The Fortress of Stonegard was a lonely place, standing bleak and oppressive on the side of the hill, originally created at the pass between Highland and Skathain to prevent barbarians, bandits and mercenaries from the lowland plains from thieving in Skathain's thriving market towns. The entire place spoke of defence: harsh, imposing towers stood like admonitory sentinels against the sky; buttresses lined with battlements stretched into the foothills, firmly anchored in nine feet of foundations. The mountains could be seen like giant, jagged teeth behind it, but the fortress almost smothered them, rising above them to dominate the landscape.
"So this is where the Order of Belendar is based, then?" said Noira distastefully.
"Looks cosy," said Will sardonically.
"No-one uses it anymore, it was abandoned after the Battle of Stoneridge Pass," said Bundle. "Nowhere's better, to be honest."
"Yeah, can't be hard to infiltrate a fortress defended by one person," said Will, "especially if they're like the guards at Hathenford Cathedral."
"You'd be surprised how few people come up here. It's become a sort of no-man's land. The pass is still full of bones and the River Ridge has been known since as the River that Ran Red. People believe this place is cursed. Highlanders are far too superstitious to try and get through this way anymore."
It was obvious the fortress hadn't been used in a while. As they drew closer and more of the building materialised through the mist, signs of abandonment and dereliction revealed themselves. The giant iron links of the drawbridge chain were so rusted that they were crumbling where they lay, and large chips and cracks had started spreading over the walls.
"Wow, the Skathainians sure were a sociable lot," said Will. "What could be more welcoming than a massive cursed fortress?"
"Skathain has been very covetous in recent years, ever since it changed its laws about the use of Gifts. Lace and silk can now be made at twice the speed and sold at twice the standard and price. Prospectors have fashioned spells to extract the purest of gold from the soil, and the farmland is very fertile. Everyone wants to be Skathain's -"
An arrow had come whistling through the air, almost unheard in the light rain. Its tip was lit with flaming pitch, and missed Will's face by an inch.
"What the - friendly fire, mate!" Will yelled indignantly, as more flaming arrows came flicking their way. Will pulled Noira behind Ax, who served as an ample shield.
"We're within hailing distance," said Bundle. "I'll call him off. HI! GORMUND! IT'S BUNDLE! AT EASE!"
The sporadic arrow volleys ceased, but the solitary archer visible on the rooftops did not lower his bow. He remained on the battlements for a long time.
"Li moef nahiem dus ungard un venedo Belendara," called Bundle. It was evidently some kind of passphrase, for the archer finally relaxed, and disappeared from the balcony.
"Er - in human speech?"
"May we enter this guardhouse with Belendar's blessing," Bundle recited. "It's Old Skathainian. It's how the Order of Belendar recognise each other."
They had barely stepped onto the drawbridge when the archer came running out from the murder alley beyond. He was garbed in rough brown robes, with long, shaggy brown hair -
"No, that's not -"
But the man had already lowered his hood. With a snap of his fingers he lit another arrow and, before they could respond with their own weapons, diving aside to give himself time to reload.
In a steely flash Will had drawn the Sword, Noira her Knives. Bundle without hesitation took out the Whip and his own blade.
"Oh, move out the way, lads," said Ax offhandedly, "it'll be one of those scrawny mud-diggers from Highland who -"
Wolfram lowered his hood.
"Oh," said Ax mutely.
"Lovely jubbly," said Wolfram coolly. "Five of Belendar's Seven here on this drawbridge. Want to come in and have some tea?"