AN UNEXPECTED ALLY
"Are you ready?"
Jenya and Alios had just stepped out of the carriage Ferdinand had provided as transportation and now stood under the entrance to the castle. Alios looked up the stone steps at the doorway in front of them. Two guards in royal colors stood on either side, staring straight ahead. He could see people gathered beyond the doors, the room filled with nobles and merchants who had wrangled or bought an invitation to the ball. The night was young but the palace was already jam packed. Jam packed with just the kind of people who he felt least likely to fit in with.
"Yes," he answered, though he would have been much more comfortable, not to mention truthful, had he replied in the negative. Already he could feel tendrils of panic running up his spine and he hadn't even entered the door yet. But no other answer would do, for Jenya was already pulling him toward the entrance.
"Just remember what I told you," Jenya said in a whisper. "The most important thing is just to be polite to everyone. You don't have to say much. If we have to have a conversation just leave the talking to me. All I need you to do is keep your ears open for any talk that you might overhear that could be of use."
Alios just nodded. He was more than willing to leave the heavy lifting to Jenya. He had felt out of place from the moment he had put these ridiculous clothes on and things just seemed to be getting worse by the moment. He could see the clothing he wore fit right in but he couldn't help but think that the moment those inside laid eyes on him they would know right away he didn't belong.
Still, no one stared or pointed at them as they entered the building. In fact, everyone ignored them, which couldn't have suited Alios better. They made their way through a long entrance hallway and into the room where the ball was taking place. It was huge. Larger than any room Alios had ever been in. Though he lived all his life on the Galian peninsula, he had never visited the capital city, or any large city for that matter. He had never been more than a few miles from the farm he had owned until the plague had killed his family and then he had ended up in Norvell Wood. He had never had any reason or desire to visit a large city. He wasn't sure why that was. He just had never thought about it.
Now he looked around, hardly able to believe such opulence. Large tapestries covered three of the walls, hanging down from ceiling to floor, each depicting a life size rendition of some battle. Prominent figures on gleaming white horses rode in the foreground, with troops fighting hand to hand filling the background. White pillars ran along the walls on either side of the room, rising up and up toward the ceiling which curved to form a dome above their heads, a huge chandelier suspended from the center. Tables filled the hall on either side, covered with the finest silk tablecloths, and filled to overflowing with food. More food in fact, than Alios had ever seen in his life. And not peasant food either. No, far from it. He could see meats and vegetables or every sort and description. It boggled his mind just to see all this food in one place. There seemed enough here to feed everyone in Norvell Wood for months.
He was pulled out of his musing by a nudge in the ribs from Jenya.
He nodded, turning his head away from the food, realizing that that had been exactly what he was doing. He looked around discreetly, but no one except Jenya seemed to have noticed. More than ever he felt totally inadequate for this undertaking. He was sure he was going to give them away somehow.
And yet, as surprising as it seemed to him, that did not happen. At least, not at first. For a long time they roamed around the room, Jenya occasionally striking up a conversation with those nearby, or sometimes someone else came up to speak to them. As per Jenya's orders Alios only spoke when spoken to, and answered curtly while still trying to be polite. Jenya on the other hand, seemed to have this down rather well, in spite of her own misgivings, and seemed completely at ease as she conversed with those about her. It appeared she was much better at this than she had let on.
Two moments proved especially nerve wracking for Alios. The first was when they all sat down to eat. Jenya was seated on his left, while a man who introduced himself as Trelain Debouchard, the Marquis of Belart, placed himself on Alios' right and immediately began a conversation that did not let up throughout the entire meal. Fortunately, the man seemed more interested in hearing himself speak than in anything Alios might have to say, and didn't seem to take offense, or even notice, the fact that Alios barely said anything. After a while, when the man seemed perfectly happy with Alios mumbling and nodding his head, the bowman began to relax, but even so, he was much relieved when the plates were empty and the meal over.
Unfortunately, his relief did not last for long, for immediately following the meal the music began and they were all called upon to stand up and take places on the floor for a formal waltz, something he had dreaded. Jenya had mentioned to him that this was quite likely to occur and it was considered bad form for any male who was accompanied by a lady to not take part in the first dance and would surely be noted by everyone there.
Since Alios had no idea how to waltz, he suspected that his being noticed for sitting on the sidelines might be the lesser of the two evils.
Still, when Jenya practically dragged him out onto the dance floor, it was rather obvious that he would have little choice in the matter.
She had told him to watch the others and just follow her lead. He did so, feeling completely out of place. After just a few moments of moving across the floor he was certain he was making a complete fool of himself and everyone there would stop and stare at him. For some reason, however, this did not seem to happen. Even after almost stumbling once and stepping on Jenya's foot, two things that he was certain would draw attention to him, he looked around and saw to his surprise that no one really seemed to have noticed.
As they turned across the dance floor Jenya, noticing how stiff he looked, tilted her head closer to him.
"Try to relax," she told him.
"Easy for you to say," was his mumbled reply.
It was bad enough he had to watch the others to see what they were doing, it was bad enough Jenya had to practically push him around the floor to let him know where to go and what to do. It was bad enough he had already stepped on her foot once and was sure it was only a matter of time before it happened again. On top of all that, she wanted him to relax too?
It seemed too much to ask. He was starting to feel it would be better if they got caught. Even torture would be better than this.
Eventually, after what seemed like a lifetime to him, the music fell silent as the dance ended. To Alios' eternal relief, Jenya led them off the floor before the next one could start.
She stopped when they reached the tables again and he saw her staring off towards the Dias at the front of the room. Alios turned to look in the same direction but all he saw was a sea of people.
He gave her a questioning look.
"It's nothing," she said.
Not a particularly satisfying answer, she realized.
"That man over there. Don't look now. The purple shirt with gold embroidery, standing in front of the pillar on the left side of the Dias."
Alios hesitated a moment, then let his eyes rove nonchalantly over in the direction she had indicated until he spotted the man. He wasn't taking part in the festivities, just stood there, his eyes wandering the room as if looking for something, or someone.
"I see him," Alios said.
"I thought we might have drawn his attention," Jenya said. As they had turned while dancing she had seen him looking at them, and the look on his face just made her feel he had taken an interest in them. She wasn't so sure now. He wasn't looking at them anymore, and he hadn't moved, hadn't gone to get the guards or attempted to alert anyone, which would be what she would expect if he suspected anything.
"Maybe it was nothing," she said with a sigh. She was so unsure she hadn't really wanted to mention it at all, but the look Alios had given her when she said it was nothing made her think better she had done the right t hing. It was best to let him know of her suspicions, no matter how vague, then to keep him in the dark and let his imagination make things ten times worse.
Jenya looked around impatiently. They had been here for quite a while now, had eaten and danced, and the ball was now in full swing and yet they still hadn't learned a damn thing. She had heard plenty of talk, and had tried to steer conversations in the direction she wanted a number of times, all to no avail. Either everyone here knew nothing at all or she was talking to the wrong people.
"C'mon," she said, grabbing Alios by the hand suddenly and starting across the room. She wasn't one to stand around just waiting for things to happen. If she couldn't find out anything here, perhaps they might overhear something, or find something, in the lesser traveled areas of the palace.
She pulled Alios through a curtained doorway that led into a long hall. There was a guard standing by the door, but he made no motion as they passed and Jenya ignored him. Alios tried his best to do the same. Jenya led him on, turning down several passages until the sounds of music faded behind them into silence. They were walking down another long corridor now, this one empty. They passed several doors which Jenya ignored.
"Umm, where exactly are we going?" Alios finally decided to ask. He had no idea what she expected to find wandering around in this place at random, and was almost certain that someone finding them in this area would be immediately suspicious.
"Where ever we're not supposed to," she replied rather cryptically.
Alios thought it best not to ask exactly where that might be.
They came around another turn and saw a door in front of them with two guards standing beside it. Alios paused, sure the guards were going to wonder just what they were doing traipsing about in this part of the palace.
Jenya, however, walked right up to them.
"Excuse me, good sirs, is this the way to the kitchen?"
They just stood there for a moment, looking at Jenya to Alios and back. The bowman tried very hard to appear as relaxed as Jenya seemed to be. Eventually one of them held up his hand and pointed back the way they had come.
"Back that way. Down the corridor you came from. Make a left at the end, then two more lefts and you'll see it on your right side."
Jenya looked perplexed.
"But I'm quite sure this was the way we were told to go," she responded. "Perhaps there's another way there? What lies beyond yonder door?"
"That's Baron Triandor's personal quarters," the guard responded, nodding his head at the door behind him. "It's off limits to the party guests. You can't go through that way."
Jenya sighed, then turned to look at Alios.
"I suppose we have no choice but to go back."
Alios nodded, hoping the guards didn't notice his complete silence, then followed Jenya as she walked back the way they had come, the turn in the corridor quickly hiding them from the guards view. Jenya stopped, looking around. The corridor here was empty, a long rug of dull reddish color covering the floor. The walls were bare stone, interspersed here and there with a shuttered window. This was not an area of the palace that was often traveled by visitors and as a result was rather sparsely furnished.
"I suppose that would be one of the places we're not supposed to go that you were referring to?" Alios questioned.
"What do you expect to find in there?" he asked.
"Don't know," she replied. "Maybe nothing, maybe something useful. We'll never know until we look."
"And just how do you propose we get past those guards?" Alios continued.
Jenya didn't answer, instead walking over to one of the windows and pulling open the shutters. She stuck her head out, looking around for a moment, then nodded.
"This should do," she proclaimed.
"Do? Do for what?" Alios questioned, stepping closer to her.
To his great surprise Jenya began to climb out the window.
"What are you doing?" he questioned.
She didn't answer until she had hauled herself completely out the window. There was obviously something out there to stand on, for she stood there holding onto the bottom of the window looking at him.
"Going to take a look in that room," she replied. "Come on."
A moment later she was gone. He walked quickly over to the window and looked out to see her inching her way along a ledge that ran just below the window, using cracks in the mortar of the stones making up the castle wall as handholds. The ledge ran along the wall in front of her, making a ninety degree turn just ahead and continuing along the wall under another set of windows, a set of windows, if he was not mistaken, that stood in the wall of the rooms beyond the guards they had just spoken to.
Alios looked down. The ledge was only a few inches wide. Jenya was suspended far above the ground. They were four stories up, in Alios estimation. They were up much too high for Jenya to survive should she plummet to the ground below.
Or himself for that matter.
Jenya looked back, seeing Alios looking down and the expression on his face and remembering that Alios was a bowman of Norvell Wood and probably hadn't had to much experience with this sort of thing.
"It's all right," she said. "You just stay there. I'll go and take a look and tell you what I've found when I come back."
Alios hesitated, looking at her and then back to the ledge. He was grateful for her to suggest that, but his pride would not let him just stand here letting her do all the work. Looking at the ledge it seemed totally inadequate, but it might be different once he was actually standing on it.
If anything, it seemed even smaller once he was out the window. He felt his toes curling, trying to get a better grip on the small ledge, even though, in his shoes, this did no good at all. He stood there for a moment, his hands holding the windowsill with a death grip, looking over at Jenya who had stopped, waiting to see what he was doing.
He took a deep breath to calm himself. Looking at the wall he could see numerous cracks in the stone, some of them quite deep. In fact, some of them looked as if they would provide a better hold than the narrow ledge his feet were perched precariously on. He certainly wasn't an expert mason, but it seemed to him they could have done a little better job smoothing the wall. Not that he was complaining, of course. He lifted his hand and settled it in one of the cracks, his fingers reaching deep inside and realizing it would provide a solid grip. Perhaps this wasn't going to be as bad as he had thought.
Or at least, that's what he tried to tell himself.
It took him quite a bit longer than Jenya, but eventually he did manage to cross the gap to the window in question. Jenya was already inside waiting for him and he had to admit to a great deal of relief, not to mention a bit of pride, when her hand reached out and gripped his own, helping him climb in the window himself.
Large draperies covered the window, and Jenya had to pull them aside for them to enter. Alios looked around once inside. They stood in what looked to be a study. A bookcase filled most of the wall opposite them, almost completely filled with books. In fact, there were some piled on top of it in a heap. Apparently the Baron was an avid reader. Hearth on the other wall, a pile of gray ash in the center. A large desk and ornate wooden chair stood against the third wall, a quill pen in a bottle of ink and a neat stack of parchments on top of it. Jenya didn't waste any time walking over to them and rifling through them.
Alios walked slowly over to the bookcase, staring at the books there. His mother had taught him to read, a long time ago, or tried to. He wasn't sure how well she succeeded. He hadn't had much use for it. He had always been poor and his family could never afford books. When you lived on a farm and your main concern was seeing that you and your own didn't starve to death, books were a luxury. It wasn't unusual. The vast majority of the peasants of the kingdom had even less skill at reading than he did.
He stepped closer, looking at the titles of the books lined up on the shelf in front of him. Most of them he couldn't make out, or at best, just a word or two. It had been so long...
He looked over at Jenya, who, having obviously failed to find what she was looking for in the papers on the desk was now rooting through the drawers.
He looked back at the books again. He couldn't help but wonder what she was expecting to find. Surely there wouldn't be an announcement about Willbrand and Merigan sitting on the man's desk. It was too soon for an official proclamation to appear, even if that was something that was planned. He didn't think Baron Triandor would be part and privy to the King's or Queen's plans for hunting down their young companions.
Or maybe there was more to it than that.
He didn't know Jenya or any of her friends all that well. Perhaps searching for news of Willbrand and Merigan wasn't all she was searching for. Perhaps there was more to this that they weren't telling him. It seemed to him if news of their friends were really what she was hunting for, it would be more likely they'd find out something out in the ballroom talking with the nobles, or at least discreetly listening to their conversations. What could they possibly find in here?
His musings were interrupted as Jenya's head lifted suddenly.
Alios was about to open his mouth to ask what had put her on alert, but it wasn't necessary, for a moment later he heard the sound of a door opening from not far away.
"Someone's here!" Jenya hissed.
They hadn't had a chance to explore. They didn't know how many rooms encompassed the Baron's personal quarters. Who ever it was might not even come into the study.
Still, they couldn't depend on that, now could they?
"Quick, back out the window!" Jenya said in a harsh whisper.
Alios hastily made his way back to the window as Jenya tried to put the desk back in order as best she could. She ran over to the window as soon as she was satisfied, pulling the curtains back. Alios was already outside. Jenya started to haul herself out as well when she suddenly froze, hearing the handle to the study door rattle.
Alios got a glimpse of the door beginning to open before the curtains fell back into place, concealing it from his view and hopefully, them from whoever had entered. Jenya stood there, half in the window and half out; afraid the sound of any movement to exit the window would give her away.
For a long time they heard nothing at all.
Jenya looked at Alios, lifting her hand to her lips to tell him to remain silent, as if he needed her to tell him. Slowly her hand reached down, lifting up her dress until she could reach the scabbard wrapped around her thigh where her dagger was concealed.
Alios would have liked to reach for his own dagger, but he was already out on the ledge, and both hands were occupied holding on to the wall. Besides, it would be impossible for him to fight hanging out here like this. If someone looked out the window, he was a sitting duck.
Jenya stood frozen in place, her dagger in her hand now, her eyes narrowed; listening intently for any sound, the dagger poised to strike should the curtain stir.
"I know you're here. You might as well come out."
Alios' eyes widened at these words while Jenya's darkened. He saw her issue a wordless curse.
She flung back the curtain, stepping back into the room, dagger held in front of her.
It was the man she had noticed watching them while they danced. He stood by the open door to the study. A sword hung from his side, but he made no move to draw it.
That might mean he meant them no ill will. On the other hand it could also mean he was so confident in his skills that he thought he could draw it before she struck. He might think he had the drop on them, with his sword while she held only a dagger. If necessary, she hoped to use that confidence against him.
He spoke no word, just stood there, looking quite calm, she had to admit, as Alios followed her in through the window. Again the bowman was tempted to take out his own weapon, but Jenya already had her dagger out and could strike much faster than he could. He was competent with a dagger but no expert, and would feel much better with his trusty bow in his hands.
"Who are you?" Jenya spoke.
"It would seem to me that thieves who broke in here should declare themselves first," the man responded.
Jenya did not reply right away. The man did not seem to fear them. It was obvious he had come in the front door, past the guards. Since they had let him in he must be someone close to the Baron. That made it unlikely he was any friend of theirs and yet the guards were not with him. He had obviously known they were here somehow, but the fact that he hadn't come in here with a horde of guards made it plan he wasn't going to give them away, at least, not yet.
"My name is Aleece LeValley and this is Erik Worthington," she told him, giving him the names that Ferdinand had picked out for them. "We are merchants from Keesa..."
"Its obvious you are no merchants," the man cut her off. "As for the names, well, I don't think it would surprise anyone if thieves weren't that anxious to declare their real names."
"Who are you?" Jenya repeated.
The man just stood there for a moment, sizing them up.
"My name is Torrin Bernham," he said finally. "And yes, I assure you that is indeed my true name. I'm First Regent of the Lansing District of Galias and cousin to Baron Triandor."
He fell silent after that, looking at them, apparently waiting for their reaction. Jenya wasn't sure what to think of this, actually. The man was royalty, cousin to the very man whose room they had violated. If anyone was going to give them away, she would have put someone like him at the head of the list.
"How did you know we were here?" she asked.
"To a trained eye your attempt at a waltz made it obvious that you, shall we say, were not proficient at this sort of thing? Perhaps you were just new at it, but it raised my suspicions. I followed you from the main hall. It wasn't hard to divine where you were headed once you went out the window."
Jenya said nothing. Alios stood beside her, feeling contrite. It was obvious that it was his bumbling on the dance floor that had given them away. In spite of the fact that he had thrown into this totally against his will and had told them in no uncertain terms he was not up to this task he still felt guilty about it.
"Okay," Jenya finally said, slowly. "So I suppose the big question on everyone's mind now is, why haven't you given us away?"
"Maybe I have," he replied.
Jenya just scowled.
"Maybe I didn't think I would need any help," Torrin continued. "I do, after all, have a sword, while you hold only a dagger, and your friend there seems to be weaponless."
"You may have a sword but you haven't even taken it out of your sheath," Jenya replied. "You don't have the look of a man who came in here to apprehend us."
"Appearances can be deceiving," Torrin replied.
A moment later Jenya took a half step back, far enough to be out of reach of a strike, her dagger coming up as the man moved his hand and in one fluid motion his sword was suddenly in it, pointing straight at them.
"You have the reflexes of a trained fighter," Torrin commented, looking at Jenya.
"As do you," she replied.
"I have been trained by some of the finest swordsmen in the kingdom. I can hold my own but even so I am no expert. You say I don't have the look of someone who came in here to apprehend you. That could very well be true. I have my own powers of observation as well, however, and I say to you that you do not have the look of ordinary thieves."
Jenya didn't know how to reply to that. She wasn't sure what kind of game this person was playing, but she didn't like beating around the bush. That however, seemed to be the province of all nobility. None of them ever seemed to say what they meant.
“If you're going to kill us then just get it over with, if you think you can," she said impatiently.
The man stood there staring at her for some time, then he slowly lowered his sword.
"I give you my word I won't raise my hand against you, in exchange for your word you will do the same," he said.
Now it was Jenya's turn to hesitate. His sword was lowered. If she lunged now, she could probably kill him before he could defend himself. He was fast, but she was too.
Still, he could have come in here followed by a legion of guards.
She lowered her dagger.
"What is it you want from us?" she questioned.
The man folded his arms across his chest.
"Maybe nothing," he replied. "It depends on what you know."
Jenya wasn't sure what that was supposed to mean. She waited patiently for him to continue.
"There's been some talk lately," the man obliged. "Rumors are stirring, rumors of things that happened long ago, long ago when King Gultane first came to power."
Alios shifted his feet uncomfortably.
"I won't bore you with the details," Torrin continued. "Suffice it to say that the King gained a few enemies during those years. Enemies that most of us had thought were gone, but perhaps that's not so."
"A few days ago a trade caravan was attacked on the outskirts of Donelan. The men guarding it were routed by a superior force. No, Mandaria is not at war. It was no enemy raiding party that did this. Nor was it a band of local thieves. The caravan was well guarded by Imperial Knights, Imperial Knights who would be more than a match for any of the gangs of thieves that still roam the area. No, this was a deliberate attack by a well disciplined force. I can't recall such a thing happening in this area in well, quite a long time. Not since the wars, certainly."
Jenya was starting to wonder just where this all was going to lead.
"In the days since the attack more details have surfaced," Torrin went on. "Most of the merchants were spared, just their merchandise stolen or destroyed. Their reports on the attack, however, were not very helpful, for every merchant that gave a report seemed to have a different story to tell. However, there was one report that I have been able to garner that came from an unimpeachable source. An Imperial Knight, in fact."
Jenya was careful to keep her face neutral as she absorbed this information. She didn't glance behind her at Alios, hoping he had the sense to do the same.
"Yes, there was one who survived, though badly wounded," Torrin said. "From his report it seems that the attack was led by one Ktan Hammerlane, one of the Sacred Knights who turned against the King in the Witch War. Everyone has heard about that, of course, how the witches rose up and tried to take King Gultane's power, and how he spend three years fighting them until finally defeating them in the Battle of Murgess Hill."
All the time Torrin was speaking these words he was staring at them, obviously trying to gauge their reactions. Jenya remained impassive.
"I had thought the man dead," Torrin continued. "It seems now that is not so. The fact that he launched such an audacious attack proves that he is not only alive, but ready to do battle against the crown, if even in an indirect way as of yet."
He stopped, looking at them, and for a moment Jenya thought that was the end of his story, but then he spoke again.
"I wish to get in touch with him."
"With... Ktan Hammerlane?" Jenya said after a moment.
Torrin looked down at his sword for a moment.
"Do you know him?" he questioned.
"What makes you think we might?" Jenya replied.
Torrin lifted his eyes to look at her.
"Its not any common thief that would have the guts to walk right in the front door of the castle to rob the Baron," he replied. "It takes a certain kind of audacity to do such a thing, the same kind of audacity it would take to attack a trade caravan right under the noses of the Imperial Knights. So again I say, do you know him?"
"And again I ask why you want to know," Jenya said stubbornly.
Torrin just stood there, and for the first time a look or impatience crossed his face. Suddenly he spun on his heels.
"Come with me."
He walked over to the door, turning when he reached it to see that neither one of them had moved.
"Just into the bedroom," he said. "I have something to show you."
He turned again and walked out of the room. After a moment's hesitation, Jenya and Alios followed him.
The bedroom was the adjacent room. Most of it was filled up with a large dresser and an even larger bed that stood in the center of the room; it's huge ornately carved wooden posts and canopy above making it seem more like a room in itself than a bed.
Torrin ignored the bed, walking over the wall behind it as the others entered the room. He did something to the wall and all of a sudden a passage opened up where there had been none before.
Jenya peered down it to see smooth stone walls fading away into the darkness as Torrin turned back toward them.
"This passage leads to a back entrance that few know about," he said. "It can get you out of here safely. I wasn't the only one who noticed your less than competence, shall we say, at the waltz earlier. I don't think you'll be able to walk out of here using the main entrance. This will get you out."
"So you want us to go now?" Alios spoke up for the first time.
"If you are common thieves, then yes," Torrin replied. "I won't stop you or get in your way. You're free to walk out of here with no interference. If, however, you do in fact know Ktan Hammerlane I implore you to stay for a bit more."
Jenya stood there. She still wasn't sure what to make of this man. Obviously, he could have called the guards at any time. Was he just waiting for them to admit they knew Ktan before calling them? Was he looking for a prize that he could take to the Baron? She didn't think that was the case, yet she could think of no good reason why he would wish to speak to Ktan.
"The choice is simple," Torrin said, seeing her hesitation. "Walk out the door and forget all about this, or stay and we can have a little discussion about Ktan, but I warn you, if you do stay and you do not know him, I will kill you with my own hand."
Alios eyes darkened at that statement, but Jenya, to his surprise, took it in stride.
"We do know him," she finally admitted.
Torrin just stood there for a moment, surprised slightly by her sudden admission. Then he nodded.
"You can get word to him?" he asked.
"What is it you want to tell him?" she questioned.
To her surprise he didn't answer right away, just paced back and forth in front of the secret passage.
"What I'm about to tell you could get me hanged if word of it got out to the King, or any loyal subject, and it was believed. That was why I was being so careful. I'm putting my life in your hands and obviously a common thief could hurt me very badly by holding this information over my head. Do you understand what I mean?"
Again Torrin hesitated, and she suddenly realized that it was nervousness that was making him pace.
"There are quite a few people who are not really... pleased with Gultane being King," he continued after a moment. "And it may surprise you that I'm not only talking about peasants. Quite a bit of the nobility is unhappy with the way things are as well."
"King Federic, Gultane's father, was a well respected man. He died of food poisoning, did you know? A lot of people suspected it wasn't an accident, but of course, no one could prove anything. Federic had a lot of loyal followers, a lot of people who were not happy at all to see his son ascend the throne, especially under such suspicious circumstances. There are plenty of people who were loyal to Federic who feel no such allegiance to his son. On top of that, just as with any leader, there are those who are not pleased for their own personal reasons. There are plenty of members of the royal family who had a say in Federics rule who lost a great deal of their own power when Gultane took the throne and replaced them with his own favorites. Not only royalty, but many merchants as well suffered economically when the new King came into power. All of these people would be, well, less than upset to see a regime change occur."
"You're talking treason!" Alios suddenly blurted out.
Torrin turned to look at him, a slight frown forming on his face and his sword rising just a bit.
"If you really are friends of Ktan, I think this would hardly shock you. He has been branded as a heretic, after all, destined to be burned at the stake if he is ever captured by the King."
Alios realized he probably shouldn't have spoken, had not, in fact, helped the situation any. He had been told by Willbrand that Merigan was indeed a heretic. He himself had no love for the King. It didn't matter to him who was in charge. All he wanted was for him and his people to be left in peace. Even so, such plain talk of overthrowing the King shocked him. Such words were not spoken openly even in the safety of Norvell Wood.
"Even we do not talk openly of such a thing amongst ourselves, much less with people who we hardly know," Jenya intervened. "I realize there may be many people who are unhappy with the King but what does this all have to do with Ktan?"
Torrin stood there for a moment, as if not sure whether to go on at all. Jenya gripped her dagger tighter. If the man raised his sword any higher, she would be forced to strike.
"Its very simple really," Torrin said eventually. "There are many people who want to see the King deposed, but they are unorganized. None of them are working together. They need to unite, and in order to do that, they need a leader."
Jenya didn't respond right away. The fact of the matter was, she wasn't sure what to make of this whole line of conversation, but it was pretty obvious now where Torrin was headed.
"Are you saying you want Ktan to be this leader?" she asked.
"Why not?" Torrin replied. "Before the Witch War he was well respected by the nobility and peasants alike. Though some of the Sacred Knights turned against him for leaving the Maiden's fortress in the Battle of Murgess Hill, most realize that if it hadn't been for his timely intervention the Kings Knights would have carried the field and the Maidens would have been doomed anyway. Even more importantly, perhaps, most of the peasants think highly of him as well since he fought for the Maidens during the Witch War. Here is a man who has earned the respect of peasant and noble alike. Who would be a better choice?"
Jenya didn't take time to ponder that.
"So... you're saying you want Ktan to lead a revolt, is that it?"
"Basically yes," Torrin replied. "For reasons of my own, I as well would not feel too badly if King Gultane were replaced. I'm not asking for an answer right away. Even if Ktan agrees it's not like this is going to take place tomorrow. Right now things are only in the planning stages. I'm still feeling people out, trying to see just how much support this would have. In fact, nothing at all might come of this if I decide I don't have enough support. There are still a few key figures I'd like to have on board that I haven't spoken with yet. Even if all goes well nothing will happen for months, certainly, perhaps even years. This isn't something that can be rushed. If I make a misstep, it will mean my life."
Well, Jenya was certain of that statement, at least.
"All I ask is that you speak to Ktan about this," Torrin said. "And if he is willing to at least consider it to have him please contact me. As I said before, there is no rush. He can take all the time he wants to think it over. Obviously what I am contemplating is a risk. It's quite possible we could all end up dead. In fact, it seems the most likely result. On the other hand, if we do manage to overthrow King Gultane, I'm sure the new King would look graciously on anyone who had in hand in such a thing and would be more than willing to pardon any past deeds, especially if those deeds were done against the former King."
"All well and good," Jeny replied, "but who would this new king be? You?"
"It's possible," Torrin replied. "But I'm not the only choice. I'm afraid that's something that still has to be worked out."
Jenya frowned slightly. It seemed unlikely that the man would plot against the king without having someone specific in mind to replace him. And she hadn't failed to notice that he had never mentioned just exactly why he wanted the king overthrown in the first place. This little plot either really was in the very earliest stages or Torrin was withholding something from her.
Not that she really minded that, or didn't expect it, in fact. Even though she had admitted she knew Ktan, that didn't mean she was telling the truth. They had just met and he had no more reason to trust them than she had to trust him. If she was in his place, she would divulge as little as possible as well.
"I'll pass your request along to him," she said finally, "though I'll tell you right now I'm sure he will view it with suspicion."
“I would expect no less," Torrin replied. "If he needs to get word to me tell him he should speak to Doran Fellspath, a merchant living in Dramon. He'll be able to contact me directly."
"All right, I'll inform him," Jenya said. "Though as I said before, I make no guarantees of his cooperation."
"Of course," Torrin said, nodding.
They fell silent for a moment.
"Now, I have told you all that I can," Torrin said eventually. "I have trusted you with my life. We cannot dawdle here, for someone is sure to happen by ere long, as I'm sure you realize. I've taken up most of your time with my interruption. I apologize for that and to make up for it, perhaps I can help you find whatever it is that you are looking for? I take it you are not just here for the Baron's silverware?"
Jenya turned away from Torrin, lifting her dress and sheathing her dagger. Whatever the man was up to, whether he was lying or not, she was convinced they were in no danger at this time.
"No we're not here for the silverware," she replied. "We're here for information."
She hesitated a moment, not sure how much to reveal. He had mentioned the Witch War. He must know something about that, but how much? He had made no mention of Merigan. It seemed that even if he had heard of her, she was not part of his plans. It seemed quite likely that if he knew of her at all, he thought of her only as a young girl that Ktan had raised and nothing more.
"Two of our group were separated from us," she continued after a moment. "A young girl and a boy. We just missed them in Donelan, with the Imperial Knights hot on their trail. That was four days ago now. We don't know what happened to them, or where they went after that. We were afraid that the Imperial Knights, or worse, may have caught them. We came here to find out if they had been captured, or if anyone here had any word of them at all."
Torrin brought up his hand and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"What does that mean?" Alios questioned. "Have you heard word of them?"
"Well, no, not really," Torrin replied after a moment. "I knew the Imperial Knights were ordered to Donelan and were searching for someone, but I thought it was Ktan they were after."
"Well, I'm sure they wouldn't complain if they ran into him," Jenya commented.
"No, I suppose not," Torrin agreed. "I know the Knights are still searching. If someone had been found, I'm sure I'd have heard some rumor of that. I think I can say with certainly that your friends have not been captured, at least."
Jenya nodded slowly, not sure what else to say. She wasn't sure how accurate this information was. Even if he wasn't lying, he might just not be in the loop. She wasn't sure what to make of this whole thing, actually. Here was someone with real influence, someone with connections to the nobility, connections to power, connections to money, offering to help them overthrow the King. If carried out, this could be the answer to all their prayers. It seemed like something they could only have dreamed of happening, something that was too good to be true.
And she had learned the hard way that when something seemed too good to be true, it usually was.
In any case, it seemed she wasn't going to find out anything more right now. There wasn't anything they could do until they got back to Ktan and told him all this. Or rather, until Ktan got back from Winsor, or wherever his path had taken him. Hopefully when he came back he would have Merigan and Willbrand in tow, which would give them one less thing to worry about while they pondered this. She didn't know if Ktan would take this seriously or not. She had misgivings herself and she knew that Ktan was ten times as paranoid as she was. No matter what he thought, it seemed as if the present conversation had run its course.
"Thank you for the information," she said. "And now, I think we will take your advice and depart."
"It would seem the prudent thing to do."
Not having anything else to say Jenya turned and walked into the stone passage that Torrin had revealed to them. It was dark inside. There was no light except that which filtered in from through the windows of the room behind them. That faded quickly ahead of them.
"Don't worry, there are no turn offs. You can't get lost. Just follow the tunnel to the end. And remember, if you wish to get in touch with me, talk to Doran Felspath."
"Yes, yes, I know, in Dramon," Jenya stated.
And with that the door closed silently behind them, throwing them immediately into pitch darkness. They both halted.
"I can't see a damn thing," Alios muttered.
"Nor I," Jenya agreed. Suspicious again, she pulled out her dagger once more. Just to make it seem like he wasn't useless, Alios did the same. He felt Jenya brush past him and then she touched his arm, feeling around for a moment until she realized exactly what part of his anatomy she was in contact with; she dropped her hand until it gripped his.
"C'mon," she said.
The walked slowly down the tunnel. Jenya ran the blade of her dagger along the wall as they walked. The feel of it scraping told her where she was in relation to it, and told Alios where she was in relation to him, even though her hand was doing that job just as well.
"Do you think he was telling the truth?" Alios asked after a few minutes of walking.
He couldn't see Jenya shrug.
"I don't know," she replied. "There are a lot of variables. Even if he was telling the truth nothing may come of it, or he may be a fool who will just get us all caught in some stupid plot that doesn't have a chance in hell of succeeding. There's really no way to tell without knowing more about him."
Alios fell silent. He had a lot to think about. This wasn't really his concern. He was just a simple hunter who had somehow, he wasn't even sure how, been caught up in all this quite unintentionally. When he had first met Willbrand and Merigan he had just thought them simple outlaws, a couple of kids who had made a mistake and got in trouble with the law. It wasn't uncommon. Once he had met Ktan and the others, however, he had realized there was a lot more to it than that. His plan had been to just help them find the two youngsters and then head back to Norvell Wood. He hadn't had any notions about doing anything more than that, and yet now he had been set upon by Imperial Knights, had helped lead an attack on one of the King's caravans, and was now apparently caught up in some plot to overthrow the King. Take about things rapidly spiraling out of control!
Jenya stopped short as a dull clang rang from the blade she held and she felt sudden resistance. She took a step forward, letting go of Alios and feeling ahead of her with her free hand.
"It seems we have reached the end," she announced.
"The end?" he questioned. Was it a dead end? "Is there a door?"
"That's what I'm trying to..."
A crack of dim light suddenly appeared as the door swung open. They looked out, finding themselves at the base of the castle, in a dark deserted corner. The smell of honeysuckle filled the air, and he saw the twinkling of lights from the city beyond through the branches of the bush that concealed the doorway. It was a pleasant change from the rather musty odor in the tunnel.
They stepped out and closed the door behind them, Jenya sheathing her blade once more. She flattened her dress with her hands, then turned and parted the branches, peering out and seeing that no one was around. With a curt nod of his head she led him away from the castle, disappearing quickly into the town beyond.
"Captain! Riders approach!"
Captain Wainworth grunted an assent, then turned and walked outside to stare down the road. From the top of the hill on the outskirts of Norvell Wood where the outpost stood, he could clearly see a group of riders approaching on black horses.
He frowned, counting them quickly. It was difficult to tell at this distance, but there looked to be no more than a dozen or so.
He stood there waiting as they rode closer, waiting for more to appear. No one did, which only made his frown deepen. He had had mixed feelings when he had heard that Variman Vashey was coming to personally handle the little problem they had concerning Norvell Wood. On the one hand, he was a bit nervous. Variman was not known as a particularly generous man. And one of the reasons they might be sending him was because the Captain had failed to find the thieves causing all the trouble. On the other hand, he had never had the proper manpower with which to do that. He had been certain that once Variman arrived, that would change very quickly and they could clear up this little problem right away. The Captain had never met Variman Vashay, but he was well aware of the man's reputation. As the leader of the Imperial Knights, he was the highest ranking military man in the Kingdom. He was known throughout the land as the finest swordsman in all of Mandaria. Obviously the vagabonds hiding in Norvell Wood would be no match for him, and perhaps that was why he had such a small entourage. The problem was, however, that in order to remove the infestation that now plagued the wood they would need to find the rats first, and the Captain couldn't see how that would be done without a much larger group of people than that approaching.
Perhaps, the Captain thought optimistically, there were more on the way.
It didn't take long for the newcomers to reach the outpost. Variman, leading the way, looked down at the man standing there waiting to greet him, the look on his face of one who was not impressed at all.
The Captain took a step forward.
Variman lifted his head and slowly looked around. The outpost was on a small hill on the outskirts of the forest, just south of the main road. The forest stood quite plainly off to the north and east. Open grassland and farms could bee seen in the other directions.
"Does the wind commonly blow in this direction?" Variman asked.
"Umm, yessir," the Captain answered after a moment. The wind was blowing from the south, down from the low hills to the east of Galias. Captain Wainworth wondered why the man would ask such a question. "For the most part the wind always blows from this direction this time of year, and less commonly from the west as well. The forest to the north and east usually prevent the wind from being felt from those directions."
Variman nodded slowly.
"Very well," he said. "Bring what men you have and we will sniff out these dogs that are hiding in yonder wood."
Captain Wainworth nodded and did as he was told. They had been waiting for Variman to arrive, so it only took moments for the Captain to gather his men together. He didn't have many, less than two dozen. This was a peaceful area of the Kingdom, far from the boarders of Mandaria and other less civilized places. As a consequence not many soldiers were stationed here. With his soldiers mounted behind him, Wainworth rode up beside Variman. He wasn't anxious to question the man. Variman didn't look like someone who was particularly tolerant of questions from subordinates, but he had to know what the man had in mind.
"Are you planning on going after them right away?" he questioned.
Variman turned and spurred his horse forward. The Captain stayed beside him as both their men fell in line behind.
"No time like the present," Variman replied.
"It will be dark in only a couple of hours," the Captain pointed out. "We can't possibly search through the whole forest by nightfall, and searching after dark would be folly. Wouldn't it be wise to wait until the morning?"
"No it would not," Variman answered.
He did not elaborate, and the Captain found that reply far from satisfying.
"Did you bring any more men with you?" he questioned.
Variman frowned slightly.
"No I did not," he replied, the impatience with the Captain's questions plain in his voice.
Captain Wainworth fell silent, cowed by Variman's chilly tone. It didn't take them long to reach the forest. The outpost had been built to watch over it, after all, and the thin line of road that ran through it, though only the beginning of it could actually be seen from the fort itself. Variman halted just before they rode under the boughs of the first trees. He turned to look at the riders with him.
"All right, you know what to do."
The men with him nodded, and spread out to the left and right, forming a long line. Wainworth waited for Variman to give him orders for his own men, but no such order was issued. It seemed the Commander was going to send his men forward in a line, sweeping through the forest until they ran across those hiding inside. It was what the Captain had always wished to do, but he had never had enough men, and it was plain to him that Variman did not either, even with the help of the Captain's men, which, to his surprise, it seemed the Commander did not seem at all interested in requesting. As far as Captain Wainworth could see, the outlaws in the forest would have no trouble slipping around and eluding Variman's line which, with so few people, was much too short to prevent such a thing. In spite of the man's evident lack of interest in the Captain's opinion, he felt the need to speak.
"Sir, do you really think this is wise? It's much too close to dark and you have too few men to clear the forest. The rats hiding in the wood will have no trouble at all avoiding a small band such as this."
Variman turned and glared at him and the Captain lowered his head, but then lifted it again as he saw a flaring of light past the Commander. A fire had appeared at the feet of one of the men of the line Variman had sent forward. The man was stooping over the fire, fanning the flames with his hands. A moment later, the Captain saw other fires flaring up where the other men were.
"Commander, what are you doing?" Captain Wainworth said slowly.
"Isn't it obvious?" Variman questioned sharply. "Unlike you, I'm not going to waste time blundering through this wood looking for a needle in a haystack. The wood provides cover for these fools, gives them a home, makes them think they are safe."
Variman looked up. Ahead of him the fires were flaring brighter now, already eating eagerly into the dry greenery around them, spreading rapidly up into the trees as the wind fed them. Variman stared at the fires as they grew, a thin smile curling his lips.
"Take away the woods and they have no place to hide," he continued. "I'm going to burn Norvell Wood, Captain. I'm going to burn it all."