It was cold on the Witch Moors. Wind seemed to sweep in from every direction, cutting through the canvas tents and chilling Tara to the core. She pulled the wool cloak tighter around her shoulders and jammed her chin into her chest to keep her teeth from rattling out of her jaw. She tried to focus on Mormonth and Ilia, their heads bowed together as they plotted out the best way to steal into the Grey Castle break Lord Turnkay’s defence from behind.
Curse the Lords and their stupid taxes Tara thought. Could her father have not waited until summer and then sent his armies to demand dues owed by the Northern territories? Why did he have to send her, and why now of all times?
“Milady?” Ilia was looking at her now, forehead creasing with concern. “Milday, are you quite well?”
Tara shook her head and wished again that they could have built a fire. They had three hundred men with them, all of which lay shivering among the ferns waiting for morning to arrive so that they might attack the Grey Castle and allow the blood lust to drive out what was left of the moor’s chill.
“I’m fine,” Tara said, stepping closer to the wooden table that occupied most of the tent. “Do we know how we will breach Turnkay’s defences?”
Mormonth coughed and tapped a spot on the centre of the map closest to her on the table.
“The Western Gate is their weakest point,” he told her. “We breach that and there will be no way that they can keep up out.”
“I see,” replied Tara. “That seems rather convenient.”
“Exactly,” spat Ilia, tossing her hair as she spoke. “It’s all very convenient. Half of Turnkay’s house guards are in Port Layrowen escorting the Lady Turnkay to her mother’s home in Abawist and the ones that are left have barely a year’s training between them. If we break through that gate it will be a massacre on their side.”
Tara could almost hear the pieces clicking together in her mind.
“I believe,” she said slowly, “that may be exactly what my father wants.” She stepped away from the maps and turned her back on the other two people in the tent. They were both older than her. Ilia at twenty-six by five years, and Mormonth by another forty. Both had grown up in her father’s service and when Tara had turned sixteen she had been handed over to the pair for training.
“You will learn to use a sword,” her father instructed, looking down on her from his ebony throne. Tara had fidgeted at that, twisted her hands into knots behind her back as she thought about sparring Thomas, the son of one of the palace guards. “I want you to be able to kill a man with a single blow,” he’s told her, back as poker straight as always. Her father never seemed to show any emotion. Sometimes she had wondered if perhaps his skin had petrified in that throne, preventing his from moving even the smallest of muscles. The thought of him being unable to rise had given her a twisted sort of comfort, but even if her father did not act then there were others more than willing to act on his behalf. So she’d learnt how to use a sword, and daggers and crossbows and any other weapon that Mormonth could find to place in her hands. Even her own body became a weapon.
Ilia was chewing the skin from her bottom lip when Tara turned back to face them. Her silver eyes were fixed on the map but Tara didn’t think that they were really seeing what was there. Ilia had a tendency to drift away into her own thoughts, snapping back when someone came close enough to touch her.
“Elfin scum,” hissed a man who Tara didn’t know. He was a trader from the lower city, petitioning the council for something or other which is why he was inside the Palace. Ilia had wrapped her arms around his neck and snapped it within moments, allowing the body to drop to the corridor floor with a dull thud.
“I don’t like this,” said Ilia, releasing her lip and returning to the frozen tent with Tara and Mormonth. “Something just seems off about this.”
“There’s nothing off about this,” Mormonth snorted. He was probably the warmest of the three with layers of fat and muscle bulging beneath his furs to keep the heat in his bones. “Forbeath’s just being the usual ruthless bastard that he always is.”
Ilia looked unconvinced.
“This seems vindictive, even for him. Turnkay could not garrison the castle properly even if he wanted to. This feels akin to butchering the helpless.”
Mormonth scowled and scratched at his chin. He’s shaved the day they’d set out from the capital three weeks ago but not since. Unfortunately this meant that his beard had reached the point where the hairs were beginning to curl back on themselves, creating a forest of white hair that seemed to tickle him endlessly.
“If Forbeath want Turnkay dead then Turnkay’s a dead man already. I’ve got no problem putting my seal on it if you’re turning squeamish on my Ilia.”
“I’m hardly squeamish you old goat,” Ilia scowled. “I simply don’t like the idea of risking men on needless slaughter!”
Tara released her cloak and laid her hands against the table, spreading her fingers so that she could see the map between them.
“Clearly my father wishes to send a message,” she said. “Since Lady Turnkay will be spared from this slaughter I’m assuming the message is for her.”
“What’s this got to do with that hag,” asked Mormonth. “Last time I saw her she was nothing more than some shrivelled up prune. It’s no wonder Tunrkay doesn’t care if she disappears to see her mother for months at a time.”
Tara resisted the urge to roll her eyes. Mormonth could be a brilliant tactician and in his prime there were few who could stand against him in combat. Politics though, were often lost on him.
“She controls the money,” said Ilia. Explain so that Tara did not have to. “Turnkay’s father almost bankrupted the family and it was only Turnkay’s marriage contract that prevented them losing everything. There was a catch though. The Tunkay’s have no control when it comes to the money that the marriage brought in. Lady Turnkay must validate every monetary decision and on her death that responsibility will pass onto her daughter who is married to Lord Dawson’s eldest son.”
“Lord Dawson with the army three times the size of my father’s,” added Tara. “We kill Lady Turnkay and we hand a fortune over to an angry, bereft daughter with a powerful husband, we kill Lord Turnkay and my father can command her Ladyship to marry whomever he chooses. Most likely someone that he believes can control her.”
Mormonth let out a snort.
“Bloody complicated all of it,” he snapped. “It used to be simple. Kill those who opposed you, terrorise the rest into submission. When did everything become so political?”
“It’s always been political Mormonth,” said Ilia. “You were just too stupid to notice.”
Tara heard him growl in response but decided to stay out of that particular spat.
“When do we attack,” she asked. “First light?”
“Before,” Ilia said. “I’ll wake the men an hour before dawn, I’ll only need two of them to plant explosives around the Western Gate but the rest need to be ready for battle as soon as the rubble settles.
“It won’t be a stealthy entrance,” Tara warned. “The Western Gate is narrow, four men across at most. Turnkay’s guards, as few as they may be, could still pen us in.”
“That is the problem which has haunted us all night little one,” chuckled Mormonth. “We have the numbers and the tools to break through any attempt they may make to pen us, but it will cost lives.”
“Then we need another plan,” Tara concluded. “We need to ensure that Turnkay’s forces are defeated before we break through the gate.”
“And what exactly would you suggest,” Ilia asked. “Can you see another way into the castle?”
“Not for an army no,” said Tara. “But perhaps for one person on their own.”
“You want to send a scout?” Mormonth’s face split into a grin. “How quaint.”
Tara shook her head.
“A scout would be useless,” she said. “We need sometime more pro-active in approach.”
“You mean you want to send an assassin,” said Ilia, catching on to what Tara was suggesting.
“One person goes in, kills Turnkay and displays his head to all within his castle walls.”
“Sounds like suicide,” Mormonth grumbled.
“No, not necessarily,” said Tara. She watched as Mormonth’s eyes bulged forward out of their sockets.
“Under no bloody circumstances are you going in there my girl! Do you hear me! No! It would be my head on display if word got back to your father.”
Tara’s lips curled upwards slowly as she looked to Ilia who was standing silently, arms folded across her chest.
“Ilia?” she asked.
“I don’t doubt your capabilities,” said Ilia. “But if you fail then we all suffer. Your father is not a forgiving creature.”
“Then let’s make sure there is nothing to forgive,” Tara grinned.