Thieves of Estoria – 2

11 april 2017

Chapter 2

”No one shouts louder than a man who has something to hide”

The White Spears was a mercenary company from Ragamunde. Professionals at war who went wherever there was conflict and coin to pay for their services. The last time I had run into them things had ended badly, yet this time I feared it would only end with my head, neatly placed on a pike on the ramparts. The gate to the cage was unlocked and Albert and I found ourselves among the rest of our conscripted comrades. They watched us carefully, keeping their distance. I had decided to wait for nightfall, then I would find my things and get out of this damnable fortress before anyone realised who I was.

I spotted Sir Galmund speaking with one of the mercenaries, easily recognisable by their long white cloaks and the thick elaborate plate armor. The mercenary carried a long spear and a large round shield hung over his shoulder. A sword sat in the scabbard attached to his belt. As soon as he turned around I recognised who it was. Jeremyn Dricht, Captain of the White Spears. He still wore the same scowl he’d worn three years before like it had been permanently etched on his face. The eyepatch was new though. The strings that held it up ran around his bald head and were tied together at the back.

Most of the soldiers that walked the ramparts or patrolled the courtyard were Duke Ganelon’s men. If the entire company of the White Spears were at Castle Grimwold they were inside the keep or in the barracks. The heavy wooden doors swung open and a group walked out of the keep. I felt my knees buckle a bit as the group walked down the stairs to the courtyard. I tried to shrink down a bit lower and hide behind the backs of those in front of me. It was Lyssandra von Freiter. The woman of my nightmares. Her icy blue eyes swept across the faces of the assembled men. She had grown even taller since I had last laid eyes on her and could stand eye to eye with almost any man there. I guessed that she had packed on more muscle too, because of how easily she moved in the plate armor that she wore. Other than that little else had changed. She wore her hair the same way, two braids that framed her sharp, pale face and the rest of her blonde hair streamed down her back. Her pale blue cloak fluttered in the wind and the scabbard to her rapier clanked against the metal of her armor while she walked. More importantly, she still exuded the same impeccable confidence that made you want to kneel in her presence.
    
It was Jeremyn who spoke first. ”Men of Hedmark, Herzmark and Westfold. You are here because you have been chosen. Chosen to serve your Duke in the coming war.” He spoke loudly and clearly. Jeremyn was used to address many at the same time both on and off the battlefield. But while he spoke I watched Lyssandra. She stood behind him flanked by a pair of mercenaries that were clearly her bodyguards. Not that she’d ever need one. For a moment our eyes met while she scanned the crowd. I nearly shat myself. If she recognised me she gave no indication of it. As I wondered why, I suddenly realised that my face probably looked like a piece of ground beef and that was why she couldn’t recognise me.

”If your going to stand any chance of winning this war you all need to be trained by the best.” Jeremyn went on. “And the White Spears are the best of the best!” There was a sudden noise as the mercenaries stomped the ground with the butt of their spears. A few hundred of them had appeared suddenly from the towers and doors around the courtyard. My fellow recruits looked impressed. When I had met the White Spears last they had numbered five hundred, if these were all that were left the White Spears had definitely fallen on hard times. ”Starting tomorrow, you’re all going to be worked to the bone, so you can become proper soldiers and save the kingdom. So you had better get some rest while you can.”

Lyssandra suddenly stepped forward. ”Thank you Jeremyn.” She said and tapped him on the shoulder. I saw a small flicker of anger play across his face but wrote it down to her interrupting him. ”I am Lyssandra von Freiter and I lead the White Spears. Remember that while tomorrow you will begin the hard training to become soldiers, the people standing next to you right now will be your comrades in arms. You will fight together, bleed together and yes, even die together. So take the opportunity to get to know the people around you, whether you chose to come here willingly, or not.”
She looked at me again as she finished and I felt a chill run down my spine. Just like that, the speeches were finished and we were led away by Sir Galmund and his cronies.
    
I was in my bunk by the time I realised something important. I had been too hungry and tired to think about it previously, but after a simple dinner served in the barracks and a wash, my first decent one in a long time, I found myself too tired to sleep, or more like there was something gnawing at the back of my mind. Then I realised what it was. If Lyssandra was the leader of the White Spears then where was her father? Gustaf von Freiter had founded the company, there was no way he’d abandon it willingly. I hoped that he wasn’t dead and that he was retired, lying on a beach somewhere in Ragamunde. Tomorrow I would begin planning my escape. I had to get out before my bruises healed or I’d run the risk of being recognised. I fell asleep listening to the sound of Albert snoring above me.

They woke us before dawn. Two soldiers from the White Spears came into the barracks banging pot lids together, making as much noise as they could. We were quickly led outside and assigned our equipment, the rental of wich would naturally come out of our already meager pay. I noticed that the tabards and tunics were mostly old moth-eaten pieces and the chainmail was rusted and worn down, even the swords and spears were blunt and rusted. Duke Ganelon had apparently been raiding the Castle’s old armories. Like most of the recruits I skipped the chainmail and went without any armor, hoping that no one would notice. Then it was time for running in full gear along the third wall back and forth until they called a break for food. The rest of the day was spent doing drills with the instructors from the White Spears. Luckily, neither Lyssandra or Jeremyn were present. Most of the recruits seemed pretty worn out by the time they called us in for supper. I watched Albert. He was still smiling as he laughed and joked with the others. I hadn’t spoken with anyone since yesterday. No one knew who or what I was, yet it would have been clear to anyone watching the drills that I was no stranger to the martial arts.

I laid awake, waiting. I counted silently to myself to be sure that it was well after midnight before I slipped out of my bunk. A lot of the recruits had been dead on their feet when the lights went out, falling asleep immediately despite the meager comfort that the bedding offered. A few had stayed awake to play with themselves and then fallen asleep. One or two had been crying over the families that they missed, sniveling alone in the darkness. With practised steps I crossed the floor and stopped to listen by the door. There was a guard stationed outside. I knew the door would be both locked and guarded, it would be more surprising if it wasn’t. I ran up the far wall and pushed off it up to the rafters. I hung a moment and listened. The only audible sounds were snoring and the occasional cough. Then I moved along the rafters until I reached the upper window. I made the tight fit through and found myself outside, no one the wiser. I climbed onto the roof and snuck across the wooden shingles, watching carefully for patrolling guards. From there I made my way up to the wall. I had memorised the routes I’d seen during the day and stealthily made my way across and into the keep courtyard.
    
My first priority was getting my things back, the second was making it to the southernmost wall and out of Estoria. In a series of short sprints I reached the keep. I had no idea where my vest had been taken but I knew precisely who to ask. I waited for a guard wearing the green tabard of Duke Ganelon to pass before entering the keep through the kitchen door. I cautiously held my breath while I waited for my eyes to adjust to the dark interior. The only one who’d noticed my passage was a black cat who raised her head in my direction as I passed. I gave her a quick pet and she yawned in surprise at the sudden contact. Her green eyes continued to follow me around the room.

Every keep has ways for the servants to get around quickly and they all lead back to the kitchen. I went up the nearest staircase and followed it as high as it would go. I soon found myself on a floor that looked a lot nicer than the ones below, many of whom were still uninhabited or in the process of being cleared out. I followed the corridor, using the carpet to muffle my soft footsteps until I found a pair of rooms that faced each other, one had a mercenary standing guard outside it, the other was guarded by one of Duke Ganelon’s men. I watched them from around the corner before stepping back and climbing out an open window. I realised suddenly how high up I was as I clambered up to the roof. A fall at this height would end alot worse than with a few broken bones, I was risking my very life this high up. I smiled and enjoyed the brisk wind in my hair as I snuck across the roof and then in complete silence dropped down onto the balcony of the room guarded by Duke Ganelon’s man. I carefully opened the balcony door and stole my way inside. Sir Galmund was a heavy sleeper. His snores seemed like they’d be enough to wake the dead. I moved in and quietly searched around the room.

Stuffed into the bottom of his clothes’ chest I found what I was looking for. I removed my vest and shouldercloth. With practised hands I tied on my vest and drew up the cloth to cover the lower half of my face. The shouldercloth is a garment favored by the common folk of Aselkopper. It drapes around the shoulders like a cape, fastened at the front. Yet it folds around the throat, leaving plenty of cloth to pull over one’s mouth and nose. I was overjoyed to have my things back.

A familiar sense of triumph came over me as I felt the familiar bags and pouches. I even had my purse back. I was about to leave when I paused for a moment to watch Sir Galmund sleep. The covers were down to his waist and his hairy, sweaty body rose and fell in time to his earthshaking snores. He sounded like a grunting boar. The man had taken the most important thing in my life. The only thing in Mundi that was mine and no one elses and stuffed it into his clothes’ chest. I felt the anger rise inside me like a brooding thunderstorm. Then I took a breath and let the anger go.
    
I left through the balcony door and used the bannister to climb back onto the roof. It was still several hours before dawn and I had plenty of time before I had to be gone. I saw the tempting sight of the highest tower of Castle Grimwold rise beside me. It was only a moment before the idea turned into action. I took out the three metal hooks that, when assembled became a formidable grappling hook, and tossed it up to the tower’s parapet.

The three prongs caught on the first try. I leapt out and felt the roof fall away under me as I swung across the air. My feet lightly touched against the tower’s wall and I quickly scrambled up the black rope.

Ebonthread is thin, light and supposedly unbreakable. I don’t know if it is that strong, but my own rope has been touched by both knives, axes and even set on fire once. It is quite literally the lifeline of a thief of the Hastakoppir thieves guild and rare enough to be worth it’s weight in jewels. More importantly, it was the only thing setting me apart from a homeless vagabond.

I had soon reached the parapet and collected my grappling hook. A few moments later I sat at the very top of Castle Grimwold, one leg wrapped around the flagpole. The wind lightly buffed me to and fro as it swept down from the north. I could see the entire castle and the pass laid out before me. I smiled and took a deep breath.

Then I realised that something was wrong. I looked north but there was nothing but darkness as far as I could see. Which, on a night like this when the moon was covered by clouds was not very far, but I still got the sense that there was something out there. There was only silence except for the wind, but I could smell it. Somewhere out there an army had made camp. I thought about it. It could be Duke Ganelon’s army but they would have lit fires and there was no need for them to keep quiet. It made no sense yet there was definetly the smell of thousands of men and horses drifting down from the north.

I knew that it wasn’t my war. I had resisted joining it. Violently so. But I thought about it as I sat up there. About Albert and his numerous children. About the innkeeper, his wife and son. But mostly, mostly I thought about Lyssandra. Leaving now would be easy, sliding down the Ebonthread like a spider and dissapearing to the south. Yet I soon found myself on the other balcony. Outside the room guarded by a member of the White Spears. I tried the door. It was locked, so with practised skill I picked the lock and confidently snuck inside. I realised that something was wrong as soon as I saw the empty bed.
    

There was a sudden sense of shock as she grabbed me from behind. She wrapped her arm around my neck and squeezed down so hard that I couldn’t make a sound.
”Did you really think I wouldn’t recognise you?” She whispered almost lovingly in my ear. It made my hair stand on it’s ends despite the situation. ”I have dreamt about killing you for so long that your face is burned into my memory.” I was starting to lose consciousness. I always figured that if there was someone in particular that would want to kill me it would have to be Lyssandra. I could escape ofcourse. My arms were free and I had any number of things I could do to get her to release me. I chose not to. I think we both knew that if she truly wanted me dead she would have run me through with her sword the moment she saw me. She probably knew that I could get loose too, her nickname for me had always been ’Slippery Bastard’ after all. Instead I tapped her arm and raised two fingers in supplication like we were children wrestling. ”You… Give up?” Her grip loosened a little. I tried to nod but her arm was in the way. It took her half a second to push me up against the wall and place the tip of her sword at my throat. I was suddenly not so sure that she had decided not to kill me.

She had taken off her armor but still wore her gambeson despite the late hour. She had clearly been waiting for me most of the night. As soon as I moved my mouth she interrupted. ”You will not speak.” She pressed the tip of her sword harder against my throat to make sure I understood. I nodded. I had never known that her cold eyes cold be filled with so much hate. ”You are a treacherous snake and I ought to skin you alive and make a pair of boots out of you.” The way she called me a ’treacherous snake’ made me miss ’slippery bastard’. She lifted the point of her sword, indicating the bruises on my face. ”You got caught.” Her expression softened just a little. ”Sir Galmund do that?” I nodded. ”You’ve lost your touch.” She said venomously. ”The treacherous snake I knew would never let the likes of Sir Piggy pin him down.” I didn’t know wether to be proud or ashamed. Probably both. ”Well it seems you got your… Bag of tricks back.” Lyssandra cocked her head and lowered her sword to my throat again. ”So the question then becomes, why are you still here?” She eyed me suspiciously. ”You’re not here to apologise are you? Because we both know what your words are worth…”

I shook my head. She responded by stabbing me in the shoulder. Had she actually wanted me to apologise? I wondered. I bit my lip and kept quiet.
”Well speak then. What is so damned important that I have to suffer your presence?”
I looked cautiously at her. She poked my shoulder again in the exact same spot. ”Don’t be an idiot, start talking.”
”There are people out there.” I said while rubbing my sore shoulder. The shouldercloth hung around my neck, having fallen down sometime during the struggle.
She looked at me like I had just told her that there were leaves on trees.
“I mean, there is an army outside.”
Her only answer was to raise her sword again.
”Wait, no, there is an army outside the walls. Waiting.”
She eyed me suspiciously. ”You’re lying.” She said, as if every word out of my mouth was a natural lie.
”I’m not lying.”
”Then you’ve seen them?”
I shook my head.
”Did you hear an army then?”
Again I admitted that I had not.
”I could smell them.”

She gave that look again, like I had told her that water was wet.
”Look, you can tell an army to keep quiet and you can tell them to not light fires but unless you can keep them downwind the entire time, that many people and horses are going to stink.” Lyssandra looked like she was trying to match up what I had said with the things she had heard.
”How many?” She asked.
”Thousands. Five, maybe more.”
”That’s impossible. Our scouts would have warned us.” I thought she said it more to herself than me. I shrugged.
”Have you talked to the scouts? Or sent them out yourself?” She gave me a sudden look like she’d realised something important. At that moment there was a sudden knock on the door. The moment she turned her back I slipped out to the balcony to hide.
”Who’s there?” Lyssandra asked.
”Captain Jeremyn, commander.” The guard answered. Lyssandra looked around the room to assure herself that I wasn’t visible before sending him in. ”Tell him to come in.”

Jeremyn immediately entered the room.
”My lady, I apologise for disturbing you this late.” He said.
”It’s not ’my lady’, it’s ’commander’.” She reminded him while he closed the door behind him. ”Well?”
”There has not been any progress on the ballistae. Whoever took those machines apart wanted to make sure that they wouldn’t be easily assembled again.” I heard the clanking of his armor as he walked past the balcony door.
”So you’ve come to my room in the middle of the night to tell me that there is nothing to report?” Lyssandra said dryly.
”No, there was something else I wanted to discuss. Apparently one of the new ’recruits’ that Sir Galmund brought wore a vest. Just like the one your ’friend’ wore three years ago.” He stopped close to where I guessed that Lyssandra was standing. His voice lowered. ”It might be better if this person were to… ’Disappear’ before things start to go missing.” I could feel Lyssandra’s eyes on me through the wall.
”Believe me, I know.” She said. ”But… Don’t do anything until I find out more.” I guessed that Jeremyn was nodding.
”And with that, I bid you goodnight.” He walked towards the door.
”Wait.” Lyssandra said. Jeremyn stopped and turned expectantly. ”Have the scouts returned yet? It’s been two days already since they were supposed to come back.”
”No. But they sent a message. Apparently they were hunting a great deer and lost track of the days. I’m sure they will return tomorrow.” He left the room before Lyssandra could ask any more questions. I slipped back inside. She was standing by the table, leaning against her knuckles. For a moment it looked like she had the weight of the world on her shoulders.
”What will you do?” I asked expectedly. She turned and looked at me with an almost accusatory glare.
”Prepare for a siege.”
”And Jeremyn?” I waited patiently for her answer.
”I will deal with him. You. You are going to stay out of it.” Her face remained stoic but I knew Lyssandra was hurting. Jeremyn was like an uncle to her.
”What can I do to help?” I asked. She seemed surprised, like she had expected me to be gone already.
”Find me the missing parts for the ballistae.” She drew a deep sigh. ”It seems that treacherous snakes are all I have to rely on now.” I wanted to talk more with her. Tell her about the past and what had happened. I wanted to know where her father was and what had happened to the company, but she was already pushing me out the balcony door. ”Return with those parts or not at all.”

I was already deep beneath the castle when the alarm rose. Finding my way into the tunnels had been easy enough, getting out of the castle now would prove alot harder. I guessed that it was around dawn on the surface, and that Lyssandra’s men had just realised that the hillsside was swarming with enemy soldiers. As to whom the army belonged there could be only one explanation. Prince Erland had moved first, and instead of attacking the Duke’s more experienced army at the capital he had sent his army here. It was a bold and ingenious move. By taking Castle Grimwold the Prince would not only control the path to the south but also preventing an army from being raised against him from the south.
    
I already knew that Jeremyn wasn’t dumb enough to hide the parts in his room, the armory, or any place that people would normally think to look. I had been looking around the kitchen stores when, because of a cook who had woken up early to start making the castle’s breakfast had come down into the cellars. I had hidden behind a few sacks of grain and discovered that there was a wooden hatch under them. As soon as the cook had left I had pushed them out of the way and found a ladder underneath the floor.

My Alvarran firebrand came to good use as I explored the tunnels. The ceiling was low and there was a constant dripping in the distance. I soon came upon one branching path after another yet it was surprisingly easy to find which way to go, because of the trail left in the dust. That was how I knew that I was on the right path. Someone had already been through the tunnels. I marked each intersection with a piece of red stone that I drew on the wall so I could easily find my way back. Then the trail suddenly stopped. I looked around the seemingly empty room from the corridor. My instincts told me that something was wrong so I leaned down. There was a tripwire spun across the doorway. I used a small pair of clippers from one of my pockets to cut the wire before entering. Doing so had probably saved my life. A sharp blade had been hung recently above the entrance. I whistled at Jeremyn’s ingenuity. The trap seemed out of place for a Jutenbader like Jeremyn to think of. The room was completely empty but my trained eyes soon spotted the narrow crack in the wall and with a soft push it revealed the bundle hidden behind the wall. The small sack contained a few cogs, a lever and some other parts I knew nothing about. But, I knew enough to know that these were the parts Lyssandra needed.
    
The castle was in a state of chaos as I came out of the tunnels. Arrows were raining down on the castle and my fellow recruits ran to and fro, carrying the wounded and delivering arrows and quarrels to the archers returning fire from the ramparts. If there had been any negotiations at all they had gone poorly. While I looked for Lyssandra I saw no sign of Albert among the soldiers in the courtyard. I took up a shield and used it to keep most of my outfit concealed from anyone who happened to look my way. Lyssandra was in the gatehouse, barking orders and directing the defenders from there together with Sir Galmund. The ramparts around the north wall were almost entirely covered by a wooden gallery but occasionaly an arrow or bolt would come flying through the narrow slits. She watched me expectantly as I handed her the bundle.
”The parts you requested.” I said, looking around warily for Jeremyn. Sir Galmund watched me with big eyes.
”You!” He said. I gave him a wink and left. I heard Lyssandra stopping him as he tried to follow me.

It wasn’t long until heavy, spear-sized bolts were beginning to land among Prince Erland’s soldiers, cutting through their ranks on the narrow mountain path to the triumphant cries of the defenders. I waited in the barracks for the fighting to be over for the day. I wanted no more part in the bloodshed. Even the act of retrieving the parts for the ballistae made me fell ill.
    
Once the bell rang, signaling that the enemy was retreating I went outside. Many arrows stood in the courtyard, like wooden flowers planted in the ground. Albert stood in a circle, surrounded by soldiers and recruits who looked at him admiringly.
”Big brother.” I said, giving him a curt nod.
Albert immediately pushed his way through the men and threw an arm around my shoulders. ”This is the man brothers, this is the one.”
The soldiers looked at me curiously.
”This is Feelixs! He found the parts for the killing machine!”
They nodded at me or just eyed me suspiciously. One or two smiled and shook my hand. The group soon split up as the soldiers went their separate ways.

”They seem to be quite fond of you.” I said as we stood on the ramparts, looking out over the assembled army. The entire mountainside seemed occupied by row after row of tents, cooking fires and wagons. There was frantic activity among the enemy as they built their own fortifications toward the north. Prince Erland’s men were cautious. They knew that we didn’t have the manpower to hurt them in the slightest. With Lyssandra’s mercenaries and what remained of Duke Ganelon’s men I guessed that we had about five hundred men left on our side. The question was, how long would it take until people started deserting to the south?

”I tipped over a few ladders.” Albert said. ”No big deal.” I looked over at him. He was smiling as always. But his eyes were a lot more tired than they were before. I drew a deep sigh. ”He’s not there you know.” He said suddenly. Albert looked at me and grinned. ”The Prince. Sent some clown in his place. Name of Sir Heinrich.” His expression suddenly changed as he watched me. ”If someone were to send him to his grave…” I shook my head.
”I’m not a killer Albert.”
”Sure, you’re not little brother, sure you’re not…” He said, sweeping his hand over the battlefield. The heavy bolts of the ballistae had remained where they landed, wether they had impaled soldiers or maimed them as they carved through their bodies. Albert tapped my shoulder and left with a dissapointed look in his eyes. I remained alone on the battlements for a time.

I realised suddenly that night had fallen. While there were guards patrolling the wall, watching the enemy camp, most of them ignored me. I guessed that it was Lyssandra’s doing. Her way of telling me to leave. I went down to the courtyard and started toward the south wall when the portcullis opened. The enemy had somehow made it around the mountain and through all three of the south walls. The alarm bell chimed and the weary soldiers began reaching for their weapons. The enemy warriors were already streaming into the courtyard before the portcullis was even fully raised. They were not Prince Erland’s soldiers. Instead of the blue uniforms of the Estorians to the north, these mercenaries wore crisp red surcoats and fought with heavy axes. I figured them for Jutenbaders but the dark made it difficult to tell. One of them reached me, swinging the axe at my head. I ducked and leapt up to kick him in the face. My foot connected with his jaw, knocking him unconscious. I might not carry a weapon, but that didn’t mean I couldn’t defend myself.

Duke Ganelon’s men were valiantly defending the courtyard but even the trained soldiers were falling like ripe wheat before a scythe. That was when the heavy keep doors swung open and Lyssandra came storming out at the head of her men. They quickly pushed the invaders back towards the gatehouse, fighting together with spears and interlocked shields. Lyssandra fought like a whirlwind, batting blows away with her small metal buckler and killing one man after another with the lightning-quick thrusts of her rapier. Despite their prowess, the White Spears wouldn’t hold out forever.

A plan of action formed in my head and I sprang forth. I made my way through the swirling melee like a sparrow flying through a forest and reached the ramparts. One after another my attackers got a taste of my knuckles or boots as I made my way to the gatehouse. I was barely through the gatehouse door before a sword was swung at my head. I felt the breeze as the sword singed my hair and struck the wall where my head had been. It was a mercenary from the White Spears who was trying to kill me.
I raised my hands. ”Wait. I’m friendly!” I called out to him.

The man said nothing and attacked again. He swung furiously at me again and again. I moved us closer to the mechanism that kept the portcullis from falling down. The sound of the battle underneath us was deafening. My attacker thrust toward my gut and I turned his blade. With a firm grip on his arm I twisted and felt the bone snap. As soon as his sword dropped to the floor I gave the lever a swift kick. The portcullis quickly fell down, separating the attackers in the courtyard from those outside. The man was already reaching for his sword with his uninjured arm but I gave him three quick blows to the face. The second one sent him uncounscious, the third was for good measure.

 I breathed deeply to catch my breath. With all the adrenaline pumping through my body I had almost forgotten how long it had been since I last slept. I reached for the sword and shoved it into my belt. Whatever came next I knew I was going to need it.

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