This story is by Steven Thiele and was part of our 2018 Summer Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
A muffled clang and the cell door opened, one man striding in, garbed in dark blue, a black crescent swinging from his neck like a pendulum.
“Get up, traitor,” he said, face a blank mask. The bedraggled man in the corner raised a brow and shifted against the wall.
“Lovely to see you too, Alarin. How’s life in the spy corps?” his voice rasped with disuse and dehydration.
“Better than a prison cell, Rys.”
“Finally going to execute me? I was wondering if you’d have the guts to do it yourself,” Rys grinned bitterly. Alarin shrugged.
“Look, you can sit here until you lose your mind, which may not be too far off. Or, you can come with me and maybe not spend your days in a cell.” Rys blinked at that.
Ten minutes later, Rys sat with Alarin at a rough wooden table, parchment spread before them.
“You want me to break into Pinth Castle? Frankly, the cell is looking fairly good by this point.” Alarin nodded.
“Yes, I want you to break into Pinth Castle. Baron Minan has been meeting with Throsian mercenaries. You know how it goes. They’ll overthrow a kingdom for the right price.”
“So you want me to kill him?” A quiet sigh.
“No, I need evidence. The king wants to put him on trial.”
“Damn your rules of evidence. Why not his head?”
“Enough. Get in, find what you can, and get out, and you’ll receive a full pardon for your crimes.”
“Why me? Anyone could do this, people who aren’t traitors to the realm… ah. Use a traitor to catch a traitor?” Alarin’s expression was clear.
“Flattering. Well, I need my old suit, weapons and a bath.”
Pinth Castle was less than two days’ ride away. Alarin and Rys travelled swiftly, without an escort. Even with a traitor next to him, Alarin had slept soundly that night as Rys honed his knives and checked his suit, a dark tunic with a matching hood and certain surprises.
After fording the fast-flowing Gian River, Alarin twisted in his saddle to look at Rys.
“Alright. Pinth Castle lies just over that rise. Go in at nightfall. If you’re not back by morning, you’d better be dead.” Rys just shrugged.
“Fine.” They dismounted and slouched comfortably against tree trunks to wait out the day. Alarin broke the silence.
“Why’d you do it?” Rys raised a brow.
“Turn traitor.” A quiet sigh.
“I was on an assignment in the north with Lillian. You remember her, right? All I had to do was watch the barbarians. If they stirred, Lillian would get help. Well, one night we were caught by a pack of raiders. Never saw them coming. They’d gone through my pack and found my crescent. It was all over then. Their leader said he’d do all sorts of things to Lillian if I didn’t give him information.” He could see Alarin’s expression drop. “I told him General Nahran’s battalion was moving northward. He smiled and then killed Lillian where she stood, before dropping me at the nearest outpost. Nahran’s battalion was slaughtered. Word spread and suddenly I was a traitor to the crown.”
“Yeah, me too. You know we were going to retire together?” An uncomfortable silence spread across the camp. “Anyway, it doesn’t matter anymore.”
The sky reddened as the sun descended in the west, a brilliant flash of flame. Dusk fell over the countryside.
“See you in the morning,” Rys said, glancing at Alarin, noting silver-lined eyes on a blank face.
“Good luck.” Rys breathed deeply and walked on alone.
The sun’s final rays illuminated Pinth Castle’s stone walls. Rys stayed totally still, a shadow in the night. The castle crouched on a small hill with clear grassland surrounding it. An attack would be easily spotted. Rys’ eyes tracked and scanned, noting vital details. The one rotating sentry took roughly three minutes to complete a lap of the castle walls. The watchmen on the corner towers barely watched the grounds.
Satisfied, Rys stood and pulled the cowl over his dark hair. With that, he began a slow shuffle across the dark grass, occasionally flicking his eyes up at the sentries. Nothing. The clouds parted and for a split second the moon shone clear, a cold light flickering across the grass. Damn. Rys dropped to the ground and froze, praying no one would see the black stain on the grass. Silence across the plain. The moon faded away as he reached the wall. Rys began to climb, picking out crevices in the rock for his strong fingers to grab hold.
He stopped just below the top. Even breaths, traces of mist in the cool night mingled with the muted thumps of the patrolling sentry. Dangling with one arm from the wall, Rys reached into a hidden pocket in his suit and pulled out a small sphere, no larger than a grapefruit. He closed his eyes and hurled it with all his strength. A flash lit the world and sentries shouted in disarray. Rys reopened his eyes and sprang over the wall. The sentry was still there, flailing blindly. Rys grabbed his jerkin and hurled him bodily over the wall. A scream and a thud.
He rushed down the ladder while the watchmen were flailing and headed straight for the keep, the dark tower ascending from the centre of the castle. Two guards waited by the entrance with drooping eyelids and slack grips on weapons. Rys shrugged the cowl off his head with a disarming smile, muttering something about sleep. No challenge. He took the stairs two at a time.
The torches flickered in their brackets, shadows shifting along the wall. Rys gripped his knife as he arrived on the third floor, scanning the closed doors. Footsteps echoed and Rys pressed himself into the wall as a servant walked past, ringing footsteps on cold stone. A blur of motion and Rys’ knife scraped his throat, breathing “Where’s Minan’s study?” The servant shuddered and pointed down the dim hall. Rys rapped him on the head with the pommel and he dropped like a stone. Rys rushed towards the door and tried the handle. Locked. Dammit! He grimaced and slid the knife into the lock, forcing it. The lock splintered and with a shoulder push he was in. Rys scanned the room. Neat bookshelves, a tidy desk, an expensive and utterly useless artwork. Well, at least he isn’t a messy traitor. Rys set to work, searching the desk and shelves for something, anything. Where was it, where was it – ah. His boots, returning deep thumps on the floor, now had a shallow rap. Rys smiled and dug his knife into the gaps into the floorboards, prying open a loose board and grinned at the trove beneath him. Several letters nestled in the gap. He pulled one out and skimmed it.
“Forces arriving one week after Midsummer… payment upon proof of assassination…” His eyes widened. Rys reached in and stuffed the letters in his suit with a gentle crinkling of parchment. Muffled shouts came from outside. The servant must have woken up. He was trapped. Rys whipped his gaze around the room like an asp, before settling on the window and an ancient chair. Rys hurled the chair through the window, shattering glass. He gingerly eased his way through the window. The wind howled – that was a long way down. Rys shuddered and descended hurriedly, breathing a prayer of thanks to whichever god was watching for the cloud cover.
He dropped to the earth and sprinted for the gate, dodging soldiers as they began to muster.
“Open the gate! We need to get after him!” he yelled, and the soldiers did not hesitate as they hauled the heavy gate open. He charged through, grinning.
A shout behind him. A thrum of a bowstring. A blinding pain in his left shoulder. Rys shuddered and kept pushing to reach Alarin. Yells of pursuers sounded behind him. Every footstep pounded in time with the roaring in his ears. Finally, he burst into Alarin’s camp. He drew one shuddering breath and collapsed.
Rys opened his eyes in a stark room, bare from the waste up save for a bandage over his left shoulder. He tried to sit up in the rough bed and barked in pain as his wounded shoulder tore. The door opened and Alarin entered, face his usual mask.
“Take it easy, Rys. We had to stitch you up while you were unconscious.”
“I sent it on. Minan’s on his way to the capital for trial. As promised…” he produced a parchment with a wax seal. “Once you heal, you’re free to go.”
“And if I don’t? I mean, since I did such an excellent job last time, may as well keep going. Any vacancies in your spy corps?” Alarin’s mouth stilled, though his eyes crinkled.
“I hoped you’d say that.”
A small glint of onyx landed in his lap. A crescent.