Andros felt the sweat roll down his forehead and into his eyes. He blinked away the salty sting, irritated that he’d already begun to feel the heat of the day. Yet he knew to expect it; long ago his father had taught him that this was the price of war. A major lesson was that if you were going to ride into battle – you’d best come prepared. Armor was not a question, as it could keep you safe when few other things could, yet the price was the terrible heat and the excessive sweat. But still, it was a price Andros was more than willing to pay.
Yet, the sun was still hot and the air drier than it had been for several days now. As such, the breeze had picked up a fair amount of dust, settling onto the tense Dornishmen. The sun flashed teasingly at Andros from the corner of his eye, being quickly hidden and revealed by the movement of the furled banner above them. Banners were brought for tradition’s sake, if nothing else, but both Andros and Ingvar agreed that they should remained furled. Waving banners oft invited unwanted attention. Especially on missions that required discretion over grandeur.
Ingvar had brought near twenty men from the Ghosts with them, but had split into three smaller groups for travel, not counting the man they’d sent ahead to scout. The first group was led by Asaf, with Andros and Ingvar in the second, while the third brought up the rear. In the second group, there were four of them. Andors, Ingvar, and an escort for each. Andros silently hoped that they wouldn’t be overwhelmed by numbers as he cast a look around and took in his surroundings. They’d been traveling for a few hours at this point… They had to be nearing Dromme’s keep soon.
Lord Andros did his best to move quietly in their small group, which proved hard in half plate. Ingvar seemed much more practiced at this: the stealth, the ease with which he moved. Naturally Andros had been taught as a young man the ways of war growing up as the heir to Redgate, but he’d never had the need to actively use those skills until now. That was when Andros remembered who it was that had tutored him. Dromme. Dromme was the one who had taken Andros under his wing, but now that same man was the one they were hunting. The man he had trusted, turned traitor against everything Andros stood for. He tightened his grip on Nightsbane and set his eyes. He wanted only to arrive sooner. He would get his wish; the sound of hooves echoed gently from over a small ridge. Their scout had returned.
“My Lord.” The Ghost inclined his head to Andros then moved his gaze to Ingvar, speaking in a hushed voice, “Commander. We are very close to the keep. About one league away now.”
Ingvar nodded, “Approach cautiously. No rush. Spread out into a semi-circle around the keep.”
The rider nodded in deference, turning his mount to inform the others. It didn’t take much longer for their group to converge on the keep. It was built on a small rise, made of the same stone that built almost everything else in the nearby area. There was little indication that anyone was living in the house, except for the fact that at the foot of the rise, there were three men. They were armed with bows, presumably keeping watch, but did not seem alerted to their presence… Yet.
The hands of the men around Andros flashed deftly, conveying what he was certain was a wealth of tactical information. Ingvar nodded, brow set, as Andros saw shapes moving to both his right and left. The first and last groups must have been flanking the sides. Theirs was in the middle.
Silence was the only sound to be heard. The only sound, except for the very subtle strain of bowstrings being pulled taut in the shadows around them. Ingvar moved his hand, and all at once six arrows came flying from the shadows and each and every one found their mark. The three guards fell like does.
Just as the arrows landed, everyone around him started running. His heart was pounding in his chest as his feet met the ground, certain that the fight was about to begin in earnest, when Andros heard the sound of footsteps behind him. Before running any farther, he whipped around to meet the man who had approached them.
Alarmed as he was, Andros quickly recovered. It was one of their men. A runner. He spoke with a hurried voice, but hushed, “Commander, we deposed two more archers and the other two parties have met no further resistance.”
Ingvar nodded again, and proceeded to signal to the Ghosts around him. Andros heard the sounds of footfalls stop. The runner left, presumably with further instructions. Ingvar started signaling, and the change in the Ghost’s posture was clear. What was once a charging stance was quickly replaced with the more familiar cautious pose.
As one they moved ahead.
They hadn’t taken more than a few steps when the door of the keep flew open, and out came pouring four men, blades drawn, voices raised in a war cry. Like extending one’s arm, Andros pulled Nightsbane from its sheath and held his ground as he waited for the men to converge. The first thing that registered in his mind was that these men were Redlanders. They carried the colors of House Oakdown, they held weapons that were surely forged by their smith, Blackburn, once long ago, and they bore faces that Andros was sure he’d known growing up. But those were his first thoughts. His second was that they were enemies. Nightsbane flew in front of him, and the battle was all there was.
As the men came charging down the hill, more arrows came flying at them. These were more resilient than their archer counterparts. The man on the far left seemed only grazed by one of the arrows, the man on the far right took one hard in the shoulder, and the middle two seemed unaffected entirely. Yet despite the volley, they lost no speed in their charge.
The rogue Redlanders fell on them quickly, but Ingvar was quicker. The man that had taken the arrow to the shoulder was Ingvar’s first target. He moved quickly enough to plunge his sword deep into the man’s stomach, felling him just as he reached their group. The first Redlander closed with Ingvar’s escort, greeting him in almost the same way Ingvar greeted the fourth man. Their Ghost ally fell with a gasp, cold steel protruding from his back, his life’s blood pooling on the hard dirt below.
Andros was distracted by the death of his ally for just a split second. Yet it was in that moment that the two remaining men decided to close with him. Nightsbane flashed, the light of the prismatic pommel glinted in the half-light, reflecting off the faces of the men in front of him. The first one brought his sword down hard and Andros was unable to deflect it, but by the graces of the gods, his armor protected him. He was more vigilant with his second assailant. He parried away the blow using his armored arm and his blade.
Andros spun, eyes set on the man that first man that made to strike him. Nightsbane flashed again, and soon found itself hilt-deep in his enemy’s stomach. He quickly withdrew the weapon as the man fell to the ground, turning, back-to-back with Ingvar, now facing his last opponent, with two left between the two of them.
As Andros resumed the position, Ingvar called over his shoulder, “Nice my lord. Ever consider joining the Ghosts?”
A fierce grin played across Andros’s face as he called back, “Once when I was eight. Lady Grandmother forbade it. A shame, I know!”
He heard the sound of clashing steel from behind him, assuming that it was either Ingvar or his escort. That question was quickly answered, however, as he saw Ingvar slide around and make to attack Andros’s last adversary. The Redlander was not caught off-guard, however, and glanced the blow, deflecting it off of his armor. Ingvar too found a smirk on his face and said to the man, “Now that I have your attention. Prepare to die.”
Andros grinned in spite of himself. The fervor of battle was able to bring out a side in him that little else could. The grin was short-lived however, as the man that Ingvar had squared off with made to lunge at the Northman. Andros saw the red run down Ingvar’s arm as it was cut by the blade.
There was no time to think. The remaining traitor had turned his attention from Andros’s escort and closed in on Andros himself. He brought Nightsbane up to deflect the blow, parried the majority of it, but could still feel the steel as it banged off his half plate. Andros returned in kind, however. Nightsbane came swinging down and bit into the shoulder of his assailant, dropping him to his feet, his blade glistening red.
Andros’s escort ran at the man who’d locked himself in combat with Ingvar, swinging at him with his blade. He wasn’t near quick enough, however, and his attack was easily blocked, pushing the escort a few steps away from the fray.
Ingvar grit his teeth and made to strike the Redlander with his shield, but feinted, and he went in for a low sweep. Yet luck did not seem to be on his side, as his blade once again missed its mark – scraping off the Redlander’s ringmail. The Redlander let out a bellow, coming once again at the Northman, this time having markedly more success. Ingvar grimaced as he went to parry the blow, but instead twisted his shield arm painfully as the blade smacked his ribs. It didn’t sound good.
It was time to end this. Spinning around, Nightsbane casting light all around the clearing from its jeweled hilt, Andros brought the Valyrian steel down on the man in front of Ingvar, “You will spill no more loyal blood today, traitor!”
The blade bit deep and the man fell to the dirt.
Ingvar looked at the fallen man and then to Andros. “Maybe you should consider the Redlanders, my lord. It appears you hit better than you sneak.” He smiled.
Andros approached Ingvar quickly and asked quietly, “Ingvar, are you hurt?”
“Some new scars to impress the ladies with. Nothing more, but thank you for your concern.” Ingvar said, wincing slightly as he stood and brushed himself off.
Andros nodded and looked up the hill, towards the holdfast, “And now?”
Ingvar joined him, “Now we hope we can get some information before they die. Or that they stupidly left something for us to find.”
“More than anything, I hope we find him here. It’s time we got some answers from the man that started this chaos.” Andros said, flicking some of the blood off the tip of his sword as he assessed their situation.
“Oh yes. I should like very much to talk to Dromme. I’ll not be so nice as I was to Perrin.” Ingvar said, matter-of-factly.
“Agreed. He’s the only one I care about bringing back alive. If only for a public execution,” Andros said.
“We will need to be very cautious until we are sure there are no more lurking. Your grandmother will kill me if you get hurt.” Ingvar said, his tone becoming more serious
“I appreciate the caution, Ingvar, but a few scrapes and bruises to the heir will not endanger the House. For the time being you seem in greater need of help than I.” Andros said, brushing off Ingvar’s concerns.
Ingvar nodded, staring up towards the holdfast. He seemed in his own world for a moment, but then, “Shall we?”
“Let’s.” Andros cast one more look down to Nightsbane, glistening red, and moved forward in step with the Northman.
Ingvar exchanged a few more words and signals of instructions with his Ghosts, and their entourage closed in around the keep. As they approached Andros could see that there was a flame flickering in one of the only windows. He cast one more look towards the Master at Arms and nodded. They slowly approached the door, Ghosts at their backs. Ingvar reached out, grasped the latch, and pushed it open.
Sitting inside the small home at a roughly hewn table, drinking from a pewter cup, was a man that both Ingvar and Andros recognized immediately.
It was Qyl.
Ingvar slumped gently against the door frame, “I was really hoping you were just an ass and not a traitor Qyl,” he sighed heavily, “Why?”
An ugly scowl replaced whatever estranged expression the man had on his face when they entered, “Why? Because of you. Because of those like you. Because of the loss of spirit all of Redgate suffered when our true lord passed. Lord Nygel and his sons – taken from us. Leaving us what?You?,” His scowl darkened as he spat. “Or the boy there? Perhaps the old woman? These damn Dornish customs will be the end of us all. Soon the Orphans will scatter about the Red Mountains like the cockroaches they truly are, then who will stand to oppose it? Someone must. And more importantly, someone must remember the vengeance that is ours by right. We will do this thing. You will fail. Your Northern savage ways, the womanly weakness of the old spectre of a Lady. All of you. Oakdown will transform to become what it’s people need… or a new family will take it’s place.”
He’d half-risen from his chair, knuckles white from the grip on the cup, when he began coughing loudly and deeply. His whole body began to convulse as his eyes bulged from their sockets, knocking the cup over on the table, a thick, dark, red wine spreading slowly across the table, dripping onto the floor.
Andros, repulsed, cursed under his breath, “Seven hells…”
His face turned from a shade of deep red to a purple, convulsing violently, and then falling to the floor. Silence filled the room once again.
Ingvar nodded tiredly at the old refrain, “You Andals all sing the same song. And all I hear is ’I’m a whiney bastard’” He watched impassively as the life drained out of the man, “Good riddance.”
Andros’s brow furrowed heavily. “Aye. Good riddance, but what have we gained, Ingvar?”
“Lord Andros, I suggest we give the place a going over then strip the enemy of usable gear, recover our dead and go home. There were no men here, only children throwing a tantrum.”
After just a moment of looking, the two saw, in the center of the room, with an empty satchel across it, a wooden chest. They both approached it, but found that it was locked tight with a cast iron lock. They both attempted to open the chest, pulling and turning the lock, but unsurprisingly that bore no fruit.
Ingvar looked around. “Does anyone have an ax or something we can use as a pry bar? Or I suppose we can lug it back and let the blacksmith open it.”
“Aye. That may be our only option at this point,” Andros said as he stepped forward to lift one side of the chest. He was taken aback when he discovered that the chest was remarkably light… Almost as if it were empty. In response to this, he raised a questioning eyebrow in Ingvar’s direction.
Ingvar grinned slightly and motioned with his chin towards Nightsbane, “You could use that fancy pig sticker and slice it open. She’s a blade without equal here."
Andros let out a bark of a laugh, “Not likely, Northman. This blade is no lockpick.”
“True. Well it’s light enough to carry and we’ve no lack of volunteers,” Ingvar said.
“I say we take it back, we can go over it’s contents in the safety of the keep. I can’t help but feeling at least a little exposed out here,” Andros said, casting another suspicious glance around the room.
Ingvar nodded, “Agreed." He then raised his voice, “Strip the dead of gear, if any live let us know. Rig a sling to bring our dead home for proper burial."
As the Ghosts began milling about, Andros bent over to finally cleanse Nightsbane of traitor’s blood. He ripped off a spare bit of cloth from Qyl’s hauberk and used it to return the blade to its former shine. And at long last, Andros returned the blade to its sheath.
It didn’t take long for the Ghosts to round up any useful gear and their dead. They were lucky. They lost very few on this mission. More than Dromme could say for his forces.
The trip back was quiet, as all involved had a lot on their mind. For Andros though, there was one thing troubling him above all the others. They’d unearthed that the commander of the Redlanders had indeed thrown his lot in with Dromme, turning against the house. But still the former Master-at-Arms was at large. This troubled Andros more than anything else he’d seen up to this point, as Dromme was the one behind all of this.
One thing was for certain, though. Andros swore a silent oath to himself as they climbed the hill that at least revealed Redgate, the sun heralding them home from behind. He swore that if they ever found that man, if ever they brought him back to Redgate to answer for his crimes… He would be the one to look into his eyes and ask him why. And then he would swing the sword.