The Dark Wizards

By Gary_Kuyper All Rights Reserved ©

Fantasy / Adventure

The Eldritch Blade

Groad pulled hard on the reins, bringing the huge war-horse to an uneasy halt at the top of a wide gully. His boots and the belly of the stallion were glistening wet from the early morning dew that had been collected from the ride across the long-grass plains that covered much of Valacia.

The Valacians occupy a very small country that is bordered on one side by Kith and on the other by the Great Eastern Ocean. They are a friendly nation, as circumstances caused by their geographical position make it impossible for them to choose to be otherwise.

The Valacians, like their country are physically small and weak compared to Kithian standards. They closely resemble earth’s Homo sapiens. The only visible difference being that they have violet-coloured irises and many have violet-coloured hair.

Only three more sunsets, then Groad would once again be united with his family in Bryntha.

The large saddlebags that straddled on either side of the equine animal were heavy with the hard-earned remuneration of the past four cyclans. Although hard earned, not all these earnings could be considered wages exchanged for honest services.

The times that Groad had not spent hiring himself out as a mercenary to the highest bidder had been spent in the company of Tsaltian pirates. These are a band of bloodthirsty cutthroats that sail the waters between the shorelines of Kith, Valacia and the enormous Tsaltian Islands.

The Tsaltian Islands, like Kith and Valacia is a fairly wealthy and prospering country, giving rise to much importing and exporting traffic between this triad of nations. This makes the large expanse of waters that lie between them a veritable pirates-paradise.

Groad planned to spend the night in Frybur, a bustling village that lay hidden beyond the trees on the far side of the gully. It would be good to eat a decent meal for a change and to quaff a few of the local ales. Even the thought of sleeping under-roof was most appealing, as the last moon had been unusually wet for this time of the cyclan.

He would also be able to buy some extravagant gifts for his family at Frybur’s large market place and trading square.

He carefully scanned the area. The recent rains had filled the area below with muddy water that ran the length of the gully. The only way to reach Frybur was to follow the dirt road that ran through the murky water below. He noticed that the roadway was partly overgrown with new vegetation. This was not a good sign. It meant that the road had not been used for quite some time. It was this revelation that puzzled and worried Groad. This, he knew was the only road to Frybur as well as the only road from it. If this road had not been traversed for some time, then something was certainly amiss in or around Frybur.

He studied the surface of the opaque stagnating water. Could it perhaps be infested with slarks? There was no indication of any movement beneath the brown surface. Nevertheless, he would take no unnecessary chances at losing another war-horse or, even worse, himself to the razor-sharp mandibles of a pack of slimy slarks.

He brought the stallion about and gently coaxed him into a slow trot down the road, away from Frybur and any possible dangers. One more day of dry tibor meat and one more night under Valacian skies would not be all that unpleasant.

He had not ridden far when he passed a large wooden pole that had been planted upright next to the roadside. A large notice had been nailed near the top of the pole. The lower half of the notice was damaged, weathered by the natural elements. Two words on the notice caught his eye. They were the Valacian words for reward and gold.

He pulled so hard on the halter that he almost snapped the war-horse’s neck. Attracted like a fly to dung, he once more brought the horse about and halted beside the pole. Standing on the stirrups to get more height he squinted at the damaged notice. Slowly he read the words aloud, “Residents … of … Frybur… willing … to … pay … generous … reward …of … thirty … gold … pieces … to … warrior… brave … and ... enterprising … enough … to …” At this point the document was either indecipherable or missing.

Thirty gold pieces were most certainly a generous reward. It had taken him almost eight moons of mercenary activities to save up an equal amount.

As he kicked his heels into the sides of the war-horse, forcing it into a furious gallop towards Frybur, two thoughts were foremost in his mind. Had the reward already been claimed, and if not, what daring deed was expected of him in return for such a vast sum?

At the descent into the gully Groad drew his double-edged broadsword and forced the horse to gallop all the more faster. It would be critical to have as much momentum as possible in order to carry them both safely through the water to the opposite bank before any submerged horrors had a chance to react to their presence.

The breaking effect of the water was considerable, forcing Groad to lunge forward in the saddle. The impact turned the brown water into a white spray, soaking Groad from head to foot. Halfway across the momentum of the enormous horse was all but expended. The water had been somewhat deeper than Groad had anticipated, reaching all the way up to his knees. They were now able to proceed no faster than a slow walking pace.

With sword raised high, he nervously searched the water on all sides for any signs of hostile movement. A large frightened bumba*, disturbed by the sudden surge in the water, broke surface and was instantly cleaved in two. Groad’s lightning-quick reflexes were both lethal and legendary. His fellow warriors had been wise and timely warned never to deliberately startle the Son of Zemth.

Without further incident, the horse managed to gain the opposite side and clambered up the steep embankment. Groad released a long sigh of relief that was quickly followed by a full-blooded warrior yell that once more set the horse off galloping down the road to Frybur. Looking over his shoulder Groad replaced the sword into the large sheath that was slung over his back.

Most Kithians choose to wear their swords strapped to the waist. Groad had two important reasons for wearing his sword strapped to his back. The first being, that were he to wear his sword at waist level, because of his short stature, the tip of the sheath would constantly drag along the ground. Secondly, he found that with the handle of his sword positioned just behind his right ear, it is possible, in one movement, to remove the sword from the sheath and strike with exceptional force and swiftness. This position certainly allowed for a much more effective and faster defense or retaliation than the awkward and customary position on the hip.

Groad’s stallion galloped methodically down an avenue of thin perpendicular trees that formed a wall on either side of the road. Except for a small section of the road that passed by a rocky outcrop with a large cave, the rest of the way to Frybur had been cut through a dense forest. He had ridden this road many times in the past to purchase goods, livestock, and to taste the best ale on the face of Baltrath.

Due to the popularity of Frybur’s market place and trading fair, this road had always been congested, day and night, by an abundance of traffic moving to and fro from the busy village centre. It would have been most unlikely for anybody to travel this road at the speed that Groad was now moving. For the first time, even above the drumming of his horse’s hooves, he was able to hear the sounds of the many creatures that inhabit the forest. But instead of conveying a sense of serenity, Groad’s entire being was filled with an eerie and ominous sensation of dread.

A thought flashed across Groad’s mind that turned his blood to ice. Perhaps the dreaded magg frata mu dakur*had put its terminal grip on the village. But then that would not explain the village’s request for the services of a brave warrior.

Groad was still meandering this thought about in his head when he rounded the bend that passed the rocky outcrop and the cave. Without warning the war-horse suddenly reared up on its hind legs, a glint of absolute terror in its eyes. Once again Groad’s lightning-fast reflexes saved him from serious harm. Had he not gripped the reins tightly, he would surely have been thrown from the saddle. When the horse’s front hooves touched ground again, Groad had already drawn his sword. It took most of his strength to prevent the horse from turning and bolting back in the direction from which they had come.

Groad and this particular stallion had come a long way together. They had fought many battles together. Together they had hunted and confronted just about every wild beast that roamed within the boundaries of Kith. Never, not once, had the horse displayed such stark terror.

Groad considered himself braver than most of the inhabitants of Kith, let alone on the whole face of Baltrath, but had to curse when he found that the horse’s terror was uncomfortably contagious, causing the hair on his scalp and arms to tingle uncontrollably. It was obvious to him that whatever was responsible for creating such fear, lay beyond the huge entrance of the cave, hidden in the perpetual inky darkness where it was impossible to discern the true nature of the danger within.

Still holding the reins tightly, Groad dismounted and cautiously led the reluctant animal past the threatening black orifice. Their passing had luckily not disturbed whatever inhabited the cave. He climbed back into the saddle. This time the horse needed no persuading for it to continue on towards Frybur.

The main road that ran through the centre of Frybur was void of any serious activity. That is, until someone spotted Groad coming down the forest road. By the time he reached Frybur, the main road was blocked by a mass of very inquisitive, very noisy and very ragged and starved looking villagers. The thought of the magg frata mu dakur entered Groad’s mind again.

He halted the horse some distance from the excited gathering crowd. Everyone was shouting at him and asking questions that did not make any sense. Each time the throng advanced on him, he would retreat further back down the road.

Eventually an elderly male villager broke through the front ranks and, holding his hands high in the air, signaled for the crowd to be silent. With this accomplished he turned to face Groad.

“Who are you, Kithian?” shouted the old villager in the Kithian tongue.

“I am Groad Zemthlid from the village of Bryntha!” replied Groad in perfect Valacian. He had learned the language from a Valacian cook whom he had befriended aboard one of the Tsaltian pirate vessels. “I am also known as Gu Tibor!”

There was a short silence followed by a hubbub of mumbled conversation amongst the crowd. The old villager stilled them once more.

“We have heard of you, Son of Zemth!” shouted the old villager with more than just a hint of excitement in his voice. “Yours and your father’s deeds of bravery are well known to us.”

“And who are you?” asked Groad forcing authority into his voice.

“I am Coar Rel, chief elder of Frybur!” shouted the old villager holding out a large leather purse towards Groad. “On behalf of all those gathered here, I welcome you to our village. We are most grateful for what you have done for us and gladly offer you these thirty gold pieces as promised.”

“By the great Dakur’s eyes,” thought Groad to himself. “These people are certainly insane. The magg frata mu dakur has affected their minds.”

“Tell me, Coar Rel, chief elder of Frybur,” asked Groad sarcastically, “Just exactly what have I done for you and your people that is deserving of so great a reward?”

Once again there was a silence followed by mumbled conversation.

With a puzzled look came the reply from Coar Rel. “Why, for slaying the chookla* of course!”

Chookla is the Valacian name for a zin-za.

“I have not seen a chookla in the past ten cyclans!” shouted Groad irritably. “And what is more, I have certainly never killed one!”

More silence. More mumbling.

Coar Rel slowly lowered the leather purse and turned to face the crowd whose expressions of confusion rivaled his own. Shrugging his shoulders he turned once more to face Groad.

“By which way did you come to Frybur,” asked Coar Rel, “If not by the forest road that passes the large cave inhabited by the chookla these past four moons?”

Groad once more experienced the uncontrollable paroxysms that had only recently played with the hairs on his scalp and arms.

The interior of the Fryburian ale-house was dark and gloomy. Only four customers were seated within the large drinking hall which, under normal circumstances, is always well supported by local and passing trade.

One of the four customers, it seemed, was determined to solely relieve the unfortunate lapse in business. Coar Rel and two other village elders watched patiently and silently as Groad drained two of the three large tankards that had been set before him on the huge wooden table.

“Tell me more about this chookla of yours?” asked Groad whilst using the back of his hand to wipe the froth from his upper lip.

“We have heard rumours that some Kithian villages have experienced similar problems,” said Coar Rel. “There is reason to believe that the food supply within Grimwald forest has diminished to such an extent that the chooklas are being forced to seek their sustenance elsewhere.”

“That may well be,” said Groad, “But for the chookla to have journeyed all the way from Kith’s northern territories to here does not make rational sense. Surely it is much too far?”

“Rumours are that some Kithian villages as far south as Matmar and Gratoar have experienced the very same problem as we do now,” said Coar Rel.

Groad’s heart skipped a beat. “Have there been any similar reports from Bryntha?” he asked sitting forward.

“No,” said the elder on Coar Rel’s right-hand side, “But you must remember that news has been very scarce in Frybur since the chookla took up residence in the cave. For almost four moons, only a handfull of desperate villagers has dared venture to or from Frybur.

“Drell Tinna, the village keeper-of-the-law, was the only resident daring enough to undertake the journey more than once.”

“Drell Tinna was the one who posted the reward notice,” said Coar Rel. “He found that it was reasonably safe to pass the cave after a decent feeding session.”

“Feeding session?” frowned Groad.

“We have found it necessary to keep some sort of large domestic animal tied to a tree not too far from the cave. Whenever the chookla gets hungry, the tethered animal prevents it from searching any further than that which would otherwise be detrimental to the residents of Frybur. The fact that you saw neither a tethered animal nor the chookla is proof enough that our feeding system is operating efficiently.”

“A rather costly system I would say,” said Groad.

“Most costly and most necessary,” said the elder sitting at Coar Rel’s left-hand side. “Do you still wonder why we have offered such a large reward for the beast’s destruction?”

“Have there not been other takers for your generous offer?” asked Groad.

“If there have been other takers from outside Frybur, we know not,” said Coar Rel. “A number of our own best warriors have tried and failed.”
“Failed?” inquired Groad picking up the third tankard.

“I fear Frybur shall soon become known as the village of widows,” sighed Coar Rel.

Groad squashed his face into a grimace. The harsh memories of Grimwald forest came flooding back to him. He would never forget that fateful day he had lost his best friend to a zin-za. He wondered if there was a simple way to kill the brutes. Arrow shafts, he knew only too well, were ineffective.

“You mentioned that the other villages had a similar problem to yours. Then I am to believe that they have managed to find a means of exterminating their problem?” queried Groad.

The elders looked nervously at one another. Groad immediately sensed that his question had created an uncomfortable atmosphere. The ale-house door unexpectedly opened. Groad almost laughed out loud as the three elders simultaneously jerked in their chairs. A small bald man dressed in a dirty white ankle-length robe entered and sat down at a table in the corner furthest from them. Groad studied the man. His eyes had been too dark to be Valacian, and he was too small to be Artanian or Tsaltian. He guessed that the man was probably a merchant or ambassador from one of the small countries that lay beyond the Kriti Dakur.

The owner of the ale-house, who now served in the capacity of the one and only bartender, walked over to serve his latest client, blocking Groad’s view of the strange little man.

“Well?” said Groad, his gaze moving back to the three pitiful-looking elders. “How did the other villages solve the problem?”

“At first we thought it possible that the problem was the responsibility of a single rogue chookla that was wandering from village to village,” said Coar Rel. “But then we received news that the chookla at Matmar had been totally destroyed. Only the single horn that protruded from its forehead and a pile of vile-smelling ash remained as evidence of it ever having existed.”

Groad lowered the half-full tankard to the table and stared at the elders, his eyes flashing from one to the other.

“I like not the sound of this,” he said. “It smells of sorcery most foul. Did Matmar utilize the assistance of the forbidden dark arts?”

“Exactly!” said the elder to the left of Coar Rel. “A means which we dread and refuse to employ ourselves.”

“That is unless the time arrives when it should become absolutely obligatory to do so,” said the elder to the right of Coar Rel.

“And I am afraid to say that we are fast approaching that time!” moaned Coar Rel.

Even though it was forbidden for all Kithians to practice or employ the services of one familiar in any form of the dark arts, many had been attracted by curiosity to its mysteries and promises of power.

Groad, on the other hand, shunned its temptation. The dark arts represented strange, intangible and invisible forces that were unpredictable and therefore dangerous in the hands of possible enemies. Groad was a practical person who liked to solve problems by practical means. If the enemy had a solid physical body, then the enemy could be stopped by means of a solid physical sword.

“Whose forbidden services did Matmar so boldly yet so foolishly utilize?” asked Groad.

Once more the elders looked at each other nervously.

“Well,” exclaimed Groad. “Who was it?”

“It was one of the Dark Wizards,” replied Coar Rel

“Dakur’s eyes!” blurted Groad displaying concern. “The idiots. Which Dark Wizard?”

“Maggoth,” whispered Coar Rel.

“Dakur preserve us,” said Groad shaking his head. “What of Gratoar and the other villages?”

“The very same,” said Coar Rel.

“Maggoth,” sighed Groad. “Why Maggoth?”

The Dark Wizards were a group of ancient sorcerers. Each specializing in one or more areas of the dark arts. No one knew the exact number of Dark Wizards that roamed and dwelt upon the face of Baltrath. Of the few that were known, Maggoth was surely the most notorious and most feared of all. He was said to be cloaked in the very essence of evil. Absorbing all heat and light within his vicinity and reflecting none. He was perpetual night, eternally cold. It was believed that the shadow which he cast was fatal to all that which passed beneath it. The steed upon which he traveled had fiery-red glowing eyes and a palate for fresh bloody flesh that it ripped apart with razor-sharp teeth.

“Apparently the other villages had no choice,” said Coar Rel. “Maggoth had come of his own accord, drawn by the one hundred gold pieces offered by Matmar for the beast’s destruction.”

“By the elder gods!” exclaimed Groad. “A hundred gold pieces?”

“Yes,” said the elder on Coar Rel’s right. “We fear that when we are forced to offer a similar reward, Maggoth shall not be hesitant in coming to Frybur as well.”

“Be not too hasty in your decision,” said Groad solemnly. “The possibility of replacing one problem with an even greater one is most likely. Fire does not destroy fire. Do you expect evil to be destroyed by evil?”

“What do you suggest that we do, Son of Zemth?” asked Coar Rel. “Will you help us?”

“I believe I will,” said Groad smiling. “That is, of course, if you are willing to raise the price of the reward?”

“Very well,” said Coar Rel too hastily. “We would be willing to pay forty gold coins for your services.”

“Fifty!” said Groad downing the last of the ale. “Fifty is still a bargain and, as I am sure you must agree, still far less threatening than one hundred.”

“We shall have to discuss this with the rest of the villagers,” said Coar Rel standing up. “Come!” he beckoned to his colleagues. The two elders followed Coar Rel to the door.

“Do not take too long!” bellowed Groad. “The price might just go up again.” Then with a guffaw, shouted at the bartender, “Three more tankards of your finest! Be quick about it! Do you expect me to make plans to kill this chookla of yours on a dry throat?”

The bartender hurriedly gathered the empty tankards from the table, refilled and then returned them to their rightful place in front of the seemingly unquenchable Kithian.

Groad was scraping some Valacian coinage together from his breast pocket when a nasal sounding voice said in perfect Kithian, “Please, allow me.” Groad’s head jerked up. It was the small bald man. “My name is Beetor,” he said pressing a large coin into the bartender’s palm. “Do you mind if I join you at your table? There does not seem to be any other company about today.”

Groad squinted at the little man. It was not common practice for citizens from countries beyond the Kriti Dakur to familiarize themselves with strange Kithians.

“How could I possibly refuse anyone that is willing to pay for my company,” he said gesturing for Beetor to be seated.

“You are most kind,” said Beetor sitting down. “Please forgive my prying, but I could not help overhearing your conversation with the Fryburian elders. Am I to understand that you plan to kill the zin-za that has forced me to remain in Frybur these past four moons?”

“You have very good ears,” said Groad.

“Perhaps. Then again it might be simple elementary reasoning to realize that less could not be expected of the legendary Son of Zem…”

Groad! I prefer to be called Groad!” interrupted Groad indignantly, yet impressed at the extent to which his daring feats had preceded him.

“Then Groad it shall be,” said Beetor raising the tankard he had brought with him.

Groad noticed that Beetor had no fingernails. As he had not seen many, let alone met or conversed with any of the inhabitants from beyond the Kriti Dakur, he wondered if this was a deformity or simply a genetic trait found amongst the populace of Beetor’s country. “Where are you from?” he asked raising his tankard as well.

“Thonatia. From the small but wealthy city of Yarsi. I was making my way to Tar Ta Rus on an important business trip when I encountered this rather bad stroke of luck.”

“A Thonatian,” said Groad nodding. “My guess was right.”

“Tell me, Groad, what plans do you have for killing this zin-za?”

“None. I still have much drinking to do upon the matter.”

“Then may I be so bold as to offer you some important advice and information?”

“Go on,” said Groad with a hint of indifference in his voice.

“I believe that the village elders failed to mention, or were just simply ignorant about an important factor in the destruction of the zin-zas at Matmar and Gratoar.”

“Which is?”

“The Eldritch Blade.”

The Eldritch Blade?”

“Yes, rumour has it that Maggoth has acquired the fantastic Eldritch Blade. A sword capable of cutting through anything with uncanny ease.”

“Anything?”

“Wood, stone, metal, anything!”

“Incredible!” gasped Groad. “But what does this information have to do with my plans to kill the zin-za?”

“Everything of course. Do you not see how the Eldritch Blade could assist you in slaying the beast?”

Beetor’s statement sent a spasm through Groad that, in turn, caused some ale to accidentally enter his windpipe. “Are you suggesting,” he spluttered, “That I attempt to relieve Maggoth of this Eldritch Blade?”

“Exactly!” beamed Beetor.

“I think the Fryburian ale has gone to your tiny Thonatian head. Maggoth is believed to be immortal. Even if it were possible to kill him, I would not know how, let alone even dare to try. I think that I would rather fight ten zin-zas before facing the wrath of a Dark Wiz…”

“No one said that you would have to face or kill Maggoth,” said Beetor interrupting Groad’s delirious lecture. “According to the legend of the Son of Zem…I beg your pardon…according to the legend of the great Groad of Bryntha; there are many yarns that tell not only of your brave military exploits, but also of your daring deeds as pirate and master thief. Do you deny their validity?”

“No, of course not.” said Groad proud of his questionable past activities. “But I would deny accusations of being a fool. Only a fool would try to steal anything from Maggoth’s keep.”

Maggoth’s keep is an old abandoned stone fortress that lays somewhere in the misty Artanian marshlands, a short distance beyond the Kithian border. Many are the terrible tales told of the strange and horrendous happenings that occur within and about this keep.

“Only a fool refuses to see the possibilities of the limitless power, wealth and respect that the Eldritch Blade can bestow upon its owner,” said Beetor narrowing his eyes and leaning forward. “Now that the zin-zas are being forced from Grimwald Forest, the problem that Matmar and Gratoar faced is most likely to spread through the rest of the Kithian Empire. Would not the authorities of Tar Ta Rus deem it fitting to repay most generously the warrior responsible for removing such a threat from their land?”

“The Golden Sleep!” exclaimed Groad with a glint in his eye. “The great Kith was honoured with the Golden Sleep for ridding Baltrath of the ferocious ratchamongas."”

“Exactly.” said Beetor. “Could a warrior responsible for exterminating the zin-zas be rewarded any less?”

“I suppose not,” said Groad staring past Beetor at the ceiling. But he saw neither the enormous beams that supported the ale-house roof nor the large metal wheel-shaped chandeliers that hung from the ceiling. Groad was staring at the future. His future. A future that had suddenly opened up a meaningful existence for him. At last he had a quest worth following. The nightmare of futile existence was passed. At last the Golden Sleep could be attained.

“Of course not,” said Beetor breaking Groad’s trance. “Not only will you surely receive The Golden Sleep, but your corpse will be placed opposite the great Kith himself.”

“This Thonatian speaks the truth,” thought Groad to himself. “The next warrior to receive the honoured Golden Sleep will be placed in the second row of altars, on the vacant slab of stone opposite the very father of the Kithian nation.” His mind was awash with ecstatic thoughts. “I will do it!” he shouted bringing his fist down hard on the table. “By Dakur’s eyes, I will do it!”

“Excellent! I knew that the great Groad of Bryntha would not disappoint me.”

“Why have you given me this information, Beetor of Yarsi?” queried Groad with a suspicious frown. “What do you wish to gain from me in return?”

“Why, merely my freedom from this village. Nothing more and nothing less. I fear that by the time the villagers decide to raise the reward to one hundred gold pieces, I shall have forfeited many of my important business transactions at Tar Ta Rus. I seek only a swift and sure means of overcoming this unfortunate predicament. You, Groad of Bryntha, are the means.”

“Then I must tarry no longer,” said Groad standing up. He lifted the saddlebags from the back of his chair. “I must remove myself from Frybur while the zin-za is still digesting his latest meal.”

“May Dakur smile most generously upon you, Groad of Bryntha,” said Beetor standing up. “When next we meet, I hope it will be under better circumstances?”

“When next we meet, Beetor of Yarsi,” said Groad slinging the saddlebags over his shoulder and walking towards the door, “I shall be the one paying for the ale.”

Outside the ale-house Coar Rel and his two colleagues once again confronted Groad.

“Out of my way!” he exclaimed pushing the elders aside. “I have no time to bargain with you now.”

“There is no bargaining necessary,” said Coar Rel following Groad down the main road towards the livery stable. “The villagers have unanimously agreed to raise the price to fifty gold pieces.”

“That was very quick,” said Groad stopping in his tracks and staring at the three elders.

“Yes,” said Coar Rel. “The people grow weary of being prisoners in their own village.”

Groad was disappointed that he had not asked for more. “Have the gold ready,” he said walking off again. “I shall return before the next full moon.”

This time the elders stopped in their tracks.

“The next full moon?” queried Coar Rel as Groad disappeared into the stable. “The next full moon is still far off!”

The three elders looked at each other with puzzled expressions.

“Take off the feeding bag and saddle my horse,” said Groad to the young female Valacian stable hand. “Be quick about it lass. I have important business to do!”

The little girl was so filthy, that at first it had been difficult for Groad to distinguish to which gender the soiled creature belonged. It was the delicate and enchanting voice that gave her away. “But I have not had sufficient time to tend your mount properly,” bemoaned the grimy waif.

“Do not be concerned,” said Groad sitting down on a wooden barrel. “I will pay the full amount as promised.”

“I believe that you plan to kill the chookla,” said the young girl slinging the saddle over Groad’s horse.

“You understand correctly,” he answered flicking a small coin towards her.

She caught the coin in her right hand and looked at it with disgust. “For someone who is about to ride to his death, you can doubtlessly afford to be more generous than this.”

“What is your name, young one?” asked Groad smiling at the gruntling’s presumptuous remark.

“Turpane. Turpane Tinna.”

“Tinna? Where have I heard that name before?”

“My father was Drell Tinna.”

“Ah, yes! The village keeper-of-the-law. The one who discovered that it was safe to pass the chookla’s cave directly after a feeding session.”

“Reasonably safe,” said Coar Rel entering the stable. “I believe that I failed to mention that Drell Tinna is no longer with us.”

“Or his sons, my brothers, Dane and Sard,” said Turpane sneering at Coar Rel.

“Yes,” said Coar Rel, “I am afraid it is true. Her family was destroyed by the beast in the cave.”

“Not quite,” said Turpane bitterly. “My father and brothers may have been killed by the chookla, but it was you, Coar Rel, that destroyed my family.”

“Silence girl!” shouted Coar Rel. “How dare you address me, the village elder, in such a tone?”

“My father was a brave and important person in Frybur,” said Turpane looking at Groad. “Perhaps too brave and too important. There were those in the village who envied not only his daring deeds and charisma, but also the good grazing land which he owned.”

“Enough girl!” retorted Coar Rel. “The Son of Zemth does not wish to hear the delirious ravings of a foolish young foundling.”

“It was your suggestion,” said Turpane pointing an accusing finger at Coar Rel, “That my father and brothers rode to their doom. It was by your suggestion that the villagers voted that my entire deceased father’s livestock be first to be utilized in appeasing the chookla’s appetite. And it was you, Coar Rel, who now resides upon my father’s land after my mother was forced to sell the property to you at a price that was well below its true value!”

A swift and sudden backhand from Coar Rel sent Turpane reeling to the ground. “I said enough!” shouted the village elder, his face reddening with rage. “If you persist with this nonsense of yours, I shall be forced to take a horsewhip to your filthy hide.”

“If I am filthy,” said Turpane rubbing her aching cheek, “Then you have only yourself to blame. I have been forced to live and work for a mere pittance in the grime and stench of your livery stables!”

“Out of nothing but pity for you and your mother was I impelled to offer you work in my stables. It would seem that my kindness and generosity has been received with very little gratitude and much contempt.”

“Out of nothing but pity?” scoffed Turpane. “Your kind makes me nauseous, Coar Rel. It is not pity but guilt that inspires you to deeds of so-called kindness and generosity!”

“I warned you never to address me in that tone of voice!” asserted Coar Rel reaching for a long horsewhip hanging on a nail. “If kindness and generosity will not produce the required respect and gratitude that should be forthcoming from you, then perhaps this will.” He raised the horsewhip above his head in a threatening manner, but found that he was not able to bring it down upon the small girl’s frail body. The reason was not because Coar Rel had changed his mind and was feeling pity for Turpane, but because Groad was holding his hand in a painful vice-like grip. Although Groad was short by Kithian standards, he was still a good two feet taller than Coar Rel. With uncanny ease Groad, using one arm, lifted the village elder off his feet and dangled him at arms-length above the ground like some pathetic, helpless creature. “What are you doing?” he winced. “The girl has much need of discipline!”

“Your disciplinary methods leave much to be desired!” snarled Groad. “If you so much as harm a hair on her head, I will use that very same horsewhip to flail the skin from your pompous hide!” With a sideways thrust, Groad sent Coar Rel flying through the air into a pile of hay. “I am leaving now for Maggoth’s keep,” he said mounting his horse. “I plan to return with the Eldritch Blade before the next full moon. Be sure to have the gold waiting, and beware if I should happen to hear any accounts of this young girl’s abuse by you or anyone else in this village.” Groad flicked the reins and the horse trotted out of the stable past the other two elders who had been watching the entire scene with large frightened eyes.

Only when the sound of the horse’s hooves had faded into the distance did the village elder find the courage to pick himself up from the hay. He recovered the horsewhip and walked towards Turpane. “Did he say he was going to Maggoth’s keep?”

“Yes,” she said nervously and added, “To fetch the Eldritch Blade.”

“You realize that he will most probably never return here again?”

“Yes,” said Turpane swallowing a lump in her throat.

“What is this…Eldritch Blade?”

“I have absolutely no idea,” she frowned.

They stared at each other for a long time. Finally Coar Rel hung the horsewhip back on the nail.


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