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There was a special and particular absence of feeling in his groin as Vitus trudged in front of his horse toward the castle gate. Drooping folds of flesh sagged beneath his eyes, giving him a look of perpetual sadness, and his jowls seem to be trying to escape down his neck. His liberal application of Mergen's paste had left him looking more disfigured than aged and it had made more sense to explain his appearance to the gate guards as the result of an accident, during the careless apprenticeship of his youth. This had persuaded one of them to lower their pike. The other had kept muttering something about leprosy.
After a few days of shoeing horses and sharpening knives they did not stop him at the squat towers of the outer wall any more. There was little reason to expect any assault in the area and the gates were propped open most of the day to allow the coming and going of supplies and workers. Vitus nodded to the lesser accepting guard, who crossed himself and edged back suspiciously. The steed, an ageing plough horse recently liberated from its labours, passed under the low portcullis and through the tiny tunnel. Vitus looked at the murder holes flanking him. They may have been stuffed with cobwebs here, but he was certain Ofer would have something exceptional waiting in a pot at their other end. Oil would not be good enough. It would have to be acid, or perhaps molten cheese. Neither would have surprised him. Death by fondue would have been right up the maniacal occultist's dark alleyway.
The gate opened out on to a dusty courtyard with the main keep rising on a hillock at its centre. Ramshackle stables for a dozen mounts leaned exhausted against one wall. Hounds slept in the single shady edge of their cage near a corner tower's door. The pace of activity around them was hardly any busier. The castle's staff and inhabitants went about their work with as much frenzy as a heavy sigh. Vitus encouraged his own, laconic, animal toward the stables. They reached the dilapidated lean-to that he had bartered for part of his work and both felt relieved by the shade it offered. He tied up the big horse and gave it a pat on the flank. If it noticed it did not show it. Vitus made a meal of comforting the oblivious creature and tending to the tools in saddlebags that hung across it. A line of shadow crept down the eastern wall as the sun rose and he tried to survey its parapet nonchalantly. No leather capped guardsman walked atop the grey stone. As far as he had been able to tell, the soldiers under Ofer's command patrolled only the gate and the watch towers. Both commanded excellent views down to the gently forested slope and the swift flow of the Rhine beyond. That left little chance of any enemies remaining hidden, as long as your enemies were the sort that would normally worry a castle.
His gear weighing down one shoulder rather than the horse's ageing rump, Vitus set off across the courtyard to the brick built forge near the kitchens. Waiting for him there were a broken kitchen pot and a stack of dull bladed halberds, dumped like firewood next to an anvil.
He offloaded the saddlebags and rummaged through them for a whetstone. Then he crossed to the pile of weapons and crouched to select the topmost. He caught a glimpse of his sorrowful face in the dull blade and stopped. He had no idea what he would have looked like if he had aged. He had thought about it many times, tried to picture himself with white hair and wrinkles spitting out from his eyes. Would he have had creases in his brow from worry or on his cheeks from smiling? It was a pointless question, he supposed, and had been for almost ten centuries. One day he would die, but he would never grow old. For all he knew the distorted face in the blade might be a fair rendition of how he would look without the magic that sustained him.
“I'm pretty sure old people can still feel their nuts though.” He murmured to his disfigured reflection, shifting a bit. Not being comfortable was one thing, but not knowing if you were uncomfortable or not had him squirming all the time.
A cart rattled into the yard, driven by one of the troops and carrying barrels and boxes of all sorts. The soldier guided it past Vitus without acknowledging him and came to rest at the nearest stone buildings, built in the lee of the outer wall. Those were the kitchens, Vitus knew from fetching water and begging scraps from the fearsome cook. The ugly, brutish woman strode out to meet the cart, placing a pie on an outside table to cool. She began unloading crates of squawking chickens and shot Vitus a look that suggested if he even breathed near the scalding pastry he would end up the secret ingredient in her next batch.
He stared back like a mouse mesmerised by a weaving snake. Without looking he spat on the whetstone. He missed, hit his hand, tried to wipe it on his sleeve and toppled over from his crouch. The pile of halberds clattered as he fumbled up from them. Near the cart the cook was grinning a gap toothed smile and pointing him out to the soldier, who was about as interested as Vitus's plough horse.
“Yeah. Keep laughing you sour old lard bag.” Vitus whispered under his breath, “Just a clumsy, ugly smith, that's me. No threat to anyone. No balls at all.”
He straightened up and began to collect the scattered spears.
“Of course.” He continued quietly to himself. “For all I can tell, that may actually be true. I guess we'll find out tonight.”
He wasn't looking forward to that part of the plan, even if he could do with a rest. In order to get the amount of straw needed to hide him he had taken a great deal that was already soiled. Sitting motionless in a pile of dung for hours would not only be unpleasant, but also give him ample time to reflect on how he was the one, once again, up to his eyes in crap. The past few weeks had given none of their band much time to contemplate the wisdom of their decision. A group of ex-crusader mercenaries, employed by the offended Knight Captain of Toulouse, had picked up their trail when they had resupplied in Lyon. It had taken three days hard riding and little sleep to shake them and Vitus was certain that anyone who had found them in the first place would not lose them for long. The pace of their flight meant that nobody had found the wit to devise a plan to replace the one Mergen had outlined. Planning was not Vitus's strong suit. He had always preferred taking orders to thinking them up, but he had known that even by Mergen's standards this latest stratagem bordered on lunacy. Too late now though. It had been too late a week ago when they had struggled up the crooked stairs of the inn at Saint-Didier and Morgan had unpacked his pots. No doubt, in the warm embrace of manure he would have plenty of time to think about what had led him there.
The Elves had been right about the village of Saint-Didier. It was an attractive market town of yellow stone walls and red clay tiles. The columns of the main square supported a high vaulted roof built to protect the market stalls which, no doubt, crowded there often. When the travellers arrived however it was empty aside from one or two old men hiding from the sun and an equally decrepit woman slowly weaving a basket near them. An inn stood on one side of the square, a timber framed building whose bleached, wooden bones curved so that it looked fat and squashed under the weight of its three stories. They had stabled the horses and secured rooms on the first floor, even Laima too tired to bother the aubergiste for some of the monk brewed beer sat behind his bar. Resembling a train of slaves on the way to market the companions had stiffly climbed the rickety stairs to the cramped room of bunks. Vitus opened the shutter, which let in more hot, still air rather than freeing their own abundant supply.
"I think I came through here once you know. Moving supplies to one of the Legions along the Rhone. Wasn't much back then, just a mill and a couple of farms if I recall." He said with a yawn.
"I don't know how you remember all the places." Mergen replied. "I gave up centuries ago. Chances are I could have been here a dozen times, but unless something of note happens in a place I forget it almost at once."
"Which, no doubt, accounts for you getting bloody lost half the time." Vitus pointed out.
Mergen smiled in agreement. "Well. I'll remember it now, no doubt. This is the place where we stayed before we got one over on Ofer." He swept their lodgings with one arm.
You never learn, do you? Vitus thought. He unbuckled his sword and dumped it up on the bed above the one Laima had slumped on to.
"Are you sure about this plan?"
"Of course, but you'll need a few days for the poultice to settle on your skin. Trust me, you will be unrecognisable." Mergen spread the contents of his pack across another mattress. Sealed jars, wrapped leaves, bundles of paper and flasks of varied designs were laid out according to a scheme only apparent to the immortal magician. When he found what he wanted he came over to his Roman friend with a small box and a leather wineskin.
"Which means we should get it done sooner rather than later, then we can all get some rest while you make your transformation. All you need is a little bit of this." He opened the box to reveal an oily paste.
"Which is?" Vitus asked, unsure if he really wanted to know.
"A concoction of my own devising, mostly of pig fat, but imbued with rare venom from the deserts of the far south of the world and an even rarer fungus from the cold land north of the Caspian Sea."
He passed it across and Vitus sniffed at it. His stomach rebelled at the noxious odour.
"Gods, the smell's even rarer than that."
Laima looked up.
"Bad is it?"
"Remember that time we had to wade through that cess trench outside Londinium to escape the hounds?"
Laima grimaced. "I'm three feet shorter than you. Of course I remember. That nasty is it?"
"That would be fragrant roses compared to this stuff. Please don't tell me you want me to eat this?" He asked Mergen, making the wizard laugh nervously.
"Absolutely not. It would kill you at once. No, I need you to smear it under your eyes and a little around your cheeks and neck perhaps. We'll see how it looks."
The thought of instant death sounded slightly more appealing to Vitus than putting the vile potion on his face.
"See how what looks? What does this muck do?"
"It will age you. It causes a certain paralysis and slackening of the muscles. Your face will, in effect, melt. A temporary disguise of course, but a most effective one."
"You didn't mention anything about face melting.” Vitus said wearily. “Well, I can see why you didn't want to play the part of the wandering smith." He accused.
"It's perfectly safe. I have used it myself before in fact. I choose you for this part in the plan because if you have to fix a wheel or shoe a horse then you can. We both know my skills in that area would give me away in a heartbeat."
The other pair certainly could not disagree. Mergen was as much a smith as he was a prize fighter. Vitus went to jab a finger in the box but Mergen stopped him with a shout.
"You probably want this first!" He brandished the wineskin, an action which predictably took the attention of Laima as well.
"And what's that then? Unicorn piss?" She asked.
Mergen looked affronted.
"I'm not an idiot, my Unicorn piss is in clay. Wouldn't last two seconds in leather. No, this is an extremely potent mead I picked up in Sliasthorp from a couple of Norsemen."
Vitus looked at the dwarf, eyes lighting and lips smacking, then at the Mergen.
"You want me to get drunk?"
"Actually, I would say that you want you to get drunk. I've tried this stuff before remember and I have to say the process does sting a little."
Vitus handed the box back carefully and took the flask. Mergen was never one to overstate the down side of a situation and the look on his face told Vitus he really would want the liquor. He
took in a breath of stale summer air and then lifted the wineskin to his lips. The sweet taste of honey washed into his mouth, and slipped down his throat. A moment after it passed, every place it had touched burst into flame. He coughed, his eyes streaming, and steadied himself on the bunk. He was faintly aware of a clapping from below and shook his head. The sensation of heat passed and the air he was gasping in seemed now soothingly cool. He looked at Laima, her hand over her smile as she regarded him with mock sympathy.
"Well. At least." Vitus rasped. "I won't have to do this bit alone I guess." He passed the flask down to the dwarf and she accepted it with a grin. He felt a little less emasculated when even the hardened thief choked uncontrollably at her first tug of the amber distillation.
An hour later, under the gentle encouragement of Mergen, the flask was empty and the two drinkers sat unsteadily together, bleary eyes trying to focus on him as he gave instructions on using the cream to Vitus.
"Just a touch on your finger. Spread it in half-moons under the eyes and a curve across your brow. Okay. Don't get it on anything else though. Understand?"
Vitus wobbled understanding and managed to get his finger in the tub on his third attempt. His hand recoiled like it had been bitten by a viper.
"Shits!" He started waving his finger about and Mergen backed off. Laima began to laugh but Vitus was anything but amused. He hesitated, summoning drunken bravery, and then smeared the fat quickly beneath his eyes. He fell from the bed swearing, each foul curse answered with a shriek of laughter from Laima. By the time the lancing pain in his face had subsided enough for him to look up he found two lean faces peering down, concern obvious in the afternoon light.
"You okay, Vitus?" Hasper was asking him.
"No. Of course I'm not pishing okay. This mental pishing mage is trying to melt my face off, after he's melted my pishing liver first."
Hasper straightened, patting his sister on the shoulder,
"Yeah. He's fine." He ignored a further stream of urinary insults and addressed Mergen. "However good that mead is, I don't think I'll be paying this price for it."
"What would you pay with instead? You're as broke as a brothel bedframe. Vitus, try to get some on your forehead old friend. It's looking good though. Really good. Isn't it Elnin?" Mergen tried to illicit encouragement from the Elf who was still staring at the swearing Roman.
"You look like... " She struggled seriously for a description before delivering with evident disgust, "...like an elephant's foreskin."
Vitus dashed another burning line across his forehead and went back to thrashing drunkenly on the floor, still to the vast amusement of Laima who began punctuating her hilarity with elephant impersonations.
Hasper climbed onto his own bunk and began to stretch out while but Elnin watched Vitus, fascinated, as he unfolded himself, mumbled something to Laima and walked unsteadily out of the door.
"Where's he off to?" She asked.
"I think it's all that talk of pish." Slurred the dwarf. "He's gone to the privy."
A second later there was an animal howl of pain from along the corridor. The others reached for the weapons but Mergen's face simply creased in realisation.
"Stupid bugger's not washed his hands first."
It was scratchy, the hay. Tiny spikes of it pricked him all over. It may have been dried grass, but after being smothered in it for hours Vitus was beginning to wonder if Imps had sharpened stakes from every stalk. Only his face was mercifully free of their needling jabs, that and the other place he had no sensation. It was not like he had intended to start another family any time soon, but if he had lost the option because of this harebrained scheme then that jar was going up Mergen's backside faster than the snake or the scorpion that had contributed to it. He spat out a mouthful of his covering and started pulling his hands free. When he had managed to blink, swipe and snort enough out of his face he looked out into the dark courtyard. The ground was a plain, muddy maid to a bejewelled, royal sky above it. A dim suggestion of the far wall separated the two. The moon, by simple absence, showed the stars in their infinite extent and hid any earthbound details further away than his forge. Any foot traffic should have been visible in outline at least and nothing stirred except motes of settling straw dust. He rose from the corner of the stable like a resurrected scarecrow, listening carefully for any sign he was being observed.
Next to him the old plough horse ignored him as completely as it always did and Vitus was glad for its calm temper. Laima's pony probably would have kicked him to death as soon as he had hidden, enraged at his temerity in sharing its lodgings.
The hay hung in his clothes like barbed hooks, unwilling to release him from its irritating grip. He would probably be picking bits out of his trousers for weeks he realised. So far his part in this plan was easily the most uncomfortable, and it was about to become dangerous as well. He untucked his shirt, tried to shake some more of the stable free and stretched his legs to make ready. He had no desire to draw attention from sentries by screaming with a cramp halfway across the open space as he was certain they would give him something more wounding to scream about.
He crouched ready, trying to slow his breathing. His heart had been a steady drum whilst he had hidden but it was suddenly beating a report that could have summoned the guards to muster. He rocked back and forth a few times. Nodded briefly to the horse's arse, its tail swishing an involuntary farewell, then sprinted out into the night.
There were men on the inner wall at the top of the hill as well as the towers around the outer keep. Vitus was sure they would be watching outside the castle and reasonably certain he would have been difficult to spot if they were not. That sort of certainty only made him expect discovery more, it was the same brand of assumption that fuelled Mergen's blinkered assessments.
When he reached the oil black staircase at the eastern wall without hearing a cry of alarm he was genuinely surprised. Collecting himself, he adjusted his numb parts – checking they were still there – then crept up the steps. It was a tight spiral with stairs of unequal draft to make footing uncertain for any would be attackers. He prodded with his toes like the blind man he had been briefly rendered, the cool stone walls pleasant under his sweaty hands. It seemed an age in the darkness before a door of stars revealed itself. He crept out onto the parapet and looked toward the main keep above. Several watch fires burned low at the corners and torch light spilt from thin slits in the walls. It looked like a cage for hellfire, something that was appropriate given its master's interests. He could see no guards, but doubted he would even if they were there. He had no choice but to run to the next tower and trust in his luck. That was a bit like a Lion tamer trusting a new recruit.
It held again, pushing both his eyebrows up in further surprise. He unwound the rope from his waist and began looping the end about a statue which was meant to give the impression of a permanent watcher on the wall. Once he was sure it was firm he looked up at the heavens and took a deep breath. It was so clear tonight you could see the faint cloud that smeared the centre of the sky. Mergen had once told him that was actually countless more stars an eternity away. It was probably true. Mergen may have been a fool, but he was no idiot. Vitus peered over into the indistinct drop.
“Time to get the fool in here so we can all be foolish together then.”
He tossed the rope over and gave a quiet whistle, almost indistinguishable from a bird. The rope went tight and from below came an unconvincing quack, followed by a stifled snigger.
Vitus's scowl was the first thing Laima saw as she clambered up to the top of the wall. He hauled her onto the walkway then pulled her close to sniff her breath. He was shocked for the third time that night.
“Sober?” He hissed.
“Mostly.” She nodded back. “Just an early libation or two to steady the nerves. Trust me Vitus, even I take Ofer seriously.”
“Not seriously enough to try using a proper signal though?”
“That was Mergen. It was all I could do to not wet myself. I think he was being deadly serious.”
The rope wobbled and the wizard's bald head came into view.
“Grapples with the mysteries of existence. Capable of defying death itself. Can't even impersonate a sodding duck.”
Laima patted his side in understanding and they moved to help their friend across the crenellations.
As soon as they were united they darted into the black cover of the tower.
“So far so good.” Mergen's white smile was obvious in the half light.
Vitus had to agree with him, another thing which raised his hackles.
“The stores entrance is uphill directly toward the tower from here. Are you sure that's what we want?”
“Absolutely. The Duke of Saxony only had this place built about forty years ago, once I knew it was Ofer's new play palace I tracked down the architect. There are a system of tunnels and chambers, separate from the keep but I'm certain that is where Ofer will be hiding his collection.”
Mergen wafted at him with both hands, eager for the centurion to start down the stairs. Vitus tried to think of a reason not to follow the instruction, just to irritate the old man, but failed . Swallowed a second time by a dark tower he quickly resumed the fumbling pose that had accompanied his ascent of the previous one, only this time there was an added frisson of tumbling forward to break his neck.
The exit from this staircase was less heavenly. A dark corner of dried mud that smelt as though more than one guard had relieved themselves in its privacy. The three bumbled into each other as they tried to look around a thin buttress and up the hill.
“I don't know how he does it.” A loud Frankish voice announced, making the three leap out of their skins.
Half a dozen lanterns were suddenly unshuttered, turning the trio into sun blinded moles, wide hands pushing away at the light, unsuited to the task and ineffectual.
“I'm telling you it's witchcraft.” Hissed another of their discoverers.
“Bollocks. Spies more like.” A third spat.
“He's creepy enough for either, but I guess it doesn't matter. Point is he's always right.” The first man stated.
Vitus tried to work out how many men surrounded them, but given the lights it could only be the whole of the night watch.
“Gentleman...” he began.
One of the men stepped forward and kicked him between the legs. Despite having no sensation, the pain in the pit of his stomach lit up with the usual ferocity from such a blow. It sucked the wind out of him and he crumpled.
“Save it. Lord Ofer told us you'd be coming in from the east wall. Wants to talk to you. Personally I think you'd be better off if we killed you, but... chain of command and all that. Gag 'em and chain 'em.”
“What even the kid?” One of his subordinates asked.
There was a moment’s silence during which Laima did her best to look innocent and helpless.
“Twice for the kid, on the grounds of being an ugly little sod.”