Unwillingly Thrust Alone
The next morning, Aranel was up before the sun. I heard her moving about in the small room, brushing aside the wall tapestries to retrieve things from the deep shelves behind. I sat up slowly, careful not to wake Netya as she slept beside me. I brushed the thick warm blanket that covered me away, and stood up. Aranel glanced at me as she worked, running a cursory eye down my tattered clothing. Pursing her lips, she spoke briskly. “An you would I come with you, you must needs put on something different than that fancy useless piece of silk. Here, come here.”
I stepped around the brazier, ducking under the oil lamp basin and crossing the room in a few steps. She pushed aside another tapestry, revealing a second tiny, unfurnished room like a large closet storeroom. Shelves lined the back wall, filled with vegetables and food stored in the cool damp air. A chest stood, heavy and resolute, beneath the shelves. Aranel produced a large brass key from a fold of her dress, fitting it into the lock on the lid of the chest. Taking the long neck of the key in both hands, she twisted it, throwing her body weight against the stiffness of the lock. At last, with a snap, the lock sprang apart and Aranel lifted the lid. Reaching into the chest, she drew out two pieces of soft folded leather and handed them to me. “There. These should fit you and your friend. Much more practical than…that,” she said, shaking her head as she looked once more at the fading purple silk of my gown. “I don’t see how you have survived so far dressed like a pair of good for nothing princesses,” she snorted in disgust, leaving the room. Turning back before she let the tapestry fall before the opening, she said, “You can change in here. I’ll wake your friend.”
I nodded, and slipped out of my dress, leaving it crumpled on the floor as I pulled the soft doeskin dress Aranel had handed me over my head. The thickness of the leather felt strangely hampering after the light airiness of the silk I had worn every day, although the dress itself was much lighter than the many-layered gowns I was so used to. It was fashioned in the same style as the white dress Aranel wore, although it was of simple brown. Taking the girdle from my silk dress, I bound it about my waist. A moment later, Netya pulled aside the tapestry and stepped into the room as I stood looking down examining the strange garment I now wore. She laughed when she saw me, walking around me as I stood in the center of the room. “This is ever so much better than cutting our hair, isn’t it?” she said, giggling.
I laughed with her and pointed to the chest where I had laid the second dress. “Don’t laugh at me too hard; you get one too. It’s over there.”
She picked up the folded dress, running her hand down the soft leather. She looked up at me doubtfully. “We have to wear these…? Why must we?”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” I replied, laughing. “Aranel seemed to think we looked too much like ‘good for nothing princesses’ in our grand silks, I believe. Besides, it should be easier to crawl unnoticed through Pethnor’s stronghold, Goemorn, or whatever they called it, dressed like this than in what we were wearing,” I bent and picked up my gown, folding it neatly and leaving it on the top of the chest Aranel had taken the doeskin dresses from. Netya did the same with hers, tying her girdle about her waist and then leaving the stained crimson of her dress falling against the purple of mine. I examined her new apparel, smiling. “You look very like Aranel, now. We just need to do something about your hair…” I said.
“Hey, no!” Netya protested, backing away from me. “I like my hair just fine like this…I don’t need anything strange braided in it, thanks ever so,” she laughed. “You, on the other hand…” she grinned, pulling the tie off the end of my braid and running her fingers through it, unraveling the strands.
I crossed my arms and glared at her over my shoulder. “Don’t you dare. Come on, let’s go. They’re probably waiting for us.” I pushed aside the tapestry, letting it whisper shut behind us as we passed back into the small main room of the strange dwelling.
There was no trace of Arhael. Aranel stood by the door, filling the small pouch she now wore around her waist with some of the dried herbs that hung from all about the ceiling. She looked up when we entered, and I could tell from the expression on her face that she was having second thoughts about leading us to Pethnor and Thalon. I longed to ask her what reason she had for loathing his name so strongly and swearing to destroy him, but I dared not ask until I knew she would not change her mind about the help she was giving us.
Pointing to two more pouches, already filled and waiting, Aranel told us to put them on. We complied, fastening our sword belts around our waists as well and throwing our cloaks over everything. Aranel took her own cloak off a peg of white birch wood by the doorway and motioned us out. She shut the black door behind us, locking it with the same key she had used on the chest and ducking out of the passageway behind us into the fern-covered courtyard. The sun had risen by now, and the first young rays of light played about the mosses at the foot of the boulder. I turned my face up to the sun, drinking in the bright morning air. I smiled slightly, thinking of Thalon. He should have been there with us, on the same adventure.
“Come, this way,” Aranel said, breaking into my thoughts. I looked up and saw her already leaving the small haven of green warmth and starting down into the forest below. Netya followed close behind her and I quickly scrambled down the rocky slope to walk at the rear of the line. Netya and I nearly had to run to keep up with her long, fast strides. Like Arhael’s, I thought.
As though reading my mind, Aranel suddenly spoke up before us. “Arhael is going ahead of us, at least for a while, to make sure we do not run into unexpected trouble. One cannot be too careful, this close to Pethnor. He is not my enemy, but that does not mean he thinks I am not his. He will not think twice about taking me captive or worse, should he come across me unprotected in the woods. And with you two at my tail…he would jump at the chance,” she said, a note of bitterness in her voice.
We walked briskly, Aranel setting a fair pace before us, until the morning wore away and afternoon came waning on its tail. Just as I began to feel the pangs of hunger gnawing at my strength, Aranel halted suddenly, motioning for us to be silent. Cupping her hands around her mouth, she whistled low and softly, a perfect birdcall beneath the arching canopy of the leaves. Then she tilted her head, waiting and listening. An answering call came from near at hand, and she turned towards it, satisfied, leading us on into the woods. A few hundred yards later, I saw Arhael walking to meet us from the opposite direction. He stopped by Aranel and spoke a few low words into her ear, words that I did not catch. She nodded slightly, turning her gaze into the woods away to our left. Then turning to us, she motioned for us to sit, saying, “We will rest here for a moment, and eat. We should be nearly to Pethnor’s fences by nightfall an we keep up this pace.”
“So soon?” I asked, surprised.
“Yes. We will reach them no later than midday tomorrow. That is the easy piece,” Aranel said, smiling at me. “After that…we must slip through his defenses. It should not be too difficult, provided everything works at a wonderfully high level of perfection. I shall explain the layout of Goemorn to you as we walk this afternoon.”
“Have you been there…often…before?” Netya asked cautiously as we ate sparingly from the food Aranel had packed in our bags.
Aranel shook her head. “Oh, yes. Many times. The first time quite by accident. I was picked up in the woods by some of his men and brought there. I was out further from my home than I usually go, and I was not being as cautious as I should have been. I didn’t realize where they had taken me until after I escaped. Pethnor never saw me, luckily. If he had, I don’t doubt I would not be here now. The other times, I went in on purpose.” She fell silent, examining the piece of hard, flat bread she held in her hands. Netya did not press her for details.
Arhael spoke at last, breaking the silence and changing the subject. “We should be moving on. We cannot afford to wait too long.”
Aranel stood up swiftly, throwing her cloak back off her shoulders. “Yes. Come. We still have a long walk ahead of us. I shall explain the plan while we go.”
The sunlight trickled down through the leaves overhead, making sparkles dance before my eyes and dazzling my sight. My head spun with the information Aranel related, carefully and precisely. She outlined our plan of entrance clearly, and I could see Netya struggling, as I was, to remember all she said.
“We will approach the stronghold from the south. Pethnor will have a line of men in the woods, acting as a watch on his borders. We must first get past them. Once we get through, we will have only the actual walls of Goemorn to navigate. There are three ways in. One, we go through the gate. Not such a good idea, if we don’t wish to be caught within a minute. Two, we could scale the wall. It is made of stone, and so there are spaces to get a handhold…but they rise straight up a hundred feet or more. The top overhangs as well. So that way is impossible. The third way…is very difficult. Yet it is possible, an you are desperate enough,” Aranel said, smiling at us.
“How? What is it?” Netya asked, Aranel’s ominous description putting a spark of courage in her face.
Aranel laughed softly. “I know someone within the walls. I met her when I was brought inside the first time, and she helped me to escape. Granted, I had to bribe her richly before she would listen…but she helped me nonetheless. It was for that reason I went within the walls a second time To visit her. She is a good woman, helping me get supplies I cannot find in the forest, and giving me someone to talk to on occasion. I would not call her a friend. I do not know how friendship works. Yet she is a good acquaintance. With her help, we can venture over the walls and into the city.
“A room in her usual dwelling there backs up against the wall of the stronghold. There is a window. An we can get undetected to the walls, she will drop a rope ladder for us, and we will climb up and through her window. From there, she will let us out onto the roof. It is both safer and quicker to travel that way, as there is much less risk of being seen. It is there that I will leave you. I will take you to this woman, but I will not go any further. You must return on your own. I cannot promise she will let you leave once she knows your purpose. Her mind works in mysterious ways, and I know not what mood will take her. She may let you go willingly with her blessing, or she may call the guards down upon your head in a heartbeat. I do not know, and cannot pretend to guess. It is a risk you must take.”
“Alright,” I said slowly, my mind whirling in thought. “But…who is this woman? If she is so untrustworthy…” I trailed off.
Aranel stopped walking and looked down at me. “It is the only way, Alasse. You must trust me, or you must go back.”
“We cannot go back,” Netya said, standing beside me. “We will not. We will follow you.”
Aranel smiled. “Good. Now…once on the rooftops of the city, I do not know how you will find Thalon. The woman I take you to can give you information on that, I believe. An she does not call the guard down to throw you into the deepest dungeons of Goemorn, that is. An she does not know where you should look…then you must search the city.” Aranel smiled, and went on with her explanation of the cruel stronghold we made for. “Goemorn is not Pethnor’s main residence. He uses it merely as a stronghold, a hideout in times of trouble. Since his escape, he and his men have simply been roaming the forest, not gathering together at any one spot. His courts have long been watched, and they are garrisoned with men from your Castle Guard. I know. I have seen them. We Wanderers live up to our names,” she said, smiling at our surprise. “Pethnor, I believe, does not think himself strong enough yet to overcome the strength of those guarding his realm against him. Naturally, he would return to this stronghold, this perfectly secret and secure stronghold. He has not yet gathered here in force…but I believe now he calls all his men to himself. I have seen them in the woods, traveling ever towards the Dark Terror of Goemorn.”
“But wait. What about Arhael?” I interrupted suddenly. “Why did we come to you if Arhael is Pethnor’s son? Surely he must have been here before. Why did you bring us to Aranel?” I asked, turning towards him.
He laughed softly. “Ah yes, I have been here. But it has been many years, fair one. Many years since I set foot behind the walls of Goemorn. I was just a young lad at the time. I remember very little. Since then, I have never returned. Because of my scar, those who are there would recognize me instantly as Pethnor’s son and let me pass without harm through the defenses. But that would do us no good,” he said quietly. “No, it would do us no good. I am a hunted man, Alasse. I would be let through freely, and you as well, if you came with me. But only to be brought before…before my father. Only to be brought before his throne of judgment. I should be broken there, Alasse. I am not as strong or as brave as I may look to you. My father knows I have betrayed him. The words of the man outside your cabin prove that. Should I return to him, even to plead for forgiveness, I should be broken on the rack of his hate and thrown into the deepest pit of his vile prisons to rot. Once inside Pethnor’s prisons…one never again sees the light of day or feels the touch of a human hand. You starve to death if you are lucky, and die very slowly of much, much worse things if you are not.” He smiled at me, and I turned away, my mind recoiling from the images it fabricated out of Arhael’s words.
He laughed, and said lightly, “So you see, that is why I brought you to Aranel. She has broken into Goemorn once and out twice. In her hands, you will have no trouble.”
Netya suddenly cried out in fear, gripping his arm tightly. “But…but Arhael. What about you? You’re coming with us, aren’t you? You must!” Her voice rose frantically, and Arhael pressed his hand over her mouth, stopping her words.
“Hush. We are too close to his fences for shouting. No, I cannot come with you inside. I am sorry…I should be more of a danger than a help to you. My face…my face will bring all the wolves of Pethnor down on your necks. You must do this alone.” He spoke softly, regretfully.
I shivered as a wave of dread crashed over me. My voice broke as I spoke my thoughts aloud. “Like Berion said. Like…just like he said. We must be the ones to save Thalon. But…but alone…how, how can we do it alone? Aranel…”
Aranel grabbed my shoulder, speaking firmly. “I will help you get inside. As I promised. From there, I will do no more. I have sworn, Alasse. I cannot help you further. You must find your friend and escape…on your own.”