The early morning sun shining through a cloudless sky fell upon a hillside overlooking Leavenfell Keep. Fresh snow covered the hillside and a cold wind blew from the east carrying ice crystals from the bay where the keep was located. A murder of crows perched in barren oak trees huddled together for warmth.
A flash of blue-violet light, brighter than the sunlight for just an instant, flared on the hillside. The crows took flight, voicing their disapproval at being disturbed. When the flash faded away, a man and two children stood there. The man wore a brightly colored motley cloak over patchwork leather armor and the children wore rough-spun clothing and deerskin.
The children, Tobey and Elanasa, fell down in the snow disorientated by the transit from the travel spaces back into the world.
The man, whose name was Nestor, scanned the area to make sure he had arrived at his chosen destination. He felt content when he recognized Leavenfell Keep to the south and the town surrounding it. A few days before Thyerin’s Dance had led him north, Nestor had stopped in Leavenfell town for supplies. Since then he had met an Elder and taken on the responsibility of guiding two children to meet with the Baron of Leavenfell. The children were to tell the baron about beasts attacking their village and killing all the villagers.
The trip from the Elder outpost on the southern coast of the Cirrangill Sea to the city of Leavenfell took about half a bell using the travel spaces. If they had walked the twenty-five or more leagues across snow covered rough terrain with exhausted children, it would have taken well over three days. Using Araf magic, Nestor was able to make short hops through parallel spaces that overlap the world he knew. Nestor did not understand how the spaces worked; he had just enough skill to be able to use them.
Once Tobey and Elanasa recovered from their disorientation, Nestor led them down the hillside, across a snow-covered field of neatly pruned leafless apple trees and onto the road leading into town. Even this late in winter activity filled the town. The town’s gates stood open and traffic moved along the main road. Shops, alehouses, eateries and other businesses lined the streets. Horse drawn carts and wagons, people going from shop to shop, goats, sheep, dogs and other domesticated animals running about made their progress through Leavenfell very complicated.
During his wandering over the past few years, Nestor had visited the city of Leavenfell several times. The city was located near the southern end of the Bay of Rapids, so named because at high tides the sea would flood the surrounding low land channels very quickly. Leavenfell Keep proper was composed of seven interlocking courtyards on the landward side of the main fortification. The remaining side of the keep faced the bay. Each courtyard had a fortified gate that granted access from the city. To either side of the gates guards wearing tabards with the Leavenfell crest, an apple tree in full fruit, embroidered upon them stood watch. The guards were equipped with short stabbing spears and shields. Their main duty was to watch people as they pass through the gates, ever alert for any sign of trouble.
The guards did not pay much attention to Tobey or Elanasa because they looked like any other children in the city. They quickly spotted Nestor, dressed in the brightly colored fashion of a Rhydd Pobl, walking toward the gate.
“Gypsy, what is your business here?” A guard moved to block their way as Nestor and the children tried to enter the keep. The guard’s hand rested on the haft of his spear. His intent was clear.
“We need to see the baron,” Nestor said. “These children come bearing dire news from the north.”
The guard sniffed as if he smelt something unpleasant. He eyed the sword at Nestor’s side.
“It’s really important that we get to see the baron,” Nestor said. He knew the guard wanted to ask him more questions, but Nestor felt he did not have the time to wait.
“You cannot take weapons inside the keep,” the guard said. “Leave your sword here, it will be safe.”
“It seems I have no choice,” Nestor said. He loosed his sword belt, removed it from around his waist, and then handed it to the guard. “This was a gift from my mother, Klandriath of the Araf. Do not attempt to draw it from its scabbard.”
When the guard took the sword, he grabbed the hilt in one hand and the scabbard in the other. Nestor was pleased when a dazed look passed over the guard’s face for just an instant as he grabbed the hilt; despite the guard’s apparent distaste for Nestor, the sword would be safe. The guard placed the sword in a weapon rack just inside the gate as quickly as he could. “Report to Michael, Captain of the Guard. You’ll find him just inside the keep proper.”
The keep’s courtyard was a large open space paved with yellow flagstones. The fortified outer walls were also made of yellow stone. Even though it had snowed the day before, the flagstones were free of snow. Merchant stalls and carts filled the area. Most of the merchants hawked their wares openly, but Nestor noted a few of them who discretely dealt with their customers. Many of the people watched warily as he and the children crossed the courtyard. Most of the local town folk wore drab colored attire that matched the wintery conditions. Compared to Nestor’s brightly colored hat and cape, their drab clothing made Nestor standout like a watch fire on a hill. While crossing the courtyard, Nestor made sure the children stayed within arm’s reach. He did not want them to get lost in the crowd.
Another pair of guards standing watch at the much smaller doors leading inside the keeps main building watched Nestor as he approached.
“Pardon me. I was told to find the Captain of the Guard,” Nestor said. “Can you tell me where he is?”
“What business do you have in the keep?” The guards looked at Nestor. Their faces were cold, emotionless, but their hands were resting on their weapons.
“I didn’t know everyone around here was so rude,” Nestor said. “I’m getting the impression people don’t like me.”
“I wonder why that would be,” the guard on the right said. “Where’s your caravan?”
“Listen, we don’t have time for this,” Nestor said. “We have to see the baron and in order to see the baron we have to speak to the captain of the guard.”
The guards stepped aside to allow others to pass through the door but still kept Nestor and the children from entering for almost a mene. Nestor was beginning to get angry, but he knew there was nothing he could do about the situation.
“He’s inside, across the chamber,” the guard to the left of the doors finally said.
The guards snickered and laughed as Nestor led the children through the doors and into the keep. Once Nestor’s eyes adjusted to the dimmer light inside, he saw an older man wearing an officers uniform standing on a raised platform on the far side of the inner chamber. The man was speaking with several other guards. They all wore Leavenfell tabards.
The inner chamber was oval with a high domed ceiling. Paintings, statues and tapestries were on display around the walls. Set into the ceiling were artfully placed panes of glass that aimed sunlight at a crystal chandelier hanging from the center of the dome ceiling. The crystals fragmented the light into a multispectral display of vivid colors. Nestor crossed the chamber and waited for the man on the platform to finish speaking before interrupting him. “Excuse me sir, these children bring dire news from the north and must see the baron.”
“What have we here? A gypsy and two ragamuffins?” Michael Westphal turned his full attention toward Nestor. “What dire news do you bring?”
“These ‘ragamuffins’ as you call them have names. They’re Tobey and Elanasa and they say their villages have been attacked and all their family and fellow villagers were killed by savage beasts,” Nestor said. “I did not see it, but an Elder sent me to bring them to see the baron because there may be more villages in danger.”
The other guards scoffed at Nestor’s story. “Straight, a village attacked by beasts.”
“You three, come with me. The rest of you find something to do, or I will find you something to do.” Michael said. He looked down at the children. “Let’s talk in private.”
Michael led Nestor and the children a short distance around the outer dome of the main room to a small antechamber with arrow slits for windows and stone benches set into the walls. Michael sat down and motioned for the children to sit on the bench next to him.
“Children, you have nothing to fear from me if you’re telling the truth,” Michael said. “Tell me everything you want me to hear. I will know if you are not being truthful with me. My mother always told me I had an ear for the truth.”
Tobey and Elanasa told Michael their tale. At first, they were hesitant, but once they started, they grew bolder. They began alternating between each other; one would speak, and then the other would add detail. Michael listened intently. When the children described their journey from Kite’s shack to Leavenfell Keep, Michael stared at Nestor.
“You’re a Rhydd Pobl, are you not?”
“Yes.” Nestor sensed that Michael did not share the distrust the others felt for him. Michael saw people for who they were, not who he thought they should be.
Michael nodded, looked at the children, and then at Nestor. He asked the children a few questions, trying to decide if they were telling the truth and if they were what he should do about it. Nestor noticed that Michael’s eyes kept drifting back to him. Something about his presence here made Michael feel uncomfortable.
“Follow me,” Michael said. He stepped out of the alcove and walked up to a guard standing nearby. He whispered something to the guard. The guard saluted, and then moved away.
Michael escorted Nestor and the children deeper into the keep, through several long hallways, across several short passages, through three large rooms filled with people, until they finally stood outside a closed, iron bound, wooden door. An ornate carving of an apple tree in full blossom was set into the door with carnelians shaped like apples, tourmalines shaped like leaves and bark made from polished petrified wood from an apple tree. Michael stood in front of the door for a breath, waiting, and then knocked on it.
A moment later, a large guard opened the door from the inside and looked out into the hallway. He recognized Michael and stepped aside, allowing him to enter. Michael led Nestor and the children into the baron’s private meeting room.
The room itself was rather small. On the far side from the door, a beautiful carved hardwood desk took up half of the room leaving very little space to stand in. A second door was located in the wall to the left of the main door. Bookcases filled with books lined the other walls. The room was windowless; filtered lamplight illuminated the room with a soft yellow glow. The guard who opened the door stood to the side of the main door leading to the hallway. Once Michael, Nestor and the children were in the room, he closed the door.
Sitting behind the desk was the Baron of Leavenfell. Nestor was surprised at the baron’s age; he could not be more than three or four years older than Nestor himself. Standing in front of the desk was a younger man who bore a striking resemblance to the baron. The baron was looking at a book lying on the desk while the younger man was speaking. Nestor noted the younger man wore new black boots with a high polished shine, dark pants, white shirt and a dark amber colored silk cloak. His hair was neatly trimmed, washed and pulled into a ponytail behind his head held in place by an ivory ring.
“Is that what you really think, that I –?”
“Ashe, wait,” Roderick, the Baron of Leavenfell, said interrupting the younger man. “Michael, what do you need?”
“My lord, there is news from the north,” Michael said. “This is Tobey and Elanasa, they come bearing a tale that you should hear.”
“Ashe, step aside so I can see,” Roderick said. He motioned for the man standing in front of him to move out of the way. When the baron saw Nestor, he frowned.
“The children claim that beasts attacked their village and killed everyone there,” Michael said. “I questioned them, and I believe they are telling the truth. That is why I brought them before you.”
“I trust your judgment,” Roderick said, “You served my father for many years and he also had trust in you.”
“Thank you,” Michael said.
“It’s all right children. Don’t be afraid,” Roderick said. “I know you have been through an ordeal, but no one here is going to hurt you. Take your time and tell me your story.”
Tobey and Elanasa began telling their tale, again. This time they told it with much more animation than they used to tell it to Michael. Sadness and loss filled their voices and tears fell from their eyes, and yet they still told the story alternating between each other. When the children got to the part of the story that described their journey from Kite’s shack to Leavenfell Keep, Roderick stared at Nestor, just as Michael had.
“And the part you play in this Nestor?” Roderick asked.
“As the children have said, all I have done is to escort them to see you.” Nestor felt the baron staring at him, judging him. The baron’s eyes were narrow and a frown shaped his face.
“Very interesting,” Roderick said. “You bear grave news indeed. Give me a mene to think.”
Roderick rose from behind his desk, crossed the room and exited through the door in the left wall. It was quiet in the room for a moment, then the man the baron called Ashe jumped up and sat on the top of the desk, his legs dangling over the side.
“Michael, how are your wife and family?” Ashe asked. “I hope they are well.”
“Ashe, I don’t think you should sit on his desk like that,” Michael said. “That’s being disrespectful, and you know how he feels about your position here.”
“What position?” Ashe asked. “What’s he going to do to me? Lock me away in the donjon or better yet, send me riding out of town in disgrace on a mule? I am not a criminal. I may have worn out my welcome, but I don’t think he would go that far to get rid of me.”
“Are you trying to provoke him?” Michael took a step toward the door the baron had gone through. “I hear him coming, get up!”
Ashe did, just as the baron entered the room.
“You bring most disturbing news,” Roderick said after taking his seat behind the desk. “As baron, I cannot allow the slaughter of the people of Leavenfell. At the same time, I cannot leave the city poorly defended on the word of two children and a gypsy! Michael, do you not agree? The ice in the shipping channels will thaw soon and spring planting is only a short time away. Many of our militia will be needed to help with the planting.”
“Yes my lord,” Michael said. “We cannot spare any guards or militia at this time.”
“Here is what I’m thinking. Ashe can go with the gypsy and check on things to the north,” Roderick said. “Find out what’s going on and report back to us. Then if an armed response is required, we can send the militia.”
Ashe started to say something, but Roderick held his hand up to stop him.
“Ashe, will you go with Nestor and the children?” Roderick asked. “See what has happened. Prove that the hunting father did with you was not a waste of time.”
“Yes,” said Ashe. He did not sound too happy about it. “I’ll go.”
“It is settled,” Roderick said. “Nestor, you and Ashe deal with this beast problem and I shall reward both of you. Michael, show Nestor and the children the way to the kitchen, I am sure they are hungry.”
“Yes, my lord,” Michael said.
“Ashe, stay here with me for a mene so we can finish our conversation,” Roderick said.
Nestor heard the fourth bell of the day sound as Ashe entered the dining hall. Ashe walked to their table and stood, looking back toward the door as if waiting for someone to come through. Nestor smiled as he watched Tobey and Elanasa stuffing their faces with summer sausages and cheese and drinking hot-spiced apple cider.
“I will need to get some things for the trip from my room,” Ashe said. “I suggest we meet in town, and then head out from there.”
“Straight. That sounds good,” Nestor said. “Where should we meet?”
“There’s a blacksmith shop on the Street of Iron close to the merchant area called ‘The Chain Mask’. You shouldn’t have any trouble finding it,” Ashe said. “Get whatever you need and meet me there in one bell.”
Ashe strode from the dining hall in a rush.
“What’s eating him?” Tobey asked, as he stuffed a piece of cheese into his mouth.
“If I were to guess,” Nestor said, “I would say his meeting with the baron did not go too well.”
“He was nice enough to us,” Elanasa said.
“Straight. The baron has a lot to think about,” Nestor said. “I would not want the responsibility he has to bear on his shoulders.”
“Someday I will be chief of my village,” Tobey said. “Then I will be able to make all the important decisions.”
“When you are chief,” Elanasa said, “I hope to be living in a different village.”
“Very funny,” Tobey said.
A bell later, they met Ashe at the blacksmith shop. A blacksmith’s hammer striking an anvil rang nearby while the smell of fresh horse manure was heavy in the air. Ashe had changed clothes and was now dressed for travel. He now wore soft leather riding pants, a woolen yellow shirt and a black vest. A supple deerskin cloak that just reached the ground replaced the silk cloak he had been wearing. A gold broach with the Leavenfell crest on it held the cloak in place.
“I will get my horse and pick up one for you,” Ashe said. “The stable is this way. Follow me.”
“I don’t understand why we are taking the children with us,” Nestor said. “We should leave them here in Leavenfell where they will be safe.”
“Do you know where their village is?” Ashe asked. “There are a lot of small villages in the barony of Leavenfell. I don’t know how to get to theirs, so we need a guide.”
“But they are just children,” Nestor said.
“I am not a child,” Tobey said. “I am a hunter. I know how to fight. I have killed many wolves and brought home a lot of food for the village.”
“See, they will be just fine,” Ashe said.
Ashe led the group to the stable where he regularly quartered his horse. Elanasa, Nestor and Tobey waited outside the stable while Ashe got the horses and tack: saddles, stirrups, bridles, reins, bits and harnesses. On their way through town, they stopped at several merchant shops to gather supplies for their journey. Since it was winter, they would need to carry food for the horses as well as for themselves. Ashe bought enough salted pork, coffee, trail rations and hard tack for five days, just in case.
Nestor and Tobey rode on one horse. Ashe and Elanasa rode on the other. Once they were clear of town, they followed the road heading northwest with Nestor and Tobey leading the way. The road passed through apple orchards and farmland interspersed with homesteads. Most of the homesteads were small, but one or two were good sized. About three leagues out of Leavenfell they came upon a crossroad.
“The main road southwest heads toward Dargon,” Ashe said as he pointed southwest. “Toward the east is the northern coastal road that leads to the barony of Callen. Southeast is the city of Hartim.”
“We need to head northwest toward the sea,” Nestor said.
The crossroad itself was little more than a splotch on the map. A small inn, blacksmith shop, general store, and several other buildings lined the main road. The only point of interest was a building Nestor was certain was a brothel. He made a mental note perhaps for future use. Brothels could be good sources of information.
Once past the crossroads, they rode in silence at a slow canter for the rest of the day through snow-covered countryside. At sunset, they stopped to make camp on a large flat rock underneath a massive oak tree on the side of the road. The rock bore signs where many travelers had made camp there before.
Sitting around the fire after a dinner of rations and boiled salt pork, Ashe and Nestor talked while Tobey and Elanasa quickly fell asleep. Ashe sat on a folded blanket and smoked a white clay pipe. The pipe smoke drifted toward the fire’s uptake. Nestor played a slow tune on a long wooden flute.
Ashe drew a deep draw on the pipe and slowly blew out the smoke. He pointed the pipe at Nestor and asked, “Do all Rhydd Pobl dress as you do?”
Nestor stopped playing the flute, looking lost in through for a span. “You mean the motley?” Nestor asked. “No, not all. Some do. Most like bright colors and value freedom. My mother taught me their ways so I would not be so out of place when she could no longer care for me. After I left her, I spent a few years traveling with them.”
“I don’t mean to pry. I’m just naturally curious,” Ashe said.
“What about you?” Nestor asked.
“What about me?” Ashe poked at the fire with a long branch. Sparks rose up into the air and died out in the barren limbs of the oak tree above.
“Tell me about you,” Nestor said. “What do you do?”
“As you may or may not know, I am the baron’s brother,” Ashe said. “We have the same father, but different mothers. My father always intended Roderick to be baron. He was first-born, after all, and trained in Dargon. My mother was his second wife, and she was a commoner. My father kept her out of court affairs — we had precious little of that in this backwater barony as it was — so she knew very little about it. What she thought of as being a baron was what she saw him doing, all of the things he enjoyed like hunting, feasting, and reading history. On her deathbed, she made him promise to make me his heir. What he promised her, though, was to make sure I had the life she wanted for me. I overheard this, and thought that meant I would be the baron. You can imagine my surprise when Roderick arrived to claim Leavenfell. I was bitter for a while, but then I took a trip to see a wise man in Dargon who showed me the truth.”
“And what is the truth?” Nestor asked.
“My father loved me and wanted me to be happy,” Ashe said. “So he gave the barony to my brother and set me free to do what I wanted to do.”
Mid-afternoon of the second day, they arrived at the village. This was not Tobey’s village, but the second village attacked. The fires had burned out and scavengers had been working the area, picking the corpses of the fallen villagers nearly clean. The horses snorted and stomped at the scent of death on the wind as they approached.
“Looks bad,” Ashe said. “Tobey, you said they came up from under the ground through a hole?”
“Straight. It’s over there,” Tobey said.
“Show me,” Ashe said.
After everyone dismounted, Tobey led the way around the village, not wanting to go through the field of dead. The entire area, both inside and outside of the village, was marked with wolf tracks, feces and yellow snow.
Roots of a large freshly fallen tree partially hid the tunnel entrance. Loose dirt pushed up from beneath by the beasts formed a small mound around the hole. The bottom of the tunnel was seven feet below and the tunnel headed toward the west, sloping downward. The hole was large enough for a man to enter, but they would have to stoop over if they wanted to proceed along the tunnel. It would be much easier for Tobey and Elanasa.
“Tobey, run back to the horses and get the lanterns,” Ashe said. “Looks like we’re going underground.”
“If they come at us in a tight space, we will be at a disadvantage,” Nestor said. “It will be hard to use a sword. How good are you with a dagger?”
“I’ve been in a few fights,” Ashe said. “I’ve been on a lot of hunts, but they were all above ground. Deer, bear, moose, boar, that type of thing. Nothing like this.”
“I’m not sure that even if Roderick had sent more guards with us, they would have been any help,” Nestor said. “Unless we can get them to come to the surface, more people would just get in the way.”
“Straight. It’s just you and me,” Ashe said.
Tobey returned with the lanterns. “What about the horses? Won’t the wolves get them?”
“That’s a possibility,” Ashe said. “But with this much carnage and death in the area, I don’t think the wolves will be out hunting.”
“Elanasa, you could take the horses north to Kite’s shack,” Nestor said. “They would be safe there. Elanasa would be safe too. I don’t think she should go underground with us.”
“You may be right,” Ashe said. “Elanasa, do you want to take the horses to safety?”
“No.” Her words said one thing, while her voice said another. “I want to stay with Tobey.”
“Elanasa, listen to the adults,” Tobey said. “Take the horses and go. We will join you later.”
“Tobey, why don’t you go with her?” Nestor turned to face Tobey. “I know you’re a hunter, but there are two horses. You can take one, Elanasa can take the other.”
“No!” Tobey shouted. “I want to go with you to kill the beasts that killed my village. You need me.”
“Tobey, listen to the adults, like you told me to do,” Elanasa said. Tears started to run down her cheeks. “I want you to go with me; I don’t want to go alone. You’re all I’ve got left.”
“It’s all moose gong,” Tobey cursed. “You’re going to need me but I’ll go.”
Ashe and Nestor unloaded the supplies they would need for the next few days. They left enough for Tobey and Elanasa to make it to Kite’s shack and all the feed for the horses. Once Tobey and Elanasa were out of sight, Ashe and Nestor stood at the edge of the tunnel looking down into the darkness.
“Are you certain you want to do this?” Nestor checked his weapons one last time and prepared his lantern.
“No, but we must do what we must do,” Ashe said.
The sky was growing cloudy, carrying the imminent threat of snow. Nestor did not like the idea of going underground. He was not afraid of tight spaces, but he would much rather have the open sky above him. He felt the same way about being inside of a city too long.
“Wait,” Nestor said. “Do you hear that?”
“Hear what?” Ashe stood at the edge of the tunnel ready to drop into the darkness.
“I’m not sure,” Nestor said. “Sounds like a horn.”
“I hear it,” Ashe said. Ashe pointed toward the northwest. “Coming from that way?”
Less than a mene later five men appeared in the snowy distance, running toward the village. Each of the men had a quiver and bow slung across their back and carried a spear and shield. Around their waists, each of the men wore a yellow sash that held a long knife and a ram’s horn. When the lead man saw Ashe and Nestor, he sounded his horn.
“Hail! Are you from Leavenfell?” Four of the men took positions around the tunnel where Ashe and Nestor stood and raised their shields. “Step away from the hole. You are in danger. The beasts won’t venture very far from the tunnel in the sunlight.”
Ashe and Nestor moved away from the tunnel and stepped behind the defensive ring the men were making.
“Again I say, are you from Leavenfell?” The fifth man, who was also the leader of the men, asked. “Do they know what has happened?”
“Yes, we are from Leavenfell,” Ashe said. “The baron sent us.”
“How did you find out?” The leader asked.
Before Ashe would answer, two horses running flat out appeared from the north. Tobey reined his horse in hard and nearly flew from the saddle, landing on the leader. The leader caught him and wrapped his arms around Tobey. Elanasa joined the embrace a breath later.
“Father, I heard your horn.” Tobey shouted. “I knew you were alive.”
“Tobey, Elanasa! You’re safe!” Tears filled the man’s eyes. “I thought you were dead. By the gods, after all that has happed on this day, this is a grand blessing. You are all I have left.”
Tobey, Elanasa and the leader embraced for a mene, frozen tears of joy dropping from their cheeks. The four men standing around the mound clapped their spears against their shields.
“This is Todert, my father.” Tobey said when he found his voice again.
“Thank you for protecting my son and Elanasa,” Todert said. Todert spoke quickly to the other villagers in a heavily accented dialect that Nestor and Ashe had trouble understanding.
“What are you doing here?” Ashe stepped a few feet away from the villagers.
“We’re looking for survivors of the attacks,” Todert said. “After Kite warned us, we were able to fend off the attack yesterday at the northern village. Since we knew they were coming we were prepared. Kite said they would attack just before daybreak while it was still dark and he was right. We had men armed with fire, bow and spear. When the beasts came out of the ground, we were waiting. We attacked them before they could attack us. They did not like fire. We left guards in case they try again.”
“Where is Kite now?” Nestor had tethered the horses and given them some grain. “Did he return to his shack?”
“When we broke camp this morning, he was there. He tarried behind at the waypoint. He said he would join us later.” Todert set Tobey down. “Tobey, why don’t you and Elanasa gather some wood for a fire?”
“Straight.” Tobey said.
“Kite is the Elder?” Ashe asked.
“Yes. I guess you could call him an Elder,” Nestor said. “But he does not act like an Elder.”
“Enough idle talk,” Todert said. “We killed two of the beast, but there are more underground. There was another with them, not a beast but a shaman and he was controlling them. During the attack, the shaman took an arrow to his leg. Since he is wounded we need to press our advantage now.”
“What would you suggest?” Nestor did not like where this was heading. Now that he had gathered enough information, he could return to Leavenfell, tell Roderick what he had found and let him handle it.
“We are going to follow the beast into the ground back to their lair and kill them. All of them,” Todert said.
The men collected supplies they would need underground. In the remains of the village, they found rope, oil lamps for everyone and enough oil to keep then lit for a day. If they took longer than a day underground, they would be in the darkness and even wounded, the beasts would have the advantage.
“Are we ready?” Todert looked at his fellow villagers. One by one, they nodded.
“Should we wait for Kite?” Nestor was not sure how much Kite would be able to help, but he knew it would be handy to have him with them.
“The longer we wait, the more prepared they are going to be,” Todert said. “I don’t think we can wait very long.”
“Having an Elder along has to give us an edge,” Ashe said.
“Here’s what we can do,” Todert said. “Tobey and Elanasa can wait here. When Kite arrives, they can tell him we went ahead and he is to join us.”
“Yes father,” Tobey said.
“If there is any sign of trouble,” Todert said. “I want you two to take the horses and run for safety. Do not try to prove yourself, because you have nothing to prove, to me or to anyone.”
Todert went first, followed by the other four villagers, then Ashe. Nestor was in the rear. After a couple of menes descending, the tunnel leveled off. The men had to crab walk underground for a bell or more until they came across a larger tunnel that lead to the southwest while the tunnel they were in continued to the northwest.
Todert checked both directions carefully. He found a blood trail leading down the new tunnel.
“The beasts went that way,” Todert said, pointing to the southwest. “Nestor, be careful. If they split and one remained, they may come at us from the rear.”
The flickering lamp light did little to light their way, but did cause the shadows to dance on the tunnel walls. Ashe stayed five feet behind the villagers and Nestor stayed five feet behind him. All the men tried to move as quickly and as silently as they could. They continued southwest for another bell.
The tunnel gradually grew bigger as they traveled what they assumed to be southwest and it shifted from mudstone and shale to limestone mixed with black greywacke and some granite. A few cracks and crevices began appearing in the tunnel walls. The cracks grew in size until they eventually became side openings, some large enough for a man to step into. Light from the oil lamps sparkled reflections from quarts, feldspar and other crystal deposits. So far, the openings had not been large enough for the beasts to enter.
Water seeping from the walls pooled into a small crystal lined basins in the stone floor. Nestor stopped to taste the water; it was cold and clean but had a bitter taste.
“I hear something coming behind us,” a villager said. “Stand ready.”
The four village men set their lamps on the floor between their feet and took position forming a wall blocking the passageway, shields in one hand, and spears in the other. Todert, Ashe and Nestor stood behind the line, daggers at the ready. The sound of the approaching creature grew louder.
“Put down your weapons,” Kite said. “I would not enjoy being skewered.”
All the villagers and Ashe set their weapons down on the floor, just as Kite had told them to. Nestor started to set his dagger on the floor, but instead managed to resist the command and maintain his grip on the weapon.
“Sorry, I had to take care of my animals before I jumped blindly into a hole in the ground.” Kite stepped into the lamp light. “I’m too young for this. All this hunching over makes my back hurt. Oh, I left two of my companions with Tobey and Elanasa to protect them, so they should be safe until we return. If we return that is.”
“Such optimism,” Ashe said as he picked up his dagger. “That is a good trick you have there. Someday you have to teach me how you made me set down my weapon.”
The rest of the men picked up their weapons and then they all continued chasing after the beasts for another bell, traveling through tunnels and small chambers filled with crystals and dripping water. They passed several cross tunnels, but they were still too small for the beasts to enter.
Finally, the tunnel ended at a large partially collapsed natural underground chamber. Darkness shrouded the far side of the cavern. At the edge of tunnel, steps carved into the granite wall led down into the depths. A deep rumble echoed through the stones.
“I think we must be near a river,” Nestor said. “Maybe under one. That’s what the rumble is.”
“What do you think happened here?” Ashe asked. “The collapse looks recent; do you think it’s safe down there?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Todert said. “Safe or not. If the beasts went that way, I’m going that way. We must kill the beasts; I cannot allow them to live.”
“What good is honor if we die when the cavern collapses on top of us?” Nestor stood on the edge of the ledge looking down into the darkness. “They could be hiding anywhere down there.”
“It would be better to die and join the rest of our village than to allow the beasts to escape,” Todert said. “It’s not just for honor. We cannot let these beasts to kill any more of our people.”
“Straight. I can understand that,” Ashe said, “but I would rather not die if I had the option.”
“How can you understand the meaning of loss? You are the son of the old baron,” one of the villagers said. “It was not your family that was killed by the beasts. It was ours.”
“Poefave, be silent,” Todert said. “He is here to help. Do not insult those who offer you their hand.”
“I’m not saying, oh never mind.” Ashe said. “I didn’t mean not killing the things; I was just saying it’s really dark down there and we need to be cautious.”
“Then let’s go,” Todert said. He shouldered Ashe aside and stepped onto the stairs. The other villagers were close behind him.
“Touchy,” Nestor said.
“But they are right,” Ashe said. “The beasts need to die.”
Todert descended the stairs first armed with spear and shield. The four village men followed next. Two carried shield and spear, the other two carried strung bows with nocked arrows. Ashe was next and then Kite. Nestor brought up the rear. At the base of the stairs were the remains of several stone huts. Fallen stones from the chamber ceiling had smashed most of them; only a few huts remained intact. In front of each hut was an oval basin filled with water. An oily film covered the water’s surface.
“We need to light up the place,” Kite said.
Nestor put the tip of his sword into the water of one of the basins and concentrated. The sword took on an orange hue and a single spark leapt from the glowing blade and ignited the oil. The oil floating on the surface of the water quickly caught fire and burned with a faint bluish light that lit the surrounding area.
“Light a few more,” Ashe said.
Nestor lit all the intact basins near them. The bluish light made strange shadows and hurt the men’s eyes, but any light was better than pure darkness.
“The beasts have to be here somewhere,” Todert said. “Search for them.”
Except for Todert, who searched by himself, the village men paired up and started going from hut to hut, searching for the beasts. Ashe and Nestor searched through the collapsed rocks for any sign of a trail through the destruction. Kite stood at the base of the stairs watching everyone else search for the beasts.
A mene or so passed before a deep guttural howl filled with anguish, pain and sorrow shattered the silence of the cavern. The howl sounded almost human as it echoed around the chamber. From the darkness above the fallen stones one of the beasts leapt down upon Ashe. The beast knocked Ashe to the ground, its claws racking across his hardened leather chest armor for little effect, but its teeth bit deep into Ashe’s shoulder. Ashes released his grip on his sword.
Nestor reacted quickly, stepping forward and thrusting his sword into the beast. Luckily, the blade missed the stony armor ridges that covered the beast’s back. Nestor kept pushing the blade in until the hilt hit flesh.
The beast screamed in pain as it twisted, trying to turn toward Nestor. Its massive size nearly pulled Nestor from his feet; it was all Nestor could do to hold onto the hilt of the sword. The beast released its grasp on Ashe and Ashe rolled away, holding his shoulder. Nestor twisted the blade without pulling it free of the beast. The beast shook, its attempts to reach for the blade growing feeble. Nestor kept turning and twisting the blade, churning the beast’s insides.
After a few breaths, the beast shuddered as the fire of life left its body and then was still.
“Ashe, are you all right?” Nestor pulled his sword free of the beast.
“No. I’m not all right, but I will live.” Ashe said. His right arm hung limply by his side. “I don’t think I can use my sword.”
“Let’s head back to the stairs. You should be safe there,” Nestor said.
Nestor followed Ashe back to where Kite stood watch. The flickering light from the burning blue oil cast lurid shadows and caused Kite’s black hair to shimmer with a bluish tint. Nestor glanced toward the top of the stairs and saw a brief flash of blue in the darkness.
“Kite, above you!” Nestor shouted as a beast jumped from the ledge.
Kite looked up at the beast falling toward him. Ashe rushed at Kite, slamming into him with his full weight pushing Kite out of the way of the beast and causing both men to fall. The beast landed on all fours in a crouch and snarled.
The beast was huge. It stood hunched over on two legs, almost like a man. Fur covered most of its body with rock-like lumps embedded into its shoulders and back. Massive chest, arms and shoulder muscles rippled beneath the fur and a few small patches of pale skin. Long canines filled its wolf-like snout. It had dark brown eyes that looked human.
The beast turned its head, looking at Nestor and Ashe, and then leapt after Kite who lay on the ground. It landed directly on top of him, digging its claws into Kites shoulder to pin him to the ground. Just as the beast went to rip Kite’s throat out with it teeth, Kite spoke a word and a brief flare of green light sparkled over the beast from the tip of its nose to the end of its tail. When the sparkle died away, the beast had changed into a very ugly brown rug filled with lumps. The rug covered Kite like a blanket.
“By the gods, that hurt.” Kite tossed aside the blanket and stood up. His shoulders were bleeding where the beast’s claws had pinned him to the ground. “That thing stinks and probably has fleas to boot.”
“How long will it stay that way?” Nestor asked. He held his sword point to the beast.
“Unlike my pets, it’s not a willing subject,” Kite said. “And I think it has already undergone at least one transformation before. It might be a few menes before it changes back, but not much longer than that.”
Todert suddenly appeared out of the darkness and said, “It’s not going to live another mene.” He stabbed the transformed beast with his spear repeatedly until its blood covered the cavern floor. Once it was dead, it resumed its beastly form.
A mene or so later, the other villagers rejoined the group at the base of the stairs. So far, there had been no sign of the shaman.
“I think that is the last of the beasts,” Todert said.
Suddenly all the blue flames in the burning basins flared brightly, leaping high into the air and an intense wave of heat washed through the cavern. The remaining containers of lamp oil the men carried shattered, soaking through the sacks and the oil burst into flame. Flame and fire was everywhere. Kite was the only one not carrying extra oil.
Ashe, Nestor and the villagers flung the flaming oil soaked sacks away as fast as they could. Some of the burning oil had spread onto the men.
A scream of rage echoed through the cavern. The blue fires flared even brighter than before and then suddenly all the flames, including the burning oil, in the cavern went out, consumed in a single flash that blinded everyone. Darkness filled the area and in the darkness, the heavy scent of sulphur and oddly the scent of cinnamon filled the air.
“There’s –” someone shouted. They did not finish.
“The shaman is using the darkness to attack,” Kite said. His voice sounded muffled, as if from far away.
Nestor felt someone brush past him in the darkness. He could not be sure who it was; he did not want to attack Ashe or one of the villagers. All he could hear was the muffled sounds of groans, grunts, running feet and metal upon metal. He could not decide which direction to turn; the air felt thick, almost oppressive and the darkness distorted his perceptions.
A sharp stabbing pain flared in Nestor’s side. Nestor cried out, but his voice went nowhere. He spun, dropping to a crouch on one knee while slashing with his sword but only cut the air.
Nestor knew he was bleeding; he felt the blood running down his side. Another slash cut across his cheek, followed by a stab, this one to his shoulder. The shaman was toying with him from the darkness, cutting him to pieces in little bits. He was trying to dodge the attacks, but not having much success.
Nestor started growing weak from blood loss; it was becoming hard for him to remain standing. In a final effort, he fought within himself to focus on his sword, bringing all his will power into one thought, one prayer, “Thyerin, give me light.”
As Nestor fell, his sword started to glow with an orange light, just bright enough to illuminate the shaman standing over him holding a flint dagger. The light blinded the shaman who stepped away from Nestor, holding his hand over his eyes.
That single instant was all it took. A spear hurled from the darkness struck the shaman in the chest; a second spear hit him in the abdomen. A third spear hit him in the throat. The shaman staggered a few steps into the darkness and fell to the ground, dead.
Nestor closed his eyes.
When Nestor’s eyes opened, his chest was on fire and the smell of roasting meat reminded him how hungry he was. He was lying in a makeshift hut and Tobey was looking down at him.
“Where am I?” Nestor asked.
“We’re back in what used to be my Nanna’s village,” Tobey said. “You were hurt bad, a very deep wound. My father stitched it up using some herbs. You have been asleep for days.”
“What happened?” Nestor said.
“Here, eat some soup,” Tobey said. “Father said you should be able to travel in a day or so.”
“Tobey, tell me what happened,” Nestor said. “I remember the shaman attacking, but not much else.”
“Ah, you’re awake,” Kite said as he entered the hut. “I thought you had finished the Dance and gone to see Thyerin. It is good to see you have returned. Eat your soup.”
Nestor ate a little bit of soup, all the while glaring at Kite. He was unable to resist Kite’s command to eat.
“Tell me what happened,” Nestor said. “What happened after I was attacked by the shaman?”
“The shaman, if that is what he truly was, killed two of the villagers. If I understood them correctly, their names were Noosph and Poefave.” Kite refilled Nestor’s bowl with soup. “Your brief flash of divine illumination was enough to let the villagers target the shaman. He is dead. Todert bound our wounds to staunch the bleeding and then we had to make our way back here in the dark.”
“What about Ashe?” Nestor asked.
“Ashe is fine; he will heal. You need to rest now,” Kite said.
The following morning, Todert, Tobey, Elanasa and the remaining villagers headed north through the snow to return to the remaining village after saying their farewells.
“I’m going to return to Leavenfell Keep,” Nestor said. “Are you going?”
“I need to return to my isolation,” Kite said. “Until I learn to control the power in my voice, I don’t think I should be around very many people. So I think I’m going to do some research into the history of the Elders and the Mystics. I may write a book about our adventure someday.”
“What about you Ashe,” Nestor asked. “Are you going back to Leavenfell?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Ashe said. “Roderick will hold whatever our adventure was worth for me until I get back. I think I’ll head toward Dargon instead. I should be able to make it there in plenty of time for the Merlin festival.”
“Straight,” Nestor said. “If it is woven into the dance, we may meet again.”
Nestor mounted his horse and turned toward Leavenfell. Ashe and Kite watched as both vanished in a purple flash. The return journey to Leavenfell was much faster than Nestor’s last trip. He arrived on the same hillside as before, but this time the future was an open road before him. He wondered what adventure the Dance would take him on next. Whatever it was, he would be ready.