We wait at the gates while Rosie’s group is stopped by the three Nobles. The bandits arrive but keep their distance from us. I hear sounds of horses approaching the gates behind the walls.
The guards signal us to enter the castle when the four peasants that went before us are allowed in by the Nobles. We make our way inside, passing under the hearse to enter the town.
There are a lot of soldiers on horseback currently gathering in the courtyard to either side of us. They seem about to sortie, probably to protect the fleeing peasants from the Rykz pursuing them.
Matfrid is carrying a sword at his waist and a two-handed sword on his back. The two Nobles at his side are watching us and the bandits behind us suspiciously. One is a Lady, the other a Lord, neither look very happy to be on checkpoint duty.
“You’re here!” Matfrid speaks up as I approach.
“With about thirty of the creatures on our tail!” I call back, shaking my head sadly. “Had to abandon my plans and come here.”
“Three groups of thirty and thousands more on the horizon, I’m afraid.” Matfrid corrects me. “Don’t worry, our walls are tall and will hold long enough for Meria to reinforce us!”
“You probably shouldn’t let those low-lives in.” I whisper discreetly, leaning my head slightly towards the bandits. “They look like trouble.”
“Sadly, we can’t afford to refuse entry with the Rykz so close. We need every sword that we can find to hold the walls until enough proper soldiers are dispatched here.”
The other two Nobles ignore me to focus on the bandits, probably deciding that we’re clear since Matfrid knows me. Or just not willing to do their job seriously.
I hear some shouts and look behind, Brie and the other two are hurrying inside while about a hundred cavalry soldiers are moving to engage on the path out of the castle.
Matfrid is the only one really looking at me right now. I should take my helmet off before he has to ask me and gets suspicious that I didn’t do it by myself. If he’s the only one to see my face, it’s manageable.
“I may have met your Lady Countess in the forest a few days ago.” I say in a quiet tone that doesn’t carry my voice any further than him.
I choose this moment to take my helmet off to both give myself some time to think about my next words and make use of Matfrid’s distraction at the mention of his liege.
“Lady Lance said that she would join Meria’s army.” Matfrid stares at me intently. “How could you come across of her in the forest?”
“I wouldn’t know.” I extend my hand in ignorance. “The Lady Countess didn’t deem it necessary to inform me, she presented herself without using her titles but she was wearing a full plate armor so I knew that she couldn’t be part of the minor Nobility as we are.”
“Was she accompanied by anyone?” He asks.
“A Lady Yvonne and five other nobles that I didn’t get to speak to.” I answer casually. “One of them had a piece of his left hand missing.” I add like an after-thought. Matfrid isn’t giving me any clues as to whether he believes me or not with his expression, this is stressful.
“You indeed met with Lady Lance. I wish you had more information but it would be unfair of me to expect that.” Matfrid frowns thoughtfully. “Did Lady Lance say anything?”
“Well yes, but it’s a bit… embarrassing.” I mutter, turning my eyes away. “I was, hum, busy with one of my companions.” I pause for dramatic effect since I can’t really blush on command. “Lady Lance told us to run together and escape south to the castle. She refused to give us any details so I only understood why once you told me that the creatures I met soon after are here in numbers. She gave me the name Jenna in case I needed it to gain entry.”
“Oh.” Matfrid is surprised by the name but his expression quickly turns to sadness. “Ah, Lady Lance, forcing yourself to utter the name while your heart suffers.” The Noble shakes his head with compassion.
I hurriedly put my helmet back on to hide the panic on my face. What does he mean!? Who is her heart torn about? Me or that Jenna?!
“C, can you, tell me more, about that?” I stutter hesitantly.
Matfrid seems to get away from his thoughts to look at me curiously.
“You would get along with Lady Yvonne, she lives and breathes for those stories.” He glances at the bandits and departing cavalry. “I can’t tell you right now, we’re busy. I’ll have time tomorrow morning if you want to talk about it and I can buy you a drink as thanks for yesterday.”
What? My heart flutters. I need to know now! I feel my hand start shaking and close it in a fist to control myself. What he said means that she was hurt so even if she was with someone else, she probably isn’t anymore.
“Where?” I ask more calmly.
“At the Crown, it’s a tavern near the keep and in front of a forge. I’ll be there almost all morning tomorrow, the blacksmith needs to change my mount’s horseshoes and he won’t get to it quick enough if I don’t sit in front of his workshop.” Matfrid tells me.
“I’ll be there.” I nod nervously.
Did my Lady only take a break with this Jenna because she was patrolling the Izla? I… I shake my head and signal my two companions to get moving. Teva takes hold of my hand and I feel too unsteady on my feet to push her away.
I stumble hazily across the streets as Ulf leads us, unable to focus. I love her, it doesn’t matter what her past is. I’ll push her to the same low she hacked me down to, and then we’ll begin anew. Yes, this Jenna didn’t affect our relationship before, she can’t possibly start mattering now.
“Is this good?” Ulf asks.
“Snap out of it.” Teva claps her hands in front of my eyes.
“What?” My head jerks back and I blink my eyes several times.
“What do you think of this Inn?” Teva asks.
I take a few seconds to focus on the task at hand. The Inn’s building is three stories tall and stuck in between two houses in a residential block.
“It seems isolated enough for our purpose. Did you see windows on the roof as we approached, Ulf?” I ask.
“I did, there are several.” He answers quietly.
“Then this works.” I turn to Teva. “Do you mind using your boundless charm to ask for top floor rooms?”
“The compliment feels forced when you’re hiding behind a helmet.” She grumbles but makes her way into the Inn anyway.
“Ulf, scout and try to find a path on the roofs from this Inn to the castle’s warehouse district.” I try to read his expression but all I can see is a beard ruffling slightly as he mutters his agreement and departs.
I step inside the Inn. Teva is talking to someone at a small rectangular counter near the entrance. There are a lot of tables and a few people are eating despite this being the middle of the afternoon. It is noticeable that the establishment’s purpose is to provide food and shelter, not drinks.
I approach Teva but remain a step behind, ignoring the curious glances being thrown my way. This Inn is nice and not overly decorated. They must not see Nobles very often but it must happen because the clerk that Teva is talking to doesn’t seem to be worried about me.
I stand there for a while as she negotiates the price of our stay like only someone who knows the business can. I notice after a while that Teva has no intention of folding to reach a quicker arrangement so I just untie my purse from my leather armor and hand it over to her.
I catch the disappointed look on the clerk’s face. Ah, he was hoping to stall Teva long enough for me to lose patience and agree to whatever price. That’s clever, it probably works on most Nobles.
“Which room?” I ask directly.
“Number three on the topmost floor, my Lady.” The clerk answers.
“Does it have a bath?” Teva asks suspiciously.
“Why, of course.” The man makes a hurt expression like Teva just insulted his parents. “I would never forget your requirements, we have a heated tank on the roof that supplies the top floor with warm water. I am a professional after all, which is why I think it is justified to give us a…”
I tune them out and make my way upstairs. I find the door with a number three and enter. The room’s ceiling is inclined and has a window that gives directly on the roof near the bed.
I take my equipment off, dropping the chain-mail and hard leather armor in a pile on the ground while laying the helmet on top. I deposit my hammer against the wall and enjoy the freeing sensation of not carrying all that weight.
I glance down at my dirty, bloody, and sweaty clothes. I shouldn’t wear this in public if I want to impersonate a Lady. Even if they were clean, these are only fit for a peasant, not a Noble.
Actually, now that I’m inside the castle, it would be best to look as innocuous as possible. Matfrid is the only one who got a good look at my face, I’ll be able to blend in whenever I want as long as I’m careful about him.
The bedroom is too comfortable for my taste, there are too many pillows and the mattress feels too soft to the touch. I open the bathroom’s door and take a peek inside.
“I don’t want to know how much this cost.” I shiver, gazing at a large bronze bathtub and copper pipes coming from the ceiling. The golden paint decorating the tub’s faucet is a little cracked.
I close the door and lay down on the bed to wait for my companions to join me so we can decide what we’ll do tonight. After a very long wait, I hear Ulf’s heavy steps in the corridor outside the room. I get up to open the door.
“Where is Teva?” I ask before he can say anything.
“Buying clothes for the both of you.” Ulf shrugs. “Teva was waiting for me to come back before leaving so she’ll be a while.”
“Alright.” I sigh. “What did you find out?”
“The town’s roofs are almost all at about the same height at two stories tall. It’s possible to use them to travel, we’ll just have to be careful not to make too much noise when we drop from here to the neighboring house since it’s a fall of a couple of meters.”
“You’ll be doing that, Teva and I will have to stay on the ground.” I look out the window. “It’s going to be dusk in a few hours. I should start getting ready.”
“Do you think Hurb will be there?” Ulf asks.
“Probably not, but I’d like to talk to Brie before she relaxes too much and freedom gets to her head. I’ll take a bath while I wait for Teva.”
I adjust the long sleeve glove over my left limb and make sure that its straps remained secure around my chest. I glance at Ulf meaningfully. He looks back, puzzled. I raise my hand to pull on my shirt’s collar slightly.
“I’m going to check my room the second floor, should have said so clearly if you wanted privacy.” He groans as he leaves the room.
“But the whole point of it was messing with you.” I say, laughing.
Finally, I have some time alone. I hurriedly take my shirt off and then the sleeve glove dissimulating my left limb. I pass my fingers over the wound on the flat left side of my chest.
I can definitely tell that the tendrils that anchored themselves around where my breast was are thicker than they were before, they’re expanding in size to replace the missing flesh.
What would my Lady think of me? I shudder in fright at the possibility that she may reject me because of my monstrous arm. Or accept me but refuse to touch me.
I walk into the bathroom and open the faucet so it starts filling the bathtub up with water. I finish undressing and throw my dirty clothes in a pile together.
There is a comb on a small shelve and some soap. I grab both, step into the bath to sink my head into the water and start taking care of my messy hair with the comb. I wince in pain every time I encounter a knot, which is often.
The soap comes in handy to get rid of the dried blood sticking to the small rip in my flesh that I caused when I tried to stab myself. It stings but that is a reassuring sensation to me now, my doubts about my Lady sink to the back of my mind.
I wash while avoiding to touch my sensitive spots as much as possible. The fact that I’m naked inside her castle’s walls could get stimulating and I don’t have time for that right now. I get out of the tub, grab a rectangular piece of cloth, and use it to dry up.
I slip the long sleeve glove back on first, I want to keep the fact that I have this limb hidden as long as possible. As I pass the strap over the wound on my left chest, I hear Teva’s light determined steps in the hallway as she approaches my door.
I hurriedly finish securing the sleeve glove around my torso, finding only enough time to wrap the wet piece of cloth around my waist to hide my intimacy before Teva barges into the room without knocking.
I kind of expected that she was going to do that when I heard her hurried steps. She is carrying two packs in her hands.
“Elizabeth, we have a…” Teva speaks up but her voice dies down when her eyes lock onto my exposed right breast. “Problem.” She finishes while swallowing her saliva.
I raise my gloved hand and obstruct her sight of my chest.
“My breast’s modest size is hardly an issue.” I tease her with a Lady’s tone. Teva opens and closes her mouth like a fish out of water, unable to gather herself enough to respond. “What’s the problem, Teva?” I ask more seriously.
“Hum.” She coughs, flushing red in embarrassment. “There are town guards all over the southern part of town, searching.”
“For what?” I ask.
“I didn’t stop to ask, I got us some fresh clothes and came back here as soon as possible.” Teva’s gaze lingers over my stomach. “You’re gorgeous.” She adds with an appetite for flesh in her eyes.
“Thanks.” I reply, a bit uncomfortable about it but also somewhat flattered at the fact that my body is desirable. “Do you mind giving me a minute to get dressed up?”
“Sure, I’ll be right outside.” Teva tears herself away and leaves one of her two packs of clothes on the bed before stepping out, closing the door behind her.
I open the pack, finding a set of beautiful ornate red formal clothes that must have cost a lot. There is another set of clothes, nice and fitting for a servant.
“What did these cost?” I speak up loudly enough to reach Teva in the hallway.
“Not as much as you think, I got them cheaper because they were worn by a Baron for an occasion but he returned them and refused to pay.” She replies in the same tone.
“Don’t you have something more casual?” I ask. “I don’t want to go around attracting attention.”
“You’ll be less conspicuous with that on than with your bloody hard leather armor, chain-mail, and that insane hammer.” She complains loud enough for me to hear. “I kind of wanted to see you all nice and ladylike, but I did buy a set of normal clothes.”
I adjust the rectangular piece of cloth around me and open the door just enough to hold my right hand out. She hands me the pack and lays the purse on top of it. I quickly get dressed up in the simple clothes and leave the silver pouch on the bed.
“I’m going to go take a look outside, maybe I’ll be able to find Brie anyway.” But I doubt it. “The bath is full, I’m not sure how they empty it. You should enjoy it and get changed. Throw our dirty clothes in the tub when you’re done, I’ll clean them tomorrow.”
“Be careful, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the guards got agitated just after we arrived.” Teva warns me anxiously.
“The Nobles we met didn’t even know that the Rykz were coming here.” I counter. “They could just be looking for a thief or maybe Brie did something stupid instead of scouting the walls like I asked. Either way, I think I’ll just find an isolated guard and ask.”
I make my way downstairs stealthily and wait in a dark corner for a few minutes until a client bothers the clerk. I hurriedly walk past the front counter and step outside.
The streets are busy, people outside are agitated, no they’re scared. The news that a Rykz army is approaching the walls must have leaked out. I don’t waste time and hurry south.
The town inside Castle Lance isn’t small, there are at least two thousand people living here if I compare the size of it to my home village. It takes me a few minutes to reach the southern sea wall and start strolling unhurriedly along it.
There are groups of guards patrolling the streets but few are stopping people to ask questions. I spot one of them stop someone and engage in that same side street to cross his path.
“Hey, you! Stop.” The guard turns away from the other villager and calls out to me. I slow down to look at him with my best clueless puzzled face. “Did you see anyone lurking around?” He asks.
“Not that I remember, what would they look like?” I blink a few times.
“Nefarious.” He answers seriously. What the hell does that even describe? “So, did you?” He presses me.
“No.” I shake my head. “But if I do, I’ll be sure to tell the guard!” I add, nodding with wide eyes.
“That’s the right thing to do. You can go along and tend to your business.” The guard departs on these words.
I stop myself from rolling my eyes and walk away, taking a turn to head back north and find the main street to go back to the Inn. I’m relatively certain that Brie is behind this so I’m not going to stick around to try to find her.
If they were looking for someone specific, they would have a description. The point of this search is probably to stop us from meeting, not expose us.
Only Hurb or Brie would know enough to warn the town guards. Whoever did this couldn’t give too good a warning since it would incriminate them as accomplices at the same time.
Or this is just paranoia. There could have just been a theft… Argh! Who are you fooling? They’re going to put something on fire, I just fucking know it. I find Ulf waiting for me outside the Inn.
He escorts me inside, using his large frame to hide my face from the clerk. Teva is so good at this. I remembered to sneak out but forgot to think of a way to get back inside.
Once upstairs, we enter my room together. I can hear that Teva is still in the middle of bathing so I decide not to bother her.
“Do you mind skipping sleep tonight?” I ask Ulf.
“I don’t. What’s going on?”
“The guards were tipped off about nefarious people in the southern part of town or something similarly useless. I suspect that one of the other two groups decided to fly on their own. I want you to explore the roofs tonight, get used to it while the Rykz are still far and the castle isn’t on full alert.”
“And if I run into someone doing something stupid?” Ulf asks.
“Put an arrow into them and alert the guard.” I reply in a hard tone.