“Come with me, Kay. We shall follow. Perhaps to defend our friend, perhaps to uncover some perfidy. Come on!”
Kay sat astounded, but then roused herself, tossed a few coins on the table to pay for their ales, then followed Ardith out the door.
“Hisst- there he goes,” Ardith exclaimed, looking down the alley at the departing back of Kreemon, his wolf-hound at his side.
They followed Kreemon cautiously, remaining concealed as often as possible. Ardith followed first while Kay hurried through back streets and alleys to the next intersection. There, she waited for Kreemon to pass. When he did, Ardith hurried to the next intersection and waited. Using this method, they kept from being detected, though they almost lost him a few times. Kreemon walked the streets for some time, heading in the general direction of the baron's keep, but clearly in no hurry. Several times, he paused to speak briefly with some stranger or other. Finally, he stopped at a blacksmith's shop and went in.
When Kay realized that Kreemon wasn't going to leave the shop right away, she moved up to where Ardith was lounging around a merchant's stall. The merchant was hanging around Ardith, exclaiming things like, “Wouldn't Your Grace look good in this tiara? Fitting to your high place, after all! Only twelve hundred aglars. Certainly a pittance for your highness!” When Kay caught up to Ardith, the priestess gave a smile and an excuse to the merchant, telling him his wares were fine, but she didn't want to buy. When they moved away from the stall, Kay informed Ardith there was no back way out of the smithy, so they waited for Kreemon to come out.
After fifteen minutes or so, Kreemon left the smithy, the scroll in hand. The parchment that Ardith had carried for so long, and which Kreemon himself had rescued from Korisca when they'd first met, was now dirty and damaged. Kay was shocked. “What in hell has he done to the scroll,” she asked Ardith.
Ardith stared a moment, then beat her brow with her fist. “I knew I should not let him take it!”
“Don't beat on yourself. He made a good argument after all. But what has he done? Why has he gone to a blacksmith's instead of to the Baron? And why has he let this happen to the scroll we carried so carefully?”
Ardith mused a moment, then responded. “I have no idea.”
Kay said with some vehemence, “I'm going to go and roast his ass for letting this happen, or maybe worse, _making_ this happen!”
“Wait, Kay,” Ardith answerd, holding her by the arm. “The damage has already been done… we cannot call it back. We MUST determine what this man, a trusted member of our company, or at least _formerly_ trusted, is going to do. As I said earlier, I am beginning to mistrust more of our company every day… oh, not you Kay.”
“I want to wring his neck for him, letting that happen to the message we have carried so far! Remember when Korisca –”
”– yes, of course. But stay your hand, my friend. Let us remain covert, and let us continue to follow Kreemon and attempt to determine what he plans, with regard to the scroll, with regard to the Baron, and more importantly, with regard to us.”
“Oh damn it all, let me part his buttocks with a well-placed arrow!”
Ardith laughed, then grabbed Kay's arm. “No. It's more important that we determine what Kreemon intends than to take out our anger at him. It is after all possible that he was simply careless; though like you, I don't believe that. Let us continue to follow him, as surreptitiously as we may.”
“Well, all right,” Kay said at last.
After leaving the blacksmith's shop, Kreemon wandered the streets for a couple of hours, with no apparent destination in mind, until the sun had set and lamps were lit in the windows. In one of the poorer corners of town, something seemed to catch his eye, and he stood at the door of a house, examining a spot on the upper right corner.
Once again, the women caught up with one another, this time Ardith coming to Kay's position.
“Now what is he doing?” Kay asked the air.
“I have no idea,” Ardith mused, “Except that there are religious groups that put signs on their doorways – talismans, so to speak, to keep away evil, or just to identify themselves.”
Kreemon knocked on the door, and, getting no answer, walked away. Ardith motioned for Kay to continue to follow while she examined the spot on the door.
There were many scratches and dents in the door, and it was difficult to figure out exactly which one had held Kreemon's attention, particularly in the uneven light. After a minute or so of careful examination, Ardith noticed that one of the dents didn't look quite natural. It was as if someone had carefully carved it so it would have meaning only to those who knew what to look for. The dent was roughly circular, with one half raised and the other recessed. In the center were a few lines which could have been some kind of polygon, or perhaps a star. The idea of a star stuck in Ardith's head, and she searched her memory for its significance. Yes, back in her training days, not so very long ago, she had been taught the symbols of the various less common religions, so she would recognize them if she ever encountered them. A wheel, split in half with a star as its hub, was the symbol of the Zahirans.
Ardith smiled. She had thought it would be something like that. In fact, having now seen it on this door, she wondered if there had been a similar symbol at the entrance to the blacksmith's shop. She did not wonder enough, however, to abandon the surveillance of Kreemon.
That surveillance shortly became considerably easier. Having knocked on the door of the Zahiran, Kreemon made his way straight toward the dilapidated outer walls of the baron's now moonlit castle. Once there, he had a brief conversation with the guard at the gate, after which the guard took two steps inside and pulled a rope. A high-pitched bell rang, and a few seconds later, a similar sound came from a position within the walls. Soon, a dozen guardsmen and a mounted knight in mail were outside the gate and surrounding Kreemon. They spoke with him for a few moments, and then the guards surrounded Kreemon and, the knight riding in the lead, took him inside.
Ardith and Kay explored the immediate area, looking for another way into the castle. They saw no common people entering or leaving, though servants no doubt got in somehow, and it would not be very difficult for a knight to obtain entrance. There seemed no way, however, for the two of them to get in without speaking to the gatekeeper, so they waited and watched.
After about fifteen minutes of waiting, the gatekeeper left his post and approached Ardith's position. Then, hearing a call from behind him, he ran back, and into the castle, leaving the gate unguarded.
“Ardith, look!” Kay said. “The guard relinquishes his post! Now is our chance! C'mon, let's into the castle!”
“But, once in, how do we find the Baron's audience chamber? Or, for that matter, if he is speaking to Kreemon there?”
“Do you want to stay here and vacillate between choices or take action?”
“Kay,” said Ardith, “you have been a student beyond compare. LET'S GO!”
The two girls ran past the gate and through the courtyard, though they could not be sure they hadn't been spotted as they hurried under the occupied guard towers. At the open castle gate, they saw that other posts had also been recently abandoned. The gate and a large, important looking door at the end of the entrance chamber were unguarded.
Two corridors extended from the elaborately decorated entrance chamber, one heading right and the other left. Sounds of running came from the left branch, and Ardith and Kay followed the noise down two long hallways. Just as they were about to turn into a third, they heard a soldier running nearby. They slipped behind two of the decorative suits of armor that seemed to line every wall of this castle, and waited for him to pass.
As the soldier came nearer, he slowed to a cautious walk, deliberately softening his footsteps until he was all but silent. He peeked down the third corridor, nodded, and set to work, right in front of the hiding girls. His hands moved quickly as he strapped a couple of soft pads to the bottoms of his boots and loaded a small crossbow. Then, facing the opposite wall, he reached out towards Kay. Before she could react, he had lowered the right arm of the suit of armor, causing a section of the wall he was looking at to swing gently in and out, hanging freely from a hinge. He reached underneath the false stones of the wall, lifted the secret door, and crawled inside. A moment after the wall had swung shut, the armor returned to its original position.
Kay stared open-mouthed at the spot where the soldier went into the wall. Ardith began to giggle, then composed herself. “I'm sorry. If you could see your face, Kay,” she whispered apologetically. “Clearly, something serious is going on here. What do you think, shall we follow the noise of commotion, or follow that… whatever he was?”
Kay still stared blankly.
“Kay! Come on! Were you able to see into that secret passage? Is it actually a passage or just a hidey-hole?”
“I couldn't see a thing in there. It was pitch dark,” Kay whispered, “but he was moving too fast for it to be just a hiding place. I think it's a passageway; and I don't want to go in there!”
“Probably a good call – we don't know the way,” Ardith answered. “There may be a maze in there.”
“Besides, it's really dark in there.”
“Oh, that's not a problem. I can give us light. But then we could be seen as well.”
Kay's eyes widened in astonishment. “You can do _what_?”
“I can produce light. But never mind. Let's check out the ruckus. But let's remember this place. Do you have something to mark this suit of armor?”
Kay found two copper coins and wedged them into a joint of the left arm so that they barely showed, but could be spotted by someone who knew where to look.
“Good! Let's go,” Ardith said, moving down the hall.
As soon as the two girls rounded the corner, they saw where the noise was coming from. A door was opened at the end of the right wall. Although things were quieter than before, they could still hear the nervous shuffling of feet inside the room. A knight in full armor, likely the same knight who had escorted Kreemon inside the castle, stood outside the doorway, looking in. His back was angled towards the girls, and he did not notice Ardith or Kay.
The knight was armed with a longsword, which was sheathed at his side. That was a relief. Since he had no ranged weapons, and since he was encumbered by so much metal, he would be easy to outrun if necessary. Ardith and Kay turned the corner and approached silently, trying to see what was going inside the now quiet room. When they were ten feet from the knight, and holding each breath for as long as they could stand it, they managed to get a partial view. The small, rectangular room was full of soldiers, most looking in the same direction as the knight. At the limit of the girls' vision, they saw that the floor was strewn with sheets of parchment and paper, some with large blotches of ink staining their surfaces.
Since they had not yet been noticed, they dared to approach closer. At the end of the room, behind a desk as disarrayed as the floor, a man with a sharp nose and narrow, beardless chin was behing held, the point of a dagger touching his neck. The man looked far more calm than he might have been in the situation.
Among the other quiet noises in the room, Ardith and Kay recognized the low growling of Kreemon's dog, Bork.
Kay whispered into Ardith's ear, “I'm agile. I can move quietly. Let me move forward to see what's going on.”
'Where is our Thief when we need her skills?' Ardith thought. Then she whispered back, “OK, but give me your bow and a few arrows – just in case.”
Kay hesitated, then agreed. “Sure you can use these?”
Ardith grinned. “At this range?”
Kay almost laughed, but then stifled herself. She merely nodded and handed over her bow and a handful of arrows. “Just in case,” she mouthed voicelessly. Then she snuck up to the knight, as silently as she could, to snatch a look at the rest of what was going on. Miraculously, or perhaps only due to the shuffling within the room, the knight was too distracted to hear Kay sneaking up on him.
Kay was within easy range of the knight's sword before she could see anything else. The person holding the knife was Kreemon, and the fine- featured man was secured with one arm. Kreemon's scarred face was flushed and damp with perspiration. His eyes darted about nervously, trying to notice everything in the room at once. The one place he did not look, however, was straight up. A rectangular section of the wall near the ceiling was being slid slowly open by a gloved hand. If the soldiers or knight noticed, they showed no sign.
Below the sliding panel, by Kreemon's side, Bork looked at Kay curiously. Kreemon followed the animal's gaze, and squinted his eyes at Kay. It was hard to tell whether he recognized her, hidden in the shadows as she was. “M'Lord?” he said. The knight and several of the guards turned to look.
It was nice to see Kay take a part here. I have to compliment you on your improving ability to play two characters at once.
Your Bill, Sir: Kay: 3dy for the ales, 2dy to mark the armor.