The morning was clear but chilly, with dark clouds looming in the west. Carriages, wagons, soldiers, and riders were organizing into a procession of sorts under direction of Sir Ralph.
Nick and Elizabeth had decided to start out on Falcon and Goldie rather than ride in their borrowed carriage. It was a large, old vehicle but in good shape that would carry their weapons, the candy, and anything that they thought they might need during the day. Sylvie rode inside while Parker sat up top to drive. The regular driver of the carriage, borrowed too, sat next to him as relief driver.
The duke and duchess were approached by three men they didn't know, an older man leading two younger ones. They stopped at a respectful distance and bowed.
"Your Highnesses," the older man said as he offered a large roll of sturdy paper, "I am Mortimer Carter, your mapmaker, and these are my sons Manny and Melvin. I brought you a draft map of Sothalia. The external borders, the cities of Sothalia, Seaport, and Carbury are all correctly located as well as the main roads between them. Unfortunately, the rest is based on second and third hand accounts, and I cannot vouch for it. But we will be correcting and adding to it as we travel, and I hope to present you with a much better representation of your duchy shortly after we return."
Nick accepted it with surprised pleasure. "Thank you very much. We knew Prince Arthur had brought mapmakers but I wasn't expecting anything at the start of our trip."
"This will be a great aid to us as we travel," Elizabeth added.
The mapmakers smiled, bowed again, and returned to a large carriage near the end of the forming train. After a quick look, the duke put the map in his carriage, and he and the duchess mounted. They rode up and down the line, greeting those they knew. By the time they returned to their carriage near the front of the procession, everything was reasonably orderly and ready.
Sir Ralph walked up and said, "Don't worry about anything; we'll handle whatever comes up one way or the other. There won't be any great difficulties and nothing that can't be changed if you wish when you return."
Nick grinned at him and he leaned down and they shook hands. "You know we're bound to worry a little, but I'm sure we're leaving Sothalia in good hands."
Elizabeth took Ralph's offered hand too, but in a more delicate manner. "Take care, Ralph. We're so pleased to have family to look after things for us, and we do consider you family, you know. We'll be back as soon as we can."
Ralph smiled, bowed, and merely said, "Thank you, Elizabeth, that means much to me. Be safe. I will tell Captain Gregg to start."
The scouts were sent out, followed by the captain and ten mounted soldiers. Ten more would ride alongside the procession and ten bring up the rear. Nick and Elizabeth were just glad to finally be on their way. A few people had gathered at the gate to see them off, and Elizabeth tossed candy to the children among them from a small bag tied to her saddle.
As expected, the road heading east toward the coast was wide and not in bad condition for their first hour of travel. Nobles living in Sothalia had already sent out parties to do what repairs they could. Mounted clerks peeled off from the main body and rode to houses and farms along the way to ask questions about ownership whenever they found deserted or destroyed property and then came galloping back to catch up.
They hadn't gone many miles when there were shouts from the rear of the train. A horseman was coming fast, his red cloak streaming out behind him. Nick and Elizabeth rode back to meet him and were surprised to see it was Prince Arthur. He wore no armor and rode a smaller horse than his war steed.
As he reined up next to them he called, "Great news, Nicky, we're uncles!"
Elizabeth asked excitedly, "Eugenie had her babies? Is she all right?"
"She is; she's a sturdy girl and it was an easy lie in, less than half a day to birth both. The babes are reported as being a bit small, but both cried lustily and are sucking well. Boys! Two heirs to the crown."
Elizabeth doubted being in labor for half a day was all that easy, but she said nothing; the men wouldn't understand. Nick's grin dimmed a bit too. Twin boys could mean trouble with the succession when they grew up, but that was for later. He asked, "Names?"
Arthur shook his head. "Three days, remember?"
Nick had forgotten; there hadn't been any royal children for a long time. He said a little sourly, "Right, don't want to get too attached until it's fairly sure they'll live." That made them all become more serious.
Arthur just nodded agreement, oblivious to Nick's tone. "I wanted to give you the great news right away. I heard unofficially that Edward went and had a rousing good drunk after he'd seen the babes. I'll send word when more is known. Now I must go back, I left immediately when I received word, and I have officers waiting. Good traveling to you." He turned about and trotted back toward his camp, and Nick got their train started again.
At the first major crossroads, Elizabeth noted the younger Carters spurring mounts north and south to gather data for their father. Messengers and clerks rode near the ducal carriage, ready to be sent wherever and whenever needed. Beyond the crossroad the road narrowed and became rutted and rough. Nick had Sylvie hand him the map through the carriage window and consulted it, then passed it to Elizabeth.
"Could you check with some of our knights and their ladies to see if Baron Atherton is actually the local lord here and that the road shown to his residence is correct?" Nick asked. "You know the ladies better than I know the knights."
She nodded. "Of course. Do you want me to compose a message to him, tactfully requesting he get this road repaired?"
The duke's face showed surprise at her offer, but then he nodded. "If you would, and send it; I don't need to see it first. In fact, would you like to be in charge of repair communiques to the local lords for the journey?"
It was Elizabeth's turn to be pleasantly surprised. "I would. Doing something besides looking decorative and keeping you company would be a nice change and keep me occupied. Thank you, Nick."
He grinned at her. "I think I like this delegating stuff. Maybe I'll just be the one to ride around looking decorative instead of working constantly."
The duchess laughed and rode back to the following carriages to confirm the markings on the map.
The rain caught up to them after lunch, starting as a light mist that turned into a steady drizzle. A messenger returned from Baron Atherton agreeing it was his duty to see the road repaired, but excusing himself on the grounds of more urgent repairs needed to his local village and his own stables, and promising to fix the road as soon as he could.
They were all wet and the road was getting muddy by the time they reached their first stop at the town of Stonebridge. A few people peered out of their homes to watch them pass, but no one ventured out in the rain. The nobility headed to a large inn on the main road while Captain Gregg saw to the setting up of a camp for everyone else.
The inn was nearly empty this time of the year and was able to accommodate the mapmakers, clerks, and personal servants too, and provide food for everyone including those in the camp. The duke and duchess retired to their chamber early, but others stayed in the main room until late, drinking and having something of a party while the rain drummed on the roof.
In the morning, it was obvious who had gone to bed at a reasonable time and who hadn't. Sir Edgar and wife Lady Dorothy, Sir Marion, Squire Alain, and many of the younger clerks and messengers appeared bleary eyed and mostly drank their breakfasts. Everyone else was in good spirits, only sighing when scouts reported the road ahead deep in mud. At least the rain had stopped and the day was warmer.
They did their best, but soon found some of the wagons were too heavy for the strength of the animals pulling them and had to be pushed out of the deepest muck. All the vehicles tried to stay along the edge of the road where grass and weeds made the ground firmer, but in places the only way through was ankle deep in mud.
The duke had planned to make good time and stop at the next major town along the way for the night, but soon realized they wouldn't arrive until long past dark. He chose the safer course and had everyone pull off the road in midafternoon into a large grassy field next to a stream to set up camp.
The wagon and carriage wheels were heavily coated with mud, the animals were splattered up to their bellies, and no one who left the carriages at all that day escaped getting filthy. It took an exceptionally long time to get everything cleaned and the camp established, and even after the cooking fires were bubbling stews there were still people leading teams down to a shallow portion of the stream to be washed off.
Everyone took to their cots early. Nick gave the camp one last tour to make sure the guards were properly placed and the fires banked before heading to his own bed. He paused at the tent opening to listen to a pair of owls and some dogs barking in the distance, and then went in and crawled into bed himself. The camp was silent except for some snoring here and there.
The sun shone in the morning, the road was drier, and the procession pulled out early. When they passed through the town, the streets were crowded and Elizabeth tossed candy as they passed through. She wasn't worried about running out; Nick had his own little stash.
A few miles past the town they entered a young forest but were soon amid old growth trees. There were squirrels in abundance, and the occasional streak of brown and white fur along the ground betrayed a frightened rabbit. In the deeper forest they saw a small group of deer that disappeared into the trees too quickly for anyone to get a shot.
In late afternoon they came across a woodcutter's cottage and the scouts reported that he told them the forest was extensive but there was a good place for a camp not too far along. They found a sturdy wooden bridge over a fast rushing stream and on the far side were a number of old fire rings. The area was a little small for so large a group and there wouldn't be much grazing for the horses, but it was the best they were likely to find.
Nick rode slowly around the area. There was something about it that disturbed him, but he couldn't quite put a finger on it. Nothing seemed out of place, there were no signs of large animals or indications there was anyone else nearby. He finally arrived back at where his tent was being raised, dismounted, and let Parker take Falcon to be unsaddled and watered.
Elizabeth noticed him looking around uneasily. "What is it, Nick?"
"I don't know. Do you smell something odd?"
Elizabeth sniffed the air. "No, do you?"
"Not exactly. But there's something that just feels off about this place."
"Do you think we're in danger here? Should we move?"
The duke shook his head. "No, the camp is pretty much set up, people are starting to cook already, and I couldn't give anyone a reason that would make sense." He stopped Parker as he was passing with Falcon's tack. "Parker, what do you think of this campsite?"
The valet was astonished at the question both because his prince never asked his opinion about anything and the area seemed perfectly fine. He responded, "Your Highness, it's rather nice here under the big trees. The only negative is that the bank is too steep and rocky for the horses so their water will have to be hauled up."
Nick just nodded and let him get on with his work. Just then there was a hail from Captain Gregg, who approached with two of his scouts. The scouts seemed agitated. The captain came close before he spoke quietly.
"Your Highnesses, these men have found something. From what they described, I think you should see it."
"What is it?" Elizabeth asked.
Very quietly, Gregg answered, "A cemetery. Very old, from the sound of it."
The duke and duchess looked at each other. "Could that be what you're sensing?" she asked.
"I don't know, it's possible. We'd better have a look."
"Wait." The duchess went into their tent and came back out wearing her sword. "Just in case," she said, but no one asked her "just in case" what.
The scouts led them deeper into the forest. There wasn't a trail, but the two men took the easiest path they could find. They climbed a grassy ridge and Nick stopped on top of it and looked both ways, and Elizabeth followed his example. The captain and his scouts were halfway down the other side, but paused and waited.
"This isn't natural," the duke said. "If you look in both directions you can see it starts to curve. It's a very old fortification of some sort."
Elizabeth could see it too, now that he'd pointed it out. She added, "And we're going to the inside of it."
"Keep your eyes open," Nick directed. "Don't touch anything that doesn't look completely natural."
They proceeded but more slowly, peering at fallen branches and rocks, but couldn't determine if anything they saw was man made, until they came to the cemetery.
The trees there were tall and wide, the spaces in between littered with stones. Many of the flat rectangles were fallen and partly covered with grass, some still stood crookedly. Captain Gregg tripped over something near a tree and found the edge of a headstone lying sealed under a huge root. One of the scouts pointed with a trembling hand at a stone more than half buried in the trunk of a huge tree.
The duke said quietly to the captain, "Send them back to camp. They're more of a liability than a help now."
Captain Gregg gestured and both scouts saluted and took off at a trot. Nick knelt down in front of a standing stone and examined it with Elizabeth next to him.
"Can you read it?" she asked. The markings weren't Anglian letters or numbers.
"No, but I know what it is. Ozmond had a couple of scrolls written in markings like this and he wrote translations. They were the Oak Tree People. He called them his ancestors in magic and the rulers of the beautiful Sacred Western Isle."
"Were they some sort of nature worshippers? I don't know of an isle to the west, do you?"
"Sort of. There's a huge area of ocean full of jagged rocks sticking up, and more just below the surface of the water that once might have been an island. It's a navigation hazard that we have marked with buoys. Our big ships can't sail in there at all without having their bottoms ripped open, and even small fishing boats don't go in because it's dangerous and there's not much to fish for there. Or maybe the isle was somewhere far to the west and we haven't found it yet."
Elizabeth looked at the stone carefully and commented, "The letters look a little like the runes you draw. Is there magic in them? Are we in danger here?"
Nick reached out and placed his fingertips near the incised marks and then touched them lightly. "No power in them if they are, but I think they're just ancient script. There is something here, though. It's down in the ground; I can feel it below us."
"I don't understand, Nick. There's magic in the ground? How could it get there?"
"The Oak Tree People were much more than nature worshippers. They were ruling priests. What I'm sensing reminds me a little of Ozmond. Not that there are ghosts here, I don't feel anything like that. But I think these people must have been powerful magic users. It's like their bones were steeped in it."
"Are we safe, Your Highness?" Captain Gregg asked anxiously, coming over to them.
"I think so, but I've never seen or read about anything like this cemetery. I bet this place is a thousand years old or more. Just don't touch anything that looks like a relic. We need to make sure no one ever digs here either. It might not cause a problem but I wouldn't be surprised if digging or taking something away stirred this place up."
"Your Highness, are these markings along the bottom of the stones dates?"
"Yeah, I think so. Why?"
Well, Your Highness, I've been looking at a number of these stones and the markings on the bottom left are different, but the markings on the right are all the same."
Elizabeth said softly, "They all died at the same time. War? Plague?"
"I don't know," Nick replied, rising. "But we should get out of here. Captain, I don't want anyone coming here. Tell your scouts and anyone they've already told to keep their mouths shut about this place and show it to no one else. Make sure your guards on this side of camp keep an eye out for anyone trying to sneak off in this direction."
"Yes, Your Highness. The scouts might have told others about it, but it would be just the other scouts, and I'll make sure none of them says anything more about it and especially about where it is."
Elizabeth asked, "Nick, do you think someone would come out here looking for treasure? That would be dangerous and a desecration, and doubly so since it's so very old. It's unique and it should be preserved."
The duke nodded. "People can be incredibly stupid and greedy, and remember, they won't be able to feel what I feel. If possible, this place should be forgotten--completely forgotten, as it has been for centuries. Captain, go back and talk to your scouts now. I want to explore the rest of the enclosed area, and then we'll follow."
Captain Gregg saluted and started off back the way they had come. Nick walked out of the cemetery a way, turned and circled around it. When Elizabeth saw what he was doing she went out another thirty feet and paralleled him.
They found scattered blocks of stone, many broken, and old foundations partly covered with dirt, moss, and vines. The buildings hadn't been overly large, but in the center of a group of them there was a stone plinth the height of two men with more markings on it, and a flat stone at the base. There were vines overgrowing the flat stone, but the plinth showed only signs of weathering. Nothing grew on it.
"Altar, maybe," Nick said. " No grooves for blood runoff, so maybe just for simple offerings. Ozmond's notes said they burned their sacrifices. The plinth feels like it might have held magic at one time, but there's none in it now."
"I don't suppose there's anywhere we could get more information about these Oak Tree People, is there?"
"Maybe in the Londinum castle library I never looked for anything like that, so I don't know."
Elizabeth pointed beyond the ruins. "There's the entrance."
The encircling ridge had a gap but they found no doors. If there had ever been any they had long since rotted away. A dip in the earth before the opening indicated there might have been a pit of some kind there long ago.
There didn't seem to be anything else to see, so they turned back. As they walked side by side up the ridge, the duchess stated, "So this is what was disturbing you back at camp."
To her surprise, Nick shook his head. "I can't feel anything from the graveyard or the plinth even here. In the middle of it, yes, but once we left the area there's nothing. No, whatever it is, it's ahead of us, nearer the camp."
She could feel him become tenser as they approached the normal bustle of the encampment. She searched as they walked, but she still couldn't see anything wrong or out of place. People were taking care of the animals, cooking, rinsing out clothing in the stream, carrying water, or chatting. The horses looked a little skittish, but they were in a strange place and they might be scenting a predator of some sort. They were tired and not making much of a fuss if that's what it was.
The duke and duchess went to their tent and found dinner waiting. Sylvie and Parker jumped up from the folding chairs where they'd been sitting when they approached, glad to see them and eager for their own meal It was almost dark, and there would be cleaning up to do after they ate.
They sat down and went to work on the food brought to them, Sylvie and Parker taking their own food after serving them. Nick declined the offer of a second bowl of stew and gulped down his cup of tea. He left his dirty dishes and started walking around the camp. Elizabeth wished there was something she could do to assist him, but since he couldn't define what was bothering him, she didn't know how she could help.
Even after everyone except the guards had settled down to sleep, Nick stood outside. Elizabeth went over him, worried about the little he'd eaten at dinner and his continued restlessness.
"Come to bed, Nick. The guards will give the alarm if there's any trouble."
He shook his head. "I can't. I don't know what it is, I don't even know if there's actually any danger, but whatever it is, it's affecting me and it's getting worse. It's as if my magic system was on high alert, My aperture feels . . . itchy? That's not the right work, but it wants to flood me with power. I keep checking to make sure it's closed, and it is, but I've never felt like this before."
"You'll be exhausted tomorrow if you stay up all night."
"Then I'll catch a nap in the carriage. I really need to know what's doing this to me, Elizabeth."
The stout old trees rustled overhead. Then there was a sudden, violent thrashing among the branches. Nick threw up a light in time to see something everyone had assumed was a large tree limb bigger around than a man moving lengthwise through the canopy.
The guards were on their feet yelling; two were actually screaming. One with more composure loosed an arrow but it just ricocheted off of some smaller limbs and fell into camp. It was too late, anyway. Nick tried to follow whatever it was with his light, but it moved incredibly fast and was gone in seconds. The could hear it moving away, but in moments the sound died in the distance toward the cemetery and the ruins.
Everyone had come out of their tents or leapt from their blankets and stood staring up at the lit branches above them. Nick expanded his light and moved it all around, from just below the branches to above the highest. Nothing else moved, nothing looked unusual.
People were babbling to each other now. Elizabeth asked Nick quietly, "Did you get a good look at it? Could you identify it?"
"No. It looked like a huge dark-colored snake but it didn't weave back and forth like a snake, and the pointy tail end just flipped up a bit before it went out of sight. What do you think it was?"
"I don't know, I've never even read about something like that. And if that was a tail, then consider how huge the creature must be," she replied.
Soldiers gripped their weapons and even some wagon drivers had armed themselves while others were starting to pack up. Nick called, "Hold, we're staying." Folks paused, but didn't put down what they had picked up.
Captain Gregg hurried toward them as Elizabeth said, "Nick, that thing . . . we surely can't stay here tonight."
The captain agreed, "Your Highnesses, everyone's terrified, and just because it left doesn't mean it won't come back and drop down on us or attack along the ground. And there could be more of them. If we didn't see that one, who knows what's up there?"
The duke said to both of them, "It had to be up there for hours, since before we camped and it didn't attack us or the horses. It's big, but it may be more afraid of us than we are of it. It could be just a shy plant eater."
"Nick, is that what's been bothering you?" asked Elizabeth.
"Most definitely. I feel much better now, and I can assure everyone it's no longer anywhere near us, and there aren't any more of them nearby. Moving would put us into denser forest, and we could end up camping under a nest of them or something else even more dangerous." He spoke loudly enough for most of the camp to hear. That ended the packing, but people were still looking at each other in fear and huddling together, craning their necks in all directions.
Elizabeth shook her head. "No one is going to be able to sleep after that."
"I know. That's why I'm going after it. Besides, I want to see what it is."
"Not alone in the dark, Your Highness," Gregg objected.
"Not alone," the duke agreed. "Elizabeth has a cool head, so she's coming and you, and that guard that shot the arrow. And it's not that dark," he added as he brought his light down and spread it out, encompassing the whole camp.
The captain took a deep breath and let it out slowly. He was scared, but doing his best not to show it. He turned and directed the guards to stir up the fires, and increased the number on duty. By the time he and the guard that had fired returned, Sir Geoffrey, Sir Oliver, and Sir Marion and their squires were armed and presented themselves to their duke.
Sir Oliver spoke for them. "Your Highness, Sir Edgar has agree to stay and lead the defense of the camp. We beg your leave to go along to hunt the monster."
Squire Alain spoke out of turn among those who outranked him. "What if it's a dragon? It could be a dragon, what glory!" Sir Marion cuffed him, but lightly, and said, "Dragons are wonder tales for children. Looked like a giant snake to me."
Elizabeth knew Nick didn't want everyone seeing the cemetery, but it would be far safer with the knights along on the hunt. She saw him hesitate, but then he agreed. "Very well, but come aside first," he said.
He led them out of the camp where no one else could hear. "I want your sacred oaths you will tell no one of what you will see on this hunt without my leave."
That made them all even more excited, and they quickly gave their oaths, even the captain and the guardsman.
"Very well," their duke said. "No one attacks the creature when we find it unless it attacks first. It may be harmless, and since it's something unknown, I doubt there are very many of them in existence. I want to see what it is and make a rational decision about what to do, even if it is a dragon. Follow me." And he led them off toward the cemetery.