The guard on the parapet wall barely saw what killed him.
One moment he was focused on the darkness outside the fortifications, the black night dotted by dozens of distant, smoky campfires from the army besieging the castle. In the next, his head turned at a faint clink from a nearby rampart.
Gripping his halberd more tightly, he took a cautious step over, peering at the shadowed stones in an effort to see what had made the noise. Just when he was about to give up and dismiss it, he spotted a small, two-pronged metal hook gripping the corner where the square merlon met the crennelation.
Attackers! his mind screamed. As he opened his mouth to voice that alarm, he heard a strange whir and felt something strike his neck, hard. Just as suddenly, he couldn’t speak—in fact, he found it hard to breathe, his throat and mouth filled with warm, coppery blood.
Halberd slipping from his hand, the guard reached up to find a slim wooden shaft protruding from underneath his jaw. His trembling fingers explored the shaft outward, finding three yellow feathers at the far end.
By now his legs would longer support him, and the guard, his mouth still opening and closing in a vain attempt to speak, blood pouring down the front of his hauberk, slid to the parapet floor, his vision tunnelling from light to gray to black.
His last sight was of the first invader climbing in between the merlons. Instead of a burly warrior or arcane mage, the guard saw a black-haired woman dressed in a mix of maroon leather and black lamellar armour, with a pair of swords sheathed on her hip and a recurve bow with metal-tipped ends in her free hand.
The sentry made one more effort to signal the other guards, but all that came out of his mouth was a great gout of blood that spilled down his chain mail shirt as blackness claimed him.
* * *
As soon as she had gained the parapet, the archer nocked another arrow, then crouch-walked over to ensure the fallen guard was dead. His eyes were fading, his last breath a soft exhalation she felt as she knelt by him. Gently she closed his eyes, then drew a small knife as she glanced over her shoulder at the rest of her party climbing over the parapet.
The black-swathed thief stepped silently to her as she cut the arrowhead free and removed the bloody shaft from the dead guard’s throat. “Still say a throwing blade would have been easier.”
She ignored his critique. “Five minutes.”
The third member of their group, a lean, brown-haired man in a tattered leather cloak over a battered breastplate, clambered up and over. After pulling up the rope and hook and handing it back to the thief, he unlimbered a large double-bladed axe from a sheath on his back.
“What about those two?” He pointed his axe at the other guards posted further along the parapet wall, far enough away that the slain guard’s death hadn’t alerted them, but near enough that a casual glance in this direction could sound the alarm.
“Grab that halberd,” the archer replied. “And stand right there, facing out.”
The sellsword did so, taking up a position much like the guard had a few seconds ago. The archer crept to the inner wall and drew back her bow, aiming at the farthest guard. She sighted down the shaft, timed her shot to occur between two heartbeats, then released the bowstring. The missile sped true, striking the guard in the back of the neck and instantly dropping him.
Before the first arrow had found its mark, she had a second one ready and aimed at the nearer guard, who just started to turn at the hiss of the first arrow slicing through the air. Her second shot struck the man’s temple, piercing his skull and causing an even faster death. In less than four seconds, she had cleared the way to their objective: the lone lit window high in the keep’s stone wall.
“Doubt your blades could reach that far,” she said to the rogue as she rose. “Four minutes, thirty seconds.”
Without waiting for his reply, she began creeping toward the section of parapet underneath the wall. As she went, she overheard the rogue’s irritated hiss. “Not sure the payment is worth all this, Larel…”
“Too late to turn back now,” the sellsword replied as he fell into step behind her. “’Course, Rin, if you left now, then I’d get your share…”
“Over your dead body,” Rin muttered as he hurried to catch up to them.
At the bottom of the keep wall, the archer motioned him over to the wall. “Your show, quickfinger.”
“You’re too kind.” He studied the wall—which was a few feet away from the edge of the parapet—for a moment, then stepped to the top of a merlon and leaped off it. He sailed through the air and clung to the wall where he landed, fingers and feet outstretched to find cracks and crevices even the archer hadn’t been sure of. Once he was secure, Rin began climbing up the wall, a shadow moving among shadows.
As Rin ascended, the archer made sure that Larel was watching for any other sign they had been noticed. All was quiet at this hour, several minutes before dawn, when a person’s attention was most likely to waver. It was one of several reasons why they had chosen this time to infiltrate the castle—but it also meant they were on a very tight schedule.
“Three minutes,” she whispered to Larel as she watched his progress. “He’d better not put us behind,”
“He won’t,” the sellsword replied.
It seemed like hours, but was most likely less than a minute before Rin was almost at the window. As he got close, the archer nocked an arrow and raised it to point at the window.
“What are you—” Larel began, but was shushed by the archer, who closed her eyes and concentrated on Rin as he climbed.
A moment later, she saw a vision of night sky in her mind, then a rough stone wall. A black-clad hand reached up to grab a tiny protrusion and haul its owner up close to the stone sill. The climber pulled himself up high enough to look over the sill into the dimly lit bedroom, seeing an ornate four-poster bed next to a banked fire in a fireplace. He then began to haul himself into the window, but was distracted by a blur of movement from the dark alcove to the right of the window. A jingle of chain mail announced the position of a guard stationed in the room.
That was when the archer released her arrow. The shaft curved in what should have been an impossible arc and flew over the rogue’s head and through the window. There was a soft gurgle, followed by a thud, then silence.
With a startled glance at the archer below, Rin shook off his surprise and scrambled the rest of the way through the window. Seconds later, the coiled rope unspooled down, the end coming close enough for the mercenary to grab with his free hand.
“Go,” the archer said, now watching the other portions of the wall. The remaining guards all faced outward, watching for any sign of the enemy army’s approach. Still, she knew all it would take was one casual glance to blow their whole plan.
A hiss from above made her look up to see Larel vanishing inside. Slinging her bow over her shoulder, the archer stepped onto the merlon and jumped over to the wall, grabbing the rope and quickly hauling herself up.
At the window, she climbed inside and pulled the rope up, handing it off to the rogue again, who nodded at her, his eyes wide. The three of them looked at the fourth person in the room, a young nobleman who was hurriedly dressing. The still form of another guard lay on the floor, the shaft of her arrow sticking out of his chest.
With a finger to his lips for quiet, the thief whispered, “I’ve apprised the young man of our mission. Needless to say, he approves, and wishes to assist us in leaving here posthaste.”
“There’s—” the young man struggled to pull a long-sleeved dark blue velvet shirt over his head, “—two guards outside the door. One shout will bring more running.”
“That shouldn’t pose much of a problem,” Rin said, slipping over to the door and pressing his ear to it while slowly sliding a dagger free from its sheath.
“You must be ready to move instantly,” Larel told their charge. “Follow our instructions to the letter, and we’ll see you safely out of here.”
“Trust me, I am at your command,” the nobleman replied. He glanced around, then dismissed the rest of the items in the well-furnished bedroom with a wave of his hand. “I am ready when you are.”
“Is the door locked?” the archer asked.
The nobleman shook his head. “They figured one inside and two outside would be enough to make me stay put.” He glanced at the corpse on the floor and shook his head. “They certainly did not expect the likes of you three to show up.”
With a sideways glance at the warrior’s massive axe, the archer slid her shorter sword free of its scabbard while approaching the thief. “I have no doubt of your abilities, but a weapon that large will be difficult to maneuver in these tight halls. One swing that strikes stone will be enough of an alarm too. Since both speed and silence are of the essence, I suggest Rin takes the left, and I take the right. Larel, you get the door.”
The sellsword eyed her for a moment, then nodded and reached for the door handle. “On my mark. Three, two one…mark!”
He jerked the door open and the archer’s blade found its mark on the furthest guard’s neck almost immediately. She had closed the distance between the door and him in a flash, and in another, the keen edge of her blade sliced through flesh and opened up a second mouth in his throat. Gloved hands grabbing at his fountaining neck, and he fell back against the wall, clutching at his ruptured windpipe as he died.
She turned to see Rin’s target also falling without a sound. But even as he did, she heard the clatter of boots and armour on the stairs leading up to the room.
“Alarm’s sounded!” he hissed, “Guess a patrol found some of the bodies outside!”
“Get back inside and get him out the window!” the archer replied. “I’ll handle them.”
The thief did as she ordered while she unslung her bow again and readied an arrow. The moment a guard’s head appeared at the end of the corridor, she loosed a shaft that pierced it all the way through. He fell back with a surprised grunt, tripping two guards on his way down and causing much consternation among the other reinforcements.
The guards tried rushing her twice more, and each time they were repulsed with terrible injuries, leaving three more of their number dead or dying in the hallway. Then someone had the bright idea of getting a tower shield. After placing it in the hallway as a barrier, they began pushing it forward, advancing down the hall.
The archer loosed two more arrows at the shield, but when her shots failed to fully penetrate, she slung her bow again and drew her longer blade. With a glance at the high ceiling overhead, she focused all of her energy and ran directly at the oncoming shield. When she was two steps away, she stopped and whirled around to build velocity to drive the point of her sword through the thick steel of the shield. Even with the added impetus, her attack fell short of the flesh behind it. But that was enough for the archer. Without hesitation, she put a foot on the embedded blade and launched herself up toward the top of the shield, drawing her bow again as she leaped above the barrier.
The four guards behind the shield had just enough time to register what was about to happen before she loosed her missile. It pierced the helmet of the man holding the shield, pinning it to his head as the arrow sank deep into his skull. She discarded her bow as the momentum continued to carry her forward, drawing her short sword again as she landed and rolled between them. A powerful sword stroke brought down the next. Then she turned to the other two. A low, sweeping slash dispatched one, and the other took the end of her sword in a rising cut, ending his life as well. The archer retrieved her bow, then lifted the tower shield to remove her longer sword, before she ran back to the prisoner’s bedchamber.
Rin slammed the door closed as she ran in, wedging a sturdy chair under the handle.
“Are we all ready to go?”
“Aye,” the thief said, “Except we’ve got more trouble outside.”
The archer crossed to the window to see guards climbing ladders up to the parapet to cut off their retreat. Sheathing both blades, she shrugged off her bow again. “On my mark, get the lord down to the parapet and over the wall to the ground. I’ll follow.”
Nocking an arrow, she aimed at the rightmost corner of the parapet, where a cluster of guards was about to begin advancing toward the keep.
“O’ divine wind, guide my arrow and grant it strength.”
The released missile burst into flame as though it answered her short prayer, lighting a burning path as it arced down onto the parapet. Flowers of flames bloomed all across the wall immediately, the heat forcing the soldiers back. She turned and did the same for the other side, blocking that avenue as well. Between the two walls of fire was a cleared section of wall walk.
“Go!” she ordered.
Rin leaped from the window, playing out the rope behind him as he sailed toward the top of the wall. With a jerk, the tied-off rope checked his forward momentum just enough for him to reach the wall and not tumble into the outer merlons—or off the wall entirely. Rolling to a stop, he turned and pulled the rope taut by bracing his legs against the inner merlons.
“You’re next.” The archer gently pushed the noble forward, and the young man began lowering himself hand over hand.
“More guards approaching in the bailey below,” Larel noted.
The archer turned and put two more flaming arrows down into the courtyard. Panicked yells and shouts soon rose from below, along with the crackle of new conflagration.
“That should hold them long enough for us to escape,” she said, glancing over to see the noble reach the wall walk safely.
The sellsword needed no prodding, but gripped the rope tightly and swung himself out the window. The archer started two more fires in the courtyard, sowing even more destruction and confusion among the soldiers below.
Finally, as more guards began battering on the bedroom door, the archer slung her bow again and climbed out the window to slide swiftly down the rope. With a final backwards glance, she shot one last arrow back through the window and was rewarded with a burst of combustion from inside, followed by more shouts and screams that informed her that further pursuit was unlikely.
Rin had already tied off another rope on an outer merlon, and under cover of the smoke, wind and chaos inside the keep, the four climbed down the outer wall and raced into the nearby forest.
They had barely gone a hundred paces when they encountered a scouting force from the besieging army.
“Halt, who goes—my lord!” the green-and-brown-clad man stiffened to attention when he saw the nobleman. “Thank goodness you’re alive! Quickly—we must get you away—”
That was all he could say before the hilt of Rin’s dagger struck his skull. The leader of the group sank into unconsciousness while his two compatriots went for their weapons, only to be laid low by a vicious chop from Larel’s axe and the archer’s aim.
“What—what are you doing?” the noble stammered as he stared at the three fallen men in front of him. “These are Lord Elton’s men!” He looked at his three rescuers. “Weren’t the three of you…sent by my father?”
The archer walked up to him and produced a sash, which she used to tie the noble’s hands. “I’m afraid not.”
“Your father has made a lot of enemies in his life.” Larel walked up and placed another sash over his eyes. “You’re wanted elsewhere, boy.”
Rin, meanwhile, had scouted their new route—away from the two clashing armies, and from this conflict altogether. “We need to move if we want to avoid more of them. This way.”
Leading the newly-kidnapped nobleman away, the three disappeared into the dawn.
* * *
This week’s Archive story was written by John Helfers, the lead editor of EMBERWIND: The Skies of Axia. John has published more than fifty original short stories in anthologies such as If I Were An Evil Overlord, Time Twisters, and Shattered Shields, and universes like Dragonlance™, Transformers™, Golem Arcana™, BattleTech™, and Shadowrun™.