Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear, when the Sheriff of the small village of Nottingham was a man named Jericho Pale, a man out of time. While Pale was distracted by a dog’s warning about a boy in a well, a stranger approached his allies trying to convince them to accept a quest against the goblins… but things may not be as they seem!
Part Five (of Five)
The cistern on the property of the village baker was in a small gully behind the stone building that served as both home and bakery. Thick, heavy grass surrounded it, and there were several tracks where boots had pressed it down. However, neither Jericho Pale nor the hound that had summoned him here were present. Hencher called down into the well, enquiring if there was anyone within who needed help. He was answered only by the echo of his own voice.
“More lies,” the bewitching Dorienne said. “Sheriff Pale was called away to leave us vulnerable.”
“Or led into a trap,” Hencher said.
“From what I have seen,” I said, “I suspect that Sheriff Pale is less likely to be caught off guard on his own than he is with us. I concur with the Lady Dorienne… I think that we were the target of this deception.”
“Well, it didn’t work,” Hencher said. “The oracle had told us enough that we knew the quest offer was a trick.”
“If that was their goal,” I added. Hencher had a quick intellect but in those early days it still battled with his innocence. I miss that young boy, even as I respect the man he later became. I only wish his growth had occurred in a less tragic manner.
As we stood about the well, its silent stones mocking our diversion, Eliza Day was following the trail of the shadowy figure that had diverted us in the first place. Nottingham was no city, but the center of town was developed enough and Eliza, the Wild Rose, suitably familiar with it that she was able to keep to shadows and alleys, remaining unseen, in her pursuit.
The man passed the stables without a glance, indicating that he was operating–at least for the time being–from somewhere in Nottingham itself. Eliza told me all this later, so I apologize for any discrepancies between this recounting and the actual truth of what happened that day. Apparently the shadowy man was confident enough in his own skills that he hardly gave a glance around but rather strode through the markets and over the bridge to the old village. Eliza wisely stayed further back as he moved down the wandering dirt paths between the laborers’ hovels and around behind the ruined cathedral of the Adamant Prince.
Nottingham’s graveyard dated back to before the town was anything more than a waystation in the deep wood. Whatever inn had sheltered wanderers in those days was long gone, but cenotaphs worn by centuries of seasons still stood in the dry dirt and yellow grass behind the cathedral. Without entering the haunted structure, as even Eliza Day knew better than to tempt those spirits, she hid herself behind the outer walls of what used to be the nave and watched as the shadowy man wove a meandering path shunning the markers of the ancient dead. Though it was just past noon, Eliza swore to her dying day that there was a darkness over the potter’s field as she shadowed the man to the edge of the wood.
She expected him to arrive at his clandestine hideaway in one of the crypts, but instead he approached a great twisted oak, grey with age and barren of any green allegiance to life or growth. One hand he placed on the dry bark next to a puckered knothole and with the other made a gesture of an obviously arcane nature. This should have been enough warning to Eliza that she was in over her head, but heeding any common sense she had was never her way. The tree trunk opened itself for the man, a flickering yellow light coming from somewhere impossibly inside. As soon as he stepped through the opening, it closed behind him.
While any of the three of us remaining would have told the Wild Rose that her assignation of pursuit was complete now that the man’s hideaway had been found, she pressed onwards. One tiny hand to the tree, with her other she mimicked the man’s action to similar result. The old tree opened for her like a vertical mouth ready to devour a bite of well done meat. Eliza stepped inside.
The interior of the tree was far more spacious than the circumference of the trunk would have indicated. Long ago, mighty Druids harnessed the powers of earth and life to craft great wonders, the sort that today’s practitioners of magic can only imagine. Here, in the Sylvan Vale, many of those wonders hide, waiting to be discovered. Obviously this venerable oak was such a marvel.
The inside of the oak was a circular chamber of over a dozen yards in diameter. The walls were twisted roots rising to a domed ceiling where they entwined in an ancient Druidic knot. The floor was earth, but hardened to the texture of river-smoothed stone. A fountain ran down one side of the room to a large stone basin and a trunk in the center enclosed a smokeless bonfire, its light illumining the sanctuary.
Next to the bonfire was a bedroll and traveler’s pack, but the man to whom they belonged was nowhere to be seen. Eliza took an almost-cautious step forward, looking around.
A sharp strike to the back of her head knocked her to the polished earth and her sight blurred with pain.
“Curiosity,” the shadowy figure, now standing over Eliza’s dazed form. “Kills as good as a knife.” With that pronouncement, he drew a nasty dirken from his belt and spun it in his hand to grip the curved handle of the ritual blade. Eliza, struggling to control her muscles, rolled on her side just in time to see the man smirk down at her.
The sound of someone rapping on wood echoed in the sanctuary.
Eliza tried to get to her feet, to take advantage of the distraction, but she couldn’t move. Her head throbbed with pain making focus impossible.
Twice more the knock sounded.
Through her blurred focus, Eliza watched as her attacker turned to the wall behind him. There was no doorway, just tight roots where the opening had been, but at eye’s level the roots circled around each other leaving an inch’s opening. Eliza remembered the knothole and realized that the figure had been able to look through this and see her coming. She had had no hope of surprising him after all.
The shadowy man pressed his eye to the peephole.
A sound louder and sharper than the knock roared for less than a second, reverberating through the entire tree. Blood exploded from the man’s skull in a splash of red that sprayed in a horrible sanguinous arc as his body spun around. Eliza watched as for a second he stood there, his eye now a gaping hole in his head, before he fell to the ground next to her, dead. His face was inches from her own and his features were no longer either shadowy or inscrutable. Dead, he was just a man.
The cable-like roots along the wall where he had been standing just moments ago quivered and stretched apart, opening to frame a figure made a silhouette by the dim sunlight behind him. From one hand, smoke rose in a hazy veil.
“What’d I tell you ’bout goin’ off on your own, Eliza?” Jericho Pale asked as he stepped into the ancient Druid’s lair. The iron weapon in his hand spun into life momentarily before diving into the odd leather scabbard the sheriff called a holster.
“You said… I’m really… great at it?” Eliza asked. Even smiling hurt.
“Good thing I know a ruse when ah see it,” Pale said, kneeling next to the corpse, one hand expertly fishing in the dark cloak, the other turning the bloody skull away from the girl, though the back of the head was little better.
From the folds of the cloak Pale pulled out a small leather bag the size of a man’s pride. The drawstrings were pulled tight and knotted around a golden signet ring, obviously something the dead man didn’t want to be seen wearing. Eliza had no idea what it was, and so it was only some time later when Jericho Pale tracked us down at the Sixth Shooter that we were able to glean the lamentable truth behind our solitary clue.
The ring sat on our usual table between us, the sigil imprinted in the gold facing Dorienne, Hencher and myself. While I had learned no small amount of letters in my time with the brothers, this was a twisted sigil of sharp curves and perpendicular lines of which I had no recognition.
Hencher had an anxious frown on his face, though he said nothing. It was the elf maiden who spoke the name.
“This is the sign of Charaxus,” she said. “The Usurper. The Forest Tsar.”
“Boss Charaxus,” Eliza said, astonishment on even her face. “I… I thought he was a myth!”
“Don’t matter none,” Pale said. “He tries to move into my town, he will be.”
“I… I don’t think you understand,” Hencher said. “Boss Charaxus… he’s not just any… I mean, look at the signet.”
“What about it?” Pale asked, not looking at the signet.
“It’s in ancient Tarkhon. The language of serpentkin.” Hencher paused and paled before finding the courage to say it. Finally he did.
“Boss Charaxus… is a dragon.”
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© 2013 by Douglass Barre, All Rights Reserved.