Frederick had not often had the privilege of staying in an actual castle. At least, not one local to his own time and place. When he had trained with Avan Weatherstrong in the time of heroes, of course, the opportunity to stay under a roof with nobility had cropped up more often.
Frederick liked castles, they had high walls, portcullises, gatehouses, guard stations and, on occasion, moats. Until Frederick had settled on the course of his life he had always slept well. In the early days of being a knight errant the number of nights actually spent in beds had dropped dramatically. During his training the unpleasant nature of the world became more apparent. Sleeping in a large stone structure with forbidding entry ways and a round the clock guard started to show itself as a sensible precaution.
Roadside inns that called themselves 'The Castle' were, at the least, optimistically named. They were just as secure as any other dwelling place. Experience had taught Frederick that this meant nothing. Guards were a rare thing indeed and miniature portcullis features had never really caught on, being a pain to install.
'Sleep with one eye open' was not a piece of advice for a knight-errant, more a description of how they slept all the time. Even so, a good rest was a vital weapon in a knight's arsenal. There were not many aged insomniac knights, in fact, Frederick had never met one.
Frederick often found that looking out of the window and enjoying some night air before retiring helped him to drop off. This evening, staying in 'The Castle', a coaching inn on the Sommerslip Road, it allowed him to catch sight of a suspicious, shadowy figure mooching about the stables.
There was a time, not so long ago really, when a shadowy figure, moving in a series of darting shuffles from point to point, shortly after sunset, might have caused Frederick to raise an eyebrow, shake his head and continue on with whatever he was doing. These were the days before the hero's paranoia had taken hold.
Now all Frederick could see was a threat, skulking nearby, waiting to strike. Maybe the threat wasn't directly aimed in his direction, this was irrelevant. Frederick was a knight-errant. Whoever was endangered by the presence of this black-clad rogue was someone Frederick was honour bound to protect.
Frederick was not yet so jaded by his role that he regarded this fact as tedious. It was still inconvenient, he mused, casting one final glance towards the warm and inviting blankets neatly arranged upon his bed.
One of the things that really annoyed Frederick about common rogues was their inability to master even basic roguing. If you hired a guild-approved rogue for light espionage and workaday dirty deeds then most of those seeking to foil them would be entirely unaware of their presence until it was too late. If people just had the common indecency to have these things done properly then assassination attempts would be far less regularly foiled.
The fact Frederick had seen this chap by glancing out of his bedroom window told him that his quarry was in no way affiliated to any of the major thieving federations, he was, essentially, a bodger in the world of stealth.
This made him a nuisance, the longer the incompetent rogue were free the more he contributed to the common misconception that a proper thief was not such a big deal. Frederick wasn't just stopping this fellow for the good of his target and the detriment of his employer but, in a very real sense, Frederick was helping to erase the notion that stealth was easily achievable by the common man on the street.
As Frederick crossed the stable yard in the shadows, knowing he was only visible, and even then as an indistinct black lump, for less time than it would take for fifty grains of sand to settle in the lower chamber of an hourglass, he considered that he was a knight and would never pass the basic exams for affiliation to any self-respecting thieves' guild. Yet, here he was, silently lifting the substantial mass of a spade from against a wall, hefting it in his hand to assess weight and balance and swinging it down upon this foolish man's head. Frederick had not made a single sound, his breathing was calm and controlled, his tread careful, his actions fluid and discreet.
Frederick knew 'knight-stealth' a short term, quick and dirty profile of tricks used by men who preferred to fight face-to-face wherever possible. Yet this idiot had completely failed to detect him. If this man was any sort of rogue Frederick should have a knife between his ribs right now. As the spade made contact with the amateur's head Frederick glanced down to check he wasn't being triple bluffed.
Thankfully there was no stealthily concealed knife jabbing at the side of Frederick's stomach, the poor-man's thief was unconscious on the floor.
"I'm almost disappointed," Frederick muttered, bending down and pulling two lengths of cord from the belt loops at the top of his breeches. Having some lengths of cord handy to tie people up with was a trick Frederick had learned from Avan Weatherstrong. Of course, Prince Weatherstrong had a bewildering array of magicks at his command to restrain those who required it, but Avan, like Frederick, was a guy who liked to be prepared.
As Frederick was tying the man up he noticed a large amethyst signet ring on the pinkie of the man's right hand. There was a crosshatch of silver holding the amethyst down, five lines diagonal across the circular surface of the stone.
Recognising evidence when he saw it Frederick removed the ring to show to Phoebe and Harvey. Then he hoisted the man onto his shoulder and headed for the inn entrance. Before he made the mistake of blundering through the door carrying an unconscious rogue, an action that could lead to discovery and questions, Frederick stopped.
He returned with his burden to the stables where Gerda and Ferris waited impassively by Tabarnas's coach.
"Lads," Frederick said to the golems. "I found this fella sneaking about the stables and I would like to discreetly question him in my room. Any chance you could help me get him upstairs quietly?"
The golems were very helpful. Frederick went back to his room and Gerda stood on Ferris's shoulders. Between them all they lifted the thief in through Frederick's window.
A few moments later Harvey and Phoebe had been summoned. Harvey was the first to arrive and he cast an appraising eye over the bound thief as Frederick explained what had happened in more depth.
"So, you're basically saying that you saw someone you didn't like the look of and took it into your head to swipe him over the head with a shovel?" Harvey asked as Frederick's account came to a close.
"There was a bit more to it than that," Frederick complained. "Trust me, he was up to no good."
"There's a town in the Skyleg mountains where they award the largest swine of the year's herd to the person with the best knee-jerk reflex," Harvey said. "I think you should seek that place out, you'd be eating fresh bacon the next day for certain."
"I think it's better to apologize for over-caution than die for complacence," Frederick said.
Harvey's sly, narrow gaze fixed on Frederick's earnest face for a few more moments. The faint smirk twitching the corner of the djinn's lips communicated a level of smugness it would have been hard to describe in actual words.
"I'm only teasing," Harvey admitted eventually. "I think it's great that you're taking the law into your own hands, very chaotic. I'm a big fan of chaos. The right to a fair trial is highly overrated."
"I'm not trying to deny anyone..." Frederick snapped.
"Boys!" Phoebe said from the doorway. "I am about sick and tired of your arguing. Harvey, you know I have the power to apply a severe attitude adjustment to you so don't bait Frederick so much. Frederick... well... try to be a bit less easily baited. You have to understand that every word that falls from Harvey's lips is utter nonsense. The sooner you do the better for all of us."
"Every word?" Harvey objected. "Isn't that just a tad harsh?"
Phoebe only had to look in Harvey's general direction to get the mischievous sprite to lapse into silence.
"He's still not awake, then?" Phoebe said, inspecting the still unconscious rogue. "How hard did you hit him exactly."
"I tend to hit hard enough to give me a decent head start," Frederick shrugged. "Anything softer and you'd end up on the wrong end of a cross country pursuit, or a term in a castle dungeon with the looming prospect of probable execution."
"I never realised that whacking someone with a shovel was such a precise science," Phoebe remarked drily, uncorking the small bottle that she'd fetched from her room. "Get ready," she said, holding the bottle under the rogue's nose and moving it back and forth.
The rogue's head rolled, twitched and then jerked upwards as the man came back to consciousness. The muscles in his shoulders bunched as he attempted to reach up to massage the sore spot on the back of his head. As he realised he was bound to a chair his eyes widened as he focused on the three people intent on his every move, standing too closely for his comfort as the inn's lodging rooms were not intended for gatherings of this size.
"One false move," Harvey said to the man, truculence dripping from every syllable, "and we'll give you a smile from ear to ear via your throat, get me?"
The man panicked and started straining at his bonds, muffled yells tried to find their way through the gag improvised from Phoebe's collection of coloured handkerchiefs.
"You are treading the line," Phoebe warned the djinn. "Apologies sir, whilst you are, temporarily our captive we do not intend to kill you, my associate believes that he is funny."
"We just want to know what you were doing sneaking around the stables in the middle of the night," Frederick said. "And, more importantly, on who's behalf. Don't bother telling us it's none of our business and there's no point acting innocent. I'm a knight, she's a witch and he's a djinn. We can practically smell mischief."
The rogue looked from Frederick to Phoebe, not liking the expression on her face he tried looking at Harvey's face, although everyone could have told him that would be a waste of time and energy.
"Thief," he said eventually, "Horse thief... I am... just looking for horses... to thieve."
"So," Harvey said, moving in closer to the man. "You are so scared of your employer you'd rather pretend to be a horse thief than reveal your true allegiance. That means you're working for a noble. Probably one with a fair degree of power and influence, someone whose name is known in the region."
The rogue's eyes widened and his mouth opened, even at amateur level this fellow hadn't been rogueing for long.
At that point the door to Frederick's room opened and Tabarnas shuffled in.
"I heard voices..." Tabarnas said before catching sight of the prisoner. He stumbled to a stop with a perturbed 'ah, I see'.
"Sorry," Phoebe said. "We didn't want to disturb anyone."
"Who is this?" Tabarnas asked.
"That's what we're trying to find out," Frederick said. "Although now I come to think of it we may be taking the wrong angle. Tabarnas, does this tell you anything?"
Frederick reached into his pocket and retrieved the signet ring he had taken from the unconscious rogue's finger. Tabarnas adjusted his eyeglasses and squinted at the ring.
"Ring of fealty," Tabarnas said. "Silver would indicate a moon tribe, the circle is usually a light stone, the purple, particularly occluded like that is the new moon. Unfortunately these items are not really traded. If I were to buy one I would have to melt it down for parts, they're not magical but they do have very particular meanings in the One Hundred Kingdoms. Any kind of civil servant should be able to tell us specifically who this belongs to in the morning."
"So," Phoebe said, looking over at the prisoner. "Either you are a horse thief in the employ of a local noble, or, as we already worked out, you are lying to us. You also must be aware that it is only a matter of hours before we know who you are working for anyway."
"You have two choices," Frederick chipped in. "Either you come clean and, as long as we like what you say, we may even let you go. Or I can go get the constable now and you can go to jail for... what was it, horse theft?"
The rogue didn't look as if he really knew what to do. His gaze travelled around all of the room's occupants, the light his eyes distant as if he were doing some immense calculation. Before any concrete result manifested an explosion outside sent a shudder through the inn's frame and rattled the window panes.
"Too late," Harvey chimed in.
It definitely looked that way, and the wise man knows that when things look that way, often they are that way, and, indeed, in this case they were. But the why's and the how's of what followed are a tale for another day.