In which Ewan and Stoddard get to the heart of things
Ewan and Stoddard were the last to be selected and were marched in single file through the town. As they passed through the market place, Ewan stumbled forward, clutching at Stoddard to prevent himself from falling.
The rear guard was beside him in a trice. He yanked the nightranger to his feet before himself crumpling to the floor. Stoddard, momentarily bemused, rapidly cottoned on and between them, they dragged the guard under the nearest market stall. Business in the market continued, no one being willing either to betray fellow countrymen to the patrolling guards or to attract any unnecessary attention to himself.
Between the trestles, the two escapees hastily stripped the unconscious guard and Ewan rigged himself out in the uniform. The pathetic line of conscripts had disappeared when the pair emerged from their hiding place. Ewan slipped a couple of silver coins into the palm of the surprised stall-holder as they set off to reconnoitre.
Although the town was busy, the demeanour of those who went about their business there was subdued to say the least. Facial expressions everywhere were wary and watchful. Ewan was given a wide berth. This, he soon observed, was owing to the habit of his fellow guards of striking aside any who were not quick enough to get out of their way. Stoddard was looking particularly sour as he, too, noted this cavalier behaviour.
"Take heart, friend. It will not last for much longer," Ewan murmured, "if our mission prospers."
His companion nodded darkly and turned down a narrow alley. He led the way to a small inn. A blank sign board hung by one hook. Black paint was pealing off it. Stoddard explained that it had originally been called the 'King's Head', until King Kieran had shown himself in his true colours. Mistress Caitlin, having had the sign repainted in honour of the new king, took a paintbrush to it herself and obliterated the tyrant's likeness. It was now referred to as 'The Inn With No Name'.
Stoddard was Caitlin's brother, though it took him quite a while to convince her of that fact. She was agog to know how he returned to her in strange guise, and to hear what was afoot. Ewan was reluctant to divulge any more than was absolutely necessary, as much to protect the good lady as their mission.
Mistress Caitlin let it be known that her inn was, in fact, a safe house for those who opposed the present régime, and had seen the formation of a number of plots for the overthrow of Kieran and his evil minions. Sadly, none had met with success so far, but she lived in hope.
"Fret no longer, sister," Stoddard instructed her, "for your hopes are about to be answered. Soon, we shall see a new king upon the throne of Belsaria."
"Who?" she demanded, eyes alight. "Tell me who is this saviour?"
Stoddard opened his mouth, then noticed the heavy frown on Ewan's face.
"Yes, well, mayhap 'tis best you do not know yet," he temporized. "In truth, you will know soon enough!"
With that, she had to be satisfied. She was only too pleased, however, to be able to help out with their intelligence-seeking mission. The salient points to emerge - the results of previous failed missions - were the location of King Walden's private entrance and a further secret entrance which led to the heart of Castle Malleckay.
This was believed to have been built at Kieran's command. Precisely where it led to, Mistress Caitlin could not say. The old king's private entrance was at the north-east end of the town's wall where it abutted the Harlness and not far from the cave in which they had camped the night before.
There was only one guard, but it was a fearsome, goblinesque creature with strange abilities, including an uncanny knack of perceiving the presence of intruders. It had only been passed on one occasion, by the party that had come to grief somewhere inside the Castle. No, Caitlin didn't know how they'd done it, but at least it could be done.
Ewan produced charcoal and parchment, and wrote to the wizard telling him of the hidden portal and its guardian. He and Stoddard planned, he said, to investigate a way into the castle that day, and would meet the rest of the party by the portal at midnight - the gods willing!
His writing finished, he ran Valarien's magic crystal over the message, then went out into the alley. He tossed the crystal up into the air and watched in satisfaction as it skimmed eastwards and out of sight over the tumbledown houses in that quarter. He went back into the inn to collect Stoddard and the pair set off towards the castle.
Castle Malleckay dominated the town perched, as it was, on top of a granite boss projecting from the Snake Mountains. A stairway, cut into the rock, zigzagged across the steep cliff face from the parade ground at its foot to the castle at its summit. This provided the only access and was in regular use.
Ewan and Stoddard, as guard and prisoner, marched briskly across the parade ground and up the stairs. No one questioned their right to be there. Half way up, at a return in the stairway, was a refuge, also cut into the rock, in which ladies, the old and the infirm might stop and rest. Altering their pace so that no-one was facing them directly when they reached the refuge, the two slipped smartly inside.
The single room contained a narrow bed, a settle, several chairs, a table and a chest containing medical supplies. According to Mistress Caitlin, the chest was made in two parts, an outer shell, and an inner box that fitted so snugly as to look as though both pieces were one. The lid was hinged to the inner box.
Opening the chest, Ewan pressed two hidden catches. With Stoddard's help, he lifted out the lidded inner section and contents. It slid up smoothly and easily, lubricated by candle wax. In the darkness beneath was a square of blackness. Ewan lit a stub of candle and peered down the hole.
There were metal rungs on opposite walls, presumably to enable the user to have a balanced foothold while manipulating the inner box overhead. Extinguishing the candle he clambered down the shaft. It went down about ten feet. On solid ground again, Ewan relit his candle.
There was a short passage then an internal flight of steps. On the wall beside him, a torch hung in a bracket, ready for use. He called softly to Stoddard to join him. Up above, there was a faint squeak as the box slid back into place. A moment later, the old soldier joined him.
"Shall I light the torch, master Ewan?" Stoddard asked, reaching for it.
"No!" Ewan hissed sharply. "No, I think not."
He pointed to where the bracket was attached to the wall. There was a vertical slit above it which showed faint signs of wear. "I suspect that when the weight of the torch is removed, the bracket slides up the slit and somehow communicates to those above that they have visitors. Perhaps that's why the last scheme failed. We must be very careful. There may be other hazards."
The man nodded. It was a long claustrophobic climb up the steep steps. Ideas of having somehow ventured upon a demonic stairway that went on and on for ever were beginning to take root when the steps finally gave way to a narrow landing, which ended in wooden panelling. The nightranger examined it minutely before blowing out the candle.
When his eyes had adjusted to the dark, he could just make out a faint outline of pale daylight around a small door, about five feet high by two feet wide. He pressed his ear to the crack and listened hard for several minutes. There was no sound. Cautiously, he pulled back the bolt and pushed the door open a little.
In front of him, was a trestle table upon which was a number of dishes of rich victuals and carafes of wine. Immediately beyond it was the back of what was probably an ornamental screen. Beyond that was a large chamber. All was quiet.
Ewan stepped out of the secret door set in the wainscotting that ran around the vaulted chamber. Up above, the walls were decorated with faded hangings depicting the great deeds of former kings. At one end, on a low daïs, was a plain but solid wooden throne. High above it, a tall pointed window with ornate tracery flooded the chamber with light.
The centre of the room was occupied by a long heavy table surrounded by a dozen chairs - thirteen in all, counting the throne. A number of scrolls and sheets of parchment lay on the table indicating that this was probably a council chamber. Ewan cast his eye over the nearest sheet and felt a chill. It was not a language he understood, but he could recognize a demonic script when he saw it.
Footsteps approached. Ewan reached the sanctuary of the screen as two flunkeys entered the chamber bearing heavy trays of food. They disappeared behind one of a number of other screens along the side walls. Having left the food, they departed silently. Ewan wondered if they were as mindless as Stoddard had been before his controller had been destroyed.
It seemed like a good idea to remain behind the screen, as it seemed likely that where there was food, soon there would be people. They didn't have long to wait. The double doors opposite the throne were flung wide by two flunkeys - the same or two more? The expressionless faces all looked alike.
A dozen men, splendidly attired, entered in pairs and took their places at the table. They were followed by a slender young man with a pale face and dark hair. He mounted the throne.
This must be Kai's evil brother, Kieran. There was a faint resemblance, but while the elder brother's face possessed strong character, Kieran's betrayed nothing of what went on behind it. It did not look inherently cruel. Blank, almost, Ewan thought from the brief glimpse he permitted himself.
The flunkeys withdrew, closing the doors behind them and business began. It was a sickening review of tyranny and oppression, with accounts being rendered, higher rates of taxes set and punishments considered. This latter seemed to give particular pleasure and was indulged in at length. The listeners behind the screen endured it in a state somewhere between tedium and nausea. Then they heard something that did interest them.
"What news of the meddlesome wizard and his companions, Lord Nerglath?"
"I regret, Lord Abralek, that our spies have still found no trace of them. They were last heard of in the vicinity of the Great Fen. It is entirely possible that they may have perished therein."
"Possible, but highly improbable. I have encountered him before - and still he lives. That in itself shows that he is dangerous and must not be under-estimated."
"I have sent out our armies in strength, both to the north and the south of the Great Fen and the hounds of Gusayn have been set to hunt them. They cannot penetrate such defences, my Lord."
Ewan grinned mirthlessly.
"You had better be right, Nerglath, or our dear Lord, Glasyalabolas, will have you roasting on his spit for half eternity and feed your innards to the maggots of Chamos. Speaking of which, I think it is time we adjourned, if the Lord King would be good enough to ring for the lackeys "
This seemed to be the time to leave for the listeners who withdrew to the landing, silently closing the door behind them. The return journey was remarkably trouble free and it was not long before the two scouts were back at the Inn With No Name, tucking into Mistress Caitlin's appetizing fare. As they rounded off a fine repast with a superb spicy apple pie, they were approached by a tousle-haired youth who introduced himself as Brinsley.
"I 'eard you was plannin' a inserrection," he said in low conspiratorial tones.
Ewan scowled. That was all they needed - an overgrown, over-enthusiastic schoolboy. And how many more of them were hanging around, awaiting the word to rise up and destroy the oppressors? Stoddard caught the scowl and looked guilty.
"I seem to be more of a hindrance than a help," he muttered to himself.
Brinsley rushed on, blithely ignoring him.
"It's me brother, y'see. 'Im and some friends tried to do what you're doin'. They was goin' to let in a 'ole army 'o lads from the farms around through that door what you're fixin' to use."
Ewan ground his teeth. Was there nothing about this mission that wasn't generally known? As well write their plans in three foot high letters on the town wall! Brinsley, impervious to all signs of disapproval, ploughed on.
"Well, they'd 'eard about the ol' gargoyle what guards the door, acos Yates's dad took a wrong turnin' onct when 'e was drunk. Even allowin' for Yates's dad exaggeratin' - on account of 'e bein' drunk - 'e sounded like one tough fella, so Derwin - that's me brother - got ten of 'em, an' thought as that should be enough, 'owever big the bugger were.
"It would've been, too, only 'e 'ad some sort o' magic ring. They'd got 'im down, an' was knockin' seven bells out of 'im, when 'e twitches this ring, an' all of sudden, the alley's full o' this green smoke, an' 'Things' - gobliny Things - with crool weapons. Derwin was the only one as got away. 'E legged it sharpish as soon as them Things appeared. 'E were goin' to leave town the next mornin', but the guards caught 'im.
"Anyway, if you gets into the castle, I'd be right obliged to you if you'd keep an eye out for 'im. That is, I don't know if 'e's alive or dead, but we lives in 'ope, me ol' ma an' me... "
The silence lingered.
"That's all you want?" Ewan finally enquired cautiously.
"You're not wanting to join our - er - insurrection?"
"Lawks, no! I'm not brave like you. I seen what 'appens to 'eroes. I likes to do me bit - warnin' you about what you're up agin, like - but I don't know anythin' about fightin'."
"Thanks. We'll watch out for your brother. Just one thing - "
"Don't mention any of this to anyone else. Right?"
The youth, having said his piece, wished them good luck and left the inn. Ewan considered the new information. The guardian sounded less formidable. He was obviously of large - even very large - build and had keen senses. He also had a device that called up creatures from the nether regions. Well, none of those would do him any good against a well placed dart.
During the afternoon, Stoddard, following his sister's directions, guided Ewan along the safest route to the hidden door. This was at the end of a cul-de-sac off a short alley that was itself a dead end. Merkin Makers' Lane was now untenanted save for rats, bats and cockroaches.
The two marched smartly past the end of it but there was no obvious sign of the guardian. Ewan spent the better part of an hour familiarizing himself with the geography around Merkin Makers' Lane before returning to the inn to prepare for the night's activities. Nothing must be left to chance which meant plenty of contingency planning.
Stoddard was amazed at the number of weapons the nightranger managed to conceal about his person - and puzzled by quite a few of them. Ewan did not enlighten him. Having assured himself that all was in perfect working order, he restored his mini-arsenal to its many and varied hiding places and the pair set off into the night.