Part 9 of my Oldhammer Fiction novella – if you’ve not read any yet, head back to Part 1 for a synopsis and the opening part.
At last they were all upstairs on the trial of the Prince. Lola sniffed. Yes his scent was here definitely. She could smell it on the carpeted stairs and on the landing. Prince Hardlee had been here and it smelled like he was still here. But where?
They were on a landing with the stair well behind them, defended by Oscar in hunting hound form. To the left was a single door, and then a corridor stretching from this end of the inn to the other, with several door coming off it. But right in front of them looked like the best place to start. A large double door in fine wood. And there was even a painted sign above the door that read “The Prince’s Suite”.
Where else should they start?
Lola barked orders to the others. Poppy and Bella would check The Prince’s Suite first, while Lola and Alfie hung back to provide support. If Hardlee wasn’t there they would check the other rooms in the same pairs. Each pair would comprise one in human form and the other in dog form, that way they could maximise their senses of smell and other dog attributes, with the ability to open doors and handle deadly human weapons. Lola would stay in her Doberman form, while Alfie remained as a human. Poppy would transform back into a ??, while Bella kept the human form she had already assumed.
Bella tried the door handle of the Suite. It opened without resistance and Poppy scampered in to see what was inside. Bella followed—knife in hand, peering around the doorway, her buttocks wobbled slightly as she leaned forward. She turned and shook her head. Nothing there. Poppy scampered out sniffing the ground and looked up at Lola and then glanced down the corridor. The scent of the prince was in that direction.
Lola stepped lightly across the landing murmuring quietly to the others in a low growl. She and Alfie would start at the end of the corridor and work down. Poppy and Bella would come from this end and meet in the middle. There was a door right at the end of the corridor, which Lola and Alfie would check first. But first she padded into The Prince’s Suite. The bed was unmade, and there were items strewn about—men’s clothes of a fine quality. Some books and bottles of wine and cups were littered haphazardly on the table. The Prince was an aspiring poet and a prodigious wine drinker. This looked like his room. Lola dug her nose into the bedsheets and the discarded clothes that littered the floor. She had his scent.
Lola left the room and met Alfie on the landing. They walked quietly down the corridor and approached the door at the end. Poppy and Bella went to the closest door on the corridor—a normal enough looking door on the left side and tried it. It was locked. Poppy began wedging her knife down the side of the door to see if she could locate. She’d try to open it quietly at first, but if need be they could break the door down.
They heard Oscar barking at the top of the stairs. And shouts from drunken dwarves. Oscar would have to keep them at bay while they searched. He was a vicious hunting dog in animal form, and was well equipped to do that.
But what none of them expected was for Oscar to be attacked. They had not checked the other door that opened onto the landing. A big mistake, for in there Shilby and three guardsman had lain hidden readying their swords for action. Now Shilby, having heard the dogs and people go past, opened the door quietly and saw Oscar in front of him facing away growling at the top of the stairs that lead down to the bar. Shilby wore iron-toed boots and used the right one to kick Oscar full in the flank, knocking the hound into the air for a moment and deposited him against the wall with a thud. There was a cheer or a jeer form the dwarves at the foot of the stairs. One of them started to climb the stairs, but stopped suddenly as Oscar the dog started to become Oscar the man. His body expanded suddenly, limbs and spine bending in strange ways. Oscar grunted and growled in pain as the transformation happened. Oscar slashed at him with his sword. The blade of it hacking a gash out of the shapeshifter’s neck. Oscar died with a dog-like whimper, half-way between man and dog. A short furred tale dropped from his back between his legs. The body of Oscar hunched over, blood gushing from the wound in the skin that was recognisably human but covered in a patchy fur. His nose and jaw extended oddly and large canine teeth poked out as blood and drool spat from his mouth.
Shilby turned to his three soldiers. “Get them—down the corridor. Protect the prince!
The three men didn’t pause and dashed around the corner. Poppy and Bella were trying to open a locked door—shaking the handle and hadn’t heard the death of Oscar. There was still a lot of noise coming from the brawl downstairs.
The three soldiers were surprised to see a naked woman holding a dagger trying to open the door of the prince’s room—not really his room, but the one where they had put him for his own safe keeping. Well surprised might be a bit too strong for it, as often there would be nothing unusual about seeing a naked or near-naked young woman coming and going from the prince’s chamber—if you were a household guard you got used to that kind of thing. But today in the middle of what Shilby had told them was an assassination attempt, with a fight going on downstairs it didn’t quite seem to be the time or place. Plus one of their mates was probably stuck somewhere in it—they assumed he was downstairs somewhere in the bar seeing as he hadn’t returned. And this young lady was carrying a dagger and had a busy looking dog—a terrier—at her feet. That wasn’t usual for the kind of young women that normally visited the prince.
Shilby had checked that Oscar was really dead and then turned to warn the dwarves off—“Nothing for you to see up here, get stuck into your own business or a beer—they’re on me.” He then went to check on how his men were getting on with the other assassins and turned the corner of the corridor to find his men ogling the naked behind of a young woman, who had a dog sniffing at the bottom of the door. At the end of the corridor he could see that the door to the halflings’ private rooms was open and there was a what sounded like a turning over in progress.
He shoved two of the men in the back. “Come on then get stuck in.” And there was no choice then because the naked woman and the dog heard them. The dog snarled and dived at one of the men’s ankles, trying to bite into it. The man was forced to strike at the dog with his sword. But at that moment the dog leapt away and the man’s sword bit into his own leather boot. He yelped in pain. The sword hadn’t cut through the leather, but he’d given himself a mighty good whack nevertheless.
The guard was distracted by his own pain. “Get your guard up,” Shilby roared. He swung his own sword between the two guards to deflect the blow, but the naked woman’s long knife thrust faster and quicker than he could manage. The guard grunted as the knife flashed back, red with blood, and he slumped to the floor. Shilby hacked again, pushing the falling body of the guard aside. The woman raised her knife in defence from the high blow. But she was not strong enough to stop Shilby’s sword knocking her to the ground. She slipped on the wooden floorboards of the corridor, now slick with the guard’s blood. Shilby drew back his blade quickly and hacked at the woman’s bare neck. She dodged quickly and would have avoided the worst of the blow against a slower man than Shilby. But Shilby could see what she going to do and directed his blow to where he thought she would move. Instead of her neck, the sword smashed with a crack like plates being smashed into her skull. The sword came back with a chunk of bone and hair, matted in blood. The naked woman was dead.
Meanwhile the other two guards who still lived had corned the ferocious dog, using their swords to prevent it from dodging past them they had scored hits on it as well and now the mangled body of the animal lay slumped and twisted by the wall of the corridor.
“Look alive lads, don’t get cocky,” hissed Shilby. “There’s more of them through that door at the end I reckon.
Shilby’s prediction was proved right. A bulky well muscled man with cropped hair and the face of a pit-fighter burst through the door, naked apart from the long serrated knife he held in front of him.
“Don’t these tossers ever where clothes,” muttered Shilby.
“You bastards,” he shouted as he saw the dead bodies on the ground.
A Doberman emerged growling at his heals and they both ran headlong down the corridor.
There was a moan from the door to the prince’s room, halfway between them and the onrushing man and dog. It was the prince’s voice calling for help.
Shilby pushed the guards in the back. “Hold the corridor, I’ll get the prince.”
But instead of running towards their enemies down the corridor, he turned and ran back to the guard’s room. He rushed in and raised his sword hacking at the thin wood and plaster wall that divided the guard room from the bedroom they had moved the prince to.
Shilby was through the wall in a matter of seconds, knocking a table over as he stepped through the mess of the destroyed wall. The prince was in the corner of the room, a sheet pulled over him, pretending he wasn’t there.
Shilby thought a moment about whether to leave him. Hardlee wasn’t much of a prince in truth. He had all the good looks and the posh bearing in public of a prince, but in reality as Shilby was finding out he was no more than a spoilt and a coward to boot. Hardly deserving of loyalty. Hmm, hardly. How appropriate.
But his training and his code took over. The prince was in his charge. He had served the royal family all his grown life. He would do his duty.
He ran to the corner of the room and whipped the sheet from Hardlee. The prince smiled a petrified smile at him when he realized he wasn’t going to be killed. He was curled in a little ball. Shilby grabbed him by the crook of an elbow and hauled him upright, unbending him like a wood louse. “Come with me now. We’ve got to get outta here.”
He pulled the prince through the hole in the wall and scrambled into the guard’s room. But as they emerged onto the landing, Shilby could tell something was wrong.
It was too quiet. He turned and saw the naked man, practically his whole body covered in blood. His serrated knife dripped. He thought he could see a chunk of flesh hanging from it. He glared at Shilby and Hardlee, hatred in his eyes. From behind him there was a low growling and the Doberman stepped forward—it’s jaws bright with blood.
Hardlee tugged at the sword at his side and with a clatter he drew his sword. It flashed with light even in the dimness of the landing. It was a special sword, just a shame that it was Hardlee using it.
“Break that window,” shouted Shilby, pushing his prince towards the window on the landing furthest away from the man and dog.
“Come on then!” he screamed at them, and slashing wildly with his sword he charged.
No matter how psychotic his enemies were, they didn’t want to come up against a strong man wielding a long sword with fury and skill and they retreated to the narrowness of the corridor, the man waving his dagger and the dog growling. That was all he needed. To give them pause so they could get away.
He turned. The prince had smashed the window.
With his lungs and legs bursting he sprinted at the window, knocking the prince off his feet and through the window. Even so the dog was fast. He felt sharp teeth sink into the leather of his boot and strong jaws clamp down—he was stuck on the window sill. The prince was dangling on the other side, holding on by one hand.
“Jump, it’s only one floor,” Shilby shouted.
He jammed his sword into the dogs maw and levered the mouth open. It squealed with pain and let go and he tumbled out of the window, rolling into a ball to break his fall. He bounced off the roof of the porch of the inn and down onto the muddy courtyard. Safe for a few moments at least.