Aaren held his hand out to slow the company. The drawbridge was in sight. Smoke was billowing out of the keep beyond. The supportive chains creaked under the tension and heat. Aaren dismounted from his saddle and ran lightly with Storm beside him towards it.
“What’s happened here?” He asked nobody in particular.
There was a side entrance that had been thrown open, the door barely holding onto the hinges. There was a temporary platform that had been thrown together to act as a walkway across the yawning drop of the gorge. The drawbridge shook slightly dropping maybe a foot. It was on a forty-five degree angle. Clearly the person who had tried closing it wasn’t allowed to finish the job.
The platform was slightly damaged, Aaren could see. Eamonn dismounted as Aaren stepped forward to test it. He gradually added more and more of his weight to the platform and found it support him. Aaren turned to the rest of the men and beckoned them forward.
“We need to get across.” he shouted.
The thirteen men dismounted. There was no sight of the scouts Aaren had sent on ahead earlier. Aaren figured, they must have carried on ahead, or, worse still, they were here when whatever happened.
“Jenson!” Aaren called for one of the men to come forward, he was the most junior member in the group aside from Eamonn. “Stay here with the horses, we’ll return to you.”
Aaren drew his sword and stepped carefully across the platform. It groaned underfoot as more men followed up behind Aaren. Aaren tensed his body, waiting for it to give away beneath him and the long drop into the abyss below.
He let go the pent up breath he’d been holding as he stepped onto firm ground again. Immediately, he withdrew his sword. The door lay on an awkward angle, as if thrust aside abruptly. Aside from the broken door, there were other signs of forced entry by the foot of the door. Boards of what used to be a barricade had been shattered, several of which, were nothing but sharp stakes. Gingerly, Aaren stepped past these, feeling one reach out and barely touching him, forcing him to shift awkwardly past it. He threw a quick backhanded cut to break that specific board properly.
The next four shoved their way in after Aaren, fanning out to the side, they swarmed the street. They paused as they saw the barricaded areas dotted throughout and the bodies of civilians and Azarowans strewn across the ground. Aaren crouched by a still form by the entrance. He touched the body of the young girl, feeling her neck for vital signs. She was cold and pale and she didn’t react to his touch. Eamonn approached quietly, Aaren flinched as he heard his footsteps and removed his hand.
“Any idea who could have done this, Aaren?”
Aaren looked sadly at the girl and a flare of anger spurred inside, “No. But whoever it was, they’re going to pay for this. Sort the men into a perimeter, that fire is still a concern, we need to know if anyone is still here. Do it quietly!”
He hissed the final warning as Eamonn called out to those near him. There was an alfresco eating area close by the makeshift entrance. Tables were scattered, chairs upended and many were broken, none of the debris had caught fire, it was clear it hadn’t been started here, despite the clouds of smoke that spread throughout.
Aaren could hear shouting. It had come from the end of the street, it was quickly cut off. Over the sounds of the flames, he could hear the ring of heavy boots marching towards them. “Everyone, get behind the tables.”
His instincts were to sprint and leap behind the tables, but he knew this would be a mistake. Aaren forced himself to jog over to the far end to allow for the others to line up next to him. It was also the place with the least cover.
There were two that weren’t going to make it. They had moved to the opposite end and that left them too far from the others, they ran to the entrance, forcing themselves back through the hole and not a second too soon. From his vantage point, Aaren saw five men appear around the next bend, each man was armed with swords and one with an ominous looking two meter long ashen pike. All of their weapons were covered in red blood.
“Caledonians.” Aaren said under his breath.
Eamonn caught his eye, making an obvious gesture to attack them. Aaren raised his hand slowly and made a distinct “no” gesture. Instead, Aaren waited until the Caledonians soldiers had passed their position to rise from behind the table, moving around to their blind side to the opposite side of the street. There was a line of houses that lined the open street and he went for one of them now. He eased the door open and closed the door quietly behind him.
“Where is he going?” One of the scouts asked, directing the question to Eamonn. He could only shrug, “I don’t know.”
Aaren checked the room for any signs of life, but it was vacant. As he had thought, the house was delicately placed between two streets. Along with the entrance he had come through, it also had a rear entrance. He felt for the door handle and turned it slowly, it rotated a centimeter or so and stopped, locked. “So they came through the other way.” Aaren said to himself. There was an accompanying window set to the side. Aaren craned his neck to the side to look through it.
Like Castella, the Aylesbury Capital, Deepdene had a central garden that separated the King’s towers from the rest of the grounds. However, Deepdene’s towers acted more like plateaus that featured a steepling rise above the lands. It offered an overlook that gave it a dignified and sophisticated or ethereal look to inspire those that caught the opportunity to gaze upon it. A large opening was set to the eastern side, normally spherical and exquisite in its design, it offered a retreat for the high nobles of the palace to ponder thoughts or to laze in the warmer months. Now it was in ruins. Balustrades were shattered, the marble stonework disheveled and matted with char from the burning fire as it flooded through the buildings. Whatever remained there was left to smolder and billow smoke out to suffocate the rest of the keep.
Apart from the fallen, there were no signs of inhabitants that Aaren could see. He retreated quickly from the house, pushing open the door again. The others were waiting for him, he beckoned them forward and they quickly followed him in his path towards where the Caledonians had come from.
They rounded the next corner and found a haunted man, standing with arms raised, as though he were warding them off. “Please don’t hurt me.” The man was begging. Tears filled his eyes, whether out of fear or from the smoke, Aaren couldn’t tell. “I’ll do anything, please?”
Aaren sheathed his sword and stepped forward from the others. The man was dressed in what once had been clean clothes, there was blood and dirt creasing his shirtfront and patches on his knees. Aaren held his hands up, palms out in a defenseless manner. “Don’t worry, I’m not here to hurt you.”
The man backed away a pace or two, though he didn’t run, he could see the bows the scouts wore and the crossbows slung over the shoulder of the man and the younger one behind him. He could bet that they could each fire an arrow towards him before he’d gone two paces.
“We’re from Aylesbury, we came looking for Maarten.” Aaren decided to use the name of the Azarowan King to help soften his words. They seemed to work as the man stopped backpedaling. “There were others,” the man said, “others that were here before you.”
“Where are they now?” Aaren asked.
Aaren followed as the man pointed towards the tower, “They went into the tower, they had a woman with them, in a carriage. A most beautiful woman she was.”
“Are they still up there?”
The man nodded quickly and held out his hands in front of him, gripping them tightly together. “Please. Save us, they came in through the gates, they had men here already, we didn’t know until it was too late, they ravaged those in the streets, we never even got to sound the alarm bell, they had targeted it first.”
Aaren put his hand on the man’s arm, the man was getting too worked up and he mightn’t be able to think straight soon, “Settle down, my friend. Find a safe place to hide, we’ll do what we can here.”
The Azarowan touched the younger man’s arm gratefully, “Thank you.” Then he was off and running down the path they had come.
“We need to get into the tower.”
As a group, they charged up the stairs with Aaren and Eamonn leading the way. Eamonn worked a cartridge out of his satchel and pushed it into the loading bay. He waited to pull the lever back, to slide the first bolt into position until a better time. The first floor was empty, not even a sign of escape on the walls or doors that angled away into the side wings. They hit the first staircase and it was much the same. The steps still had their well-polished gleam to them. The flames hadn’t taken their toll just yet.
They reached the third floor and the staircases stopped. From outside, it was obvious there were more than just three floors, then Aaren remembered, he searched down the first passage of rooms, threw the first one open and found the winding, wooden staircase that would arc around and up to the floors above. They were curved to the right so that an attacker would have to expose their entire body if they were to attack, while the defender would be protected.
The timbers below were solid and didn’t groan under the strain of the men climbing the staircase. Aaren frowned at that. Jarvis had made a point of his workers leaving the stairs slightly rickety. When they were in use, it was impossible to remain silent, making an attack on the upper floors extremely difficult. This problem might have been solved though by how narrow the pathway was, Aaren felt himself having to breath in just to keep going at a steady run. He’d scraped his hand multiple times while holding his sword and had done away with it, instead he drew his long dagger, Eamonn did likewise while the men behind kept their hands on the hilts of their scabbards to withdraw them at a moment’s notice.
The fourth and fifth floors were far less ornate, almost rudimentary in style, these would be the soldier quarters. Aaren left men here to scout the rooms and check for survivors while he kept on with Eamonn and one of scouts to look in the King’s chambers above.
The hallway were silent, there was a single chair sitting directly facing the stairwell. There were marks in the flooring, giving the impression the chair had been moved recently from its usual position.
Aaren held his dagger out in front and propped himself up against the door, he felt for the handle and realised it was unlocked. He gestured Eamonn forward to take his position and Aaren shrugged his crossbow around from his back. He loaded in a cartridge and pulled the lever back to pull in the arrow.
Aaren nodded and Eamonn eased the door open, holding his own dagger up ready to strike. They rushed the room, the scout following in straight after Aaren and moving out to the right. The well-furnished room, with its four posted bed and perfectly folded heavy purple drapes that sat in the center of the room, was pristine, untouched and pure. A jug was on the small bedside table, the bed was made with its intricately detailed pillows placed just so at the head of the bed. The window curtains were pulled back, there were cracks in the toughened glass from the heat and Aaren could feel the heat coming through as he traced the lining of a crack with his finger.
The room was empty.
They checked through the King’s anteroom and dressing closet and wardrobe, they too were empty, with all clothes neatly hanging in their rightful place. The three proceeded out of the room but Aaren stopped in the doorway.
“There’s something we’re not seeing.”
“The room is empty, we should rejoin with the others.” Eamonn suggested.
Aaren dismissed the suggestion with the wave of his hand. “No, there’s someone here, I can’t tell you how, but I know there is.”
To the left there was a single pillowed chair against the wall. On the right side of the bed was a heavy book case and further on was the dressing room, the dressing room opened up further behind, but it wasn’t wide enough to cover the full area of the room. There were no other rooms on this floor, there had to be some way through, Aaren thought.
The boarding on the walls was identical, as it should be as it covered the lower half around the entire room. Save for one small part of the wall. Aaren shoved the chair to the side and found what he was looking for, a false panel set into the wall. He removed the panel and found a handle there, he turned it and in the wall above him opened a heavy door.
“Anyone else want to join me in the King’s Panic room?”
The panic room was seated with the people of Deepdene Gorge, or at least those that had been lucky enough to escape from the clutches of the Caledonians.
A single man rose from the middle of the room and stepped forward towards them. At first he had been on his guard, then, as he took in the clothing and crossbows, he had let his own crossbow drop away to his side, pushed past Aaren and Eamonn and embraced the third man in line, the scout named Ridley, “It’s great to see you. What are you doing here?”
Ridley exchanged a look with Aaren, they were beginning to wonder what had become of the other two scouts they’d sent on ahead. “We came looking for Dunstan and his troupe.”
The scout opened his mouth in an “O” expression, “Well, they’re right at the back, our men sustained a few injuries during the fight here, Dunstan and a few of his men knew about the King’s Panic room, we split up and Maddox came with a boy to regroup with the representatives in here. We joined up in case someone came looking for them. Another group of scouts showed up a short time ago too.”
Aaren sighed with relief at the mention of the scouts. He looked to see one of them was hauling a heavy cask into the room, obviously there was a supplies room out the back in case of emergencies. Aaren looked around the room, the majority in the room weren’t soldiers, at the end of the crowded room he could see what looked to be Dunstan and waved a brief acknowledgement and turned back to the scout, “What happened here?”
The scout’s eyes turned dark, “Those blasted Caledonians hit us. They got wind of the negotiations, we didn’t figure it out until it was too late, discussions had already begun in the Great Hall, they had breached the gateways just as we were closing them, the guards tried opening them open and then realised they had an army coming from the south. Needless to say, negotiations were put to an end. Maarten had his men grouped up and they were heading for the fields by the mining facilities, they were hoping to bottle them up in time before they could over-run us. There are a few Caledonians scattered around here, we’ve sent some men out to deal with them, they’ve been reporting back to us on the hour on numbers, we estimate there are only fifty or so still here.”
The scout was called away to tend to one of the wounded, giving time for Aaren and Eamonn to plan their next move. “What do we do now?” Eamonn asked.
Aaren considered their situation, “I think they have everything pretty well in hand here, Dunstan and his men are safe and that’s what we came to do. We’ll leave the rest of the men here, and we can move on to those fields to help Maarten.”
Eamonn frowned, “Won’t the King have enough men to help him?”
Aaren shook his head resolutely, he knew of how Maarten operated. “Maarten doesn’t trust his men, if we didn’t know about this in Aylesbury, it’s unlikely he knew about it, his Commissioners will be dispersed, still tending to their posts, he won’t have had time to call them in for support. We need to get to those fields as quickly as we can.”