"...and THAT is why no one has been able to pull off this job...they've been going about it all wrong, and tipped their hat to the those Royal Guardsmen. They're a clever lot and no mistake. We've given them far too many insights into our tradecraft, and wasted more than a few good Blackcaps on this little gem of theirs." Northa was beginning to get the feeling this had grown beyond just a quest for treasure, but rather something of a personal challenge for the Guild bosses. "Fortunately, time is on our side, and the highest bidder is in no hurry to gain possession of the prize." Just then Hercind exchanged a knowing glance with the Malornian who had been standing so still in the far corner of the room, uttering not a single word since she had arrived. Northa attempted to study his face, but found it difficult in the dimly lit room, not to mention the ragged hooded cloak, which mostly concealed all but the outline of his form. Just then his eyes met hers and she could sense that this was no common guild member. No, someone of rank she thought...or an outsider. "So you see my dear, this is why you are perfect for the task..." continued Hercind. You've proven a certain flair for this sort of assignment, you have the 'look' we need, the plan itself is a masterwork, and...some of us feel that you've got the gift." Northa wasn't sure if his words were sincere or mere flattery, but if they weren't he sure gave a convincing performance. "Plus" he added with a sly grin "You'll be set for life." For Life...the words echoed in her mind as Northa's thoughts drifted to an imaginary cottage, deep in the forest, far away from the dirty streets and alleyways she spent so much time creeping about in, forever following orders and never seeming to get ahead in this world of humans and men. "All you have to do is not bollocks it up." There was a long silence, and then, "Well, what say you?"
Thinking back to that day Northa probably didn't have much choice. Hercind was right, she was their best chance at pulling it off, especially after so many failed attempts. Besides, when you're summoned for a face-to-face meeting with one of the bosses, declining a job isn't exactly a wise (or healthy) thing to do. And this one was indeed a masterwork, every minute detail and nuance considered from the bottom up. So secret had been her assignment that even her usual betters were led to believe that she had been expelled. Even that little matter required a brief adventure all its own. This was imperative, it was explained, for the Elite Royal Guard surely had managed to infiltrate the Guild at higher levels than most would openly admit. Even the bosses couldn't be sure precisely where they were vulnerable, only that these agents were a cunning lot, their methods and manner wholly unfamiliar to that of their high-nosed counterparts in the main Army. Northa had even heard tell that the Guild itself was merely an extension of the Royal Guard, being craftily manipulated at the highest level. Of course such nonsense was the talk of fools for that just wouldn't make sense. And Northa was no fool, for here she was, reaching out to take hold of the very thing so highly sought after, and slipping it neatly into a tiny burgundy pouch. From a second pouch, she carefully removed another, strikingly similar gemstone, gently placing the fake into its proper position. The forgery was convincing, but only at first glance. No matter, it only needed to serve its purpose long enough to carry this through. As Northa winced to the sound of footsteps echoing down the passageway, she could see that the glittering stars had disappeared entirely. It was time to go.
The footsteps drew near and Northa could make the outline of a guardsman's shadow surrounded by torchlight. She knew that this chamber was to be patrolled twice this night, once at the top and bottom of the hour. Whoever this was either didn't know how to tell time or wasn't following the schedule. No time to analyze. Quickly adjusting her accoutrements Northa began the ascent back up the rope, and slipped quietly through the small hole she had prepared these many months. Before replacing the stone bricks she paused for one final look into the dark chamber below, hoping to catch a glimpse of whoever was passing through. She heard no sound, and no footsteps. There was only a dim light somewhere near the entryway, still and silent. And then, without a sound, it flickered out. There was only darkness. Northa's heart quickened as she tried to decide whether she should replace the stone bricks, as planned, risking the noise it might make. Maybe the guard had left? Maybe it wasn't a guard at all...Northa turned, and quietly as a cat crawled through the narrow space, leaving the hole unsealed.
Five minutes later (though it seemed to her much longer) Northa emerged from another makeshift hole in an outer wall. The dreary rain was going to make her descent much more difficult than she had hoped. Climbing down a stone wall in the pouring rain was no small task, and for a brief moment a memory triggered, of a falling companion and the distant figures gathering round his broken body...There was no other choice, to leave behind even the smallest trace would be folly. And besides, she had no spare rope. Down she went as the cold wind and heavy rain sought to weigh her down (or send her to a most disagreeable fate). By now her mind was racing. Who was it that entered the chamber back there? If there were any suspicion of foul play the alarm should have gone up by now. To the best of her ability Northa could neither hear nor sense any commotion. There was only the sound of the rain beating against the wall, and her body rubbing up against the cold, wet stone. Almost there.
At last she dropped to the muddy ground. Looking back up one could only make out a thick growth of vine, but not the small hole it concealed, not that any man could fit through it anyway. Her path was set. She now need only make it to the shack, where a change of clothes and her travel pack awaited her, and a short journey to the boat. She crept along, pressed up against the wall, then readied herself. As the next thunderclap bellowed she leaped into a full sprint, and, coming into her stride stumbled headlong (and with great force) over something that gave out a horrendous shriek. In a single, swift move she leapt to her feet and set to flee with all her might, only that's when the unmistakable whimper of an injured animal caught her ear. Turning around she could see the form of a wet and mangy dog sprawled out on the ground and it was looking at her with such a look of desperation she found herself in a full stop without even thinking. What was this wretched animal doing out here!? Shouldn't it be inside curled up in front of a warm fire? That's where she'd surely like to be. It was then, as she moved back toward the animal, that Northa could see this poor, floppy-eared mutt had been most cruelly mistreated. It was half-starved, with a soaking wet coat of unsightly fur and not a few scars on its paws and backside. And of course it too was shivering from the foul weather. The poor dumb animal must have been sleeping when she tripped over it. Though she surely must have given it a start the dog watched her, not with alarm, more like with a hopeful curiosity. "Oh bother" she said aloud to herself as she wrestled out the last of her homemade peanut butter cookies. "These were supposed to be my dinner for the night, but I suppose you could use this more than me." As the dog gently removed each one from her hand, savoring every morsel, she thought, soon enough I'll have all the finest food I want. And she realized now that the animal was licking her hand clean. "Well, I'm sorry about waking you up" she whispered, "But I really must be going." As Northa turned to leave another thunderclap filled the air, followed by the sound of rain, and another distant rumble...that unmistakable thunder of horses.
End of Part 1