A dark silhouette stood on the broken down guard tower and starred across the moat at the castle. In terms of castles, it was not very big, but it was one of the best built and most heavily defended in the whole realm. Covering just a quarter mile square of ground, it had more than 200 soldiers to patrol its walls and guard it. To assault the castle with an army would have been suicide. A moat prevented access to the wall, meaning that the army would be trapped across the water with nothing to do except be hit by javelins and rocks flung by the siege machinery on the walls as well as the arrows from the archers stationed in the castle towers. If, by some miracle, the army was able to cross the moat, they would be rained down upon by caldrons of boiling oil and large boulders, a very effective defense indeed. There was a reason that the devices that allowed for this direct assault form above were called 'murder holes.'
But for as much trouble as it would be to get within the castle walls, the real danger to the army would begin once they had done this for to breach the walls was not to gain access to them. The walls had but three gateways of entry, three bridges stretching from the central keep to the outer wall. So now that the attacking army is in the city, if it is not able to get ladders up against the walls, it must still breach the keep to be able to attack the archers stationed in towers and along the wall. The problem now would be that the keep is itself a fortress that is not to be scoffed at. The walls are all thick and though there are four entrances, they are all heavily fortified with dual portcullises at each gate. To gain entrance to the keep, both portcullises at a single gate would have to be breached. The outer of the two would be difficult as the attackers would be peppered with arrows from all angles from the archers still stationed on the wall and in the towers there. Also, archers stationed in the keep itself would finally be able to fire on the attackers as well so to drop things on them from above. The only advantage that the attackers would have would be that the defenders would stop pouring boiling oil on them for fear of starting the castle's buildings on fire.
Assuming the case of a well prepared and very determined army, the attackers would get a battering ram to one of the keep's gates and begin to work at the outer portcullis. The attackers would probably have some sort of defense for their battering ram and though the defenders poured arrows and such into them, they would still succeed in smashing the outer gate to the point that it simply fell from the stone that it was built into. Thinking that they had practically breached the castle, the attackers would wrestle the bent and mangled portcullis from the keep and throw it to the side. Then they would rush their battering ran under the arch that separated the outer and inner gates, across a grate with holes so small that the attackers wouldn't even notice, and to the inner gate. Thinking they were home free, protected as they were from the archers outside, they would prepare to demolish the inner gate. This one consisted of two large double doors made of iron banded oak with a portcullis that dropped down in front. It was stronger, but it would fall as the first one had. But just as the ram was rushing toward the gate for the first strike, gallons of boiling oil would stream from above, scalding and killing everyone and everything in its path. As it hit the ground, it would spill through the grate and fill a large, metal containment vessel. A system of pipes and pumps would carry it back above the gate where it would be re-heated and the whole process would start again.
At this point, most armies would be demolished, demoralized, and ready to retreat, but, if by some miracle, the attackers in question regrouped and managed to get past the inner gate, they were far from taking the keep. They still needed to reach the third story before they could even think about getting out onto the walls where the archers were stationed, but the whole inside of the keep was designed to prevent that from happening. With each floor designed in such a way that those above it could look down and fire into it, the assent would be tricky at best. Once one the third floor, the attackers would still have to deal with the 200 defenders who knew the best ways to use the choke points and vantage points of the keep and walls. An army this size trained as the defenders had been was no joke in any situation but fighting them on their own turf would be next to impossible.
And if, by random chance or some miracle, the attackers did manage to overcome the defending troops, they still had to deal with the top two stories of the keep. What would await them there? No one knew for no one had come close to ever breaching the fourth or fifth floors of the keep of Castle Rajikline.
If Castle Rajikline could not be breached with an army, then the only way to overcome it would be with stealth. Logically this made sense, but a stealthy approach on the structure would not be easy by any stretch of the imagination. Forest bordered the moat relatively closely on two sides of the castle while the other two looked out over expansive fields. Of the two sides closest to the trees, the west wall would be the easiest to get to without detection, but easiest did not mean easy or even possible. A good hundred yards of flat land lay between the moat and the trees, and a larger number of lookouts were stationed on the west wall. Without an accomplice on the inside, the castle could not be breached by stealth during the day.
At night, under the cover of darkness, the paths to the castle seemed easier. The situation was changed, however, and it was no longer advisable to approach the castle from the forest. The ground there had been leveled and cleared of all debris, making it incredibly easy for the watchmen to spot movements in that sector. With darkness to cover movements, it was actually possible to use hay bales, ditches, and other natural cover on the other two sides of the castle to approach the walls, but anyone doing this would have to be careful. Mounted on top of the keep were four massive spotlights. Using fires and a series of focusing mirrors, the soldiers who operated these lights were able to cast powerful beams of light onto the castle grounds and the surrounding fields. The pattern of the lights' movements was pretty constant so it would theoretically be possible to use quick bursts of movement to move from cover to cover between the light beams; however, such movements were susceptible to detection by the men posted in the watch towers.
If a person were able to actually reach the moat of the castle, they would have to swim across it to reach the castle walls. This would be an easy task for someone who did not have much equipment with them, though it would not be pleasant. The waters of the moat did not flow and as such were quite stagnant and had many forms of filth and nastiness in them. Sicknesses of many sorts had been caught on several occasions from just a brief duration in the moat's waters.
Once across the moat's water, the castle wall still needed to be scaled. There were several theories on how to accomplish this with one of the most common involving the use of a grapple hook. The only problem with this was that to use such a hook required propelling it and an appropriate length of rope over thirty feet into the air to the top of the castle wall. Of course, this task would likely require a large piece of equipment like a crossbow, which brings up the question of how to swim across the moat with such a tool. For the sake of argument, perhaps a determined individual buoyed up the weapon with balloons and floated it across the moat. Using the cross bow, they launch the grapple hook over the wall and hope to heaven that nobody sees it or hears it strike the stone that it attaches to.
The next task is to actually scale the wall. This would require a significant amount of physical strength, but would not be impossible by any stretch of the imagination except for one thing. Special watch towers jut out from the wall, giving the soldiers inside a perfect view of the face of the wall. They will spot any inconsistencies or movements on the wall making scaling the thing tricky at best. Once actually on top of the wall, the person who is trying to break into the castle only has to sneak past all of the guards to gain entrance to the third floor of the keep. From there, as before, the last two levels of the keep are shrouded in mystery.
Leopold continued to stare at the castle in front of him. The moon was setting and hung behind the castle, highlighting the details of the towers and walls. The silhouette of the structure was certainly less than impressive to look at, though he had heard all of the stories of people trying to breach the walls. Never before in history had that task been successfully accomplished. Only once had the structure switched hands and that was with the help of a famine and a plague. Dying as his people were, the baron who had originally owned the castle had given it up gladly in return for food and medicine. Now, with the current owner on firm economic and political footing, breaching the walls and gaining access to the keep seemed like a dream at best.
Leopold climbed down from his perch on the broken remnants of the old watch tower and rejoined the other members of his team around a small, make-shift table on the tower's ground floor. First, there was the most esteemed member of their infamous group, the wizard Daniel. Daniel was no wizard in the strictest sense of the word; what he did have was an acute knowledge and proficiency in many things medical and scientific. Much of his research and knowledge stretched considerably beyond that of common men, and many of his methods seemed mystical to them. He also cultivated the image of 'wizard' with his long, white beard, flowing robes, and wizard's hat, though he claimed the latter two were simply for utility and comfort. Though not significantly advanced in years, Daniel was the oldest member of the group and consequently the leader.
Raven was across the table from Daniel and slouched against a crumbling wall. She was, in fact, a woman, though it was hard to discern from her looks. She was dressed in men's clothes and wore her brown hair several inches above her shoulders, a style frequented by males of the area. She was not any cleaner than the other members of the group but wore stains and tares proudly on her clothes and dirt smudges on her face. To complete the image, she sported several scars on her face, the largest of which remained as a whitish line that started above her left eye and stretched to the point of her chin. She had received that particular trophy in her younger years before any of the other members of the group knew her and declined to tell anyone the story of how she got it. Though a stranger might have guessed Raven to be a fighter, she was actually the brains of the group. That wasn't to say that the others were helpless on the mental stage without her, nor was it to imply that she could not handle herself in a fight. She just happened to do her best work making plans rather than executing them.
The third member of the group was Midas. No, he was not King Midas with the golden touch as people often jokingly asked. If that were the case, he would not have gotten into his current line of work. The only things 'golden' about Midas were the shaggy hair on his head and his ability with weapons of all kinds. He was most comfortable when wielding weapons; this was only natural since he had practically grown up swinging a sword. Actually the turn of phrase was 'swinging a sword,' but for Midas it had actually been a club; he hadn't started learning the sword until he was thirteen. Now, with only four years of experience under his belt, he could still best most swordsmen of better than average skill. Even without a weapon, he was a formidable opponent. Standing well over six feet tall, his arms and chest probably weighed more by themselves than Leopold weighed in his entirety. His whole body rippled with muscles and he was not afraid to use them. Leopold had once seen him kill a man just with a well-placed blow from his fist. Altogether, Midas was not a person than you wanted to make angry.
Leopold rounded out The Group's four members. At the age of fourteen, he was uncontested for the title of the group's youngest member. He was short for his age, but that was just an advantage to him; he was the group's sneaker. He had yet to come up against a building that he could not infiltrate or a patrol that he could not sneak past. He carried a short sword strapped to his back and a long knife strapped to his leg, but his greatest weapons were the dark and the cloak that he wore. Its shade was dark, and its colors many. Splotches of dark green, gray, and black adorned the fabric, allowing him to blend into the shadows more completely. With this cloak and a moonless night, he was often able to infiltrate and exit without being seen even once, the only conditions that he held for a perfectly executed mission. His hair was short and black, though it was impossible to tell, hidden as it was now beneath the hood of his cloak. Though sneaking was his game, he was no slouch with his weapons. He would much rather slip his knife between your ribs while you were not looking but was just as deadly using his short sword in a fair fight. Despite all of his abilities, Leopold was mild in nature and preferred avoiding fights when possible.
"Castle Rajikline," Raven said. "You couldn't have taken an easier job, could you Daniel?"
"There were plenty of other jobs," Daniel said calmly. "This paid a lot more, though."
"What's the goal?" Leopold asked. He was always thinking five steps ahead and liked to know what the ultimate object of a mission was.
"You'll like this one, Leo," Daniel answered. "It doesn't require any killing; all we're doing is stealing something."
"I'm not a child so don't treat me like one," Leopold said and he was correct. Though he was only fourteen, he had left all remnants of his childhood behind. "What you mean to say is that our task is not to kill a person. Doing anything in Rajikline will involve killing people, probably a lot of them."
"Well, if anyone can pull it off without any bloodshed, it will be you," Raven said. "We obviously can't assault the place with four people, so you'll be sneaking it."
"A daunting task to say the least. How exactly do you expect me to get it done when so many people have tried and failed?" Leopold asked. His words might have implied doubt or even fear, but his heart was starting to race with excitement. There was nothing like an impossible task to dispel boredom, and has life had become pretty boring of late. Only a few of The Group's most recent jobs required his particular abilities, and those were all easy tasks to say the least. Sneak into a tavern a steal a painting from the room of a traveling merchant? Easy. Now the matching painting from a baron's castle? Even easier. The hardest job had involved stealing a family heirloom from the house of a freeman and that was just because he had two hounds guarding the place, something that Leopold hadn't credited him with the intelligence to do.
"Well, I hope that you know something that I don't because last I heard, this place was impossible to get into," Leopold said. Yes, sneaking into this castle was going to be a lot harder than dealing with two dogs.
"What we do know is that the castle is like other castles," Daniel said, "except a lot more so."
"That's unutterably helpful," Leopold said. "Tell me something that I don't know."
"Well, this should make you happy," Raven offered, finally standing from her spot on the wall and approaching the make-shift table in the middle of the gathering. "The castle's garrison is down to about half of its normal size. By our best estimations, you'll only have to contend with about one hundred guards instead of two."
"That's better news, but not great," Leopold said. "We both know that Rajikline could probably be held by as few as twenty soldiers. With one hundred, there are still plenty of eyes watching the walls to make a climb impossible."
"And you can't think of any other way up the wall?" Midas asked. "One that would allow you to get up without being seen?"
"Oh no," Leopold said, looking at Daniel and Raven. They were looking back at him, nodding their heads. "I see that you held a conference on the matter without my being present."
"As you said, it's the only way into the castle," Raven said.
"I'm not going to do it," Leopold said. "Not again. Once was quite enough for me."
"Be reasonable, Leo," Raven said. "We all agree that there is no other way into the castle. This is the only way to get in."
"I don't care what the payout is," Leopold said. "None of you have ever done what you're suggesting so you don't know."
"It's temporary discomfort for eternal glory," Daniel offered. "Just imagine, you will be the only person alive who has ever broken into Castle Rajikline by stealth or by force."
"That is true," Leopold said slowly. It would be impressive to do this thing. Break into the unbreakable castle and steal something from it to prove it. Of course, with more glory came more risk. The Rajikline would be a tough nut to crack, but it could be done. And if anyone could come up with a plan to do it, Raven could.
"Okay," Leopold conceded finally. "What's the plan to get me in?"
"So, are you nervous, Leo?" Midas asked.
Leopold was sitting on top of the ruined tower again, looking out over the fields at Castle Rajikline. Compared to him, Midas climbed like a drunken ogre, and he had known that the older boy was coming almost as soon as he touched the old, decaying stones. Leopold looked at Midas who sat down beside the younger boy. The two boys had become fast friends since they had met three years ago. They had shared many dangerous and even death defying experiences and had come to depend on each other. In the absence of real families, they had come to look on each other as brothers.
"It actually kind of surprises me, but no, I'm not nervous," Leopold said. "This is the most dangerous thing that I have ever done and here I am feeling perfectly fine, not even butterflies."
"Nothing, huh?" Midas asked.
"Nope," Leopold answered. "It's like the day that we met, you remember right? I was there in the market getting beat up by those rich boys. I'm not sure when exactly I saw you, but suddenly you were there, throwing them off of me and beating them until they had had enough. Well, I was scared before you arrived, but as soon as I saw you, I knew that you were going to take care of me. It's like that now except that I don't know who is going to take care of me."
"Well, whoever it is, it can't be me this time no matter how much I may want to help," Midas said. "I'll be sitting back here in this tower waiting for you to come back alive and in one piece with..." he paused and looked at Leopold with a strange look. "What is it exactly that you're supposed to be stealing from that place?"
"That's going to be the hardest part," Leopold answered. "I'm supposed to be rescuing a man from the castle's dungeon. Can you imagine that? Me rescuing someone. I've killed and I've stolen before, but I've never rescued before."
"Rescuing a prisoner?" Midas asked. "That's not at all what I thought this was going to be. From the way Daniel talked, I thought it was going to be an object. I wonder why he deceived us."
"He probably thought that you've have reservations about it if you knew what the mission was," Leopold said. "Daniel would never lie to you except for a descent reason."
"So you think that you can get him out?" Midas asked. "It's not going to be as easy as lifting a crown or a painting or even an animal. Think of trying to sneak around with me in tow."
"That would be a pain in the butt indeed," Leopold said with a straight face.
"Oh shut up, I'm not that bad," Midas retorted.
"Really?" Leopold asked. "When you were climbing the tower just now, you climbed so loudly I think the people in the castle heard you. You sneak about as well as an elephant with bells attached to its feet."
"Well, that's what trying to get this guy out is going to be like," Midas said. "You think that you can do it?"
"I don't think it," Leopold said, "I know it. I'll be in and out with the prisoner and something else as a memento of the mission. Think of it, we'll have something from inside Rajikline!"
"Just remember, it's 'Mission first, souvenirs after,'" Midas said. "Keep your eye on the prize and you will get through this, of that I am certain."
"So, what about you?" Leopold asked. "What are you guys going to be doing while I do all of the heavy lifting?"
"Just sitting here twiddling our thumbs and drinking hot cocoa," Midas said with a grin. "Actually we'll be lining up transportation for when you come back."
"I'd like a horse and carriage this time, if you can manage it," Leopold said. "There's nothing worse than finishing a mission, especially one like this, and then having to stay awake to ride to a safe house. I'd rather just pass out in a wagon."
"I'll see what I can do, Leo," Midas said as he stood up and slapped the younger boy on the shoulder. "You're starting tomorrow night, I guess, so don't fall asleep now. Raven's taking the first watch to keep you up."
"Alright," Leopold said. "See you on your turn."
Midas gingerly back stepped onto the wall and inched his way down. Leopold shook his head as he watched his brother climb. He really was no good at it. At the bottom, the older boy exchanged words in a low voice with Raven. After a few moments, Midas headed to where Daniel was already bedding down for the night, and Raven began to climb the wall. She was much better at it than either of the other two members of the Group, and Leopold respected her for that.
"You need a hand?" he asked when she neared the top of the tower wall.
"I've got it," Raven answered as she searched with his fingers for another good hold. He always offered to help her even though he knew she would refuse. Something deep down told him that it was the right thing to do. He also liked to rile her up and given enough time, this might do the trick.
"So you've got first watch again?" Leopold asked when Raven was finally sitting beside him. "Sorry in advance for not being good company."
"Leo, people can accuse you of a lot of things," Raven said. "And I mean a LOT of things, but being bad company is not one of them."
"Well thank you," Leopold said. "I'll pretend like I believe that. Every time that we do this, I'm always falling asleep and you're always keeping me awake. Thank you, by the way. Not sure I've ever thanked you for staying up with me through these nights."
"No need to thank me," Raven said. "I'm just doing my job. That came out a little wrong. I enjoy staying up and talking to you."
"Thank you just the same," Leopold said. "I know taking the first watch is the hardest and you always do it."
"It's not so hard," Raven said. "Besides, this is when you are the most awake out of the whole night. It's practically the only time that I actually get to talk to you one on one. I imagine that the other two do a lot more poking to keep you awake and considerably less talking." She gave him a good jab in the ribs with her elbow to emphasize the point.
"That's true," Leopold admitted, dropping his own elbows to protect his ribs against a similar attack. "Although Daniel likes slapping better than elbowing."
"For real?" Raven laughed. "He slaps you to keep you awake?"
"On the face," Leopold added. "Says the stinging does more to keep me awake than anything else would do."
"Does it really?" Raven asked. "I think it would just annoy the heck out of me."
"It does that if nothing else," Leopold agreed. "Nothing like a good slap in the face to get your blood racing and ready for a fight. I haven't told Daniel, but there had been a few times that I've reached for my knife with the full intention of gutting him before I caught myself."
"That's not good," Raven said. She added in a sarcastic tone, "He does get us the contracts, you know."
"Well, you don't see my knife on me right now, do you?" Leopold asked, raising his arms and baring the leg that normally held his knife. The sheath was still strapped to his thigh, but it was empty.
"Smart move," Raven agreed. "His contracts are what keep us in food and clothes."
"And besides that, he did rescue us," Leopold added, a touch of seriousness in his voice. He could handle some teasing about Daniel, but not too much. The wizard had done too much for all of them to be afford that discourtesy.
"That is true," Raven agreed, suddenly serious. "God knows I was in a bad place when he got to me."
"So was I," Leopold said. "You ever heard the story of how he rescued me and Midas?"
"I was there when it happened, dummy," Raven said. "Of course I remember."
"Oh yeah," Leopold said. "Come to think of it, I've never heard the story of when he found you."
"You're right," Raven agreed. "You've never heard that story."
"And?" Leopold prompted.
"Not right now, not tonight," Raven said. "Ask me later when we have more time."
"Very well," Leopold said. He had to respect her privacy, even if curiosity was eating him up. He would, however, ask her about it later as she had invited. He had no doubt that it would be a story to remember.
"So what about you and Midas?" Raven asked. "You were together when Daniel and I found you, but I know you're not brothers like you say. How did you meet?"
"I was actually just talking about that with him before you got up here," Leopold said. "It's not a very interesting story, I'm afraid, least ways, not if you weren't there."
"It's you," Raven said, then added, "and Midas. You're my friends; I'm always interested in your lives."
"Fine, but you have to promise me one thing if I tell you this," Leopold said.
"That depends on what it is," Raven said. "I have a policy against promising things that I don't know or making promises that I can't keep."
"Promise that you'll actually tell me that story about how you and Daniel met," Leopold said. "You're my friend too, and I care about you as much as you do about me."
"I can make that promise," Raven said slowly. He didn't know what he was asking or what he was saying, and that frustrated her. "It's not a pleasant story, but I'll tell it to you if you really want. Later though; I'm not ready to tell it right now."
"Late it is," Leopold agreed. "So then, about how I met Midas. Well, as I said, it's not all that exciting of a story. I mean, I find it exciting because I was there, but you probably won't. Anyway, where to start? How much do you know about me?"
"Nothing really," Raven said and was shocked to realize that it was true. She had only known the two brothers for almost six months and still knew very little about their pasts.
"Well then, I'll start at the beginning," Leopold said. "I think that I was born somewhere around the city of Rochester since that's where my first memories are. I could be wrong; perhaps I was swept there after my parents threw me out. Whatever the case, I ended up on the streets of Rochester with a few boys that I knew. Through a series of events which is an entirely different story, I ended up on my own at the age of eleven.
"I did a pretty decent job staying out of the way. I took whatever jobs I could find, but work for an eleven year old boy is not plentiful to say the least. Mostly I did work for a nice chimney sweep, but even with that job, money was scarce. I spent the money that I had but still had to steal on a regular basis to stay in food and clothes. That's where I started learning all of my sneaking skills.
"One day, I was walking down the street when I saw a rich boy strutting along. He had a set of clothes, the cost of which would have kept me in food for a month. Attached to his belt was a coin purse that was quite full. Even without seeing the contents, I knew that it would feed me for a solid three weeks with a new set of clothes on the side. It had been a year since my last set of clothes and two days since my last meal, so I was hungry enough to try it, even though I'd never attempted a direct pick-pocket before.
"Well, to spare you the boring details, I got up alongside him and tried to lift the purse, but he figured it out and pushed me away. I told you that I was eleven at the time? Well this kid was at least fifteen or sixteen. He put me down with one punch.
"He could have just walked away and that would have been the end of it, but apparently he was too insulted that a commoner like myself would try to lift his purse. I don't know if he was meeting a group of his friends or if he had a deal with the devil to have them at his beck and call, but suddenly about a dozen kids, all dressed in expensive clothing like his, were surrounding me, kicking and punching.
"I was scared to death, curled in the fetal position and protecting my head when through the legs of the kids around me, I saw Midas. He was only fourteen at the time, probably a good two years younger than a lot of the kids and outnumbered a dozen to one. The only advantage that he held was his size; at the age of fourteen, he was already at least six feet tall and larger than most men. To this day, I'm not quite sure what made him do it, but he started grabbing my attackers and flinging them aside. From my position on the ground I saw many of them smack painfully into the cobble stones.
"When Midas reached me, he put out his hand to help me up. I remember looking up at him watching unable to speak as one of the rich kids jumped on his back and tried to put him in a strangle hold. Midas reached over his back, grabbed the kid's shirt, and flipped him sideways into a market stall like he was a sack of feathers. Without anymore hesitation, I took Midas' hand, and he pulled me to my feet. With the sound of the town guard approaching, we ran away as fast as we could, losing them in the allies and side streets. Apparently even as big as he was, Midas was still not ready to take on the whole town guard."
"Something that he's not afraid to do anymore," Raven noted, sensing that the story was wrapping up. "Give him a sturdy sword and shield and I believe that he would attempt to assault Rajikline by himself."
"Right," Leopold said. "He had that fire back then, just not the skill to back it up. Luckily he was smart enough to realize it or he might not be here today."
"So since then you and Midas have been like brothers," Raven finished the story. "I know that I actually thought that you were when I first saw you two together. You were so close and wary of strangers that it was difficult to get to know either of you at the beginning."
"What tipped you off to the fact that we weren't related?" Leopold asked.
"Hair color was my first hint," Raven answered. "I suppose it's possible that you be brothers and have blond and black hair, but it led to the realization that you two looking nothing alike."
"That's true," Leopold admitted, covering a yawn that had jumped unbidden to his lips. "We're kind of opposites when it comes to looks."
"And yet you match well," Raven said. "I don't think I've ever met a pair of brothers that were more alike than you and Midas."
"Right, and how many brothers have you known in your life?" Leopold asked though he already knew the answer. In response to this question, Raven had admitted that she had only really gotten to know one set of brothers besides Leopold and Midas.
"Shut up," Raven said and, since she could not get at his ribs, punched him in the arm. "You know what I mean."
"I do, and thank you," Leopold said. "It means a lot to hear that said."
The two friends continued to talk as the moon floated overhead. Raven's turn would take a little over two hours which gave them time to talk about anything and everything. These talks were good, Leopold realized, especially before a tough mission. They helped him center, to remember that it was not just for himself that he had to complete this mission but for his comrades. They would not be getting paid either if he failed. For the first time in his life he was part of a team, surrounded by people that he cared about and that cared about him.
Leopold woke suddenly but did not move. In his line of work, such a movement could give away your position almost as fast as standing up and shouting and would negate the past forty-eight hours of work. He had known that approaching the castle unnoticed would be hard since he had to bound across open field while dodging the prying spotlights and eyes looking from the castle walls. Even nature was against him; the moon was full the night that he started. Needless to say, the job was boring and stressful at the same time. Sliding forward on his belly an inch at a time, stopping whenever a spotlight came close was the slowest form of movement ever. He had managed to cross close to half of the field by the end of the first night and took refuge in a conveniently placed haystack where he had waited out the day, sleeping when he could and making sparing use of the supplies that he had brought with him. When night had fallen the second day, he started to move again. The terrain here was better suited to his purpose, and he was able to move slightly faster than before. He reached the bank of the moat about an hour before sunrise and spent about half of the remaining time searching for an appropriate spot to wait out the day. He found what he hoped was an abandoned dugout about a dozen yards from the water. It looked like the water had at one time risen all of the way to the dugout, but had receded since then. Tall grass hung across the indention's opening, masking its interior from sight, and Leopold decided that it would make a good hiding spot.
Laying in the dugout, motionless except to drink some water and eat some food, he passed the day not a stone's throw from the moat of Castle Rajikline. It was possible that he could have attained this position without going through all of the trouble that he had. One of the options that had been discussed at great length was for him to dress as a peasant and simply hide out near the moat, but they were unsure of how the guards would react and if they would notice. In the end, they had elected to go with the longer method, but one that they were sure would work. Now, forty-eight hours after Leopold had started the ordeal, it was getting dark again, and he mentally prepared for the next step. Though the last two days had been stressful and strenuous, the next part would be his least favorite by far.
Leopold slowly spread the grass near his face and looked out of the dugout. The moat and castle wall filled his field of vision, though he could barely distinguish the individual stones of the wall. It was almost dark enough for him to begin. To be safe, he waited an additional thirty minutes before he dared to move.
Making sure that all of his equipment was securely attached to his body, he inched out of the dugout and started crawling toward the moat. One of the reasons that he had settled on this spot was that the algae on the moat's water was greener here, suggesting that this was the spot that he wanted. Also the group sloped gently toward the water and was covered with a layer of slick grass. It took almost no effort at all to slide down the bank to the water's edge. Now he had to enter the water, a task that he knew was considerably trickier than what he had just done. The acoustics of the water and castle wall would reflect any sound that he made up to the watchmen in the towers. He had contemplated ideas involving throwing a rock to distract the watchmen, but he didn't know what kind of a reaction this would induce. Would they simply scan the water more thoroughly, or would they turn a spot light on the moat? How far out would their radius of search extend? Could he get the stone far enough from himself that they would not see him?
Not knowing the answers to these questions, he opted for simply entering the water silently and never giving them any indication of his presents. Of course, this process was more easily said than done. Taking a deep breath, he began to allow his body to ever so slowly slide into the water surrounding the castle. The weight of his gear kept his body from floating to the surface, and he continued to slide forward until he felt his feet submerge in the dingy liquid. He continued to slide forward a few more feet, more quickly now that there would be no disturbance on the surface to give him away. Then, when he deemed it safe, he took a slow steady stroke with his arms, propelling himself forward through the water. Another stroke and he deemed that he was far enough out to begin using his feet.
Progress was quicker now, and for that he was grateful. It was difficult to swim with even the added weight of clothes and boots which was why he had decided to leave his short sword with The Group and take only his knife. After all, if the alarm was sounded and the whole garrison of Rajikline turned out to fight, his sword would not help him any more than his knife could. His chosen weapon combined with the rest of his gear seemed to be just enough weight to prevent him from floating to the moat's surface without significantly restricting his ability to swim. After all, he had practiced in conditions like this and was ready for it.
Leopold continued to stroke, cutting through the water at a leisurely pace. His mental compass was good enough that he had little fear of straying from the course he had set before entering the moat. The only limitation that he had was the length of time that he could hold his breath. Through extensive training, he had been able to increase that time to the duration of six minutes if he was motionless, but that time was considerably less when he was performing activities, particularly strenuous ones. Had he been swimming unburdened across the moat, he would have been able to easily cover the distance with only one breath, but weighed down as he was, he was only half way across, he estimated, and already his throat was burning from the lack of oxygen.
Leopold was the best as what he did, and that wasn't because he overlooked details like not being able to cross the moat in one breath. For ever problem there was a solution, this one in particular coming from the mystical bag of Daniel's tricks. As the burning in his throat and lungs became more unbearable, Leopold located a medium sized cylinder strapped to his chest and manipulated a hose attached to it, forcing the free end between his lips. He allowed the air in his lungs to pass out of his mouth in a small stream to minimize the size of bubbles that the action would create on the surface. He reached for a stopper located near the end of the cylinder, twisted it open, and inhaled. A lung-full of air flooded down his throat, relieving the burning, and giving him more strength. He twisted the stopper close and continued to stroke through the water, moving ever nearer to the walls of the castle.
Leopold had to use the contraption once more to replenish the air in his lungs, this time emptying the cylinder. Two strokes later, his fingers felt the stones of the castle wall, and he began to use them to pull his body up toward the surface. The construction of the castle was extremely curious, a fact that he had noted when he was planning his entrance the night before. Most castles were built on solid ground and a moat was dug later thereby producing a situation where the water of the moat rarely, if ever, came close enough to the walls to touch them. This castle was designed such that the moat directly abutted the wall with the stones extending below the water's surface. This design was used to hide a single weakness in most castles' designs, the very weakness that Leopold was currently trying to exploit.
He pulled himself upward, stone by stone. The plan was to re-orient himself once he could see and from there try to dive and find what he was looking for. As luck would have it, he found it before he even reached the surface. As he climbed, his fingers fell on open space. He quickly traced the shape, a circle, and determined that it was exactly what he needed. Half swimming, half climbing, he pulled himself into the stone pipe and began to walk up the sloping floor. The water became more sludgy and he tried desperately not to think about the filthy that he was currently wading through. It was impossible to block out the thought.
Leopold had determined earlier that the pipe could not be very long, and sure enough, less than ten feet later, his head broke the surface of the water. His sense of smell had been impeded when he was submerged, but now the full smell of the place filled his nostrils and he vomited. The burning in his throat could not get rid of the thick film that had began to coat it as a result of breathing the air in this place. The thought of it made him vomit again. He wiped his mouth, certain that he had a firm grip on his physical reactions now and began to examine his surroundings.
There was actually very little to see due to the lack of light and for this he was thankful. It was bad enough knowing what he was standing in, but to see it might set off another wave of nausea. He began to feel with his hands until he had determined the dimensions of his surroundings. He was in a pipe, square in shape, approximately three feet on a side. Above him was a small circle of light about the size of his thumbnail from appearances. Based on what he knew of places like this, that meant the climb would be about thirty to forty feet. It would not be easy nor impossible. This was the sort of thing that was right up his alley.
Using is hands to direct him, Leopold positioned himself with his back against one wall and his feet near the other. Bracing his back against the stones behind it, he raised one foot and planted it, freeing the other. He raised his other foot to approximately the same height as the first and pushed off with both, shoving his back higher up the wall. He repeated the process again, gaining another six inches in altitude. Two down, seventy-eight more to go.
Leopold listened carefully for any indication of a person nearby. Not hearing any, he pushed one final time with his legs, forcing his body through the hole at the top of the pipe and into the room above. Rising to his feet, he scraped some of the muddy sludge off of his clothes and slung it back through the hole he had just come through. By now all thoughts of what he had just done were gone. After the mission, he would probably have to bathe twenty times before he felt clean again, but for now he was immune to it. The only thought on his mind was completing the mission.
Leopold had expected the room to be small with a single hole, a single place for a person to sit, but this was not the case. This latrine was quite large with six seats, each separated by dividing walls. Six holes meant six pipes emptying into the moat which would explain why it had been so easy to locate the exit pipe. Thank goodness for small favors.
The door to the latrine jiggled, and Leopold tore across the room, stepping up onto the far seat and crouching behind the partition. He could hear the door open and people enter, from the sounds of the footsteps, he guessed that there were two men. The door closed and Leopold slowly drew his knife, careful to not make a sound. He had chosen the last stall because it seemed likely that no one would use it, but he wanted to be ready just in case.
"I know that this is the unbreachable castle, but this job is utter malarkey," one of the soldiers said. "It's the same thing over and over, day after day, and it isn't even interesting."
"That's why we only have this assignment for six months," the other soldier said. "It's not because they care what we think; it's because they know that we become considerably less vigilant after that amount of time."
"That doesn't surprise me in the least," the first soldier said. "Freakin' government! Sometimes I hate them but they do dole out my pay."
Leopold smiled grimly to himself at that statement. Because he was often on the wrong side of the law, many people assumed that he hated the government. On the contrary, he loved what the government did to make his job easier and safer. If burglary were legal, everyone would do it, and individuals would be much more vigilant concerning the protection of their own property. As it was, since many people left their own security to the lawmen and the courts, they let done their guard and made it considerably easier for Leopold to rob from them. So it would seem that the soldiers who worked for the king hated him more than the thief did. Ironic.
The two soldiers talked for a while longer but eventually finished and left, leaving Leopold alone again. He had been considering his next move for a while and knew that his biggest enemy right now was his smell. Though he had been around the smell of sewage long enough that he had almost grown immune to it, the castle guards would almost certainly pick up his stink from a mile away. In the latrine it was possible to hide it because the open toilet holes allowed the stink to permeate the room, but outside would be a different story. He needed to get to a source of water quickly and wash the filth off of himself. He'd been through this part of the plan many times over the past two days, but no matter how hard he had tried, he could only come up with two locations that he was absolutely positive that he would be able to find water. The castle well, typically located near the center of the castle grounds, would be a source, though it would be hard to approach without being seen as well as very deep. Altogether, it would be a bad solution to his problem at best.
Leopold stepped down off of the latrine that he had been standing on and moved to the latrine door. Careful to not make any noise, he cracked it open and looked outside, gathering as much information on his surroundings as possible. He had a view of a small slice of the castle's parapets and towers. Guards seemed to patrol them constantly with no discernible patterns and no usable dead spots. This would certainly be difficult. Waiting for a short period when it appeared as though no one was looking in his direction, he slipped out of the latrine and moved three paces forward into a dark area created by a low hanging banner.
From the safety of the shadows he examined the situation, the guards, the defenses that he would have to sneak past to get to the central keep. From there, he had decided to move upward to the fourth and fifth levels of the castle, not only because no one had been up there and survived to talk about it, but also because if he had a prisoner, that is where he would hold them. The problem with dungeons in the ground was that anyone in them could get out by tunneling if they were properly motivated. Lining the place with stone would only deter but not altogether stop a person determined to escape a dungeon. Transfer a dungeon to the top of a tower, and there was no place to go, especially in a place like Castle Rajikline. To escape would require climbing down five stories of bare rock with not a place to hide. Towers were far more secure than dungeons.
But the first order of business was to find water to wash in, and Leopold scanned the courtyard of the castle. A trough of water was located near the gates, precisely where he had expected it to be, for tired and thirsty horses to drink from. Leopold felt sorry for any horse that decided to drink from the trough, but it was the closest place that he could wash some of the stench off of himself and so that was where he was going to go. slipping between the wall's crenellations, he began to climb down.
The principles of climbing were simple, so simple that he had learned them by the time he was eight years old. The first was that no surface, no matter how smooth it looked from a distance, was actually smooth. There were always grooves, protrusions, and other anomalies that would allow a very determined person to climb them, and Leopold was very determined. The second principle was that though every wall is scalable, people to use walls as protection never believe that their particular wall can be climbed. Once inside a compound or castle, you are considerably safer than on the approach, particularly in a place like Rajikline where popular belief that it was unbreachable. The soldiers on the walls might watch the surrounding fields like hawks watching for their next meal, but inside the castle would be considered safe. Except for dodging the obligator patrol or two, Leopold would have free reign of the place.
Leopold's feet touched the ground and he headed for the horse troughs, keeping a crouched posture and staying in the shadows. He reached the troughs without being seen, but wasn't about to give up the element of surprise to a stupid mistake. Keeping a low profile, he slid over the edge of the trough and into the water. He had expected the trough's water to be cool as the moat had been, but it was actually quite warm. Apparently the smaller size of the trough coupled with its exposure to direct sunlight before night had fallen had heated it considerably. Thankful once again for small favors, he commenced washing himself as best he could. He knew that warm water washed better and faster than cold water did, and time was not a thing that he could waste. In a matter of minutes he had scrubbed himself relatively clean and was about to climb back out of the trough when a sound off to his left made him freeze. Sliding slowly into the water so that only his head was above the surface, he looked to where he had heard the noise.
Because he worked primarily in darkness, Leopold knew that the eyes did not see the same in light as they did in dark. One could not look at an object and expect to see it, rather, it was necessary to look to the side of what you wanted to see. He did this squinting slightly to make out the shapes in the dark. The corner of a building came into view, not by his efforts but because light was beginning to spill around its edge. Closing a single eye to preserve his night vision, Leopold slid further into the water, all the while keeping the corner fixed with his open eye. Two soldiers carrying a torch rounded the building and headed straight for his hiding place. He slid further into the water, keeping an eye on the approaching soldiers until it was certain that they would pass near him. Taking a deep breath and closing his open eye, he slid the rest of his body into the water.
Through closed eyes, Leopold could see the torch light dance across the water's surface. The light continued to get brighter until he judged that it was beside the trough. It had taken two minutes for the soldiers to cover the distance, so in two minutes, they would be a sufficient distance away for him to resurface. The light stopped moving and he realized with horror that the patrol had stopped by the trough. The idiots had stopped by a blasted horse trough? For what reason? Had they seen him?
Though it took every ounce of his will, Leopold did not move but lay motionless at the bottom of the trough. He knew that water at night reflected similarly to a mirror. In theory, the soldiers would be unable to see him if they looked straight into the water, seeing only their own reflection instead. There was movement at the water's surface, and Leopold again had to make a conscious effort not to spring out of the water and kill both members of the patrol. He had no doubt that he would be able to complete the deed, but the last thing that he wanted to do was leave dead bodies behind. That would certainly turn an almost impossible mission into a completely impossible one.
After what seemed like years though it was only a minute and a half, the light moved away from the trough and grew dimmer. Leopold's heart was pumping now, and his lungs were burning. He was nearing the upper limit of the length he could hold his breath and had to break the surface of the water. Slowly so as to not make any noise he slid his head out of the water and took several slow breaths. His eyes were on the move again, searching for anything that could give him away, but this time he saw nothing. Quickly he slid out of the trough and headed for the shadows. In his haste he was not as quiet as usual, but he didn't care. He was not going to be stuck in that trough again.
Raven stood near the entrance to the broken down guard tower that The Group had taken for their base of operations. She looked out over the fields to where Castle Rajikline rose into the sky, the moon silhouetting it perfectly. This was what she and Leo had been looking at the last time they had talked and somehow that comforted her a little. Leo was a resourceful boy; she was certain that he would come out of this safely with whoever it was that he was supposed to be rescuing.
"Thinking about Leo?" Daniel asked. Raven had heard the swishing of his robes as he had approached and was not startled by his question.
"Yes," Raven admitted. "I was just thinking about him in the castle. Do you suppose he's inside the walls yet?"
"If everything is going according to plan, then yes," Daniel answered. "We haven't seen any commotion on the towers, so I would hazard a guess that the guards have not seen him yet. He'd better be inside the walls by now or he won't be able to get out tomorrow like he's supposed to."
Raven nodded and considered that portion of the plan. Rather than have Leo sneak out of the castle with another person in tow, she had determined another method of escape. A wagonload of garbage was taken from the castle every two days, leaving at dusk. The garbage detail was due to depart in the morning. If Leo was on schedule, he and the person that he was rescuing would be buried in the wagon of garbage and riding out of the castle gates in the morning. Midas, Raven and Daniel would then have to simply hijack the wagon, collect the two people hidden there, and escape the area. In theory the plan was simple, Leo just had to finish the mission first.
"You don't think that they'll decide not to truck the garbage out tomorrow, do you?" Raven asked, looking back at Daniel.
"We've looked at all of the information that we have," the wizard said. "The garbage wagon is Leo's best bet for getting out of Rajikline. He'll make it work; he always does."
"I know all that," Raven said. "I planned it that way because he has the best chance but still...what if something goes wrong?"
"This is why I cautioned against getting too close to them," Daniel said with a sigh. "With a group such as ours, you must be able to trust your friends, you must trust them with your life, but bad things can happen. If Leo is caught or dies, you'll have to put him out of your mind, forget about him, move on."
"I understand all that up here," Raven said, tapping her head. "I just can't make my feelings accept it."
"You must or it will be our downfall one day," Daniel said. "What happens if Leo is discovered and captured tonight? What would you do? What could you do?" He waited for a several moments but Raven was silent. "Midas would go after Leo, we both know this. The two of them are too close. They call each other brothers and that is bad. Midas loves Leo far too much, enough to risk his own life to save him."
"That's not a bad thing," Raven shot back almost vehemently. "If I trusted someone with my life, I would expect them to feel that way about me."
"You see," Daniel said, "if you trusted someone with your life. But you don't, do you? Nobody but myself. You cannot hide this, you've said it before."
"If you were captured, would you expect us to come look for you?" Raven asked.
"I would not," Daniel answered, but Raven knew the secret behind that answer. Daniel was never in any position of actual danger and, to be fair, the same went for Raven. Daniel obtained contracts and Raven planned the missions, but Midas and Leo were the ones who actually executed the plans. They were the only ones who were ever in real danger.
"So it's live and let die," Raven said finally.
"In our profession it is," Daniel said. "I'd hate to lose Leo as much as you would, but you can't let feelings rule your actions. When you do that, you have already lost the battle."
"I know that, Daniel," Raven said. "This isn't the first time that we've had this discussion you know."
"I know," Daniel agreed. "Your feelings for the brothers but particularly the younger one have become too strong of late. You must find a way to keep them under control. It's only a matter of time until we lose one of them, and I don't want to lose you as well when that happens."
"I know," Raven agreed. "I'll figure something out."
"Good," Daniel said and started to walk away. "You might want to do it quickly. Tonight may be the night that we lose someone."
Midas watched as Daniel walked away. He knew that his sneaking was not nearly as good as that of his brother and had been looking for situations to practice it. What better way to practice than to eaves drop of Raven and Daniel? Now he almost wished that he hadn't. He had been coming to think of Raven as a friend and Daniel as a mentor, but what he had just heard angered him. What right did they have to say that the life of his brother was not worth every single one of theirs? Deep down he knew that they were right. In this business you could not afford to have feelings, and yet he did. He would do anything for Leo, and if that meant dying, he would put aside his fears and die. His brother was worth it.
And what was it that made Daniel think that he was worthy of Raven's trust when no one else was? So what if he had rescued her from whatever it was that she had been caught up in. Midas had often thought that he had more to offer than the wizard, and now he was positive. Would the cur go after Raven if she were captured? He had just admitted that he would not. Midas, on the other hand, would, at least he would have before today. Now he wasn't so sure. The conversation had seemed considerably one sided with most of the talking down by Daniel. It was obvious that Raven was having trouble swallowing the ideas, and Midas wondered if it were possible at this juncture to convince her that the wizard was wrong.
Carefully Midas backed away from his hiding spot and around the tower until he could not see Raven any longer. Standing to his feet, he brushed off the bits of straw clinging to his clothes and straightened his tunic and trousers. taking a deep breath, he walked around the tower to where Raven was still standing, facing the castle. He had to be subtle about this so as to not let on that he had heard her conversation with Daniel. It was going to be tricky; subtlety was not his strong suit.
"Hey Raven," he said as nonchalantly as possible. "What you up to?"
"Just thinking," Raven said, looking back as Midas.
"I know what you mean," Midas said, fixing his gaze on the castle. "I keep wondering whether Leo's going to make it. He's good, but this is Castle Rajikline we're talking about."
"He'll make it," Raven said. "He has to make it."
"Why?" Midas asked, turning to look at Raven. "He might get caught. In fact, if I had to make a guess, I'd say that the odds are against him. If it weren't my brother, I probably wouldn't be betting on him."
"I know that," Raven said. "But he's good. He's going to make it, right?"
"He's my brother which is why I want him to make it, but I don't get why you do," Midas said. "You've only known us for half a year. Why do you care so much?"
"Can you keep a secret?" Raven asked, looking at Midas.
"That depends on what it is," Midas answered. The look in her eyes told him that she was not in the mood for word play so he nodded.
"Well then, here it is," Raven said. "I've considered you and Leo my friends since we met six months ago. We've gotten to know each other a little, and I'm closer to you two than I have been to anyone else in my entire life."
"So what's the catch, then?" Midas asked. "Why are you so worried about Leo?"
"Well, it's all very confusing to me," Raven said. "We're so young, and we hardly know each other, but I think I like him more than a friend."
"Wow," Midas said. From what Daniel had said, he had figured that this might be the case, but coming from Raven, the statement still took him by surprise. He tried to think of something to say, but couldn't. "Wow."
"You don't approve," Raven said, worry in her voice. She knew that Leo valued his brother's opinion above all else so gaining Midas' approval was a big step.
"No, it's not that," Midas said. "I just wasn't really expecting you to say that."
"So what do you think?" Raven asked.
"I don't know," Midas said. "I always thought that you were a little old for him. For that matter, how old are you, exactly?"
"Fifteen," Raven answered. Then to clarify, "One year older than Leo."
"Wow," Midas said, taken aback for the second time tonight. "I didn't know that you were that young. I thought you were older what with the way you carried yourself and..." he motioned to his face.
"My scars," Raven finished.
"Yeah, that," Midas said lamely.
"So..." Raven said, prodding.
"You want to know what Leo thinks," Midas said. "Well, he's not seeing anyone else at the moment if that says anything." He laughed at his own lame joke.
"It's probably just a dream," Raven said, turning away. "I guess he would never think about me that way, not with the way that I look."
"Now wait a minute," Midas said. He put a hand on Raven's shoulder to prevent her from walking away. "Leo and I consider you as a friend. I don't care about the scars and neither does he. I know he cares about you, I just don't know to what extent."
"But he couldn't," Raven said again. "Not with my scars."
"Give him a chance," Midas said. "He'll be back in the morning; you can ask him then." Raven's face turned bright red at the suggestion, and Midas kicked himself for being so stupid. "I'll talk to him," he amended. "I can figure out if he has any feelings for you or not."
"No, don't do that," Raven said. "I'd rather find out myself." In actuality, she would die of embarrassment if Midas asked his brother that question.
"Fine, but I would talk to him soon," Midas said. "Someone like Leo isn't likely to stay single for long."
"I will," Raven promised.
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.