Chapter One - Hiding in Plain Sight

 

 “Ah, Morlak. My favourite town in all the nine Baronies. Remote, but full of lucrative opportunities. The people there are so … corruptible. I’ve yet to find a place that’s easier to get into, and even easier to get out of. I just need to make sure I have the necessary funds to grease all those palms along the way.”

Nissus, Unknown

A thick blanket of glimmering whiteness covered the trees of Dirkvale Forest, the evergreen pines bowing under the weight of the snow on their branches. Winter had arrived, bringing with it cold, icy days and even colder nights. The larger forest animals had already begun to hibernate, tucked away in their sheltered dens and caves. Only the smaller rodents and other mammals still ventured outside, driven by the need to seek sustenance.

A rabbit emerged slowly from its underground warren, supple nose twitching as it searched for signs of danger. After a moment’s hesitation, it hopped forwards into the clearing, leaving the safety of its lair behind. Most of the forest floor was buried under a layer of frost, but the centre of the clearing was open to the sky and a few weak rays of afternoon sunlight had melted enough of the hard surface to reveal a single withered shrub, a splash of dark green against the pristine white.

The rabbit sprang closer, drawn to what would be its first meal in days. Then it happened. A glitter of grey on white. Something cold and metallic around its neck. Panicking, it tried to escape, pulling the noose even tighter as it fought to break free but to no avail. With a final shudder, the rabbit kicked and lay still.

Jeffson stepped calmly from behind a large pine tree on the far side of the clearing. The balding manservant was tightly wrapped up in a motley array of fur, including a sheepskin cap to protect the top of his head. He stamped his feet in an effort to return some warmth to his stiff limbs and made his way over to the snare, pulling off a mitten to check the rabbit’s pulse. He had spotted the warren the night before and set up the wire trap in the hope of supplementing the dwindling winter stores hoarded by the Knights of Kriari.

He liked it out here alone in the cold. People bothered him. Well, most people. Lord Reed was held slightly higher in his esteem than many others. The man had a good core, as his mother used to say, and nothing was more important than that. An internal moral compass that always seemed to guide him towards the most honourable choice; be it defending a town under siege from a horde of greylings or leading an expedition down into the depths of one of the Pits to rescue a group of prisoners.

Honourable, but not always very perceptive. For example, the last time Jeffson had seen Reed, he had been holding his own against an unknown number of assailants firing arrows at him from higher ground. Far from the most logical choice of action, despite it enabling Jeffson and Baroness Syrella del Morlak to escape.

Nevertheless … a good core. The manservant wasn’t sure what sort of core he himself had, but it was definitely not good.

He sighed and brushed a sheet of snow off a nearby fallen log. Leaving the unfortunate rabbit to its fate, he sat down wearily, taking the weight off his tired legs. He removed his other mitten and dug around inside his furs until his grasping fingers caught hold of a slim book bound in red leather. The words ‘Morlak, a political conundrum’ were stamped in gold across the cover. Jeffson leafed through the well-worn pages until he found what he was looking for, and began to read.

The crack of a breaking twig somewhere in the undergrowth behind him made him spin around, eyes searching. A lithe female figure appeared on the edge of the clearing, her thin body bundled up in animal furs. Long, braided black hair hung down her back almost as far as her hips. The paleness of her skin was offset by two startling mismatched eyes: one green, one blue.

“Baroness,” said Jeffson, snapping the book shut and rising to his feet. He bowed smoothly.

Syrella del Morlak inclined her head in recognition and gave a small smile. Her lips had a slight blueish tinge from the cold.

“Jeffson. Why is it that every time I go in search of you, I find you further and further from the temple of Kriari? It’s almost as if you are trying to run away!”

“Not quite, my Lady. Just looking for a bit of solitude. I am not used to all this … mingling.”

Syrella caught sight of the dead rabbit and her nose wrinkled in disgust. “I find that quite hard to believe. What of your years working for Listus del Arelium? If memory serves, the keep is home to a great host of servants and their families, not counting the dozens of guests the Baron received every month.”

Jeffson gave a thin smile of his own. “Ah, yes, the servant’s paradox. Present, yet invisible. Privy to a hundred conversations a day without ever uttering a word. Do you remember the face of the man who served you wine every evening, my Lady?”

“Well, no, but it has been many weeks since—”

“Perhaps, yet I would surmise this man has been serving you for years and years. And his features remain a blur. We have probably exchanged more words in the last few minutes than you have spoken to him during your entire tenure as Baroness.”

Jeffson took a deep lungful of crisp, wintry air. “Solitude and society are not incompatible, my Lady,” he said. “It was one of the many things that led me to this line of work in the first place. Hiding in plain sight.” He bent over the snare and removed the metal wire from around the animal’s neck.

Syrella coughed uncomfortably. “Well, let us hope you will not need to mingle for much longer. I came to tell you that Vohanen has returned. He may have found Reed.”

The temple of Kriari was hidden deep in the heart of Dirkvale, a fortified wooden network of buildings constructed on a raised area of land that gave it a commanding view of the surrounding terrain. Two concentric palisades ringed the temple; one at the bottom of the hill, dotted with watchtowers, and a second, smaller one surrounding the summit. The foundations had been laid by Kriari himself several hundred years ago, some time before his unexplained disappearance.

Jeffson and Syrella arrived at the base of the first stockade, their fur boots glistening with melted snow. A huge wooden gate blocked the way forwards, its tightly roped logs coated with pine tar and covered with tanned animal pelts. Two square towers bordered the gate, topped with burning braziers.

A Knight of Kriari glowered down at them from one of the towers. He was wearing half-plate armour and a black fur mantle stippled with frost. Two silver rings pierced each eyebrow and across his back hung a rectangular metal-banded shield.

“Krelbe!” shouted Syrella, her breath turning to mist in the cold air. “Were you not already on watch yesterday? Lose at cards again?”

The dour-faced knight muttered something unintelligible and disappeared from sight. They heard boots clumping on the rungs of a ladder and, moments later, the big gate trundled open.

“Hurry up,” Krelbe growled, giving Syrella a dark look. “He’s waiting for you.”

“Vohanen?”

The knight nodded. “Aye. First time he’s been back in weeks. Rode his horse half to death coming here.” He gestured up the hill towards the temple. “You’ll find him in the Conclave Hall with the others.”

“Thank you, Sir Knight,” Jeffson replied. “If you would be so kind as to deal with this?” He pressed the dead rabbit into Krelbe’s hands and turned away, oblivious to the angry retort forming on the other man’s lips.

The path wound up a steep incline and through another barred gate into the inner compound. A cluster of wooden outbuildings encircled a larger, rectangular stone structure with a thatched roof and a reinforced door. Two fur-clad guards waved them inside.

A crackling fire filled a circular pit in the centre of the hall, banishing the cold. Jeffson was immediately hit by a wave of warm air. He removed his close-fitting fur cap and mittens as he moved closer to the fire. A set of benches had been placed in a rough semi-circle around the pit, and these were occupied by a dozen Knights of Kriari. Opposite them stood Vohanen, his hands stretched out, palms facing the flames.

The older knight had aged ten years in the last few weeks. His braided corn-coloured beard was scraggly and unwashed. Dark patches ringed hollow, bloodshot eyes. He had lost weight, the skin of his cheeks and jaw sagging slightly, giving him a drawn, cadaveric look. Jeffson met the man’s gaze and saw something hard and bitter buried there. Anger. Anger and hatred caused by insufferable grief.

Vohanen had lost his eldest son, Avor, less than a month ago, cut down by a greyling claw as they had fought to rescue a group of prisoners from the depths of the Morlakian Pit. Avor had died so that others could escape, holding off their pursuers long enough to allow them to flee the underground tunnels, which were about to be flooded by the icy-cold waters of Terris Lake. It was a good death; a warrior’s death. And yet, Vohanen still believed it was all his fault.

Jeffson was well aware of the stages of grief. The denial, the anger, the bargaining, the depression …. There was no miraculous cure for such a terrible thing. Only the passage of time would eventually blunt the pain and, even then, it would never go away. Jeffson knew this because he was still recovering from his own gut-wrenching loss, an aching scar on his soul that haunted him despite the passing years, a horrendous memory from another life. With a shudder, he pushed the dark thoughts from his mind and focused his attention on Vohanen.

“We found the bodies,” the knight was saying. “Still lying where they fell, over a week later. It looked like Reed and the others had tried to take the fight to the enemy. They failed.”

Jeffson glanced across at Syrella. The Baroness was chewing her lower lip nervously.

“I’m still not sure who fired those black-feathered arrows,” Vohanen continued. “But they were extremely competent fighters. Over a dozen of our own men dead, and we couldn’t find any trace of their attackers. The corpses bore wounds consistent with a long, sharp-edged blade, probably a sword of some sort, albeit wielded with considerable force: one of the bodies had been cut nearly in half.” He sighed and rubbed his tired eyes with his thumbs. “I must also regretfully inform you, my Lady, that we found the body of Quinne, your guard captain.”

Syrella nodded as if expecting this. “And Merad … I mean, Sir Reed?”

Vohanen shook his head. “No, thank the Twelve. We spent a few hours searching. No more bodies, only tracks leading south, barely hidden. A group of horses, most likely. It was as if the enemy didn’t think they would be followed, or didn’t care. We gave the dead a decent burial and pursued.”

One of the knights listening proffered a tankard of ale, and Vohanen accepted wordlessly.

“The path south was difficult. The cold was beginning to set in and with it the first of the winter snow. Not much, but enough to obscure the tracks. We strayed off-course a couple of times. In fact, if it hadn’t been for wily old Taleck over there, we might have lost them altogether.” He raised his tankard in salute to a grey-bearded knight sitting close to the fire, his right ear a mass of scar tissue. Taleck returned the gesture with his own ale.

“On the third day, we found the remains of a campsite. A burnt-out fire and some old animal skins. Enough to confirm that we were going the right way. Oh, and we also found this.”

He dug deep into his padded tunic and drew out something small and metallic that glinted in the firelight. Jeffson leant forwards and saw it was a clasp shaped like a snarling wolf’s head.

“We kept on heading south, and it soon became clear what their final destination would be. They were going to Morlak.”

Syrella flinched visibly at hearing the name of her capital. Vohanen caught her eye.

“I’m sorry to say that nothing had changed there, my Lady,” he said. “The doors to the inner keep were still shut tight. We managed to make it into the outer town, but the place was half-deserted; it appears that visitors are being turned away or forced to leave. And those that remain … a bunch of brigands and cutthroats for the most part. There’s no one to keep the peace, you see? The knights we had garrisoned there were thrown out, and the town guard are holed up beyond the inner wall, close to the keep.”

He paused and took a long drink of ale, wiping the froth from his unkempt beard.

“We did see something, though. Taleck and I bribed one of the few remaining guards on duty, who got us up onto the lower ramparts. From there, we had a good view of the inner keep and our former garrison. There was a new flag flying from the roof of the old barracks. A black motif on a field of white. The silhouettes of two identical faces. Twins.”

This last revelation was greeted with angry murmurs from the assembled Knights of Kriari. Jeffson and Syrella looked at each other in confusion.

“Sir Knight,” said the Baroness loudly. “I am afraid you must enlighten us. This motif of which you speak means nothing to us.”

 “Aye, and well it shouldn’t, my Lady, as we had thought never to see it again. It is the sign of the Order of Mithuna, Third of the Twelve.”

“Another of the Knightly Orders? I still don’t understand. Why would they side with the imposter now residing in Morlak keep? Have they not sworn to protect the nine Baronies and the will of the Council?”

Vohanen’s gaze flickered to a hunched, elderly figure sitting apart from the others, his weathered face covered in scars. The man nodded almost imperceptibly.

“You are right, my Lady. All of our Orders swore such an oath. And then, sixty years ago, some of us broke that oath. It was a dark time; many were lost on both sides. We call it the Schism. The dissident factions were all but eliminated, the Order of Mithuna among them. But we were apparently not thorough enough. Somehow they have survived and managed to rebuild.”

“I see,” said Syrella icily, her eyes flashing dangerously. “And when exactly were you going to make your Baroness privy to this information?” She turned to the old, scarred knight. “I know you, Sir Bjornvor, you have been first master of this temple since before I was born. I saw you renew your oath to my father by cutting open your palm and swearing on your own blood. Did it not cross your mind to tell him then?”

The temple master cleared his throat. “My apologies, my Lady, but I did tell him,” he said in a low, scratchy voice. “We discussed the Schism many times. I confess I thought he would have told you all of this himself. I do not know why he chose not to.”

“I do,” Syrella muttered angrily to herself. Her relationship with her father had always been strained at best and had only grown worse in his twilight years. She was his greatest disappointment: born a girl when he had hoped for a boy, refusing to marry when he had yearned for a son-in-law, uninterested in producing an heir when he had argued time and again the importance of continuing the bloodline of del Morlak. They had still spoken often, right up until the day he died, but he had never managed to hide the regret in his eyes.

“I think that is a discussion for another day,” she said curtly. “Let us concentrate instead on what to do with this new-found knowledge. I think we can all agree that there is only one logical conclusion here: the Knights of Mithuna are responsible for the attempts on my life, the murder of my subjects, and the capture of Merad Reed. Even worse, they appear to be in league with the greylings.”

“Aye, that sounds like the sum of it,” said Vohanen. He found an empty spot on one of the benches. “Though doesn’t it seem a bit too easy? Why leave the bodies for us to find? Why not cover their tracks? Why fly the flag over our old garrison? It seems strange to be so careless after years of skulking in the shadows.”

Syrella frowned. “Either they are taunting us, or—”

“Or it’s a trap,” Jeffson interjected. “That is what I would do. Take something my opponent wanted, make sure they knew I’d taken it, and show them how to get it back. Easy.”

“And then?”

“Then all I’d have to do is wait, my Lady.”

“So, you’re telling me the only reason Reed is still alive is so that he can be used as bait?” said Vohanen, swirling the last few drops of ale around the bottom of his tankard before downing them with a flourish. “It matters not. There are close to one hundred knights here. We can ride to Morlak in force and lay siege to the keep. Restore the Baroness to her rightful place. Rescue Reed. Destroy the Knights of Mithuna. Finish what we started sixty years ago. Who is with me?”

Silence filled the hall. Bjornvor rose slowly to his feet.

“Attack the keep head-on?” he rasped. “Our losses would be high. How many of your brothers are you prepared to sacrifice to save one man?”

Vohanen’s face clouded with anger. “I gave my oath to this man, Master. I held his arm and promised him I would either save him from his fate or punish those responsible. It is an oath I intend to keep.”

“That is your choice. And all of us here respect that. But your fellow initiates have taken no such oaths. I will not tell them to throw their lives away on a whim.”

“And what of the Knights of Mithuna? Our greatest shame. Are they to be left to their machinations, free from reprisal? To go unpunished after all they have done? Where is your honour? Why I—”

Enough, boy!” thundered Bjornvor. He moved closer to the fire, the shadows from the flames cutting deep lines in his scarred visage. “Do not presume to talk about things you cannot understand. You describe the Schism like it is a fairy tale. I was there when the others betrayed us. I saw them stab us in the back; kill my brothers, my sisters, my friends. I remember how one of them cut into the flesh of my cheeks with a knife, laughing as the blood ran down my face. Do not lecture me on vengeance. I am sorry for your loss, Vohanen, sorrier than you can know, but that does not give you the right to question my honour or integrity. And if you do so again, I will have you flogged.”

Vohanen looked as if he had been slapped in the face. He stared wide-eyed at the temple master, his lips forming words he could not speak. “I … I am sorry,” he said finally. “That was not my intention. And you are right, attacking the keep would be a costly endeavour. But the Knights of Mithuna are plotting something, I am sure of it. What if they are massing to attack Dirkvale? Or Lostthorn? If a frontal assault is not possible, maybe there is some other way into the keep. My Lady, can you help us?”

“I … I wish I could,” Syrella said regretfully. “But my father always told me that the inner keep was impregnable.”

Jeffson felt an ice-cold chill run through his body. The familiar pain that he worked constantly to push aside fought its way back to the surface, smothering him. He gritted his teeth as memories of a past life assaulted him in waves, terrible flashes of events he had tried so hard to forget. Blood, death, and broken promises. And something else, something he had almost overlooked. His hand went to the leather-bound book secreted inside his coat pocket, the tips of his fingers touching the spine. His breathing slowed.

He could help them. But that would mean going back to Morlak. Back to the place that had caused him so much grief. Was he ready to re-open those old wounds?

A good core.

“My Lords,” he said, his voice calm and composed. “I know a way. I know how to get us into Morlak keep.”

 (c) Alex Robins 2021

 

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