A Falcon's Tale
A Falcon's Tale
The battle-clad figure paused on the winding trail that would lead to Blackpool’s castle, reining in the well-muscled black gelding. The horse stomped once and fiddled with its bit as the large hawk on the saddle perch was coaxed onto the rider’s wrist and sent to the sky, searching. So far they’d managed to evade any of the prince’s troopers on their way into Karteia.
The rider sat attentively, moving slightly to a more comfortable position. The shift made the hooded cloak enveloping the figure fall away from a large two-handed sword hilt. It glittered in the fading sunlight, its silver pommel shiny from use. A shrill call issued from the rider and the hawk circled slowly downward to land on the offered gauntlet. After transferring it to the saddle perch, the rider nudged the gelding’s sides and the horse moved off the worn path and into the darkening woods.
"I don’t need help to kill Greystone!" thundered Dirk Blackpool to Vector. The wizard had been rather vexing of late and Blackpool was again questioning his need of him. "Why have you sent for this warrior without consulting me?"
The prince glared at the wizard from his seat at his study table. He had been creating strategies due to a recent skirmish some of his troops had recently had. Strange soldiers at the border of the eastern Snow Regions had made a mockery of his usually unflappable scouts. They’d scurried back to him with the news of rebels and one lone captive. Who hadn’t lasted long in his dungeons, unfortunately. Just as he’d decided what to do about it, Vector had entered and announced that a visitor would be arriving at the castle under the cover of darkness. A warrior that he refused to name, which made Blackpool angrier than usual.
"My Lord, there must be absolute secrecy if this plan is to work…" began Vector. His expression was serious under the black hat he wore. It matched his black velvet robe and each was dusted with small, sparkling jewels. He scanned his lord’s face carefully.
"What plan would that be, Vector? You must know that I certainly won’t trust any plan of yours. Most of them have proved near fatal to my well-being." Blackpool settled back into his chair with a creak of his leather armor, raised an eyebrow and twirled the monocle towards Vector. There was a flash of blue and hum of power.
"My Lord, please," Vector sighed. "This warrior is, as I have said, un-known to Greystone as well as yourself, but wishes the end of Greystone as much as you." He wisely kept his distance and moved next to one of the two large statues of hawks that flanked the prince’s desk.
"I find that rather hard to believe," growled Blackpool. "And what exactly does this warrior wish from…us? I certainly don’t need or want an ally and I will trust him less than I trust you, Vector."
"Of that I do not doubt, my lord," returned Vector with a short, stoic smile. "However, I believe we will be able to work out a mutual agreement with the warrior in question."
Dirk slid his chair back and rose. "Perhaps, wizard. And when does this warrior arrive then? I think I should like to arrange a suitable welcome."
"I shouldn’t be surprised, m’lord, if it isn’t very soon," murmured Vector. "We may always use the visual scope to see the warrior’s location, of course."
"Of course." Dirk turned and followed Vector out of the room.
The rider abruptly stopped the horse’s progress through the trees while the hooded head moved back and forth. A cry rose from the hawk’s throat and it fretted on the perch, fanned its wings and then settled them back about its body. It tipped its head and blinked.
"Damn and blast," issued a low mutter. "Lying wizard! I expected as much." The rider’s head tilted upwards while reaching out a black gauntleted hand. A soft green glow took form in the palm and suddenly shot forth with a blaze.
"What the devil was that?!" blinked Blackpool as the vision of the mounted warrior in the woods was obscured by a brilliant green glow. Both of them had to turn away from the visual scope.
"Ah, an unexpected turn of events, I think m’lord," stammered Vector., his forehead wrinkled in a deep frown. "I had heard rumours that this warrior was skilled in the arts of nature and simple magic, but it appears they run deeper than that. At any rate, our spying was sensed…"
"And certainly not appreciated," finished Blackpool thoughtfully. "Well then, a warrior skilled in magic. I wonder if I shall still have need of a wizard?" He looked pointedly at Vector. "Perhaps you’ve done me a service after all, Vector."
Vector did not find the smile that followed the prince’s comment to be particularly pleasant.
Blackpool strode towards the great hall, thinking of the current turn of events. He had doubled his castle guard after leaving Vector to ponder his future. He knew nothing about this warrior that was to arrive at his castle, but it was obvious that he could be an asset. Of course, since this plan originated with Vector, he was certain that the warrior could not be trusted. But why the show of power? The warrior had obviously been displeased with being spied on and had been able to do something about it. That spoke of ability and power – qualities that the prince did truly admire. Qualities that obviously had startled Vector, remembered Dirk. He smiled to himself. Yes, this could work out nicely indeed.
Vector paced his chambers in agitation. His black robes swirled about him, echoing his movements as a purple glow intruded itself into the room. The witch Bethel appeared from it warily, her silver coverings shimmering.
"You wished to see me, Vector?"
"Yes," the wizard hissed. "I think we may have a problem."
Dirk entered the open doors of the great hall and stopped short. The table had been set for his evening meal and his chair was, as usual, facing the ornate fireplace with its back to the doors. What was not usual was that there was obviously someone in it. The prince could see a long, muscular leather-clad and booted leg draped casually over the right arm of the chair. He silently drew his double-bladed dagger. He was furious that anyone could have gotten into his castle without the guards noticing anything amiss, much less get this far into it. He began making his way towards the chair. About halfway there he heard the flap of wings and had to swing to the side to avoid being hit. A hawk passed over his head, landed on the back of the chair and turned to stare at him balefully.
"I wondered when you’d finally make your way in here, Blackpool."
The annoyed, clipped voice made the prince start. A woman? The figure swung round from the relaxed position and rose fluidly with soft clinks of metal. Blackpool stared and frowned. A woman indeed – not much shorter than he and clad in a battle-scarred breastplate and heavy leather armour beneath a dusty black cloak. He could see the hilt of a large broadsword at her side. Her red-brown hair was arranged in battle braids to fit easily beneath a helm.
"I suppose Vector quite forgot to tell you that I’m a woman? How typical."
"You’re the warrior he spoke of?" Dirk nearly choked with derision. "What need do I have of a girl who plays at being a warrior? This is ludicrous!"
"You don’t appear to have the same confidence in me as your wizard does, prince," the woman said coldly as she flipped her cloak away from her sword hilt. "Must I win it, then?"
"Don’t try my patience, woman. I’ll kill you without a thought. Obviously Vector is a bigger fool than even I had suspected," Dirk snapped angrily as he drew closer to her, dagger in hand.
"Without a thought, prince?" She moved into the center of the room to avoid being in striking distance. "You’ll find it a bit more difficult than you suspect to kill me. Or wound me, for that matter. And I’m quite sure I’ll have the satisfaction of first blood."
"So you’re insolent as well as stupid," Blackpool shot back. "Good. I’ll feel no sympathy when I have the guards drag your lifeless body from the hall."
"You’ll have to try my steel first, prince." She drew her sword smoothly from its sheath. "Test it and see if I am what I appear to be. And to find out if you’re man enough to kill me." Her eyes narrowed.
Dirk sheathed his dagger and drew his own sword, determined to teach her a lesson. She swung, meeting the prince’s blade with a sounding crash of metal. Dirk was surprised to feel much more strength behind the stroke than he had expected. He was going to have to fight to kill her after all. He quickly returned a heavy blow.
The woman glanced it aside with a vicious twist of her blade, turning about with a speed that added strength to her next stroke. Dirk was beginning to appreciate the woman’s swordwork – she did know what she was about after all. He slashed wide at her stomach but she leapt backwards lightly and carried through with an upward swing that threatened to take his sword from his hands. He widened his eyes in appreciation and surprise. That was a move he hadn’t seen in a very long time.
"Is that the best you can do, Blackpool?" she taunted as a purple light began to glow in the room, growing ever brighter until Vector hurriedly entered from it.
"Put down your swords, both of you! Is this any way to begin an alliance? If you destroy each other who will destroy Greystone?"
"Hateful name!" the woman spat out, staying her sword. Dirk paused slightly, then sheathed his own sword while making note of the darkness in her voice. She glared at Vector while turning her blade in his direction, apparently pleased to focus her attentions on him.
"You lied to me, wizard. No tricks, you said," she flicked the left edge of his collar upward. "No spying." She flicked the right edge. "Didn’t I tell you I’d know? Arrogance runs deep in your kind as does treachery." She slowly lowered the sword and sheathed it with a harsh click. Vector looked noticeably relieved.
"Indeed," muttered Blackpool. "Vector, now that we’re all here, perhaps you’ll properly introduce me to this…warrior." He glanced at the woman and nodded slightly to her. She acknowledged it in like manner.
"Ah, not just yet I think," the woman said. "Do you have what I said I would require here, Vector?"
"It has been provided m’lady. Your rooms have been arranged and a bath awaits," replied the wizard with a quick bow. "And I do apologize for the intrusion – we were merely curious as to when you would arrive at the castle."
"Your impatience will be the death of you yet," the woman remarked. "But, my thanks for the arrangements being made. I will join you shortly for supper then. Come, Malin," she said. The hawk flew to her raised gauntlet and settled there, turning to look once more at the prince.
"Will you have need of a servant?" asked the wizard.
Dirk looked on with puzzlement and more than a little irritation. Obviously Vector had more knowledge of this arrangement than he had been willing to share previously.
"Malin is all that I require. I would not trust any of the prince’s servants, as you can well imagine. However, I will need to be shown my rooms."
Vector made a motion in the air and a startled guard appeared with a wink of purple light. "Show her to the prepared rooms," the wizard ordered.
The woman straightened her cloak as the guard nodded. "Soon, prince… and wizard." She followed the guard quickly out of the hall, her cloak billowing behind her.
Dirk Blackpool was annoyed. He sat waiting for the un-named warrior to join them. Vector was pacing round the great hall, which bothered him further.
"Would you stop that!" he barked. "And tell me about the plans you’ve suggested to this woman? She’s obviously dangerous and uses magic. How are we supposed to control her?"
"I don’t think control is really the proper term, m’lord," noted Vector, finally stopping and standing near the seated prince. "The lady’s desire to be rid of Greystone aligns with yours. She will help us because in doing so she will realize her own revenge. But she will have to be managed carefully."
"She appears powerful but she’s only one warrior." Blackpool frowned and shook his head. "Has she troops or an army? Something that would be useful to us?"
"I believe so, m’lord. But subtlety is the game that I propose we play. Her warrior skills may be necessary, but it is on her considerable charms we will rely most."
"Her charms?" Dirk snorted. "She has all the charm of a Grox, from what I’ve gathered so far, Vector. She looks to be a hardened warrior. And the bird is a nice touch."
"Don’t be deceived m’lord. The hawk is said to shift shapes - even into human shape for a short period of time. That is why I assume she needed no servant to make ready. And whatever it sees, she is said to see." Vector looked very seriously at the prince. "What we propose is that she situate herself at Castle Baaldorf, capturing Erik Greystone’s affections and trick him, alone, away from the castle at a crucial time. At which point you would capture him unaware…"
"And kill him. Slowly, I think, in the dungeons. I’ve waited rather a long time for that." Blackpool pondered the wizards’ statements. "But Greystone seduced by her? I don’t think she’s his type, Vector, really I don’t."
"Perhaps you’ll let him decide for himself, m’lord," came a light reply from the doors. Blackpool rose from the chair and stood momentarily speechless. Vector looked on in amusement.
"My lord, may I now introduce you properly… to the Lady Perrin Hawtrey."
The woman in the doorway curtseyed deeply to the prince. Gone were the warrior trappings. She was clad in a simple but elegant cobalt blue gown with a long golden belt and matching slippers. Her brown-red hair was loose and fell nearly to her mid-back, a thin gold circlet around her forehead. The gown’s trim at the bottom incorporated a coat of arms in gold embroidery – a hawk rampant grasping a sword in its talons. And on her left hand a smaller, more colorful hawk - delicate enough for a noble lady’s sport.
Blackpool recovered quickly. "My lady," he nodded his head to her and went to her side, offering his arm to lead her to the table."You’ll forgive me of course, but your appearance has changed greatly while we awaited your return."
"Certainly, m’lord," she murmered, as he guided her to a chair and seated her. The small hawk was transferred to the back of the chair. The prince seated himself and Vector joined them. The servants then brought in food and wine. "Roast peacock?" noted Lady Perrin with a smile. "Most impressive, m’lord. You dine well at your table."
Dirk noticed the change in her voice – softer and more refined now that she had shed her armour and sword. It was a welcome change, he thought. And her appearance was quite altered. He found it hard to believe this was the same woman he had been willing to kill not long ago. It certainly would have been a waste if he had. He rather thought Erik Greystone would find her quite appealing.
"I’ve heard the name Hawtrey before, I know I have," Dirk searched his memory as he poured the wine. "There was a warrior duke at one time. He was killed with no kin left to manage his lands, I had thought. And certainly that couldn’t have been…"
"My father," stated Perrin flatly. "Killed while on campaign with your father, Prince Blackpool, when allied against Greystone. The infamous Battle of Greimolt. That is why I seek my own revenge. And the plan to do it is both cruel and sweet. I’m sure that father would have approved." Her eyes glittered above the slow smile.
"Hmm. Allies with my father. I seem to remember that. Perhaps history will repeat itself." Dirk paused. "Now, the details of this plan to eliminate our mutual enemy – what exactly might they be?" he questioned. "Vector has only recently told me of this proposed alliance and offered no details. And, at this point, I do consider it only a proposed alliance." He speared a slice of the roast peacock on his knife and placed it on his plate.
"In short," said Lady Perrin. "I will appear to be attacked by your men on my way to Baaldorf Castle when Erik happens by. He will, of course, rescue me and take me to the castle. I hear he’s too much the quintessential hero to do otherwise. From there I will infiltrate the grounds with my troops, who will enter disguised as peasants for the coming celebration. Your troops are well known to the enemy, but my men are not. This will, of course, be done over a few weeks time so we do not draw the suspicion of King Edwin and his men. Which gives me time enough to win over the Prince and make sure he’s not at Baaldorf when you begin your assault on the castle."
She took the dish that Vector offered her. "If need be, we use Erik for bargaining with, but I think there would be better use for him in your dungeons. And, after winning Castle Baaldorf, we ally to take Castle Greystone."
"And if I doubt you’ll be able to accomplish this, Lady Perrin?" Dirk looked her full in the face, watching her very carefully.
Perrin’s eyes flickered but she answered demurely. "Then you would be mistaken, m’lord. Very few are the things I’ve wanted that I‘ve not gotten - one way or another. I consider this joining only to aid me in my quest for revenge, not to further your on-going conquest of the land of Aperans. In return I am avenged, control of my father’s lands is returned to me, and my troops are to be unharrassed by yours as part of the bargain."
"And if I do not agree to those terms?" Blackpool looked amused. Vector watched the exchange as he ate.
"Then you will continue to have my troops to fight against in the Snow Regions, with me to lead them. Man against man. Magic against magic. Your men are not used to the harsh conditions and you’ll lose more of your resources than you can afford to. You’ll have to divide your attentions between Greystone and my troops." Lady Perrin’s expression was haughty.
"Your troops?!" Dirk’s eyes narrowed as he thought for a moment. "Oh, yes – I thought I had seen the device on your gown before. One of my men brought back a high-ranking soldier to me after the disruption in the Regions. He wore it proudly. It was not a coat of arms I recognized." He sat back in his chair. "Of course you wouldn’t recognize your soldier at this point either. He didn’t hold up to the torture well, I’m afraid. But he never did tell me who his leader was."
"It was unfortunate that Captain Raynsford was captured, but had he been effective in his position, his head wouldn’t currently be on a pike outside this castle." Perrin delicately impaled an apple with her knife for emphasis. "I noticed it on my way in." She placed the apple on her plate. "However, my troops are well trained. Something I believe you can appreciate."
"I do remember being impressed that he was more frightened of his leader than of me. Or of what Vector could do to him." He motioned to the wizard. "You must be truly terrifying in battle, my lady," he mocked. "However, your skills of strategy appear to be lacking. You are in my castle, alone and unarmed and could easily be captured or killed, never to lead your troops against anyone." He was beginning to enjoy this exchange.
"I am never unarmed. You would do well to remember that. And since I entered the castle with no one the wiser, I can leave it in like manner. And the trail I would leave out of it would not be pleasant. Of that I can assure you." Perrin’s tone, though still refined, was dangerous.
"I don’t doubt that, Lady Perrin. But how well do you fare against magic?" He fingered the monocle on its chain and watched her. Dirk noted that her expression did not change. She only sighed deeply and looked back at him.
"I manage, m’lord. But if you doubt it, then test me. And if that is all you’ve intended to do with this idle chatter, you’ve wasted my time and yours," Perrin returned.
"You do get to the heart of the matter, lady." He smiled approvingly. "I prefer that in an enemy. And a possible ally."
"Life is too short to do otherwise, m’lord," Perrin replied, lifting her goblet. She glanced at Vector, who appeared to be smirking. "Yes, Vector? You find all of this amusing?"
Vector smiled pleasantly, "Not so, Lady Perrin. I am pleased that you have managed to win over the prince so far to our plan. Most people don’t get to this stage."
Dirk shifted and suddenly focused the monocle. A blue beam shoot towards Perrin, but her left hand came up at the same time – green light flooding over the beam, wrapping around it, dissipating it. Dirk and Vector both looked at Perrin in astonishment. She flicked a finger and the monocle dropped from the prince’s fingers.
"I don’t suggest you ever try that again, Prince Blackpool. It really would hinder any working relationship we might have."
Vector frowned. "What manner of magic is this, Lady Perrin? You are not a witch, that I know. Yet you possess a power as I have never seen."
"Yes, lady, do tell us," breathed Dirk, his eyes intent.
"I’ll tell you nothing," Perrin retorted. "It is enough that you know you cannot defeat me with your magic and that my troops are well trained with a leader fierce enough to make a valued ally… or a formidable enemy. The choice is yours. I suggest you make it now."
The prince looked at her, then a slow smile crept across his face. He was rather impressed with Lady Perrin Hawtrey so far. He couldn’t wait to see where an alliance might take him.
"To our success then." Dirk raised his goblet in a toast. "And to the elimination of Greystone."
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