The sounds of battle grew louder the deeper into Baris we snuck. With Mister Valentin’s pronouncement ringing in my ears alongside the cries and conflict, my heart pounded in my chest more heavily with every step. In my mind’s eye, Miss Datsia’s loyalists lurked around every corner, and a volley of arrows threatened to fly from every darkened alleyway. By the time we neared the inner wall, I was convinced we had escaped death no less than half a dozen times.
Pausing at the end of a row of tightly-packed shops, the sergeant-at-arms motioned for us to stay still, then crept forward and craned his head around the corner, peering towards the inner gate. I quietly counted my breaths as I waited for him to return, expecting with each to hear the sudden twang and whistle once more, to see Mister Valentin’s body suddenly jerk and then fall, to catch that sudden whiff of copper and shame as he collapsed to the ground. A paw fell upon my shoulder just after seven, a second cupping my muzzle to silence me before I could shout.
“Four I can see,” Mister Valentin hissed, his ears flat against his head. “Two before the guardhouse, two on the walls with bows. They’re holding the gate.” He flicked his head over his shoulder, towards the commotion just within the wall. “Past them, we head through the stables, back to the scullery, and in through the slaves’ entrance.”
“How do we get past them, though?” my master whispered back, his voice no louder but filled with tension. He let go of my face and hefted his spear. “I could take one, maybe.”
The sergeant shook his head as he released me as well. “Spears to the archers, then close with the mace. One good throw, we drop both, and then its two-on-two with the element of surprise.”
My master’s ears remained flat and a scowl spread across his muzzle. “We should’ve brought the crossbows.”
That drew a dark chuckle out of the lynx. “Then I’d have had more to fear than the archers on the walls.” He held out a paw to forestall my master’s protest. “Your eye is sound, but you’re no sureshot.”
My owner’s scowl remained unabated, and his tail brushed behind him. “They’ll call for reinforcements.”
Mister Valentin shrugged. “We have to take that chance. It’s this or climb over, and then we’re targets for every archer on the wall. Koskhi’s luck, we’ll have cover for most of the way there.”
“But….” My master’s voice trailed off into a sigh as he hefted his spear in his paws. “What if I know them?”
Mister Valentin’s ears splayed, and his muzzle set into a tight line. “Then you kill people you know. Deterikh blood has already been shed, and longer we take to deal with Datsia, the more will needlessly flow. I don’t like it, but I don’t see an alternative.”
“At least let me talk to them!” My master hissed insistently, the tip of his spear shaking. “I can’t just—”
“You can, and you will,” I interjected, putting a paw on my owner’s shoulder. “You need to be Baron Deterikh. Saving these lives doesn’t save the most lives.”
Baron Deterikh’s protest died in his throat. He shook his head and hefted his spear onto his shoulder. “Let’s get on with it.”
The sergeant-at-arms matched his baron’s grim frown. “On three.” He motioned us up to the mouth of the alleyway and held up one paw, three fingers extended. Two. One. At the shake of his clenched fist, both Mister Valentin and my master dashed out from between the buildings, rearing back with spears aimed high. Both let fly, then sprinted towards the gate, maces drawn and raised.
The guards at the gate turned at the commotion, their own spears at the ready. “Arms to the inner—” The cry for help cut short as one of the archers fell from the wall, crashing onto the guardhouse with a spear through his gut. The other drew back to fire, but before he could my master had closed the distance with Mister Valentin close behind. One guard lashed out, thrusting for the lynx’s chest. Mister Valentin snapped his mace to block and the shaft of the spear shattered, splinters flying. “Erik! Close!”
While the guard stumbled backwards from the force of the blow, his companion stepped into the gap, blocking my master’s advance. “Cover!” He held his spear high but ready, its tip tracking the young wolf’s steps. “We need cover!”
“I’ve got y—” The other archer’s voice jerked into a scream and his bow clattered against the ground as he fell to one knee.
“Valentin?” A female voice shouted over the wall. “Sergeant!”
At the name, both Mister Valentin’s ears shot upright. “Inika!”
“Sit tight!” came the fast reply. “Reinforcements!” Through the gate, I could see a vole in a loose chain shirt and leather leggings, a spear in her paws and another on her back. Mister Andor stood beside her, gripping his mace in his paws as if his life depended on it.
The second guard had drawn his mace, but rather than advance, he turned to face the interior, shifting nervously. Mister Valentin rolled the mace in his paw as he eased to the side of the guardhouse. “You’re outnumbered and outmaneuvered!” he shouted to the guards at the gate. “Stand down and you’ll get a fair hearing!”
“Stand your ground!” the larger of the two guards bellowed. “Hold the gate!”
“Sir, that’s—” The second guard’s protest vanished into a whirlwind. The exchange took only a few seconds, but that was all it needed. Miss Inika sharply drove her spearpoint into the ground at the younger one’s hinds, then reached for her belt. The guard stepped forward to respond, but the vole pivoted her spear on its point and twisted aside his blow. Mister Andor jumped at the sudden opening, slamming his mace two-pawed into the smaller guard’s shoulder with a liquid crack that sent him sprawling. The larger guard fell back to try to cover his companion, and Mister Valentin and my master charged. The sergeant swung again, but his mace slid harmlessly along the shaft of the guard’s spear as he turned the blow. That left my master room to strike, and his mace pounded into the back of the guard’s head with a crunch of bone.
After the burst of conflict, the stillness seemed unnatural. I dashed over to my master’s side and put a paw on his shoulder; his face was a mask, his eyes empty as he stared down at the fallen guard at his feet. His chest heaved, and two damp patches spread on his cheeks as he viewed the aftermath of his work.
“Nice blow,” Miss Inika called as she worked the tip of her spear free of the ground. “First kill?”
“Yes.” The word fell from my master’s lips like an apology.
The vole nodded and approached, then studied the body. “It was clean, at least. He probably didn’t hurt long.”
“Inika, later.” Mister Valentin’s tone offered no room for negotiation. “Everyone, to the stables. Have you seen Chelin?”
The Deterikh soldier shook her head as she rose and followed. “No, sir. Andor woke me about two minutes before the keep became a battlefield.”
The sergeant grimaced. “So, neither best nor worse. Andor, go find Chelin and meet us at the baron’s parlor.” The young wolf saluted again, then dashed back towards the gate. “What’s the situation inside?”
Miss Inika shook her head. “Most of the house is loyal to Erik, but Datsia controls the walls and what support she has inside is well-groomed. They’re holding the main hall and the kitchen.”
Mister Valentin pointed towards the end of the stables, where the walls touched the back of the house. “What about the scullery?”
The vole shrugged again. “Datsia knows it’s there; she’s probably reinforced it inside.”
The lynx sighed and pinched the bridge of his muzzle. “It’s still that or fight our way across the grounds and then for every inch of floor.”
Miss Inika frowned and folded her arms. “Sir, beg pardon, but if you charge the scullery, you’re a bigger idiot than Erik was for charging the Jazinski line.” She looked to the baron. “No offense.”
My master shrugged. “None taken,” he said woodenly. “It was a fool’s gambit. I was—”
“Distracting us from the present,” the sergeant interrupted. “Why an idiot?”
Miss Inika waved her arm towards the scullery. “She’s probably expecting you to do something that obvious.”
Mister Valentin’s eyes went wide and a smile burst out on his muzzle. “Then it’s perfect.”
The vole blinked and actually took a step backwards at the sudden look of madness on Mister Valentin’s muzzle. “What?”
“Walking into her trap.” Mister Valentin turned and began to jog through the stables. “It’s the perfect plan.”
My master’s ears went flat, but he did his best to keep pace. “You’re starting to sound like Aura.”
The sergeant didn’t even drop pace. “Even better!”
Miss Inika scrambled after us to keep even. “Valentin, stop and explain yourself. How could deliberately playing into Datsia’s control possibly be a good idea?”
Suddenly, the Deterikh sergeant halted in his stride and spun to face the rest of us. causing my master and Miss Inika both to stumble into each other. “You asked me to stop. I stopped. You almost ran into me anyway.”
Miss Inika looked at my master, who shrugged in response. “I don’t think either of us actually expected you to stop.”
Mister Valentin’s green eyes flashed above his suddenly feral grin. “She’s not actually expecting us to spring the trap. She’s expecting us to see it, assume it’s trapped, and ignore it.” He pointed back towards the slaves’ entrance to the keep. “It’s like Aura was saying all along: Datsia bluffs, every time. This time, we’re going to call that bluff.”