Betrayal in the highland.., p.13
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       Betrayal In The Highlands (Book 2), p.13
 

          

  The bowman surveyed the foggy swamp again, his noble horse twitching and stamping the mud beneath him.

  “Aye. In times past, it was,” he said. “But of late, it’s been said that queer things have been lurking about. Times are changing, I’m afraid.”

  “A troll’s print was found on this very road,” the spearman on the left said grimly.

  “A troll?”

  Maybe they aren’t as rare as the history books say.

  “And three witches were caught earlier in the year trying to steal the souls of children,” added the spearman on the right.

  “Witches?” Edmund repeated, trying not to show his revulsion.

  “Further, several people have reported seeing goblin hunting parties in the east woods.”

  “They also claim to have seen ghosts and faeries,” the bowman scoffed. “We must not believe things we have not seen for ourselves. Still”—his tone softened—“I would not deny bad times are brewing, especially with tensions as they are among the neighboring kingdoms.” He turned back to Edmund. “You best be careful if you intend to stay in these lands for long.”

  Edmund bowed.

  “Thank you for your w-wisdom, sirs. If I m-m-may ask one more question, tell me … how far are we from Long Ravine? I’m unfamiliar with this region, and the weather is making it difficult to gauge our location.”

  At a signal from their leader, the spearmen spurred their horses forward. They passed Edmund with palpable anxiety, scanning the mist as it drifted over the inky water like steam from a demon’s cauldron.

  “Follow this road until you come to a range of green hills,” the bowman said. “On the other side, you’ll find the fair city of Long Ravine. It is a six-hour walk—so hurry, if you can. And do not venture again into these swamps. Perhaps we will meet again if chance wills it. I have many questions for you about other, more personal matters if you have the time and inclination to discuss such things with a stranger.”

  “We’ll speak as your tasks permit,” Edmund replied, “but my colleagues and I don’t plan on an extended stay in these lands if it can be helped. Not that it isn’t a sterling region,” he added quickly. “What I mean to say is, sir, if there’s something I could do to help you … now might be the best time.”

  A screeching flock of red-wing blackbirds took flight in the swamps to the south.

  The bowman considered Pond standing next to Edmund and then nodded grudgingly.

  “People say you are an adventurer of some renown,” he said in a confidential tone. “Or are they mistaken?”

  Edmund was tempted to laugh. The only adventure he’d had involved running for his life and praying he’d live to see another day. But he didn’t think this knight would appreciate the correction.

  “We’ve adventured some,” Edmund told him. “Though I don’t know how renowned we are.”

  The bowman watched his comrades; up ahead, they had turned, waiting for him to join them.

  “They say you are an educated man and more skilled at adventuring than I have any right to dream,” he went on.

  It seems everybody has heard of me.

  Thanks to that stupid stunt with the ring and your little speech at Baroness Melody’s gathering.

  “How may I be of assistance?” Edmund asked.

  Becky sniffed the dank air.

  The bowman exhaled in reluctant resignation.

  “King Ambrose will soon make an announcement. It appears that, in response to the contests that the king in Eryn Mas has sponsored—”

  “Let me guess.” Edmund pulled off one of his boots and tipped it upside down, dumping muddy water on the road. “Your king is starting to get jealous of my king gathering all those nifty relics and heirlooms through his little games, so he wants to play as well?”

  The bowman didn’t seem to know how to respond to this.

  “What does he want you to find?” Pond asked.

  The bowman hesitated, eyeing them.

  “Don’t worry about us.” Edmund stomped his foot back into his sopping boot. “We’re retired. I have no need for such adventures to enrich the vaults of lunatic kings.”

  “I trust”—the knight’s hand fell to the hilt of his sword—“that you are speaking of your king and not mine.”

  “Yes, yes …” Edmund bowed in apology. “I’m, I’m … I’m terribly sorry. I have heard nothing but wonderful things about your king, as well as the prince. But between you, me, and the mud … this fog is smarter than our King Lionel.”

  The bowman smiled as much as his lordly manner would allow. “So I have heard. If he does not become wiser, there may be war between our two kingdoms. And his foot soldiers are no match for our cavalry.”

  War?

  Stupid idiot Lionel! All he wants is glory and battle …

  Hopefully he’ll get killed and the witch hunts will stop.

  “Let us hope that never comes to be,” Edmund said, changing the subject. “But I’m guessing my partner here, Mr. Pond, was correct, as always. You wish to find something for your king?”

  “Is there an issue?” one of the spearmen called back through the mists.

  Raising a finger, the bowman indicated that he’d only be a minute longer. The spearmen resumed scanning the fog-shrouded trees and cattails.

  “An announcement will be made in a fortnight,” he said in a near whisper. “King Ambrose will offer one hundred acres of land to anybody who finds the Lance of Lendil.” He checked to make sure the spearmen up the path weren’t listening. “I am extraordinarily proud to be in the service of His Majesty; however—”

  “You’ve always wanted to be a farmer,” Edmund said, guessing his motivation.

  The bowman’s face betrayed his passion. “Breeder, actually. I would dearly love to obtain that land and raise horses. And if you could, in any way, help me find what I seek, perhaps I could return the favor.”

  “The only thing I seek now is peace,” Edmund said. “However, I might be able to help you. Lendil died in a river valley not far from my homeland, so I know something of his fate and the fate of his lance.”

  Becky began to stalk into the swamp. Edmund called to her as he emptied his other boot. She retreated up the embankment, her gaze locked upon something in the impenetrable greyness.

  “The first thing you’ll n-n-need, need to know”—Edmund stomped his foot back into the second boot—“if you don’t already, is that Lendil didn’t have a lance.”

  Confusion washed over the bowman’s face.

  “He actually bore a spear, much like those your comrades have. It was called a lance in the legends because it sounded better than the ‘Spear of Lendil.’ Alliteration and all.”

  The bowman’s brows furrowed.

  “When Lendil died at the Battle of Bloody Crossing,” Edmund went on, “he was buried on a nearby ridge. His spear was used as a grave marker, as is the custom of your people, I believe.”

  “Yes, yes it is,” the bowman said, stroking his neatly trimmed beard in contemplation. “It is unlikely that it would have survived the elements for all these ages.”

  “Not if it were left where it was placed, no. Fortunately the spear was soon taken and used by a highwayman known as Balish the Black, who was killed by a man named Fendril.”

  “How do you know all of this?” the bowman asked, amazed.

  “He reads a lot,” Pond replied, having asked the same question many times himself.

  Another loon cried from the swamp. Oddly, it seemed closer than one would expect waterfowl to approach an occupied road.

  “I was a historian,” Edmund admitted. Then, noting the spearmen’s impatient glances, he added quickly, “The long story short is this: if you wish to find the Lance of Lendil, you might first want to find the ancestors of Fendril. They kept Balish’s spear, or your Lance of Lendil, as a trophy. Last I had heard, they owned a tavern in Hillshire called Balish’s End. Balish’s spear was said to have been kept over the mantle of the fireplace. But then again, this was
many years ago.”

  Shaking his head, the bowman exhaled in astonishment and disbelief.

  “I was actually hoping you would offer me some advice as to how to mount such an expedition—what supplies I need, where to get accurate maps, and so forth … but to have an idea where my quarry lies hidden!”

  “You should ask him where the Lost City of Gold is!” Pond said, winking.

  The bowman’s eyes widened.

  “He’s kidding,” Edmund said. “If I knew where such a place lay hidden, I would be a king myself!”

  The bowman laughed, his horse snorting and swishing its braided tail. “As for me, I would be content with a little land and a few sturdy mares for breeding.”

  He extended his hand.

  Edmund reached up and shook it, conscious of the swamp mud he left behind on the bowman’s leather glove.

  “I am deeply in your debt, Master Edmund. Thank you.”

  “I’m happy to help.”

  “Perhaps I could help you with what you seek.”

  “I’m sorry?” Edmund asked, puzzled.

  “You said you were looking for peace.” The bowman gathered up his reins. “My mother used to say that peace could be found in the snores of sleeping children.” He turned his horse in the direction of his fellow road guards. “But my father always said that peace was having a sharp sword near at hand. Perhaps either of those may be of help to you, though not as much as you have given me, I’m afraid.”

  “I just hope that my information is still accurate. Again, it’s been many years since I’ve heard of Balish’s End or the spear. The tavern might have burnt down for all I know.”

  “It is a clue I’d not had prior to our meeting. And for that, I will always remember you.” The bowman inclined his head in farewell. “Good luck to you and your men. And heed my warnings about the swamp. Get to Long Ravine with all manageable haste. There are evil things afoot.”

  “We will,” Edmund said.

  Pond raised his hand. “May your treasure be even more valuable than you originally thought!”

  Spurring his horse, the bowman joined the other two riders. Within moments they disappeared beyond a wall of white mist.

  Edmund turned to Pond. “May your treasure be even more valuable than you originally thought?”

  Pond shrugged. “I’m trying to be more poetic.”

  “You’re a poet and a warrior, my friend. And I’m very fortunate that you’re with me.”

  As the muffled clomping of hooves faded out of earshot, Fatty stirred. He wiped the tears from his cheek and tugged on Edmund’s cloak.

  “What is it, big guy?” Edmund said. “They’re gone. N-n-nobody will hurt you.”

  Fatty didn’t seem too convinced. He pointed toward the swamps to his right, his fat finger trembling with each stab at the still air.

  “What?” Edmund asked. “There’s nothing to worry about. They were just trying to scare us. We’ll get moving, I promise.”

  Fatty jabbed his finger harder. He touched his eyes then pointed again. He put his fingers in front of his mouth like fangs and pointed into the fog a third time. Becky glared in the same direction.

  “I think he saw something,” said Pond.

  Fatty nodded vigorously and held up two fingers.

  “Two things?”

  Fatty hunched with a squinting expression.

  “Somebody hiding in the reeds, watching us?” Edmund peered into the murk.

  Fatty shook his bald head and held up two fingers, then he lowered his hand to the height of Edmund’s shoulder and made the ‘fang’ gesture again.

  Edmund found it hard to swallow.

  Two … goblins?

  Kravel and Gurding!

  Fatty tapped Edmund’s arm. He pointed at the swamp, touched his eyes, and then pointed at Edmund, squinting directly at him.

  “Notice how all the crickets and frogs aren’t carrying on anymore?” Pond said, unnerved.

  Edmund pulled on his backpack. “Let’s get moving. We can’t stay here.”

  Chapter Eighteen

  Edmund stumbled along the road as it wound its way from the forested hills until, at last, tired and frustrated, he sat on a boulder in the shade, waiting for the others to catch up.

  “All I want to do tonight,” he said to Becky as she collapsed into the grass next to him, “is to eat a decent meal, take a hot bath, and put on some clean clothes.”

  Becky groaned in agreement.

  Edmund rubbed his aching feet. They were still wet from wading into the swamp earlier that morning, and his new boots had ripped the softened calluses from his prune-like toes.

  “Next time I’m going to buy used boots. Or break them in before walking eight days straight.”

  Next time, buy a horse!

  He caught the faint sound of rushing water. Looking about, he peered through a gap in the trees.

  “Finally!”

  At the base of the hills opened an enormous ravine with stone shelves prickling from its nearly perpendicular walls. On some of these, flowering trees grew, while upon others, colorfully painted buildings had been carved directly into the precipices like sculpted works of art. Below the shelves and in the shadows of the ravine’s lofty cliffs churned a swift river, its current fed by waterfalls thundering down from their heights. Above, hundreds of chattering swallows darted about the blue sky.

  “What is it?” Pond plodded around the corner as fast as he could, sword drawn, backpack bouncing up and down. “I heard you shout. Everything okay? You all right?”

  He looked between the trees.

  “Oh, it’s about blasted time!” he cried, sheathing his sword. “I thought we’d never get here. Honestly.”

  “It’s amazing, isn’t it?” Edmund said, taking in the view.

  “It’s the most wonderful city I’ve ever seen. And I’m not just saying that because I’d give my right arm for a chair and a pint of beer.”

  Edmund pointed to a massive column of grey stone rising up from the heart of the river; its base was smaller than its top, like an inverted mountain dropped from the heavens. On its flat summit stood Tor Rød, the majestic castle of Prince Raymond, flags of red and yellow snapping in the fresh spring breeze.

  “I wonder how they managed to build that fortress. I mean, nobody in the world could climb that incline—nobody! How did they get masons up there?”

  “And how did they get the stone up there to build it?” Pond added.

  “Exactly.”

  As they stood marveling at the city with its pounding waterfalls and its fragrant ash trees, Fatty staggered up from behind. Gasping and groaning, he put a hand on Pond’s shoulder for support, nearly driving Pond to his knees in the process.

  “See there, big fella?” Edmund pointed to the lands below. “That’s where we’re headed. We can rest soon.”

  Fatty lifted a meaty hand to thank the gods.

  “All right, Becky. Lead the way,” said Edmund. “And remember Pond, call me Mr. Cooper. Forget the name Edmund. Too m-m-many, too many people have heard of me in these parts.”

  “What about me?” Pond asked as they followed Becky down the hillside.

  “What about you?” Edmund replied.

  “What am I going to be called?”

  “What do you want to be called?”

  Pond thought for a moment. “How about Sir Røggar the Bloodthirsty?”

  “A bit dramatic, don’t you think? How about something more innocuous, like ‘William’?”

  Pond scoffed. “Boring!”

  “Boring and forgettable. That’s what we need. We need to blend in or we’ll be running for the rest of our lives.”

  Fatty waddled after them in great huffing breaths, trying to keep up.

  “Barton,” Pond said after a few minutes.

  “What?”

  “That’s what I want to be called—Mr. Barton. It has a ring to it, doesn’t it? Barton.”

  “It sounds like a bartender.”

  “Or a b
aron. Baron Barton,” Pond repeated to himself, pleased.

  “Stick with just Barton,” Edmund said. “No need to make you nobility just yet. We can’t attract any attention this time. We’ll stay for a couple of days, sell some things, and then figure out what our next move is going to be.”

  A group of people rode up the hill toward them. As they passed, the riders lifted their hats politely to Edmund and Pond but laughed openly at Fatty, who resembled a massive boulder ready to cause an avalanche as he staggered down the slope.

  “Speaking of not attracting attention,” Pond said when the riders were out of earshot.

  “Let’s just find an inn and rest. I might have an idea that will help him and us.”

  The road from the hills led to an open gate flanked by friendly guards who bid them each welcome as they entered. Past the gate, the road wound along the inside of the mighty gorge with nothing but a waist-high black iron railing separating travelers from a several-hundred-foot drop straight down.

  Soon they came to great ledges upon which shops and buildings had been built. Merchants stood in front of them, calling to passersby, trying to entice them inside. One merchant followed Edmund for several paces.

  “I can clean your clothes!” he said. “I can clean them good! Mend them, too! They’d be like new. Like new!”

  Edmund shook his head.

  “Fresh fish!” a fishmonger bellowed. “Do you want fresh fish?” He reached into a trough and pulled out a large trout, alive and thrashing in his hands. “You can’t get any fresher than this, eh? Fresh fish?”

  They passed a tobacconist, the rich smell of aged tobacco wafting out from his shop’s open windows, and then several fine-looking restaurants. At each of these, Pond and Fatty looked hopefully at Edmund; they were all hungry and wanted to sit down. But they were also filthy and stank of swamp. Edmund told them to keep going.

  Before long they came to a wide, park-like landing upon which trees grew and townsfolk sat on benches in the shade, chatting among themselves.

  “Excuse me,” Pond said to a pair of old men hunched over a chessboard. “Could either of you direct us to an inn? Preferably the one with the best beer, if you don’t mind.”

 
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