As Tufas approached the old, ruined keep, he could hear the drunken laughter of the men inhabiting it. Ragtag bands of raiders, highwaymen and brigands. The gates were open, as the bandits never bothered closing them. Tufas cared little for them and quickly made his way through the courtyard. Then again, they probably cared even less for him. After all, they only seemed to care for coin and drink. That made them useful, Tufas had to admit, although they were lousy guards. He was not trying to hide himself and yet he doubted any of them even spotted him. It probably took an entire cohort of royal guards to make them rise from their seats.
Ignoring the bandits as they ignored him, Tufas entered the keep’s main hall. At the other end of this hall, on a makeshift throne, sat the leader of these bandits, the self-proclaimed Bandit King. Unlike the drunken louts in the courtyard, Tufas knew that he was in fact much more than just their leader. After all, it was not like he would ever swear allegiance to a simple gang leader. He had known the Bandit King as the Sandman long before he started to gather all the gangs in the area. He took many different names. Here in Kyst, he called himself Lord Achyran.
As always, he knelt for the throne and said: “I have returned, my lord.”
The man on the throne focused his black eyes on him. His gaze seemed to pierce Tufas’ mind and soul, as he rarely had to guess his thoughts. “You were successful,” he said calmly. It was not a question. “But something unexpected has happened, as is only natural. Our enemies do not sit still.”
“Three Ardaithe spies had infiltrated the knight’s company,” Tufas explained.
“An expected response to the theft of his father’s crest. Yet you attacked them, despite my orders to avoid combat,” Lord Achyran said, remaining calm despite the observed disobedience. Before Tufas had a chance to explain, he already figured it out: “They were not the easy prey you expected them to be.”
For a moment, Achyran was lost in thought. “Could it be they were… no, you’d be dead, “he wondered out loud.
“I had estimates them mere ísligh. One of them was not,” Tufas said. For once he could provide his master with an answer. “The other two are slain. I managed to draw the Ardaithe away and keep him away.”
“True Ardaithe are only sent on missions of high importance. They must take this matter seriously. Perhaps they suspect something? If so, we must move fast.”
“If they know, that changes our assumptions. Should we not look at alternative options?” Tufas asked. He was used to Lord Achyran changing his plans as the circumstances did. So far, this plan had been exceptionally rigid. But his master was not the kind that liked to explain himself.
“No. Speed will solve this issue for now. You must get them before the Ardaithe do. Leave right away and do not wait for nightfall.”
“But an attack in daylight…” Tufas started to protest.
“Take every man in the courtyard with you. I don’t care how many you lose,” Achyran dismissed him, finishing the discussion.
“As you wish, my Lord.” Tufas bowed and immediately left the hall to round up the drunken bandits. If he could get them to sober up, it would all work.
A soft knock on the door made Grandmaster Adian look up from the paperwork on his desk. “Enter,” he said, his golden eyes fixated on the opening door.
A man looking like a mercenary entered; unshaven, in ragged armour and a worn face. It took Adian a moment to recognize the man as Sir Seínal. That surprised him even more. “Shouldn’t you be at the other side of the Sohann by now?”
“I would, Grandmaster, but something unexpected happened,” Seínal explained. “The thief actually attacked us during the night. He must have known of my mission, as he specifically targeted me and my men.”
“If he knew, surely he wouldn’t be foolish enough to attack?” Adian asked in wonder. He absent-mindedly scratched his thick, white beard. This became more absurd by the moment.
“The others were killed in their sleep. I awoke too late to save them. I managed to force the assassin away and chased him through the forest. Yet this is why I returned to report this to you: he used foul witchcraft to lay a trap for me and escape. I can only conclude that demons are involved.”
“Demons are always working against us,” Adian reminded the knight. “However, you are right to return with news.” It was a most disturbing turn of events, and the rapid succession of bad news was certainly no coincidence. Shortly before Seínal arrived, he had received a message from the man he had sent after the thief: the trail had gone cold in Soansford.
Adian placed his elbows on the desk and rested his chin on his knuckles as he considered the different viable options. Seínal looked at him expectantly, but he ignored the knight for a moment.
Given the speed of a raven’s flight, the message had to be sent well after Seínal had given up chase. Enough time for not only the thief, but also Sir Avarron to reach Soansford. The connection was obvious. How Avarron was involved in the matter, however, was not.
He got up form his desk and headed for the door, gesturing Seínal to follow. “I’ll have a new assignment for you.”
“I am not to return to Sir Avarron’s company?” Seínal asked as he followed Adrian through the great sanctuary of Ardu.
The sanctuary’s interior was clean and solemn. It lacked all ornamentation, save for the gold patterns on the walls and floors of central places, such as the hall in front of his office. They displayed symbols of their faith in the three virtues of their ascension: wisdom, courage and justice. The Angels were deliberately not depicted. After all, they were blessed guides, not gods, and should be honoured, but not deified.
“It is critical to maintain an eye on Avarron during his quest, that is true. But you are the only one to have seen this thief and assassin in person. I need you to find him and bring him here, alive if you can.”
They had arrived at a pair of solemn double doors, identical to those of Adian’s office. “First, a more pressing matter to deal with. Wait here for a moment,” he instructed Seínal before he entered a chamber identical to his own.
The man behind the desk looked up. He shared Adian’s bright golden eyes, and his shoulder-long hair matched the colour. “Adian. What’s the matter?” he asked concerned, knowing very well that the Grandmaster did not barge into his office unannounced without good reason.
“Demons, Tueram. They are disrupting the peace mission with Nevarus as we speak.”
Tueram shook his head. “How is that even possible? They should not be able to pass the barrier.”
“I will look into that question. Right now, I need you to deal with them.”
“How many are we talking about?”
“We don’t know yet. So far we’ve seen only one, but there are indications that he’s collaborating with others.”
“I see,” Tueram said with a frown. “I do not need to remind you of the importance of Avarron’s quest for the stability of the kingdom. And yet, you’ll not allow me to lead this mission personally, will you?”
Adian placed his hands on the desk and looked the other grandmaster accusingly in the eyes. “Tueram, you have many excellent knights and commanders at your disposal. You have to trust them, or we’ll never succeed here.”
Tueram sighed. “I’m not worried they might fail. I just can’t stand this office anymore, Adian.”
“Just a few days longer, Tueram. You better make sure that all your preparations are in order,” Adian smiled in anticipation.
“They’ve been in order for years now. But I will send Lord Niéllac with a force of twenty Ardaithe knights,” Tueram decided and and finally cracked a smile. “They will make short work of any troublemakers.”
Adian turned to Seínal. “You will join the knights until Soansford and meet with Lady Illaínn for a joint search.”