When the three were finally out of the cage, Erik led them at a run back through the double doors. Clusters of goblins were regaining their courage in the shadows. Some were advancing slowly forward in packs of two’s and three’s, still held back by the gruesome sight of their brethren spilled upon the stone.
In the hallway just beyond the door, a row of hooded lanterns aligned the floor, each beaming brightly back into the throne room.
Rankin stopped to pick one up and to admire the Paladin’s ingenuity, but he did not linger too long.
Erik led them down a few different corridors and through large open rooms lined with pillars. Eventually they came to a stop in front a fancifully carved door. Erik put his ear to the wood and listened. Satisfied, he tried the knob.
“In here,” said Erik. He pushed the door open.
Rankin lifted the lamp and pointed it inside. The spot beam illuminated the decaying remains of a large four-poster bed.
Nora crossed her arms. “Where are you taking us?”
Erik said, “To the dungeons,” and then he grinned. “First, we’ll rest in here. The fight has exhausted me.”
The four entered the room and closed the door behind. Nora looked around, but the view inside was not much different from what she could see through the doorway, an old wooden bed, long rotted through and a wardrobe resting against the wall, one door broken free. A few small tapestries, torn and faded still hung, but beyond that, the room was undecorated. Erik sat on the floor with his back to the wall.
Nora said, “Thank you for rescuing us. You were magnificent.”
“Yes,” said Rankin. “Why did you bother?” His eyes searched the walls casually.
Erik said, “We came together. We leave together. That is the way.”
“Yes, I see, however, you had already abandoned us.” Rankin toyed with a tapestry, pulling it free from the wall. “Since we had already helped you get inside this rat infested hole, why come back at all?”
Erik smiled. “You were not abandoned. I asked you three to stay put, while I scouted the way. You should have stayed in the kitchens. It was not until I came back that I discovered you had gone. I spent the last hour searching for you.”
Rankin said, “What, did you expect us to simply wait there like simpletons while you made away with all the gold? You think us fools?”
Nora said, “Rankin, please. He has already proven himself.”
“As I have stated before, I am not interested in the gold. The gold is yours, as much as you can carry,” said Erik.
“That I do not believe. You came here for something.” Rankin paced about the room. “Surely, not just to get your jollies off bashing a few goblins in the head.” He turned his attention to Nora.
“You have a problem with trust, don’t you?” Erik said.
Rankin said, “Trust? Of course, I have a problem with trust, you disingenuous oaf. You sit there smiling with all piety, but I know you. I know what lurks inside the souls of men, and you are that, just a man.”
“I am on a mission,” Erik said. “What I do, I do for the church of the Everlasting Light.” He placed his fist over the emblem of the sword and chalice on his chest.
Rankin rolled his eyes. “And the church has no want of gold? Please, forgive me, as I was confusing your church with all the others that send out their Paladins to rape and pillage the countryside.”
Dobber nodded in agreement.
Erik did not respond. He put his hand to his forehead and sighed.
“That is enough!” Nora raised her voice at Rankin, stepping between the two of them. “This man has saved our lives. He has given us a chance to attain riches I certainly have never dreamt of, and we treat him like this?”
Rankin said, “But you see, he has no answer now does he? His beloved church is not the bastion of purity, as he would have us believe. There is something here that he is after and I doubt it is a thing he wishes to share with us.”
Erik remained silent.
Dobber stepped forward and spat on the floor. “My cousins were killed by Paladins.”
Nora grabbed Dobber by the collar. “Your cousins were killed by wolves!” She stooped to meet him face to face. “You prattle on and on about it endlessly!”
Dobber growled, glaring his teeth. “My other cousins.” He broke free of her grasp.
“Other cousins?” she said.
Dobber said, “If you give me half a chance, I will explain.” He held out his tiny hands in stillness and as he peered at each of the others, his eyes grew wide.
“They road into the Briar on large black beasts, numbering twenty or more, and each held a sword and each wore a suit of armor.”
Dobber spat again.
“They shouted words of bloodlust and holiness. They said, ‘out of the way of righteousness, hairfoot,’ and ‘feel the holy wrath of my blade, hairfoot.’
“Never mind about the Tumblebottoms, the Brushbins and the Hobnobbers. To them all we are is lowly Hairfoot’s, vermin. They slaughtered all who stood in their way.”
He wiped the froth from his mouth.
“My cousins stood with the others that defended the town that day, and they fell with them just the same. The Paladins rode on, trampled our shrine, and murdered our priest.”
Dobber turned to look straight on at Erik. “And that is why I do not trust this Paladin one bit,” he said. He shook his finger at Erik, and then wiped his palms together smugly.
Nora reeled with her hands at her hips. She said, “And yet, you overlooked this great injustice and forgot to mention it until now? Really, Dobber.”
Dobber snuffled his nose. He said, “It was a traumatic experience. It took me years to forget. But being reminded of this Paladin and his slippery ways, it came back to me in a flash.”
“Slippery, indeed,” said Rankin.
Nora said, “And you, I can’t believe you encourage him like that.” She stormed away.
Erik said, “I assure you little fellow, that if what you speak is true, the men you say attacked your village were not men of the Light.”
Erik held out his arms with his palms facing upward. He said, “Our Paladins do not pillage humble settlements, and our followers hold people of all kinds in equal regard.”
Rankin chortled and shook his head. “With equal disdain surely. Isn’t it just like all you high-and-mighty types? There are the chosen few, and the rest are just fodder.”
Erik said, “I see there is no persuading either of you. If you hate me so much, then take your leave of me. Nora and I can go on without you, and make due as best we can.”
“I knew it,” said Rankin, “Caught by your own admission!”
“The two of you working together all along,” Dobber said.
Nora blushed. “What? Surely, that’s not what he meant.”
“See here, Paladin,” Rankin shouted. “We three are like family. Where one goes, so go the others. There is no dealing with just one. There is no dealing the others out. If you ask the two of us to leave, then we all leave, together.”
“I do not ask any to leave. I wish you all to stay and see this to the end.” Erik rose to his feet and offered his hand to Rankin. “I have not yet accomplished my mission, and you have not yet earned your reward.”
Nora said, “You see. He still needs us. He still needs all of us.”
“Needs us?” Rankin stepped forward, mulling the words. “That I know, but he still hides his true intentions. Any man that keeps secrets from his companions is dangerous.”
“Companions?” Erik said. “So are we all still in this together?” He looked at Nora and Nora replied with a nod. He then looked at Dobber but Dobber only shrugged, looking instead at Rankin.
“Are we?” Erik said to Rankin. “Surely, you must agree that the gold is what you seek, and that there will be ample for all when we are done. You must decide upon that truth alone, and not what motives I may keep.”
Dobber’s whole body tensed. “Voices,” he said, “and footsteps.” He pointed frantically at the door.
Faint sounds of scuffled feet could be heard in the passageway outside the room. Nora pulled two long knives from twin sheaths that ran along the inside of her sleeves.
Dobber dove for cover behind the rotted bed.
Erik lifted his sword and turned back to face the door.
Rankin said, “By that truth alone, we will stay. But know this, Paladin; I will keep my eye one you.” He unsheathed his own knife and gripped it in his hand. “And justice will be mine if at the end of this adventure I am not satisfied.”
The voices grew louder in the hall. Guttural grumbles and high-pitched squeals echoed. Flickering light could be seen from the crack beneath the door. Then without warning, all sound of movement ceased.
Erik whispered, “Luckily, this adventure is almost at an end.”
Nora said, “No! We shall not die here.”
“Let them in,” Rankin said, “and you will see that we fight as well as you.”
Erik said, “Fighting is not why you are here, and is unnecessary.” He stepped quickly to the far side of the large wooden bed. “Help me push this in front of the door.”
Dobber scrambled out from beneath the bed. Nora leapt to assist. The two of them could barely budge the heavy framework. Dobber took hold of a post and shoved, but gave little help.
“All of us,” said Erik.
Rankin conceded and put his back into helping them move the bed. Together they managed. The bed screeched along the stone floor and in moments was positioned in front of the door, blocking it from swinging inward.
Nora grimaced at the noise. “If they didn’t know we were here before, they sure do now.”
Erik said, “They already knew. They can smell us.”
“Then why did they not barge in already?” Rankin said.
“Because they are afraid,” said Erik.
“I’m afraid,” Dobber said. “Really, I am. Now what do we do? They will break in. They will chop the door down and that will be the end of us.”
“Ah, but then we will have escaped out the back.” Erik stepped closer to the wardrobe.
The other tree stood, bewildered.
“Many years ago, before this castle was in ruins, it was owned by the Count of Ashmoor. He was very extravagant and very decadent. He was in the habit of keeping many guests, and many of these were Lords and Ladies and their retinue.”
Erik pulled the functioning door open and stepped up inside of the wooden cavity.
The others drew closer, perplexed.
Erik said, “Some of them he knew better than others.” He ran his fingertips along the wooden panels that formed the rear of the wardrobe. “This room was one kept for special guests.”
Erik’s fingers found a knot of wood near the inner top. He pressed on the knot. A portion of the paneling fell inward with a pop.
“A secret door?” Nora said.
“Precisely,” said Erik. “There are a few passageways that run between the walls. Some lead into the dungeons. The goblins have never discovered them.”
A loud bang sounded from the door, accompanied by squeals and barks growing into an uproarious clamor. The door shook at the next impact.
Dobber shuddered nervously. “Let’s go. Let’s go. They are chopping it down.”
“Follow me,” Erik said. He waved after them as he disappeared into the darkness.
Dobber scrambled to be the first to follow, leaving Rankin standing with the lantern in hand, and Nora refastening the ties of her sheaths.
Rankin said, “And just how did he know about this passage?”
“How should I know?” Nora stepped into the darkness.
Rankin followed, shining the beam from his lantern. The light showed a narrow corridor following the line of the wall. As soon as Rankin stepped in, Nora could see that the passage extended far into the distance. Erik and Dobber were already lost in the shadows ahead.
Rankin pushed the door closed. The clicks of many small locks could be heard as the door sealed itself. “This place is full of surprises,” he said.
Nora stood waiting for him. “Let’s get moving before we lose them,” she whispered.
Rankin fell in behind her. He lifted the lamp over both their heads and shined it down the path. The walls were cut stones covered in algae and glistening with moisture. With the light held perfectly straight Nora could make out Erik and Dobber walking briskly away, the sheen of Erik’s armor like a fading beacon.
Rankin said, “He seems to know right where he is going; a secret passage only he is privy to? He walks it without need of light, as if he comes this way every day. I find it all hard to believe.”
Nora said, “You find everything hard to believe. Everything that is not of your own devising.”
“And rightly so. This place is dangerous. Passageways that lead into dungeons filled with vast treasures. Places like these are rightly lined with traps.”
“Perhaps that’s why you are here, Rankin. You and traps are old friends. And as you say, a place like this should be full of them.”
“Yes, I did suspect that from the start. However, if I were afraid of traps, I would not go traipsing through here like this. We should be checking every inch of the passage slowly. There could be arrows pointed at our backs just waiting for a foot to fall upon a particular stone, or a trap door ready to fall from beneath our feet.”
“Perhaps he knows where the traps are and avoids them,” said Nora.
“Ah, now you are starting to think like me. And if he knows where the traps are, and avoids them, what do you suspect is to become of us?”
Nora slowed her pace, placing her next few steps cautiously. After all, Erik had been moving hastily away from them.
Rankin placed his free hand upon her shoulder.
Nora said, “So you think he’s purposely leading us through traps?”
“No. He obviously needs us or he would not have wasted time saving us from the goblins. He is not about to kill us of now.”
Nora turned back and smiled at Rankin. “Now you are thinking like me.”
“Hardly. You still believe this Paladin is some valiant do-gooder, out to do battle merely for the joy of accomplishing the deed. You are naïve in the ways of the world and in the ways of men.”
“Not too naïve.” Nora pulled away from his touch. “A while ago you threatened to kill me and now you speak to me as a friend.”
“Kill you? You know me sweet Nora, all bark and no bite. When have I ever truly harmed you? We have been companions for many years. You are like my own daughter.”
“I should be so lucky,” Nora said.
Rankin reached for her shoulder again but missed as Nora instinctively withdrew. He said, “I should be the one you entrust with all that naïve enthusiasm, not a stranger whom you’ve only known for a few days. I defended you when no one else would. I housed you and fed you and gave you a place in this world.”
Nora gritted her teeth and walked cautiously away.
Rankin said, “Sure we’ve had some delicate moments, but with friendships like ours you take the good times with the bad. What has this Paladin to offer, a fleeting adventure with a golden carrot to dangle before our eyes? When this is over, he will be gone and we will remain.”
Nora sighed and stopped, folding her arms together.
Rankin said, “I question him because I wish us to survive. I do not trust him. I do not know him. I do not know what he speaks to be the truth. I cannot give him the benefit of my doubt. I cannot assume because he professes to be a Paladin that he is pure and good; and if he is good that he has our interests at heart.
“I am cunning because he is sly. He should be forthright but he is secretive.”
The cry of a strained voice came from the darkness ahead. Both Nora and Rankin fell to silence. They could hear shuffling followed by a loud slap and a thud, and then muffled voices. Rankin tried placing the beam of the lantern on it but could not hold the lantern steady enough to make anything out. However, a moment later they could see movement coming toward them, two small shapes at a run.
Nora pulled both her knives from their sheaths again.
Dobber appeared into the light, his shadow closely following. “Come on,” he whispered. “The Paladin sent me back for you. We’ve found a staircase.” He pointed with his thumb over his shoulder.
Rankin relaxed, taking his free hand off the hilt of his own knife.
“We’re on our way,” Nora said.
Dobber stopped, caught his breath, and then started back.
Nora glared back at Rankin as they followed. She said, “I don’t know whom to trust.”
Ahead down the passage, Erik stood hunched over, holding up a large trap door, bound by iron bands and adorned with a single ringed handle. The door rested inside an alcove, at the end of the passage, and covered a stairwell leading down into darkness.
Erik stood to one side, straining from the weight of the door and watched the others approach. He said, “These stairs lead down to the dungeon. We must be silent as we proceed. If there are goblins below, they may hear us.”
Nora edged closer to the stairwell. The steps were wet stones dropping down steeply into darkness shrouded in cobwebs. Dobber peered down as well. Nora could feel the vibrations from the shudders in his skin.
Nora said, “Is it safe?” The thought of spiked traps and arrows seemed all the more likely as she looked down the narrow stairs.
“Yes,” Erik said. “Let’s move quickly.”
“Why don’t you lead,” said Rankin.
Erik’s foot slipped and he nearly lost hold of the door. “I must hold. The catch has rusted through.”
Rankin leaned up close to Nora’s ear and whispered. “Convenient.”
Nora felt a cold chill down her spine. She knew Rankin wanted her to fear Erik, to suspect that he was leading the rest of them into a trap, no matter how illogical it sounded.
“He says it is safe,” she said.
Rankin said, “Do you trust him?”
Nora narrowed her eyebrows. “You’re just afraid I’ll leave.”
Rankin scoffed under his breath. He whispered, “Don’t become too attached.”
Nora looked away down the dark shaft. “I never have”, she whispered back to him. She turned and put her right foot into the stairwell. “I’ll go first,” she said. “Keep the light on me.”
She proceeded slowly, taking each step one by one. Rankin kept the light on her sure enough. Her shadow looked as if it were falling down the well. The contrast from the light exaggerated the rough surface of the stones and the steps, and the movement of the lamp caused the shadows to dance.
Nora searched with her eyes for any sign of a trap, a strange shaped stone or hole or cut, but these were difficult to make out. She also listened for the sound of locks or sliding stones, but all she heard was her own footfalls and the heavy breathing of Dobber behind her; the steps were too deep for his legs.
The stairwell turned back on itself three times, all the while descending deeper into the earth. Nora suspected they had dropped forty to fifty feet before the stairwell finally came to an end. She stood on the final step waiting for the others to get closer and the light from Rankin’s lantern to shine into the open area beyond.
The room was small, barely wider to each side than the stairwell itself. Dust covered the dirt floor and moisture glistened off the low ceiling. Erik would have to duck to stand in this room.
Dobber peered from around her waist. “Where’s the door?” he said. Nora looked, but she saw none. Dobber crane his neck to look along the near wall.
Rankin reached a few steps behind her. His lantern lit the room entirely. “Dead end?” he said.
Nora knew what he really meant. “It must be hidden,” she said. She put her foot into the room. The floor felt solid. She crouched low to the ground and moved with long, wide steps.
A metal chink sounded somewhere. Nora cringed and froze in mid step.
“Now, we should listen to the door before we go any further,” Erik said and he neared Rankin on the steps. His foot fell one more time, and the metal from his armor chinked again.
Nora relaxed and put her foot to the ground. She reached the far wall without incident. Dobber and Rankin crept into the room behind her.
Erik strode in without caution. He walked straight to her side and smiled when she turned to him. “There’s a loose stone here,” he said. His eyes glanced at the wall before her.
Nora scoured the wall with her own eyes. She passed her hand lightly over the stones trying to identity which one. At a height near the ceiling, Erik’s hand came to rest next to hers. She could feel the warmth from his fingers as they pressed inward on the stone, together.
Nora heard the twang of an old metal spring beneath the surface. The outline of a door became visible as a thin line of shadow.
“More secrets?” Rankin said.
Nora could feel his breath on her neck as he spoke. “Quiet”, she whispered back to him. “The goblins.”
Erik put his ear to the crack and listened. After a moment, he was satisfied enough to put his fingers to the crack and pull the door fully open.
Nora saw the glint of Rankin’s knife in the air beside her. She put her hands to her own pair, just in case.
Erik stepped in. Nora followed.
The room was roughly square, a bit larger than the one at the foot of the stairs. To the left, a corridor sloped downward away from the room. Opposite of that, a small raised dais stood against the wall with what looked to be a narrow pulpit at its center. Behind it, a fresco aged and barely recognizable as a man dressed in scarlet robes decorated the wall.
Erik whispered, “Ashmoor was also known for his religious zeal. When he was unsuccessful at converting his peasants to his newly founded cult, he started forcing his prisoners to worship here.”
He pointed to the pulpit. Erik said, “His blasphemy is what finally did him in and brought ruin to his house and lands. A small war raged outside these walls for many days, the nearby village was destroyed, the crops burned and the Ashmoor family hunted down and killed.”
“Bah,” Dobber whispered. “Sounds like what happened at the Briar, Paladins out to destroy everything. All kinds held in equal regard, as long as they worship the right god and pay the monthly stipend.”
Erik said, “He sought to spread evil. The danger was so great in those last years that it forged unity among the seven temples. It was the first time that the great churches joined. It was the time of the writing of the ‘One Oath.’”
Nora said, “I have never heard of such a thing.”
“It did not last for long. Ashmoor had allies. Even as the churches organized to oppose him, he was already hard at work on thwarting that unity. While the war raged against his home, he had already struck the blow that would tear the churches apart for good.”
“The next door is behind here?” Rankin stood on the dais behind the pulpit, inspecting the fresco closely.
Erik said, “No. But that would have made a fitting location; to hide his treasure behind his very image.”
Instead, Erik strode over to the wall opposite of the one they had entered through. “The door we seek is here.” He patted the stone. “Just a mirror of the other. This room was originally a station for guards, protecting access to both passages.”
Erik found the correct stone and the door was soon opened. He said, “Now you will see why I have brought you here. Some quick work on your part and we’ll be back at the Bear’s Foot in time for the evening meal.”
Erik stepped through the door and disappeared.
“I could use something to eat,” Dobber said.
Nora said, “Dobber, you are always eating.”
Rankin peered into the new passage. “Let’s get going. I can hardly wait to see what he needs us for.”
“The final mystery,” said Nora.
The Story Continues: Nobody Trusts a Paladin - Part III