Moss looked surprised as the disembodied voice shrieked throughout the small antechamber. Nilbuds’ hood flicked down, her suddenly appearing body leaping across the room and hugging the old Halfling tightly.
She winced, despite seeing her old relation, overcome with pain and fatigue from the use of the cloak, but her uncle’s embrace bolstered her spirit. Nilbud felt at home for the first time in many years, despite her discomfort at traveling barefoot for days and the near drowning that preceded it.
Before pleasantries began, Moss quickly said, “They must not see you. Come with me," he turned hurriedly, then, with a second thought and a deadly serious look, “Be as quiet as a field mouse on his first trip into the widow’s kitchen!”
Moss led Nilbud down a series of dark corridors, behind large tapestries, and ducking behind pieces of furniture into what she assumed to be the servant’s quarters. They were surprisingly dark, dusty and quiet for such a large household. Moss took out a lockpick and made quick work of a door that appeared to be stuck, but in reality has been rigged with a cleverly unobtrusive lock. The room was small and dirty, the only things in this room were a small bed, a washbasin and a rumpled pile of sundries in the corner. Moss quietly instructed Nilbud to wash up and get some rest, shaking his head before she protested, “You stink more than a pole cat stuffed with your great aunt Lily’s feet! And once you’re finished, dearest…do not leave until I come back for you.” He gave her a massive hug and kiss, despite her “odor,”I’m as happy to see you as a newborn is to see his mama’s breast. Rest. Rest, rest, rest. I’ll be back as soon as I can”.
With that Moss left, Nilbud heard a soft scraping and a click as the lock reengaged. After a quick wash, Nilbud laid down and fell into a deep sleep for the first time in days too exhausted and feeling secure enough, despite the rampant fear she had seen behind her uncle’s eyes.
After some time, Nilbud awoke in the dark, with only the moon shining its light through the high windows. The sounds of barking seals outside made her feel less alone. Nilbud began her exercises: punching the stone wall with abandon, striking the sturdy bed struts with her feet until she heard footsteps in the hall. She stopped, still. Then, the scrape-click of the secret lock and Uncle Moss slipped into the room and stood before stock-still Nilbud. Perhaps it was her rested eyes or the shadows thrown by the pale moonlight, but her uncle looked different. Where he was usually round, he appeared gaunt and haggard, the lines on his face no longer from smiling, but from scowls and stress. Worst of all, the light which shone so brightly in his eyes was diminished, a mere ember of what she recalled. Those eyes she held most dear, and it pained her — moreso than hours beneath the cloak. Those eyes that were the first to truly see her, past her ugliness and beheld her possibilities and strength within.
Nilbud and Moss looked at one another in silence for a measured moment. Nilbud became aware of what she must look like to her Uncle. She had certainly grown since last they met, not only in stature and strength, but in capability as well. For the briefest moment Nilbud felt proud of all she had accomplished.
Moss broke the moment with some food with him that he had palmed from the kitchens and they took a simple but pleasant meal together despite the less than pleasant conversation. “The Keep? Taken over by pirates. And that Queen — the Regent? Mellinius. And her young King — her son, Nilbud, her son, are being held captive." He nodded solemnly, his art for two-way conversation with himself as true as the day she left.
“They loot trading ships travelling past The Bite. A devious plan. Smart, though, smart. And the bodies wash up on the rocks below. They aren’t gentle pirates, oh no. It started a few weeks ago… A ship packed to the gunnels with ruffians arrived, below. Oh, below. Yes. That’s where their dock is. For Mellinial ships. The Queen Regent denied them entrance to the port, sussing out their plot with incredible aplomb, but had few guards at her disposal. A fight broke out, and these brutes took control. They locked the young King in his chambers and took the Queen to the cells.” he gestured at the walls for some reason, then continued, "They allow her to see her son only for a few minutes each day. By a sad…or happy accident Honey and I made our way to this very place a few days later and were taken. And with far less acuity and pitched battle than this Keep put up, I am sure.
“They stole my goods and butchered my mule for her meat…I miss that ole gal worse than a man misses the sun at the end of a long winter…” his reverie broke with a slight careful touch on his hand which had paused its continuous break and bite of the breadloaf. “At first they threw us into the cells with the Queen, but soon decided to make better use of us. I am “employed” as a house boy, cleaning up and serving these shits with whatever they demand and whenever they demand it. Honey is being used as the caretaker of the King. Her sweet face and gregarious nature enamored her to the young monarch and they have much fun together filling their days with games and stories to distract him from the reality of the situation. The Queen still visits daily, but her state is getting worse. The waterrats are mistreating her…The Queen…don’t worry, Nilbud, but it’s something awful, not feeding her well, giving her the boot whenever they get drunk and angry and taking advantage of her womanhood when they are drunk and really angry. I’ve been doing the best I can to bring her what bits of food and medicine that I can sneak to her — they separated me from them upon my employment…but opportunities are few and far between.” At these final words Moss began to weep silent tears of desperation, mixed with a hint of hope as he gazed at his niece. This sight filled Nilbud with anger and pity, and there arose a new feeling inside of her, one of justified righteousness and opportunity.
Nilbud comforted her uncle and regaled him with the story of her adventures since she left the Underfoot household. He was clearly impressed, particularly with the parts of the story that took place in the Greenbirth and he almost gasped at the mention of Merla’s clothes chest. Nilbud left off the part of the story about her trying to end her life, but Uncle Moss knew her too well and after the ‘end of her story’ she looked up to see that knowing gaze and immediately spilled all her thoughts and fears on her uncle.
He patted her hand gently, “Dearest, remember the true story of Merla Underfoot? The one not told in tales around a campfire? The one of a simple Halfling,” he patted her hand again with a broad grin and dance in his eyes, “who followed her heart and ended up inadvertently doing great deeds by helping those she loved. She saved Lothar. She saved Kai’ckul.”
She nodded and then, as she could see his anticipation nearly crackling with intensity, she showed her uncle the cloak and what it could do. Moss, a well-traveled Halfling had thought he had seen everything, but even he squealed in delight at the feats his niece could accomplish; not just the turning invisible thing, but her newfound martial talents as well.
Suddenly a brightness and a twinkle came to Moss’s eye as the beginnings of a plan dawned on him, "Pirates? Notoriously superstitious folk. I’ve even witnessed the group making one of their number go outside spit and turn around three times just because he said aloud the name of Daring Dane Yuth…some notorious pirate, apparently. Died 250 years ago. Some fatal mistake. Hubris or some such. Silliness.
“What if we make them think that this keep is haunted? Using that cloak and…you, combined with some," and with a flourish, "sleight of hand and rumor mongering? I’m sure that between the two of us we can create enough chaos that you could steal away with the Queen and seek out help from the mainland.”
Nilbud immediately protested, “I will never leave you in the hands of these men! I’ve seen what they are capable of and it is not pretty…About as pretty as me."
Moss shushed her with a knowing nod and a hug, “We only have one chance a this dear one, and Honey and I can take care of ourselves. They don’t treat us too badly as long as we do what were told. Worst case scenario? I’ve stashed some packs with provisions over there in the corner in case we need to escape. I would prefer to go with my wares and cart in a few weeks when you can return with help. On the other hand, I don’t know if the queen will last that long. She is the one that needs to disappear and soon." He paused, deep in thought, tapping at his chin, tongue protruding between his hips, "Her husband, the previous King…Ormond, I believe…died when his son was born and if anyone has a reason to haunt this keep and protect he royal family, its him! Let’s start tonight!”