1. Heric

Heric hesitated.

Something was wrong. He just couldn’t shake the feeling, yet everything appeared to be perfectly normal. River Street was packed with vendors and their customers, as usual. The morning sky was blue, with little white clouds, and no hint of rain. The breeze bore a sweet tang of the sea. Even better, no goblins had tried to skewer him today. It was everything he’d dreamt of during those long years of fighting, and it still felt wrong.

Maybe he simply wasn’t used to the peace. It had been less than a year since thousands of soldiers had remained encamped within, and around the town. Most had now gone back to their farms and their families. Yet a few like him, remained plying their trade as a professional soldier.

Perhaps he was instead worried about the mission that had landed in his lap. Not just the matter, but the manner, as well. If circumstances had resolved differently, he would have been half-way to Arthleath by now. Instead Lady Frista and Lord Elwic had conspired to overthrow the king, and everyone associated with them had become suspect. The scandal made work impossible to find. At least high-paying legitimate work.

Then Rido had chanced upon him on Gray Lane. Or was it chance? The more he thought about it the less-likely that seemed. He’d been too caught up organising everything to truly consider it before. Rido had sought him out, he realised. Was that good or bad? He simply didn’t know, but the realisation did little to ease his disquiet.

Of course, what might be bothering him the most, is that he was without his arms and armour. It had been a very long time since he felt secure enough to do that. It felt…wrong, was the best word to explain the feeling.

“Hey! Heric!” Ganthe cried out to him from the doorway of The Crown and Anchor. “It’s this one, right?”

Heric thought Ganthe looked better than last time he’d seen him, just a couple of days before. His hair was still a shaggy mess, as was his beard. Were the rags he wore cleaner?

Heric waved, then waited for a turnip laden cart to pass before crossing the street to join him.

“You’re buying, right?” Ganthe said, “That’s what you said.”

“Yes,” Heric said.

Ganthe grinned. “I’ve been dreaming about it. I even took a swim in the river. Had a bit of a wash.”

“I noticed.” Heric said, then opened the heavy oak door.

It was dark inside, despite it being morning. The windows were all shuttered and the only lights were the candles upon the occupied tables, and the hearth. The latter produced the smoky haze filling the room, as well as the homely aroma of cobnuts. The tavern was almost empty. It normally didn’t fill up until after midday. That’s why Heric had chosen to meet here.

“You promised me it was a nice place,” Ifonsa cried from across the room.

She sat with Lera near the entrance to the kitchen, her back against the wall. Old habits die hard, Heric noted.

Heric moved to join them, but his gaze flicked to the only other occupants. An elderly priest and his acolyte seated off to the side. Their presence irked him. It was just supposed to be the four of them. He had paid well to ensure their privacy. However, making an effort to remove the two would only cause a commotion. He desperately wished for this meeting to remain unnoticed.

“It is a nice place. Excellent ale,” Heric replied.

Ifonsa levelled her ice-blue eyes at him as if to say, just how gullible do you think I am? Then her gaze moved over Heric’s shoulder, “Who’s this?” she asked.

Heric smiled and introduce his companion, “This is Ganthe. He’ll be joining us.”

“Are you trying to win your way into the Heavens?” Ifonsa snapped, “Offering charity to beggars?”

“He’s a good man. Fought bravely in the war. I owe him my life. Now, what can I get you to drink?”

Ganthe took a seat at the far end of the table, as they gave their orders: a pint of the excellent ale for Ifonsa; two pints, a loaf of bread, and a bowl of stew for Ganthe; red wine for Lera. Then Heric headed to the bar. He could hear the others talking as he made his order.

Ganthe grinned at Ifonsa and Lera. “Exciting,” he said.

“What’s exciting about it?” Ifonsa snapped, “That you’ve been allowed inside a building again, or you’re about to get smashing drunk on something other than gutrot?”

“The mission,” Ganthe said, way too enthusiastically.

“Mission? What miss-?” Ifonsa asked.

“I know you,” Lera suddenly announced, as she eyed Ganthe. “You were Arus’ friend.”

Ganthe nodded.

“He carried him five leagues through the snow,” Lera told Ifonsa. “Then waited for days while he lingered. I’m sorry we couldn’t save him.” Lera said to Ganthe. Then she reached out and grabbed Ganthe’s wrist, “He’s in a better place, you understand that don’t you?”

Ganthe nodded, but refused to meet Lera’s eye. When Lera let go of his wrist he snapped it back, and hid his hands under the table.

“Did you manage to return his ring to his parents?” Lera asked him.

Ganthe nodded, keeping his eyes on the table.

“It was gold,” she explained to Ifonsa, “It must have cost a fortune, but it was much too small for him. His grandmothers, wasn’t it?”

Ganthe nodded again.

“It was buried in the skin. It took us an age to get it off his finger. That was after the goblins had lopped off the tip of his finger to get at it.”

“The goblins?” Ifonsa asked sceptically, her eyes on Ganthe.

“Oh yes,” Lera answered. “This was at Rauhoffen.”

“Rauhoffen?” Ifonsa said, “You were one of the nine that survived?”

“Ten,” he said, returning Ifonsa’s gaze. “Technically Arus survived too.”

“Drinks will be here in a moment,” Heric said, returning and taking a seat.

“And food?” Ganthe asked.

“Will take a little longer,” Heric replied. “How’s everyone getting along?”

“What this about a mission?” Ifonsa asked Heric, before anyone could respond.

“You said you were thinking about leaving the Wardens. You’re going to need money.”

“I’m sorry, Heric. I know you enjoy being a professional soldier, and I know it pays well. But that’s not the life for me. I was thinking about returning to Caham. My father said Lord Fastri was looking for a new forester.”

Heric nodded slowly, his lips thin. He had been expecting the response, but it still hurt. As Ifonsa moved to leave he said, “This comes from Rido.”

That stopped her. Heric had wanted to keep that a secret, but he played the plaques he was dealt.

“What does he want?” Ifonsa asked.

“Who is Rido?” Ganthe asked.

“Rido is Baron Milardus’ spy chief,” a deep voice said. Somehow both the other occupants had joined them without their noticing.

“Who are you?” Ifonsa snapped.

“This is a private meeting,” Heric added.

“A private meeting in a tavern is never ever private, don’t you know that boy?” the elderly priest said. “As for who I am, I have many names. None of which are required now. What is required is that I introduce you to my associate. This is Falduin. He is an apprentice from the High Tower.”

“Which one?” Lera asked.

“White.” The elderly priest said.

“Red,” the apprentice contradicted.





“Definitely white.”


“It doesn’t matter!” Heric snapped. “What do you want?”

“Is he your apprentice?” Lera asked.

“Most definitely not. I am but as you see me,” the Priest replied, “White.”

“Red,” the apprentice shot back.

“Nobody cares,” Heric said.

“Are you a disciple of Úlæ?” Lera asked.

“He looks like a wizard,” Ifonsa said, “He just needs a floppy hat.”

“I can see a red floppy hat on the next table,” Ganthe said.

“I told you this wasn’t going to work,” Falduin said.

“Will everyone just shut up for a moment!” Heric shouted. “Who are you? What do you want?”

“It’s not what I want,” replied the Priest-cum-wizard, “Or who I am. But what you want, and who you are. You want to succeed in your mission, and for that you’re going to need the services of my associate-“

“We don’t need an apprentice, with simple deceptions and jugglery-“

Only Ganthe seemed to notice that Falduin had gotten a far-away look on his face. The apprentice held his hand palm up, fingers outstretched, as though he was holding a small ball. He seemed to be mumbling under his breath.

“I have been assured he is fully capable-,“ the Elderly Wizard said.

“But if you’re a fully-fledged wizard, then perhaps we can reach an agreem-,“ Heric offered.

There was a loud WHOOSH and a WHOMP, as a small ball of fire erupted in Falduin’s hand. It was as if he was holding the sun. Everyone fell silent.

Falduin looked down at the ball, and smiled proudly.

Ganthe giggled and applauded like a child.

Falduin grinned back.

“What have you done?” the Elderly Wizard demanded, his face filled with both fear and wrath.

“Red,” Falduin replied, defiantly.

“That spell has a time limit.”

“What happens when it expires?” Heric asked.

“It explodes,” the Wizard said.

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