At dawn, Iciraest woke him and took him to the castle’s pigeon roost. There were numerous cages, most of which belonged to the king. Others belonged to one of the three lords. In all cages, the pigeons started to flutter about as they entered the room, which also contained a chair and simple writing desk. Iciraest took the chair and sat down in front of Valfiòr’s pigeon cages.
For over an hour, he kept staring at the pigeons as if they were the most fascinating thing in the entire world. While the chirping of the pigeons was entertaining to the troubadour for a while, he wondered what Iciraest sought to get out of this.
“If you’re bored, go down to the armoury and bring a longbow and some arrows to the highest tower. And make sure nobody sees you carry the weapon,” the Inquisitor told him.
The troubadour had slowly become accustomed and familiar with the castle’s hallways and staircases over the past few days. He could vaguely remember the location of the armoury and headed in that direction.
After a few wrong turns and dead ends, he was tempted to ask for directions. But that would give away his intent. He continued his search, pretending to know exactly where he was going whenever he encountered someone. Eventually, he did find the armoury. Nobody else was inside. He quickly took a longbow and a quiver of arrows and wrapped them in his cloak. Then he quickly left again and headed for the tower.
Iciraest was waiting for him there. “Right on time,” the inquisitor said as the troubadour pulled the weapon out of his cloak.
“What are we doing here?” the troubadour asked.
“Hunting pigeons, of course,” Iciraest said. “There is one complication, though. I do not have a hunting dog. So if you don’t mind, I’d like you to fulfil this role,” he added with a smirk.
The troubadour nodded insecurely.
“You better head out then. You’ll need as much of a head start as you can get,” Iciraest told him as he casually tested the bowstring’s tension.
Without another word, the troubadour descended the tower again and left the castle. As soon as he was outside, a number of pigeons flew over, heading south. A few moments later, one was struck by an arrow and fell to the ground in the forest. He quickly ran over to where he had seen the pigeon fall.
As he waded through the forest’s thick undergrowth, he feared that it would take a long time before he would find the bird. Or worse, that it was stuck in a tree, outside his reach. But he was in luck. The pigeon had fallen right in the middle of a small clearing. He picked up the dead bird and headed back.
As he reached the forest’s edge, he saw two of the castle’s guards approaching. They must have seen the bird fall too, he figured. He quickly took the letter off the pigeon’s paw and threw the dead bird into the thickest undergrowth. It would be a while before they’d find it now. He hid behind a tree as the two guards arrived and started combing the area. Luckily, they didn’t look in his direction and as soon as they went deeper into the forest, he quickly went back to the castle.
The inquisitor was awaiting him in the courtyard. “Do you have it?” he asked softly.
“I do,” the troubadour replied and put his hand in his pocket to deliver the letter to Iciraest.
“Not yet. There are eyes everywhere here,” Iciraest whispered. “Come.”
They went back to the inquisitor’s room, where he accepted the letter from the troubadour and opened it. “It’s a letter from Valfiòr to his son,” he told the troubadour. “Nothing suspicious on its own, but the handwriting matches. Look.”
The troubadour looked at the letter. It was unmistakable. The letter was written in exactly the same, elaborate handwriting. “Hah, we got him!” he cheered.
There was an impatient knock on the door. Iciraest quickly put the letter away in a drawer and then calmly opened the door. There stood a furious Lord Valfiòr. “One of my carrier pigeons has been shot. And several guards have seen your manservant head into the forest where it fell. Care to explain?” he said.
“He likes to go for a morning stroll,” Iciraest replied casually. “Did you retrieve your pigeon?”
“The pigeon, yes. But not the letter. And it’s clear who’s the thief.”
“I see. Thank you for confirming my suspicions,” Iciraest smiled. “I’ll take him to Councillor Dhefial. Please accompany me to reiterate your accusations and evidence.”
“Eagerly,” Valfiòr said, somewhat relieved. “I must admit, I am surprised. I expected you to defend him”
“I am a servant of justice, and that is what I defend. Any accusation requires the careful investigation of all evidence, so that the truth may be revealed,” Iciraest said as he turned to the drawer and pulled a number of paper sheets out, quickly hiding the letter in them as he rolled them up. He then winked at the troubadour, before forcefully pulling him along.
In silence, they headed to the councillor’s chambers. Lord Valfiòr restated his accusations and evidence to Dhefial, who then asked Iciraest to speak in the troubadour’s defence.
“I see no point. I already retrieved the letter from him before Valfiòr arrived,” Iciraest said and pulled the letter out of his roll of paper. “Is this it?” he asked the lord and gave him the letter.
Valfiòr glanced at the letter and confirmed that it was his.
“Then that removes all doubt,” Iciraest’s lips curled into a grin. “Lord Valfiòr, I accuse you of abducting Prince Leógain and attempting to shift the blame on another.”
“I see, the handwritings match, then?” Dhefial asked.
Iciraest snatched the letter from Valfiòr’s hands and handed it to the councillor. “See for yourself.”
The troubadour looked at Valfiòr as Dhefial compared the two letters. The lord seemed in shock when he realized that he had just betrayed himself. “I didn’t murder the king,” he said in a hoarse voice.
“Given the evidence, I am reluctant to believe that,” Dhefial growled. With his rough voice, it sounded more like a wild animal than a human being. “Guards! Take him to the dungeons.”
Valfiòr bowed his head in surrender as two guards came in and dragged the lord away.
“I still wonder,” Iciraest mused as he looked at the two letters. “Why would he send a letter that says practically nothing?”
He walked out the door, turned around and asked; “Are you coming?” and continued walking. The troubadour quickly caught up with him, curious as to where they’d be going.
It turned out to be one of the taverns at the docks. “If you want news from the entire country, this is the place to be,” Iciraest explained as he entered. They went up to the bar, where the inquisitor ordered two beers and casually asked for news upstream.
“You haven’t heard? A small army from one of the southern lords came through here. I didn’t recognize their leader, though. Arrived here last eve, gathered supplies and then sailed further downstream. Didn’t even spend the night here,” the barman told them.
“Thank you,” Iciraest said and dropped a few coins on the counter. “I’ll bet you ten gold coins that Valfiòr’s son led that army. Let’s go,” he told the troubadour.
They hadn’t even started on their beers yet, which the troubadour regretted somewhat. Iciraest didn’t care at all. The inquisitor walked quickly and he had trouble keeping up. Iciraest led him to the edge of the city, where he purchased two horses.
While the troubadour was still getting on his horse, Iciraest was already charging off. “Come on, they have an eight hour head start, if not more!” he yelled over his shoulder.
The troubadour spurred his horse to quickly catch up. “What are we going to do? It’s not like we can stop an army.”
“We’re not even sure yet if we want to,” Iciraest pointed out. “But given their direction, urgency and the letter we received last night, I smell whole heaps of trouble for Lord Ovail.”
They spurred their horses on and rode like the devil was on their heels. After one and a half hour, they entered a town which the troubadour recognized from their trip to the city. Iciraest immediately went to the harbour and asked for ships that had passed through recently. A merchant was able to inform them that the army had passed through just two ago. They exchanged their horses for fresh ones and rode on.
This time they left the road and followed the river closely. It slowed them down considerably, but after an hour, they could see three ships sailing down the river. Due to the river’s meandering, it still took them a while to catch up. When they did, Iciraest yelled: “Hail! Is the young Sir Valfiòr on board?”
A few moments later, a young man in richly decorated armour appeared on deck of the first ship. “I am Sir Diarnall of Valfiòr. I must apologize, but my mission is too urgent to halt my ship. Do you have a message for me?”
“Greetings, Sir Diarnall,” Iciraest bowed formally. “I am Lord Inquisitor Iciraest of Truth. With what purpose do you sail north, so heavily armed?”
“As always, I serve my father, Lord Valfiòr, and His Majesty, King Lain. I cannot go into details here. If you wish, we can converse when we stop for the night,” Diarnall replied.
Iciraest agreed and they rode alongside the ships, keeping their pace. “Why would he stop for the night? He hasn’t done so before,” the troubadour wondered out loud.
“I presume he plans to attack by night. He will stop before reaching Beire and wait for nightfall. He will also try to either kill us, capture us or dissuade us from poking our noses into this matter.”
“What will we do if he tries one of the two less civilized options?” the troubadour asked.
“I will dissuade him from trying either of those things,” Iciraest replied with a winning smile. It didn’t convince the troubadour.
The troubadour remembered that it took them two days to reach Lainthair from Beire. But they had been sailing upstream. Going downstream was certainly be faster, but he doubted that it would be twice as fast.
“These ships are built for speed and the wind is favourable,” Iciraest answered his silent question. “We will probably reach Beire just before nightfall.”
And so they spent the rest of the day riding along the river. As the sun set, the three ships headed for the river’s banks one by one. Sir Diarnall was quick to jump off his ship and headed straight for them.
“Well met, Lord Inquisitor. I see that you travel light, so please allow me to offer you one of my tents,” he said.
“A generous offer, Sir Diarnall” Iciraest replied. “Will you and your men not use the tents yourself?”
“I am certain that we can spare one for an honoured guest such as yourself.”
“Of course,” Iciraest said with a smirk. “You have no plans to sleep at all tonight, do you?”
The question seemed to put Diarnall off guard, and Iciraest continued: “You plan to take Castle Beire by night, do you not?”
“I see. Father has informed you, then?”
Iciraest nodded. “We’re here to help. And yes, you need it.”
Before Diarnall had a chance to protest, Iciraest projected the young knight’s plan of attack and how the castle defenders would repel it, revealing his intimate knowledge of the castle’s structure and defences. He then proposed an alternative: a secret entrance into the castle which he knew of.
Sir Diarnall agreed to use the hidden entrance. He would send half his forces with two ships to make a frontal assault at the castle as distraction, while the real attack would happen through the tunnel.
While the two nobles discussed the plan of attack, the troubadour wondered whether they should attack at all. They had no proof that Lord Ovail had done anything wrong, and they still had the option to negotiate. He waited for the nobles to finish planning and then voiced his concerns to Iciraest.
“Valfiòr would not send his son to wage war unless he is certain that he can justify it. Otherwise he’d invoke the rage of the entire country. And it makes no sense to attack someone that already bows to you. Unless he’s uncooperative. With that in mind, Ovail has something that Valfiòr wants. Something that he doesn’t want to give up. And something that would justify this assault to the rest of the country. That brings the number of possibilities down to one.”
“So the prince is really being held by Ovail?”
“I am certain of it,” Iciraest responded.