Needle Ash – Chapter 15 “The Gambit,” part 2

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The boat rocked slightly as they drifted into part of the city where its shores became lined by stone retaining walls, creating small eddies. Michael stood on the prow, watching for guards and hoping they all reached the citadel before the sun rose.

Thokar was sitting down on a bench beside him, his cloak covering his ashen face, like all the other orcs. His old attire was gone, replaced by a gambeson and a coat of plates, similar to what Michael knew the citadel guard would wear. It wouldn’t fool anyone when they got close, but with his open helm on, it would fool someone at a glance. Further down the wide skiff-like boat, Langelo and Angelico pushed along with poles, guiding them through the slow current.

“There it is,” Michael said, as they rode around a bend in the river. The Citadel loomed before them, its walls leaping across the river to the other bank, suspending above the water by great tiers of masonry and stone arches. Turrets lined each bank, with many arrow slits, to defend any attempt to fill the river with earth and reach the outer walls.

“I see two men,” Mondal said softly. “They will see us.”

“We’ll just appear to be another cargo skiff, heading from the high country,” Michael said. “They won’t notice us pause beneath them, either.”

“What makes you so sure?” Baradict said. He was sitting below a burlap covering of the ship’s false cargo – boxes of empty wine bottles.

“It’s the end of the night shift following war,” Michael said. “It’s impossible to keep men attentive on guard duty after a victory. It’ll be worse when your job is to stand on a wall behind a parapet all night.”

They drifted closer, and the two men, but shadows, could be more clearly discerned, moving about aimlessly on the battlement, apparently oblivious to the cargo skiff below.

“Remind me to pass out demerits to those two after all this,” Guissali said.

“You going to go back to palace retainer?” Langelo whispered.

“I expect, once Michael is installed, I shall,” Guissali said.

“My friend,” Michael said. “These men’s inattentiveness is not only expected, but desired. You would assign punishment for them doing what you want them to be doing?”

“Aye, sir. It’s the principle of duty.”

“Well than I shall pardon them. And sack them, as you have a point,” Michael said. “Stay quiet now.”

They moved slowly under the center of three massive stone arches spanning the river, and the late night deepened around them. Thokar spoke a soft word, and a crystal set into his staff began emitting a cool, blue light, enough to see the archway that surrounded them, the stone mossy where the water lapped against it, the walls covered with too many years’ worth of creepers to see much of the masonry at all.

“Here,” Michael said. Langelo and Angelico stuck out their poles and the boat pushed up against a bank below the water line. “There is a ledge here,” Michael said. He stepped out into the water, his boots resting on something just below the surface. The others soon followed, save for Angelico and Langelo, who held the skiff steady.

“What time do you have, Angelico?” Michael said, withdrawing a watch from his pocket, simple and unadorned, yet a precious marvel. Angelico withdrew his own.

“I have five O’Clock.”

“Oy, it’s going to be a long wait,” said Baradict.

“You asked not to be left behind this time,” Harpa said.

“Besides, I thought you like sitting around,” Nit said.

“You’ll be waiting around for your skull to heal, you keep your trap moving like that,” Baradict growled back.

“Silence,” Thokar said. Nit growled in response.

Langelo handed over a few bundles of weapons and equipment, then hopped off the skiff. Angelico waved and set off.

“Hold that light here,” Michael said. Thokar jostled with the others on the narrow ledge to get closer to Michael. He held up his staff, and Michael began searching through the vines covering the stone, looking for something. “Ah, here it is. Do you have that pry bar?”

“Aye,” said Aarne, a large man, clearly of northern blood judging by his light hair and eyes. He brought forward a steel rod, some two spans long. Michael set it into place between two stones. Together they pushed, but nothing happened.

“It hasn’t been opened in a while, I should think since I was a lad. Harpa, give me a hand.”

Harpa obliged, and with a great effort, the stone began to grind and slide. A doorway emerged, black behind the tangle of wet creepers. Michael drew his sword and began cutting away some of the vines. Soon Aarne joined him.

“Careful,” Michal said. “Don’t cut away everything or it will be apparent there is a door here. Leave the hanging ones for sure.” With a few more cuts there was enough space for a man to step through the vines.“Nobody remembers this doorway is here.I only found it by chance when I was a boy. I believe that when it was built it was used either as a possible escape route in the event of a siege, or another way of getting fresh water. Of course, now we have the river supplying the fountains directly, so it became forgotten.”

Thokar stepped in and raised his staff. There was a narrow circular staircase going up. Baradict took out a small oil lamp, and Thokar lit it with a spell. After that Thokar held his staff at the door, lighting the initial steps. He allowed the men to pass by him and climb, single file and slightly hunched, carrying the bundles of weapons between them. He stepped inside with Michael, and Michael slid the door back shut again. There were iron brackets in place for a door bar, but there was no beam to place in them.

“Best hope nobody follows us,” Michael said.

Thokar turned his hand toward the door and said a strange word several times. “That will help, at least. I made the door heavier. It will wear off by the night, though.”

“Plenty of time.”

Michael walked up the narrow stairs, followed by Thokar, until they reached a cramped, dusty room, without window or feature, save for some rusty torch brackets hanging here and there. The rest of the men were clustered in it, unraveling the bundles of weapons.

“Not yet,” Michael said quietly. “The next chamber is a little tight. Keep your voices down if you can. We’re inside the outer wall of the span over the river.”

Led by Michael holding a small, dim lamp, they left the room and entered a corridor so narrow that several of the orcs had to slip along sideways, while Aarne, who was more than a head taller than Michael, hand to stoop and lurch along. They came to a tight spot, presumably a turret, where they had to inch through a curving path. The hallway shrank down to a low-ceilinged tunnel, and despite everything Michael could hear nervous grumbles behind him. Next came a narrow and steep stair, which they descended carefully, before entering a tunnel of rougher stone than the walls before, but wide enough that everyone could walk normally again.

“Almost there,” Michael whispered back.

They had entered a strange area, and doors opened off to either side, open hallways and small cells, but all empty or so long that one could not discern their ending. One of these Michael took abruptly, remembering the odd keystone in the arch above.

“Once I was lost in these tunnels,” Michael said. “I think they’re from the first castle built here, filled in for the most part when the citadel was constructed.”

Another turn through a door brought them to a dead end.

“Here we are,” Michael said. He stood on a small step and reached up. With some effort, something slid, and Michael pulled himself upward. Some men had to suppress groans; others, chuckles, as they saw where Michael had brought them.

“A mausoleum?” Nit said as his eyes adjusted to the low ceilinged, circular room. It was filled with narrowly spaces shelves, packed with artifacts, armor, and the remains of the dead.

“At least they don’t smell,” Baradict said, blowing dust off a pile of bones.

“What’s that?” Langelo said, pointing to a small, circular grate in the ceiling.opening in the ceiling.

“A vent,” Michael said. “When the dead decompose they create a large amount of gas.”

Thokar grumbled softly. “Not my favorite sort of hiding spot.”

“I thought you considered bodies mere empty shells,” Michael said.

“I do, but humans do not. They shower their dead with riches, which invites thievery, or personal effects, which invite… well, other things.”

“Relax. Nobody’s going to come down here. We’re below the undercroft for the Temple of Artifia. These tombs are thousands of years old, and only the high cleric himself can authorize someone to come down here.”

“I thought the old temple was on the other side of the city,” Guissali said.

“The old temple isn’t the oldest temple,” Michael said. “Chances are this one isn’t either. Our ancestors have built this city many times over.”

Thokar chuckled. “You speak a truth you yourself probably do not understand.” He looked around at the shelves of dead bodies, and lightly picked up a helm made of copper. “I wonder what these warriors saw when their spirits inhabited these bodies. Was it a verdant forest, or a bleak plain, or both of these at once.”

“It can’t be both,” Guissali said.

Thokar smiled. “Not anymore, but once, it could be.”

Mondal, who had been silent, spoke, “It was a strange land, without forest or grass, but of many rocks jutting from the earth, almost chaotically. That was after the return of the sun.”

“Return of the sun?” Nit said.

“I was born after the long years,” Mondal went on. “So I have no memory of them. But I traveled here once, when I was young. It was a strange land, so different from my home. Full of drakes and other beasts that did not need the fruits of the earth to go on living. The river, though… it was always here, but it has wandered.”

“All water wanders,” Thokar said.

“That it does,” Mondal said. “The wandering waters and mists of the primm, feeding all the souls of this plane… It is no surprise your ancestors buried their dead near the water. It is sacred, it is-”

“How long do we have to listen to this bugger prattle on?” Nit said.

“Just under twelve hours,” Michael said. “That is when Angelico and Julia will spring a summons from the high court on Johan. That will be the time when we will strike.”

“Dreamer, twelve hours,” Nit said.

“Why doesn’t he just have them all beheaded?” Baradict said quietly. “It’s what I’d do.”

“The High Court reserves the right to depose the king if he is unfit to rule, not that they often use that right. If the king were to kill them, he’s lose essentially his entire army, as every knight and vassal owes allegiance to their lord and fief before their king. He’ll have to attend if wants to maintain the keys to power. It is also advantageous to us because it will draw many of the citadel guard away, protecting the king instead of his apartments. So we must wait.”

“I think the elf would have some good stories, at least,” Guissali said. “Considering these tombs are almost certainly from the second dominion. He’s got to be… close on to eight thousand years old. Yes?”

“I never bothered to measure the time,” Mondal said. “Everything is so persistent in the schism, that realm you saw, Michael.”

Nit shrugged. “Eh, Thokar’s always got the best stories. If he didn’t live it, it seems like he knows whoever did.”

“It helps to read lots of books,” Thokar said.

“Well,” Michael said. “We have time if anyone does want to tell stories. And I hope you all brought a snack.”

“What about, eh…” Langelo said. “Where we going to… relieve ourselves?”

“I brought a bucket,” Baradict said. “Figured we’d chuck it into one of the covered tombs.”

“Desecrating a grave?” Guissali said.

“Ain’t nobody to be offended at it,” Baradict said. “Besides, by the next time somebody gets to it, it’ll all be dust or turned to rock.”

“You’re alright with this, Michael?”

Michael shrugged and smiled.

 

Michael checked his watch.

“Almost time?” Langelo said.

“Yes, almost,” Michael said, looking at his watch. “Are you nervous?”

“Yeah.”

“Good,” Thokar said. “Better to be on edge than over-calm.”

“Let’s go ahead, actually,” Michael said. “We should account for travel time. Get your weapons, and don’t leave anything you might need or want. We won’t be coming back this way. When the mission is done, we’re going to evacuate by running straight from the Queen’s apartments. At the end of that hallway, turn left. There’s a door to a room that’s against the outer walls of the keep.”

“Then we drop down the toilets, yeah,” Harpa said.

“You can drop down the toilet,” Michael said. “The rest of us will be going down the refuse chute, which will take you to a river inlet. Swim from there and we should find a boat waiting for us under the bridge. Or do whatever you can. If we get scattered, remember, straight to the end of the hallway, turn left-”

“Jump down the toilet,” said Nit. “Right.”

“Does everything have to be a joke with you orcs?” Guissali said.

“They’re just lightening the mood,” Baradict said. “If you don’t laugh, you’ll cry. So I choose to laugh. Besides, the toilet ain’t so bad. We’ll send Nit down first. He’s big enough he ought to scrape all the shit off the sides for us.”

Michael laughed in spite of himself. “Let’s go.” He walked to one end of the circular room and pulled on a large lever. The room unsealed, letting in a rush of stale air.

“Did that unlock the door?” Langelo said.

“Our ancestors were apparently afraid of burying somebody alive,” Michael said.

Michael stepped out and lead the way with his re-lit lamp. They walked slowly through a vast crypt, passing the doors of other sepulchres and free-standing tombs. Many had cut reliefs of the dead impressed upon their top, or on their doors, showing men somewhat different from the Artallans of modern disposition. The old faces were narrow, beardless, and gaunt, the hair long and straight.

Michael stepped down a short flight of stairs and reached another door. It was made of bronze, though its sheen was long gone, and the hinges creaked as it opened. They went down single file to a landing beside a rushing torrent of water. Small ledges existed on either side, and several men had to jump across to get all the equipment in. Michael lead them down the waterway for awhile.

“This is an inlet from the river that is captured for use in the citadel,” Michael said. “At the end of this run the water enters the grand fountains, but we won’t be going that far. Here.”

They reached a point in the tunnel where a hole opened in the ceiling, and Michael stopped them. “This is a port-hole for fetching water in the inner quarters. Servants will drop buckets down here to save themselves a trip all the way out to the outer wards for water.”

They got out a large, iron hook with three prongs. Inside one of the bundles were two boards, which they stretched over the water. Michael stood out on them and threw the hook up the hole. There was a collective flinch as they heard the iron hit the stone loudly, bounce around, then come plummeting back to land in the water. Michael retrieved the hook.

“Let me help you,” Thokar said. He inched out over the water by Michael, grumbling as the boards sagged under their combined weight. “Try again.”

Michael swung the hook around and released it. Thokar shot out a hand and there was a rush of air. The hook hit something harder and louder than before, but there was with the ringing of iron a great crunch. Thokar held aloft his staff, and Michael could see that the hook had burst through some sort of wood covering over the hole.

“Who first?” Michael said.

“I will go first,” Thokar said. “I can conceal, slightly, our position.”

Thokar climbed up the rope with ease, pulling hand over hand without bothering to wrap his feet at any point. At the top he pushed the covering aside and climbed out.

“There is nobody,” he said. “Come.”

Michael came up, followed by Guissali (who huffed loudly as he slowly climbed). Next came Harpa and Nit, who set themselves to hauling up the bundles of weapons. Aarne and the rest of the mercenaries came next, with Langelo climbing up last. They were all standing close to the hole, watching the the air around them seem to shimmer and distort the gallery they stood in.

“Alright,” Michael said, as they all began unpacking spears, crossbows, swords, and other impediments of death. “If all’s well Johan will be in the Main Foyer, defending his decision to marry the queen.”

Michael stood up and pointed down the hall. “Follow me to a fork. Both paths lead to the same place, so we’ll split up into the teams we decided on yesterday. Guissali will know the way from here as well. If the alarm is raised on one team, it will clear the path for the other to strike. If we both make it, our attack will be double.”

“Let’s hope,” Guissali said. “I want the odds in our favor.”

“We’ll be hedging our bets,” Michael said. “But yes, let’s hope.”

This post is part of a project to write and publish a book in a month, as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). If you enjoy this story, consider buying my other fantasy novel The Water of Awakening, of which this book is a sequel.

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