Under the blaze of the noon-time sun, they mingled with the throngs filling the road to Duke Henry’s castle, the Splinter Rock. Cole soaked in the sights and sounds of the busy route. All sorts crowded the winding mountain track as it traced the steep gorges of the High Slatelands, cutting back and forth across the mountainside in a series of harrowing switchbacks. Trader caravans passed the other way, families of roving peddlers from beyond the mountains driving along their shaggy oxen strapped with baggage and trailing pennants of dyed cloth that whipped about in the mountain breeze. A nobleman rode behind them at the head of his retinue, one of the duke’s vassals taking his leave from the front lines. Here and there, colorful troupes of performers, all aiming to be at the Splinter Rock for the Feast of the Summer Solstice, picked their way up the treacherous grade in soft-soled shoes and rickety carts. Even in a time of war, the holiday could not go unmarked.
Nearby, Eleanor lead her horse by the bridle. She had hidden her spell folio under the folds of her robe, and with her silver-flecked hair and hard eyes, she could have easily been mistaken for a pilgrim taking the road through the mountains to visit the way-shrines. Ula trailed close behind, the wide brim of a straw hat pulled low over his face. He could have been any number of things, but the steel-shod mace swinging from a lanyard on his belt kept away anyone trying to figure the squat mercenary captain out.
The road rounded a rocky spur, and Cole took in his breath. Ahead, the route opened up into a long alpine valley, a sheltered pass that drove clear through the barrier peaks which marked the eastern edge of the Slatelands and the border of the kingdom. Balconies and carved edifices dotted the walls of the pass, and, where it was narrow enough, arcing timber bridges spanned its width. Among all this wonder, it was a moment before the tracker’s gaze fell on the fortress at the pass’s far extremity. A single massive gatehouse more than a castle, it sat in the far mouth of the gorge like a cork in a bottle.
* * *
Night in the alpine valley had been surprisingly mild, the shear granite walls impassible to the prevailing winds. They’d camped on the grassy sward outside the fortress with most of the other travelers. Cole had kindled a fire while Eleanor scribed her spell ribbons, and Ula dozed against the trunk of a pine. They kept apart from the feasting, song, and revels of the trader caravans, so the tracker shared out a soup made from bouillon and slices of some mushrooms he’d found before they left the foothills.
As he curled up under his blanket, he saw Elanor cast the spell ribbons she had been crafting into the fire. Cole could not hear the First Language invocations she used, but afterwards she spoke in the common language of mortals, directing her words to the dancing flames. As he drifted between sleep and wakefulness, he thought he saw the flames assume the shape of a bird that soared up into the night sky before striking west towards the capital, leaving a chill to settle over the camp.
It was in the early dawn hours that they approached the Splinter Rock’s gate, blending in among the cadre of way-shrine pilgrims and the first of the traders to strike the road, keen to return home to the lands beyond the mountains. With the yawning mouth of the fortress before them, Cole stopped in front of Eleanor and looked up to meet the Pact Keeper’s determined gaze. “Lady Eleanor, what do you aim to do once we’re inside this place? Tell me you have a plan.”
The Pact Keeper’s features softened. “I forget myself. It’s rare that I’ve had an ally in my work.” She reached out and tousled Cole’s sandy-colored hair. “We’ll pass ourselves off as travelers bound for the Way Shine of Aster. We were told we could get provisions in the kitchens, but we became lost. I’ve prepared a finding spell to track Thrace. We’ll bring him back to face justice before my order, alive if we can.”
Ula snorted. “It’s a bold plan, but I’ve heard worse. Still, he’s not the kind of man to let himself be taken.”
“That is his choice.” Eleanor set her jaw and lead the way beneath the looming gate.
* * *
Inside the cavernous interior of the fortress, Cole couldn’t help but draw back against the gloom. The gateway to the kingdom, every pitted edifice and scorched wall testified to its bloody history. There was little doubt in his mind that those who held the place now were worthy inheritors of the legacy.
He and Ula followed Eleanor as she split off from the entry hall down a side passage, the spell ribbons disintegrating in her hand as they released their magic. The passageway lead deeper into the fortress before opening out into a courtyard between the eastern and western walls.
“The spell is fading, but Thrace is s near.” She lifted her folio from beneath her robes.
“Nearer than you realize.” The voice came from a shadowed balcony across the courtyard, from which emerged a man whose thinning hair and gaunt features were at odds with the confidence of his bearing. Beside him, the Duke appeared, a man still possessed of his youth, whose mustard-colored cape draped across broad, armored shoulders. “I detected your magic at work last night. And again just moments ago.”
“How?” Cole saw Eleanor mouth the words.
“Arts beyond your limited understanding,” Thrace scoffed. He flourished a small globe that seemed to dance with its own light, before tucking it back into his coat. “Artifacts a dog of the crown would be too frightened to wield.”
Cole snatched an arrow from his quiver, but on the ramparts above the courtyard bowmen had already assembled, arriving at a jog from positions farther down the wall. In the space of a breath they had taken aim at the intruders. The clatter of heavy boots sounded in the hallway from which they had come, and in the archway beneath the duke’s balcony, a bevy of mailed pikemen leveled their weapons in deadly menace.
Duke Henry stepped forward, resting a gauntleted hand on the railing of the balcony. He glowered at the three figures down below. “So, you’ve come to murder my Pact Keeper? I should kill you where you stand.”
Eleanor met his glare. “He’s not a Pact Keeper, my lord. Pact Keepers belong to the crown. That man is a renegade.”
“Speak for yourself! My allegiance is with the Slatelands,” Thrace shot back.
Eleanor ignored him, continuing to address the rebel lord. “If your raise your armies against the king it might cost you your title or your lands, but if it’s discovered that you have usurped magics which belong only to the crown, then you will face total destruction.”
The duke’s fists clenched around the railing. Cole could see him turning inward, mulling over what Eleanor had said.
It was a moment before the nobleman spoke. “Then, it’s a good thing you won’t leave here today. The king will never have more than rumors of the war-beasts and spells Thrace has crafted for me.” He raised his hand in a signal to the archers. In the passage behind Cole, Eleanor, and Ula, men-at-arms had assembled with shields and swords shimmering under the torch-light.
“I sent a message last night.” The Pact Keeper locked eyes with Thrace, acknowledging him for the first time, but continued to speak to the Duke. “It was the spell your renegade sensed. My order knows everything. Give him to us, and the king will never discover what you have done.”
“This desperate lie does not suite you, Pact Keeper,” Thrace gloated, but his grin evaporated as he saw the turmoil in the Duke’s face. “My lord, you’re not actually considering… .”
Cole watched in fascination as Duke Henry faltered and then broke. The lord lowered his hand, and the archers on the walls let their bowstrings go slack. The armored yellow jackets down the hall backed away a pace, and the pikemen across the courtyard let their spear-tips fall the smallest amount.
Duke Henry turned to face Thrace. “I can no longer afford to protect you.”
The renegade Pact Keeper recoiled from his one-time patron. He wheeled and fled the balcony, vanishing into the darkened interior of the fortress.