Hidden in darkness
Hidden in the deep
Far beneath all light
rests the heart of truth
and the soul of madness
“This is the end” The words were shaking and the voice hoarse with sorrow and despair. The four gathered by the small stretcher understood what this poor man felt but at the same time they understood very little. The man seemed to shake from emotional pain and touched the small body gently, no father should have to bury his child like this, so young. There was almost something unholy in watching a child lie like that, so cold and robbed of life. It broke the very laws of life. The man straightened himself up; his eyes were black and bottomless with grief. “It takes our children, it takes our future. Without them this village will be lost, they are our only wealth!”
He sobbed and dried his eyes, upset from showing such strong emotions to strangers. “It is as our priest tells us; this is the punishment for our sins, and the sins of our forefathers. Don’t think you can stop it, we are cursed, cursed!”
He turned his eyes toward the earth floor and left the small cabin without another word.
The four looked at each other, their faces told of confusion but also of rock hard determination. They had been sent there by the king himself who took the news of the deaths within this small community very serious. When ten young die within a short month on such a secluded place even the ruler of this small land had to react. These were among the best in their field and the king had been helped before, by members of their group.
The four who had been sent to the village of Clearlake had found the place charming when they arrived late in the afternoon. It was a lovely little village placed between rolling hills where the population made a living for themselves and their families by growing herbs and herding cattle and sheep. Now that feeling of charm had disappeared completely and been replaced by horror.
They stared at the small body, the last victim of something which lured children out of their beds and drowned them without mercy. The other victims were already buried when they arrived; this was their only source of clues to whom or what that was responsible. An elderly man came in, took his worn out hat of as a sign of respect and cleared his throat. He looked a bit nervous and that was no wonder, most people would feel that way when they are face to face with two weapons masters.
“Now, have you discovered anything yet?”
There was hope in his voice.
Hawk lifted his gaze and stared at the man, he found this disturbing and he could not understand the cause of these deaths. He was an elf, and he had lived for more than two and a half millennia but he had never seen anything like this. His black hair, dark skin and black eyes made him a beautiful but frightening creature that still carried a burden of darkness from a past that was far from peaceful or pretty. “They all looked like this when they were found?”
The man nodded his head eagerly. “Yes sir, they had just drowned and they all looked quite peaceful, they had probably not put up a fight at all!”
The second of the masters talked, he was recently given the much desired title and felt a little unsure about his own authority; he had not yet discovered the power his title gave him. He supported himself on Hawks experience and instinct but in reality he was just as good as the elf, just more schooled. Rheynek had dark skin like Hawk but his hair was white like snow and his eyes frighteningly golden, like the eyes of a huge cat. He was once born as a human being but the goddess had turned him into something else so he could do her work. He was mainly a hunter who sought out all evil creatures of supernatural nature and he was good at it. He had slain many werewolves and vampires and other monsters too. “And they were all found in the river and the small lake?”
The man nodded again with sorrow written all over his face. “That is right, in their nightclothes.”
Rheynek and Hawk looked at each other and their eyes expressed their confusion and worry.
Enez went over to the body, she was no weapons master, just Rheynek’s beloved but she was far stronger than anyone could guess by watching her petite frame and delicate features. With a background as a professional thief she could contribute to the groups work with her great skills as a climber and she was an expert when it came to reading a person’s character. Sometimes her rather untraditional view on things could show them the solution to a problem and she had a waggish attitude everybody liked. Her dark blond hair shone in the dim light and the man who had entered found her attractive and thought it was a shame that such a frail creature should have to witness something like that. He could not know that she had seen far worse cases several times and she was tough enough to stomach just about anything.
She gently touched the small corpse and Hawks soul mate and wife Elywen placed herself on the other side of the table. She was a stunningly beautiful elf with colors like flames and ivory and she had the aura of a queen. Everybody felt in awe when she entered a room. Few could see beyond her beauty and understand that she was the strongest of them all, that she was of dragon blood and could transform herself into a dragon if she needed to. Enez pointed at the body’s hand. “Look, she’s got something between her fingers?”
They all gathered and the elderly man pried the stiff hand open, with obvious aversion. “Hair?”
He held a few thin almost silk like strands of snow-white hair and Hawk took them. His senses were so much better than those of a human that he could use his nose almost like a dog. Rheynek looked at him in anticipation; he was almost stepping in one spot out of pure eagerness. “Now?”
Hawk twisted his mouth in a strange expression. “There is something about the smell I find familiar but I can’t grasp what it is, it smells a little like horse but the hairs are too thin and light. I can’t identify this.”
Elywen looked at her mate, her eyes were glowing. “What do you think? What should we do?”
He sat down, placed his head in his hands and sighed. “Let’s start with what we do know for sure, all the children have been between the ages of five and eleven and they have disappeared during the night and it has been three nights between each disappearance. They have vanished from their own beds after their parents checked on them for the night.”
Enez looked at the man who stood there awaiting more questions. “Are there any connection between the children? Kinship?”
He raised his shoulders in the universal gesture of ignorance. “I do not know, everybody here plays with each other and helps with the same work and we are all more or less related to each other. This is a small community you know.”
Enez sighed “So much for that idea.”
Hawk stood up, determined. “It is two nights since the last child was murdered, that means that another child will die tonight if we don’t act soon. There is a public meeting at the inn, we’ll join in and hear if anyone has noticed anything out of the ordinary.”
The man nodded but there was a shadow of doubt in his eyes. “Do that, but be aware that many here dislike your presence. They think they can solve this on their own and some listens to the reverend and believes that prayers and penance is the only thing that can save us from what they see as the god’s punishment of us mortal sinners.”
Hawk shook his head. “I have seen enough to know that such solutions are meaningless, something here is terribly wrong and you people won’t be able to handle it, no matter how confident you are.”
The man looked down, they could see it in his eyes that there was something he wanted to say... He cleared his throat and looked a little ashamed. “Well, there are some rumors going around that some old legends or prophecies have come true and they are not pretty to make an understatement. I am not the right to tell them though; others know them better than I do.”
Rheynek nodded slowly. “Then we shall hear them from someone who knows them well, something unnatural is going on here, I can feel it in my very core.”
They went out of the cabin and the man introduced himself as Joras. The village had only one street and it was straight and narrow with nothing special to notice but at the end an old side road disappeared into the forest and it looked as if it had been used a lot once upon a time. Enez looked at Joras with questions in her eyes and the elderly man sighed and his eyes glazed over with memories. “That’s the road to the old mill, or Fadian’s mill as we call it here; nobody’s used it since the first owner passed away. It is a long time ago, several generations in fact so the miller we have now pulled the remains down a while ago. It was only a ruin and very dangerous if someone entered, besides that it is in the way of a new water canal he needs for his own mill further down the river. I guess there will be nothing left of it when he is done!”
Elywen looked a little surprised. “A mill is a very valuable building, why would they stop using it when the owner died?”
Joras sighed and his shoulders were low. “You will find out when you hear the old stories I mentioned, the old mill was and is a cursed place. A place any person with a sane mind will avoid!”
He quickly crossed his fingers in front of his chest and they knew that was to protect him from evil spirits. Enez caught Elywen’s eyes, they both felt like they were on to something there. Hawk started walking faster, he knew that time was running short. “What about the history of this place?” His voice was deep and raw and Joras twitched and looked at the huge elf with a startled look in his eyes. “Ah, well, the village is about one hundred and fifty years old, there was a group of people from the coast who came here and settled down, there had been some really bad summers where they came from and they were trying to find a place to live where they wouldn’t face the threat of starvation. The owner of the mill was among them, the founders of this society if you know what I mean. About forty years ago the plague went through here and killed about half of the population, some new people moved in from the surrounding shires and that is just about all I think.”
Hawk nodded and stored the information in his memory for later, they had reached the small inn now, and they had arrived there the day before and rented the few available rooms.
The room was full when they entered, and Hawk could immediately see the reverend. He stood out among the crowd with his good clothes and he was an elderly slightly bent man with a fanatical glimpse in his eyes. It was obvious that this man was aware of his prominent place on the social ladder and wished to do anything to remain there and keep his power. Hawk sensed that sort of souls very easily, he had once been a servant of evil himself and he recognized that dark infection right away, whether the person knew of it or not. He could see that this man was narrow-minded, stupid and arrogant, a rather nasty mixture.
Joras coughed to get the attention of the crowd and heads turned to watch. Elywen noticed a man who stood on his own by the wall, it had to be the miller cause his clothes were covered with flour and he seemed like he was rather wealthy. She took a second look at him, there was something about him which reminded her of the reverend, could they be relatives?
The reverend turned towards the four, it was quite apparent that he felt insecure and confused, that he did not know what to do or say. For a second he caught the eyes of the miller and some sort of communication or sign must have been used for he straightened himself up and his face got determined and strict. “Good people of this town, our king have sent us weapons masters to help us but I tell you, steel and skills can’t help us now. Only our most heartfelt prayers and deep faith can stop this which has struck us so mercilessly, it is the punishment for our sinfulness. No creature of secular power may stop it, it is the gods will!”
His voice told very clearly what he felt about the elves, it was dripping with despises and prejudice. The crowd whispered and talked and Enez was leaning over toward Joras. “Are you really that sinful here?”
He had to smile “Heck no, we work far too hard to have time to drink and fornicate more than on rare occasions and people must be allowed to have some fun right? That moron up there believes he can transform the entire community into some kind of monastery!”
A woman stood up suddenly, she was obviously the mother of one of the dead children because she wore black as a sign of grief and her sorrow was clear to see in her drawn face and shaking hands. “This is the revenge; it is as the old stories tell us. The judgement has come!”
The reverend turned pale with anger. “Silent woman, do not mention that old superstition, it is paganism!”
Elywen could see that the reverend really wanted to smack the woman in the face if she had been a bit closer to where he stood. Hawk quietly walked up in front of the crowd and everybody went silent, they stared at him with fear. Hawk could scare the living daylights out of a mountain troll if he wanted to and he was angry now. “Another child may lose its life tonight if you don’t help us solve this; it is in your own interest that it happens fast. You are gambling with your own offspring folks!”
Faces were turned toward the floor with visible anguish. Nobody spoke a word and Hawk sent a harsh gaze over the crowd, several people seemed to shrink when meeting his black eyes with their own. “OK, we can start by telling if anything out of the ordinary has happened lately, anything!”
People were staring at each other, it was clear that several was thinking pretty hard and really trying to remember if anything had happened worth mentioning. Elywen got aware of a person hiding in the back of the room, underneath the stair. It was a woman and next to her a small child, she seemed to be a rather subdued personality and poor too. She made Hawk aware of the woman too cause she sensed that the person wanted to speak but was afraid to do it in public. “Just come forward woman, if there is something you wish to say?”
Joras pulled at Hawks sleeve and whispered to him. “I don’t think she will say a word, she is the shame of this community you see. Nobody likes that she is here, she has a retarded son and everybody believes that she is cursed!”
Hawk nodded to Enez who hurried down the floor to speak to the woman who seemed like she wanted the floor to open and swallow her. Several people looked at the poor person with obvious disgust and Enez could feel the crowd’s anger like something physical, it made her skin crawl. She had felt the same thing before, when people in the town she grew up in mistook her for a whore. She pitied the poor woman.
Joras continued to whisper to Hawk. “You see, she is a widow and her husband died when they had been married less than a year. Their marriage was a very unhappy one, he beat her often and the rumors spread fast. You know, dead so fast and they think the kid is the evidence, a short of divine punishment.”
Hawk shook his head in disbelief. “The ignorance of humans, it never stops shocking me!”
Enez walked over to the woman who appeared to be rather young, she was wearing worn out clothes and gave a very sad impression, she was skinny and aged before her time and she looked very fatigued. The child by her side was a boy, he could be about twelve years of age but he was very small and clearly not normal. One of his eyes was constantly rolling and he was drooling and making weird noises. Enez made her most friendly smile and the woman tried to smile back though trembling and nervously. “Have you noticed something strange or out of the ordinary?”
Enez kept her voice low and the woman looked down and shook slightly. “Y... yes, some nights ago. I heard something at night I have never heard before, it was a scream of some kind but no animal I know makes such noises and it came from the lake, I think!”
Enez was just about to say something when the boy started twitching and making more sounds, he was stretching his hand out with his palm turned upward, like he had something in it. “Osy, orsy, iiice osy, goooo...”
Then he started screaming like someone was trying to murder him and the poor mother grabbed the jerking kid under her arm and hurried out the door. People looked after them and Enez could almost read their thoughts, she wished she could do something to make them see how terribly wrong they were. Her anger was boiling inside of her but she had a feeling of something, the thing the boy had tried to say and the way he had acted had almost triggered some kind of memory, if she only could grasp it! There was something almost familiar about it but what?!
Rheynek had been silent until now but he walked forth and caught the crowd’s attention, his inhuman beauty made everybody just gasp. “I have been told that there are some old stories and legends about this place, I would like to hear them because they might be relevant. There is something very mysterious going on here!”
Many people were staring at each other, trying to remember, but one man stood up. He looked very angry and he pointed at the miller. “The legends are only words but each time a child has vanished the miller has been using the mill and tapping water from the lake!”
Hawk turned swiftly toward the miller. “Is this correct?”
The miller looked like he was in discomfort, almost scared, and Enez noticed that he put his hand into his pocket for a short second, almost hidden. “Yes that is right; I was making some flour so I had to tap water to power the mill. I do that every third day and I have been doing it like that for over twenty years and there has never been anyone complaining about it until now!”
Hawk frowned. “Why every third day?”
The miller looked a bit indulgent, like he was lecturing someone of great ignorance, asking very stupid questions! “Because I use a lot of water each time, if I tap water more frequently the lake will go dry and the farmers won’t have enough water for their crops. The lake is artificial you know, made by the founders of the city cause the river is too small to support our needs during the summertime.”
Hawk sighed, there had to be some kind of connection there, it could not possibly be just a coincidence? No way! His senses told him that they had to check this out.
The reverend stood up again, very upset and almost stuttering. “There is a madman somewhere who drowns our children, or it is as I say, a divine punishment!”
Elywen looked down, hid the glow within her golden eyes. That outburst had come like it had been ordered by the miller, it was clearly meant to catch every body’s attention and make them forget about him. Both the men were nervous and she sensed that they were hiding something, if she only could read their minds and figure out what but since they were human that was impossible.
“The stories and legends are just fairy tales, from before the plague! They can’t possibly be of any importance?” It was the village eldest who spoke, an old man who had to use two canes to be able to stand up.
Elywen answered and many stared in awe at her beauty! “There could be something within them, something which may give us a lead. No animal or normal human being does something like that and all the children disappeared without a trace, right out of their beds?”
Many nodded and Hawk gave Elywen a quick smile! “Well, can anybody tell us something?”
A woman stood up, her smile was a little stiff cause the reverend obviously disapproved of her action but she enjoyed the attention of the others. “I can tell you a little, my mother in law knows the whole tales but she is ill and sometimes her mind is so blurred she can’t remember anything.”
Hawk gave her a friendly reassuring smile and she blushed and looked very important. “The village is named after the lake; they thought it was so clear and pretty when it was filled. The village was smaller before but it has grown a bit after the plague. Everybody here now is related to two families, one that survived the plague and one who came here after the plague had passed. Those who founded the village were all related but some were just distant relatives.”
Enez looked at the woman with a wild glimpse in her eyes “The dead children, which of the families are they related to?”
People started to mumble and ask and soon it was apparent that the dead children all were related to the old family, the one whose ancestors founded the village! Rheynek blinked to Enez. “Well thought darling.”
He nodded at the woman. “And the rest of the story?”
The woman smiled shortly and gathered her shawl tighter around herself, the reverend looked like he had tasted something very sour and the miller’s gaze could have frozen the lake solid. “I guess you already have heard about the old miller here? Fadian? He was one of the founders here and he built his mill by the old riverbed and soon become rather wealthy, it was the only mill for miles and everybody had to bring their crops to him. He was a nice man but after a few years his personality changed, he became more and more obsessed with riches and he never used a single coin. He gathered everything he could get his hands on and he never cared anything about anyone but himself. He became a very selfish and harsh man everybody feared and hated. They said that he kept all his gold in a coffin and that he placed his bed on top of it!”
She looked at the reverend that frowned and crossed his arms in front of his chest. “So the story goes that he left one day and when he returned some weeks later he brought with him a horse, a wonderful white stallion able to pull loads four other horses were unable to move and able to outrun just about any four legged creature. Fadian let people bring their mares to the stallion and he earned a huge fortune on it.”
Elywen’s eyes got narrow; she began to feel that this somehow was important. “Just one thing was strange, he never took the bit of the horse and some said that he had had a visitor a while before he left. A young magician who disappeared suddenly and he had brought with him a book of magic and spells. That book was later seen in Fadian’s living room, after its original owner vanished. There were rumours that Fadian had killed the magician for the book but there was no evidence and who could do anything about him? He was the most powerful man in the shire!”
Several people started to look a bit nervous now and Rheynek kept a keen eye on the crowd, this was clearly something everybody would prefer was forgotten.
“Then there came a series of bad summers and instead of helping the population Fadian just sat there in his mill, polishing his gold. Some people got desperate and went to the mill to beg him for some money so they would be able to save their families from starvation but he refused. It ended in a fight and Fadian got mortally wounded. Before he died he swore that his money never would bring anyone anything but misery and if anybody disturbed his rest he said that what created his wealth would steal their wealth.”
Elywen cleared her throat. “Was that the exact words he used?”
The woman looked a little confused. “So they say? He died and nobody living now knows where he was buried. The story is that he was buried with the key to his wealth in his coffin but the money has vanished.”
Hawk looked at Rheynek. “I think I am starting to get an idea of what this is all about, but I don’t know what is causing it, yet!”
He turned to the crowd again. “Anyone else who has sensed anything strange or wrong?”
There was a short silence, then a young man came forth, he smelled of horse and seemed to be one of these people who are constantly working. “I breed carriage horses and all of my animals went haywire some weeks ago, one of my mares got fecundated one night too and there are no stallions in this shire at the moment. I think it was just after the old mill got demolished, that they went haywire I mean!”
Hawk was leaning a bit forward and reminded everybody of a track dog who just caught a really fresh and tempting scent. “The old mill was pulled down just before it all started?!”
There were a lot of consent mumbling and Enez and Elywen shared an eager smile, they were going somewhere with this! “Nobody else has noticed anything?”
Everybody shook their heads and Hawk declared the meeting as over. The villagers hurried out of the room to share some gossip and speculations and the four gathered to talk and try to find a plausible solution. Elywen looked a little nervous, she bit her lip and there was a hint of fear in her eyes. She caught the attention of the others. “Shall I say what I think? I believe someone has disturbed old Fadian’s rest and now he is trying to take his vengeance on the guilty ones.”
Rheynek scratched his head and nodded slowly. “That makes sense in a weird way but how?”
Enez looked like she had gotten a bright idea just suddenly. “I think I know how! You did not hear what that poor little boy said but I think he tried to say something about a horse, and then he freaked out. I think he has seen something!”
Elywen nodded. “And there were some kind of horsehairs in the little girls hand, the widow heard something screaming by the lake and there has been a stallion in the area? That leads to one conclusion!”
Enez looked like she had tasted something awful, she twitched and had Goosebumps. “Fadian’s spirit is using his stallion to seek revenge? It did create at least some of his wealth? But then it has to be a spirit too, no animal lives for that long!”
Rheynek seemed to concentrate for a while, and then he shook his head slowly. “No, it is no horse! It only looks like a horse. I remember what she said about it, he never took the bit of it. It is a kelpie, some kind of water demon. I read about that type of creature when I was studying at the temple some years ago. Fadian could have found it somewhere along the coast by coincidence but I doubt it, I think he deliberately sought one out, he must have found out how to catch and tame one.”
Hawk looked a little doubtful. “It does sound a little wild but you’re the expert on such matters, I only know of mountain creatures. Maybe Fadian was buried in or by the mill and then got disturbed so that his curse came to life?”
Elywen got up and stared out of the small windows, the sun had started to sink already. “I guess he released it into the lake before he died? You can’t give someone else control of such a thing?”
Rheynek nodded. “No, just one person can own it at a time. It won’t get anywhere since the river is so shallow; it has to stay here forever. I guess he must have caught it by sneaking in on it when it was taking a sunbath or he could have used a mare too. It is the only ways you can catch a kelpie but it is dangerous none the less. They are incredibly fast and strong and they are smart too, lethal creatures if you don’t know what you are dealing with. They tend to graze near lakes or ponds and when someone tries to ride it they can’t get off and the kelpie runs back to the water and drowns its rider.”
Enez embraced herself. “And it has been doing that now every third night? But I strongly sense that there is more here than what’s apparent!”
Hawk caught her gaze. “And exactly what do you mean by that?”
She looked up; there was ice in her eyes. “I know guilt when I see it and the miller reeked of it. Besides, I think he was hiding something in one of his pockets, something he was afraid to loose. Wasn’t the key to Fadian’s treasure buried with him?”
Hawk stood up with a violent move, kicked the chair away and his eyes were burning with rage. “Do you remember the dead child’s last name? If I am not wrong she must have been the miller’s niece, his own kin! I think the miller found something in the ruins and he won’t tell anyone either of greed or fear.”
Elywen shared her mate’s rage, they could see it. “He is just greedy, like Fadian was. He would rather risk more deaths than losing a chance to be rich. Just like Fadian did when he refused to help the starving villagers.”
Rheynek almost growled. “Then he probably knows a lot more than he has said and the deaths are on him, he’s got blood on his hands if he caused this without trying to stop it or inform the others here. We’ll go to the old mill and check things out and if we find anything suspicious I think we’ll pay the miller a small visit and that won’t be a pleasant one!”
Hawk tightened his sword belt hard, as to make a statement. “A visit in deed and it will be my pleasure to make that bird sing!”
A short while after they were all heading toward the old mill and Hawks facial expression spelled serious trouble for the miller if he indeed was guilty of all this. It was obvious that the place was abandoned because the road had been unused for a long time. Trees had grown to almost full size in the middle of it and bushes and grass covered the rest. Some places small avalanches and floods had removed the road completely and trees had fallen over it too. It was not easy to follow this ruin of what had been a busy road. The horses snorted and acted like they were really nervous and the atmosphere could really have scared anyone with a good imagination. Moss and dead branches hang like dead limbs from the trees and it was a rather damp and dark path to follow.
Dead trees were leaning toward each other in weird postures and Elywen felt a chill running down her spine as they rode along, this place gave her the creeps, it felt like they were riding through the ghost of a forest.
Things did not get much brighter when they reached the remains of the mill. They had been told that the miller had demolished it but it looked as if it had fallen down on its own, the miller could not have done much. There was a stench of rotten water there and the surroundings were nothing but a bog. Around the foundations they just could get small glimpses of underneath the rubble where the remains of rusty metal and old machinery. They could also see some twisted shapes that had to be what was left of the mechanism that powered the mill itself. The sight was depressing and the rain that kept pouring down did not make things a bit jollier.
Enez shook herself and Rheynek cursed and almost growled, he sensed evil there, great and ancient evil. There were some sort of aura around the ruin, of despair and creeping madness. Fog hang around the trees like rotten veils and the dim grey light made your thoughts drift into nightmares as the creaking sounds of falling trees and branches could be heard from the drowning forest behind the ruin. Hawk dismounted his horse and petted it on the neck to calm it down, it was shaking. “I have seen orcs caves that were more inviting and cosy than this ruin; it looks like a rotting corpse, and smells a lot like one too.”
His voice was alarmingly loud; the fog seemed to swallow all sound.
Enez went over to what must have been the entrance stairway; it had probably been a solid building once so it was really strange how fast it had fallen apart like this.
Even without maintenance it should have lasted longer because the wood seemed to be solid oak. She carefully kicked at the loose boards around the entrance and stared at the chaos with her eyes almost closed. One place among all the fallen debris she could spot a black opening that had to lead down to a room underneath the mill itself. “Is it common for a mill to have a cellar?” She turned back toward the others.
Hawk pulled at his braid and frowned. “It depends on the river which powers the mechanism and the terrain and this mill is placed very close to the canal. It is very low in the terrain so the mechanism must have been above floor level. The canal must have been a small one too so I guess they needed a rather big wheel to get enough power and that too indicates that the whole machinery was inside the mill room, not underneath it. There is no reason why there should be a basement here; it must have been a far lot drier here when the mill was in use but still to damp for a storage room.”
Enez nodded. “Thought so!”
She saw remains of the mechanism everywhere and started to make her way toward the opening very gently. Rheynek looked at her with a nervous smile. “Careful my love, that thing can collapse completely any time.”
She gave him a reassuring smile. “Take it easy Rheynek, I am the lightest person here and I know what I’m doing, remember, I used to be a cat burglar. I know how to move even on rotten floors and I won’t fall far either, if there in deed is an old basement here.”
She moved with grace across the shivering old boards that were mouldy and almost covered with fungus many places. The remains of the flour had to be very nutritious. The wooden bolts that kept the boards together were creaking and she made a grimace, they probably were too poor to afford real steel nails when this was built and that was good, nails wood have been long gone cause of rust.
Elywen walked around the building, she studied the foundation with a strange expression on her face. “Guys, this makes no sense, look at the foundation! It must be older than the mill, at least here on the north side. Look at the terrain too, it is rising around the building and that makes even less sense. If a miller came to a place as a settler then this would be far from ideal, he had to build a canal and everything. Why did he not place it by the river itself, it is perhaps a few hundred feet from here!? That must have been much easier and far smarter too.”
Hawk walked over to her and tried to imagine the place as it looked more than a century ago. He tilted his head and stared at the old rocks. “You are right, it must have been an even older building here when Fadian came but they said that he and the other settlers where the first to live in this valley? Fadian must have used the foundations to build his mill on but why? Did he think he could save some time? That seems ridiculous; he must have spent the better part of a year to build the canal!”
Enez had reached the hole in the floor without incidents and she stared into it and made an ugly grimace. “Everybody, I think this used to be a temple, once upon a time!”
The others stared at her with startled expressions, their faces told of curiosity and worry in equal amounts. “What?!! How do you see that?!”
Enez looked a little proud of her accomplishment. “There are old columns here, or at least the tops of them. The rest must be buried deep underneath the mill. The foundations are actually the top of the temple walls. I can see some kind of pattern on the column heads but they are almost gone, worn down by time.”
Elywen just whispered. “Buried that deep? It must have been several millennia since this place was used then, what Gods could have been worshipped in such a temple?”
Hawk gave her a pale smile. “By the way this place looks now? You don’t want to know, seriously!”
Enez got a piece of rope and attached it to a pole that still looked solid enough to carry her weight. Rheynek was almost trying to stop her but he knew better than that, when she had made up her mind about something then there was nothing that could make her change it.
Enez climbed down slowly but with harsh determination, it was not deep and she understood the opening had been hidden. There had been some kind of secret door and it had been broken up, quite recently too. There was nothing growing on the ends of the broken boards, someone had been down there and she could bet it had been the miller. She took a quick look around; the room was rectangular in shape and here and there were remains of columns and something which had to be a low wall. The place had an atmosphere of something ancient and intense, it made her skin crawl.
Eyes were staring at her from the dark corners and they were evil and hungry. She shook herself out of these macabre thoughts and lit a torch with some embers from her ember horn, it made a great difference, and suddenly she could see the details. Someone had been digging in the back corner of the room, a smell of raw dirt still hang in the air and she went toward the hole slowly and reluctantly.
She could feel her heart thunder within her chest and she swallowed hard to gather her courage, reached for the dagger in her belt almost by instinct, just to make sure it was there.
The hole was deep, almost nine feet and there was a coffin at the bottom. The hole had been carefully dug out and the walls were strong, whoever had worked here had known what he or she was after. Enez could see that the coffin had been a good one, very expensive and made from good wood with metal ornaments. Now it was brutally opened and Enez backed up a few steps when she saw the contents.
It was a skeleton or to be more precise a mummy who lay there with staring empty eye sockets and remains of meat and skin still attached to the dry bones. The mouth was wide open, like it was screaming silently from the top of it’s now decayed lungs and it’s right arm was stretching out of the coffin and upward with the fingers spread, like it was reaching for this precious item that had been buried with it and now had been stolen by someone without any reverence even for death. Enez felt like throwing up, she had seen corpses before but no one so bizarre. It was as if Fadian was yelling at her, accusing her for the theft of his treasure. She hurried back to the rope and climbed back out, could not leave this vault fast enough.
She told the others of what she had seen and Elywen sighed and stared at the sad ruins of the old mill. “I think we’ll better burn the whole thing down, when we are sure about who did this. I do not like this place at all, to build a mill on top of a sacred place of some kind and then later bury someone so depraved and selfish in it sounds like the work of morons if you ask me. They should have known better.”
Hawk clenched his teeth together, his eyes were almost burning. “Don’t you remember what the woman told us? He was a good man, when they arrived here. But he started to change and I think this place did that to him. The place is cursed and when a human being came along the curse found a new soul through which it could work its evil. Fadian just chose the wrong place to start looking for a suitable new home. Had he started building somewhere else this probably never would have happened, the curse is probably tied very tightly to this very spot!”
Rheynek had been silent for a long time but he looked a bit scared. “You are right Hawk, such evil is normally bound to a place or item, but we need to hurry, time is short now because the sun will be setting soon.”
The others suddenly remembered and hurried to their horses, they had to find the miller and make him confess to what he had done, and they had to stop the kelpie from killing again. They rode as fast as they dared along the road and the horses gave all they had, it was as if the animals sensed the danger. Several people looked at them in shock when they galloped into the village without slowing down their huge warhorses. Hawk stopped his mighty charger beside a woman who looked like she had seen the grim reaper himself. The elf almost made her faint. “Quick, where is the mill?”
She managed to point in the right direction and Hawk nodded and spurred his horse again. Elywen shouted at the crowd as she rode by. “Everybody, tie your children to their beds tonight, and guard them well!”
The road to the new mill was well maintained and wide and the horses well rested and fast, it was not long before they stopped in front of the mill. It was a very beautiful building with a huge wheel placed in the middle of the river. Someone had thought of both aesthetics and practical use when this was planned. They dismounted and stood there for a few seconds, a little unsure of what to do, the place seemed to be abandoned. Enez shouted and after a while a window opened on the second floor.
A woman was leaning out of it and she seemed a little shy or nervous. “The master is not here, he has gone to the lake to open the dam sluice, we are going to grind some wheat tonight.”
Enez could see that the woman was approximately the miller’s age and she also sensed that the woman was afraid. “Are you his wife?”
The woman nodded with a small shiver, she tried to hide her face in her wives veil. “Yes.”
The words were low and they remembered that she had been absent from the meeting. Was this man abusive towards his wife too?
“Are you really living this far from the rest of the village? You must have relatives here?”
The woman looked even more subdued. “Only my husband’s brother, he is a priest. I am born in another village you see.”
Hawk opened his eyes up wide. So the reverend was the miller’s brother that explained a few things. Enez made her most innocent smile. “Do you mind if we take a closer look at the mill as we wait?”
The woman hesitated for a few seconds, then she closed the window and after a while the door opened. The woman disappeared into the private parts of the house, she seemed to be afraid of strangers.
The room was white, covered with flour and in this mill the mechanism was under the floor. Only the millstone was placed on this level and it was big and worn. Hawk looked around with interest, such things fascinated him and he was always eager to learn something new. He quickly understood how everything worked. Enez took a closer look at the millstone and she jumped and made a sharp yelp that made the others turn and stare at her. She pointed with shivering fingers at the top of the stone “By the Goddess wolves, can’t you see what the top stone is made from?”
Elywen gasped and reached out, brushed some flour from the rock and some weird signs became visible. Rheynek coughed and everybody turned their attention toward him, he had suddenly gotten very pale and that was not because of the flour. “It is a part of the old temple and not just that, it is by all unholy gods an old altar!”
Enez looked as if she wanted to run from the room screaming and Elywen bit her lip and looked at the stone with an expression of disbelief on her delicate face. “And then we know why Fadian became as he did, I am rather sure that the gods they worshipped in that temple were both evil and bloodthirsty, and rather angry at anyone who dared to perform the sacrilege of using their sacrificial altar as a mill stone.”
Hawk nodded slowly, he had disgust written all over his face. “Yes, he was caught by the evil forces of the temple and perhaps used as a sort of servant but when he used the altar for his own purposes he got a real curse to cope with. He used the altar for a while and then the next miller brought it here unaware of its powers and now the curse has been awakened since Fadian’s rest was disturbed. The curse was originally only for him I guess, but the powers must have realized that they can live on, through the stone and the ones who use it. The miller is their next victim, caught in a web of greed and selfishness.”
Enez sighed. “And I first believed that it was all about Fadian, and his rage.”
Hawk shook his head. “No, this is much bigger than we thought.”
He started walking around. “He must have hidden the thing he took from the grave somewhere. There are many places to hide things here but look for a spot where the layer of dust and flour is thin.”
They nodded and started looking around the storage barrels and toolboxes. Rheynek soon found something interesting. It was a small hole in one of the flour barrels and he started digging away the flour. He soon found a small box and pulled it free. It was rather heavy and he put it on a table, everybody gathered as he started to examine it. The opening was hidden and it had a padlock but Hawk grabbed a knife and forced the lid open. A rotten smell spread through the room and everybody backed a bit before they were leaning forward to see.
It contained the remains of a halter, the leather had almost rotted away but it had been rather expensive and beautifully embroidered. The bit took their attention, it was as shining and smooth as if it had been forged the day before and had a strange shape. It did not look very much like other such items. Rheynek carefully lifted it, and took a closer look. His eyes were cold. “It is made from the sacred metal, and see here, there are runes written on it.”
He pointed at a few signs, barely visible to the naked eye. “He must have found these in the magic book he stole. This is elvish magic mixed with some rather questionable dark wizardry.”
Elywen was almost jogging in one spot, she was very curious. “What does it say?”
Rheynek cleared his throat. “I am no expert but I think it goes like this; by this steel I bind thee to me, this steel to my service and my will. By steel by blood by water and you shall serve me. It is a short of spell.”
Enez scratched her head and was leaning nearer, she looked very young there and then. “Is this the key to his wealth?”
Hawk shook his head. “No, I think the word key is only a symbol, I guess it was the millstone he referred to. He probably knew of the curse he had brought upon himself and his vengeance would be to see that the curse survived him and was brought upon the descendants of the men who killed him. He was very clever, and evil!”
They looked at the stone once more and Rheynek frowned. “It is part of a whole, the drowning’s, the stone and the miller. I don’t think the bit can summon the stallion from the lake but the miller has hidden it well and deliberately. It could be that he believes that he can catch it again and make it serve him.”
Enez nodded. “Of course, just like Fadian! The miller is already caught by the curse of the millstone and so Fadian can get his revenge. He planned it all, knew that someone someday would disturb him, someone who had used the millstone and gotten infected with its curse, gotten greedy and dumb. He needed that someone to disturb his grave, so his own personal curse also would come to life”
Hawk was about to reply when they all heard a strange noise from the back of the room, it was the sound of rock grinding against rock and the millstone had started to move. It was spinning around as if it was doing its job but there was no wheat being poured into it. Elywen gasped and pointed. “The wheel is not connected and there is little water in the river, the miller can’t have opened the sluices yet. What is powering the stone?”
Hawk swore so bad it was a miracle all the flour did not spontaneously explode. He shook his head in disbelief. “I can barely grasp the extend of this curse, Fadian must have been a very clever man in deed. Every time the millstone starts it calls for the stallion which drowns a child as a human sacrifice to the ancient gods which in turn makes sure that both the ancient curse and his own revenge is fulfilled. What created my wealth will steal yours, remember?”
They all nodded and Elywen looked down with a nervous look in her beautiful golden eyes. “But it is safe tonight right? I told them to tie their children down so it won’t be able to drown someone again!”
Enez clenched her teeth together. “I doubt that they have warned the poor widow. This is creepy, I guess the miller has been opening the sluices every third night just as a cover up. He should have been terrified but I guess he’s already to consumed by the curse to care.”
Hawk swore again, worse than ever. “Quick, we have got to reach the lake before another innocent soul is sacrificed, Fadian must have offered the kelpie’s services to the ancient powers, to ensure that they would prevail and thus avenge his death.”
Rheynek smiled but it was a stiff smile. “I remember that drowning was a very popular method of human sacrifice, I’ve read it somewhere.”
Hawk nodded slowly. “The miller knows what he has been doing, or else I will eat my saddle!”
Elywen had to smile. “I don’t think that is such a good idea, I think it is rather hard to digest.”
They rushed out the door and got on their horses, in reality they knew little of what they should do, except hurry. They headed to the beach, it was getting dark pretty fast now and they knew what that meant. This was turning into a rapidly growing nightmare. They rode onto the beach just as the moon rose above the hills, the cold clear light was very welcome because it made it possible to see. In the other end of the small lake they could see something moving with strange irregular movements.
Elywen shouted and spurred her beautiful palomino mare, Icerose increased her speed all she could and outran the other horses. Elywen saw who it was, the widow’s son, and he was heading for the lake. She was an excellent rider and soon she came up beside the boy who seemed to be asleep or in a state of trance. She was leaning out of the saddle and lifted the boy up in front of her. He did not seem to respond to anything but they could hear a piercing scream from the lake. It was so loud it hurt their ears and the horses whinnied and tried to rear.
The riders calmed them down and looked out over the lake. There on the mirror like surface came an apparition of beauty, apparently hovering just above the water. It was a horse, the most breath-taking animal they had ever seen, even their leaders amazing stallion Steelhawk became anonymous in comparison with this creature. It was very large and tall with strong hard legs and a sleek elegant body. Its mane and tail shone like silk in the moonlight and it looked almost like polished silver.
It was gracefully dancing closer to them and Hawk gave everybody a short gaze filled with warnings. It was not wise to be enthralled by its looks, they were deceiving. It was very obvious that it was the boy the kelpie was after and Elywen lifted the child over on Enez horse. “Ride into the hill above the lake and whatever you do, don’t ride back down!”
Enez obeyed without questions and the creature screamed again. It started running faster and the remaining three riders tried to block its path. Elywen called the powers she carried and shaped a wall of flames in front of them and the wonderful animal stopped and reared with a shriek that did not have any resemblance to the sounds of a normal horse.
Elywen screamed to Hawk. “How do we stop something like this?”
Hawk shrugged and tried to think fast. “I have no idea whatsoever, just don’t let it get the boy.”
Rheynek looked very tense. “I don’t think the bit would help now, it is impossible to get it on him and he obeys the ancient curse now, not any mortal master may command him. He is dedicated to bring fresh sacrifice to the powers of the temple and has been since Fadian’s grave was disturbed. We just have to stall him!”
Elywen was sweating now, to maintain such flames were drawing a lot of her strength and she would soon be too tired to keep them up. “That’s easier said than done my friend.”
Hawk cursed and tried to rein Trollcrusher who whinnied and reared, whipped the air with his powerful front legs. The water stallion shook its long neck and tried to pass the flames. “Steel won’t do any damage or what?”
Rheynek agreed. “These are not mortal beings, they are supernatural creatures. We must break the spell it is serving to make it disappear.”
Elywen was almost hissing like an angry cat. “And how the hell do we do that? And how do we stall him? I can’t keep these flames up any longer!”
Rheynek tried to rein his mare that was kicking and screaming like mad and suddenly it looked as if he had seen the light. “Dismount and let go of your horses!”
Elywen stared at him like he had suddenly turned green or something. “What?!”
Rheynek jumped out of the saddle and Starwind made a sharp scream and threw her head up with anger in her eyes. “Think people, the Goddess doesn’t like such evil creatures in her creation and our horses are all her own sacred chargers right?”
Hawk had to smile. “Well, I am not so sure about Trollcrusher but if he can fight a troll then well, let’s try!”
He obeyed, dismounted and let go of the reins and Elywen did the same with a shivering heart. Now they were in a dangerous position if the creature decided to attack them.
The flames died down and the water stallion threw himself forward but was met by something it probably never would have anticipated. Starwind reared and the stocky dun mare jumped right at the kelpie. Her strong front legs hammered against its chest and the creature was pushed back onto his hocks for a second. It screamed in anger and turned to attack the mare but then he was attacked again by Icerose. Elywen could barely believe her own eyes, she had never seen her lovely mare like this. She was kicking and biting and her ears were flat down as she delivered some really dangerous kicks with her long hind legs.
Trollcrusher made a terrifying battle-cry and threw himself into the fight, the huge battle stallion was just as tall as the kelpie and much more muscular, and he had fought dangerous creatures many times before. He sank his teeth into the opponent’s neck and almost shook the animal from head to tail even though it was almost his own weight. The water stallion screamed but it was confused and its self-confidence was cracked, it had never met an opponent like this one. The two mares attacked again from each side and the stallion from the front and he used his steel-shod hoofs for all they were worth. A normal horse would have tried to escape by now but this was no horse, it continued to fight in spite of several deep gashes.
It managed to hit Trollcrusher in his broad chest and drew blood from a deep cut but that did not seem to even bother the mighty stallion, he did not back up even an inch. Instead he made a strange and fast move with his head, the mighty arched neck seemed almost snakelike for a short second and it was strange to witness since it was so powerful and muscular. The speed seemed impossible. He reached down and caught the kelpies right front leg in his mouth, did a second sudden move and they could hear the sound of bones being crushed. The stallion’s jaws were extremely powerful and he used dirty tricks he had used against other stallions when fighting for the right to mate.
The kelpie made a terrible high pitched sound and stumbled backward with the front leg hanging just above the ground. The leg was crushed, broken beyond repair if it had been a mortal animal.
The three warriors stood there with big eyes and witnessed how their horses forced the monster back into the lake. It was staggering back into the water and now the shape changed and revealed it’s true self. The water did no longer carry it and the lovely head turned into something that reminded them of a moray eel with huge red eyes and long fangs. Elywen shivered from the sight and the horses returned with a proud expression in their eyes while they were blowing their noses and throwing their heads.
Rheynek watched their behaviour with curiosity, he caught Starwind and she touched him gently with her muzzle and let him stroke her sweaty flanks. Hawk grabbed Trollcrusher’s reins and shook his head in disbelief. “How was that possible, I thought you needed magic to stop such an enemy?”
Rheynek smiled a little self-conscious. “No, I suddenly remembered something else I read while I was studying. A kelpie can only be defeated by the creature it is using as camouflage. If it appears as a human then a human can defeat it, if it shows itself as a horse then it is natural that a strong horse can beat it and our horses are all special you know, they know what to do!”
They got back in the saddle and rode up to Enez who had watched the whole thing from the hill with fear in her heart. She cleared her voice. “Will it be back again?”
Rheynek nodded shortly. “Yes, in three days, it will have healed by then.”
Hawk sighed. “OK, so how do we break the spell?”
Enez looked at the sleeping child. “I will deliver him to his mother, she must be worried sick now, you’ll fix the rest right?”
Rheynek smiled and petted her knee. “OK, but be careful my love!”
She nodded and turned her horse and the three looked at each other.
Elywen looked a little worried. “I think we will have to destroy the old mill and the millstone completely, and where is the miller by the way?”
Hawk took a look around. “You tell me, he should have been here if he really went to open the sluices, they are just a few hundred feet from here at the end of the lake. We should have seen him, at least when we rode up here.”
Rheynek was thinking fast. “Fadian had gold, and I am quite sure that the gold is what the miller is after, and if I have gotten the right impression of Fadian’s personality I bet he buried it somewhere.”
Hawk nodded. “Yes, he was probably almost paranoid, convinced that everybody would try to rob him. I think we will have to visit the miller once more, I know there is something his wife did not tell us!”
Elywen almost protested but she kept her mouth shut, she knew that the only way to help the poor woman was to solve this before even more people had to die. They had to break the spell which had sunken it’s claws deep into her husband’s soul. They turned the horses and rode hard back to the mill.
It was very dark when they arrived and Hawk hammered the end of his sword hilt against the door. The sound was loud and after a while the woman opened the door, she was shivering and only clad in her nightgown. When she saw them she looked like she expected to be murdered any second, her eyes were huge with fear. “Has your husband been doing any digging lately?”
She shivered but nodded slowly and reluctantly, her face nervous. “Y... yes, but I am not allowed to tell anyone, he has changed a lot lately and he hits me. He never did that before, I swear, he is a good man deep inside and...”
Hawk almost growled! “You have to tell me, keeping your mouth shut will make you an accomplice to a terrible crime. Your own kin is dying and he has done nothing to stop it, because of greed!”
The woman almost fainted with fear. “Oh gods, save me from his wrath.. Ah.. They left tonight for the small Holt behind the wheat fields, at least that’s what I think.”
They could barely understand what she was saying so weak and trembling was her voice. Hawk tilted his head. “They?”
She nodded. “His brother joined him, I had to swear not to tell anyone, please!”
He nodded. “It is OK, he threatened you, and I do not hold that against you!”
He got back on his horse and nodded at her. “Stay awake, we will be back soon.”
She shut the door and they turned the horses toward the fields they had seen when they arrived the day before. The moonlight was strong enough for them to see, they were all used to travelling in the dark. There was a small Holt behind the fields and it had grown on top of a huge pile of rocks that had been removed from the ground when the fields were first cultivated. The pile was old and almost a quarter of a mile across, covered with forest and bushes, a real jungle. Hawk slowed down when they got closer, they dismounted and got closer on foot. Hawk could smell different things when they entered the forest, human sweat smoke and raw dirt.
Soon they could hear the sound of shovels against rocks and they could see a pale light that was spreading between the trees. They sneaked closer and stared down into a huge pit in the ground. It was cleared of rocks which proved that the miller and his brother had worked there for a long period of time since the layer of rocks was several meters thick and the hole was more than twenty meters across at the top. In the bottom of the pit two men were frantically working to free a steel coffin from the dirt.
Their faces revealed their eagerness and Hawk made a grizzly smile. “Look at that hypocritical bastard; he desires earthly wealth just as much as his brother.”
Rheynek nodded and crawled through a bush, of course without a sound. “They will have it out any time now, shall we?”
Hawk smiled slowly. “That gold will only be a source of danger and disasters, it must be destroyed.”
Elywen looked at him calmly; she saw her role in this now. The two crept forward and since they were who they were the miller and the priest never saw them before the two warriors grabbed them rather brutally. The reverend made a startled cry but that was stopped when Hawk grabbed him by the throat and just pulled him after him out of the pit. The miller was a huge guy and strong like an ox but he was almost like a kitten in Rheynek’s hands, the white haired warrior was much stronger than any human being. Both men were placed on a rock and they stared in disbelief and anger at the three. “You have no right! This is ours, our heritage, and our gold!”
Hawk caught their eyes and now he was really angry, the two went pale like sheets. “No, you have no right! You have disturbed the dead in your pursuit of this gold and both been entrapped by ancient evil. And you have done nothing to prevent this, nothing! You must have understood something was wrong before it was too late but you did not do anything to stop it! You have brought this over the village, in you the curse of Fadian lives on.”
The miller made an ugly grimace. “Nonsense, you are lying you pointy eared freak!”
Hawk growled and the miller lost all color again. “You knew what woke up in the lake when you opened the box and saw the bit. You must have understood that the secret was a kelpie and that it would kill but you did not tell anyone. You lied to the people because you wanted to keep it to yourself if you managed to catch it right?”
The miller looked down. “It wasn’t just me; my brother was in on it too and...”
The reverend broke in “That’s a lie, he tricked me into it!”
Rheynek hissed. “Listen to you two, children have died and you are sitting there accusing each other of lies, you should both have been flogged and hanged.”
They looked at each other in sudden terror; they realized who they were caught by and how much power a weapons master really has. Hawk pulled them on their feet. “The gold is cursed, you will come with me and Elywen will destroy it all!”
Both men started to wave their arms and yell in protest, swearing so badly Rheynek almost wished he had gone deaf, just for a few minutes. Elywen summoned her powers and soon the coffin and its contents was glowing red. After a while the coffin the gold and the rocks around had turned into a glowing liquid that was burning it’s way deeper into the ground. This was hard on Elywen and Hawk kissed her lovingly when it all was over. Then there was nothing but singed rocks and dirt left and if anyone wanted to find Fadian’s gold now they would have to dig very deep indeed. It was buried several hundred feet down and covered with melted rock; nobody would ever be able to find it.
“Well done my love, now it is my turn I guess” Hawk tied the two men’s hands together before he tied them behind his horse and pulled them behind them when they returned to the mill. They had to run and were jumping and swearing but he said that some exercise would do them good.
Enez had delivered the boy to his mother who had been terrified since she had seen that he was gone, she returned to the mill just as the other three came with the prisoners and she had to laugh when she saw the millers and the reverends face. “You look as if you have sold butter but didn’t get paid.”
The words made the miller start a flood of curses and profanity mixed with accuses of theft and Hawk kicked him under his chin to make him shut up. The man fell like a log and did not speak again for a while. Hawk did not hesitate, he went to the shed and came back with a huge iron rod and a sledgehammer, and then they tied the prisoners to a tree and went into the mill once more. The miller’s wife had apparently not wanted to be seen by her husband so the room was empty and Hawk walked straight to the stone and started hammering down on it with all his strength.
He was strong, so strong that the metal rod bended and the sledgehammer broke but only a few small pieces came of the rock. Rheynek started walking around it, took a closer look at it and it seemed to be made out of solid granite, he made a grimace. “I do not think we can break this the usual way, it has been made to last and the rock is very solid.”
Hawk wiped the sweat from his brow with a sigh. “Then how do we destroy it ha?”
Rheynek smiled but it was a very narrow smile. “I have an idea!”
A short while after they were looking at the millstone they had pulled out in the open with the help of their horses and several meters of rope. It had been a hard job and the floor was severely damaged but it was in the middle of the yard now. It was in a safe distance from the building. Rheynek went to the shed and started carrying out all the firewood he could find and Elywen looked like a lit candle and started helping him.
Enez looked like she thought they all had gone mad until Elywen told her that miners blasted rocks by heating them and then throwing cold water on them. When they had built a really huge bonfire they lit it and let it burn until the rock was almost glowing red. Elywen could have done the same thing but she was still exhausted from her last effort so they agreed that she needed to save the strength she had left, they still had the old mill left.
Hawk carried several buckets of water from the river and they threw them at the rock. It cracked with a loud bang and pieces flew from it in every direction. Enez screamed and ducked for cover behind a corner and the others threw themselves down. They had not anticipated such a violent reaction but the rock was destroyed now. It could no longer work as a source of evil forces and cast its spell over innocent humans. The old altar was just rubble now and Rheynek ordered them to take the pieces and bury them in the woods on several locations, just in case.
Hawk gave the two men a cold smile; he intended to let the whole village know what they had done. Sometimes he was cruel and it was perhaps not one of his good sides but sometimes it was necessary. Elywen smiled and stroked his arm. “The old mill next?”
He nodded and whistled for his horse. “Yes it is next and I fear it is where our problems really will start!”
Elywen looked down. “I hope not, there have been enough problems for one day!”
They mounted their horses and rode down to the village where Hawk told Joras of the two prisoners and what they had done. He told Joras to bring them to the village and keep them under surveillance until they returned. Joras was chocked but promised to get a few good men and get the prisoners as soon as he could.
Hawk had a harsh expression on his face when he rode toward the old mill for the second time that day. This was the source of the curse and he did not expect the ancient powers to give in without a fight. The stallion and the millstone had been its tools but what if it had more servants? He did not mention his doubt to the others, did not want to make them scared. Something rested within the earth there, something ancient and evil and he did not like that combination, not more than he would like to take a bath in orc droppings.
It was quite light when they reached the mill, the moon had reached zenith and bathed the landscape in its cold bright light. The shadows were dark and twisted and created strange shapes that would have made a less brave group think twice but these were familiar with danger, they had to do this. They dismounted and stared at the big heap of rubble and rotten boards. “I bet a simple torch would do much of the job here!”
Enez tilted her head and stared at the ruin with narrow eyes. Hawk shook his head. “No, it won’t be enough; I believe that whatever lived in the temple took both Fadian and the mill. Fadian died but the millstone was moved and managed to infect its new owner with the same greed that brought Fadian to his end. I think this new miller was almost forced to come to this place when the power sensed a new soul with the same potential for evil and greed as Fadian. The other millers who lived between Fadian and this new one must have been very good people in deed. The power must have thought that the time had come to awake again, there is definitely something here that ordinary fire won’t harm.”
Rheynek nodded calmly, his face was unworldly beautiful in the moonlight and his white hair shone like silver. There was frost in his eyes, rock hard determination. “I agree, let’s check it out! It you are right the power must have returned to this place since the stone got crushed.”
He grabbed one of the torches they had brought and lit it, threw it right into the middle of the pile of debris. Some boards caught fire but the flames died again, strange since the wood was bone dry! Enez frowned. “Was that really smart? I mean, if there really is something here that should probably disturb it seriously!”
Rheynek grinned coldly and Hawk looked at him for a few seconds, his eyes were filled with understanding and consent. He was often discovering new sides of the white haired man which mirrored his own talents and skills. This boldness was new but Hawk welcomed it, it would make Rheynek an even better warrior for the light.
The fire had died completely out when they suddenly heard a sound, it was a sort of rumbling and it grew louder very fast, Enez screamed all of a sudden and backed up a few steps. They could see something moving, that boards and poles had been assembled again somehow and rose above the ruin. It was creaking and rumbling and the sound was deafening. It was a weird shape that rose from the ruin like a phoenix from the ashes; it looked like a stick man or something else a child might put together. It did not look like anything they had ever seen, it had two arms made from support beams and it was swinging them slowly as to test them out. The body was made from boards and other debris and shaped like a barrel with no bottom or top. There was no head visible and the legs were made from the main shaft from the mills mechanism.
Hawk stared in disbelief at the monstrosity who almost floated towards them on the remains of the mill. Enez was pale like a ghost and Hawk turned towards her. “Take the horses and go a few hundred meters away along the road, I don’t want to risk them.”
She did not hesitate and Hawk stared at the moving mountain of rotten wood and rusty steel that came slowly staggering towards them. It would have been straight forward comical if it had not been so serious. The creaking increased as it raised one of the arms to strike down upon them, they jumped out of harm’s way and earth rocks and pieces of broken boards flew around their ears as the arm hit the ground. It was strong and it knew who the enemy was. Rheynek shouted to Elywen. “I’ll try some spells, you can try too!”
She nodded, her flame red hair flew wild in the wind and her dragon like eyes were glowing, and she was ready for a fight. Rheynek was no real magician but he had learned a lot and he hurried to shout a few spells which were simple but usually effective. It slowed the apparition down like it was moving through thick mud and Elywen walked into the open area in front of the mill. She raised her arms, weapons masters skills were of no use now, only her powers could stop this.
She took a deep breath and a great ball of fire seemed to appear out of nowhere just in front of the strange creature. With a boom it exploded and spread flames all over the thing and several parts of it caught on fire immediately. The fire burned very hot, much hotter than ordinary flames and water would do no good if someone had tried to put them out that way. Dragon fire acts almost like a liquid and is close to impossible to put out. The creature did not seem to care about the flames and Elywen shouted to the others. “Get back, I don’t think the fire harms it enough!”
The thing was raining pieces of burning wood and they could hear a piercing sound from it but it did not stop and Elywen had to run when it tried to hit her. She had to think fast and stop it before anyone got hurt.
Rheynek tried some more spells but they were pointless, had no effect whatsoever. He bit his teeth together while he was trying to remember something more effective. Elywen increased the power she threw against the thing, it was out of the ruin now and staggered after her while it banged its arms against the ground with alarming speed. It was burning now, all over, but that did not matter to the monster because the force that kept it alive was out of harm’s way.
Rheynek screamed to Elywen and asked her to put the rest of the ruin on fire too. She obeyed but was starting to get tired and she understood that this force really did not need a body to do its job. It had created a sort of force field and it was strong enough in itself to do a whole lot of damage, flames or not.
Hawk just stood there and looked rather worried and helpless. This was not his table at all; he was a man of the sword and magic only made him insecure and a bit scared. He looked at the ruin, all the wood was burning now and the flames reached for the sky in hunger. Still the force originating in the old temple continued fighting; the fire did not seem to harm it a bit. He shook his head in a sudden revelation, of course! It was an unholy place, a source of an evil the goddess probably disapproved of. They needed a way to cleanse this place and they needed it fast.
He grabbed Rheynek by the arm. “Quick, if you need to cleanse something of evil, what method do the priestesses use?”
Rheynek opened his eyes up wide and looked far from intelligent for a few seconds. “Of course, we have been morons, fire won’t do the job this time, it will only burn the remains of the mill, not cleanse the ancient temple.”
Hawk nodded eagerly. “Yes, yes, what would do the job?”
Rheynek stared at his friends with a weird expression in his eyes. “Blessed water!”
Hawk hit his own forehead, hard! “Yes, of course, and how do we get enough holy water to kill this thing here, before it kills us, or the rest of the village. It is really angry now, I can sense it!”
The thing was almost cinders now but it kept following Elywen who soon would run out of strength. In ordinary cases she would feed her own energy on the energy of the things she burned, dead or alive, but this gave her nothing in return, it burned and that was all. She waved at them and had to run again. They could hear a strange rumbling sound from the thing; it did no longer look like a stick man, more like a sort of shivering in the air. The sound reminded them of a deep growling and Elywen yelled. “It is only getting stronger! How is that possible?”
Rheynek was thinking hard, he looked at Hawk and tried to get an idea. “I am a priest in a way, I have been trained just like the three chosen women, so I can bless water but we would need a whole lot of it and I did not bring a bucket, did you?”
Hawk stared at the burning ruin and the whole landscape; it was illuminated by the fire now and seemed rather bizarre. He remembered something they had talked about earlier that day. “The river was not big enough so they built the dam right? I guess this must have been a marsh back then, almost a bog! It is quite low in the terrain as we’ve seen? And the miller wanted to build a new canal through here to bring more water to the mill.”
He bent down and drew a quick map on the ground with a stick. “Look, the dam is here, and the river goes in a wide bend before it reaches the new mill. It is shaped almost like a horseshoe or a U, and this place is in the middle of it. The new canal would have been a good idea; it would have shortened the distance from the dam to the new mill.”
Rheynek raised his eyebrows. “And your point is?”
Hawk pointed at the remains of the canal Fadian had built. “This canal is probably what’s left of an older river system, such rivers tend to shift their bed often, and I think that we should give the river a chance to reclaim its old bed.”
Rheynek gasped, he looked shocked. “Of course but how?”
The force was still chasing Elywen and she had to run now, most of the boards and metal that had made its makeshift body was gone and it got faster by the minute. It was throwing objects at her now and flaming debris and Hawk would more than anything else in the world like to help her or take her place but that was impossible. The force had recognized the strongest individual among them and perhaps it wanted to possess her too. She yelled at them. “Whatever you are planning, do it now!”
Rheynek stared at Hawk who nodded. “You have to ride to the dam and break it down, and bless the whole lake!”
Rheynek sighed. “That easy? Another ride in the park?”
Hawk grinned, he liked the irony Rheynek expressed, but it would not be easy at all.
He turned to Elywen who was dancing around to avoid the attacks, she was sweating now and her strength would soon be drained completely. She was a priestess, not a warrior and she had not trained for something like this.
Rheynek called out to Enez. “Ride to the village and warn them, there might be some flooding around the village as well.”
She nodded and got on her horse and the two men caught their own animals. Rheynek had a very determined expression on his face. “I will ride along the river, I think that will be faster!”
Hawk looked at Starwind. “The river bed is very slippery, can she do it?”
Rheynek smiled and spurred the dun mare. “Yes, if any horse can stay upright it’s Starwind, and she can outrun even a racehorse.”
He disappeared toward the river and Hawk turned Trollcrusher toward Elywen. She would no longer be strong enough to run from the danger and if they tried to ride away the thing would probably follow them. They had to retain it right where it was. He rode over to her and picked her up, placed her behind him in the saddle. “Hang in there honey, we’ll keep you out of reach of this calamity.”
They could hear roaring sounds and the shivering figure seemed to grow and gain strength by the minute. Embers and ashes were flying around their ears and the heat was almost unbearable but there was no way they could stop it now, it was completely out of control and not even Elywen’s gifts would make any difference. Trollcrusher was fast and strong and it could turn on a dime which it really needed now. Hawk had to use all his skills as a rider to keep them away from this formidable foe.
Rheynek rode hard, the river was narrow and there was thick bush and undergrowth around it so he had to ride in the water and the rocks were really treacherous but Starwind knew her job and kept an amazing speed in spite of it. She ran with her ears back and put her heart into it when they had to jump fallen trees and huge boulders. Rheynek was almost scared a few times but the huge mare stayed on her feet every time and after a while he saw the dam in front of him.
It was quite solid, made to last and he stopped the horse and tried to understand how he could destroy something this massive. He jumped onto the dam, looked out onto the lake, some of the water would no doubt find its way into the old riverbed, it was probably flooded every spring before the dam was built and he also knew that time was running out fast. He concentrated on one thing at a time, grabbed his sword and dipped the tip into the clear water. It was made from the sacred metal and Nadharn was no ordinary weapon, it was blessed by the goddess and was in a way almost alive. He shouted the right prayers and blessings and for a moment the water seemed even clearer than before, the whole lake was now sanctified.
Hawk and Elywen was soon in real danger, there was fire burning everywhere and the force never needed to stop and take a breather. Trollcrusher was panting and sweat was dripping of his mighty flanks, but he was still strong and had plenty of strength left. The enemy threw all sorts of objects at them; it was as if a giant poltergeist had decided to have some fun with the ruin and its surroundings. Pieces of the drive shaft, wheel and support poles were raining down on them and embers burned holes in their clothes. Hawk just prayed that Rheynek did his job and soon.
Rheynek studied the dam, it was made from wood and well put together, there had to be a way to tear it down. There were two huge beams supporting it and he hurried over to them and raised Nadharn. The blade cut deep but he had to try several times before he managed to cut them in two. There was a lot of creaking and some leaks but nothing more happened and he started to feel a bit frustrated and scared. He had to bring the dam down, he had to.
He was leaning against a rock when Starwind whinnied and shook her head and he turned and looked at the mare. There was some rope in his saddlebags and he clenched his teeth together. It was a huge chance to take but he had to do it. He quickly attached the rope to the middle of the dam and tied the other end to his saddle horn, nodded at the mare. “Now my pretty one, pull with all of your might, it is our only chance.”
Elywen had shut her eyes; she just clung on to Hawk with all of her strength and prayed that they would get out of this hell alive. The force had turned the fire they had used against it to its own benefit, now it was a tool in the hands of their enemy. The horse had to jump and turn and take sudden stops and she felt like her arms had grown to twice their normal length. Sometimes they barely managed to dodge the debris that was thrown at them and she could not remember the last time she had been this afraid. In all the rumble and creaking it was as if they could hear a sort of laughter, mean and vicious, and she swore that she would see the end of this forgotten evil.
The settlers probably never would have built their homes where they had if they had known about this. Hawk gasped and pulled Trollcrusher around so hard the horse almost lost his footing. “Rheynek has to succeed, he has to! It will get us soon; its aim is improving every time it tries.”
Starwind threw herself forward, the rope tightened and started to creak but the mare did not stop, she pulled with all of her weight and her muscular thighs were shivering from the effort. Rheynek held his breath, she knew what to do and he did not have to encourage her further. She took a few steps backward, leapt forward so hard the rope almost made her loose her balance but she tried again and again and the sounds from the dam got louder every time. Water was seeping through cracks which grew wider and wider. Rheynek feared that the saddle or the rope would break but they did not, she pulled so hard she almost had her chest on the rocks and her nostrils were flaming red from the strain.
Then it happened, suddenly like a lightning. There was a huge crash and the mare almost fell forward onto her nose but she jumped up and Rheynek got in the saddle and untied the rope in one swift move. He threw her sideward out of the river and onto its bank and it was not a second too soon. The dam seemed to disintegrate in front of his very eyes, huge logs and solid boards was washed away by an angry stream of water. It looked as if some untamed beast had been unleashed after a long sleep and now it was angry and hungry. The river reclaimed what had once been its rightful land and Rheynek was almost paralyzed by the sight of the mighty powers he had released. Now he could only pray that the others got out of the way before they were caught by this terrible flash flood.
The river celebrated its new-found freedom by tearing down trees and tumbling huge boulders like marbles in the hands of a child and the sound was deafening. He found the road that was leading toward the village and Starwind ran like a wind; he had to see the outcome of this.
Hawk was riding hard around in circles and Elywen screamed in fear when different things almost hit them. Trollcrusher screamed too and Hawk could feel that the stallion was getting slower and stiffer; he was a heavy horse and not some thoroughbred that is bred to race. This speed was more than he could keep up over time. Hawk petted the horse on the sweaty neck and promised him a huge meal on the best available oats if they managed to get out of this alive. Elywen gasped and pointed away from the ruin, her eyes were filled with a weird mixture of horror and hope. “Look!”
Hawk turned his head, along the remains of the old canal came a huge wave of murky water. They could hear its deep roar and rocks and trees were tossed around like toys.
Hawk gasped too. “Rheynek, he did it!”
Elywen saw that the figure stopped, seemed to be confused. “Come on, we have got to get out of its way.”
He spurred Trollcrusher and gave the horse free reins. He sprinted off like a racehorse from a starting gate and followed the old road. Elywen turned around, watched in horrified fascination.
The wave washed over the ruin and filled the remains of the temple completely and put out the flames in a flash. They heard a mighty roar, a scream in utter anger and disappointment and a black cloud of smoke formed over the water. The ground was shaking and a sort of energy made the air shiver to a point where it became almost painful to be there. The black cloud reshaped itself, it looked almost like a sort of human figure with a goats head and flaming eyes and it was obviously clawing at the power that now was destroying it. Hawk yelled to Elywen. “Don’t look!”
She did not obey, stared with big eyes at the dark cloud that struggled for a while with terrible rumbling sounds before it exploded with a force that flattened the remaining trees around the ruin.
There was a silence then, so deep and clear it seemed like something almost sacred. Elywen smiled. “The goddess won, the place is cleansed now, and it is free.”
Hawk reined Trollcrusher and turned the horse. The rising sun sent a few trembling rays over the remains of the ruin and they could feel that the whole landscape somehow relaxed.
Elywen cheered in elvish and rubbed her mate’s shoulders. “Look, it will be normal now, just another bog, and I think the ruins were completely washed away by all that water.”
Hawk grabbed her hand. “I know, no evil rests here now, the ancient power is gone forever.”
They caught Elywen’s horse again and rode slowly toward the village and were met halfway by Rheynek and Enez who were beside themselves with worry. They had to describe everything in detail several times and rode in triumph to the inn where the villagers had assembled. Enez had managed to get everybody to come; she had her ways to persuade people. Everybody had seen the flames and the columns of smoke and they had been very worried and even more when the ground started to shake and roar.
Hawk assured them that they were safe now, the old mill was no longer cursed and the kelpie would anyway die now that the lake was dry. They would have to rebuild the dam but that was a small price to pay, no child would ever be used as a sacrifice again and the restless spirit of Fadian was laid to rest again by the goddess blessings. People gathered in the hall and the four had to tell the whole story several times before everybody understood what had happened.
The two prisoners were brought forth, they had been caught by the curse and the old evil but they could still have tried to warn the people. Other places they would probably have been hung or flogged but the villagers decided to send them away. They would no longer be welcome there and they had to leave the same day. Hawk thought the villagers were a bit too soft-hearted but it was their decision.
There was a lot of celebrating that day and Elywen could see how happy many were with the fact that the reverend was leaving. The party that followed showed that many had been kept on a short leash a little too long, there was a lot of drinking and fun and when the four returned to their rooms the partying had just started.
The day after there was a lot of hangovers and a lot of happy people and a new miller soon started his work at the mill. The former millers wife decided to leave her husband and remained in the village as a nanny and the new miller bought a new millstone that never would do anything else than what it was supposed to, grinding wheat. The last victim of the ancient curse was buried and things returned to normal in the small community although these terrible events never would be forgotten. They would last forever, as a warning to the people in the valley. Nobody should let greed rule their souls cause then the curse of Fadian might come to life once more.
When the four returned to their headquarters they had to tell everybody of their adventure several times and their leader made sure that that the whole tale was written down. Enez had nightmares for a while but they stopped after a few weeks and they all recovered rather well. Rheynek meant that everything that did not kill them made them stronger and the others agreed this had been a rather special case but it had made them stronger and tied the bonds they shared even tighter than before. The curse had been buried for ever, under the clear water and the goddess blessings.
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