Rogue and Rover: Part Three
The air was already thick with snow as they approached Castle Whitestones – true to the name, the whole fortress, hanging on the side of Howling Peak, was made of pale stone that was practically invisible against white flurries and grey sky, and its towers were made of rough-hewn blocks that looked just like the peaks on every horizon. Kanrik knew that in one of Terror Mountain's deadly whiteouts this place, even as large as it was, would be impossible to see unless you stubbed your toe on the outer wall.
Hannah thumped on the thick wooden gate. "Hallo Whitestones! Two travelers, seeking shelter!"
No going back now. Kanrik adjusted the knit cap he'd put on his head- he'd taken off his hood in order to look as law-abiding and non-threatening as possible. He tried to look like a Gelert who would not fill his pockets with the silver if given the opportunity as a girlish voice called, "You must be frozen solid! Rahm, let's get the gate open!"
In short order the gates opened, revealing a white Cybunny girl and a fire Korbat boy, both of whom were dressed in helms, mail and heavy cloaks, neither of whom were out of their teens. The Cybunny girl said, "State your purpose at Whitestones."
Hannah spoke so smoothly and honestly that if Kanrik hadn't known she was making it all up he never would have doubted her. "I'm Miranda, and this is Kells. We're a pair of rovers. We left Praskia this morning, though if we'd known the blizzard was coming we'd have taken the day to rest!" She laughed, easily, naturally, and the two sentries laughed along with her.
Kanrik knew his part in this. Hannah was the tale-weaver. She would talk for both of them. He was merely this wanderer Kells, the quieter of the pair. With Hannah stealing the show in the way she did, hopefully no one would look at him twice. They could weather the blizzard here and then travel on, and Kanrik had to admit that the sorts of treasures the Winter King might have left would be well worth this risk.
But he hadn't survived as a thief this long by not listening to his instincts, and they were all screaming that this wasn't going to be simple, so Kanrik strived to look casual while still taking in all of the fortress – most notably any hiding places or subtle exit routes.
The Cybunny girl was saying, "I'm Noni, and this is Rahm. I'll take you to the travelers' rooms – you can change out of your wet things there. Supper will be served within the hour – you picked a fortunate time to arrive, my friends! Do you mind standing sentry alone, Rahm? Kells, Miranda, come this way."
Poor Rahm. He didn't get a word in edgeways, much less an opinion, from what Kanrik could see. The little Korbat flew back up to the wall above the gate. Kanrik noted that the gates, the stairs, and the insides of the crenellations were all edged in red sandstone – that probably helped any defenders to find their way in heavy snow.
They entered the closest door to Castle Whitestones, were nodded at by two more young sentries, and Noni showed them to a set of rooms just inside the entrance. "These are for travelers who come seeking shelter like you did. They come often, though you're the only ones today. If you want to change into dry clothes and clean yourselves for supper, someone will be back up in a half-hour to show you the way to the hall."
Hannah nodded and smiled. "Thank you very much for your generous hospitality. And thank you in advance for allowing us to eat your folk out of house and home."
Noni gave Hannah a slightly patronizing look, and Kanrik snickered. Noni was a tall girl, and stood several inches above Hannah – though most of Neopia was at least somewhat taller than Hannah. Kanrik said, "Don't doubt the appetites of two people who've been slogging through snow all day. I'm going to go change, Hannah, before I melt all over the nice rug on the floor."
He took his pack into a small, plain bedroom – the furnishings were comprised of a bed, a chest, a washbasin, a charcoal brazier, and a small mirror. He built up the brazier and used it to heat the remaining water of his canteen as he changed into dry clothes – a plain white shirt and dark trousers. There was nothing to be done about his boots, but at least he could have dry socks as well – he left the boots by the brazier hoping that they'd dry out a little before he had to put them on again. Then he took up the hot water and washed his face and hands and combed his hair. He picked up the mirror when he was finished.
Being unremarkable was a more thorough disguise than masks or costumes could ever be. Kanrik was comfortable in his typical cape and hood, but it also served a purpose – people associated it with him, and few could remember clearly what his face would look like without its shadows. Without it, he was just a young blue Gelert – and how many of those were there in Neopia? – taller than average, and skinnier as well, with slightly unruly pale hair. He still had the scar curving up his muzzle to under his right eye, but that was the only thing about him that wasn't mild and unassuming.
He could hear Hannah in the next room, singing an old sailing shanty. Kanrik joined in, and at the beginning of the next verse she changed to a harmony, weaving it above and below the simple melody line. When the song was through, he opened the door – she was waiting for him in the main area of the travelers' sanctuary, already wearing a clean blouse and skirt. She smiled. "So this is what 'warm' feels like."
Kanrik added, "Don't forget 'dry' – because I know I did."
She gave him a quizzical look. "I'm still not sure what that is after all these days of travel in the snow. That was one of the nice things about Kreludor – the robots were bad and the food was worse, but at least my socks weren't constantly soaked."
Kanrik sat down on a handy chair. "Tell me more of our story."
Hannah said, "Well, we're in the mountain region following some rumor of treasures left from the kingdom days. I'm not going to mention the Winter King specifically – Lord Alistad and his folk would object to any of his treasure being taken from its resting place, most like. I'll be ready to tell a few tales, sing a few songs – you just sit there and be as quiet as you can without being rude."
Kanrik nodded – she was right. "If you draw the attention, it should keep anyone from wondering whether they've heard a description of my face before, or seen a picture."
Hannah said, "I think it helps that I don't normally travel with you on business. If Paselle or Mortman were with you, you might be more easily recognized."
Kanrik countered, "If Paselle or Mortman were with me, I'd be here to rob 'em blind, not just to take shelter for the night. And a venture like that would get all of us trussed up in Whitestones' cells, so we wouldn't be here at all." Well, Paselle had been itching for a chance to try more of the fortresses on the western side of Terror Mountain's territory, but the Cybunny prowler was hankering for a fight as much as she was for the treasure, and too few thieves shared her enthusiasm to make the venture viable.
Kanrik half-dozed in his chair as Hannah pulled out her journal from her pack and started writing. The next thing he knew, there was a knock at the door. "Supper in the hall!"
It was another girl, a royal Zafara. But this one didn't have the look of a young warrior that Noni had – she was wearing a purple-and-gold dress and watched the world through wide, innocent eyes. She curtseyed. "I'm Dea, sir. Niece to Lord Alistad."
Kanrik didn't often use proper decorum – in his typical circles, you showed respect by not stabbing someone – but he knew how it was supposed to go, and bowed in return. "I'm Kells, and this is Miranda." Hannah was a gifted storyteller, who could create a whole world to go with those fake names. Kanrik was merely a liar. But he also had the ability to let aliases roll off his tongue.
After they'd fetched their still-damp boots, they followed Dea through several corridors and up a few flights of stairs – Whitestones was old, and it had become a twisting warren, courtesy of several centuries' worth of constructing new towers and wings whenever the need arose. Kanrik had robbed several manors and castles in Meridell and Brightvale that had looked very similar. He wished he could tell Hannah, but it would have to wait. A warren was good news. That meant it was full of corners and turnings and nooks and crannies that would provide hiding spaces if it became necessary. And Kanrik would have bet his share of his thieves' hauls for the next three months that at least a few of the aged tapestries of half-forgotten heroes that lined the walls concealed secret doors or alcoves.
Finally, they reached the main hall. It was a vast, high-ceilinged space, with tables arranged around a massive fireplace in the center. At one of the tables closest to the fire, a tall, heavily-muscled Christmas Kougra stood up, wearing dark but well-made clothes. "I am Lord Alistad of Whitestones. Welcome to my hall."
The royal Kyrii next to him stood as well. "I am Lady Crinn, the mistress of this house, and I extend to you an offer of shelter."
Kanrik bowed – lower than he had to Dea. "I am Kells, and this is Miranda. We accept your offer gratefully, and thank you."
Then Alistad smiled. "Well, sit then, friends, and eat! There is enough for all!"
All was right – several scores of people were in the hall, and a few more were still entering. Some were dressed as lords and others as servants or craftsmen, but all had seats. Dea led them to a seat close enough to the door, but also closer to the master and mistress of the house than Kanrik would have preferred. He kept close to Hannah – if they had to make a hasty getaway, they couldn't afford to be separated. Dea asked, "Have you two traveled in this region before?"
Hannah said airily, "Oh, some. But we've been hither and yon, north and south, east and west – we follow the Rover's stars wherever they may lead."
Dea was clearly fascinated. Kanrik had seen that same enthusiasm on green thieves, those who hadn't realized yet that most of their elders' tales of glory were no more honest than the tellers themselves. "Have you ever been to Mystery Island? I've always wanted to see it."
They'd both been there, and Hannah was off, describing the great Pango Pango and the massive Mumbo Pango, and the mysterious ruins of Geraptiku. Kanrik dug into the dark crusty bread with relish as he listened to the little Usul tell the tale so vividly that he could practically smell the fruits and flowers once again. Before long, all the surrounding tables – including that of the Lord and Lady – were quiet, and Hannah had climbed on her chair, mug of cider still in hand, so that she could make herself be heard.
But even as Kanrik tried to let himself be distracted by the hearty food and the engaging story – if she hadn't been a treasure hunter, she could have made a living as an actress – there was a part of him that kept reminding him that, if it came out that he was Kanrik instead of Kells, every person in this room would turn on him in an instant. And it seemed that most of the knights had brought their weapons to table with them.
That part reminded him that, though he was warm and being fed well, he was still in almost as much danger inside Castle Whitestones as he would have been outside at the mercy of the ice and the snow.
To be continued...