In reality, someone like Leo was likely to stay single for a very long time, but that thought was the furthest from his mind at the moment. He hung, suspended from the mounting braces of an arched ceiling, waiting for a guard on patrol to pass beneath him. The man was taking his sweet time about it, though, and Leopold's arms were beginning to cramp. Despite the discomfort, he was not about to let go. It had taken too much to get this far for him to fail now.
After escaping from the horse trough, he had performed the relatively simple task of approaching the castle unseen. The outer gates, it seemed, were left open with only the inner doors shut. No guards around the outside of the entrances were to be found. It made sense in a way as this would just be redundant security. If no one could get inside the castle walls, they couldn't get into the keep.
Regardless of the lack of security around the keep's entrances, Leopold was not about to walk in the front door. He had no idea what was on the other side of the large wooden doors, nor did he wish to find out. Instead, he had plans to use a more dangerous, more physically demanding, yet more tenable approach. Once inside the inner gate, he climbed the inside of the gate arch until he could reach the spouts through which defenders could pour boiling oil on anyone attacking the inner gate. Searching with his fingers, he found a decent hand hold and gripped it, allowing his body to swing away from the wall. He found another protrusion with his other hand and slowly began to haul himself up the stone pipe. Once his feet were high enough, he braced himself as he had done in the latrine pipe and inched slowly up to the oil spout.
This approach had two advantages to other methods of approach. First, since he was inside the castle already, he was hidden from the guards outside, and had decreased his chances of being seen by a significant amount. Second, He theorized that the oil spouts ran to the third floor, and from the distance that he was having to climb, this seemed likely. In this manner, he would be able to bypass the second floor entirely.
Leopold stuck his head out of the oil spout and looked around the room. Near the outside wall, a large cauldron was suspended over a fireplace. It was set into a bracket that allowed it to swing freely. This coupled with a spout that matched up with the top of the oil pipe allowed for easy dispensation of the boiling liquid on attackers below. Leopold pulled himself out of the pipe and looked down the length of the room. The enclosure was about three times as long as the gate arch with pots every six feet or so. Leopold guessed that the pipes of many of the pots fed into the pipe that he had climbed, allowing one pot to pour oil while the others heated it. The entire set up was quick ingenious.
Leopold left the oil boiler room and headed toward the center of the keep where he assumed the stairs would be. He was rewarded in his belief after a quarter of an hour. A large, ornate stairwell spiraled upward through the floors. Leopold had taken a few moments to admire it before devising a way to get up it. Guards constantly patrolled it and stood guard at intervals, but that was of little hindrance to him. Essentially the stairwell was a gigantic cylinder cut out of the keep from the first floor to the fifth. All that he had to do was climb the outside of the stairs, avoiding guards as necessary. For anyone else, the task would have been daunting, but for Leopold it was child's play.
Using this method, he had easily scaled the stairs to the tower's fifth floor. He had counted on locating the prisoner being difficult, but this was also much easier than expected. Daniel had said that there was currently only one prisoner in Rajikline, so the locked and bolted door had to contain the target. Now all that remained was to wait for dawn to approach.
Leopold had waited patiently for the hours to tick by. He could not see the stars, nor was there even a window to look out of to determine the color of the sky, but his internal clock was quite good. He waited for what he estimated was a good hour, then started to move. The next part of the mission was the stickiest, because it required almost perfect timing. Leopold had to rescue the target from his room, get him to the garbage wagon to stow away, and ride out of the gates hidden in the trash. The main problem was when to rescue the prisoner. Rescue him too early and someone might notice his absence. On the other hand, wait too long, and the garbage wagon would leave before they were aboard. The whole thing required a lot of knowledge that Leopold did not have, so he had guessed at the times. Now it was time to see if his guesses had been good.
Sneaking to where the prisoner was located, he was prepared to pick the locks when a noise at the end of the corridor startled him. Using a small table to his advantage, he quickly scaled the wall and hid among the shadows of the ceiling joists. A guard walked beneath him and began to unlock and unbolt the door. This would make his job a lot easier; now he simply had to get the prisoner out to the wagon. The guard slid the last bolt and opened the door.
Leopold swung his feet down from where they were braced and let himself drop to the floor. Drawing his knife, he moved quickly through the door. The cell contained a bed, a table and chair and little else. Sitting at the table was the target. He looked surprised at Leopold's entrance, but the boy put his finger to his lips to silence him. Moving on the balls of his feet, he crept soundlessly up behind the guard and bashed him in the base of the skull with the handle of his knife. The guard slumped forward onto the table, spilling food across it and causing the target to stumble backwards, overturning his chair.
Leopold sheathed his knife and looked at the target. He couldn't have been older than fourteen or fifteen and had a strange familiarity that Leopold couldn't place. The left sleeve of the boy's tunic was ripped, and as he turned, Leopold saw purple through the torn fabric. Suddenly the memory came flooding back.
"Benny, is that you?"
"Who are you?" the boy said, backing toward a corner. "Do I know you?"
"I should hope so," Leopold said, throwing back the hood of his cloak. "We spent the worst part of our lives together." He looked around the tower room. "Although I see that your hasn't improved a whole lot."
"Leo!" Benny exclaimed, rushing forward to meet his long lost friend. "I thought I would never see you again!"
"Me to," Leopold said. "Funny how these things work out, isn't it." There was a single, barred window in the cell, and through it, Leopold could tell that dawn was approaching.
"I can't believe that you found me," Benny said. "I thought you had forgotten all about me by now."
"No way, not a chance," Leopold said, "but it wasn't me who found you. I'm working with a few other people now."
"Really? Who are they?" Benny asked.
"I would love to answer that question," Leopold said. "But right now, we need to move if we want to get out of here alive."
"Right," Benny agreed. He grabbed a cloak from his bed and moved toward the Leopold. "You don't smell very good," he comment as he fastened the cloak.
"I know," Leopold answered as he took the cell key from the unconscious guard's belt. "Don't judge too hard, though. You're not going to smell so good by the time we get out of here."
The two boys locked and bolted the cell and dropped the key on the floor near the door. Leopold looked up and down the hall as if to get his bearings. His eyes fell on Benny's cape, a fancy ordeal embossed with a large golden dragon.
"You and I are going to have to switch cloaks," Leopold said. Benny nodded and the two friends exchanged cloaks. "Here's what's going to happen," Leopold said as he fastened Benny's cloak around his shoulders. "There's a wagon full of garbage that leaves the castle every day. We are going to be hidden on it when it leaves."
"You're right, I'm not going to smell good by the time this is over," Benny commented. "Where is the wagon located?"
"On the first level near the west side of the tower," Leopold answered. "The good news is that there are garbage chutes on every floor that should drop right into the wagon."
"You think that we can fall five stories without getting hurt?" Benny asked.
"No," Leopold said. "Is it possible that you know how to chimney?"
"Climb up and down them, you mean?" Benny asked and Leopold nodded. "I used to do that all of the time as a kid. It was some of the best fun that I ever had."
"Then that's what we'll do," Leopold said.
Leopold led Benny toward what he assumed was the garbage chute for the fifth floor. Once again his internal compass led them true, and in no time they had arrived. They had only encountered one guard on the way, and he had been easy to sneak around, sleepy as he was. Now all that stood between them and freedom was a five story drop into a pile of garbage and a wagon ride out of the castle gates. Leopold went first, climbing into the garbage chute and sliding down it, bracing himself to slow his speed. This particular maneuver tore up his boots, but he could buy a new pair with the commission from this contract. Benny followed suit, and in less than a minute the two of them tumbled out of the chute and onto the pile of garbage.
"Hide," Leopold told Benny. There was a commotion outside, and it sounded like it was getting closer. As Benny burrowed into the garbage, Leopold drew his knife and moved toward the front of the wagon.
"I'm telling you, he's gone! Not in his cell, I tell you!"
Leopold swore to himself. The last thing that they needed was for the garbage wagon to be stopped from leaving the castle. It was time to cause a diversion. Sliding his knife back into its scabbard, he pushed open the doors to the garbage wagon's enclosure. To his right a man approached with two horses while to the left, a group of soldiers stood arguing. Leopold gave a shout, immediately drawing the attention of the soldiers. Whirling in such a way as to display the golden design on his cloak, he dashed back into the garbage wagon enclosure and waited for several seconds to allow the soldiers time to catch up. As soon as the first one was close enough to see him, he tore up a small set of steps and back into the keep. A hallway confronted him, and he sprinted down it as fast as he could. Following his internal compass, he headed back toward the center of the keep and the large stair case. He had an idea of how long it took a person to hook two horses to a wagon and hoped desperately that the wagon driver had continued with his duties despite the commotion.
Leopold slammed through a door and into the central area of the keep. The stairs stretched above him for five stories and he began to take them two at a time. He tore past the first guard he met, eliciting a cry of surprise, one loud enough to alert everyone near the steps. Leopold reached the second floor before encountering another guard. He sprinted toward him, sliding on his butt between the guard's legs. The guard tried to turn suddenly but his momentum was too much and he fell in a pile of arms, legs, and armor. Leopold rotated his legs under him as he slid and came to his feet. Two more guards were now in front of him with another behind them. Leopold ran toward them, edging as far away from the edge of the stairs as he could. At the last second, he cut toward the banister and jumped over it, grabbing onto a supporting pole and allowing his momentum to carry him in an arc back onto the second floor landing. He sprinted at an angle to the wall where the third guard repositioned himself to cut him off. Using a bench as a starting point, Leopold leaped as high as he could and ran two steps along the wall. Once past the guard, he returned to the floor and continued to run, now up a second flight of stairs.
The way to the garbage chute was open, but the clock that he had set for himself was still running. If his guess was correct, the garbage hauler was still hooking the horses up to the wagon. Leopold needed to buy more time, and that meant climbing another floor higher. A group of six or seven guards was coming down the stairs to meet him, so he leaped up on to the banister and continued to run for three more steps. Angling slightly away from the stairs, he jumped forward his flight path intersecting the steps where they curved clockwise. He slammed into the banister, almost bouncing off but managing to grab onto the spindles. In moments he had hauled himself up and over the rail and was again sprinting up the steps.
He reached the fourth floor unimpeded, but that was as high as he was willing to go, so he waited. In his mind, the clock continued to count down. It was at a minute now, then thirty seconds. Finally the guards started to show around the bend in the stair case. Leopold danced back towards the garbage chute, always taunting the soldiers. There were twenty seconds now. His back was to the wall, the chute just to his left. Ten seconds. Leopold slid feet first into the hole in the wall, laughing all of the way down. Looking down, he saw the wagon begin to move. He slammed full speed into the tail end of the wagon and bounced off onto the ground behind it. Rolling to his feet, he chased the wagon down and climbed up onto it.
They were almost free, but Leopold couldn't afford to let his guard down. One slip up here was all it would take to unravel all of the work he had put into this. The guards at the gate were motioning for the wagon driver to stop; that wouldn't do. Leopold scurried over the garbage, drawing his knife as he moved. At the front of the wagon, he dug the tip of the weapon into the driver's ribs.
"If you want to live, get these horses moving," he hissed. The wagon driver hesitated for a moment before snapping the reins and yelling to the horses. The beasts took off like a shot and Leopold could see the shocked faces of the gate guards as he passed.
"I'll be taking the reins and you'll be jumping, so you might want to aim for the moat," Leopold said. The wagon driver didn't give the command a second thought. As the wagon rolled over the draw bridge, he leaped from the seat and splashed into the murky water below. Leopold grimaced as he snapped the reins. He knew what was in the moat and didn't envy the wagon driver.
"You're good to come out now, Benny," Leopold called. Behind him a mound of garbage rose and Benny shrouded in his own cloak appeared. "Can you drive horses?" Leopold asked.
"I've never done it before," Benny answered.
"Well, I guess this will be a crash course," Leopold said. "It's easy. Take the reins and keep the horses' heads pointed in the direction that you want them to go. To stop, pull back, to run, give them the reins."
"I still don't understand.," Benny said. Leopold looked over his shoulder and saw the horsemen already dispatched to track them down."We don't have time for proper lessons," Leopold said. "Just take the reins and try not to crash into anything." Without waiting for an answer, he passed the reins to Benny and scrambled off of the seat and into the pile of garbage. He drew his knife from where it was still firmly attached to his thigh. He was good with the weapon, but not good enough to hold off this many horsemen for very long. He hoped desperately that he would reach Midas, Raven, and Daniel soon.
The horsemen gained ground on the carriage and quickly overtook it. The first one to arrive pulled up alongside the wagon and slipped from his saddle onto the tail end of the wagon. While he was still trying to gain his balance from the transition, Leopold stepped forward and slashed at his chest. Trying to avoid the blow, the man stepped backwards only to find that his foot was supported by nothing. The second horseman came with his sword already drawn. He passed Leopold at a quick pace, headed instead for the harnesses that attached the horses to the wagon. Leopold dashed back over the mountain of garbage and onto the driver's seat. The horseman was out of reach of his knife, so he turned around and found something from the mound behind him, something nice and heavy. He took aim and flung the object at the rider, nailing him in the side of the face. The man shifted sideways and fell off of his horse.
Leopold looked forward just long enough to determine that the wagon was going straight. Benny was doing a remarkable job considering that he had never done this before. He had even managed to follow the road and they were headed straight for the woods and their rendezvous with the rest of The Group. Leopold turned back to face the rear and saw that the other riders were still a fair distance behind the wagon. They should reach the rendezvous point ahead of them.
The wagon streaked into the woods, bouncing over a boulder along the side of the road. It careened crazily but didn't flip. Up ahead, the path was blocked by an overturned wheelbarrow and some other rubbish. That would be The Group's road block: they had almost made it. The horses pulling the wagon pulled up at the sight of the road block, their hooves sliding as they tried to stop. The wagon ran into them and the slid into the wheelbarrow like that. The wagon twisted sideways and slammed into a tree, smashing free of the horses which immediately took off at full speed.
"Leo, sword," Midas yelled and threw the weapon to his brother. The short sword clobbered Leopold in the shoulder and fell to the dirt at his feet. Slowly the boy pulled himself from the wagon's wreckage retrieved his weapon from where it lay on the ground. He helped Benny from the wagon and pointed him to a safe place behind a tree, telling him to stay there until the fighting was over. Shaking the scabbard from his sword and drawing his knife, he headed into the fray that had already begun on the far side of the road block.
There were eleven of the enemy and only four of The Group. Already they were being hard-pressed, each of them trying not to be overrun. Leopold gave a battle cry and dashed toward his brother, dispatching two of the enemy with quick thrusts through their hearts. Midas could easily deal with two, so he turned to where Daniel was whirling a quarter staff, trying to keep the soldiers at bay. Leopold took the first one by surprise, slashing his throat before he had a chance to defend himself. The second turned to fight but didn't stand a chance against the boy. With whirling blades, Leopold hammered away at his defenses, making his backpedal into Midas's blade. His brother had already dispatched his two opponents and was ready to take on some more.
Sensing the change in the skirmish, the enemy soldiers reorganized. Two of the remaining five attacked Midas leaving one each for Leopold, Daniel, and Raven. Daniel met his opponent with his quarter staff, letting him feel the furry of wood on steel. Leopold exchanged a few blows with his opponent, all the while trying to get a view of Raven. He finally spotted her, using her bracers and short sword to fend off the fifth enemy soldier. Her bow was in her left hand, useless at this range. She was holding her ground, but that wasn't going to last for long. Leopold ducked past his opponent, swinging back wards with his knife and opening a painful cut on the soldier's back. He sprinted toward Raven even as her opponent knocked her sword aside and prepared to run her through. Giving a guttural roar, Leopold jumped, stepping off two logs and a tree trunk, and dove toward the soldier, hitting him in the chest. The two rolled across the ground; Leopold only had time to register that he had lost both of his weapons when the soldier was on top of him, smashing him in the face with his leather covered fist. Twice the fist descended then an arrow slammed into the soldier's throat, toppling him forward onto Leopold.
The massive girth of the man crushed the breath out of Leopold, and he lay there for a while, trying to regain it. Finally the body was flipped to the side and Leopold rolled over to see Midas looking down at him.
"Are they all dead?" Leopold asked.
"We got them all," Midas answered. Then he crushed his brother with a bear hug.