A cautionary tale as related by Elowyn of Karickbridge
With hindsight we should have seen it all coming. When something seems too easy in the future I shall smell the trap a mile off. As it was, we thought we were keeping one step ahead of the enemy, out-witting them at each turn. Instead we were beautifully manipulated into a cleverly woven web.
* * *
Before I continue, let me introduce myself. My name is Elowyn. I grew up in the town of Karickbridge in Baron Aldred’s lands in northern Albion. My twin brother Elathan and I grew up without a woman in the house as our mother died giving birth to us. Our father, Dromeir, is captain of Lord Karick’s guard and so we both spent our childhood sparring with wooden staves and shields in the castle courtyard instead of me learning the more genteel arts at my mother’s apron. Don’t get me wrong, I loved it and, given the life I now lead, I wouldn’t have grown up any other way. The skills I learned brawling with the boys have stood me in good stead, those and the natural Gift I seem to have and that seems to be growing in me of late. It took me years to understand why Elathan’s grazes and scrapes always adorned his knees and knuckles for days when I could just weave mine away, why I could see things that others couldn’t when I touched them. But that’s a story for another day.
I guess I should also introduce my friends. We’re a bit of a strange bunch all things considered. As well as Elathan, who is turning out to be a competent man at arms, this tale concerns Isembard and Nab’han. Isembard is, well, he’s not like us. He is of the short folk. A few years ago he came to Karickbridge to live with his uncle Grimm, Lord Karick’s blacksmith. A funny sort of a chap. Apparently he has two left hands when it comes to smithying and he always seems to have his head buried in a pile of scrolls or a book. Now I think about it, Nab’han isn’t really like us either. He originally came to Ellesland from the Principalities of the Crusade. Apparently he owed his life to a crusader knight to whom he then swore fealty. Unfortunately the knight’s brother wasn’t as happy to see him back alive on the family estate as he’d anticipated and so he ended up being poisoned to prevent him from taking over again. Nab’han escaped with his life and little else. We came to meet two summers ago when some villagers wrongly accused him of kidnapping a baby when actually all he’d done was to try to save it from being taken by a witch. But again, a story for another day.
* * *
Father had been holding one of his lectures at the dinner table. The next day the annual tourney was about to start, the first that Elathan was allowed to take part in. Apparently relations between the lords under Baron Aldred are strained at the moment. We’ve been at peace with Cornumbria ever since I can remember with a lot of the trade coming through Karickbridge, being one of the larger market towns between Port Clyster and Criggen Varras. Not all of Aldred’s lords are in favour of this peace as they don’t see much of the trade coin. They’d rather see us at war with Cornumbria, taking what they see as their dues by force of arms rather than profiting from commerce. Lord Karick, and indeed Baron Aldred, are in the other camp, seeing peace as being more profitable than war. Anyway, father had been lecturing us on the importance of fealty to our liege lord. At the time I thought he was afraid that we were foolish enough to fall for the war-mongering talk. Now I see that he was trying to prepare us for what was to come. I think Elathan felt that father was being too patronising because after we had been told for the third time in as many minutes that our oath was our word he threw his spoon down on the table and stormed out, slamming the door behind him. He can get a bit like that when he feels that somebody suggests that he’s stupid, especial when that somebody is father.
Flashing a look that was part ‘you should know better’ and part ‘sorry’ to father, I grabbed my cloak from the back of the door and headed out after Elathan. It wouldn’t have been the first time that he’d gotten into trouble on the back of an argument with father. Falling in step with him though I was surprised to see a flicker of amusement in his eye. “Fancy taking a look at the competition?” he asked. “Definitely!” and so it was that we wended our way through town to Upper Gate and then onto the meadow where the competing knights were camping outside the town walls ready for the tourney the following day.
“It’s really a shame that they won’t let us commoners take part in the jousting. I’m sure I could knock one or two of these lordlings onto their arses. I guess I’ll just have to settle for showing them who’s best in the melee, with or without Vallandar’s sword.” I’d decided that as a woman it would probably cause too much trouble if I took part in the melee and that I should participate from the sidelines, but Elathan was eager to measure himself against others.
It was difficult not to get caught up in the festival atmosphere that hung over the palanquins and cook fires all over the meadow. Various groups seemed to be trying to drown out each others’ bawdy tavern songs. Every now and then a woman’s squeal could be heard coming from out of the dusk. At least most of them seemed to be squeals rather than screams.
Pleasantly wrapped up in the anticipation of tomorrow’s activities I was caught off guard by a snippet of conversation coming from a group of rough looking warriors round one fire: “The Old Wolf is getting soft in his dotage, time he remembered who his true friends are!” growled one ugly looking man to another. Old Wolf. Where had I heard that epithet before? The recipient of the ugly man’s comment suddenly looked up at us and whispered something to his confederate. Old Wolf. Old Wolf. Old Wolf. Suddenly I remembered. I hadn’t heard it, I’d read it a year ago on a message hidden in the hollow end of a sword pommel that we were supposed to retrieve and ended up fighting for our lives against the letter’s author, a brutish knight by the name of Sir Beorn.
“‘You sure?” replied the ugly man to whatever it was that his neighbour had said. “Come closer to the fire boy” he commanded Elathan. “Let me take a look at you. Recognise me do you?“ The features of the heavy-built knight did seem vaguely familiar. „Do you know who I am boy?“ „Well let me tell you. I’m your doom in the flesh. But you can call me Sir Alcuin. Perhaps my brother’s name will be more familiar to you though, seeing as you murdered him: Sir Beorn! Ring any bells boy? Watch your back in the melee. Maybe you’ll end up with a dagger stuck in it. Run along now back to your da’s mail skirts. We’ll be seeing you!“
Elathan was visibly shaken by this encounter and so we ended up returning home, nervously watching our backs the whole way.
Elathan was still a bit jittery the next morning, though he was adamant that he was fine. All of them (Elathan, Isembard and Nah’ban) had successful first bouts in the melee, getting off with a few scratches and the first day of the tourney passed without incident. It was the next day that everything started going horribly wrong. We were walking past Alcuin’s tent on the second day of the tourney when we both noticed the sun glinting off something metallic moving on the outside of the tent. As we got closer we could see that it was a knife slitting the tent material from the inside. Just as we saw the Baron’s son, Sir Almeric, appear across the campsite we saw the haft of a crossbow protruding from the tent followed by the thwack of a bolt being shot. Almeric clasped at his neck and collapsed to the ground.
Caught between the desire to help Almeric and the desire to catch the culprit we decided on the latter, as Almeric’s man was already at his master’s side. Rounding the outside of the tent though we were only quick enough to see a slight figure running off between the tents. Elathan was still in his plate armour from the tourney and I was hardly dressed for a chase. To be on the safe side we entered the tent to make sure that there weren’t any other accomplices still inside. The only thing of note was a small crossbow lying on the floor near the newly cut slit. Picking it up to examine it we were surprised by the tent flap opening behind us to reveal a handful of the Baron’s men, swords drawn at the ready.
Apart from the fact that we wouldn’t have stood a chance against them and that reinforcements were probably only seconds away, running was never really an option. “These are the culprits your grace,” announced the captain as we were roughly pushed into Baron Aldred’s presence in a tent that had been cleared to function as a temporary lazaret for Almeric. The Baron spared us hardly a glance as he instructed our captor to throw us in the castle dungeon and that we would be dealt with later.
I will never forget the astonished looks on the faces of the castle guards, men that we had grown up sparring with and eating with, as we were marched though the courtyard. We were summarily taken to the castle dungeon and locked in. Being locked up in a dungeon that you know is a chilling experience. Elathan didn’t seem to want to talk much and so I tried to relax and put all the events of that morning into sequence so that I could try to make sense of them. The only explanation that half way made sense was that this was Alcuin trying to get his revenge, though from what we knew of him, he would have been more likely to seek a more direct solution than framing us for something we hadn’t done, and if he was clever enough to set something like this up, why implicate himself by having it done from his own tent?
Due to our good standing with Lord Karick, I was relatively confidant that our arrest was merely a mistake that would be quickly sorted out. In the end it wasn’t until late afternoon that first Elathan and then, five minutes later, I was hauled out of the cells by guards wearing Aldred’s colours to be brought before the Baron. “My son is in the infirmary dying from the poison on the bolt that you shot him with. I have neither the time nor the patience to wait for an answer. You will get one chance and one chance only to tell me the truth. I don’t believe in torture because it seldom yields the truth, but you have to know how serious I am about this. One single lie and your head will be on the block at first crow tomorrow. I want to know who fired the shot, who you are working for and where the antidote for the poison is and I want to know now.” I could tell from the look in his eyes that he was absolutely serious. Thinking on my feet I came up with a plan that at the very least might buy us enough time for Isembard and Nab’han to come up with something, so I told the Baron that I had seen Sir Alcuin in the tent firing the crossbow – at the very least Baron Aldred would have to investigate this before executing us surely? “Take her out of my sight!” Was his only reaction. “Your brother tried the same lie. Unfortunately for both of you, Sir Alcuin was with me at the time of the assassination attempt.” With a wave of his hand, the guards dragged me stunned out of the guardsroom and back to the cell. What now?
The answer to that question wasn’t all that long coming. We heard the key in the cell door and then struggled not to show surprise when we saw Nab’han in servant’s garb with a tray with water and bread. The guard waited in the doorway, meaning that there was no way we could communicate, but as Nab’han turned his back to me I noticed a large key ring surreptitiously held out of the guard’s view. I’d recently learned the trick of being able to make light objects fly and with help of a distraction I managed to silently retrieve the keys without the guard noticing.
* * *
We waited until midnight before making our move. After unlocking both of our cell doors I cried out to the guard for help. As he came in the door, Elathan managed to overpower him and grab his sword. Sullenly the guard surrendered and allowed himself to be locked up in one of the cells. Creeping out into the corridor we were able to similarly ambush the only other guard on duty. Checking the guardroom we found the crossbow that had been used during the assassination attempt. Hopefully I would be able to use it to follow the psychic spoor of the assassin and so clear our names.
Going up and then crossing the castle in the middle of the night was not going to be an option and so we used one of the other keys on the ring to open up a door leading to a lower level of the castle dungeons, somewhere we had never been before. Taking a torch we explored the lower level before finding stairs down to a further level. There the dressed stone quickly turned to raw cavern and then to a ledge above a stream running deep below the castle.
We had almost made it to freedom when we heard a slithering clicking sound in front of us and what look like a many jointed metallic snake with legs raise up, hissing sibilantly at us. Without warning, the creature struck out at me, biting my left forearm as I raised it to fend off the attack. It wasn’t the bite, but the pain that left me half-stunned for the next attack. A second creature emerged from a hole in the wall to attack Elathan, but the creature had little chance of penetrating his armour. My chainmail was a different matter, however, and it wasn’t just the sharp teeth but what Elathan later realised was probably some sort of acid that left horrible rents in my chain shirt. Once both creatures had been dispatched and the wounds washed we continued along the course of the stream until we reached a metal grill protecting the tunnel from intruders where the stream ran into the Griffin river just below the bridge outside the castle. The only problem was that thick metal bars now stood between us and freedom.
Elathan just took one look at the bars before heading back into the gloom. “Back in a minute” was his only explanation, leaving me waiting in the darkness under the bridge. It was a good five minutes before he reappeared with four small, gory sacks held gingerly in his hand. “Watch!” he said, as he gently squeezed their contents onto a few strategic bars. Within a minute the metal started slowly sizzling and bubbling. “Now we wait an hour or so for the acid to do its work. You may as well get your head down.” Now that he mentioned it, I was feeling tired. Until our escape from the cell I had not really been able to summon the peace of mind that sleep required. I still wasn’t sure what our next steps were going to be, but at least I knew that they weren’t going to be to the executioner’s block at dawn.
It only seemed like a couple of minutes before I was aware of a grunting noise signifying Elathan’s exertion of effort to encourage the bars sufficiently out of shape to allow us to exit. Then it was into the cold water of the Griffin and a careful clamber up the bank below the castle. We had not yet heard any alarm bells. If we were lucky there wouldn’t be any until they came to get us in the morning. For now at least we were relatively safe. Unfortunately we had not been able to communicate when or where we would emerge from the castle with Isembard or Nab’han. Fortunately, they had the sense to keep watch both of the castle gate and the road from the Gate over the bridge to the tourney fields and so it was a matter of minutes before we spotted the stocky form of Isembard on the road up to the castle.
* * *
Once we were reunited with Nab’han, it was time to track down the true assassin. Concentrating with all my might I slipped into that place in my mind that allows me to see things more clearly. The gate guards weren’t expecting trouble and so it was easy to slip past them with all the coming and going to the tourney field even at this time of night. The spoor led us to the still-full Upper Gate Tavern and there up the stairs to the door of one of the inn’s guest rooms. Knocking at the door I pretended to be one of the serving wenches with a jug of wine for the occupants. “Yes?” came a slightly foreign sounding voice from within. “A flagon of wine m’lady with the innkeep’s complements.” “Leave it outside, I will come and retrieve it in a moment.” Now I recognised the accent – Chaubrettan. I’d heard it a couple of times before from courtiers. Leaving the others at the door I walked back along the corridor and started down the stairs, making sure to tread on all the squeaky floorboards as I went. As the door was unbarred from within and a lithe arm emerged for the non-existent flagon, Nab’han grabbed it, forcing his way into the room at the same time.
The occupants turned out to be a Chaubrettan lady and her maid, caught somewhat unawares by the four of us in the middle of the night. All protestations of innocence were abandoned after a forced search turned up a quarrel of crossbow bolts but no crossbow. It turned out that Baron Aldred was responsible for the death of the lady’s husband and son. Her assassination attempt on Alric was intended to repay the debt of grief on Aldred. According to Isembard and Nab’han, no antidote had yet been found for the poison apparently coating the quarrel that Alric had been shot with and his life still hung in the balance.
In the end we reached an agreement with Madame de Delancourt, whereby she would brew us an antidote in exchange for her freedom. As fortune would have it of course, she was lacking the essential ingredient, an herb that only grew on the tombs of evil tyrants. After leaving the lady and her servant in the custody of Isembard’s uncle to ensure that they would keep their end of the bargain, we headed off for Hob’s Dell, where we had previously been sent by Sir Beorn to intercept the messenger. The dead still lie restless in that evil place, but the few living corpses that weren’t content to keep to their graves were soon taught better and we found ourselves at the centre of the grove where the wight had made his home. Growing on top we found the plant that Madame de Delancourt had described to us. Believe me, we couldn’t get out of there soon enough.
* * *
I think that one of Alcuin’s men must also have had the Gift, otherwise how would he have known the exact spot where Beorn had ambushed us on the way back from Hob’s Dell and how could we all have seen a picture of the dead Beorn in front of us? In any case there were six of them and only the four of us. How any of us survived, let alone all of us, remains a mystery to me. The battle did leave us sorely wounded though. We decided to be more circumspect as we approached Karickbridge, with Elathan and I hiding in one of the copses on the approach to town whilst Isembard and Nab’han took the antidote to Lord Karick. When they didn’t come back we started to become worried, but apart from waiting for some sort of signal we didn’t know what to do. Had the Chaubrettan woman reneged on her deal some how? Was the Baron’s son even still alive? There were too many unknowns.
Although we sat watch, I must have fallen asleep in the night, as in the morning there was a quarrel stuck in a tree on the edge of the clearing that we had chosen to use as our camp. Attached to it was a message from Madame de Delancourt telling us to meet her at the Saxton inn. Arriving there on horseback using the back ways so that we wouldn’t be recognised we found Madelaine, the maid. She led us out of town on our horses to an abandoned farmhouse where we tied the steeds to a fallen beam. Inside Madame de Delancourt was waiting for us with a proposition. Join her in her vendetta against Aldred and she would help us to free Isembard and Nab’han.
My father’s words regarding the importance of loyalty echoed in my mind: “Fealty to our lords is what stops civilisation from disintegrating into chaos”. Sometimes it’s hard to do what’s right. The cost can be hard to bear. Nevertheless we told her that we were unable to accept her offer. Despite all that we had been through in the last four days, our allegiance lay with Lord Karick and, through him, to Baron Aldred.
“Well done, well done indeed!” boomed the Baron as he emerged from a back room of the abandoned farm house. “You are just what I’ve been looking for. Loyal, resourceful and beyond suspicion for my enemies. Please accept my apologies for putting you through all that you’ve been through these last days – it was a necessary precaution before I swear you to my service. My enemies would thwart my every move and I need agents like yourselves to act for me behind the scenes, much as my cousin Lady de Delancourt does. She serves me supremely and I hope you will do the same.”
* * *
It had all been a test of our loyalty and ingenuity. Isembard and Nab’han had been arrested at the castle as they presented the antidote to Lord Karick for helping prisoners to escape. Needless to say they were quietly released from prison within hours. There never had been an assassination attempt, let alone poison involved. The whole thing had been an elaborate charade. We were all sworn to the Baron’s service and charged to accompany the brother of one of the Cornumbrian Chief’s back to his home town and thence to bring back one of the chieftan’s daughters to marry Sir Alric in order to secure peace between Albion and Cornumbria. But that, as they say, is another story…