At length they arrived before a large keep that rose in the pale moonlight before them. Built from the light brown sandstone that was common to the area, the fortification stood on an island surrounded by a large moat. The walls of the keep were about half a bowshot from the shore in most places, except for the foot of the gate, where the narrows could be crossed by the now-raised drawbridge. Armed men could be seen walking the tall parapets. In one of the upper windows a light was visible.
"That's Morrinvale Keep." Karyn said. "It's supposed to be deserted. I'll wager that's where he's holed himself up."
The strange tracker was examining the ground. "The tracks merge here with a large body of marching men." she said. "I believe your assumption is correct."
The Bardmistress nodded. "It looks like we have our work cut out for us." she said.
Sammel studied the keep intently, his eyes finally fixing on the lighted window. "Well," he finally said. "I guess we know where Kieraan's resources went." He smiled sourly. "The question is, what do we do now? Should we go back and get help, or try to rescue Melyda now?" He detested the thought of leaving Melyda in Kieraan's hands any longer than was necessary, but even he admitted that trying to rescue her with so few people was a daunting task. Still, if anyone could do it, he'd bet this group could. He was willing enough to try.
"Well, the quicker we get to it, the less work it'll be." Brea muttered to herself, as she scanned the fortress, noting by shadows and sound the armed men ranging the walls. "Must be at least twenty or so, up there on the walls," she began softly. Then turning to the others, "and Saints-know *HOW* many inside." She sighed deeply, looking back at the moat and the stone walls of the Keep, inwardly kicking herself for not going back to the Hall for her bow and quiver. She glanced quickly over at Takayoshi, remembering the way he'd disappeared before her very eyes not all that long ago. Remembering too, the thirsty look in his dark eyes, and she knew they'd be going in soon. 'Too soon, to tell the truth.' she thought, although she knew full well she'd have had it no other way.
"This Kierran sure knows how 'keep' company, but seriously there is always a way in to almost anything," the night-clad ninja spoke up upon seeing the keep.
"The thing _not_ to do, is to barge right in without any plan. I take it, Karyn, you about this place?" the ninja continued, "What do you know about it, I mean, from a design and historical aspect? Besides, getting in is half the fun! Of course, once were in, the other half of the fun starts."
The ninja's smile might not have been seen, however the tone of his voice was a clear indication of his jovial anticipated joy.
"The problem is," Karyn said, "I'm afraid they'll try and move her while we make our way inside. Or if we slip up and notify the guards, they could slip her out before we could reach her. We need a diversion."
She turned to Regina, who had been standing nearby with an odd smile on her face.
"Your Majesty," Karyn said, curtseying perfectly, "may the humble Bards of Montfort beseech thy aid?"
The Queen of Havenwood laughed merrily, her voice like a clear bell. Taking a kerchif from her pocket she began dabbing at the makeup which she had used to darken her skin.
"What gave me away?" she asked, as her kerchif revealed her milk-white skin. "I thought I was giving quite a plausible performance."
"Indeed you were," Karyn said, her own voice shifting to the clear tones she reserved for lecturing or directing. "But you forgot to apply the makeup to your hands, Your Majesty. A little cold cream will help take the pigment off." She gestured to the monarch's smeared face. "That's 'Elwynn's Tan Number 2: A Product of Elwynn, INC.', am I right?"
"You are indeed." Sindella said, with another laugh. "My cousin's pharmaceutical skills are quite the rage in Havenwood."
Casting the handkerchief aside, the Queen took a ring from her pocket and placed it upon her right finger. She held the ring aloft for a moment. Presently a brilliant white flare shot from her hand and rose skyward, lighting up the night sky for miles. The flare slowly settled towards the ground, illuminating the Keep, before it landed with a hiss into the moat.
"There." Sindella said. "I have just signalled my escort. They should be here within the hour. We have enough people to surround the moat and keep anyone from trying to escape. Will that suffice?"
"My thanks, Your Majesty." Karyn said. "I hope that we will able to repay you...."
Her words were cut off by a strange sound which grew out of the evening sky. It began as a low hum, but gradually increased until it sounded for all the world like the drone of a huge swarm of bees. The Queen and the Bardmistress looked skyward.
Above their heads, just above the treetops, the square shape of a bright red flying carpet was hovering. Below it a huge crate dangled from a chain which somehow had been secured to the airborne rug. The sound, which now had reached near deafening proportions, was emanating from that selfsame carpet, and an Earthling would have recognized it as remarkably similar to the engine of a propeller driven aircraft.
The carpet and its cargo slowly descended until the crate hit the ground with a thump. Presently a familiar head, decorated by an equally familiar wide brimmed pointed blue hat, peeked over the side of the still hovering carpet.
"Well don't just stand there!" Elwynn Evindem cried, "Unhook me! I can't keep it steady forever!"
Karyn's gaze turned to the crate, which looked big enough to carry a war elephant. On the side, in bright blue letters, was stencilled: ELWYNN'S DO-IT-YOURSELF CASTLE SIEGE KIT A PRODUCT OF ELWYNN, INC. YOUR CHOICE FOR QUALITY MAGIC ITEMS [Takayoshi T.]
Slightly surprised at the turn of events, the ninja remarked, "Stranger stuff have happened!" He shrugged his shoulders and helped out as much as he can.
Sammel stood, a little openmouthed, watching the events unfold themselves. One of their group revealed to be royalty, her spectacular call for assistance, and now the amazing appearance of Elwynn. He suddenly burst into laughter, his first genuine laugh since Melyda went missing, and leapt forward to help with the crate. Once that was done, he whistled encouragingly for Ari and Khale, who'd been frightened into a nearby bush by the strange apparition in the sky. After he'd reassured them, he walked up to Sindella and bowed quickly but respectfully to her.
"I also wish to thank you, your Majesty. Melyda is a close friend of mine, and it means much to me that you would help to rescue her. Indeed," he turned to the others, "I want to thank all of you." He smiled wryly. "I must admit, the retrieval of that book doesn't mean much to me. But I know you would help me, help *us,* even without it." He laughed again as he watched Elwynn land her strange carpet. "If Kieraan's watching, he's certainly getting an eyeful now."
Brea found she could do nothing more than stare. Between the realization that she was among royalty, and the strange contraption that Elwynn had brought, she was completely in awe. After a moment or two, her curiosity finally won over however, and she moved closer to the crate for a better look.
The Queen's summons was answered promptly. First to arrive were two patrols of mounted Rangers; these were followed by Sindella's main escort, which consisted of thirty knights and their support staff. A body of infantry followed; these had been assigned to protect the wagons of that the Queen was bringing in to the city. Eventually the Keep was surrounded by an armed force of nearly 200 troops, and Elwynn sent word back to Montfort for more assistance from the Hall and the Tower Guard. It seemed a great many troops to be commited to a kidnapping, but neither Elwynn nor her cousin were ones to do things by half-measures.
This was not lost on a certain member of the Queen's staff. The Queen's dowager aunt, the Lady Victoria, an elderly elf with greying black hair, was at this moment lecturing the two youthful leaders on the importance of propriety in such matters.
"This is quite improper, yes it is!" the wise old matron said, "You two should know better. Laying siege to a castle without the leave of the King of Bleckner is against all propriety. And running about in disguise like a common thief.....You should know better than that, your Majesty. And you, Highness....buzzing about on that silly carpet like a common wizard....how undignified! What would you do if you fell? I'm only glad that my two sisters sailed for the west before they lived to see their daughters behave so.....incorrectly!"
The two cousins stood quietly side by side, their eyes averted slightly to the ground. It was not the first time they had been on the receiving end of one of Lady Victoria's lectures, and no doubt it would not be the last. Finally, the Queen spoke up.
"If you are quite finished, Lady," Sindella said in quiet, repentant tones, "We would like to go and have our siege now. Could you, maybe, find everyone something to eat? We're hungry."
"Something to eat? Well I can certainly do that, young lady!" The matron stomped off to the supply wagons, continuing her tyrade to the air. "Something to eat! Didn't I always say an army runs on its stomach? Didn't I? Something to eat indeed! Well they'll get something to eat all right! We of the older generation know how to feed an army! Why I recall during the Battle of Hastings....."
Elwynn stifled a giggle as her tottering old aunt walked away. The Queen sighed with relief. "Well that's over with," she said. "Do you think she'll ever forget this?"
"When have you ever known her to forget anything?" Elwynn said.
The Queen nodded ruefully. "How long to get the siege equipment set up?"
"Maybe another hour." Elwynn replied. "But we can start phase one whenever you're ready. I left Karyn Silversheen in charge of the extraction team. They're out reconnoitering now."
"Good. Let me know when they're ready. Hopefully we can wrap this up before Auntie can finish brewing that awful thousand mile stew of hers."
Elwynn shuddered. "You know, we could fill that stuff in clay pots and sling it over the walls. That might hasten their surrender and save our stomachs at the same time."
"I'm seriously considering it."
Karyn Silversheen was leading her party around the moat, checking the fortifications with the help of a special spyglass that Elwynn had given her. The party had been lent horses for the purpose, and behind the Bardmistress rode Sammel, Takayoshi, and Brea. Thaddeus the Troll, by virtue of his long stride, had elected to stay on foot, having no trouble at all keeping up with the mounted party.
"I don't see any gaps or hidden doors in the walls." she said, "At least not from here. There's still the problem of the moat. The Rangers say it's about ten feet deep in most places, and about thirty yards wide. Any suggestions, people?"
"Of course, there could be an underground escape tunnel," the ninja commented, "Assuming that there is, then we could find it. Thus, sneaking in. Another way, is to explore the moat, and try to find any draining tunnels or ... sewage tunnels coming in or out of the keep. I just hope, Kierran hasn't put any dangerous fish into the moat or filled it up with something that isn't water? If none of these we find, then just let me think about it more."
"I doubt we could find a tunnel in time for it to be of any use," Karyn said. "But we might follow the line of the moat and see what there is to see. Does anyone have any other suggestions?"
"None for now, no. Though if it does come to exploring the moat, I know just the man to do it." Sammel pulled out a pencil and a piece of paper and quickly scribbled a note and a crude map on it. Then he dismounted, knelt beside Khale, and carefully tied the note to her collar. Khale grimaced, and Sammel smiled and stroked her head.
"I know you hate playing messanger, Khale, but I need to keep Ari here. Now find Chaer, Khale. Find Chaer."
Khale dashed off. Sammel straightened up and answered the questioning looks of the others.
"Some wizard, about 200 years ago, decided to try to combine the best points of men and dolphins. Believe it or not, he succeeded; there's a race of them living in the southern oceans now. They usually keep themselves very much to themselves, but Chaer was different. He wanted adventure. It's much too long a story to tell you now, but eventually he joined up with me. If we do need that moat explored, he's definitely the best one to do it."
"Works for me," the oriental ninja commented about Sammel's plan to call "some wizard" , "However, just in case THAT fails...." Takayoshi then looked up at the size of the wall.
"In my former ninja clan, one of our requirements was for us to climb walls like a thief, but with out the aid of ropes. However, these walls do look a little smooth, but I need to get closer so I can inspect them." he paused, " Of course, that's it, Let me look in my bag here."
He opened up a small belt pouch that was underneath his night suit, "There they are!" He then proceded to take out some gloves that had small metal spikes sticking out of the palm of them.
"One of my old clansmen told me that we should never leave home without our nekode," the ninja then looked up at Karyn and Sammel, "Of course, these are another option. Hey, I've climbed walls into fortified areas when I had to 'terminate' people. However, I would like the other option because we can catch them off guard alot easier."
The Bardmistress sat in her saddle weighing the options for a moment. "Let's finish our recon first. I don't want to wait for very much longer, but we should try to get a good look at what we're dealing with." With that she spurred her horse and led her companions away. As they moved along the moat, Karyn kept her gaze fixed on the darkened keep. "Takayoshi, keep your eye out for a good place to climb. Sammel, how long will it take for your friend to arrive?"
"It shouldn't take too long," he replied. "I told him to join Elwynn; I thought that would be better than having him wander around looking for us. When Khale finds us, we'll know he's arrived."
By now they had neared the Queen's base camp, where Elwynn was setting up a strange device that looked like a long hollow tube on a stand. Looking along the length of the tube, the elf-maid aimed it carefully at an upward angle, in the direction of Kieraan's keep. After a moment's fiddling, she stood back and nodded in satisfaction. Moving to a large funnel shaped object which Karyn recongized as the sorceress' magical voice amplifier.
Standing in front of the amplifier, Elwynn cleared her throat and then cried out in a loud voice.
"FIRE IN THE HOLE!!!!"
Instantly a bright flare of energy burst out of the hollow tube and shot skyward, plummeting down to strike the ramparts of the keep. From other positions surrounding the castle other flares, presumably from other tubes, also emerged, arcing in brilliant flashes of color to strike the enemy stronghold.
But despite the spectacular effects of the bombardment, (and the obvious panic of the enemy guards on the walls,) Elwynn's flares seemed to do no damage at all. Unperturbed, the elf-maid stood and watch the bombardment, occasionally stopping to make some notes in a large book she held in her hands.
Sammel watched as the display of pyrotechnics flared and died against the castle's defenses. He stopped his horse as Ari reared up and placed her paws on the saddle, whining. "It's OK, Ari," he said soothingly, scratching her behind the ears. He glanced at the others. "Well, if nothing else, such displays might keep Kieraan distracted. That'll help when the time comes for us to slip in there."
The Bardmistress watched the explosive display with some interest, and then turned back to Sammel. "As I was saying; how long do you think it will take your friend to get here? I would prefer to make our move under cover of darkness, before the sun rises."
Sammel let out a loud "Oof!" as a dark streak sprang out from the bushes and leaped into his lap. "Not much longer, I'd say," he said to Karyn as he scratched Khale behind the ears.
A few moments later, a figure on horseback emerged from the darkness. He rode competantly but not gracefully, as if he was not especially comfortable in the saddle. As he came closer, the group could see that the horse was bridleless; the rider was evidently using his legs and shifts in his weight to direct it. He wore loose-fitting pants, but no shirt or boots. He was nearly hairless, and his skin had a smooth, almost rubbery, appearance. He dismounted, approached Sammel, and bowed quickly.
"You send Khale for Chaer, Chaer come. Khale so-fast cat, beat me here." Chaer grinned widely and reached up to tickle Khale under the chin. As he did so, the thick webbing between his fingers became more apparent. He spoke in a chattering, sing-song way, reminiscent of the chattering of dolphins. "What you need Chaer for?"
"Melyda's being held in that keep," Sammel answered. "We need to slip in there--somehow--and rescue her. We're hoping that there's some kind of aqueduct or sewer tunnel that opens into the moat--"
"And you need Chaer to look-see-find? Chaer do that--help rescue Melyda from so-bad man." Chaer immediately, and unselfconsciously, stripped off his pants, leaving him clad only in a tight-fitting belt to which a knife was attached. He then waded out a bit into the moat, took a quick, deep breath, and dove under the surface.
Sammel smiled at the others. "Chaer has the lung capacity and swimming power of a dolphin, and can see and navigate underwater almost as well. We shouldn't have to wait terribly long for his report."
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