Chapter Twenty-Four

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Igren stared down at the disassembled contraption with a bitter, bile-flavored tang in her mouth.

Selvar Orebright, the castle Devlersmith and weapons master, held up a small metal cylinder between his thick finger and thumb. It glinted in the early afternoon light. "An' this's what it fires," he concluded. "I reckon, from what I saw o'that lad's head--or what were left of it--that th'force o'this projectile is leagues stronger than anythin' we 'ave. Even a bolt-arrow at close range can'nae do what this here contraption did. I 'eard one woman say his brains was spattered 'alf-way 'round th'camp--she said they're still findin' bits o'him in odd places..."

Igren grimaced. "Yes. I saw the assassin's corpse. It was indeed an... impressive amount of damage." She stared down at the heinous thing's small, gleaming bowels spread neatly across the workbench's scarred surface. "M'Lady must have been killed with a less powerful version of this weapon. Terin's men have yet to find Ilda's weapon, but if the state of the respective bodies is anything to go by... that is, she--" Igren swallowed. "Her skull was still mostly intact, at least in the front...and the spray was relegated mostly to her bedclothes. "

"Aye." Orbright scratched his curly red beard and sighed heavily. "If they do per'chance find that girl's weapon, I'll do a comparison, but I reckon ye are correct."

"So we know they have at least two types of these... these weapons," Igren said, crossing her arms as if to keep herself from splitting apart. "Of course, we've no way of knowing how many Alavard may have in their possession, or how many are even now being made..."

"'Tis a complex little device t'be sure," Orbright said. "I ain't never come across nothin' like it before. I din'nae think 'tis Delversmithin' neither. Good work, but doesn't feel right--an' fair flimsy. An' 'tis an ugly thing in any case." He sniffed disdainfully. "They'll be makin' everythin' themselves, from scratch. But without knowin' 'ow long they've been at it, or 'ow many craftsmen they may 'ave workin' on production, 'tis near impossible to guess."

Igren gave the delver a morose look. "Is there any way to counter these weapons? Can they pierce armor?"

"Oh, aye," Orebright confirmed dolefully. "Take a look at this."

He reached under the workbench and pulled out a standard-issue breastplate. There were two neat holes punched through its center.

"I had a lad from th'guard use the infernal thing t'shoot at this," he said, "a'fore I took it apart."

Igren stared mutely at the pierced breastplate. The two holes stared at her like empty eyes. There was no need to say anything--they spoke loudly enough for themselves.

A shuffle and a rough cough made both Igren and Orebright glance up sharply. Terin stood in the shadow of the doorway, a shambling, unshaven giant with dusty knees and bright, wounded eyes. His right hand appeared to be bloody.

"You asked after me, Emissary?"

Igren stared at the man for a moment before replying, "Orebright and I have been discussing this." She gestured at the workbench. "And its possible ramifications. I'm afraid they do not bode well for our campaign"

Terin's eyes strayed to the bench and settled on the disassembled weapon.

"I reckon that's why the cowards have come out from under their rock in the first place," he said quietly. "They wouldn't have had the spine to start this war if they thought there was fair a chance they'd lose."

"Ye are no doubt right aboot that, lad," Orbright agreed, shaking his beard sadly. "An' I reckon, if that's th'case, that they may have more than this here device at their d'sposal."

"You think they have more--advanced versions," Igren said.

"Oh, aye. I wound'nae be surprised if they had great big versions o'this on wheels," Orbright grumbled, prodding at the thing's small metal insides. "An' there could be other things. Things we can'nae even guess at. An' they'll no doubt be itchin' to use them on ye, knowin' Alavardians. Like children w'a'new toy."

"Then we won't give them the opportunity," Terin said flatly. He tore his gaze away from the weapon and directed it back at Igren. The look in his eyes made her feel cold. "If they wish to fight a twisted, honorless war, then that is what we'll give them."

"We set out for Ardur at dusk," Igren said, watching his face carefully. "Three-hundred troops. There will be more waiting to join us in Thystwold and Fenbryl. When we reach the golden city, I expect our number to be at least a thousand strong--not much, but enough to fight our way inside the city, if we strategize accordingly..."

She trailed off, waiting for Terin to speak. She could see by the set of his jaw that he had something to say. For a moment, the three of them stood in silence.

At last, Terin took a deep breath and walked slowly into the room. Sunlight from the skylight fell across his broad face, and Igren saw something there she hadn't before--a hard, almost brutal coldness that seemed alien on a face that had always been open and somehow warm. It made him look old.

"I reckon they expect an attack," he said. "They expect retribution. They'd be daft not to. And I reckon, if that's the truth, then they want us to attack them. They want us to fling ourselves at their doorstep to be slaughtered by these--things." He made a disgusted gesture at the gutted weapon on the workbench. "But if we don't do what they want--if we don't do what they expect us t'do--then maybe we have a chance."

Igren nodded. "I'm listening, General."

He flinched slightly at the new title, but continued, "I propose we don't attack the city as we would any other. We don't march on the gate, or call them out with battlehorns, or even try an assault on the wall."

"I agree that, in light of this new weapon, any one of those strategies would leave us vulnerable and likely end in disaster," Igren replied. "What is your solution?"

Terin glanced at Orebright, then back to Igren. "We go over the wall by night. Creep over it like spiders. Slit sleeping throats and silence guards as we find them." His raw knuckles flexed at his side. "We do exactly as they would--only they'll not expect that, Emissary. Not from us. They'll not expect that at all."

Orebright raised his bushy red eyebrows. "Ye propose th'queen's own army act like common cutthroats an' thieves?"

Terin shook his head and smiled a small, hard smile. "No, sir. I propose we act far worse than that."

The delver stroked his beard for a second, then shrugged. "Will ye be needin' some o'them whisper-soled boots then? I reckon I know where t'get some--maybe not seven-hunnert, but some. An I think ye'll be wantin' t'blacken yer weapons. I hear that helps with keepin' hidden by moonlight."

Terin nodded. "Oh, aye. I reckon that will do just fine."

Igren cleared her throat, then smiled a sharp little smile of her own. "I have... some experience with creeping over walls, General. In the dark."

"That doesn't much surprise me, Emissary," Terin replied quietly. "That doesn't much surprise me at all." 

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