A lightninglike series of exchanges followed, with slight pauses between series, where Gord taunted and jibed, and his adversary made strange noises and grimaces. Both men were hurt – Gord battered and bruised, and the blond, weaponless opponent slashed and stabbed. Who was getting the better of it, Gord could not guess, for he had never faced such an opponent before.
The fighting between men-at-arms and the pale, lean twin to Gord's foeman had devolved to a contest between two surviving soldiers and their now-cautious opponent. Out of the corner of his eye, Gord saw that this unarmed fighter was also showing signs of having been hurt. Evidently, the two survivors of the group were more skilled than their comrades had been. They tried to work to either flank of the tall, red-clad enemy as he moved and struck, keeping them at bay.
Gord must have seemed not to have been alert as he quickly appraised what was happening to his fellows, for the blue-eyed foeman launched an incautious rush that not only missed its mark but enabled Gord to deliver a vicious set of counterattacks. Two of the Wows were mere scratches, but the other pair were serious strokes that caused much harm. Seconds later, the fighter struck Gord a buffet that nearly knocked him unconscious, but missed with his follow-up attack, and again took painful wounds in return.
After another such exchange, the man sought to escape the contest, for he must have sensed that it could now end but one way. But as he flipped backward and began his dash for safety, Gord launched his long dagger squarely at his back. True to his aim, the sharp point and steely shank bit deep. The legs still sought to carry the enemy's body forward even as the trunk collapsed and went sprawling to the floor.
Without bothering to find out if the man was actually dead or simply wounded and stunned, Gord wheeled to his right. Only one hard-pressed soldier still faced the other red-clothed member of the castle's evil garrison. Both were caught up in their own life-and-death struggle, enabling Gord to get a shortsword thrust home before the foe realized that he was again beset by more than one adversary.
The sting of the wound Gord inflicted seemed to cause the man to leap sideways; actually, this was a tactic to get himself clear of the area from which the attack came and give himself some time to assess the new situation. The soldier, however, was ready for the ploy, and his short-hafted axe flew from his hand to strike the fellow even as he took the new position.
Caught unawares, the enemy warrior was unable to dodge or deflect the tumbling axe, and its blade caught him on his arm. As the man sought to pull free the buried bit, Gord somersaulted into him and bowled the man over, then began repeatedly pummeling with the hilt of his sword and stabbing with the short-bladed knife he had drawn from his boot.
"Leave off, mate… The bugger's dead," the panting man-at-arms said softly. Gord ceased his flurry, realizing that the soldier was right.
"What about the other one?" the fighter asked. "He get away?"
A glance showed Gord that the body of his first foe was no longer where it had fallen, but a bloody trail showed where the man had gone. The dagger was nowhere in sight – Gord's prized poniard was gone, too!
"After the dog, man!" ordered Gord. "We must find him before he hides away in some nook or cranny of this warren and escapes!"
"Yessir!" the soldier snapped in reply without thinking. This man in black leather was obviously a leader, and the sergeant obeyed him without question. The soldier set off immediately, first trotting to where the train of darkening blood began and then slowing as he followed it through a columned archway leading from the hall. Gord was at his heels.
The telltale stains led to an arras. The hanging curtain of embroidered wool hid a narrow passage beyond. The soldier again broke into a lope, moving several paces ahead of Gord, but he had taken no more than a few steps before a shout of pain came from between his clenched teeth. He raised his left foot, grabbing for the injured member, but as he did so he groaned and crashed to the stone-flagged floor, dead. Gord halted instantly, assessing what had happened. By careful scrutiny he discerned small objects littering the dim passageway floor. Poisoned caltrops… the wounded man must have strewn them behind, knowing that pursuers would be unlikely to see them until too late. Gord leaped over the area where the small, sharp-pronged things were scattered. He bounded up a narrow spiral stairway, moving fast but keeping track of the splashes of red. The trail did not continue up past a small landing.
Without hesitation, Gord began a careful examination of the wall to his right. There were traces of blood near it, and he assumed that a hidden door was to be found here. Within a minute he had indeed located a secret stone panel. It was not difficult to release its catch and open it.
The narrow corridor beyond was dark, unlighted save for the faint illumination from the stairs, where an embrasure somewhere above let sunlight filter down. No matter; Gord's vision was not dependent on such light, for he held his dweomered sword, which magically empowered his eyes to see the parts of the spectrum above and below the human norm. Ducking his head, Gord dived into the passageway, his body rolled into a ball that tumbled ahead in a series of fast rolls. The tall, blond man he had been tracking waited within the corridor, holding a crossbow aimed at the rectangle of light revealed by the opening of the secret door.
The thick bolt buzzed harmlessly over Gord's compact rush, clattering into the stairwell beyond. As it did so, Gord sprang to his feet and attacked the wounded man before he could reload the weapon. The red-gowned foe had thought Gord unable to see him lying in ambush in the darkness, and expected to slay Gord thus. With a terrible curse, the man hurled the useless crossbow in Gord's general direction, turned, and fled groaning down the black corridor. He managed to pull open a small, wooden door at its end, but that was all. Gord struck his back with his shoulder, a slamming blow that drove the wounded man into the room beyond and sent him sprawling to the floor, face down.
"Quarter!" the fallen man managed to cry through his bloody lips. "Spare me, and I'll give you a king's ransom!"
Gord pressed his sword point firmly against the prone man's back. "If you move other than to speak, I'll kill you as I would a spider." The hard finality of Gord's voice made the man freeze motionless. "Tell me of your offer – quickly!"
"Do you pledge you'll spare me if I do so?"
"Poisoner! Foul assassin! Lurker in ambush! You dare to plead with me thus? Prepare your spirit for the foul lower planes where demons or devils await with gleeful anticipation!"
"No! Wait… I will show you the treasure, wealth and more! There are plans that your superiors will find most interesting, and you will gain promotion and favor. Surely for such, you will not slay me! I'll be your willing slave, just give me my life."
Gord was disgusted by the man's begging, at his suggestion of intrigue and scheming on Gord's part, and his willing acquiescence to bondage for life. "Silence! Speak again before I tell you, and I'll sever your spine – if you have one. Answer truthfully and exactly: Where is this hoard you yammer of kept?"
"Here, in this very room," the wounded foeman said without inflection. "This is the secret chamber of the Elder Brother."
"Who is this Elder Brother?"
"Our… the… commander of this castle."
Gord leaned gently on his sword, making the man gasp and squirm slightly. "You said 'our.' What is 'our'? And what profession does this Elder Brother have other than being castellan?"
"Our Order holds this fortress, and Elder Brother is a High Priest of Tharizdun, thus high within our Order…" At this pause Gord gave another easy prod, and the prone man hastily added, "The Order is called the Scarlet Brotherhood."
Gord had heard vague stories about the Scarlet Brotherhood, and he mentally filed the information away for later contemplation. "Tell me where the treasure is kept," he barked.
"There is a hidden place, and envenomed darts. Allow me to light candles, and I will show you."
Although he needed no such illumination, Gord permitted the wounded man to rise. The man fumbled in his belt and drew forth a tinderbox. Gord watched carefully, but the fellow appeared to have no thought of trickery or further resistance. He had accepted the situation, and now sought only to obey. Puffing the sparks into a tiny flame, the prisoner took a small taper and caught its wick afire. In a moment a great candelabrum shed the light of three massive candles over the small apartment. Gord could see another secret door, probably leading to a chamber beyond in which the so-called Elder Brother dwelled. The room he was in had little in it besides the candle stand, a small desk and chair, and a wooden chest of no great size.
"Here," the wounded prisoner said, pointing to a cabinet that Gord had overlooked. "I must open this with care, pressing hard on the side panel, else the darts will be loosed upon me when the door is swung outward."
Moving quickly to avoid any possible discharge of such missiles, Gord observed as the fellow opened the cupboard, shortsword aimed to thrust home at the slightest sign of trickery. The space revealed had several shelves. Upon these boards rested a variety of items – scrolls, loose parchment sheets, an array of small containers, and several leather bags.
"Gold!" the fellow said with an obsequious smile, as he picked up a heavy bag. Its contents shifted and clinked. "Platinum plates," he said, patting another, "and this one holds electrum – all these on the lower shelf do."
"The rest?" Gord demanded.
"The flat box here holds a store of precious stones used for bribery. The pots and jars are those things common to priestly powers – the stuff for spell-working. The scrolls are sacred writings of Tharizdun. The other papers are orders and plans… the important documents I told you of… which will bring you much favor with your masters when you hand them the intelligence!"
Without comment, Gord proceeded to take the gems and platinum. This treasure was his by right of conquest and discovery. The remaining wealth he left for the others of his allies. He ordered his captive to carry the scrolls and loose sheets of parchment, and the two returned the way they had come. It was time for Gord to find his friend, Gellor, and report this unsuspected success.
The last of the prisoners were being marched from Strandkeep as files of dwarves and men wearing the colors of the Prince of Ulek entered the castle to garrison the captured stronghold. The short, broad dwarven soldiery bore the red axe on a white field upon their tabards, while their human counterparts displayed the gold and purple of the Prince's quartered arms, signifying them to be his veteran contingents.
Not all would remain here, of course, for with the fortress in his hands, Prince Olinstaad Corond would certainty advance upon Stoneheim to take that city and gain access to the rich mines to the north of it. There, in the mountainous portion of the Drachensgrab Hills called Wormsjaws, gold and gems were wrested from the stony interiors of many deep mines. His Serene Highness of Ulek desired to regain this wealth, so long lost to his realm.
Now that the way had been unlocked, and Strandkeep made secure as a base of operations, the dwarven prince was likely to attain his desired goal. His army was pressing the disorganized humanoid tribes of the Pomarj eastward, while a force of men from allied petty states of the region called the Wild Coast sought revenge upon these same tribes themselves. Although this motley conglomerate of troops was of questionable effectiveness, their presence far to the north, menacing the town of Highport, certainly split the defender's strength. Ulek could hope to seize and hold a strip of the Pomarj from the Jewel River to Stoneheim, fortifying the northern border of this territory with dwarven-built towers within the Drachensgrabs to the peaks of Wormsjaws.
Some of the mercenary companies that had assisted in the taking of the great castle were now being paid off. Others would be signed on as needed, and such sell-swords were easily enlisted in this part of the Flanaess. No major battle would be fought for many weeks, for the fall of Strandkeep dealt the rulers of the Pomarj a severe blow. They would fall back, regroup, and plan some strategy to recoup.
Among the bodies of mercenaries that were fanning outward from the castle, heading west and north, was a company of riders who bore no special insignia. This group of a hundred or so struck due north, heading into the heart of the Drachensgrab Hills, evidently fearing nothing that might molest them in that wilderness. At the head of the assemblage rode Gord, the druid known as Curley Greenleaf, and a grizzled man called Gellor.
"When we reach the Suss," the burly druid was saying, referring to a great band of forest to the north, "I will carry intelligence to all those who must know."
"Excellent, my friend!" the one-eyed Gellor said approvingly. "Gord and I will take the company on to Badwall, avoiding any contact with the host of petty nobles gathered under Elredd's banner to war on Highport. Some of our comrades will undoubtedly wish to sell their lances to Elredd, but we will have some force awaiting in Badwall-town when you return."
"I still say we should take our chinkers," Gord interjected with a shaking of his fat purse for emphasis, "and leave the rest of this dangerous business to others. After all, we have risked our lives aplenty during the last months, and we should be allowed to enjoy the spoils of victory… until the money runs out. Time enough for adventure then!"
Gellor shook his head in mock dismay, while the druid made disapproving clucks on the other hand. "Gord, Gord, will I ever be able to rehabilitate you? Leave your past thievery behind and think as a dedicated agent of those who fight Evil! We must put duty before our personal safety, let alone pleasure, always."
Despite the jesting tone, Gord knew that Gellor meant what he said. The grizzled, one-eyed bard was indeed a devoted agent serving those who sought to prevent the spread of malign powers throughout the whole of Oerth. He had met the one-eyed man, then posing as a mere thief, long ago in the Bandit Kingdoms; adventured and fought by his side in the far-off lands to the east; and probably owed his life to him.
"Leave off, Gellor, you one-eyed conscience!" Gord retorted. "I protest this entire quest, but I am resigned to it – else your nagging will drive me as insane as a rune of madness!"
Greenleaf and Gellor laughed, slapped him on the back in comradely approval, and then fell on to their discussion again. This allowed Gord time to reflect on what had led him to the current pass…