Chill wind howls through the mountain peaks and tall pines, calling in the cold like a shrill old woman. Darkness fell barely an hour ago but the warmth of the day is now long gone.
You huddle against the rock wall at your back and extend your fingers toward the warm fire before you. Its heat radiates off the stone, helping to stave off the chill.
Your contact is late. You’re expecting a grizzled old man who boasts bright red hair sprinkled with a healthy serving of white. Although you’ve never met the man, Vincent’s descriptions are usually exact, his attention to detail rarely failing.
It’s unusual for a contact to be late. You shift slightly sideways to let the fire warm your leg. If someone hires your services, it means they’re desperate and desperate people don’t tend to want to insult you by making you wait.
You shift to the other side and reach for the clay mug that sits on a stone next to the fire. A groan of appreciation escapes you as you sip the strong coffee. Half an hour longer, you decide, and then you’ll leave, just long enough to finish your coffee.
You’re swallowing the last of the coffee dregs when the snap of someone stepping on a dead branch echoes off the rock wall. Not long after, there’s a sniffle, probably from the person’s nose being cold.
A few seconds more and the expected, grizzled man steps from the dark line of trees.
He pauses, taking in your fire, your pack that sits beside you, and the weapons along with it, and finally yourself. He fidgets with the edge of his coat.
“Join me,” you say with a gesture at the other side of your small fire.
He bobs a nervous bow and sits. Like the warmth overrides all caution, he slides his hands free of his gloves and stretches them toward the flames. An ‘ah’ of relief sighs from between his lips.
“Quite the meeting place you picked,” you comment.
“Had to keep it remote.” He glances over his shoulder as though, even this far out, he’s nervous about being watched.
Not one to waste time, you ask, “What is the item you need retrieved?”
“Not what,” he says and leans closer, “but who.”
You give a questioning look.
“Arion Westfall was kidnapped a week ago by the Eastbrooks.”
You lean back against the stone wall and eye the man. You saw Westfall at the Winter Festival two nights ago. Is he playing you for some reason?
As though he notices your reaction, he continues speaking, “So far we’ve been able to keep the kidnapping quiet. We’ve used his double, the boy we have stand in at large speeches and such, to make general appearances. But Westfall’s supposed to attend the Princess’ birthday in three days and she’ll know it’s not him. If the princess finds out, she’ll name him an incompetent and choose another champion. The Westfall’s will be ruined.”
“The families kidnap each other all the time and, through ransoms, regain their children on a regular basis. What’s different this time?” you ask.
“No ransom’s been asked. In fact, no one’s claimed responsibility.”
“Then how do you know it was the Eastbrooks?”
He looks away and fiddles with the edge of his coat again. You simply wait for an answer. You’re good at waiting.
Finally he admits, “The Eastbrook boy boasted at the Winter Festival that he’d be the new Champion soon.”
“That’s your proof?”
“Three days? That’s my time frame?” you ask.
He nods again.
“Deal,” you say.
Relief washes from his face, into his shoulders as they droop, and then down the rest of his body.
“Payment’s been delivered already?”
“At the Morrowtown Inn,” he confirms, “Vincent was specific on the details.” During the conversation he’d relaxed, leaning closer to the small fire. Now, he backs up a step as though this last comment reminds him of exactly who he’s dealing with.
You grin and shove your mug into your pack. He takes this as the dismissal that it is and starts to back away. At the tree line he pauses.
“You can do it, right?” he asks.
Your grin grows wider, almost feral, “we shall see.”
He gulps and turns away.
You finish snuffing out the fire while you consider the options. The Eastbrook castle is familiar to you as it’s not the first time you’ve retrieved something from it, but the grizzled man didn’t have a lot for you to go on. The Eastbrook’s could be keeping Westfall in their tower because of his status or in their dungeons because they want him to disappear.
Depending on those locations, your infiltration method will be different. Do you decide to check the Tower or the Dungeon first?
Post in the comments which option you’d like to try. Next Thursday I’ll post the next part to the adventure and we’ll see where it takes us!