The escalade was simply an affair of mantlets, ladders, and rushing soldiers trying to protect themselves with shields as they rushed forward. One of the red-robed figures atop the tower waved his arms, and a small onager thrummed and bucked, its boulder sailing high over the bastion to fall somewhere on the other side. A splintering crash and screams indicated that it had scored a hit, and the commanders smiled evilly. The tops of ladders appeared, but the platoon of fresh troops just arrived were armed with military forks. They spread themselves along the curve of the wall and began tipping over ladders by pushing them away. Some of the mail-clad attackers did manage to clamber atop the battlement, but missile or sword cut down most of them. Few, indeed, got to the catwalk and began meleeing with the defenders there. Abruptly, one of the turrets along the bastion wall collapsed with a crash. Shouts indicated that some enemy had used magic to cause this. The commander was not worried. Both sides had spent most of their spells before dawn, and before another magical assault could strike, his own spell-casters would also be renewed in power.

"Enough!" bellowed the commander, turning toward the magic-user in his purple-black robe as if to appraise him once again before allowing him to go on so important a mission. "Alert the captains to bring their humanoid scum here immediately, then report to the Oldest. He will give you instructions thereafter."

Horval Crook-finger bowed deeply, muttered and gestured-for a moment, and suddenly he was a great rook whose plumage had a purplish sheen, and upon whose breast was a single scarlet feather.

"As you command, Elder," the bird croaked. Then, with a clumsy flapping, the raven took wing and flew in an upward spiral. The speck intermingled with a hundred others like it circling in the sky, carrion eaters hopeful of feasting soon. Again the commander smiled evilly, for he appreciated the transformation, the clever speech as a bird, and the precaution of becoming one with the wheeling flock before flying to fulfill orders. The Elder Brother stood looking at the dark specks. Then, just as one soared southward and went out of sight high into the*blue heavens, a commotion from below broke his reverie.

"Find out what is going on – quickly!" he shouted to the group with him. All eight of the remaining men hastened to obey, leaving their master alone. The brazen clangor continued from below. Some dolt was hammering on the great alarm gong at the entrance to the massive keep building. Had some man-at-arms gone mad? There were certainly no enemies within the castle… yet! To reassure himself of this fact, the commander walked to the tower's battlement, stepped between two merlons, and peered downward. Soldiers in bloody hues, some bearing shields likewise flashing red, were converging on the low, twin towers that marked the entrance to the keep. They are only answering the alarm, the commander of the fortress thought to himself, but he hastened to go below himself to learn exactly what was occurring.

The staircase encircled the inside of the outer wall of the up-thrust tower that was the core of the castle's inner works. The one known only as Elder Brother sped down these steps, passing the upper floors without pause. Shouts, yells, and the clash of steel on steel urged him onward with even greater haste.

Something was certainly amiss, he thought to himself. Had one of die mercenary contingents rioted? Impossible, under the conditions. Internal revolt was always possible, too, but no ambitious member of the order with sufficient power and backing was within the stronghold; besides, the assault precluded such an attempted coup at this time – he would keep an eye on Lester, though, now that he considered the ambition that existed in others. What remained? Some dweomer to madden the guards? Impossible here. Somehow, the enemy must have broken in…

And then it came to him: the deserted dungeon! He had sent its inhabitants out in the abortive counter-stroke. That was no loss, save that they had failed to slay sufficient numbers of the foe – and possibly had allowed the enemy entrance to the complex underground places beneath the castle. Those stupid, brawling, snarling humanoids and their troll-fellows were troublesome, and he had been willing enough to see their slaughter, but at what price?

"To me!" the gold-and-crimson-robed commander yelled as he sped across the great hall. A handful of crossbowmen, weapons ready, were entering the echoing hall from its opposite side, where an archway led to the servant quarters and the kitchen complex. The mailed men-at-arms halted, raised their crossbows, and loosed a half-dozen quarrels at him.

Chapter 2

Gord came suddenly upon the scarlet-robed figure as it bent and slit the throat of a helplessly paralyzed soldier. The man had now killed five of his comrades, two near the middle of the hall and three more here before him.

Without hesitation, Gord sprang into attack, his sword darting into extended position and his dagger held ready for a follow-up thrust. His blade took the man under the arm, and the fellow gasped in surprise and pain as the shortsword struck home. The young thief almost immediately brought his long dagger into play, hooking it viciously around so that it too struck deep into the murderer's unsuspecting back. The scarlet robes were suddenly washed with a stain of darker red as the priest of evil fell to the floor, his life blood mingling with the coagulating pools spilled by his victims. Gord paused only a moment to wipe his two weapons clean, noting as he did so that the enemy priest had not gotten away without first taking wounds from the men he had so callously killed. Several shallow gashes and a protruding bolt showed that the crossbow-men had taken their toll before falling. Satisfied, the grim-faced young adventurer turned and sought other enemies still within the massive keep.

Their column had come into the place through the deserted warren of passages, cells, and chambers that lay beneath the stronghold. Strandkeep Castle, the place was called. One of the scores of fortresses that littered the Pomarj, Strandkeep was also one of the strongest, and it stood as a thorn between the Principality of Ulek to the west and the humanoid-infested territory that lay eastward. It was also the key to any invasion of the Pomarj. Dwarven miners had labored for weeks digging the tunnel that drove toward the castle, while the encircling army sought to destroy the place by more obvious means.

Strandkeep was well garrisoned and stocked with ample supplies, and had a surprising force of magic-users and clerics within. Men, machines of war, and even magic had not managed to seriously threaten Strandkeep during almost two months of siege. Word came that increasing numbers of humanoids, both ores and hobgoblins, were gathering in the Drachensgrab Hills to the north and to the east. Relief must soon come, as the encircling army could not withstand the attack of a horde of such creatures while maintaining its stranglehold on the fortress.

At the same time this bad news became known, the chief of the sappers reported to (he assembled commanders of the besieging army that his miners were in position to enter the dungeons of Strandkeep Castle.

Intelligence had alerted them that these catacombs were used to house a large contingent of trolls, ogres, and the like – kept by the castle's master as a surprise weapon against attackers, and recently stocked full because of the advancing enemy. The time since had certainly caused supplies of food for these creatures to run low, and cannibalism must begin soon if the trolls and gnolls weren't released against their human adversaries outside Strandkeep. To give the evil master of the castle reason to do this, the great attack was staged. The escalade involved only about a thousand actual troops, plus some powerful illusions worked by the dweomercrafters of the attacking force, spell-binders schooled in this special art.

A reaction came as expected; the dungeons were emptied of their evil spawn, and the dwarven miners set to work to finish their labors. Within an hour their task was completed, and a force of men and dwarves poured down and through the long, low tunnel, spreading out under the works of the castle above, and proceeded to clear the subterranean complex of all resistance. A special contingent accompanied these soldiers, and Gord was a part of that smaller group.

Stout dwarf and man-at-arms could face their ilk, human or humanoid, with relative equality. The champions of the castle – the clerics, fighters, magic-users, and who knew what else – were a far different matter. Defeating such persons, as well as monstrous guardians possibly held in reserve too, would require heroes and those able to counter works of power. With the column of attackers came such persons, both dwarven and human. Gord, of course, was with them. His training in silence and stealth was paramount, not to mention his skill with weapons. He led a small band of dwarves and men, black-clad and fast moving. With them came a pair of spell-workers, too. While the lower area was cleared, this handful of warriors went above and secured the egress from the dungeons.

Once this was accomplished, reinforcements followed, and these troops were soon issuing from below and securing the ground floor of the great castle's massive keep. Meanwhile, Gord and his associates, along with others of the special force, began seeking their skillful counterparts within the castle. Thus, Gord had come upon the wicked commander of the fortress lost in his butchery, attacked, and slain him. Now he sought more such enemies, but did so with caution, however, for he knew that spell or sword could lay him low despite his own ability.

Fighting had progressed to the upper floors. A great melee still raged on the lower story, where the garrison fought to prevent the attackers from exiting the keep. Gord knew that the ring of besiegers had by now closed upon the entire circumference of Strandkeep Castle, forcing the defenders to make a choice. There were many soldiers in such a fortress, but not nearly enough to both protect the wall and contain the invaders already within the central structure of the stronghold. Soon, very soon, the place must fall.

Gord bounded up the wide main staircase. Bodies were everywhere, most of them dead defenders in their red surcoats, but not a few men and dwarves in other garb also. The second floor seemed to have been cleared, and Gord noted that archers and crossbow-armed dwarves were sniping from embrasures at the defenders below. He ran down a long hallway that led toward the tower at the core of the complex. Ahead, several of the invading men-at-arms were struggling with a makeshift battering ram, trying to beat down the door leading to the tower. A gray-robed magician who had just joined the men motioned them aside. The bronze wood door would yield easily to her She cast her dweomer and the portal flew open, its bar magically lifted and dropped away.

The spell-caster moved back from the suddenly opened door quickly, but not quickly enough. A spear hurled from within the tower took her full in the shoulder. Its possessor must have lain in wait for the opportunity to occur, and she had no chance to avoid the weapon.

As the wounded magician reeled and fell, Gord leaped and rolled into the area beyond the portal. Another spear came at him as he did so, but his acrobatics foiled the attack, and the weapon clanged on the stone flags near him, skittering across the floor. He saw that its head was coated with a greenish paste: poison! These were foul opponents indeed. Gord recovered and crouched, sword and dagger on guard, back to the wall. Before him were a pair of tall, crimson- and black-garbed men. They appeared to be twins, almost, each with curly hair, pale, ice-blue eyes, and thin-featured, arrogant faces that suited their slender build and confident carriage. The men-at-arms came rushing into the chamber, and one of these tall men moved gracefully to prevent the soldiers from passing him. Gord had time only to see the fellow sneer as he batted two speeding quarrels away with his bare hands, just as the missiles streaked toward his chest. Then the other of the pair came at Gord.

The speed of his attack was incredible. Gord had time only to attempt to fend off the spinning, bare-handed foe. Gord thought himself successful, as the fellow moved away from his threatening blades, but then Gord was struck by a kick that drove him against the stone wall and nearly left him breathless. Gord responded with a fast backhand cut with his shortsword, but the man's leg was already elsewhere, and the counterstroke cut only air.

"Not fast enough, thief!" the crimson-robed opponent said, posturing strangely before Gord. "I shall give you a lesson in true fighting skills before I kill you… Watch now."

With this, the man's hands began to flutter, his arms moved sinuously, and his feet stepped in a complex dance-like movement. Gord, fortunately for him, was too battle-wise to be fooled by such motions. He watched his opponent's eyes – when he could. The fellow actually turned his back, or looked away too often, for Gord to be able to lock his gaze on that of his adversary. Something in those eyes, or a tension displayed in neck or body, alerted Gord, and he was ready when the exotic posturing suddenly turned into a furious assault. Gord was struck again, this time by an iron-hard hand and a powerful kick, but in return he dealt the fellow a long gash with his sword and a deep wound with his dagger.

"Perhaps you might gain instruction in swordplay," Gord mocked despite a bleeding mouth, blades moving slowly before him in his own complex rhythm of fighting.

The pale features of the robed man's face went nearly white at this. "Save your breath, you inferior mongrel!" he snarled. "I don't wish you to be too winded to scream when I give you a painful death!"

"It is you who keep on squeaking, white rat. Do you bite too?" Gord egged the man on, for this contest must be finished soon. The soldiers were not faring well against his near-twin. Two were down and still, and a third dropped even as Gord spoke. Their lone opponent seemed unhurt. Gord knew that he would never be able to defeat both of these formidable, weaponless fighters, so he had to finish with the one before him quickly.

Amazingly, the wounds he had given this man had ceased much of their bleeding, almost as if he were a troll. The bastard had used the opportunity of insult exchange to somehow partially heal himself, Gord realized. The process required some concentration, though, and Gord acted on the assumption that his foe was distracted. His assumption proved true, and despite the fellow's superior speed, Gord was successful in his onslaught, scoring another pair of wounds and avoiding the flurry of hands and feet that countered his attack.