7. Heric

Heric fidgeted.

He could hear them just outside the cave. There were far more than he expected. Half again as many as Ganthe reported.

He was glad he had convinced Falduin that stealth was a better option. It had taken some persuading, and too much time, but there was no way they could have withstood all of the pursuers and escaped alive.

The wizard was absolutely livid at being played, as he called it. Only careful words, and perhaps a touch of Lera’s divinely-given power, had dissuaded him from marching up to the pursuers and challenging the witch to a duel. It took much longer to make him understand that he needed to calm down and hide. He was leading the pursuers right to them.

At one point Heric almost considered following Ifonsa’s advice and knocking him out. Yet patience, and persistence had prevailed.

They had stolen away, and hid themselves in a cave that Ifonsa had spotted just below the ridge. The cave was enormous and stretched back into the darkness. It smelt as though some foul beast had died within.

“It smells much better than the one we found down in the valley,” Ifonsa told him. “Trust me. There’s not so much as a bear inside.”

“What about goblins?” Heric had asked, eyeing the entrance suspiciously.

“No. Nor dragons, griffons, nor rabbits with big teeth.”

“Spiders?” he asked with a grin. “Bats?”

Ifonsa rolled her eyes, “Get inside you big sook. They’re almost here.”

Heric hated caves. It always reminded him of Attenbach.

They travelled back as far as they were able and still see. They dared not use any light, in case it attracted notice, so they remained close to the entrance. It was too dangerous to move about without some form of illumination. A hole or crevice might open up suddenly, plunging down to some fathomless abyss where only shadowy and rancorous creatures dwelt.

They waited for a time in darkness and silence, listening. Occasionally the squawk of a bird would reach them from the outside. Heric wasn’t certain if it was a call from the bandits, or made by a real bird. Then, as their eyes adjusted to the dim light, they saw glowing streaks of gold veining across the cavern’s walls and ceiling.

Ganthe tried digging at them with his knife. He managed to lever several flakes into his outstretched hand, and for a moment it appeared he was holding several tiny golden embers in his palm. Then they faded and all he was left with was tiny pieces of grey stone. It must be some form of luggold, which was commonplace in Tæsca, but rare beyond.

Moments later they heard the first signs of their pursuers. The sounds of movement, and muted voices. Heric hoped that Ganthe had covered all their tracks, and that the enemy would be foiled by Ifonsa’s false trail. It would lead them back into the valley.

Within the shadows, he could just see the shapes of Falduin and Lera seated on the floor of the cavern. It looked as though they were meditating, but he knew they were actively protecting the group using some sort of magic that he didn’t fully understand.

“You might feel as though your mind is partly asleep,” Falduin had warned them. It was the only time he had said anything to anyone other than Lera since the argument.

“Like when you have grippe,” Lera had explained, “Your head full of fog.”

Meanwhile the others waited, their weapons ready in case anyone entered the cave. They would see the enemy long before they were seen.

Ifonsa hid off to his right. Heric couldn’t see her, but he knew she had her bow ready, arrows before her stuck into the sandy floor.

Ganthe crouched in a depression just ahead and to his left. He had his long, wicked-looking knife out, preferring it to his sword.

Heric peeked over a small boulder. It’s surface was smooth and cool against his cheek. He saw two figures appear in the cave mouth. Their forms silhouetted against the brilliant sunlight.

Heric tensed. He hoped nobody moved. It might draw attention, and then they’d be in a right mess. He doubted they’d be able to withstand an attack from the enemy for long in the cave. Plus the witch might be able to collapse the entrance and seal them inside.

He watched as the figures conferred quietly with one another. He couldn’t hear their voices, but their actions suggested they were discussing something. Perhaps their conversation was banal as commenting on the cavern’s size or the smell, but Heric suspected they were wondering if it was a good hiding place.

One of the figures began to move around, examining the ground around the entrance. The must have found something odd and out-of-place. Perhaps Ganthe had missed something. At any moment Heric expected a cry of alarm, and the blood-letting would begin. His hands tensed on the hilt of his heavy sword.

There was a cry, but it was distant. Someone had found the false trail down into the valley.

As the figures moved out of view he distinctly heard the word, “rabbits,” followed by the sound of laughter.

A coil in the shape of a nine

It was hours since they had seen any signs of pursuit.

Once they were certain the enemy hadn’t left any scouts behind, they headed south-west. Ifonsa led them toward the cliffs, and up a gully that cut through them. It looked like an old river bed, the waters long since dried up.

As they climbed, Falduin kept peering at the tall hill off to their left, as though he feared someone or something was watching them. Eventually he broke his silence and asked Ifonsa (of all people) if she knew its name.

“It’s called Old Moon Hill,” she told him.

He nodded and seemed content with the answer

“There is a story that an old man (Old Moon) lived there once. That’s his home atop the hill. Made of rocks,” Ifonsa continued.

Heric could see what looked like the ruins of a tower at the crest.

“And he used to come down from the hill to trade with the people that lived in the valley.”

“What people?” Ganthe asked.

“That’s the thing,” Ifonsa explained, “When the goblins came, this was long ago, when this place was mostly wild, and just the Onna People living here. I don’t believe even Harnsey was founded. When the goblins came, the villagers were afraid and they sold the Old Moon out. They told the goblins that the caverns below the hill were filled with gold and silver. And the goblins raided the old man’s home, cooking him alive in his own firepit, and using his own bowls to serve up portions of his flesh. Then the goblins headed back to the village, and they did the same to the villagers, because goblins being goblins and all.”

“Did the goblins find the gold?” Ganthe asked.

“Of course not. There was none.”

“And it’s been vacant ever since?” Falduin asked.

“No. Many have tried to settle there, but few last more than a single night. They say the place is haunted.”


“By Old Moon. He screams all through the night as if the goblins are cutting the flesh from his bones.”

“Have you been there?”

“Definitely not! It scares the wits out of me.”

Falduin nodded thoughtfully.

Ifonsa waited a moment, then glanced at Lera offering her a wink. Lera covered her laughter with a cough. When Ifonsa noticed Heric watching her she grinned back at him. All Heric could do was to shake his head in resignation. Fortunately Falduin noticed nothing of the exchanges.

At the base of the cliffs they headed northward following it around until they could turn west and down the other side of the slope. Nearby they could hear the sound of wild donkeys braying to one another.

They rested briefly at a small lake they found nestled in the woodland. Heric was surprised at the lake’s clarity and how blue the water looked. It tasted sweet and fresh like it had tumbled down from the mountains, but Heric guessed it was fed by a spring.

As they shared what remained of the food Ganthe had scavenged, Falduin broached the question that was plaguing Heric. “What now?”

The others all turned to Heric. He thought for a moment, then answered. “It’s simple. We head back to Milardus, and abandon the mission. Or we continue.”

“Why are people hunting us, Heric?” Falduin prompted.

“I don’t know.”

“You must know something.”

“I know that Rido wouldn’t have chosen me, especially in this manner, had it been straightforward,” he said.” I also know that the Baron is most certainly not the one behind the attacks.”

“How can you be sure?” Lera asked.

“I know him. He is a man of quality. I trust him.” Heric paused, hoping that his word would be enough.

“And” Falduin prompted.

“He would have no need to send bandits and witches after us. He has his own men, and I’m certain he could call upon the White Tower if he had need. Someone else is behind this.”

“But you don’t know who?”

Before Heric could answer Ifonsa asked, “Could Rido be making a play? Could he have gone rogue? He’s ambitious, and the Baron has a daughter, who is the grand-daughter of the king.”

“Why involve me, or any of us?” Heric said. “Especially you,” he said pointing at Falduin. “How do you know Rido?”

“I don’t.”

“Then how did you come to have a document bearing your name and his seal upon it?”

“I suspect it was given to me by the old man.”

“You suspect?” Ifonsa said a the same time Lera asked. “What old man?”

“The wizard. In the inn,” Falduin said.

“How do you know him?” Heric asked.

Falduin paused. “It’s complicated.”

“Uncomplicate it,” Heric demanded.

Falduin hesitated, then told the story. How he was wandering along Clarity Street when he met the old man and followed him to the tavern. After the fire, he remembered staying at an inn, and waking early the previous morning so he could hurry down to the docks. The document he had found, amongst his belongings, as he searched for the barge.

There was a lot missing that Heric did not like. For instance, Falduin refused to explain why he was in the town in the first place. All he would reveal was that he was newly arrived. He also couldn’t remember the name of the inn he stayed at, just that it had a blue sign.

Heric glanced at Ifonsa. She was giving him her I told you so look. Perhaps he should have been more prudent, yet Falduin had done well during the attack upon the bandit’s camp. The issue was that he seemed to be making a habit of coming under the influence of magic.

“What about the fire?” Ganthe asked.

“What?” Falduin asked.

“At the tavern.”

“It was a phantasm. It wasn’t real.”

“It was real enough to burn the place down and kill the family that lived there.”

Falduin shook his head and looked down at his feet, “I don’t know what happened.”

“Can you sense any malice?” Heric asked Lera. He knew she was studying the apprentice.

She shook her head, “He’s warded,” she revealed, “But he needs to be, given the circumstances. While-”

“I’m right here!” Falduin protested.

“I was going to say,” Lera continued, “While I felt a great deal of pain and suffering, he is a man of good heart in spite of it. I trust him.”

“Really?” Falduin said astounded.

“Of course,” Lera said smiling. “You’re one of us now.”

“That’s good enough for me,” Heric said, his gaze firmly on Ifonsa.

She wrinkled her nose and moved her hand away from where she left her knife hidden.

“So who is after you?” Ganthe asked.

“Us,” Ifonsa insisted.

“You,” Ganthe repeated. “They’re not looking for me.”

“Not The Baron. Not Rido,” Heric said.

“The wizard?” Lera asked.

Falduin shrugged, then said, “Why?”

Lera returned Falduin’s shrug.

“Someone else,” Heric said.

“We’re being manipulated,” Ifonsa said.

Heric nodded.

“But why?” Lera asked. She looked from one to the other. They all shrugged in turn. “Then it must be a test.”

“A test?” Falduin asked.

“Yes. To see if we’re worthy,” she almost kept her face straight as she said it. “To be like En, the Chosen Ones of The Gods,” she said grinning.

Ifonsa laughed.

Falduin rolled his eyes, “You’re the weirdest priestess I’ve ever met.”

“The Gods and I have a very healthy relationship,” Lera said, “that involves mocking instead of grovelling. They know I am a true believer. There’s no need to constantly remind them.”

Heric suddenly rose to his feet,. “Then let us prove our worth,” he said, gazing toward the north-east. “Let us be clever.”

“Arthleah is nice at this time of year.” Falduin quipped.

“Let us do what they least expect.”

“I know a great inn there.”

“We’re going to Wombourne,” Heric announced. “We’re going to complete the mission.”

Falduin sighed and placed his face into his palm.

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