Disclaimer: There is some violence in this story. This chapter makes reference to a rape in the past. No details are provided, but it is an important plot point.
CHAPTER EIGHT: GIDEON CASTLE
The next night, Keen, Merlynn, Markisander and Lornon took their horses to the Lady's Temple to wait.
Jewels and Wraith set off for Gideon Castle to steal the scepter. Supposing they succeeded in doing this, they were to meet Lornon and the others at the temple, trusting that even if they were followed there, the King's guards would respect the law of sanctuary provided by the temple.
Gideon Castle was a large, imposing structure built atop a cliff-faced hill overlooking the river in the center of the city itself. Only one road, heavily fortified, led up the hill to the castle. The rest of the castle was guarded by sheer stone precipices and the castle walls themselves.
Jewels knew which castle rooms with windows overlooking the river front were likely to be unoccupied. The plan was for Wraith to scale the cliffs, open a window using her Talent, attach the grappling hooks and throw down a rope ladder for Jewels to climb up to join her. Jewels would then lead them to the scepter, opening the magic-keyed doors inside with her own name and touch. All of this, of course, had to be done without being detected by any of the guards patrolling the castle walls or the road.
It was a cloudy, damp night, so there was no moonlight, and the streets were deserted. They left their horse tethered in an unlikely alley well away from the castle. The torches lining the main ways hissed and flickered in the mist as they made their way to the river docks below the castle.
Two guards talked quietly in the gatehouse by the dock, but they paid little heed to Jewels and Wraith as they walked by, arm in arm, backpacks concealed by hooded cloaks which also protected them against the damp air. The small path along the river below the castle cliffs was a popular walk for young lovers when the river wasn't flooded.
When they were well out of site of the gatehouse they stopped and put down their packs.
Jewels looked up at the sheer cliffs disappearing into the darkness above. "Are you sure you can climb this?" she whispered doubtfully.
Wraith smiled. "It will be easy," she assured her companion. Indeed, such climbs were routine in Home, although there was still the problem of all that open space above and behind. At least the clouds hung low this night. With that blessing, she doubted she would have much difficulty with the climb at all. She was far more worried about whether or not Jewels would be able to climb the rope ladder, and whether or not the ladder was long enough and would hold. Because they had to conceal such a long length in a single pack, it had to be made of slender rope. Wraith just prayed that it, and its knots, would hold.
She smiled at Jewels and scampered up the cliff.
The climb was as simple as she'd anticipated, and she reached the high tower window in mere minutes. Opening the window proved to be more of a problem than getting to it. She used the Talent to open the latch on the other side, but she could not get the panes to open. She could not get a good grip from the outside to pull, and her Talent alone was not strong enough to force it open. Finally, she wrapped her hand in her cloak and punched through a pane of glass. The sound of shattering glass was deafening to her ears, but she heard no cries or calls from humans in response. After waiting a cautious moment, she reached inside and pulled the window open. She looked around to make sure the room was empty before climbing inside, but she need not have worried. The room was completely bare.
She attached the grappling hooks to the sill and let the ladder drop. Far below, Jewels caught it and began to climb. Wraith watched with more than a little trepidation as her half sister negotiated the cliff. Jewels' face was set with determination as she climbed, and Wraith noticed that she never once looked down. She was breathing heavily and a bead of sweat ran down her temple when she finally reached the top.
Jewels climbed through the window and breathed an exaggerated sigh of relief. "Well, my goodness, I n-never once dreamed I would c-climb those cliffs to break into the c-castle. The entire household would b-be stunned if they knew. They w-wouldn't know what to think," she grinned.
Wraith smiled as she pulled the ladder up and folded it back into her pack. "Where is the scepter kept?"
"Down the stairs... in the r-royal wings. M-most everyone should b-be asleep now; except for the royal g-guards. The kitchens m-may be up, but we shouldn't need to g-go near them from here. Come on," she said, opening the door to the stair landing. It was pitch dark, and Wraith wondered how the girl could see.
"You'll have to lead me," Jewels whispered. "I can't see a thing."
Wraith took her hand and led her down the winding stair. She gritted her teeth at how much noise the girl made when she moved. How could they hope to escape unnoticed when she made such a racket? Even her breathing was loud! But humans did not seem to be able to hear so well as blackelves, so perhaps that would compensate. She determined not to think about it lest she entirely lose her courage to finish the job.
At the bottom of the stair was another door. Wraith took the handle and tried to open it, but it held fast. "There is a door here," she said quietly. "I can't seem to open it."
"Have you undone the lock?"
"It must be magic sealed, then. Here, let me try." Jewels touched the door with her hand and whispered, "Elianna-Princess-Blackmace." She fumbled for the handle, then pushed it open slowly.
Despite her care, the hinges squealed, and the hairs on the back Wraith's neck stood straight on end. Oh, surely they would be caught! This was a hundred times worse than stealing from the humans in the small walled city near the rift! But yet again, no cries answered the noise, no voices or running footsteps. She took a deep breath.
Dim torchlight flickered in the hallway. "This way," Jewels whispered, pushing her way into the light. "Follow me."
Wraith followed Jewels obediently, her senses alert to any sign of humans, awake or asleep. They passed through two more magic sealed doors and down another flight of stairs before Wraith sensed that there was a human nearby, probably some distance down a side corridor just ahead. She smelled him first, then heard his breathing. But before she could warn Jewels, the girl slowed and turned to her, one finger across her lips. She pointed at the side corridor and gestured as if she were drawing a sword, then stood at attention. Wraith nodded, guessing that this was meant to tell her that it was a guard she sensed, and then Jewels tip-toed forward. She dashed across the corridor as quickly and quietly as she could, but Wraith cringed against the wall, expecting a shout at any instant. Surely the guard would have noticed! True, the torchlight was dim enough to human eyes, but she made so much noise!
When nothing happened, she opened her eyes. Jewels gestured at her impatiently from the other side.
Wraith drew a deep breath and slipped forward. The guard was standing at attention in front of a door quite some ways down the corridor. There was a torch in the wall just to one side. Wraith smiled; no wonder he did not see them; he was blinded by the torchlight.
Jewels grabbed her arm and pulled her down the hall. Finally, she stopped in front of an inconspicuous door, and nodded. "Elianna-Princess-Blackmace," she whispered, touching it. "It will be locked," she added, pointing to the keyhole above the handle.
Wraith stepped forward and used her talent.
When the locking mechanism clicked, Jewels grinned. "This should be it," she whispered as Wraith pushed the door open a crack and peered in. "Do you see it?"
Wraith shook her head. "I see robes on a stand, and a crown..."
"It must be there, then," Jewels said pushing the door open farther. "Come on."
As Wraith followed the girl in, she saw the scepter lying on a pedestal, half obscured from her view by the robes. The room was small and square, apparently used for the sole purpose of storing the Royal regalia. There was another closed door in the wall to the right.
"Where does that lead?" Wraith asked, nodding at the other door, moving quickly to the pedestal beside it.
"S-Slanger's q-quarters," Jewels whispered, then realized what Wraith was standing by. "Ooohhh, that's it! Quick, open the bag!"
Wraith pulled the bag from her back and held it open.
Jewels reached out to pick up the scepter, but before she could the door behind her exploded open.
"THIEVES!" a voice bellowed, and the air suddenly crackled with magical energy.
A sizzling bolt of fire hit Wraith squarely in the chest sending her flying against the far wall.
Jewels stepped back in fear as a tall, blonde figure stepped through the door, lightning crackling around his fingertips. He pointed at Jewels, but before the bolt exploded from his hand, Jewels picked up the nearest, heaviest object at hand and hit the wizard squarely over the head with it.
There was a tremendous flash of light and a hissing thunderclap, and when Wraith finally struggled back to her feet with the front of her tunic still smoking, the wizard was lying flat on his back in the doorway with a trickle of blood running down into his ear.
"Oh d-dear," Jewels said miserably looking at the object in her hands.
"Oh dear," Wraith echoed. Jewels was holding the scepter in her hands, and the large diamond at the top was glowing like a star.
"It c-can't be!" Jewels exclaimed, looking at Wraith desperately.
"It is!" Wraith said, fervently hoping the girl was not going to panic. "Quickly, put it in the bag. We must leave!"
As if to emphasize the point, they heard a shout out in the corridor.
"Through here!" Jewels said, stepping over the body of the wizard.
Wraith hesitated even as she followed. Something caught her eyes as she glanced at the wizard's body, something shiny around his neck. She stopped. He was wearing a gold chain with a white triangular pendant. The pendant was lying on his chest, and Wraith could clearly see the complicated design etched onto the pendant's face. It was a blackelf pattern, the same that many of the priests and priestesses wore. But before she had a chance to examine it further, Jewels tugged her down the corridor.
"Come on!" the girl hissed. Shouts were getting nearer, and they could hear doors slamming as guards searched for the source of the screams.
They ran down another short corridor past one open door leading to what was probably the wizard's private chamber, and another closed door that Jewels said led to the king's quarters. As Wraith ran past, she could hear running feet fast approaching on the other side. At the end of the corridor was a flight of narrow, circular stairs leading down yet another level. Doors opened and slammed closed behind them as they dashed down the slick stone steps. At the bottom, they ran through the kitchens, leaping servants sleeping on stones warmed by the kitchen fires.
"Where are we going?" Wraith panted as they hurried towards an entry on the other side.
"The Blackmace wings!" Jewels gasped. "The library is on the outside wall and father never keeps many guards inside!"
After another short corridor they charged up another flight of smooth, stone, circular stairs. Jewels put her hand on the door at the top. "Elianna-princess-Blackmace," she said in one hurried breath, then pushed it open.
They scurried down a hallway, up another flight of stairs and stopped at the third door on the outside wall.
Jewels flung open the door and stopped dead in her tracks. On the other side, his hand frozen in the process of reaching for the door handle was a tall, black haired gentleman with a neatly trimmed black beard dressed in a rich blue tunic and brown breeches. His hand flew to his sword hilt.
"Rodert, don't be a fool!" Jewels hissed.
He stepped back, green eyes flying wide in surprise. "Elianna?!"
Jewels grabbed Wraith's arm and pulled her into the room, closing the door behind them. "Well, who d-do you think?" she snapped, sounding very much like Keen on a bad day.
"I don't honestly know..." he said. "But certainly not you. The Duke told us you were dead and disowned! What in gods' names is going on?!"
"You wouldn't b-believe me if I told you," Jewels said and looked around wildly. She ran to one of the shelves and pulled down a heavy book. She tossed it at Wraith who barely caught it. "We'll take it, too," the girl said.
"What are you doing?" Rodert demanded, watching Wraith warily as she put the book in the bag.
"S-Stealing," Jewels answered calmly. "Father tried to d-drown me in the river, Rodert, as one of the King's precious Six. And I didn't much care for it. So I'm t-trying to do something about it!" She threw open one of the windows and waved Wraith over.
Wraith attached the grappling hooks on the sill and tossed down the rope ladder.
Jewels climbed into the window, grabbed the ladder, swung her legs out, and started down the outside wall. "Good b-bye Rodert. Wish me l-luck...I think I'll n-need it," she said as she disappeared.
Wraith followed, keeping an eye on him as he watched in stunned silence. Wraith was afraid he would try to free the hooks, but he waited until they reached the city-side rock bottom before detaching them and letting them fall. With a final puzzled look, he closed the window.
"Thank the Gods," Jewels whispered in a shaking voice. "He could just as easily have l-let us fall," she said.
"Who was it?" Wraith asked.
"My eldest brother. He h-hardly even knows me. Gods, I can't believe he let us go! But, oh, Wraith, he'll tell the King it was m-me for sure!"
Rodert opened the door at the sound of guards in the hallway. "What is it?" he asked the Captain.
"Thieves! Nearly killed Slanger and stole the royal scepter! Have you heard or seen anything, my Lord?"
"Not a thing," he lied smoothly. "They couldn't have come through here anyway, the doors are magic-keyed."
"Well, they got into the rest of the castle easily enough. I feel that I should still tell your father, sir, and search the rest of the wing."
"Of course," Rodert said. "Have you warned the outer guards? No? Then do so now. I'll tell father myself."
"Yes, sir," the captain said gratefully, and headed back down the hall.
Rodert found his father pouring over documents by candlelight in his bed chamber.
The Duke looked up when his son entered. "What is it Rodert? And what is all the shouting about? I haven't been sleeping well lately as it is..."
Rodert remained standing when his father motioned for him to sit.
The Duke looked at him, questioning. "Well?"
"I won't mince words with you, sir. Did you have Elianna executed for being one of Rukert's Six?"
The Duke put down the parchment he was reading. "How did you find out?" he asked, not bothering to deny it.
Rodert couldn't believe his ears. "Gods above... How could you?"
Duke Blackmace stood. Even in his sleeping robes he was an impressive man, tall and muscular. He gave his son a look that would have cowed a lesser man, but Rodert was too furious to notice. "I did what I felt I had to do at the time," the Duke said.
"What? Murder your own daughter?!"
"No!" the Duke bellowed, and Rodert was struck by the anguish in his voice. "Not my daughter! That's the whole point, don't you see?! She is NOT my daughter."
Rodert swallowed. "Don't you mean `was'?" he asked coldly.
The Duke turned away, and walked over to the window. "No, I have reason to believe she may still be alive."
"Still alive? How?"
"Let it suffice to say that she managed to escape the guards before they had a chance to kill her."
"And are you still hunting her? Does the King know?"
"Rukert knows nothing. And Slanger is not concerned. He does not believe a stuttering girl can be of any threat to anyone."
"Will you kill her if she's found?"
"The King leaves me little choice."
"Damn the King!" Rodert exclaimed.
The Duke turned back to his son. "Those words will get you hanged should the wrong ears hear them."
"I don't care," Rodert said. "Rukert is mad, father. It's time you did something about it. Slanger is running the kingdom, not the Blackmaces. Elianna is just one victim. Who will be next? Me? Or maybe young Elard? Slanger hates the lot of us -- how long will it be before we start to die of mysterious diseases?"
The Duke was silent for a moment. "He wouldn't dare."
"What would stop him?" Rodert asked. "Rukert is so afraid of a rebellion that he'll do anything to stay in power."
"There will be no rebellion."
"You sound so certain, and yet I fear you're wrong," Rodert said bitterly.
"What do you mean?" the Duke asked, catching his son's tone.
"The noise. The guards are searching the castle for two thieves."
Rodert nodded. "They nearly killed Slanger. And they stole the royal scepter..."
The Duke grasped the back of his chair. "The scepter? That could only mean one thing..."
"Gods above. Who is behind it, I wonder?"
Rodert hesitated a moment, considering whether or not to answer the rhetorical question. "Elianna and a Brengarian assassin," he finally answered.
The Duke gave him a stern look. "This is no joke, Rodert. If the scepter has indeed been stolen, you know as well as I what will inevitably follow."
"I'm not joking father. They came through the library. Elianna and an assassin. I helped them to escape."
Rodert repeated himself.
The Duke looked grim. "You fool! That's treason!"
Rodert smiled. "I know. However, if you betray Elianna, father, you will also betray me."
"Do you realize what you have done?!" the Duke exclaimed furiously.
Rodert nodded calmly. "Yes. I am forcing you to choose between your brother, the King, and your son, your heir. It is not an easy choice, I understand, but Rukert is insane, and if you do not deal with him he will soon be the death of us all."
Duke Blackmace realized that his son was deadly serious. "What makes you so certain I won't let you hang beside Elianna?! I have seven sons. One of them will be loyal to me."
Rodert stood his ground. "My brothers will side with me. I know. We've discussed it often enough of late."
"Consider your actions. Have you thought what will happen if I decide to go against the King? Where will that get me... get us... besides a hasty execution? Suppose a bastard steps forward to claim the throne, and there is a rebellion. If it fails, we die for supporting it. If it succeeds, do you think the new King will be foolish enough to let House Blackmace stand untouched? What if he determines to have the entire House executed?"
"Then we fight for our survival. But we'll fight knowing that we helped to carry out the gods' will."
"I'm not sure I believe in gods," the Duke said quietly. He ran strong fingers through his graying hair, thinking quickly. "Are you sure it was Elianna?"
"Impossible! The girl can hardly walk straight! She can't even talk straight! She trips over her own feet on the dance floor! How could she possibly steal the Royal Scepter?!"
Rodert grinned. "The Brengarian assassin. He needed Elianna to open the locks, of course, but he would do all the thieving. Nevertheless, I hardly recognized her. She was dressed in the most ridiculous outfit. It was practical for what she was doing, I suppose, but still... She climbed right out the window and down a rope ladder. I was certain she'd fall and break her neck, but she got down safely. They should have had plenty of time to escape, and with Slanger hurt, they may even be able to escape the city if they're careful..."
The Duke stared at the candle flame for many long moments. Finally, he sighed. "Well, we'd better go help with the search. Does anyone else know it was Elianna?"
"I don't know. Slanger may, if he recovers. I don't know how badly he's hurt, actually. The captain said `nearly killed'-- whatever that means. And the gods only know with a wizard."
"It's a shame they didn't make certain he was dead. It would have made things considerably much simpler. Leave me while I dress. I will personally see to it that the search goes well." He caught his son's eye, "or not..."
Rodert smiled, and bowed. "Thank you for your time, sir."
Duke Blackmace stretched. "I would be a poor father if I did not take the time to talk with my eldest son, infuriating and rash though he may sometimes be."
Rodert left to join the guards in the search. He was determined that Elianna would not be caught, or if she was, that it would be by him.
Jewels was concealed uncomfortably in a bush when Wraith reached the bottom of the castle wall. The city-side of the castle hill was steep and covered in trees and bushes. The backs of houses and other buildings hugged the base.
They slid down the steep incline, brambles tearing at their cloaks, until they hit level ground between two houses.
Wraith dashed forward into the street, Jewels close behind. She ran down the first street leading in the direction of their horse.
They hadn't gone a full block when a small dark shadow slid in front of them. "Imposter!" it hissed.
Wraith skidded to a halt and Jewels collided with her from behind, almost knocking her off her feet.
"Oh no!" Jewels gasped, realizing what was standing before them.
Wraith didn't need her half sister to tell her who he was. He was about her size, and he was dressed in a black outfit almost identical to the one she wore: a Brengarian assassin! He was holding a dagger in each hand.
Wraith shoved the bag into Jewels' hands and drew one of her own daggers. A horn blaring from the castle almost distracted her from noticing the twitch in the assassin's wrist as he flicked one of his daggers at her with lightning speed. She knocked the blade aside with the Talent at the last instant. It was a trick that Tnar, the Captain of the Queen's Guard and friend of her tutor, had taught her. He had practiced with her regularly until she could deflect daggers, crossbow bolts and shag darts without a second thought.
She didn't give him time to throw another. Tucking into a ball she threw herself forward in a bowling maneuver designed to attack opponents quickly while avoiding flights of darts flying overhead.
The assassin, however, was no shag, and despite the speed of the attack he leaped to one side, avoiding her attack as she rolled to her feet.
She came up standing just in time to dodge the second dagger. It hissed past her ear and clanked loudly against the wall of the shop behind her. With a flick of her wrist, she let fly her own dagger.
With speed she would have thought only possible of another blackelf, he leaned to one side and the blade flew harmlessly past and stuck point first, quivering, in a piece of scrap lumber leaning against the building at his back.
They both drew two more daggers and started to circle.
"Who are you?!" the assassin hissed.
Wraith didn't answer. The shouts from the castle were getting louder and more urgent, and she and Jewels had to get to the temple! She lunged forward trying to slice him, but he parried and spun to the side. She barely managed to dodge his counter thrust and used the Talent to knock the blade from his hands.
He feigned trying to catch it, then kicked her squarely in the stomach instead. She caught his foot on the rebound and twisted as hard as she could. He fell over sideways grunting in pain, and Jewels stepped forward and smashed him over the head with the board that still had Wraith's dagger in it. He went limp. Without a word they both turned and fled down the street for their lives.
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