This is the Prologue to "Heretic Wind," a novel just published by C. Dale Brittain and Robert A. Bouchard. (Here's the link to the ebook on Amazon.)
They would have only one chance.
They did not even dare scout the castle's layout ahead of time. All they could do was trust to luck and to the Perfect God.
The vegetable cart jarred their teeth and bones as it creaked and bounced down the cobbled street. Hoods pulled up, weapons hidden under their cloaks, they should pass for peasants bringing food to the duke's kitchen. How could real peasants bear to ride in a cart like this?
Those on foot glanced toward them as they passed, then away. Were those suspicious looks? Had the man they bought this cart from betrayed them already? First he had been sullen and dubious and refused their offer to buy it all, mule and turnips and cabbages included. When they had tripled their offer he had become less sullen but no less dubious. Had he taken their coin and gone straight to the captain of the guard?
Too late to back out. The horses for their escape were tied to the railings by the reins, just where they should be, but if they abandoned the cart now and galloped to safety they would never have another chance this good.
They passed under the arch and into the kitchen courtyard, where half a dozen carts already stood, and vigorous negotiations over the value of their produce were in full progress. No one paid them any attention as they slid from the plank seat and in through the open doors.
The kitchen was even more tumultuous than the courtyard, fires blazing on three hearths, cooks stirring and chopping and shouting commands, assistants turning spits and scrubbing pots and rolling out barrels of wine. The air was already almost unbearably hot. A great dinner, a festal dinner, would be served in a few hours, and its preparation was far more important than two hooded figures slipping through the shadows.
They had considered and rejected a spell of invisibility. The infidel priest who served as the castle's spiritual advisor was a Magian, and he'd have spotted someone working magic there as readily as if they announced their entry with a hunting horn. Far better to pass unobtrusively by people who were much too busy to notice them.
Three staircases led upward from three sides of the kitchen. Which one led to the great hall? They glanced toward each other, eyes meeting and then slipping away.
A young man in livery came flying down one of the staircases, carrying an empty tray, shot past them, and immediately started filling glasses from a wine barrel. Their eyes met again. That one.
Through the archway and up the steps. A sudden shout rang out behind them.
A challenge? Or just a cook shouting at an assistant? They started to run.
The stairs were wide but badly lit, for the window slits were few and narrow, and the torches not yet lighted. Up and up the stairs led, until it seemed they must have climbed far too high for the great hall. Listening for footsteps behind them over the sound of their own panting breaths, they burst out into a small room.
Not the great hall after all. Doors stood on either hand, closed now, slabs of oak held together with great iron bands. The first door they tried was locked. So was the second.
No doubt now. Rapid footsteps raced up the stairs behind them.
The third door was unlocked. They darted through and bolted it behind them. When they left-if they left-they would have to find another way out.
They spun toward the room, hands on the knives under their cloaks. Lute music softly played. They were in a solarium now, where graceful windows let in the afternoon sunlight. A row of pillars ran down the center of the room, half-shielding them from those at the other end. No one had yet looked toward them.
But they would any moment now, as soon as those coming up the stairs from the kitchen started banging on the door. They had maybe fifteen seconds, before the elegantly dressed company, chatting and listening to the lute player, focused on the movement beyond the pillars and realized it was not after all a servant with refills of wine.
On quick silent feet they strode down the side of the room. The duke was of course at the center of the gathering, sitting with his elbows out and thumbs hooked into his belt. Everyone knew the duke and the major members of his household, even those who did not cheer with the rest when he rode by. Sunlight flashed green from his emerald ring.
His sword swung from his belt, reaching to the floor beside his great chair. The watchful, dark-skinned man who stood just behind him was also armed. But no one else in the gathering carried even a long knife. The duke feared assassins, even when surrounded by friends.
Which meant that the northern count would not be armed. Here where he sat unafraid, thinking that all the danger was outside the castle walls, they could count on seizing him without fearing he would fight back.
The count stood, his back to them. His visit here was the excuse for the feast-no one had bothered to keep it secret.
Their eyes met again. Foreigner. Infidel. Imposter. False lord of the high stronghold that belonged by all right to the devotees of the Perfect God. As their captive, he would be more than willing to bargain away his false claims in return for his life.
If the Perfected leadership even let him live.
Their knives were in their hands. Three more steps and they would be at the row of pillars.
The count spoke and pointed toward the window behind the duke. He had seen something. A hawk? He stepped past the duke and his bodyguard for a better look-and out of range.
At the same instant a great pounding and shouting came from the door leading to the kitchen stairs. All eyes swung in that direction-and saw them.
Two seconds too late to capture the count. One person was within reach, one person they could still take hostage: a young woman, the duke's daughter.
She whirled around and froze in horror to see two strangers, knives at the ready, not two steps from her. Everyone knew that she was the northern count's sweetheart. She would do.
As they seized her and swung her between themselves and the duke's bodyguard, she tried to wrench herself away. A hard slap across the mouth took much of the fight out of her.
The count, his face gone dead white except for the burning red of the scar on one cheek, looked ready to leap on them, bare hands against their blades-except that one of those blades had found the vulnerable spot below her chin.
With a knife against her throat, they only hoped she didn't struggle so that she cut herself badly. She was hostage for their safe escape, but they were also, as they were only too aware, hostage to her. If her throat were slit there would be nothing to stop the bodyguard, sword now in his fist, from slitting theirs the next instant.
Everyone was shouting, the count loudest of all, but the pounding of the blood in their own ears drowned out the voices. Slowly they backed away from the company, toward the broad stair at that end of the solarium.
Someone-the duke-thrust his head out the window and roared commands down to the courtyard below. To let them pass? To have an archer ready as soon as they emerged? They descended the stairs slowly, one looking forward, the other walking backwards behind. The young ducissa had stopped struggling and walked meekly between them. Resignation? Or false surrender, waiting only for her chance to break free? The three were pressed so closely together that they could smell the flowers of her perfume and feel the beat of her heart.
Which way out? Down and down. They passed landings and passages, saw the glint of eyes and weapons, but no one tried to stop them. Down and down. The daylit opening before them was not another window; it was an open door.
A last look behind them, and they went through, pushing her before them. An archer was there, sure enough, but he lowered his bow when he saw there was no way he could shoot without hitting her first. They strode past, faster now, half-carrying her and swinging her so that she was always between them and the archer. Her breath came rapidly, but still she did not try to struggle. A drop of crimson blood stood out against the knife at her throat.
The great gates out of the courtyard were open. Guards stood at the gates, but their swords hung from limp hands. The beggars who usually clustered there had all vanished away.
Through the gates they went, one looking ahead, one behind, even faster now. Out into the street that ran along the castle walls. Almost running, they passed by the gateway into the kitchen courtyard. The mule and vegetable cart were still where they had left them. It had all taken under ten minutes.
On down the street, along the railings that kept the curious out of the gardens. The horses were still there. They scrambled into the saddles, and one threw the ducissa across in front of him. The shouting behind them was growing louder.
But the city gates were only a short way ahead. They would be followed, of course, but they had a headstart. Out the city gates they would gallop, where the road wound white along the base of the hills, but above them towered the mountains. And the mountains were their territory, the land where the devotees of the Perfect God were forced to hide. Once they reached the mountains, no one would find them.
And they were off, dodging the farm carts that were still arriving, riding down anyone who tried to step before them.
A man with a crossbow leaned out the palace window behind them, but they knew he wouldn't dare shoot and risk killing the ducissa. Besides, in two seconds they would be out of range. In two seconds they would be safe.
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