Noren led Owen from the small indentation in the rock where they were camped, through rocky canyons and around massive boulders. They were careful to avoid notice, because although Noren had helped them give the soldiers the slip earlier, they were probably still on patrol, searching for them. They crisscrossed down, out of the mountains, and suddenly emerged into a labyrinth of huge red rocks. Owen had seen them earlier, when they first came out of the pass, But now, he saw their true beauty and grandeur. They towered above him in odd shapes, piled on top of each other. Caves dotted the surface of the rocks. Owen could see endless opportunities for hiding places.
Noren looked back at him.
“It is quite amazing, isn’t it my friend.”
Owen nodded, and then continued to walk. They slipped through the rocks carefully, quietly threading their way through tunnels in the rock and over steep precipices. They went for several miles, but it was slow going on the rocky paths. The horses stumbled on the rocks, and Owen was glad for the thick leather soles on his boots, protecting him from the sharp rocks.
Eventually, the number and size of the rocks began to decline. Noren sped up, walking quickly downhill, toward a valley. Then he stopped, and tied his horse to an outstretched spike of rock curling from a massive boulder. He started to climb the rock. Owen followed his lead, climbing up behind. He gripped the handholds of the worn stone, carefully placing his feet. Noren reached the top, and Owen climbed up behind him. Owen inched his way forward on his stomach, keeping low to the rock. Noren pointed.
Down the valley, in a grove of pine, stood a large castle. Its stone parapets were guarded by many soldiers. It was made of heavy red and tan stone, hewn into massive bricks. Its gates were carved of huge slabs of pine. It was the largest structure Owen had ever seen. Noren looked at him.
“The castle of Eagles Glen, home of Cardowac.” Noren muttered quietly. “Once a castle of the king, now, a hive of scum.” He turned to Owen. “How do you intend to get in?”
Owen sat, silent. The castle was obviously not intended to withstand heavy assault, but it would not be easy to break in alone. The gates were placed at two walls, which would be impractical in case of an attack, allowing enemies to smash defenders in the courtyard between two waves. There were two sets of walls, one on the outside, and one on the inside, directly around the keep. The outer wall was shorter, allowing defenders to shoot arrows down from the keep and inner wall over the other defenders, and onto attacking armies. Arched bridges were placed at intervals around the wall, going from the outer to the inner, and then one that led into the keep at a high level.
Owen scoffed. In case of attack, the enemy would simply have to use short ladders, only the height of a few grown men, to gain the outer wall, and then they could overrun the inner wall using the arches, and open the gates for waiting armies. Then they could easily overrun the keep by the upper arch and the gate at the base.
Unfortunately, Owen had no large force of men. And although the castle was poorly designed, it would be hard enough to get in with them, let alone by himself. Several plans rushed through his head, but they were all discarded. Suddenly an idea presented itself.
Noren stood before Owen, looking him over. “You make a fine minstrel.” He said, a smile on his face.
“Let’s hope it works.” Owen said, tugging his cloak on around his new garb. He wore Noren’s red tunic, with his own leather jerkin over it. Noren’s feathered hat was perched on his head, with his weapons tied in a bundle on his back. He cut his shaggy hair shorter using the small sharp dirk he stolen from the guard at the jail, and using tree sap as glue, made himself a thin beard to cover his face out of the hair.
Noren looked him over once more. “I hope it will do the job well for you, and get you in and out safely.” He sighed. “But I fear for you, friend. The soldiers of Cardowac may be rude and cruel, not to mention bored, but they are not stupid. Be careful.” He grabbed the rein of his horse. “Goodbye.” Owen tipped the corner of his hat, and laughed.
“Never fear, my good fellow!” He said, putting on an accent and bobbing his head back and forth. “I will be careful, and I will take your advice. I hope to see you again.” Noren nodded, then turned and walked up hill, back into the rocks. Owen watched him until he disappeared behind a large group of boulders. Then he turned. The castle stood down the valley, just barely visible. He took a deep breath, and then mounted onto his horse and walked forward.
His horse was a small, wiry, bay, with a blotchy blaze on his forehead. He was shoed, which had helped him in the rocks, and had been full of energy, but now he was tired, and he walked along slowly, head hanging. Owen patted him on the neck. “Keep going. You’ll make it.”
He walked steadily down the valley, making his way in the direction of the castle. As he worked his way downhill, he saw a road at the bottom of the valley. He slipped down, looking around carefully, onto the road. He walked up the road, his horse’s hooves clipping on the stone. He was surrounded by scrub brush and pine trees. A stream trickled by on his right, glistening under the ice. A dusting of snow was spread over the ground.
He moved on, walking toward the castle, as it came into full sight. It was bigger than it had looked from far away. Soldiers patrolled the walls. The gate was closed, but several soldiers sat above it, lounging in their boredom. As Owen drew closer, they challenged him.
“Who goes there?” called one, standing, and a flask in his hand.
Owen put on a false accent and began to talk. “Just a lone minstrel in search of a place to sleep and listening ears for a tale.”
“A minstrel eh? Well get on! We don’t need no lot comin and sleepin in here. Lord Cardowac wouldn’t allow it!”
Another soldier stood unsteadily, and spoke quietly to the guard. Owen could here part of their conversation.
“There’s not much to do here, Nob. We could use someone to sing and entertain us.”
“Cardowac wouldn’t allow it.”
“Yeah, but Cardowac ain’t here is he?”
The men laughed, then the first turned back to look down on Owen.
“Alright then, come in. But you better know some good tales!” They all exploded in laughter. The gate creaked open partway. Owen rode in quickly, and then it slammed behind him.
As he rode into the outer courtyard, it seemed that all the soldiers were drunk or drinking. Some lay in a pile of hay, drinking out of a bottle of ale. Several sat at a table on the edge, yelling at servants for more ale and food. A fat man with a rich tunic and a belt of keys sat with them, laughing drunkenly. Owen struggled to conceal his revulsion. He dismounted and walked toward the stable, where several other horses were held. As he walked, a soldier stumbled into him; fell to the ground, then pulled himself to his feet, an idiotic smile on his face.
“Good day!” He slurred, then turned to a stack of straw and threw up. Owen turned away. He tied his horse in the stable, and hung his tack on the edge of the stall. Then he turned and walked out of the stable. He kept his weapons tied to him, ready to grab them at any minute. He stood outside the stable for several minutes, then decided that staying outside would do him no good. He walked to the gate into the inner courtyard.
It was wide open, so he slipped inside, and walked around the inner edge quietly. There were almost no soldiers in the courtyard, although several patrolled the wall above, He made his way around. He found the castle garden, where several servants were working. One glanced up at him quickly. She was about the same age as Owen, with light brown hair tied in a braid down her back. Owen nodded at her, and then opened the gate into the garden. He swaggered in, looking down the rows of vegetables, toward the girl. She looked up at him calmly, and then continued to hoe where she had been.
` Owen stopped and looked around, then walked toward her again. She continued to work. He walked right up to her, and said loudly.
“I say, if I was a lord, I would make my slaves work much harder!” He poked the bed with his foot. “This soil is rock hard! Doesn’t Lord Cardowac have someone to watch his slaves and make sure they work?”
He walked closer. The girl looked at him, looking slightly annoyed now. Suddenly, he slid close to her and said in a hoarse whisper;
“Do you know of a girl named Nai?”
She looked surprised, but after a moment, replied.
“Yes. She is in the keep.”
Owen breathlessly continued. “Is she safe?”
The girl nodded.
He stepped back, relief and joy showing on his face. Then he got back in the mood he had been before. “Well, I almost have a mind to tell Lord Cardowac what I think of his slaves. Lazy unwieldy workers, they are.” He walked off, out of the gate, as the slaves watched him go, puzzled. He walked down, out of the inner keep. Several soldiers walked toward him as he came out.
“How about some music, or a good tale, minstrel?” they called. He looked toward them.
“Ah yes, of course, my dear fellows. I will tell you all a tale.” Owen thought through his head for a tale. Most of the stories he knew would hardly be appropriate for this crowd, as they were about the evil of the kingdom and how it used to be good. He though carefully, until suddenly a tale popped into his mind. He pulled up a short stool and stood upon it.
“Once, there was a little man. He was a very little man, and he was very full of himself. He would not let anyone put him down for his size, because he was proud. His name was Odralagy Mordredson the Third.” The soldiers guffawed. “A long name for a short man!” called one. Owen continued.
“Odralagy,” several soldiers laughed at just the mention of the name. “was also a trickster. One day he beat a man in dice by cheating. The man was angry, and yelled at Odralagy. Odralagy laughed at him. ‘If I am a cheater, then you are really a winner, which makes me the loser, so I am in the low side anyway, so you win. So why are you angry?’ This left the man so confused that Odralagy was able to take the money he had won and leave.” A few soldiers chuckled, although some of them looked like they were almost as confused at Odralagy’s success as the man in the story. Owen continued, amused. “One day, Odralagy was walking along, when a dwarf came along. The dwarf said to him ‘Odralagy, Odralagy, if you can answer this riddle, I will grant you one wish.’ Odralagy saw chance for profit, as he always did, and took him up on the offer.”
Owen told those tales for a long while, until the sun sank behind the mountains, and it grew dark. At that moment, a voice cried from outside the wall.
“Lord Cardowac needs entrance!” The soldiers leapt up, running to their positions. Some of them stumbled and fell onto the ground. Owen turned and made a dash for the inner gate. He slipped inside and hid under the overhanging wall. He heard the outer gate creak open. Hooves clanked on the stone ground, as steel shod boots thudded to the ground.
“What is this?” the familiar voice said contemptuously. “Get these men back to their posts.”
Owen peeked out of his hiding place.
“Yes sir.” One of the guards, who was more sober than the rest of the men. “Get up, you slugs! Get to your posts, or to the barracks, and stay there. We don’t need no drinking.” Owen peaked around the corner. The guard kicked another that lay on the ground. “Get up!” The man stumbled up, and walked unsteadily toward the barracks.
Cardowac smiled. “What is your name, soldier?” The soldier turned from the man he had kicked. “Madrren Hart, sir.”
Cardowac placed his hand on the man’s shoulder. “Keep up this good work, and you could get yourself promoted.” The soldier nodded, a sly smile tugging the corner of his mouth. “Yes sir, I will.”
Cardowac turned and called out. “Where is my steward?” The fat man Owen had seen earlier stumbled forward. “Here sir, right here.” Cardowac kicked him in the shin with his steel toed riding boots. “What are you doing you idiotic pig? Go to your duties.” The man stumbled off, whimpering at his injured leg.
Cardowac turned to another soldier in a long cape that stood beside him. The soldier saluted, and then spoke;
“Any luck, sir?”
“None. The fugitives have escaped into the mountains. Our soldiers patrolled the foothills and the rock garden, but found no one. They still search.”
The soldier nodded. “I will send out reinforcements tomorrow.”
Cardowac turned. “Good, Captain.” He passed the man his reins. “Put away my horse. I must rest.” He walked up toward the gate, leaving the captain holding his horse.
Owen slipped back into the shadows. Cardowac walked across the courtyard, then pushed open the door to the keep and walked inside. Owen turned, and walked quietly along the edge of the keep. He needed a plan, now that he knew Nai was safe. He decided to take his time, using the other slaves to find out exactly where Nai was being kept. He walked toward an open door, just outside the keep, leading down a stairway, into the ground. Smoke came out of a pipe coming from the ground. He slipped down the stairs.
Inside warm light illuminated rough dirt walls. Lanterns, candles, and several large furnaces set in the wall cast light across the room. Many loaves of bread were baking in one of the ovens, and a large pig on a spit was set on another. Other dishes that Owen had never seen were being prepared by a large group of slaves. They bustled around, preparing a large meal for Lord Cardowac.
Owen walked in, and lifted himself onto a long countertop that lay next to the door. He sat unnoticed for several minutes, until a young slave, not much older than he was, walked toward him.
“I don’t know what your business is here, sir, but we do not tolerate trespassers in the kitchen.”
“Well, well, aren’t you polite!” Owen said, slipping off the table. “I am just a lone minstrel in search of a place to lay my head, and a bite to eat.”
The other boy looked at him suspiciously.
“You aren’t a spy from Lord Cardowac, sent to ensure we prepare his food properly, are you?”
Owen laughed. “No, no. That is for certain not true. Quite the opposite actually!”
The boy raised his eyebrows.
Owen lowered his voice, and spoke again. “I am searching for a girl named Nai.”
The boy’s eyes grew wide. “Why, sir?”
“I won’t tell you why, until I know what side you are on.”
“Are you with or against Cardowac?”
“Are you with or against Cardowac?”
The boy drew himself up.
“I am against Cardowac with heart and soul. What did you think? We are not here by choice.”
Owen nodded. The other spoke again. “Why are you here?”
Owen was silent, trying to decide whether to let this cook know his plan.
“If you tell anyone, I will be forced to kill you.” He pulled back his cloak, allowing his knives to show. “I am here to rescue Nai.”
The other boy looked at him, as if sizing him up. “Then I will help you however I may.” He held out his hand. “My name is Jon.” Owen took it, and shook it firmly.
“My name is Owen.”
“Good to meet you.”