The Last Ascendant - Part 2.


 

      Liliana had left Snow grazing quietly on the grass below. Sword in hand, she'd swung round the rear of the tower wall, and headed up to the old wildflower meadow behind what was once the cook's kitchen garden.

Quickly scouting for a place to hide and watch, she spotted the small stand of firs and shrubs. Perfect. Crawling on hands and knees, she took up position, flat on belly beneath the branches, and waited.

She must have stayed that way for what seemed like hours before she heard the familiar sound of a heavy door open, then slam shut.

Rousing from her half doze, Liliana peered out as she strained to see what she hoped she already knew - that Aldous had been wrong. That the keep was deserted. But that door...

Slithering forward, hoping to get a better look, she half crawled, half rolled closer to the front of thicket. Stopping with only the barest of foliage covering the blaze of her slightly dented body armour, she reached to pull back the nearest branch.

Dodging a wayward twig, she finally got a clear look down below. Catching an eyeful of bright blue breastplate, she sucked in a sharp breath.

With little more than a spark of silent inner loathing igniting her hatred, she started to swear, Gifford. Again! By the gods, he's like a lingering smell from the filthiest pig wallow! What the hell are you doing here?

 

      Sir Gifford de Bruin was in a mood. With a stern square jaw and stiff stride, he paced back and forth before the Keep's doors, bright orange plume bobbing atop helmet, a dead giveaway for his impatience at having been kept waiting.

He should be out tracking that over confident swine Aldous, rather than standing here waiting for the pompous assed King Regnauld.

A little more than a week had passed since Gifford had bullied the tavern brat. For all the good it did, he had followed the scrawny kid out to the swill pile at the rear of the tavern and threatened to bury his head and hold it there if he didn't tell Gifford what he wanted to know.

Now here he was at Waelmore Keep, and still no Aldous! Being forced to play catch-up, and also having to endure yet another delay had the knight feeling more than a little peevish.

He should already have dealt with Aldous, and he knew it, but for some reason, no matter how he tried, he could not get out ahead of him.

Gifford's irritation had begun to get the better of him. He could feel the old familiar pressure building at temples. How was he managing to stay so far ahead? It was a burning question to which he had no answers. But it did leave him wondering.

 

Days prior…

      Sir Gifford, or Giff to his friends, had learnt that Aldous was on his way to Gildean, therefore that would also be his next stop, too.

Gifford wasn't much keen for tavern sessions, however, knowing Aldous, that would be the first place he was likely to head - straight to the nearest keg.

Every man - or nearly all of them - liked to partake in a tankard every now and then, and he knew Aldous was no different. He also knew that he had a penchant for out of the way drinking halls, the kind of places where a man's name is rarely asked. Not unfamiliar with the town's darker corners, Gifford headed straight to the Forest Way,  Gildean's furthermost outlying tavern.

Not wanting to draw attention, Gifford had stopped long enough to change out from his armour and into something a little less noticeable. He had dressed in worn tunic and leggings, and having scrubbed a couple of handfuls of mud on both neck and face, had thought he looked downtrodden enough so as not to be recognised.

Seeking out a table in back, he had ordered a round of hot spiced mead, sat, and surveyed his surroundings.

The tavern – if that’s what it could be called – was little more than a few termite infested logs held together by years of accumulated thick black pack mud. Even the tables looked like they hadn’t been wiped over in decades, and as for the floor, well, it was a disgusting wasteland of drink dregs and weeks old bread crusts.

To a man like Giff - obsessively neat - the tavern was more akin to sitting in the town sewer. 

The charred fire pit sitting at one end of the room spewing up thick dark acrid smoke did little to aid in the tavern’s failing atmosphere.

When the barkeep slammed down a tankard and grumbled, “That’ll be a half copper.” he had been less than overwhelmingly friendly.

Reaching into the leather pouch hanging from belt, Giff focused straight ahead. Keeping an eye on the door as he fumbled to remove a coin, he asked, “I don’t suppose you get many visitors out this way?”

The barkeep, Groth – a portly little fellow with an oddly balding spot at his left temple – was by nature, cautiously shrewd. Taking a step back, he replied, “Aye, I don’t suppose we do.”

“It’s just that I’m supposed to meet a friend here, but I haven’t been able to find him. He’s travelling from Woodhaven, deep down past the isles. Tall fellow. Usually travels with an unusual female companion. Goes by the name Aldous. I don’t suppose you’ve seen him?”

Groth had been around long enough to know that strangers should not ask too many questions, and he should not give too many answers. ‘No. I don’t suppose I have.” he replied. And with that, he bid his retreat.

 

      It had been nearly a month since Aldous had slipped quietly out the rear door of Udalf’s small mountain cottage, and nearly a full two months since his little skirmish with the dragon.

Ever since Margan had tried to install a tidy new window in his chest, Aldous had decided that sleeping on anything other than a warm soft down filled mattress was for the servants. It certainly was not for a knight of his stature. Even his breastplate rubbed in spots he never knew existed.

If he were to be completely honest with himself, going off half blind with rage, alone, never before having fought a dragon, had been utterly stupid. Actually, it had been worse than stupid. It was plain dumb. It had been flat out idiocy. It had not even been close to being a contest. You were a real fool, Aldous! he told himself, as the first drops of rain fell. A complete lunatic!

He’d risen that morning full of delusional excitement that he would take a little stroll back down the mountain, find the dragon, and politely ask it if it would be so kind as to roll on its back to expose its soft underbelly so that he could plunge his broadsword deep into its chest and thus, end its life.

He had located the huge beast no problem at all. It was right were the village guide said it would be… in its lair, halfway up the mountain. What the guide had failed to mention was that it was as big as two good sized barns, and about as angry as ten legions of drunk foot soldiers.

He never stood a chance. It was over before it had begun.

The only thing he could remember from his first dragon encounter was entering through the mouth of the lair to be greeted by the stench of hot foul smelling breath and crushing near complete darkness, and then days later, waking up in bed in Udalf’s back room, cold compress plastered to forehead and feeling the full weight of his poor decisions burning like wildfire in his chest.

The passage of time had not made the feeling of stupidity fade one little bit. If anything, he felt like a real dolt every time he let his mind wander to it.

Shying away from the memory, Aldous decided that enough was enough. He was thankful that he was less than an hours ride to Gildean. Pulling cloak tight, he tucked his chin low to chest and headed for town.

 

      Gifford had watched Aldous as cocky as ever, stride in through the tavern door and make his way straight to the nearest table. Moving uncomfortably in his seat, trying to look as casual as he could manage, Giff half turned so as to have a more direct view of the man sitting across the way.

Giff knew he was at the right tavern. The barkeep was confirmation. The instant Giff had mentioned Aldous's name, the other man's eyes had slightly narrowed. It was barely noticeable, and the barkeep was quick to hide his mistake, however, no matter how quick he was, Giff was quicker. Oh yes indeedy, this is exaclty the right place!  


He watched as the barkeep shuffled over to Aldous, set down a tankard of ale, and fussed a little as he pulled a dirty rag from under his apron strap and made a show of wiping down the table as he waited to be paid.

As he watched the unsavoury little balding fellow push dirt around the tabletop, Giff readjusted in his chair, trying to hear what the two men across the room were saying.


      Groth made a grand show of bending to reach the middle of the table. Vigorously wiping crumbs to the floor, he quietly whispered, “Good to see you my old friend. Just know that the fellow over in the corner back there has been asking about you. Says he’s a friend of yours?”

“Greetings to you too, Groth.” Aldous replied, looking down, careful to keep Groth’s back between himself and the other man’s line of sight. “Yes, I saw him when I came in. He’s no friend of mine!”

Giving no hint that he and the barkeep were acquainted, Aldous dropped three half coppers on the table. Nodding in the direction of the fire pit, he said “One for the tankard, and two for a bowl of whatever you have cooking in that pot over there.”

Groth barked at the servant who had been tending the fire. “Get this man a bowl. Now!”

Taking up tankard, Aldous drank deeply. Smacking lips together, he turned his attention to the lad working at fireside. He was impressed. As he watched ladles of thick steaming stew fill the bowl, he thought that the young man – he had grown so much he could hardly be called a boy – had come a long way since they had first met more than a handful of years ago.

Full bowl in hand, the serving hand paid Aldous the same seemingly casual disregard as his master, Groth had done only moments before. “Evening Mr Aldous.” He murmured, careful not to be overheard.

“Good evening, Ev. It’s been a while, hasn’t it?” Aldous replied, being just as cautious.

“Yes Sir, it has. Nearly a year.”

“Has it been that long?”

“Yes sir, it has.”

Thinking back to the last time he had visited Gildean, Aldous replied, “You’re right.  I suppose it has been nearly that long. Have you been well?”

“Yes Sir. I have. Groth treats me ok. And I get lots to eat now. Better than before.”

“That’s good Ev. I’m glad.” Aldous approved. Turning away from the fire and giving a barely noticeable nod in Gifford’s direction, he asked, “How long’s he been here?”

Looking up, Ev could feel the man sitting at the back of the room staring directly at them, “Oh, I think about an hour or two. He asked Groth about you when he first came in. Wanted to know if Groth had seen you and if he knew where you were headed.”

“I just bet he did!” Aldous murmured. “If he asks again, tell him I’m heading up to Waelmore Keep. That ought to keep him busy and out of my hair for a few days.”

Concealing a sly smile, Ev replied, “Yes sir. I will. But I guess you’re not really going to the Keep, are you?”

“No, Im not. But he won’t know that!” Aldous replied, smirking. “Oh, and Ev…”

“Yes sir?”

“Quit with the ‘yes sir’, will you. We’ve known each other a long time. My name is Aldous. Use it.”

“Yes Sir.” Ev replied with his usual dry wit.

Unable to hide his grin any longer, Aldous burst out laughing.

 

      As instructed, Giff had dispatched a messenger back to Hanry, the castle Chancellor. The message had been short and direct. ‘Location, Gildean. Heading to Waelmore Keep. Meet four days hence.’

And now here Giff was, left to impatiently pace whilst he waited the King’s arrival. I really don’t know why he has to meddle so much. Can’t he just stay at the castle and let me get on with it! he thought angrily, as he turned and paced back to the tower. He just can’t help himself, he has to puff out his chest every opportunity he gets. Well this time he can puff all he wants. He can do his own dirty work!

He had just about given up hope that his message had reached the Chancellor’s desk, when from around the side of the tower, his Majesty, King Regnauld appeared.

Dressed in his riding robe, the King spotted Gifford. Concealing his own anger, Regnauld was surprised to see the look of irritation on the knight’s face.

“Your Majesty.” Giff greeted, as he dropped to one knee to kneel before the King, “It’s good to see you.”

“Sir Gifford.” the King nodded, knowing full well that the knight thought it anything but good to be here, asked “Is he here?”

Giff had taken note of the tinge of surliness in the King’s voice. Careful not to add fuel to the King’s fire, he replied, “No Your Majesty. He isn’t.”

“I’m not surprised.” The King spat. “He was spotted yesterday passing through Drewas. A full days hard ride from here!”

Confused, Giff looked up at his King, “Your Majesty?” he stammered, “But how…?”

Cutting the knight off, the King snapped. “How could I what? Know that yet again you’ve been led around by your nose ring! Because you idiot, this is Aldous. And that’s what Aldous does. He’s very clever. More clever than you, apparently! You were fed a lie! Aldous is nowhere near here. He’s leagues away by now. And thanks to your stupidity, will likely reach the foothills again before we have a chance to stop him!”

Realising that he had made a grievous error, Giff swallowed hard. Stammering, he began to apologise, “I… I… I’m sorry—“

“Oh shut up, you fool.” The King growled, “And get off your knees. All that grovelling makes me sick. I want you to find Aldous and deal with him, or it won’t be his head hanging in the castle courtyard, it’ll be yours!”

With that, King Regnauld turned sharply on one heel and strode off.

 

      Having watched the scene play out below, Liliana waited for Gifford to leave before she came out from her hiding place. Racing back down the hill, she whistled for Snow. Hearing the sharp trill of her voice, Snow snickered and wandered towards the hurtling purple streak racing towards him.

Running as fast as she could manage whilst clad in full armour, Liliana grabbed hold of Snow’s reins, swung up into saddle, and took off at a dead gallop. Damn you to hell Gifford de Bruin! By the god’s own grace, you’ll pay for this! And with that, she bent down low in the saddle, urging ever more speed from the horse.

It had not been the dragon that Regnauld had wanted killed, it was Aldous. The dragon had been nothing more than a ruse for the King's own agenda.