “My sources tell me that Chalmnessa is in confusion at the moment, though Garret has troops out for maneuvers.”
“I’ve heard about that last.” Roric dismissed the threat. “He’d have to go through The Sentinel Pass, and that has always been a bottleneck and advantage to Lindsay against invaders. The rock trolls are not pleasant to anyone trying to get through that bottleneck. If Garret moved through there, he would lose at least a third of his forces and the battle would alert my scouts in the area.”
“As you say, my lord.” Eel smoothly responded. “I leave strategic considerations to those more capable of discerning them. I work in shadows, not out in the open.”
Privately, Eel thought Roric was a fool to trust in the rock trolls of Sentinel Pass. What he’d heard of Garret, and observed, tended to make him think the man would find a way to get through that pass peacefully if he needed to do so. But Roric was paying him for delivery of the girl – not killing her, as had been the original plan. Another mistake in his opinion, but he didn’t make policy, simply followed it when someone paying as well as the all in but name Duke of Lindsay was doing.
“I will continue monitoring their progress, my lord.” The man bowed, and left the room without Roric’s permission.
Arrogant bastard. Roric thought with a mild flash of rage at the slight he’d been given. If he wasn’t so good at what he does, and if I didn’t need him at the moment…
“Eel, it was Eel.” Mina managed to gasp out at last.
“We know, dear.” Jessica answered while trying to calm the still dangerously weak former assassin. “No one else could have done this to you, just concentrate on getting better, do what the healers tell you. They tell me it will be weeks before you should even be allowed to sit up in bed.”
“Liars.” Mina answered in a whisper. “Have to get back to Deirdre. I’ve failed her.”
“We all did that, Mina.” Jessica answered quietly then added. “We’ll get her back. And that girl is no pushover in any kind of fight, you know that. She’ll find a way to make things hard for her kidnappers.”
“What worries me.” Mina answered in a breath that was fluttering like a frightened butterfly.
“It worries everyone else, too, dear.” Jessica answered simply and sternly put in. “But you’ll do no one any good unless you let yourself have the time you need to heal properly.”
“If it helps any,” Jessica softly answered. “I feel the same way.”
“You look like you’ve been pulling your hair, little brother.” Jessica told Brent when she entered the room he was working in.
“Probably because I have been.” Brent sighed then gave his sister a wan grin. “We know the kidnappers are using a mule drawn two wheeled cart to transport Deirdre to whatever their destination is. But do you have any idea about just how many mule drawn two wheeled carts generally move through Chalmnessa?”
“Probably hundreds?” Jessica asked.
“More like thousands.” Brent groused while gesturing towards a precariously stacked batch of reports sitting on his desk. “My people have overtaken and searched more of the damned things than I care to think about just now, but even though a good number of them had false bottoms, none of them have contained Deirdre. On a happy note for the taxmen though, we have uncovered more than a few smugglers because of this mess.”
Jessica had to laugh in spite of the seriousness of the situation. “Well, I can tell you for certain that they are headed for Lindsay.”
“You used the finger for a divination?” He questioned.
“Of course.” The pretty blonde woman nodded with some satisfaction. “So that should narrow down your search parameters a bit. Just have your people watching the roads leading to Lindsay and the borders.”
“That would simplify things, marginally.” Brent nodded while ringing a small bell to summon his own chief of staff. “Now all we need do is to catch them before they cross the border.”
Jessica left her brother grumbling over a map. “Roads, tracks, goat paths, game trails… I’m going to go insane before this is over. I know it!”
“You’ll get it done, Brent.” She answered before closing the door. “I have faith in your abilities and the people who work for you. Even if they don’t catch them before they cross the border, they should be able to find proof about where Deirdre is being taken.”
“Gods, I hope so.” Brent answered into the empty air, because Jessica had departed to continue her own search for the kidnapped lady.
Deirdre tried to kick the sides of the cart, but had been tied so cleverly that she couldn’t move even a muscle. Screaming, or yelling was out, too because of the rather unpleasant wad of cloth that had been shoved into her mouth and tied into place with a strip of silk from her own nightgown.
She did squirm a lot, and emitted a long, breathless series of ‘uumphs, gahs, and mrrphgggs. But none of that even attracted the attention of the soldiers, or whatever they were, who were searching the cart. Worse, the false bottom of this particular cart scraped her nose painfully every time the cart was jostled even a bit.
Being squeezed into a space only a foot high was rubbing other parts of her anatomy the wrong way, too. She fully intended to make her kidnappers pay for that indignity and pain, once she got loose. But it had been some time since she’d been able to even feel her hands or feet. That was yet another bone to pick with the ruffians who had control of her life just now.
Eventually, the unpleasant, very uncomfortable and sometimes painful jostling settled back into the familiar motions of the cart moving along a less than smooth road.
“They have crossed the border into Lindsay, my lord.” Eel reported during one of his rare audiences with Roric.
“Good.” Roric nodded. “Have there been any problems so far that I’m not aware of?”
“The lady is making things rather difficult for her escort, my lord.” The assassin answered with a shrug. “She may be very thirsty, and hungry when she arrives. Plus it could be awhile before she can stand unaided. My hirelings have fed her, and given her water when they could, but she hasn’t made that easy for them.”
“No matter.” Roric gave the assassin a nasty grin. “I’m not interested in her being able to do more than stand up once she gets here. You know what to do with your dupes once they deliver the lady, I trust?”
“Of course, my lord.” Eel answered with a sardonic grin. “The less witnesses, the safer you are. I am well aware of that necessity.”
“That much more gold for me, my lord.” Eel chuckled.
“Indeed.” Roric gave the assassin a thin smile while thinking. And none at all from my treasury once you are taken care of, my friend.
Eel was all too aware of his employer’s hopes, and fully intended to thwart them. Better people than this lordling had tried to finish him and none had succeeded yet. But surviving and securing his payment would prove to be an entertaining exercise.
“Mina!” Jessica almost shouted when she found the former assassin walking to her own room’s privy. “You’re supposed to be resting!”
“I can breathe without pain, I’m not spitting up blood, and I can talk without wheezing.” The woman retorted. “I’m fit enough to get back into things now and I won’t take no for an answer.”
“You’re far from completely recovered.” Jessica shot back. “If you don’t pay attention to what the healers tell you, all that could start happening again. Now get yourself back to bed!”
“Not likely.” Mina growled while turning to glare at Jessica. “I was supposed to be protecting Deirdre. I failed. I won’t fail to save her. I’m fine. Just let me get back into form my way without you and all the healers having heart attacks, could you?”
“I learned long ago not to argue with you about how you feel, or what you are capable of doing.” The blonde answered quietly. “But please don’t overextend yourself out a sense of duty that you did all in your power to uphold.”
“Yes, yes.” Mina impatiently acknowledged. “But now I have a score to settle on top of that.”
“Just get well before you try that.” Jessica cautioned.
“Oh, I intend to do just that.”
“Make sure you do.” Jessica ordered.
“Of course, my lady.” Mina agreed with a small smile. “I won’t be able to do what I wish to do until I am healed up completely.”
Roric waited with ill concealed impatience as the cart that had just entered his castle was unloaded. He had no interest whatsoever in the goods that were showing on a casual look. The item that was hidden beneath those was what held his interest, and he watched with no small amount of amusement as the three buffoons lifted the bottom of the cart and struggled to get the flailing, if well tied form out of the hidden compartment. Deirdre was his at last. He could make allowances for less than exemplary performances from hirelings. Especially since they would be dead in a short time.
“Ahh, allow me to welcome you to Lindsay, Lady.” Roric bowed to the disheveled figure still clad in the tatters of a nightgown who was rubbing her wrists and ankles without seeming to pay attention to him or anyone else at that moment. “I have been looking forward to your arrival for some time now.”
“Why?” Deirdre acerbically questioned. “So Garret has an excuse to invade Lindsay?”
“Oh of course not, dear.” Roric smiled while taking in the shape that the very tattered nightgown showed him. “I wish to welcome my bride to be properly.”
“Your what?” She questioned incredulously.
“My bride to be.” Roric answered with unruffled calm. “You are the key to the throne of Jhalmar, my dear. Without you, Garret can't inherit anything, not even Chalmnessa. With you, I however hold a key to gaining the throne without his interference once we are married. You have connections to the royal family yourself, though you didn't know that, and admittedly it is a distant relationship, but he who wins your heart, dear girl, could easily gain the throne.”
“Well, you’ve let yourself out of that one.” The lady glared at him while gathering the rags of her nightgown protectively around her form. “The only way you’ll win my heart is to cut it out and hold it in your hand. And the only throne you'll ever sit on is in the privy if I have anything to do with things.”
“All in due time,regarding your heart, my dear.” Roric answered with a smile. “But first I need to marry you.”
“Unless something has escaped my notice.” Deirdre shot back. “Even with the women being this chattel thing you seem to like, consent is needed. Which I definitely will not give.”
“Oh, in time you will.” Roric answered smugly.
“I’ll be dead first.” She shot back.
“Hardly.” The man grinned. “Once you’ve seen some of the alternatives, I’m sure you’ll willingly become my bride.”
“When the gods stop wanting to be worshipped, maybe.” She answered.
“Oh, I’m sure I can change your mind.” He chuckled. “After all, I have no problems with a bride who isn’t a virgin.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” She questioned with a hint of fear in her voice.
“Oh, you’ll find out in time.” Roric answered smugly. “Once you’ve been introduced to your new quarters and the roommate that comes with them.”
“You bastard!” She spat out.
“Quite the contrary, dear.” Roric laughed. “I know exactly who my father was. Which doesn’t change the fact that I will have you gentled down to my proposal in a few days.”
“That will happen when the sun really falls into the western ocean at sundown.” She snarled.
“Then prepare yourself for a lot of steam and no sunrise in the morning.” Roric answered then gestured at a group of guards. “Take the lady to her new accommodations.”
“I’ll rip your heart out and show it to you while you die.” She promised him with a snarl as the guards closed around her.
“Oh, I highly doubt that, dear.” Roric laughed. “When you are in this room again, you’ll beg me to marry you, trust me.”
“Marriage beds,” She shot back. “Can be the most deadly of all things, or haven’t you heard that one?”
“Indeed I have, my love.” Roric chuckled. “But when you are in front of me again, I’m sure that will be the furthest thing from your thoughts. Just to avoid what you are going to experience in the near future. I wish you joy in your new companions.”
Her most unladylike response to that was lost as the guards took gentle hold of her and led her from the room.
“You plan to marry that?” Bridgette questioned as she emerged from the tapestries that lined the walls of the room.
“The gain is well worth the inconvenience.” Roric answerd simply. “Besides, once I gain the throne through marriage to that hellion, she could have an accident. Which would clear the way for another queen.”
“Just let me be part of that accident.” Bridgette almost begged.
“Never fear, my darling.” The Duke of Lindsay answered then changed the subject. “Right now I need to work on the funeral arrangements for my father. First things first, dear one. Appearances must be kept, after all.”
Roric’s guards weren’t rough, but they would allow no deviation from the path they had been ordered to take. They took the young woman deeper and deeper into the bowels of the castle until they were in some of the lowest dungeons.
Once there, the stopped at one heavy wooden door, unlocked it, and unceremoniously opened the door to throw her in.
One guard broke the silence that had been maintained up to then. “Brought you a playmate, Riddler. The Duke says enjoy her as you like, then share her around.”
“Well, well.” A rusty voice answered as what looked like a pile of rags in the corner of the cell stirred. “Any distraction is welcome, and this one looks to be quite enjoyable.”
Deirdre fought, but the guards threw her into the room, slammed the door, and locked it behind them.
“Well, well.” the ragged figure that was slowly standing up almost whispered as he took in the barely concealed form of the surprise that had been so rudely thrust into his cell. “What did you to deserve such treatment, girl?”
“I refused to marry Roric, for one thing.” She spat back, moving so she against a wall and readying herself to defend her virginity in any way she was able, though she held no illusions about the success of that plan.
“A point in your favor right there.” The man called Riddler nodded with a flash of still white teeth that was meant to be a grin. “So this is to gentle you down to accept his ‘proposal’, I take it?”
“So the misbegotten son of a union between a weasel and a sow inferred.”
Riddler actually chuckled at that. “Good, I like your spirit. But that still leaves us with what to do with this situation, doesn’t it? I’ve been a long time without a woman and you are most comely, young lady.”
“You might find enjoying me is harder than you may think.” She shot back without the internal conviction her voice carried.
“Oh, I don’t doubt that at all.” Riddler chuckled as he seated himself in a pile of noisesome rags. “So why don’t we – negotiate?”