Baron Gedli had never been a brave man, but as he led his family down into the empty dungeons below their keep, he had to wonder if fleeing a stronghold when it stood unthreatened was an act of cowardice that he would ever be able to live down.
The tremble in his hand was easy enough to grip away. The important thing was that whatever cost there was, he would be alive to pay it, as would his family.
The dungeons below his keep should have been home to the criminals awaiting trial and transfer to a royal prison complex elsewhere within the realm. Gedli had been diligent about hearing cases over the last several days and had been exceedingly merciful so as to ensure that the all of the cells were empty. Most especially the one designed by the keep’s former lord. As a forward thinking individual, the previous lord of the keep had made sure that the cell a noble prisoner was likely to be placed in also included a secret escape door which lead to a long tunnel which ran out of the keep and into a maze of passages beneath the mountain the keep was located beside.
The tunnel was fiendishly trapped of course, but since its creator had left detailed notes on those traps, Gedli and his party suffered no more than minor injuries navigating their passage out of the castle that had become nothing more than a death trap in Gedli’s mind.
Paxmer was marshalling the largest force it had ever assembled for a rush into Gallagrin. It was converging on a single province, the one directly south of Gedli’s domain, and when it arrived no thickness of rock walls or shelter of slate roofs would be enough to ward off the might that was going to crash down on the border outpost Gedli was charged with protecting.
So he ran. Not from the blow that was coming but rather into it. There was no refuge for Gedli anywhere in Gallagrin, so the only choice he saw was to welcome Queen Haldri’s offer of allegiance.
It caught him as strange to be fleeing into the arms of the force that he feared, but little in life ran to his expectations he found.
Paxmer’s strike against Gallagrin was not going to be an unprovoked one. Day by day he’d seen the Gallagrin forces marshalling throughout the region. Queen Alari was planning some horrible and ill-conceived revenge against Paxmer for the slights against her honor by the fool of a Consort-King. Queen Haldri had spoken to him privately on the subject, sharing her concerns for her people and the people of Gallagrin who would be affected by Alari’s rash actions.
Gedli didn’t hold any animosity against the foreign queen. If anything she seemed to understand him better than anyone in Gallagrin had ever bothered to. She was in a difficult position of ensuring the long term safety of her realm, which meant that she couldn’t allow a Gallagrin force to rampage into her kingdom, slaying people and livestock and putting towns and ports to the torch without some kind of answer.
The strength of her answer, she explained to Gedli, needed to be carefully calibrated. She had no wish to destroy any part of her northern neighbor, but if she did not strike back with sufficient force then the more aggressive and adventuresome nobles of Gallagrin would surely repeat Queen Alari’s foolish endeavor.
Gedli knew her words were ernest ones. He saw the tremble on her lower lip as she spoke of the needless loss of life, and of how difficult it was to project an image of strength at all times, when all that you truly desired was peace and goodwill. Her evaluation of the nobles of Gallagrin was one he couldn’t deny though. They were an awful, miserable lot of greedy thieves, people who would stop at nothing to attain power in any form they could grasp it in.
So there would be war. Instigated by an insane queen, and finished by one who desired real peace. Standing between the two was not a position which held any future as far as Gedli could see, and so he cast aside an oath he had taken as little more than a boy, and then renewed in the face of overwhelming pressure from his peers.
He would no longer defend the lands assigned to him. He would defend himself and his family, as was right and proper.
They exited the ancient escape tunnel far from the fort they were leaving behind forever, and found that their appointed assassins were waiting for them, right on time.
Master Merrin Quick had worked many unsavory jobs in her life. Serving as master for a transportation guild was far from the worst of them, but she was still surprised how often she was called on to attend to distasteful tasks personally.
To be fair, those tasks also tended to pay exceedingly well.
Merrin didn’t consider herself a mercenary. That she was motivated by simple, straightforward concerns was a blessing which she felt other people could stand to emulate more. Money made things simple. It answered questions like “should she take this deal or that one” and “should she betray the nation she was a citizen of”. When it all boiled down to gold, the answers were very easy to determine.
Most people, for example, would have balked at the idea of transporting two wagon loads of badly burned bodies to a remote local. Desecrating corpses could have all sorts of nasty ramifications in a world where ghosts occasionally returned to complain about such things.
Placing the bodies in a special ritual circle was, in many sense, even worse, given that it would not only imply that the bodies had been violated but that any pact spirits they were carrying had been imprisoned in some manner.
To Merrin, those were valid concerns, the moreso because any competition she might have for the job would believe the issues to be problematic ones and she could therefore charge even more than her usual illicit hauling rate.
When one was drawing on a royal payroll, it was wise not to be too greedy of course, Queens had a tendency to be unforgiving with those who cheated them but even a monarch had to expect to pay premium rates for “special projects” involving multiple taboos.
Merrin was aligning the last of the corpses in their ritual circle when Baron Gedli and his family emerged from the escape tunnel they had fled down.
“So, you are here to kill us then?” the Baron asked.
“Already done,” Merrin said. “You’re the one laying in the center of the circle. The wife and kids are arranged around you.”
The Baron’s wife averted her eyes, but their four children looked on in rapt fascination at their charred dopplegangers.
“And the other bodies?” Gedli asked.
“Your retainers,” Merrin said. “They’re joined in lesser circles that orbit yours, which I think is correct, but the diagrams Haldri gave were a little unclear on that point.”
“And no one will be able to tell that these unfortunate souls are not us?” Gedli asked.
“Nope,” Merrin said. “They’re a perfect match for you, assuming you’d been burned for several hours and warped by the magic of the circle.”
“Where did you find them?” Gedli asked and then quickly added, “No, don’t tell me. Better that we not know.”
Merrin knew that meant the baron was happier to think of the corpses as nothing more than props. Facing the idea that close to a dozen people had been murdered specifically for his convenience was too weighty a burden for him to carry and so he clung to ignorance as a shield.
“If you say so,” Merrin said, suppressing a chuckle. From the look of horror Gedli was fighting to conceal, she knew that the authenticity of the bodies weren’t going to be questioned by anyone. Which meant that the corner cutting she’d done was not only saving her money but had been morally the right move as well, which was always a nice a perk.
Ultimately, after all, there always was a risk in violating taboos and if it paid just as well to appear to be violating them as it did to actually do so, then a little subterfuge was certainly in order.
The illusion spells that covered the hunks of seared cow carcass hadn’t been cheap, but they were infinitely less expensive than the cost Merrin would have paid for actually murdering a dozen Gallagrin citizens, and with the help of a few conveniently accessible Sunlost glamor casters, it had been faster to arrange the ruse than it would have been to find such close matches for the Baron and his family.
Merrin would, of course, still collect her full fee from Queen Haldri. It wasn’t like the Paxmer Queen’s gold would spend any worse for having been tricked out of the royal horde, and it would sit so nicely beside the matching stack of Gallagrin gold Merrin had amassed.
“So that’s our old lives finished then,” Gedli said.
“Your old lives finished, yes,” Merrin said. “I call this a day that ends in ‘y’.”
“Surely Queen Haldri must be offering you sanctuary as well though?” Gedli asked.
“She offered, but it’s not much good to me,” Merrin said. “I’ve got a guild to run. Can’t do that if I’m hiding out in a different country from it.”
“What of the war though?” Gedli asked. “It can’t possibly be safe to transport goods through a warzone.”
“Safe? No. Profitable? Like you couldn’t imagine,” Merrin said.
“How much gold is your life worth?” Gedli asked.
“The rate varies day to day,” Merrin said. “No price on my head at the moment, so I shouldn’t have to pay that much to keep it I figure.”
“That’s not what I meant,” Gedli said. “What’s the point of gold if you’re not alive to spend it.”
“What’s the point of living if you’ve got no money to survive with?” Merrin asked.
She could have answered his questions, but she knew that the Baron would never be able to see the world through her eyes. He was risk averse to the point where he would abandon everything in the face of a sufficient threat. Merrin knew that was no better than making a bad bet with fate and that sometimes even if your odds were poor, you still had to keep playing the game. In those cases you just wanted to make to cheat as much as possible.
“Tradesman,” Gedli said, shaking his head in disgust.
To Merrin’s ears the word translated as “useful” compared to “nobleman” which translated as “moneybag”.
“We’ll be traveling past one of the marshalling points,” she said, changing the subject. “So we’ll have to keep you hidden for bit.”
“Is that safe?” Gedli asked, a new flush of anxiety coloring his face.
“Perfectly,” Merrin said. “We’re all paid up on our bribes and the last three times we were searched it was so boring that the guards refunded us half the bribe.”
That wasn’t even vaguely true. Guards never refunded bribes. Only an idiot would believe otherwise.
So of course Gedli bought the story without blinking.
The truth was that the last three stations they’d been through had so few guards posted that nine out of ten of the wagons that came through were waved past with nothing more than a perfunctory glance.
That had bothered Merrin from a tactical perspective. The marshalling points were thronging with people. There should have been plenty of personnel to inspect wagons bound for the soon-to-be enemy lands. With a mob of soldiers as large as Gallagrin was assembling, a general shakedown of transports was a near certainty to help pay for the troops and their ravenous needs.
But none of that was in evidence.
As they wound past the growing encampment closest to the Paxmer border, Merrin marveled again at the ease of their passage. Something was not right about the force that Queen Alari had assembled but Merrin sensed that it would profit her more in this particular instance to remain blissfully unaware of what that might be.