Chapter Nine: "We Can Go Break Into This Palace"
It was with a sense of great relief that we emerged from the forest and saw the city laid out below us. I actually smiled to see it; the vast encircling wall, manned with stern spearmen, that stretched around the blocky buildings within easily, the spires of the temples and the Mage's College… there was a large building on a hilltop that practically screamed "palace", and I sighed happily at the view. The vast gates were open, a steady stream of people entering, and I turned to my companions to suggest we head down there.
"That city doesn't make sense," Aryn complained, beside me. I groaned internally, realising that I should have expected something like this, but surprisingly it didn't irritate me as much as it might once have done.
"Why's that, then?" I asked. The mage looked at me with a puzzled frown.
"Look at the people going in," he said. I did. They seemed normal enough to me, and I said so.
"No, wait, I see it," Erek blinked, joining Aryn in staring at the road. "There aren't enough farmers."
"Of course there's no farmers," Daria laughed. "There's no farms… oh…"
We all paused and looked at the great city, standing on its own in the middle of nowhere, with hardly any food entering at all.
"Actually, that is pretty odd," I agreed. Tharan nodded thoughtfully. Fortunately, nobody noticed; I stuck my elbow in his side, hard, and he winced.
"Come on," I managed to say. "We can worry about that later. For now, we have an appointment at the palace."
We trailed off down the hill, ignoring the odd feeling that we had just missed something important. It was a swift journey; in moments, we had joined the crowd of people flowing towards the gates. Now that I looked at them, many seemed to be lone travellers, and the few merchants appeared to deal in cloth or hay, as best I could tell. How much cloth and hay does a city need? I was starting to get the uncomfortable feeling that there had always just been cloth and hay, and I'd simply never seen it before.
"It's worse than the wombats," Aryn muttered, his face pale. We all cast curious looks in his direction, but no further information was forthcoming.
I didn't get much time to think any of it over, anyway; the instant we rejoined the flow of people, I was back in charge of everyone, keeping my eyes open to ensure they were behaving. What with ensuring Tharan wasn't too clever in public, keeping Erek out of accidents, checking Daria hadn't found something else to be frightened of and persuading Aryn to stop muttering about the general illogicality of the world at large, my attention was fully occupied as we drew up to the gates.
Spear-wielding armoured guards stood to attention beside the opening, but didn't bother us as we entered. For a moment, in my disorientated state, this worried me, but then I recalled that we would have to be hiding in a hay-cart before they stopped anyone. Another one of those things that always happens… to be honest, there was something vaguely sinister about the idea now.
The city bustled inside, much like Geltor but more closely constructed in the buildings, with narrow streets that wound steeply upwards towards the centre. There would be a Guild outpost somewhere, I was sure, but I felt that right now was a time for Tharan and I to avoid our employers, at least until we could come up with some answers to the more pressing questions they would want to ask us. Instead, I suggested that we head straight to the palace, citing the nearby presence of Berek and Imat as incentive.
"You do know Berek, do you not?" Erek said quietly as we began to move uphill. I jumped; somehow, he had managed to appear close behind my left ear. I slowed a little, until we were walking behind the others. They were probably eavesdropping, especially Daria, but the illusion of privacy was still important.
"We used to work together," I sighed heavily, remembering the more simple days of yore. "I was his first henchman... before he had Imat, and I had Tharan."
"So in all those legends, the sidekick…"
"Was me, yes."
Erek looked at me admiringly. "I always liked Berek's sidekick in those stories. I had wondered… your name… but to think I am speaking with that Jake…"
I blushed, then realised it and grew even redder with embarrassment. "You don't mean that," I muttered. Or something along those lines… I know he was just complimenting me as a fellow man and that he thought of me platonically, but still…
Jump him kiss him marry him.
"No, truly," Erek insisted. It took me a moment to remember the conversation. "You did not seem as… cowardly… as the other companions of legend. You might not have gotten involved in the hand-to-hand fights, but you were clever and a good shot, and my father always said…"
Suddenly his face creased up, and he fell silent. Sensing that I had just touched the surface of something best left hidden for now, I reached out and clapped Erek on the back; a masculine gesture, I realised with a start. I behaved like a boy out of habit… no acting needed. Well, at least I had one safety net between Erek and my hormones. Awkwardly, we fell into silence, hurrying to catch up with the others.
The palace stood at the centre of the city, a high wall surrounding its lush gardens, suspicious guards glaring furiously at everyone who passed. We arrived at the main gates quite swiftly, but paused outside for a quick discussion.
"How do you plan to get us in?" Aryn demanded. "The place is a fortress!"
I shrugged. "Well, normally I'd advise knocking out the guards and striding right into the throne room… it's how I normally get into places… but I don't think they'd appreciate that, and we are here to help."
"We could ask at the entrance," Erek suggested. "They may allow us access to the King willingly."
There was a pause, then Daria grinned. "Worth a try," she agreed.
"Wait here," I ordered the others. "I'll go and see."
Leaving my companions standing together at the corner, I made my way up to the gate and smiled pleasantly at the younger of the two guards. He scowled back, and I realised this was going to be an uphill struggle.
"Excuse me," I began politely. "But is there any chance of us getting in to see the King?"
"No," he replied.
So far, so good. Sarcasm is a wonderful thing, no? But I tried anyway.
"Only we're interested in taking on the quest to rescue…"
"He said no!" snapped the second guard. "We've been watching you lot, and I reckon you're Suspicious Characters, so beat it before I arrest the lot of you!"
I smiled brightly and scurried back to the others, realising as I did so just how obvious we were to an edgy guard. And they would be edgy, given the recent loss of their princess.
"It's a no-go," I informed the party, closing ranks once more. "We'll have to find another way in."
"Um… why?" Erek asked, slowly. I looked at him incredulously.
"Yeah. Why do we have to see the King? Don't we know what we've got to do?"
There was a pause while we all considered this.
"Erek right," Tharan commented. I paused for a long second, gathering my strength. Newbies, the lot of 'em.
"Oh, really?" I scowled, breathing heavily. "Well, has Erek considered that if we go in there and speak to the King, we get to do this thing called ne-go-ti-a-tion? That means we get more money. And we also get food, beds, equipment, not to mention DIRECTIONS!"
The last word was bellowed with such volume that Tharan rocked back on his heels; Erek, taken by surprise, stumbled back, tripped over, and landed in a crate of chickens that immediately started to peck him. The stall-owner, reasonably irritated by this, began to berate the youth, hitting him over the head with a wooden trencher. Erek, fleeing the stall-keeper with bent head, managed to run smack into a cart-horse that promptly kicked him in the knee. Collapsing beneath an open window, our friend was then drenched with the contents of a chamber-pot that a goodwife had decided to empty into the street.
For a long moment, we were all frozen, then Erek smiled at us wanly from his position on the ground. I shook my head, pretending exasperation.
"Come on," I sighed. "Pick yourself up so we can go break into this palace."
"To the left… to the left…"
"Mind your head!"
"Move it up there…"
"Ssh! Someone's coming!"
The last call, from Daria, had us all hitting the ground… literally, in Erek's case, as Tharan forgot he was there and dropped him. The five of us hastily gathered around the dice Aryn had produced from the depths of his pack and made as if we'd been playing all along. A suspicious guard glanced at us as he wandered past; we smiled politely and followed him with our eyes until he vanished around the corner. Then Daria and Aryn shot back to their respective posts, Erek jumped back onto Tharan's shoulders, and I started to advise the pair on their movement, which was actually a more important task than it sounds; although Erek could just about reach the top of the wall from Tharan's broad shoulders, he couldn't see the top of it. I had to warn him of the various spikes and spines that bristled above his head.
"Mind your left hand," I called, as he narrowly avoided impaling it on one of those vicious instruments. "Now a bit more to the right… okay, you're clear!"
With that, the youth grabbed the top of the wall and, in a single smooth movement, vaulted onto the top of it. Without so much as a precarious wobble, he crouched on the narrow surface and grinned down at us.
"Simple," he declared. "So who's first?"
"Me," I declared, walking over to Tharan; the bulky hero lifted me as if I was as light as a feather, and with Erek's help I scrambled uncertainly onto the walltop. For a moment, we were crouched right next to each other, and once again my body started screaming its own suggestions. I clamped down on them; we had a job to do, and I was not going to jeopardise it by jumping him. Even if he was totally hot and gorgeous.
The moment passed, and as Erek helped Aryn up onto the wall I surveyed the other side. We'd more or less managed the hard part; now all we had to worry about was getting down into the lush green gardens below without breaking a leg.
"I'm not so sure about this, Jeka," said Daria's voice, and I glanced back over the wall to see her gazing worriedly up at me. I nodded patiently; we'd known this was going to happen, and had planned for it. The young thief was wearing a blindfold around her neck, all ready to be pulled on.
"Just put it up and close your eyes," I said soothingly. "You won't be able to see a thing."
"But I'll know," Daria pointed out, reasonably enough.
"We shall lower you down first," Erek assured her, his head appearing next to mine. "Before we even pull Tharan up."
"Promise?" Daria asked shyly.
"Promise," I assured her. "Come on, now."
With a last dubious look at the wall, the thief-girl pulled the cloth over her eyes, and waited for Tharan to give her a boost. The three of us on the wall-top grabbed her and pulled her up quickly, hardly pausing before we dangled her over the other side as near to the ground as we could.
"Okay, we're going to drop you now," I told her. "Its not far…"
"I can't!" Daria wailed. "It's too high! I'm gonna DIE! AAAAGGGGHHHH IMGONNADIE HEEEEEEELPMEEEEEEE!"
She started to struggle, fighting her way back up towards the wall. I shared a glance with Aryn and Erek; all at once, we let go of the girl. With a piercing shriek, she dropped to the ground, then tore off her blindfold to glare up at us.
"I am never doing this again!" she howled. "Never!"
"Ssh!" I whispered, placing a finger over my lips before joining my two companions in helping to lift the great bulk of Tharan onto the wall. It was a struggle; he seemed to weigh a ton, and as we leaned back to try and lift him I could feel myself beginning to overbalance.
It was just then, as the four of us were pivoted in the crucial position, that we heard the sound of footsteps on the palace side of the wall.
"Two guards are coming!" hissed Daria, now recovered from her attack of terror. "Hurry up! And keep it down!"
With one final, hefty pull, we managed to get Tharan onto the walltop. For a moment he crouched with us, poised, then he began to wobble. I reached out to grab him, and accidentally knocked against Erek. The youth had good balance, and would have been fine, if only one of Tharan's pinwheeling arms hadn't also caught him at the exact same moment. The combined force knocked him backwards off the wall; we could only watch in horror as he landed smack in a thorn-bush and hastily stifled a scream of pain.
"What was that?" demanded a voice from nearby; abandoning caution to the winds, the three of us still on the wall dropped to the ground and tried to find cover.
Too late. Two men appeared through the trees by the path, and stared at us in surprise for a moment. Then one lifted his whistle and blew three quick blasts on it, easily alerting every other guard in earshot. Tharan moved fast; before the final blast was even finished, the two men were unconscious on the ground. But the alarm had already gone out, and by the time we'd extricated Erek from the bush a whole unit of men had arrived. We took one look at the opposition and surrendered as one, to be arrested and marched off at spear-point.
It was just one of those days.