Chapter Negative, the Second: The Heist, the Power, and the Departure.
“Bod! Window, now!”
The clear cry cut through the ambient buzz of nobles in merry discussion over their feast. The room quickly fell silent and all eyes turned to the large double doors against the wall, one of which had just been kicked open as a pink-haired girl sprinted through, carrying a large, round case.
I leaned out slightly from my spot standing along the wall with the rest of the waiters as we waited for an opportunity to wait, and briefly locked eyes with the girl. She had a huge grin on her face, and her eyes were wide with excitement and adrenaline.
I would have rolled my eyes, but the seconds were precious and I dove straight into action. I darted forward from the wall to the table, just as the castle chef burst in through the door, shouting and brandishing a ladle as if it were a weapon. He was followed by several guardsmen, also shouting, and brandishing heavy clubs as more worrisome weapons.
I snatched two round plates from the table, dumping the food they held on the dinner guests, and took off sprinting toward the far side of the room. Noel was right behind me, and the pursuers were right behind her. We didn't have the time to stop and actually open the window, so I had to improvise.
A pair of guards moved from the far side of the room to intercept us, and I withdrew a pouch of salt from my pocket and threw it at them. The projectile struck one guard squarely in the face and exploded, dropping him on the floor with eyes and nose full of burning salt. I had to use a little more force with the other one; using the back of his friend as a springboard, I jumped into the air and smacked his solidly on the side of the head with one of the plates I was carrying. His helmet rang out a sharp note, and he wobbled unsteadily, dazed, as Noel and I ran past him.
The window we had as our impromptu escape route was drawing closer, and I threw the plates like discs, sailing through the air to crash through the glass, leaving the window intact, just with a couple plate-shaped holes.
I should have thrown bowls. I thought as I crossed my arms in front of my face and dove through the glass, clearing the rest of it out for Noel to follow through harmlessly.
The window we had just leapt from was, of course, on the third floor, so I had to act quickly or our day would go from bad to worse. Fortunately, there was a long, thick tapestry hanging down the side of the castle wall, which I reached out for and just barely managed to grab hold of.
After just a second, Noel came plummeting past me, hands still full with the case she had taken, and I reached out from the wall and caught her by the ankle. The extra weight felt like it was going to rip m arm clean off, and I heard threads in the tapestry snapping, but our descent slowed and I managed to hold us steady, just high enough that Noel's long hair fell and brushed the ground below us.
Noel looked down-up at me, showing me her wild grin, and I finally took the chance to roll my eyes, then gave a bit of a swing as I released her. She managed to flip over in the air and land on her feet, and I dropped down after her.
We looked back up at the window to see the castle chef, red-faced and already out of breath from pursuing Noel through the castle, starting to wave his ladle and shout at us viciously. After a couple seconds he was dragged back and a guardsman poked his head out.
“Thank you!” Noel shouted, raising her prized case and showing it off. “We'll be sure to put this to good use!”
I lightly punched her arm to get her attention. “Would you stop that? They're gonna come after us, we have to go.” I said. She smiled, then blew a raspberry up at the window before we ran of into the woods.
When we first moved out into our treehouse the woods, I had been worried, admittedly. The rumors and stories about monsters and fiends living out here had not been exaggerated; Noel and I had encountered many goblins, spiders the size of wolves, and the odd imp or two out here beyond the bounds of Feylake.
But, we had been out here for several years already, and we had gotten pretty accustomed to dealing with the monsters that lived out here, and they had, to some extent, learned to keep away from us. That was the point, as Noel explained to me; living among the monsters would have us fighting them constantly, which was much more educational than beating on stuffed dummies. We also learned to keep our calm while living and even sleeping when surrounded by enemies.
“You know, I could have sworn our plan had this thing ending a lot more smoothly than that.” I said, wiping some black blood off my sword with the apron I wore before sheathing it and leaning it against the wall, then removing the apron and tossing it onto Noel's shoulder.
“Well, you know what they say. 'The first casualty in was is the plan.'” Noel replied. She kicked the wall sharply, and the folding table built into it fell out, legs unfolding, and it slammed into the floor. She set the case on the table and wiped her hands on my apron and tossed it out the window.
“Who says that?” I ask as I pull the bowtie off my neck, unbutton my vest, and untuck my shirt. My disguise had been flawless and allowed me to infiltrate the ranks of the Castle Feylake servers with no issue, though after that episode, there was no way it would work again. “And besides that, we aren't at war. This may be considered an act of war, but we aren't actually[i] at war.”
“Well, who cares? Never mind, sit down.” Noel waved off my protests easily and pulled up a chair at the table, and I begrudgingly sat opposite her. “Now behold, the greatest masterpiece Castle Feylake's kitchens have ever produced!” While she made that grandoise exclamation, Noel removed to lid from the case to reveal... something.
The contents had doubtlessly, at one point, been called a cake. That term was no longer fit to describe the crumbled, destroyed mixture of spongy bread and frosting that was currently contained there. It seemed cakes were not built to withstand high-speed escapes and acrobatic escapes.
As I sat there and simply stared at our destroyed prize, Noel excitedly started dishing the 'food' up into bowls. She slid one across the table to me, along with a spoon, and I could feel a part of me dying as I prepared to eat. [i]This isn't how cakes were meant to be enjoyed...
“Mmm, that's good!” Noel exclaimed as she took the first bite. “That crusty old cook finally did something worthwhile with his time!”
I tentatively picked my share over before cautiously taking a bite. Just as Noel said, a mess as it was, it was still cake in a previous life, and good cake at that. “By the way, I'm pretty sure that was some kind of important trade negotiation going on in there. You don't think we messed it up, do you?”
Noel regarded me over the table, then swallowed her cake, leaned forward, and jabbed her spoon at me. “Bod, you're a sharp kid, and you've learned a lot, but what I'm about to tell you may be one of the most important, profound things you've heard in your life. Are you ready?”
I blinked, surprised by the sudden serious atmosphere. Hesitantly, I nodded, carefully listening.
“Cake is a powerful thing. It may rule the hearts of men, but not the minds. Alliances are not forged or broken over cake, but cake is forged and devoured over alliances.”
Again, I blinked, unsure how to react. She was talking utter nonsense, but she had delivered it with such a calm, serious look that I was a little torn on how to take it. After a second, the sheer silliness became unbearable and I broke out into laughter. “Wha-wha, cake is a powerf... What does that even mean?!” I cried through the fits of laughing, wiping tears out of my eyes.
Noel shrugged. “I dunno. Seemed like the thing to say.” She said, then grinned, pushing her bowl back and standing up. “Well, forget the cake for now. We'd better start getting ready.”
Finally getting my laughter under control, I cocked my head to the side. “Ready? For what?” I asked.
Noel raised an eyebrow and looked down at me like the answer was the most obvious thing in the world. “Ready to leave, of course.”
“Leave?” I repeated, “Leave... where? Are we going somewhere?”
Noel sighed. “Bod, are you telling me you forgot?” She asked, and at my blank stare she rolled her eyes. “Leave. Like, leave. Fight the goblins, go on adventures, never look back? The whole reason we're together? Is this ringing any bells?”
My blank stare turned to one of shock. My eyes widened and my mouth almost hung open. “Oh.” I said simply. Oh, that leave.
Honestly, that had almost been buried in the back of mind for a while now. Since that day Noel and I met on the riverbed, she had been leading me on all kinds of crazy, day-to-day adventures; running errands for the castle, helping the local store owner, putting a wandering ghost to rest, working in the mines in the swamp. She had brought me along for plenty of mischief as well, all sorts of childish, juvenile pranks, like hiding all the chickens in town, painting random cobblestones on the road and whipping doomsayers into a frenzy over it, or stealing the Duke's cake.
“Leave... Like, you mean, now?” I asked after a long silence. After so long of waiting, it seemed altogether too sudden to just spring it on me like this.
Noel shrugged. “I was thinking about doing it tomorrow. I could use a good night's sleep before going.”
“B-but...” I was at something of a loss for words. Feylake, the castle, the woods, the fields, the monsters, our little treehouse. We were going to leave it all behind? It was true, this was what I had originally set out to do that day, but after so long of waiting, and of living here... I found it hard to bear the thought of leaving it all behind. “But I... I don't... I want to--”
I froze as Noel put her pale hand on my shoulder. Her crisp violet eyes bore into mine, and although her presence was firm, her expression was soft. I could tell it all just from looking at her; she understood, she knew the struggle I would have in letting go, but she wouldn't allow it to stop me. “You're too good, Bod.” She said quietly, “You're too good to let you sit here in this tiny town forever. It's time to move on.”
I met her gaze for several long seconds. I could feel excitement rising up at the prospect of finally setting out, but it was nearly drowned out by reluctance to leave. Everything we had been through here, my entire life up to now came flooding back. The good times, the bad, the time spent alone, longing to leave, and with Noel, preparing to go. It all came back to me, and knew I had to let it go. Finally, I nodded wordlessly, and Noel smiled, releasing my shoulder and going to her side of the treehouse, starting to sort through her things and decide what to take. I watched her for a second, then went to my side and did the same.
“What about the armor?” I asked after a while of packing in silence. Along with a couple swords and some other gear, we had brought the old suit of armor from the crypt up to the treehouse with us. We had to smuggle it out under cover of darkness, and being just children at the time, we had to take it piece by piece over the course of a week. We had cleaned it, scraped the rust off, and polished it, then stood it up in the corner of the treehouse, where it would wait until one of us grew big enough to wear it.
Noel stood by the armor and regarded it. It was still noticeably taller than her, and as slender as she was, there was no way she would be able to use the heavy armor effectively. “Well, not me.” She said at last, then glanced at me. Even all these years later, I was still a full head shorter than Noel, much to my annoyance. “No...” She finally sighed, “Well, it'll do no good to us if we can't wear it.”
“So, what, we sell it?” I ask. Once cleaned, it turned out to be a fairly nice suit of armor, and it would probably get us a good deal of money we could use on the road.
“N-no! No... Let's just... leave it. You might still grow into it.” Noel said, putting on a strained smile. It was a lie. She knew it was a lie. I knew it was a lie. She knew I knew it was a lie. I could still grow some, but unless I was secretly half giant, there was no way I was growing enough to fill that suit out. Her excuse was weak, but Noel had always been a bit leery about letting on that we essentially robbed a crypt for our equipment, and if we tried to sell the armor it would certainly raise questions.
I shrugged, deciding to leave it at that, and went back to packing. After a few more moments, though, I had another thought. “Hey, Noel.”
“Why did you decide to leave so suddenly? I mean, I know we have the plan drawn out and our supplies ready, but after we waited so long, why just all of a sudden?”
“Well... I figured it would be better to leave soon, before the Duke's men come into the forest looking for us.”
“Huh?” The Duke's men? Sure, we had been a bit of a nuisance to the town sometimes with our mischievous ways and frequent shenanigans, and since we had moved out here we were basically wild people living in monster infested woods that only came to town to cause trouble. But we didn't really do anything serious, and even with our latest ruckus raised at the castle I doubted the Duke's men would bother searching through the dangerous woods to find us over a cake. “Do you really think they'll be coming for us soon?”
“Well...” Noel paused, thinking. “The Duke's probably been getting tired of all the complaints from the people about us. And after today, when we snuck into his castle, stole his cake, lit his bedchambers on fire, interrupted his negotiations...”
“Wait, what?!” I cried, interrupting her. “Lit his-- we didn't light anything on fire! Did--” I stopped, feeling a sinking feeling in my stomach. I ran to the window carved into the wall and leaned out the treehouse. Sure enough, I could see a pillar of smoke and a faint glow red rising up from the castle. “Noel...” I groaned, looking back at her.
She shrugged, grinning, clearly not bothered in the least. “Well, I needed a diversion to get past the guards. As a bonus, it covered our escape and kept the guards too busy to chase us. It was a pretty solid move, I'd say.”
I sighed, slinking back to my backpack on the floor and going back to shoving things into it. Well, there was no going against it now, they were going to cut down the forest and conscript mercenaries to fight the monsters just to find us if they had to, but we wouldn't be welcome here any longer.
The next morning found us at that same bridge I had tried to cross all those years ago when we first met. Compared to my woven grass armor and whittled down stick from back then, the soft leather padding I wore now and the steel sword hanging at my hip definitely felt much sturdier and more secure. Noel wore a white, knee-length skirt over black leggings, and a grey shirt, with her short sword was strapped to her back loosely.
We both stood beside each other at the base of the bridge, staring down the guard that watched over it. It was the same man who had broken my 'sword' and turned me away back then. I was still convinced he was working with the goblins. “Do you wish to pass?” He asked.
“You know full well we want to pass, you traitorous scum! Now stand aside or I'll cut you down like the rest of your ilk!”
It took a deep effort, but I managed to keep myself from shouting what was on my mind. We had agreed to let Noel do the talking, after all. She had said I'd be more likely to give away our new position as fugitives. It seemed like a useless effort to me, since the entire town knew who we were, what we looked like, and all the guards would certainly have been informed of our recent deeds and on the look for us. But, she had just winked and said she would take care of it.
Noel politely bowed her head and smiled at the guard. “We do.” She answered.
“And you are aware of the dangers on the other side of the bridge? From here on, it's goblin territory until you reach the outskirts of Varen.”
Noel nodded again. “We take full responsibility for ourselves past this point.”
The guard watched us for a couple seconds, almost seeming to recognize us, but then stepped aside. “Very well, you may pass.”
We walked past him, and we were halfway across the bridge when I heard a struggle behind me. While I was crossing the bridge, Noel had crept up behind the guard, and I turned just in time to see her tip him over the bridge into the river. We both ran to the side to watch as he surfaced, looked at us, seething, and began swimming back to shore.
Noel grinned and grabbed my hand, tugging me away and leading the way across the bridge. “Run!” She said merrily, pulling me behind her as she crossed the bridge and set foot in the goblin lands.
I followed her, unable to hide my own merriness, far outweighing the doubt from yesterday. At last, our adventure was beginning in earnest.