The wrapped oars of the cramped dinghy divided the still water, ripples swirling into the void created by the breach. A shadowy figure clad in black, leaned forward and quietly placed the next stroke, pulling with the rhythmic smoothness of long practice.
The ghostly form slid through the inky blackness, paddles dripping water as the oar filled hands came to rest on black covered knees. The boat drifted along a weathered wall that formed one bank of the river, bumping gently against the stone, while the occupant's sharp eyes scanned the lily pad covered surface. Spying the object of its search, the figure withdrew the oars from the oarlocks and placed them inside the boat, allowing the small wooden vessel to drift into the shadows of the slick stone wall.
A rusted iron ring protruding from the grey rock was tied off to with a deft twist of rope, securing the front of the boat to the wall. Sand filled bags were flung off the side and a second length of rope snugged the rear of the boat tight.
The masked eyes looked up, examining the rocky surface and the tower that rose above it, to fasten on a dark window ledge thirty feet above.
Further lengths of rope were produced and slung around the lithe body. Reaching up to find finger and foot holds, the figure began to climb. The form slid like a wraith up the tower wall, with a surety that bordered on unnatural.
Once or twice the climber paused to set a metal spike in the stone, wedging it between rough cut blocks and testing it by standing on the slim metal for several seconds. Satisfied, the climber tied a safety rope to the spike and ascended to the next height.
Half way up the stone tower, the sound of muffled footsteps made the figure pause, listening. The sound grew closer, but did not change in rhythm. Steps marching in unison...So, a foot patrol, likely the castle guard. The shadowy form pressed its body tight against the wall and froze, fading into the shadows until the column of foot soldiers passed by and rounded a corner in the narrow cobble stoned street below. The figure counted to ten, before resuming the climb.
Reaching the cracked mullioned window, the shadowy figure pushed it inward with a slight squeak of rusting hinges. The form paused, listening to the sounds of the room, then crawled through to drop silently to the floor below. Crouching low to allow time to adjust to the dim interior, the shadowed eyes examined its surroundings.
The circular room contained three pieces of furniture; a rocking chair with its discarded blanket spilling onto the floor; a canopied bed and a curved topped trunk resting at its foot.
The figure's searching gaze paused to examine the sole occupant of the bed. A shaft of moonlight illuminated a sleeping child, six or seven years of age curled up in the blankets, white blond hair splayed across the pillow.
Soft deer skin boots made for silent passage to the shadowy bedside. The figure reached into its pocket and produced a soft cloth and a vial of liquid which was poured onto the cloth. Bending down the assailant placed it over the child's mouth and nose.
The girl's eyes flew open and she immediately began to thrash and squirm under the hand of her assailant. Small pale hands clawed the flesh of the arm above her face, but found only soft cotton and leather.
High pitched shrieks tried to leave the throat of the child, but quickly faded. The figure placed a knee on the child to hold her still and the other hand grabbed at the child's flailing hands. Tears sparkling in the child's eyes quickly faded as her struggles slowed and finally ceased.
Taking the hand away from the child's face, the assailant dropped the cloth to the floor and quickly bound her hand and foot, wrapping her in the blanket from her chair before doing so. When finished, the child looked to be held in a cocoon.
The figure picked up the child then strapped her into a leather harness held against the assailant's body. Returning to the window, the kidnapper hopped onto the window ledge and dropped over the edge, repelling down the side of the tower to the waiting boat below and removing all evidence of the climb in passing.
Quickly retrieving and bundling the ropes, the figure stashed them under the seat. The freed boat drifted from the impromptu moorings at the wall and with quick silent strokes the figure rowed away from the castle. Assailant, child and boat were soon swallowed by the rising fog, misty forms fading into the grey nothingness of early dawn.
Tarquinius Camillus strode down the hall of the grand castle, his heeled boots ringing on the polished stone floors. The five foot nine inch tall, blonde haired man sniffed the air, nose twitching, tracking that teasing yet illusive smell that announced bacon was to be found around a couple more turns. His stomach grumbled and he picked up his pace, eagerly anticipating the warm breakfast he would soon be devouring.
Glancing out the narrow window, he could see a thick grey mist rising off the river in the predawn. Suddenly the castle bells began an urgent pealing, echoing down the stone passageways and shattering the quiet. Breaking into a run, he turned and dashed back the way he had come, towards the main assembly hall, dodging servants in his haste.
At twenty one years old, Tarquinius, or Quin as his friends called him, had been permitted to grow up and call the castle home, due to a hastily arranged marriage between his eldest brother and a close cousin to the king. Neither the marriage, nor his sister in law's social status helped Quin's standing in the royal society surrounding him.
Not being of royal descent himself, his assigned duties were below that of a knight, but higher than a squire. King Aurelius was stingy in the granting of lordly titles and favors and Quin's assigned duties were seen as barely above the most common of servants.
Quin's official title of "Thief Tracker" sounded grand, particularly to his own ears however his only official duty to date was to oversee the kings' stores and track down shortages in the kitchen larders. Quin's infamous appetite frequently found him in the kitchens in any event, so he did not mind the appointment but it was his newly minted unofficial title that gave him goose bumps and allowed him to keep his residence in the king's castle. Thief Trackers got invited places that court assassins did not.
Fearing the consequences of being late, he spurred himself to greater speed, arriving huffing and puffing, just ahead of his stately father and somber older brothers. As they approached, every one tall, muscled and stony faced, he was once again reminded that he was the runt of the litter and in their eyes, little more than a child.
He stood a full foot shorter than his nearly seven foot tall brothers, a fact they never failed to impress on him. His slight build and shrunken head made him stand out, an odd throwback to poorer bloodlines, they'd mockingly say, or maybe your adopted?
But they did not know of the special commission given to him by the King, thought Quin. True, he had not actually killed anyone yet, but that hardly mattered! He would do as his king commanded and then I will show them all, he thought.
Skidding to a halt, he greeted his father and brothers, gulping great quantities of air to calm his breathing, then joined them in entering the hall. His father pushed open the tall carved wooden doors and walked to his chair, bowing to the king and then seated himself, his children following suit. Quin was left standing at the side, not of high enough standing to merit a chair. He clasped his hands behind his back and waited.
King Aurelius was seated at the head of the polished wooden table, his advisers by his side. Taking up their appointed seats, they were joined by a dozen Royal Knights, the flickering light of the overhead candelabra glinting off chain mail and sheathed swords at their sides. The bells continued to peal for a short time more then fell silent.
The pudgy King looked around at the assembled men, his watery gaze, heavy brow and jutting chin putting Quin in mind of a bad tempered weir cat. He harrumphed loudly, clearing his throat. "Princess Beatrix has been kidnapped" he announced with a gravelly voice.
"Her chambers were found empty, ten minutes ago. The door to her room was locked from the outside while" his eyes scanned the men in the room, brows drawn down in anger "the window in her room was found ajar and this" he held up the hastily discarded cloth "was found on the floor by her bedside."
A murmur arose from the assembled knights.
The king's fist smashed down on the table, rattling the goblets and setting the ice in a pitcher of lemonade tinkling. Quin jumped at the unexpected sound, eyes jumping to the king's.
"I have no need to tell you all what she means to me" he roared at the assembled knights. "She will be found and returned to me, safe and unharmed. I will not allow her to be used as a tool of ransom against me or this kingdom."
King Aurelius glared at the men around the table. His voice quieted but menace dripped from every syllable.
"To this end, I am assigning Tarquinius" his head swung in Quin's direction "to track down the kidnapper and retrieve my precious princess." He glared at the young man, his bushy brows forming a straight line above his bulbous nose. "You will not fail me in this quest, Tarquinius. She is to be retrieved at all costs, including your own life. You will not return to me empty handed. If you do, your life will be forfeit."
The knights at the table all turned to look in surprise at the undersized young man, barely out of boyhood. Quin returned their gaze, with a steady one of his own. His heart quickened its beats in his chest, beads of sweat popping out on his forehead and upper lip, shock and surprise warring within him. "As you command, my liege, do you have further instructions before I take my leave?"
"Yes, understand that no excuse will be tolerated for failure. Do not return here, on pain of death, should you fail. You are dismissed to prepare for your journey. Make it quick as every minute you delay, she is spirited further from my protection."
"Yes, my Liege!" Quin rose, saluted once more and turned on heel, straining to remain dignified, but as the door closed behind him, he pounded off down the hallway as if the weir cats of hell were licking at his soul.
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