Vol.1, Ch.5, P.3
By steed, I sped through the starry evenlight, the dusking roads pointing me to the edge of Norden. Beyond it loomed the neighbouring viscounty of Albeck.
Twilight darkened into moonlight. Far up the highroad emerged a gatepost, manned by guards and brightened by braziers.
A border check. I’d suspected the main paths would be barred so. Not yet had I left the marquisate of Norden, but already was I met with measures against any interlopers of untoward intent.
Such stringent security was typically a luxury employed by some of the more esteemed peers of the nobility—counts and higher up, namely—but House Albeck hung on a lower rung of that social ladder. Unusual, but given their criminal character, not unreasonable: doubtless there were many shadowed things that the lord of Albeck wished to hide behind bristling ranks of men.
I veered off the highroad and drave instead into the valley—cautiously. Time was of the essence, and the night would only wane from here on out, but I had little choice: braving the less-beaten paths was preferable to drawing suspicion from the viscount’s men. Fortunately, the benighted empty was flush with moonglow, thus was I able to gallop through the darkened hours unhindered.
The detour proved the right path. By the next morrow’s noontide, I found myself clear within the viscounty.
A town. Through it I went, along the way learning from the folk of the way to their lord’s manor. By their words, it was situated not far from the locality itself. I awayed at once.
The open country led to a patch of hilled woods. Riding through the shaded evergreen, I soon spied a manor distantly peeping through the canopy. The viscount’s lair, no doubt. I cantered off to the side and up a hillock, from the summit of which I surveyed the residence.
Its grounds were nestled within a trimmed and tended clearing. And it was well-guarded: walls encircled the entire premises, whilst men kept watch about its gatehouse.
Breaking into the mansion, making off with some evidence of the cruelties indulged within… Certainly the most expedient way to go about things. Only, the “how” of it was the rub. Perhaps I should approach from the back?
In the course of my cogitation, I scanned through the area.
Far off in the veiled distance: a convoy of carriages coming up this way.
Horse-drawn waggons, to be exact, each with their loads canvased. Goods for the good lord, perhaps? Might prove useful.
Dismounting from my steed, I stooped low, then scurried through the shrubbery and down the slope, creeping closer to the waggon-train’s path. A distraction was needed, something to anchor the waggoners’ eyes with. I glanced about for options, finding a large tree nearby, snapped from its stump and lying flat upon the foliage. This, I’ll use.
Working quickly, I heaved and turned the tree till it was parallel to the manor-bound highroad. Low again, I waited. The hoof-falls and wheel-dragging loudened. As the procession of waggons approached, I kicked the tree.
Down the hillock it tumbled. The escorts blared their voices at the scare, taking it to be some work of banditry or connivery.
No time to waste. In the commotion, I slinked away from the scene and made my way around to the opposite side of the hillock before descending the slope there. Through the bushes, I wound about in a half-circle to the procession’s rear.
Up to the last of the waggons I approached. With the eyes of the escorts firmly trained away from me, I then thought to steal a peek into the waggon’s contents.
Naught but a “banal” affair to be found here, as it were. I had a mind to chance upon some evidence, but it would seem my stint in espionage won’t be ending soon.
Yet the foodstuffs—certainly not too valuable a load. It well-explained the waggons’ smattering of escorts and their relative lack of apprehension. Despite the load’s meagre worth, it was thanks to it that I was able to sneak my way to the procession’s midst, an invaluable opportunity in and of itself.
Should I hide in one of the waggons?
Nay—their decks will all be checked at the gatehouse, to be sure.
There’s no helping it. I crouched down low and slid beneath the waggon. To its underside, I clung tightly: arms braced about the rear axle and legs wrapped around the reach. A painful position, to be sure, but this was no time to complain.
Before long, the waggons went about their way once more, their escorts having deduced the fallen tree to be nothing more than a fluke, and the area to be absent of hostiles. Only, they neglected to check their shadows, for a stowaway now clung along for the shaky ride.
“The usual grub, eh? Right then, bring ‘em all in.”
The waggons were wheeled into the manor premises, the requisite load inspections having been completed without a hitch. Merchants and men of the manor both were locked in conversation. From here on, the foodstuffs would be brought into the residence.
The guards then sauntered back to their posts; the merchants commenced their labour. I waited under the waggon, and at the moment I suspected all eyes were turned away, I quickly crawled out. With caution shrinking my gait low, I slinked towards the manor proper and into the nearest entryway.
No one in sight.
“So far, so good…” I mouthed.
Obtaining proof of the Albecks’ offences would require infiltrating the very spot in which they were committed. After all, there wouldn’t be something so conveniently damning as a ledger lying around. The viscount and his son were involved in trafficking—if there was proper proof to be had, it would be in the victims themselves. Should any such poor souls still be in the premises, it’d be best to rescue them and gain their testimony.
This, I reasoned in my head, whilst the rest of my body had already begun making way further into the mansion.
But there was something… “odd”, about this place.
A drawing room in the eastern wing was where I ended up, but its layout differed from what I had gleaned from my survey of the manor. From the outside, the room appeared to be deeper by about two passūs, yet here the missing depth was walled off instead.
I glanced and glared all about the facade, till my eyes spied an unassuming notch.
“A dent…?” I whispered, feeling the small feature with my fingers. “No… a handle.”
The “wall” was but a sliding panel, and so with a hand on the handle, I had it opened. Beyond it was a sunless space.
“Mmm?” mumbled a sleepy voice. A guard, taken by a bout of drowsiness, looked up from his nodding half-nap. “Me shift’s over already?”
“It is now.”
Before our eyes could meet, my fist flashed through the side of his jaw. The resulting concussion had him crumpling to the floor.
Working with all speed, I unravelled his belts, and with them had his hands and feet bound tight. The last, I saved for his mouth.
“…rrh…! …mmrh…!” came his muffled slur, till silence took him entirely.
Quickly again, I relieved his person of a conspicuous key, and with it, passed through a door looming further in. Behind it was revealed a set of stairs, the steps diving down into the dark.
There at the bottom was I beset by an evil scene. Anticipating signs of sinning was one thing, but beholding them in the flesh was another: the bedevilled sight before me earned an immediate and involuntary click from my tongue.
Besmirching the stone floor were washes of dried blood, as well as an array of torturous implements scattered about. Ledges lined the walls, each appointed with all manner of blades, needles, and whips. But there was one wall that wasn’t, for instead it was composed of iron bars spanning from floor to ceiling.
A gaol cell.
Inside it laid women, left with not a single scrap of clothing upon their bare skin.
I stepped closer.
“Ha…ah…!” whimpered their low, hopeless voices, and at the sight of me, they shrank back to the wall.
The women numbered three—each wounded pitifully all throughout their bodies.
“Easy now. I’ve come to help,” I assured them, undoing the lock and swinging the iron bars open.
Yet none of the victims therein ventured a step towards their freedom. With no other choice, I entered the gaol myself and approached them.
“N… no! P-please… no…!” one of the women yelped, who then began flailing her arms and legs about. The desperate effort to keep me away was tangible.
“Ach—easy, I said,” I tried to soothe, taking a blow to chin and cheek both. “I’ll not hurt any of you, I swear it.”
My words were of no avail. The sands of the hourglass flowed dearly. I would have liked very much to at once liberate these women from this little corner of hell, but to take them by the hand, unwilling and untrusting as they were, ran the risk of injuring further their frail persons.
The bewildered woman—I braced my face against her pitifully flailing hands, gazed with calm into her eyes, and attempted again to allay her fears.
“Listen. I’ve come to expose the viscount’s crimes; I would have him unmasked for the fiend that he is, but know that saving you here serves not only that purpose,” I spoke as steadily as I could. The sorry struggle ceased in answer. “Your loved ones. They’re all waiting for you back home, yes? I’ll see to it that you are returned to them—safe and sound.”
Slowly, the woman’s eyes met mine. “Ah… aa…”
“My name’s Rolf,” I continued. “Have you all families? Friends? Anyone at all that may worry over your absence? If not, then at least take comfort in this: I, myself, wish to see you all freed and well upon your paths. And I say again: I would have it done.”
A heavy quiet grew between us all.
“It’s all right, Ina. He’s not one of them,” rang a voice from the corner. “See what he wears? Different, isn’t it?”
From the mirk stepped forth the third woman. Curls of carrot-hue hung to her shoulders, and with large, dazzling eyes and a gracefully slender figure, one would be forgiven for mistaking her presence for that of a cat’s.
“Quite the courageous one, aren’t you?” her eyes narrowed at mine. “I am naked, in case you’ve not noticed.”
“Apologies. You seem lithe—exceptionally so. I took you for a sword-adept; one who earns her coin by the blade, no less.”
“And you took me right,” she smiled. “The name’s Frieda, a freelance from ‘round these parts. I came by commission of the authorities, seeking proof of the viscount’s criminality. Didn’t turn out as I’d hoped, as you can see,” she shook her head. “‘Rolf’, was it? You have my trust, big lad.”
“And you have my thanks. I take it your employers have briefed you on the situation. That saves us time. We leave now,” I said, then turning to the two other women before me. “You’re Ina, yes? And what of you, miss?”
“C-Carola, good ser,” the second woman stammered, before looking to the first. “Ina, he’s not one of the viscount’s villains. See? It’s all right.”
“Aah…” Ina began to speak brokenly. “Y… yes… I… I’m sorry…”
“You’ve nothing to be sorry about, Ina. But we must leave, and quickly,” I said, softly yet assuredly. “Pains me to say, but I’m dim to the mending magicks—how fare your injuries? Can you all walk?”
“That I can.”
“As can I,” Carola nodded. “Ina?”
“Y-yes, I-I think.”
The trio were weakened from their many wounds, but by their words, they were well enough for the escape ahead. I gave a nod myself and left the gaol. The rest followed, but before we began our climb up the stairs, a peculiarity piqued my eye. Across from the gaol cell spanned a long shelf, upon which rested a row of countless skulls.
Frieda followed my gaze. Her voice bit with bitterness. “Long-lost offerings, they are—to the lord and his boy.”
Regret seemed to sigh from the skulls’ many sockets. Beholding them, I darkly clenched my teeth and stepped towards the stairs.
(plural: passūs) A unit of measure used by the ancient Romans, taken from the length of a pace (2 steps). 1 metre is equal to 0.6757 of a passus. A passus, therefore, can be roughly equated to 1 and a half metres.