The moon had set. Aaren and Eamonn were moving across the open plains down from the north-east. The afternoon had passed slowly as the people go about their own lives. Aaren and Eamonn had set up a watch post in the security of the trees. Little out of the ordinary was seen as they waited for the lowering sun to signal their next move.
Not far from them was the small dwelling of Myrtle, it was small in size but was used as the major hub for weapon and armour smiths, they also housed a reasonably sized stable where they could leave Storm and Dusty before they made their way into the confines of Blackden, another kilometer or so, further down the road.
Aaren was in the lead, keeping to the darkness of the shadows cast by the trees to blend into the background. Eamonn had learnt little in the ways of unseen movement, while Aaren was considered one of the better unseen movers in the commission, often able to slip past even the sharpest of eyes. Eamonn stayed further back, watching as Aaren made his way downhill. He was tasked with looking after the horses.
This late at night, with the townspeople most likely in their beds, the sounds of men mounted on horses would stir the locals from their beds. If they were spotted sticking to the shadows, it was only add to the already unpleasant situation. Eamonn had queried why they simply hadn’t stowed the horses at dusk but Aaren simply stated it would be better this way, close to a smuggler’s town as they were.
Aaren was moving again, after every second or third major landmark, he would stop to survey the ground for the next part of his journey. Eamonn would wait some seconds before he would follow up his mentor, they were careful to maintain the distance between them to avoid making too much noise. If Eamonn closed the distance too quickly, it could throw Aaren off anyone approaching them, while too far away and Eamonn might miss any vital signals Aaren might give him.
Aaren was free to go down the hills as he pleased, often cutting straight across to the next point. Eamonn was forced to move beyond the slope of the hill, it was difficult to keep moving parallel and, progressively, Eamonn would make his way out a few extra meters wide of Aaren and then double back to become level with him again. The hill was steep and uneven and leading the horses down such a path could cause them an unnecessary injury. When the pair came level again, Eamonn would use the height of the trees to conceal his and the horses’ movement down the hill.
The horses kept to a slow trot next to Eamonn’s steady jog, when it became steeper again, they’d slow, Aaren would pause momentarily to check behind them, hoping that the horses didn’t stumble or cause any mini landslides they could send them sliding down the hill. Once more, Aaren noticed, the boy had everything under control and he sighed to himself. They were close to the bottom, a final push should see them on the leveled out plane with the town, then it was about fifty meters across the main road and they would be in the relative safety of Myrtle.
Aaren peered down, the moonlight was dim tonight, making it difficult for his eyes to seek out the contours of the slope, in his mind’s eye he set the path and was off again, gesturing Eamonn forwards again. Eamonn could feel himself tense up, Storm let out a snort, he shot the horse a look, hoping that he got his message to the horse. If they made a mistake now, the last hour would have been all for nothing. Then he realised, this was only the beginning, they would still have to get into Blackden.
Eamonn found his mentor waiting back ten meters from the road, where he was using the last two trees as cover. There were one or two double-storied buildings and several smaller affairs. Towards the rear of the establishment they could make out what would the head man’s chambers.
Dusty butted his head against Eamonn while Storm snorted quietly at Aaren. “Hello boy” Aaren said, turning to stroke his friend’s soft muzzle, “I see you looked after Eamonn for me” his voice was little more than a whisper as he shared the joke with the animal. Storm seemed to reply with another snort.
They waited a moment, each catching their breath, both men had been keyed up, their pulse racing. Several times Aaren had felt his heart hammering in his chest as he crouched beside the road. He touched two fingers to his wrist and another to his neck to check his heart rate. He breathed deeply, held it for a few seconds and slowly exhaled and checked again. He felt it slow slightly, the cool of the night raising the hairs on the back of his neck.
They froze when there was a sudden snap behind them to the right. They turned angrily as they saw Dusty tugging at some of the nearby grass and chewing away, the sound accentuated thanks to the adrenaline that was surging through them and the general silence of the sleepy little hamlet.
Judging it was time to move on, he drew himself up, moving closer to his apprentice. “We’ll leave the horses in one of the stables, they’ll be safe there. We can collect them on our way back.”
Aaren had a look of knowing on his face as he saw the question in the boy’s eyes. “I’ve been out this way a couple of times, just to make sure that everything was under control. The man might be a former member but he has no affiliations with us anymore, so we have to keep checks on this place.”
“Only a couple of times?” Eamonn jibed, like Aaren, he kept his voice to a minimum. They heard Storm break wind, obviously he too had been keyed up, Aaren and Eamonn grinned at each other and returned to observing the town. There were close to a dozen horses in the stables, Dusty and Storm wouldn’t be out of place, the stable hands might be puzzled by the sudden appearance of two new horses, otherwise no one would bat an eyelid.
“Usually it will be me who will come out this way, sometimes I ask for Damian to come down instead. We don’t want our presence to become known here. We know how the man works, but that doesn’t mean he’s still on our side. It never hurts to be sure and its easier for me than others to judge it all, since I studied under him, I’ve taken on a lot of his habits and quirks.” He told the boy.
Once again leading the way, Aaren crossed the open ground into the village silently, motioning to Eamonn to bring across the horses. There was a brief hesitation from Dusty as he pulled away to crop a little more grass before the trio trotted across. Together, Aaren and Eamonn secured the horses inside the stable, finding two empty enclosures at opposite ends to avoid any attentive eyes seeing the similarities. “We’ll leave them with our camping gear and some of our supplies. I doubt that we’ll need extras when we’re inside Blackden.”
“Did you see the bell tower when we came in?” Eamonn interrupted, the boy had noticed the tall building when they glided across to the stable, he’d only seen a brief outline of the building but the moonlight reflected off the bell as it hung atop the town. In the darkness, shadows were being cast into the barn so that only the cowl of Aaren’s cloak could be seen, but Eamonn noticed the change in his mentor’s body language. Pulling back the cowl from his face, Aaren stepped into the moonlight to observe the bell tower. It was a little closer to Blackden and about four stories tall. There was a lookout post at the top that opened out to a small area. From his position, he could see the outline of the makings for a signal fire, in cases of emergencies in the town or further towards the sea it would be ready to set alight.
Aaren kept a mental note of its position and the view it would afford them. Getting up there would be a relatively straightforward thing, bell towers always had some form of step ladder to get to the top. In the event it were on the inside of the building, they could always free climb it. It would take some time watching for the changes in sentry duty, it should give them a solid outpost position to spot the habits of Blackden and offer them a certain amount of cover.
From, perhaps twenty meters away they wouldn’t be spotted, from the distance of the hamlet to the guard towers inside the walls of Blackden, they’d be invisible. Even the man on duty would need to take a closer to discern any of their specific details, while they’d be able to note the hot spots of the town.
“That wasn’t there last time I was here” he stated. The bell-tower was made of a well-crafted oak, no doubt it had been brought in as cargo on one of the raids in Rozelle along the channel, Aaren thought to himself. It had been several months since Aaren’s last visit to Blackden, in that time they had obviously set about maintaining a better signaling scheme. Most smuggling towns were rife with crime, as is to be expected, it wasn’t uncommon for foreign ships to launch an attack on towns like Myrtle to gain a foothold, like the Caledonians had years ago. Those inside the keep would need some way of defending themselves, this bell tower might be used to relay instructions to or from the beach. Though Aaren couldn’t see one in that direction, he’d bet his life on there being a similar signal tower on the channel’s edge.
“We might as well get a move on. The horses have settled in, we’ll head over there, before we sweep back in towards the eastern gates” Aaren was pointing further to the south, in times gone by Aaren had taken to using that particular entrance, he’d found it provided the best cover from the roads as well as from the walls of the keep. “We’ll use some of the cover there, it’ll be somewhat slow going, all going well we should be able to bypass the pickets they’ve set out as we make our approach”. The pickets of course were the sentries, at this time of night in the warm night air and with nothing to do, most were more than a gesture than to actually patrol the area, with winter still a month away, the cold wasn’t as prevalent now as it might be in a few weeks. Those on duty would remain alert until the end of their watch. It was one of the first things Aaren had been looking for once the moon had set, they would be placed far enough apart so as to avoid traps set for any others, while still be close enough to provide support if needed.
“I’ve picked out three sentries so far, so we’ll need to be quiet and efficient until we’re inside the east entrance” he continued, “that’s where I’ve gone through in the past, it leads into some of the back streets and once we’ve been let through by the guards we should be able to slip into one of the inns unnoticed.” Aaren let Eamonn lead this time, and after a final word to his horse he set off with his student.
Progress to the smuggler’s town of Blackden was slow. Eamonn had raised the point that such precautions seemed unnecessary. They knew who they were tracking and where he was, he saw no point in keeping up the attempts to remain unnoticed. From his point of view, it would have made more sense if they’d arrived during the day while the town was still thriving. They could have used what was left of the day to schedule a meet up with Aaren’s former teacher. Any delay, in his mind, would only let the man slip further away.
Aaren had been blunt with his opinion, “The place is full of smugglers and bandits, any one of them could have a dozen reasons to despise us. Besides, my teacher’s presence here is unknown to them, he’s been living among these people for nearly ten years. We can’t suddenly come out through here requesting that we see a former member of the Commission, it wouldn’t end well for us or him.” he’d told him.
There was another point, if they were spotted in the vicinity by anyone with connections to Dallin or smugglers in general, everyone would have been on high alert, and would be right up until they left. It left them with only option: to steal in after dark and rent a room at the inn. In order to do so however, they would have to slip past anyone that might know of them, and that included sentries. Aaren didn’t know who he could trust here and so he treated it as though he were entering enemy territory, that any man he saw was potentially dangerous to them. This was why he had chosen for them to leave the horses at a stable in Myrtle. Someone might recognise them for what they were and the equipment they carried, he would prefer to keep them out of harm’s way. They could always return for them when things had settled.
“We’ll be less mobile if we’re to back off” Aaren had conceded earlier that afternoon, “but we’ll stand a better chance at catching him and any of his accomplices off guard than if we’d coming galloping in announcing to the world that we’re here to stay. As it is, we’re in taking a great risk, very few people would go out of their way to come into a town in the middle of night. With the reputation this place has, it’s expected that a visitor would camp out the night before and arrive in the morning, to avoid those who prey on travelers in the dark of night.” He told the boy.
They had scrambled their way into some of the undergrowth just off the well beaten path. Aaren had stopped for a few moments. They were perhaps fifty meters away from one of the patrolling groups. There were only three men, but they were each responsible with keeping watch of each other and anything they saw.
“See the small horns at their belts?”
In the dark, he could see a slight bob of the head from his student.
“The moment any of the three of them are in danger, the other two will give a short blare on their horn. My guess is that there are at least three other groups out here and the entrances will be manned by at least half a dozen men. Very quickly you can find yourself facing twenty to thirty men rather than just the three.”
“Wouldn’t that mean you can create a diversion and slip into the town that way?”
Out of his peripheral vision, Eamonn saw Aaren cock his head to the side, as if considering the question, “Maybe, though if they’re smart they’ll call for additional men to take over at the entrances so that those on duty can hurry out to assist.”
The patrol was moving in front of them now, facing away from them, giving them clearance towards Blackden. Aaren stood in a half-crouch and lightly tapped Eamonn on the shoulder, lead him away towards the next patch of cover. The boy had spent little time on this area of his studies, so Aaren decided to take extra care. They had lost those three months he should have gotten working on it when he had been assigned to Lyverild, it meant his skills on this occasion were lacking.
Eamonn made a lot of mistakes, as most students do. Regardless of how carefully he threaded his way through the same trees and thorns that Aaren did, he came out the other side with scrapes and scratches from many different branches and he’d broken more twigs than he could count. If he were on his own, Aaren would have been able to slip from one scant patch of cover to the next, it was a simple matter of patience and his picking of the right moment to proceed. Eamonn didn’t have that same luxury and they could only move on when Aaren was convinced they wouldn’t be heard or seen doing so.
There was little light from the moon. Any shadows they cast would be long and easily be seen as coming from the undergrowth they were positioned next to. Sound was a different matter, the sound of a twig breaking would attract attention but also quickly dismissed, the continued snapping of twigs could only be from a human or a bear, and both were enough to worry a sentry. With it being late autumn, it stood to reason that many would believe it would be a bear.
Aaren was situated behind a series of small shrubs, he had to crouch almost crab like just to stay below the screen line they offered. Eamonn had found a better spot, and he waited crouching comfortably with a grin as he looked at Aaren’s state of discomfort, so much for skill Aaren thought to himself.
The next part was to get inside. Scaling the walls was out of the question as Aaren craned his neck around to look at the entrance he could see there was the warm glow of wood fires. While the moon mightn’t cast any distinct shadows, fires did, and even if they did if they reach the top, they would be seen doing so by those on watch, and if they tried any further out along the wall, a patrol could very likely see them.
They would need to take the man by surprise and give them no opportunity to see them coming.
Aaren pulled back the cowl of his cloak from his face, made sure that his weapons were out of sight, this was another reason for leaving the horses behind, their reflex bows and crossbows were unique, no one else used them, and anyone with knowledge of the commission knew that. The weapons remained with the horses, keep hidden in the case of the bows, and taken apart and stored in various compartments of the saddle and other places with the crossbow. Most men kept a hunting knife, it was a prime fishing spot and it was expected they’d keep one on them, the swords were similar, they could pass them off as insurance for keeping themselves safe given where they found themselves.
One thing Aaren couldn’t bet on was whether the sentry was in league with any of the smugglers. He reminded the boy to adopt a hard look in his eyes, he smiled again at the thought as the boy tried it. It wasn’t great, but it would pass muster in the darkness of his cowl where they couldn’t see his eyes. Aaren was better suited for these situations, he would do the talking and keep his face uncovered, all going well, the sentry would barely register Eamonn.
Aaren held out three fingers, then two, one and finally strode out in clear sight, purposely and quickly towards the walkway. He kept the walls by his left shoulder and shoved himself around the corner with Eamonn barely a stride behind.
“Who are you?” demanded a gruff voice as he appeared around the corner. There was a torch light that provided enough light for the guard to see into the town and out, but not too bright that he wouldn’t be blinded, only those with a death wish would be foolish enough to try sneaking up to the gate, the sentry thought. The guard walked towards them, making sure his sheathed sword was in easy view to deter any aggression from the newcomers. He called to two of the other guards to approach them as well.
He retrieved one of the torches to get a better look at the two men, “State your business” he said, judging by his tone, Eamonn figured it wouldn’t bode well to deny him. Now, it was the time for another of their many skills to come into effect: the ability to talk their way into places, to seem ignorant and innocent to place themselves where they needed to be.
“We’re simple villagers” Aaren told him meekly, feigning innocence, “We heard there were good pickings this time of year, so we thought we’d make best of the fishing season.” He said.
The guard wasn’t having much of it. Experienced in these parts, he had several tactics to bring the truth unknowingly out of anyone who dared to bring havoc to his town. “You and the boy? He’s a little scrawny to be hauling in any of our fish, not to mention you don’t appear to have any equipment you’d need to do that and those nasty swords don’t look long enough to me.” he mocked.
The youth flushed at his insult, and he saw his mood darken with anger at his quip, he knew the younger ones were more inclined to show emotion. As he studied the figure in front of him, he saw a look of confidence and strength concealed within the slight stature of the younger man. Unfortunately for the guard, Aaren was more than up to this confrontation.
“The boy mightn’t look like much, but I doubt you could best him in a fair fight” He challenged, seeing heat beginning to rise in the man’s face, he quickly moved on.
“As for the issue of the proper equipment, our stay here will only be temporary, we wanted to see what sort of lodgings you had on offer, I told the boy we’d settle in for a night or two, enjoy some of the local entertainment and then set about finding the best fishing spots in the area. The swords as you mentioned, are to help deter others from trying something.” Aaren said in a calm and seemingly casual manner.
There was a few moments silence as both men weighed up their options, Aaren, waiting to see if the man would be willing to call his bluff. He doubted the man would, but he was prepared for that. He had sewn a pocket inside the left cuff of his shirt for such an encounter. He placed his hands behind his back and reached into the pocket and retrieved a coin. Eamonn frowned as he saw the coin by the glint of the fire.
The guard stroked his chin and turned slightly and one of his men came forth to take the torch from him, the man didn’t return to his position however, keeping a meter or so behind the man. A rough smile twitched at the corner of the sentry’s mouth and he eventually conceded that Aaren’s reply was good enough.
Aaren nodded. He smiled brightly at the man as he casually slipped the coin back into the concealed pocket. The guard waved the pair in, promising himself that he’d investigate this further, he rarely let people simply walk into the town without him following up with them, and this would be no exception.
Aaren nodded his thanks to the guard, glanced at the youth beside him and gestured for Eamonn to lead the way. Pulling his cowl over his head, he let go a sigh of relief as he followed his student into the town. Eamonn was careful to keep his head down, he pulled his cowl further down, he cast his eyes to the left and right, taking notes of all the landmarks of the area, so he could remember them later on, another skill he’d been taught by Aaren in his time with him.
Eamonn slowed slightly, letting Aaren catch up to him, he kept his head up and kept his eyes fixed towards the front, “Why did you have that coin in your cuff?”
Eamonn didn’t see the smile breaking out on Aaren’s face, “No reason.” He said quietly.
This time however, Eamonn stopped and addressed his teacher front on. Aaren reneged and gave in at that point, “We can’t know how honest the guards are –”
He got no further as Eamonn jumped onto the opportunity, “So you thought you’d see how honest he was by bribing him?” he barked.
Aaren raised his eyebrows at the sudden increase in volume, “Keep your voice down.” Aaren replied with some heat. “It was just to make sure, the worst that could have happened was that he took us to the prison to see the headman, if that happened, then we could have spoken to someone with a little authority. Can we please talk about this when we’re in private?”
Aaren was gesturing to their surroundings. Eamonn realised they had stopped in the middle of the street, he nodded quickly and they set off again.
It took only a few minutes to find the inn. It was just off the main road, crowded by some of the larger buildings, they were able to pass by these places unobtrusively. Eamonn edged his way inside the door, meeting the sudden blast of heat of the eating room as he did. Aaren held the door open as he took a moment to look around the surrounding buildings for any onlookers. His cloak was pulled up, concealing most of his features. Satisfied nobody had noticed them, he followed Eamonn into the building, ready to collapse into his bed for the night.
Despite his lingering, a watchful eye caught the movement of Aaren. They sat, observing him through the drapes that covered the window of a second floor room just across from the inn. A grin spread across owner’s face.
“So the prodigal son has returned, I see.”