The jungle of Basa was most annoying, even for a person as patient as Alandra.
The heat was bearable, but what the female Knight could not stand was the gigantic amount of bugs. A black cloud of animals that could roughly pass for flies, if not so big, did not leave the group even for a short moment. Led by Princess Saraya, the Knights had been trying to get through the thick rainforest.
A few steps ahead of Alandra walked Hakim, seemingly not noticing the bugs circling around him. Marcus and Crimson Sabatt were falling behind, discussing some military matter. Saraya herself was at the very front of the odd procession.
The healer caught up with Hakim, touching his shoulder to get his attention.
"Am I the only one that thinks there is something wrong?"
"No," the Southerner replied, continuing to walk. "I am having strong doubts about our current walking direction."
"Me too. I think we are lost, but Saraya has not noticed the fact," Alandra said.
"Well, that is nothing surprising. Saraya can hardly notice anything besides her lost father." Hakim grimaced for a very short moment.
"Don't say that." The female Knight gave him a freezing look
"You know just too well what I mean."
Alandra sighed, shaking her head. There was no point arguing, since they both were thinking alike. A change of topic might be a good idea.
"Where is Kestral? She was with us this morning, when we set off from the camp site, and now I can't spot her anywhere."
'I wish I knew," the Janubian replied, shrugging slightly. "She sometimes does that when..."
He was suddenly interrupted by a cracking sound, and then a rain of dry leaves fell on both Knights of Vestholm. Alandra stopped and covered her head with her arms and Hakim did the most stupid thing of all.
He looked up and saw Kestral fall from the tree, right above him.
Then two things happened at once. First, Hakim took a step backward, tripping over a root and falling. Second, Kestral got suddenly tangled in the lianas, stopping her flight about two feet from the ground. The only problem was that it was her feet that got tied, and now the former bandit was hanging upside down, her long black hair swinging inches from the forest ground.
Alandra looked at her fellow Knight, wide eyed. Kestral crossed her arms on her chest, which, considering her current position, looked rather awkward.
"You're going in the wrong direction," she said.
Hakim stood up, trying to flick the leaves from his robes. He gave the former bandit a chilly look.
"Yeah, you're welcome," Kestral added.
"Where exactly have you been?" Alandra pointed her finger up.
"Scouting," the woman replied. "Better view up there." She indicated the trees, then took out a knife and started cutting the lianas holding her.
"Yes Kestral, we are aware of the fact that we are not on the right track," Hakim murmured, still trying to lose all of the jungle's souvenirs.
"Aha! But I know the right way to that village!" The bandit stopped cutting for a second.
Both Knights looked at her.
"You do?" Alandra asked with a bit of suspicion.
"Yup. You really see everything from up there."
"Weren't you scared of heights?" Hakim's eyebrow raised a silver, now receiving a chilly look himself. No one talks about Kestral's flaws, except Kestral.
The three heard noises from Saraya's group ahead.
"We must correct our course immediately," the healer said and left to speak with the princess.
Kestral kept on cutting through her trap.
"Tell me again Wisey, why are we following Princess Damsel In Distress anyway?"
"Because she is the princess, like you have already mentioned. She might turn out particularly useful," Hakim replied dryly.
"Geez, royalty is a big time pain, you know," the bandit murmured. Then, realising what she just said, she turned her head and looked at her friend. "Not that all of them are bad or …"
"Spare me," Hakim waved his hand dismissively.
"Yeah, Princey, when are you going to tell them …"
Kestral never got the chance to finish her question, because in that very moment she cut the last liana keeping her in the air. There was just one problem: she forgot to hold on to anything.
Again, only Hakim's good reflexes worked. The Janubian managed to catch the bandit before she reached the ground, but paid a price for it. The force sent him to his knees, which both landed on a hard root, making the Southerner bite his own tongue from pain.
As for Kestral, it took her a second to understand what had just happened.
"Thanks," she murmured, still a bit shocked and surprised.
"Coming back to your question," Hakim hissed through his teeth. "I will tell them when you get just a bit more reasonable, and start to think before you act."
"That's never, Wise Boy." She smiled, and stood up, then reached out her hand, helping him to get onto his feet.
"An adequate amount of time." He returned the smile.
The group of horsemen struck sprang from the edge of the forest, now going up, through the higher ranges of the mountains. The occasional birches stood diagonally, fighting the force of gravity, as the group made their way.
"Did I hear correctly before?" Hakim turned for a second towards Hissler, who was riding behind him. "Are we going to a castle?"
"Yes, it was once a castle. A great one, stood there for over two hundred years," Hissler replied. "It was to guard the mountain pass between two valleys. Then, one stormy night, lightning struck the castle and tore it in half, killing all of its inhabitants. Now, only one part of the building stands. The other has fallen, collapsing upon the trail and cutting off the way through the mountain pass. The villagers left, when the rumour broke out that the place was cursed."
"Then how come you never used it as a hideout?" Hakim asked.
"The floors are collapsing upon a single step," the boy said. "Especially those near the edge. And I've heard those who try to plunder the place die or turn insane."
"Well, then how come Alton lives and hides there?" Gavin joined the conversation. "And why are we going up instead of through that valley?"
"It will certainly be guarded," the Janubian replied.
"And I don't even want to know how many traps Alton and his boys left for unwanted visitors," Arno added.
The group stopped at the edge of the mountain and Hakim finally saw their destination.
It was magnificent. A tall castle, built of stone, at the highest point of a rock, overlooking the pass right beside it. He could almost see the other half of the castle, the symmetric part of that perfect construction, but then, at a blink, it was no longer there. Just a ripped edge, collapsing more with each higher floor. The only remaining fragments of the second half were three floors, now covered with bricks and stones. Between the halves stood a giant, profound rip, reaching even lower than the rock upon which the castle was standing.
In front of a half-destroyed main gate stood two guards. And there was a single detail that could not leave Hakim's head.
"We are some two hundred feet above the castle," he said, peeking over the edge. "How do you suppose we get in from here?"
Four pairs of eyes locked on him. Hissler, Arno, Dominic and Gavin all eyed him looking like they were fighting the need to laugh.
"So tell me, Knight," Arno finally spoke. "Ever wanted to learn how to fly?"
"I suppose the negative answer does not interest you," he replied with resignation.
"Correct." The trap master grinned."And you'd better come up with a plan."
Hakim kept silent for a moment, thinking of all the strategies that were possible, cautiously balancing the odds of each.
"Got it," he finally said. "The castle will be protected, but not as much as usual, since most of the Raiders are in the forest. But Alton sent his rookies to the field, which means that he left his best soldiers here." He pointed to the two guards. "Our first problem is those two. We will have to sneak past them."
"And we'll have to get down there, which is a bit of a tricky thing," Dominic added. "Now, I can shoot an arrow with a line to any place you point, but sliding down it is fast and you have to time the end of your trip, unless you want to become a pancake."
"And there is one more issue." The Southerner observed the terrain below them. "We will need a way out. Climbing back on the line would take too long."
"If we can make it down there, I can take out the guards and secure the way out," Arno said. "Check all the traps, disable them, and roll out the red carpet when you get back from the castle."
"Good, then one thing is settled." Hakim was still overbooking the castle surroundings. "There." He pointed to the balcony at the side of the building. "Can you shoot it there?"
Dominic took his bow and marked the shot.
"Yes, I should be able to do that."
"Aim low. Below the balustrade. We'll climb up," Gavin said.
"All right." The archer took a single arrow and Hissler handed him a rope, which he carried around. Dominic looked at it sceptically.
"Isn't it too short?" he asked.
"Sorry, didn't expect a two hundred feet drop!" the boy replied.
"Well, it lacks just about twenty feet," Dominic replied. "You people got any more?"
The two other bandits reached for their belts, both taking out their rope. Dominic tied the ends and attached the line to the arrow.
"Knots," he murmured. "Nasty, when it comes to sliding down." He aimed again, standing still for a moment, only adjusting the bow position. Then came the sound of an arrow being released and the line cut the air between the rescue party and the castle. It struck right under the edge of the balustrade. Arno, who was holding the other end of the rope, now tied it to the big stone further from the edge.
Then, one after another, the five men took their belts and took a slide down. First, Dominic, smoothly climbing on the balcony railing, then Hissler, Arno, Gavin, and lastly Hakim. Luckily, they were not spotted by the guards, and now were out of their sight, behind the corner of the building.
Arno opened the door quietly, peering inside.
"Clear," he said, going in. The rest followed.
They stood in a large, empty room, probably plundered decades ago.
"All right," Hakim said. "Arno, Gavin, you two secure the exit and get our horses from up the hill. Dominic, Hissler and I will look for Kestral."
The men nodded, then Arno opened the next door, leading to the corridor. Since it was empty as well, the group separated.
The light blinded her, when the door opened. Kestral's eyes narrowed. She badly wanted to cover her face with her arm, but the chains around her wrists reminded that she couldn't.
The man looked ugly, even against the light. When he smiled, she could just see how many teeth he was missing.
"It's time," he said.
"Guess Alton has staff problems, if he sends you to do the man's job," she replied, through the pain given even by speaking.
The man stopped for a second, then punched Kestral right in the stomach. She felt blood in her mouth.
"Lovely," she said, spitting. The bandit released her, then forced to stand up and walk out of her cell.
"The boss said you're afraid of heights," he said. "Good. We can arrange heights in here."
The three men ran all over the castle, but found only silence. They had started on the highest floors, which was rather easy, since they were mostly collapsed. Then, coming down, one floor after another, they checked every single room.
On the third floor, Hakim suddenly stopped, He tried to remember what the building looked like on the outside. Now, it was obvious that the Raiders would not inhabit the higher levels, with the ever-present hazard of collapse, but now that they were lower, something didn't seem quite right.
"We're on the wrong side," the Southerner said finally.
"What, how can you tell?" Hissler asked, but Hakim had already opened the first door leading close to the edge of the two halves. The room, or more precisely, a half of it, overlooked the hole. The rain was still falling. Through the pouring curtain the Janubian saw two shadows on the other side, one taller than the other. In sudden motion he forced Hissler and Dominic behind the next rock. He peered from behind it.
At the very edge, on the other side, stood Kestral, trying her best not to look down the endless pit. Behind her was a man, grinning awfully.
"Any last words?" he exclaimed and laughed.
The three emerged quickly from behind the rock and walked to the other side of the edge. Hakim stopped halfway there, a bit behind the other two. He met Kestral's eyes, more scared than he had ever seen.
Dominic calmly aimed at the bandit on the other side. The man first gave him a surprised look, but then, out of pure stupidity or loyalty, he pushed Kestral down.
The time slowed for a moment. Dominic let go of the arrow and the bandit on the other side dropped dead.
Kestral fell over the edge with a scream, but in the last desperate try, she managed to catch a brick sticking out. The wet stone was slippery, and her efforts to climb up were almost useless.
Hakim did not think much. He took a few more steps back.
"Are you crazy?" He heard Hissler's voice. Another three steps. Enough.
He summoned all his strength and will, ran through the room, and jumped.
Awkwardly enough, the only thing that crossed his head at that moment was who was going to take care of Sahir al-Awan, if he died right there.
The flight seemed like forever. The hole between the two halves of the room was some fifteen feet. Finally, his feet touched down on the other side. He skidded on the slippery floor, lying flat at the end, but he managed to turn on his stomach, and locked his arms on the edge. The pain coming from that action seemed almost unbearable. He quickly sprung both hands down, just in time to catch a single pale hand slipping from the brick.
He pulled Kestral back with whatever was left of his strength. The two instantly rolled over the floor, finally stopping on one of the bricks lying freely.
Hakim felt her weight on his chest. His hands dived in her hair and she sagged against his chest, sobbing weakly. He held her tightly, whispering reassurances, and it wasn't until she gave a spluttering laugh that he realised he was speaking Janubian.
He cleared his throat awkwardly, but that only had the effect of sending her into a fit of tearful giggles. Suddenly, he started chuckling himself, relieved and overwhelmingly glad. Kestral was safe; and that mattered far more than anything else.
"Are you all right?" he choked out, this time in Westerlin.
"Yeah, I think so." She shifted away from him a little, looking down gratefully into his face. "Thanks. I owe ya."
"We're not safe yet," he replied, closing his eyes for a second. "You can thank me when we're done here."
"Hey, you two!" The voice that seemed miles away from them brought them to a sitting position. "Are you all right?"
"Dominic," Kestral almost whispered. "Hey, we're fine!" she replied, waving to him, then suddenly dropping it, having felt the pain. Hakim stood up, then helped her do the same.
"We will meet you down in the valley!" he said.
"Okay!" the bandit shouted. "Nice jump by the way!" he added, making all four of them laugh. "Longest I have ever seen!"
"Me either," Hakim replied, but only so Kestral could hear him.
The two bandits on the other side disappeared in the corridor and the Janubian sighed.
"I wonder how many Raiders are down there to fight."
"I don't have any weapons," Kestral said. "Well, technically speaking, I don't even have my armour." She eyed her leather pants and a loose shirt. "They took it for negotiations."
"We'll make it somehow," he assured her. She smiled, then climbed on her toes, closing to his face, and at that very moment something banged on the door on their side.
Hakim quickly pushed Kestral behind him, reaching for his scimitar. His arm ached badly.
Another bang and the door sprung out of its frame, sent in the air by a powerful kick.
"Hey there, people." A blonde female walked into the rain. "Am I too late for the party?"
"Ammae!" Kestral tried to run towards her, but her legs defied theirs mistress' wishes. Ammae supported her friend, who threw her arms around her neck.
"Hey, big girl." She shifted her away a bit, then handed her a bow and a knife. "Brought you a present. From Alton's private chambers."
"My bow! And my dagger!" the female Knight shouted with joy. "And the sword - ?"
"Sorry, didn't see it anywhere," the blonde replied sadly.
"Who cares." Kestral waved her hand dismissively. "I'm so not going to worry 'bout that here and now!"
"I suppose the path is clear since you came here?" Hakim changed the topic.
"Sure. Let's go, this place gives me creeps." Ammae walked back through the door.
On the other side of the castle, Hissler stopped running. Dominic turned around, looking at his fellow.
"You sure about it?" he asked.
The fifteen-year-old boy's gaze stopped at him, a smile appeared on his face.
"Just make it's worth the risk," he said for the second time that day.
"Good luck," Dominic replied, then ran towards the door.
Hissler sat down calmly, leaning against the wall. There was no need for waiting outside when it was raining.
Back at the crossroads things were turning out ugly. Alton lost most of his patience, and ultimately asked for the locket. In reply, Hawker demanded to see Kestral. The no win situation was suddenly interrupted, when everyone saw a group of riders on the slope next to them.
"That's our cue!" Milo shouted. "Thanks for a lovely afternoon, Alty!" He grinned.
Alton suddenly lost all the blood on his face.
"They broke the negotiation rules!" he screamed. "Kill them all!"
But Milo and his men were already climbing on their horses. Before anyone could react, they were on the run. Before the Raiders climbed on their mares, the Assassins were long gone, shields on their backs saving them from arrows flying their way.
The group horsemen, now larger, rode wildly towards the camp. Hakim finally discovered where it was. Deep between the mountains, hidden by a narrow passage. It was unreachable if one did not know of its existence.
The group dismounted, and Milo caught his sister in mid-air, before she had a chance to reach the ground from Hakim's mare. She held him tightly, as he swirled around with her, making her grimace a bit.
"Missed me much?" He grinned, putting her back on the ground quickly.
"Like a toothache," she replied, giggling.
"Yes, yes, we all missed you." Chloe pushed her way towards the female Knight. "Now, if you all don't mind, she needs a medical check. No, I don't want to hear it!" She pointed at Milo, when he opened his mouth to say something. She held Kestral firmly, then walked her towards the tents.
Hawker just stood there with a happy smile on his face. Hakim joined him.
"Good job." The Assassins' leader reached his hand toward the Knight, who shook it firmly.
"You shouldn't be thanking me, actually," he answered, then turned his head towards the blond figure.
Hawker's smile disappeared, replaced by a mixture of annoyance and concern.
"I thought I told her not to go," he said with deprecation.
"Well, if not for her, neither me nor Kestral would be here," the Janubian explained, but Milo was not listening any more.
Ammae saw him coming. She stood still, looking at the ground, When he approached, they stood silent for a moment.
"I know, I know," she finally said quietly. "I should not have gone. Not after you forbade me. But it was stronger than me. I pretty much screwed up back when Kestral was captured and now I -"
Hawker held her arms and shook them lightly, making her look at him.
"It's not that," he said. "Ammy, there is a handful of people whose life Alton could use to blackmail me. You and Kestral are at the top of that list. And I'm sure that when they set a trap you were both supposed to fall into it. God, and if they captured you today, it would be all the same story again or probably even worse!"
Ammae blinked rapidly.
"You're not … mad?" she asked, unsure of what to say.
"No, of course not." He held her tightly against his chest. "Right now I'm just happy that we're both safe."
Hakim gazed at them with some confusion and a bit of envy. Then he felt his arms burn from the inside. It had been a long, long day. The first aid would have to wait until Chloe's first patient was treated, though. Until then, he just had to be patient.
He didn't mind at all.
Back at their hideout, the Eastern Raiders were hastily packing their things. Alton was giving orders, mad at the whole world for how things did not work out. Hawker still had that other locket, he had lost his precious ransom, and now the Assassins knew their location.
The knock on the door brought the Raiders' leader back to reality. Keira walked in. Alton's right hand.
"I think you should see this," she said nervously.
He followed her up to the third and the last surviving floor of this half of the castle. When he walked through the doorless frame, he first noticed that half of his troops were already here. Some of them were pointing their bows and crossbows towards the other side.
Alton pushed his way through and stopped on the edge. On the other side, swinging his legs over the giant hole, was sitting a boy. He smiled at Alton's sight.
"I hope I'm not interrupting," he spoke.
Alton theatrically looked at his men aiming at the kid on the other side.
"Yes, I hope you're not," he replied, annoyed.
"Not a very wise idea to shoot me." The boy grinned.
"Now why wouldn't I shoot you?"
"For one, because you will not want to after I tell you what I want to tell you," he said. "And second, you can't really." He waved his hand and a golden reflexion caught Alton's eyes. "Shoot me and you won't see that again."
Alton waved his hand to his men, ordering them to stand down.
"Why don't you come here and we discuss it?" He put his most nice smile on.
"Well, why don't you come here and I tell you some nice news in addition to the trinket?"
Alton's smile stopped being false. The kid knew what he was doing, or so it might seem.
"I'd go, if I were you," he heard Keira's whisper behind him. "He seems harmless enough, and yet the fact that he's here means he is either really stupid or really bold."
"I prefer the latter," he replied. "I'm starting to like that kid."
On the other side, Hissler smiled smugly.