I apologize for the delay in posting this chapter. I’m a busy guy. However, this is a particularly long chapter, so for those of you still reading this story (yes, both of you), you have even more of my bad writing to consume.
The centaurs led Marcus and Heather through a path in the woods for nearly an hour before coming to another clearing, nearly four times the size of the one next to the cave. Several tents were pitched around a large central fire pit where several centaurs could be seen stacking wood for the evening. For the first time, they could see females, similar in their muscular appearance to the males except for the leather wraps around their torsos. Stationed around the perimeter, Marcus could see sentries posted, staring out into the surrounding woods with bows ready in their large hands and full quivers strapped across their broad shoulders.
“We must fight te survive here,” Beorgan said, seeing Marcus eyeing the guards. “Not only again the rival tribes, but now the Dark One sends his forces as well.”
Beorgan surveyed his tribe, noting how each member, down to the smallest centaur, performed some duty, some assigned task that benefitted the whole. Marcus saw the look of pride on his dark face, but also saw a great sadness that tinged its hard lines like a dark lining around a cloud. “We are but half as many as we were two summers ago.” He looked at Marcus and for a moment, Marcus saw deep thoughtfulness breaking through the wild expression of his eyes. “Our time is ending, but we will fight until it does.”
Marcus remembered vaguely meeting the centaur chieftain on a few occasions during his childhood. He had always been impressed by their physical attributes and their sometimes raunchy way of speaking, but he thought now that he had greatly underestimated Beorgan’s intelligence on those previous trips. While the centaur had little knowledge of, or care for, the happenings of the outside world, he was now forced to deal with them as they had invaded his lands. Marcus heard the undertone of resignation in his voice as he spoke of his tribe and knew that much consideration had been given to the tide of evil that now threatened to destroy them, only to decide that resistance would be useless.
“I wish to know more about this Necromancer,” Marcus said. “Who is he and what does he want?”
“I know not who he is,” Beorgan answered, “but I do know what he wants—to rule.”
The fire pit in the center of the camp roared to life as they approached it and Marcus felt heat pour off in waves. A female centaur with a lovely human-like face and voluptuous torso approached Beorgan and offered him a water skin. The black centaur took it without a word of thanks and took a long draught. He then offered it to Marcus who also took a lengthy pull. The water tasted sweet and clear, like the bottled water he and Heather bought in bulk at the wholesale club.
Marcus turned and offered the skin to Heather, who took a step back. She glanced at the centaur with an unmistakable look of disgust on her face. “No thanks, not thirsty,” she said.
He looked around the camp to see if any of the other centaurs noticed the refusal. They would be highly offended, he knew, to see her decline such as precious gift as drinking water, but fortunately, none appeared to have noticed. The tribe still hurried about here and there performing their chores as the last light of day waned.
Some of the females set about preparing dinner over the fire pit. A wild boar hung suspended on a spit and revolved slowly directly over the fire. Soon, the smell of roasting pork filled their nostrils and Marcus heard behind him Heather’s stomach give a loud growl.
“I suppose you’re not hungry, either,” he whispered to her.
Heather curled her upper lip and mimed his words, shaking her head from side to side for emphasis. She sat next to Marcus, her legs crossed in front of her. Beorgan had lowered himself gracefully to a seated position in the dirt on his other side and Marcus marveled at how smoothly the centaurs moved with their conglomeration of bodies and the way their full bodies served to amplify their speech, kicking excitedly in the grass and shuffling a shy hoof in the dust.
“I had a mind that ye’d return,” Beorgan said to him as hot, fragrant pieces of the boar were being served on wooden plates. He stuffed a large chunk of boar meat into his mouth and continued in a nearly inaudible voice. “That’s why we set up here, thinking ye’d be coming back. Been here neigh on two moons.”
“I should have returned sooner,” Marcus said, staring into the fire. “Erasmus is dead.”
Beorgan dropped the meat he had been prying off the bone and looked at Marcus. “The Dark One got him too, eh? Well, he be a good one, powerful, but not so much as ye.”
Marcus said nothing. While they had not said so openly, Marcus knew that the centaurs regarded him as a possible savior, the only one who could possibly oppose the Necromancer and help them regain their lost glory. How would they feel if he told them that he had no power anymore? That all his talents may have left him as he grew older and forgot about them? He looked around the camp and saw several clusters of centaurs talking together. Many of them had smiles on their faces and all of them kept looking back at Marcus with disturbing regularity. Sudden anger rose up in him, anger at their false hope, at their inability to do anything to help themselves, at their ignorance of Erasmus’s fate.
He forced himself to calm down, realizing that could not blame the centaur tribe for what he knew were his own insecurities and grief.
Again, Marcus searched deep within himself, looking for the rush of power he recalled having as a child in this strange land. He remembered feeling like great amounts of electricity flowed up from the ground through him to be conducted in whatever means necessary to follow his bidding, but he could not find that sensation. Doubt and despair settled in his stomach like large stones and he found that his appetite vanished like a snowball in the Amazon.
He looked at Heather, sitting a few feet away, keeping to herself. She had overcome her aversion to the tribe’s hospitality and ate the meat she was offered with obvious relish. One of the female centaurs approached with a wooden cup roughly the size of a half-gallon milk carton and Heather drained half of the water inside with one long gulp. She looked up and saw Marcus watching her. She smiled, embarrassed, and wiped the pork grease off her full lips with the back of her small hand.
Looking at her, Marcus felt something rise within him. A small something, but it excited him, nonetheless, and feeling that tiny amount of energy coursing through him when he saw her, made him suspect why his instinct insisted so hard on her coming in the first place.
She’s the key, he thought, she’s the key to everything.
He smiled back at her, winked, and turned back to Beorgan.
“What can you tell me about the Necromancer?”
Beorgan examined the bone he had been chewing on the smallest missed portion of meat still clinging to it. Finding none, he tossed it absently into the fire. “He first came about two summers after ye traveled here last. Built a great tower of bones out in the Barrens and for neigh on eight year he stay there, never seen by man nor beast. Then, he sent his armies out in all directions, an army of dead.”
The large centaur shivered. His race valued life, but found violation of one’s death a most vile act of treachery.
“The dead poured over the villages and spread outward, swelling their numbers ever more from the killing they did. They would slay and the dead would rise right up where they fell to join them against their own. Now, only a few folk still stand against them. We centaurs have set aside our tribal battles to unite against the Dark One and all have suffered great losses.” Beorgan’s voice dropped. “There still be no trust between the tribes, only death.”
Taking a closer look at the other centaurs gathered in small groups around the fire pit, he saw signs of the onslaught Beorgan talked about. Nearly all of the members of his tribe bore a number of scars, reflecting the firelight in shining stripes among the fur of their lower bodies and the smooth skin of their upper bodies. Many had been mangled in some fashion, missing fingers and hands were common among both the males and females. Others bore more obvious signs of battle, such as large chestnut colored male whose entire face bore the unmistakable blotchy appearance of one who had been badly burned.
Beorgan continued. “The elves still hold the dead at bay, but their power is waning as well. Their forest is no longer the stronghold it once was and they are besieged by the armies of the Dark One. The dwarves are scattered from their hills. Most of the men have fled to the outreaches of the land, into the desert and beyond, those that have not sided with the Dark One, that is.”
The centaur stopped speaking and looked at Marcus, as if expecting him to say what he planned to do to fix the whole nasty business. In such a trying time, the chief looked for some sign, any sign, to bring hope back to his people, to spur them on to a battle he hoped would not prove their destruction.
Marcus returned the gaze for a moment, but found he could not hold eye contact for long. He worried that in some mystical way, the centaur would read his thoughts and see that he had not returned with the power he possessed as a child. He did not know why the power, that feeling of being a conduit for some great energy within the land, was not there, but he felt an almost tangible force blocking his efforts to reach it like a locked door to a vast treasure vault.
He looked once again at Heather and saw, with some surprise, that she had arranged her pack beneath her head and had drifted off to sleep, bathed in the flickering light of the fire. Emotion welled up inside Marcus, a mixture of parental protectiveness and adoring amusement. He rose to his feet, removed his cloak, and covered her with it. She accepted it sleepily, pulling it up close to her face and breathing deeply.
“Smells like you . . . “ she mumbled, not bothering to open her eyes, and drifted back to sleep.
Marcus waited for Heather’s breathing to grow regular, basking in her serene expression as the fire danced behind him, then returned to the centaur chieftain’s, side. Beorgan sat with his legs folded under him and stared at Heather with a thoughtful expression on his dark face.
“She be fair, Marcus,” he said. “You intend to breed with her?”
Marcus found the question remarkably poignant and funny at the same time. They had certainly talked about having children, several times, but their current journey into this strange other world changed the situation entirely. Not only would he have to contend with Heather’s negative feelings toward his as both a potential husband and father, he would also have to fulfill his quest with their relationship, and their lives, intact. For a brief moment, he considered taking Heather and leading her back to the cave at first light, leaving this remnant of his childhood to its own fortunes. Then, the image of a skull lying in grass rose into his mind and his determination reset itself, resolving his temporary inner conflict. He would go on, he told himself, and he would bring Heather with him, doing his best to protect her along the way.
He looked again at her sleeping form, mostly concealed beneath the thick cloak he had given her. What if I can’t protect her, he asked himself, feeling fear for the first time since they had left the cave. What if I’ve only brought her to her death.
Marcus answered the centaur finally, still looking at his cloak draped over Heather’s small body. “Yes, I do want to have children with her.” He turned to look directly into the big centaur’s eyes. “As soon as I have avenged Erasmus and your people and all the others who have been touched by this Necromancer, I want to leave and have as many children as she wants.”
That night, Marcus slept beside Heather on the hard ground. Not as close as they did in the bedroom of their Victorian, but close enough to reach out to her when the nightmares came. He dreamt of facing an army of corpses with only Heather at his side. The encircling mass of bodies shuffled forward slowly as from some George A. Romero film, ever tightening the space between them and their intended victims. Marcus tried to summon the power he knew lay just beyond the locked door, but could not. The dead swarmed in and pried Heather from his grasp just before they overwhelmed him, driving him to the ground beneath a wave of decaying flesh and bone.
He woke suddenly, cold sweat pouring in rivulets down his face and chest. The blood red robes he wore clung to his skin like wet paper and he felt his left hand clutching something soft. His head turned and he found the cloak in his hand, with Heather nowhere to be seen.
He gained his feet in less time than it took his rushing heart to perform a full beat. Turning this way and that, he scanned the clearing, looking for some sign of where she had gone. The fear from his nightmare returned and settled in his lower abdomen like a sharp boulder. He peered at the ground and saw several small footprints moving this way and that, but could determine no direction from them. At the perimeter of the camp, the centaur sentries stood their silent vigil, staring into the predawn light of the woods beyond.
Just as he was about to wake the entire tribe by screaming her name, Heather reappeared, stepping lightly from the woods on the opposite end of camp. She brushed of the nettles that clung to her cotton pants and began to walk back to where Marcus stood glaring at her. Seeing him awake with an expression of mingled relief and fury, she halted.
“What?” she asked. “I had to pee.”
Marcus raised his hand and ran his fingers through his thick hair, sighing in exasperation. He started to berate her, to tell her that she had no idea what sort of evil things could be even now looking for them, demons sent by the Necromancer to make quick work of this perceived threat with no real power. He opened his mouth and shut it several times, looking like a gaping fish, before raising his hands in the air and trembling his frustration into nothingness.
When he turned back to her, she flung his cloak, which he had dropped in his desperate search for her, into his face. She offered no word of thanks, no sign of gratitude whatever, and he knew that the guards had once again been posted on her emotions, regardless of any affection she had shown the previous night. He wondered how one person could go from one extreme to another with such rapidity, then decided not to press his luck. He left her alone to gather her things and set out to find Beorgan.
He found the black centaur partially obscured in the shadows of a large elm tree, staring out into the thick foliage beyond. The pragmatic side of Marcus, the one that operated a multi-million dollar business, was impressed by this show of responsibility from the centaur chief. That he took up the same duties as everyone else in his tribe spoke volumes about his ability to lead his kinsmen through such troubled times.
“Parting with us so soon?” Beorgan asked, eyes still fixed on the woods beyond.
“I wish to speak with the elves.” Marcus had no idea why he had said this, he had thought little of the elves of this land since arriving and had not decided to visit them until Beorgan had asked the question.
“I thought ye might,” Beorgan nodded. “They be wise, though never friends of me and me kin.”
Heather approached from the camp and stood a few feet away from where Marcus stood talking with the centaur. She blinked at them, gave a gigantic yawn, and looked at Marcus expectantly, as if to say “so, what now?” She had tied her long hair back with a piece of leather she had acquired from somewhere and had her pack slung over her shoulder like a college student toting a backpack.
Marcus turned back to Beorgan, still staring into the gloom of the early morning. “I swear to you that I will do everything within my power to stop the Necromancer, Beorgan. I give you my word.”
Finally, the centaur turned and looked at Marcus. An amused cunning danced in his dark eyes. “That which be within your power may be too little, Marcus,” he said.
Marcus realized then that the centaur knew his fears of being powerless upon his return to the land and his mouth fell open. He wondered if Beorgan had known this outside the cave when he had bluffed them into releasing Heather, or at least thought he was bluffing them. Perhaps, he thought, I was the one being bluffed.
“May hap the elves will help ye find that which ye seek. Until then, I bid you fair travels, Marcus, and good fortune on your quest,” Beorgan said.
Marcus thanked Beorgan for his hospitality and set off into the woods under the watchful gaze of the centaur chieftain.
He and Heather walked through the woods as the first rays of dawn appeared over the horizon, casting long shadows in the deep trees. For some time, they journeyed in silence, broken only by the occasional yawn from Heather a few steps behind. Marcus tried hard to stifle the yawns that rose in reaction to hers, but found himself unable to avoid the urge. He did not feel sleepy, despite spending the previous night lying upon the hard ground of the camp, but as he thought of the long, long trip ahead, a weariness settled on him that made him long for the soft bed in the upstairs bedroom, even if she no longer shared it with him. The thought that he could sleep for days vanished, however, when Heather finally spoke.
“So where are we going, anyway?”
“We are going to the North Pole to see Santa and his elves,” Marcus answered. His tone was casual, as straight forward as he could make it, but he still heard a sigh of exasperation from behind him. “But first, we are going to a small village only a few miles from here, a place called Yellow Banks, to look up an old friend of mine.”
“Assuming that friend’s not dead, too,” she answered.
Marcus turned on her, unable to hold his tongue any longer. “Look, I’m sorry I brought you into this. I’m sorry I dragged you all the way here without telling you what was going on but, number one, you wouldn’t have believed me if I told you everything and, number two, I really don’t know why I had to bring you. Something told me I needed you to do what I’m supposed to do. As soon as I know what you’re here for, I’ll be sure to tell you, but in the meantime, a little support or even just a little silence would be a good thing.”
Marcus turned on his heel and started again up the small deer path that was leading them through the forest. He had walked ten paces when he noticed the absence of Heather’s footfalls behind him. He turned again, and saw on her face a strange mixture of shock and, surprisingly to him, comprehension.
“I . . . I’m sorry,” she whispered, not looking at him. She tried to speak again, but her lower jaw trembled and she shut it again.
Marcus felt his heart sink. Never in their relationship had he ever berated her as he had just done. He felt ashamed of making her feel so small, but at the same time, a small voice in his head told him that maybe she needed to feel small this once. She had hurt his feelings and he certainly had enough things to worry about without fearing her barbed comments.
“It’s okay, I’m just worried,” he told her and started along the path again.
They walked again in silence for a long time and eventually the trees around them began to thin and then disappeared. The stopped at the edge of the woods as the sun was beginning its steady climb into the sky and sat down in the shade to rest before continuing on.
“So, what do I need to know about this place?” Heather asked. “If I’m here to help you, what do I need to know to survive?”
Marcus had been lost in his own thoughts, but snapped back to the present with the sound of her voice. He pondered the question for a while, looking off over the hills before them. “When I came here as a child,” he began, “I had this amazing magical power. I could create and destroy things with a thought and a wave of my hand. I gained a reputation as this powerful wizard who traveled the lands fighting evil where I found it and helping the dwellers here as much as I could. We had a lot of good time, Erasmus and me, roving this way and that, battling the darkness and nearly getting killed in the process. Erasmus also could do magic, perhaps not as much as me, but he was resourceful, cunning and he made much more creative use of the power he had than I did.
Marcus smiled, his face looking back upon his childhood. “I don’t even remember half the things we did. Like I said, I had pretty much forgotten all about this place, or chalked it up to some vivid dream I had, but every moment here brings back a flood of memories.”
“I’m glad you remember that part about saving Beorgan,” Heather said.
It was as close to an apology and an expression of gratitude as he was likely to get under the circumstances, but he welcomed it all the same.
“There are a few things you should know before we get to Yellow Banks, though,” he told her. “First, try to remain as inconspicuous as possible. Yellow Banks is a pretty rough place, kind of like the towns you see in those movies about the Old West. A lot of traders and mercenaries frequent the place and it can be a dangerous place for a beautiful woman.”
Heather smiled at the compliment, despite herself.
“Second, you should follow my lead, whatever I do and no matter how crazy it seems at the time. The people here probably still know my name, but they won’t believe I’m me until I prove myself, like I had to do with the centaurs.”
“Well, that should be easy,” Heather said. “Just show them a bit of that magical power and they’ll be sure to see who you are.”
“That’s the last thing,” Marcus said, fixing his gaze on her brown eyes. “I don’t think I have that power any more. I haven’t felt it since we’ve been back.”
Heather stared at him, horrorstruck. “You mean you’ve come back her with this great reputation as some kind of wizard or something and you’re telling me that you can’t do any of it anymore. How are you suppose to beat this Necrowhatever and keep us from getting killed?” Realization swept over her, adding to her terrified expression. “You mean that all that stuff you said to the centaurs was a bluff? You really couldn’t have stopped them in they wanted to carry me off?”
She looked at him intently, her eyes pleading for some reassurance that he had the ability to protect her in this strange, dangerous land. She found none. Marcus only looked off into the distance, his face grave.
Marcus decided to test his theory, to see if perhaps he was wrong about the state of his abilities. Holding out his hand, palm up, he concentrated with all his might, hoping to produce a ball of pure light as he had done so many times delving in caves and dungeons with Erasmus at his side. Sweat appeared on his brow and his head began to tremble from the effort. No light came at first, but as he prepared to give up, a small flicker ignited in his hand and an orange tongue of flame sprang from his thumb, as if he had used a Zippo. He stared at it for a moment, delight and disappointment both washing over him, and after a few seconds the flame died.
“Well,” Marcus said, “I guess that’s a start.” The effort had left him exhausted and his breath came in quick rasps. He had never run a marathon, but imagined that if he did so, it would feel much as he did now.
“A start? A start?” Heather’s voice was hysterical. “So if something else attacks us, what are you going to do, ask it if it needs a light?”
She stood and began walking around in small circles, as Marcus knew she was prone to do during times of stress. Her lips moved all the while as she mumbled and gestured emphatically. Marcus knew she was building up steam before exploding on him and thought the time was right to move on again.
Standing, he felt the weariness of his attempt at producing magic gradually leaving him and started off through the tall grass that dominated the hills at the edge of the woods. He did not look back at Heather, even when he heard her yelp in surprise upon finding that he was leaving her behind. Her legs swished through the grass as she hurried to catch up, falling into place behind him again.
They walked through the waist high waves of grass, weaving between the hills that rose up around them like rounded gravestones. In a few places, they could see streaks of grass lying flat marking where some man or beast had passed in the recent past, but otherwise the land showed very little sign of traffic. Off in the distance, Marcus thought he could hear the first whispering of the river, the Misteld he remembered it being called, and soon after saw small plumes of chimney smoke rising in a small copse of trees at the edge of the silver line of the river.
“Okay,” Heather said, unable to keep her silence any longer. Marcus was relieved to hear her voice not coming out in shrill screams and looked at her as she spoke. “Who’s this friend of yours we’re going to find? Someone who can help us figure out how to get your power back?”
“His name is Wilkey, and I doubt he’ll be able to help get my power back,” Marcus answered. “But he is full of information and has a few things of mine that we may need on this trip.”
Marcus continued. “He’s also a swindler and a thief, so be on your guard with him.”
Heather stared at him. “You entrusted some of your possessions to a thief?” she asked.
“Yes,” Marcus replied, as if this were a perfectly natural answer. “He owes me his life several times over, so I have faith in him, regardless of how he’s treated others over the years.”
“You’ve been gone a long time. You really think he will have kept his promise this long?”
“I guess we’ll have to find out,” Marcus said and they started again toward the village of Yellow Banks. As they approached, they came to the River Misteld and walked parallel to it as they approached the buildings which now appeared through the trees. The brown water flowed along at a leisurely pace and now Heather saw how the village had arrived at its name. Yellow flowers she could not identify grew in thick patches upon the riverbank, creeping down into the water and floating in places like strands of blonde hair. The breeze blowing across the river carried their scent and Heather found their perfume far less appealing than their appearance, an odd mixture of honeysuckle and old garbage.
They entered the grove of trees and came to the outer buildings before Heather stopped walking. Looking around her, she stared in amazement as Marcus continued on. “What the hell is this,” she asked, “Munchkinland?”
The buildings of Yellow Banks ran in three concentric circles from a central common area in the middle of which stood a stone fountain. A small man on an equally small pony stood atop the fountain, cast in marble, and rearing to the sky like a great monument of war. Four buildings stood around the common area, each two stories, each roughly half the size of the Victorian Heather and Marcus had shared. The doors she could see stood no higher than her shoulders, roughly four and a half feet from top to bottom. The buildings on the outskirts of the village were confined to one floor each and their roofs barely reached past the top of Marcus’s head. She had a strange feeling of disorientation and clutched the nearest gutter for support as she dealt with the sensation that she had grown to the size of a giraffe.
Marcus studied her for a moment, then said, “Just remember what I said about this being a rough town and be ready for anything.”
“What are they going to do?” she asked. “Drop a house on me?”
“Just remember what I said,” Marcus repeated and turned to walk further into the town.
As they penetrated deeper into the circles of small buildings, they saw the first signs of their residents as eyes appeared from behind curtains just before unseen hands drew them shut again. They could hear voices coming from one of the buildings in the center ring and the pinging of what sounded to be a toy piano like the one they had given Heather’s niece for Christmas the previous year. As they reached the center ring of buildings, Heather could feel dozens of pairs of eyes looking at her and she wondered if their stares were just curiosity at the appearance of strangers, or something more sinister. She stepped closer to Marcus, unconsciously wanting to be near to him in case something went wrong.
Marcus took no notice of the onlookers huddled in their houses. He had expected such a reception and knew that with armies of the dead walking the land, new faces, even old new faces, would be viewed with utmost suspicion. He sought the source of the music and came to the front of one of the two story buildings. This building appeared well-constructed with walls of dried mud bricks, but had fallen into a state of disrepair that gave it a sad, shabby look. Large cracks ran up the walls like varicose veins and the opaque windows were dotted with missing or broken panes. A sign on the door proclaimed the place, The Pub.
“How original, huh?” Marcus asked as he pushed open the door. He was forced to stoop to enter the doorway and remained slightly bent beneath the low ceiling inside. Heather entered right behind him, bending to avoid the door jamb, but found just enough clearance inside to stand upright, although she could feel her hair brushing against the ceiling planks.
Inside, the sound of voices and the toy piano stopped immediately as they entered the room. Around two dozen little men sat around various tables staring at them intently. The tabletops reached just above Heather’s knees and in from of each little man was a tankard of some dark, foamy liquid at some level of consumption. At the far end of the room, a bar ran the length of the back wall and another little man stood behind it, stopping in mid-wipe as he cleaned one of the empty mugs.
Marcus scanned the room, looking at each and failing to find Wilkey. He moved forward through the tables, his steps sounding obscenely loud in the silence of the room, and leaned over the bar. “I’m looking for someone. A man named Wilkey,” he said to the bartender, a portly figure nearly as wide as he was tall.
Upon hearing Marcus speak, the clusters seated around the bar began to whisper and mumble excitedly, sounding much like a hive of bees perceiving a threat nearby. The little men leaned in toward one another and spoke urgently, some laughing and others giving Marcus dark looks.
Marcus kept his attention focused on the bartender and saw a line of sweat appear near the line of his gray hair and trickled down across the expanse of his forehead. He wiped the mug absently with his rag and looked down at the bar.
“Ain’t no Wilkey, here, Master,” he said.
Marcus frowned, but did not look away. “Are you sure? It would be a shame if he was here and no one told him that Marcus had returned to see him.”
At the mention of his name, Marcus heard a renewed buzzing from the tables around him. He heard one particularly loud voice near the door say “I knew it were him. Didn’t I tell ya it were him?” He could not, in the whispered cacophony, tell the overall sentiment the mention of his name caused, but decided he would worry about that later.
“Well, I ain’t much for keepin’ secrets,” the bartender said, “but if I were searching for Wilkey, I’d look upstairs in the second room on the right.”
Marcus thanked him and started up the stairs at the end of the bar before the bartender spoke again.
“But I’m not figurin’ you’ll like him in the state he’s in. He’s in a bad way, he is.”
Marcus hurried up the stairs, leaving Heather to the stares of the little men. She glanced around the room shyly, hoping to not catch their attention, but every pair of eyes seemed to be on her. She never felt comfortable in front of crowds and now could not remember ever feeling more uncomfortable or being in front of a stranger crowd. Taking a seat by the door, her knees bent up into her chest in the low ladder-back, she watched the stairs and waited for Marcus to return.
Marcus took the stairs three at a time, careful not to bump his head upon reaching the upper landing. Four quick steps brought him to the door the bartender had said and he knocked on it three times, listening for any movement inside. He heard none and knocked again, louder this time. Still, no sound came from across the door. He tried the knob, but it would not turn. Finally, out of ideas, he placed his hand flat against the door and concentrated on unlocking the door, a feat he had performed almost without thinking as a child crawling through dungeons with Erasmus by his side.
The lock held. Not even the sound of a tumbler moving rewarded Marcus for his efforts.
Marcus stood back from the door and kicked it, just above the knob and with a splintering pop, it opened. A strong smell of beer assailed Marcus as he entered and saw Wilkey, lying passed out upon the floor next to a pool of drying vomit. The small man’s dark clothes were covered in dust and badly wrinkled as if he had slept in them for days. Marcus felt sure that he had been sleeping in them as the smell of Wilkey’s body combined with the beer and vomit aroma to produce a nauseating stew for the nose. Wilkey’s black hair pointed in all directions except for a small patch near the top that lay flat against an empty bottle, still clutched in his right hand.
Closing his eyes and taking a deep breath, Marcus nearly choked on the strong aroma filling the room and stepped forward to where Wilkey lay sprawled upon the floor. He reached down and with strength born of growing anger he lifted Wilkey by his dusty shirt and shook him awake.
“Wake up, you little bastard,” Marcus said through gritted teeth.
Wilkey flopped in Marcus’s hand like a rag doll and mumbled, “Whosit? What the . . . ?” before puking again, spewing thin, whiskey-scented bile and just missing the leather boots Marcus wore.
Marcus smacked him, not very hard, but hard enough to get his attention. Wilkey’s eyes snapped open like window shades and he blinked sleepily at Marcus. As he opened his eyes, he cringed from the light flooding in from the window and winced painfully as he tried to focus on who had lifted him off the floor.
“M-M-Marcus?” he asked, his voice slurred. He raised a dirty sleeve to wipe away a trickled of fluid from the corner of his mouth. “Is that you?”
Marcus stared at him a moment, disgusted, then dropped him unceremoniously onto the bed. Taking a seat across the room, his knees out wide to compensate for the low chair, Marcus shook his head. “Wilkey, what the hell has happened to you?”
Wilkey struggled to roll over and blinked rapidly at Marcus, still trying to flush the disorientation from his mind. He absently wiped at his filthy clothes and looked remarkably put out.
“It’s been rough since you’ve been gone, Marcus, very rough.”
“Looking at you, I can believe that,” Marcus answered.
Wilkey continued to fidget uncomfortably, as though he sat on hot coals and was not allowed to get up. He refused to make eye contact with Marcus and made frequent glances at the door as if he intended to bolt for it any second. “What . . . what brings you back?” he asked.
“You know why I’ve come back,” Marcus answered.
“Ah, the Necromancer.”
“Yeah, and you also know why I came here to find you,” Marcus said.
Wilkey fidgeted more now, giving himself the appearance that he was suffering some sort of seizure. His glances at the half-open door became stares filled with longing. After a long pause, he nodded, without looking at Marcus.
“Where are my things, Wilkey?” Marcus asked, sensing trouble. “What have you done with them?”
“Well . . .” Wilkey began in a trembling voice. “You see . . .”
Marcus groaned in exasperation. “What did you do? Sell them so you could drink yourself into a stupor? Barter them for some cheap whore? Or perhaps you just lost them in a fit of gambling?”
Wilkey looked at Marcus finally, his wide eyes showing plainly the fear that had been rising in him since he recognized his visitor. “No, Marcus, nothing like that,” he said. “They took them.”
“Who’s they?” Marcus asked, leaning forward to look more closely at the little man. He wanted to be sure that he was not being lied to and moved in close enough to smell the stench of liquor that still clung to him.
“The bosses,” Wilkey answered, panicked. “You probably saw them downstairs. They spend almost all their time here, when they’re not out robbing people, or killing them. Three halflings, all dressed in black.”
Marcus scanned his memory of the barroom below and vaguely recalled a table in the corner occupied by three such figures as Wilkey described. They had remained stock still as he entered and made his inquiry to the bar man. Then, a thought struck his mind like a bolt of lightning, wiping all the anger he felt toward Wilkey, and replacing it with cold, sickening fear. As he rose, he heard raised voices from downstairs and an ear-piercing scream.
“Heather . . .” he moaned as he sprinted out the door.
Heather watched Marcus ascend the stairs and felt the all the eyes shift around to her as soon as he was out of sight. She tried to scan the room casually, smiling and trying not to show the fear that made her desperately want to exit the building and wait outside. Looking at the pub’s patrons sitting all around her, she found herself recalling Tolkien’s description of hobbits from her reading of The Lord of the Ringsin college. However, the grim, haunted faces around her looked nothing like the Frodo and Sam she had envisioned. All wore dark clothing, mostly caked in dirt too thick to determine their actual color. Many bore scars or festering sores upon their faces, signs of the harsh lives they endured in this dangerous land. Some continued to stare at her through narrow eyes while leaning over to whisper in conspiratorial tones to their neighbors.
She soon grew tired of their scrutiny and turned her attention instead to the low table in front of her, counting the moments until she heard the sounds of Marcus returning down the stairs. She decided to launch a new verbal assault when they left the pub, berating him for leaving her alone with such unsavory company, when she heard footsteps, but not from the staircase. Heavy boots pounded upon the plank forward from the corner of the pub moving in her direction. She did not look up, but could hears chairs sliding across the wood as the steps moved closer. Only when three shadows fell across the table she was so pointedly staring at did she look.
Heather gasped looking into the faces of the three figures before her. Never could she recall seeing more disturbing expressions. Each glared at her with obvious malice and amusement on their rounded faces. They were short, but stocky, much larger than the rest of the inhabitants of the village she had seen so far. Each wore a long knife strapped to his belt and the blades glinted merrily in the light spilling in from the oil lamps lighting the interior of the pub.
The figure in the center, his pock-marked face crowned by thick black eyebrows that knitted together above his nose, gave her a crooked grin. “What we got here, boys? Looks like the big’un done left us a plaything.”
Heather started to stand and move for the door, but the little man to her left cut off her escape, drawing his knife and motioning her to return to her seat. She did so, then saw the remaining two draw their knives as well.
Her nerves frayed to the breaking point, Heather let out a high-pitched scream which momentarily drove her assailants back from surprise. She tried to duck under the table, but banged her head on the edge, causing brilliant bolts of pain to temporarily haze her vision. The table slid loudly across the wood planks as she struck it, then more loudly as the three knife-wielding thugs pulled it out away from her to allow themselves easier access. As Heather fought to remain conscious, she wondered vaguely how she had gotten herself into such a mess. She tried to scream again, but only a short whisper came out as she watched the three little men moving toward her.
“Marcus . . .”
Marcus tore through the open door, cursing himself for not bringing Heather up with him. He started to run down the stairs, nearly fell, and only managed a controlled stumble to the bottom. Reaching the bar again, he saw three halflings dressed just as Wilkey had described advancing upon Heather with their long knives drawn.
He thought of trying to call upon the power which was either gone or lying dormant to dispatch the threat, but knew if nothing happened that he would not have time to try a Plan B. Instead, he grabbed the first solid object he could get his hands on, a bottle half full of some dark liquor standing just behind the bar, and hurled it at the center attacker. The bottle struck the halfling in the back of the head and shattered, propelling him forward on top of the swooning Heather. Marcus heard his knife clatter to the wooden floor as the remaining two turned to find the source of the bottle.
The one closest too him charged forward with his knife, holding it out in front of him like an Olympic runner carrying the torch to begin the games. Marcus held his ground and, just before the halfling had closed enough ground to slash at him, grabbed an empty chair and flung it forward.
The halfling dodged the chair easily, sidestepping the clumsy attack with remarkable agility, but recovered to find Marcus stepping forward with a clenched fist. The blow landed squarely on the halfling’s forehead and knocked him backward over a nearby table, sweeping off three empty mugs as he collided with the side wall of the pub. Marcus winced as pain shot up from his knuckles to his wrist and forearm. He had never been in a physical altercation in his adult life and now discovered that rarely did the movies get it right.
Marcus felt, rather than saw, the next attack coming. A high-pitched whistle caused him to dive for the floor as the third attacker’s knife sailed less than an inch over his head. The hilt of the weapon struck hard against the wall and clattered to the floor before the stairs.
He looked toward the front of the room and saw the third halfling retrieve his fallen comrade’s weapon from the floor beside him. Thick-soled boots ran nimbly through the tables and chairs as he struggled to a kneeling position. As the halfling sprang to attack, Marcus seized another chair and slid it into the path of his leaping foe, catching his feet as he rose into the air and causing him to fall short of his intended target, crashing to the floor face first.
Marcus heard the halfling he had punched rising to his feet and drew his own knife to be better prepared. He stood, banged his head painfully against a support beam, and fought hard to correct his swimming vision before the other could advance. In an act of desperation, he kicked out for the table the halfling had cleared off and connected just as the small, furious face appeared at its edge. The heavy table lurched forward, wedging the halfling’s head with a loud crack between itself and the wall. The halfling twitched a moment, eyes wide with shock, then remained still.
The other patrons of the pub had discreetly filed out as soon as the three had signaled their intentions with Heather. Now, the only halfling in the room still conscious was the bartender, cowering beneath the bar. Marcus, in the newly wrought silence of the room, could hear the portly body shaking the glass mugs as he trembled out of sight.
A groan came from the direction of the front door and Marcus braced himself for a continuation of the attack. Instead, the groan was definitely female, causing him to rush forward to see if his foolish acts of leaving her alone and coming to such a rescue had doomed her to die in this land. He saw Heather squirm beneath the body of the prone halfling but saw no sign of blood other than a dark patch of matted hair at the back of the halfling’s head. Picking up the drenched figure, he tossed his body aside like a hay bale and looked down at Heather, afraid of what he would see.
As quick as lightning, Heather’s hand rose up and slapped him hard across the face, further stinging the area she had struck the previous day. She lay curled into a ball upon the floor, sobbing wildly with fear and anger. The liquor that had sprayed from the shattered bottle spotted her cotton shirt, but Marcus saw no sign of injury to her and felt an enormous geyser of relief rise up within him. He took her into his arms and, despite her half-hearted protests and half-audible curses, drew her close to him.
He was still holding her when a shadow fell across them and caused him to look up. The halfling he had tripped with the chair had recovered and stood poised over them brandishing his wicked knife and a more wicked smile. Caught by surprise and without his own knife that he had dropped a few feet away, Marcus recoiled, seeking only to protect Heather from the oncoming blow.
The attack never came.
The halfling raised the blade above his head and his expression suddenly changed, shifting from triumphant glee to painful shock instantly. His knife hand lowered slowly, then dropped the blade to the floor. A small gasp, sounding like air escaping from a tire, left his mouth and a drop of blood trickled down from on of his nostrils. Closing his eyes, the halfling dropped in a heap next to Marcus, a small knife hilt jutting from the back of his neck
Wilkey stood at the base of the stairs, leaning upon the rail for support. He trembled visibly, but gave Marcus a wry smile. “Guess I got here just in time, eh?” he asked.
Marcus stood slowly, hauling Heather to her feet as he did so. He looked down at the dead halfling with wide eyes and for the first time he realized how serious their situation would be without his powers. He looked up again at Wilkey and offered a faint smile. “Nice shot,” he said.
Holding his head as though it might fall off, Wilkey waded cautiously through the tables and chairs. “Yeah,” he agreed, “considering I was seeing five of him. Glad I picked the right one to throw at.” He looked up and saw Heather. “Whoa, Marcus, you didn’t tell me you had a lady friend with you. I guess you must be the one they were after. Nice scream, by the way.”
Heather offered no reply. She recoiled from Wilkey as he approached, as a small child might back away from a large dog. Her eyes, still brimming with tears, appeared glazed and unfocused as she surveyed they scene.
Wilkey seemed nonplussed. “Great, Marcus, you brought a mute girl with you. That’ll be helpful.”
The pock-marked halfling Marcus had struck with the bottle gave a loud groan and moved, causing Heather to back against the wall with a tiny yelp. Marcus picked up his own knife and hurried to the walking figure. He slid his boot beneath the halfling’s ample stomach and heaved him over on his back with a loud thump.
Taking one of the ladder-back chairs in hand, he placed it over the halfling’s chest with the bottom support resting just above the windpipe. He straddled the chair, sitting backwards and leaning over its back to look down at the pock-marked face.
“Bring me that bottle,” Marcus told Wilkey, pointing to another decanter of dark brown fluid standing abandoned on the bar. Wilkey did so without question, but with a curious cast of his eyebrows.
Marcus accepted the bottle and stared at it a moment, swirling its contents slowly and watching the light from the lamps in the pub flicker and dance off the tiny waves. He then began pouring the contents onto the upturned face of the halfling. The halfling sputtered and groaned before finally opening his eyes, looking at Marcus with extreme hatred and fear. The support rods of the chair over him immobilized his arms and after a brief struggle, he lay still glaring up at his captor.
Holding out his hand as he had done earlier, Marcus tried to summon the flame he had been able to generate earlier. He was not disappointed as the orange tongue jumped to the end of his thumb and remained there. He looked down and smiled. “You may not be aware of this, but the liquid I just poured over you is nearly all alcohol. Very flammable,” he said. “Now, you’re going to answer a few questions or I’m going to make you extra crispy.”
In response, the halfling spit upward, barely lacking the force necessary to hit Marcus in the face. “I’m not saying anything to you,” he snarled.
Marcus shrugged and leaned the chair forward, pressing it against the halfling’s windpipe. He listened as the little man struggled for breath and then pulled back, allowing him to recover in a fit of coughing and deep pulls of air. “Now, let’s start with what you took from Wilkey over there. Hand it over.”
The halfling narrowed his eyes as he cut them over to look at Wilkey and Marcus thought he would continue to resist. He guessed wrong, however, as the thick-fingered hand reached into his shirt and produced a small silver ornament attached to a silver chain. Marcus reached down and removed the item carefully and tucked into a pocket of his robes, careful not to take his attention off such a potentially dangerous adversary.
“I take the the other two have the other items?” Marcus asked.
The halfling still stared murderously at Marcus, but nodded. Wilkey, who had been off to the side making rude gestures to the pock-marked halfling, performed a quick search of the other two “bosses” as he had called them and produced a silver ring and a worn leather bag, similar to the one he already possessed. This bag, however, glittered slightly, like stars in an oiled leather sky. Wilkey brought these to Marcus who stored them likewise within his robes.
“Now, why did you attack us?” Marcus asked.
The halfling said nothing, only glared back in furious defiance.
Marcus held out his hand again and recalled the small flame. “You’re trying my patience and . . . “ he started, but the halfling interrupted.
“He sent us . . . to stop you.”
Marcus banished the fire, unable to hold it any longer. Sweat trickled down his brow from the exertion of producing it and he felt the same weariness he had felt upon leaving the woods earlier in the day. He hoped the halfling would either be too stupid or too blinded by rage to see his weakened state since he doubted that he could hold the stocky fellow down should he try to lift up suddenly.
“Who sent you?” Marcus asked.
“Him,” the halfling answered, as if the answer was obvious, and Marcus supposed it was. “The Necromancer.”
Marcus leaned back in the chair and considered for a moment. He had surely expected the answer, but it disturbed him that his quest had only just begun and already he was being hounded by the Necromancer’s forces. He decided, though, that before he could plan out his next move, he needed to take care of the small detail lying beneath him.
“I want you to give a message to this Necromancer,” Marcus told the halfling. “Can you do that?”
The halfling nodded again. A look of eagerness appeared on his face as he realized that Marcus did not intend to kill him where he lay. His eyes quickly scanned the room, looking for the closest item he could employ as a weapon when Marcus removed his weight from the chair holding him at bay.
“I want you to tell the Necromancer this,” Marcus said, bringing the thick glass bottled down over the back of the chair. It exploded in a shower of glass upon the halfling’s forehead, cutting a deep gash in his scalp and knocking him unconscious again.
Marcus waited a moment before standing to be sure he had done the job right, then stood up and looked at Wilkey. “Get whatever you need from your room upstairs,” he said. “We’re leaving.”
“Where to?” Wilkey asked.
Marcus did not answer. Instead, he turned to Heather who still stood trembling against the wall next to the pub’s door. Her eyes bulged from their sockets, tears brimming the red edges. She held her arms crossed over her chest, squeezing herself tightly as though hugging herself. Marcus walked to her and started to put his arm around her, hoping to comfort her in the wake of such a close brush with death, but she recoiled from him as she might have from the halfling now lying unconscious and bleeding on the floor before her. Giving Marcus a warning glance, she stepped quickly out the door.
Marcus sighed and surveyed the wreckage around the room. Despite the several chairs he had used, none appeared damaged and other that a few overturned tables, the pub could have been reopened for business almost immediately. He could see the bartender peeking out to assess the situation and his eyes widened with fear as Marcus walked toward him. Fear changed to surprise as Marcus pulled two gold coins from a pocket of his robes and laid them on the bar, sliding them across for emphasis.
“Sorry about the mess,” he said, knowing that the halfling had probably never seen one gold coin in his life, much less two, gold being exceptionally rare in these parts.
Turning, Marcus started toward the front door just as Wilkey returned down the stairs, a leather sack slung over one shoulder. He dashed out in front of Marcus and, in mock chivalry, held the swinging door open with a wide smile.
Marcus stepped out into the sunshine and found Heather standing just outside the door. Exiting the room had apparently lessened the shock of what had transpired there, although the effects of seeing her now ex-fiancé killing another being in defense of her still showed themselves in the slack-jawed surprise evident on her face. She still held her own arms across her chest and looked around nervously as though she expected a horde of halflings to charge at her from all directions in retribution for the deaths of two, maybe three, of their own. As Marcus walked toward her, she backed away.
Feeling more exasperated than he cared to admit, Marcus changed his direction abruptly and began walking away from the pub, back through the circles of buildings and into the grove of trees surrounding Yellow Banks. He did not look back, but could hear Wilkey and, a little further behind, Heather following along behind.
“Where to, oh mighty one?” Wilkey asked, drawing even with Marcus.
Marcus, whose mind was working too furiously to appreciate the halfling’s sense of humor, did not answer at first. He slowed his pace and stared at Wilkey as they filed past the last of the tree and reentered the high grass that continued on aside the Misteld. “First of all, I will tell you that I appreciate you saving us back there,” he said at last. “But I will also tell you that I won’t be able to tolerate your personal problems on this trip. I have enough of my own, thank you. As drunk as you were when I found you, as you still are, you’re lucky that I’m giving you the opportunity to help at all.”
Seeing the pained expression on Wilkey’s face, Marcus softened his tone. “When I was younger, I knew I could rely on you no matter how bad things got over here. That’s why I trusted you with these objects.” He patted his robes. “I need to know that I can rely on you again. Circumstances have changed and we need all the allies, all the sober allies, that we can get.”
Wilkey fell back a pace and remained silent for some time. Marcus looked back occasionally as they walked and saw that the halfling still suffered from a massive hangover, squinting to the point of nearly closing his eyes to the bright sunlight and holding his head as though it might explode. Behind him walked Heather, staring vacantly into the distance, seeing nothing, Marcus suspected, other than her own life flashing before her eyes.
“Oh, in response to your question earlier about where we are going,” Marcus said, turning to Wilkey. “We are going to Glenfold.”
Wilkey’s eyes widened nearly to rival Heather’s. “The elves?” he said, horrified. “We can’t go there.”
Wilkey stuttered for a moment and Marcus readied himself for the lie he knew would follow. “They . . . they aren’t allowing anyone in their realm. It’s been forbidden to all since the siege began.”
Marcus suspected there actually was some truth to the statement, but also knew Wilkey was concealing some ulterior motive for wanting to avoid the elven kingdom. He decided to take a guess.
“What did you take from them?” he asked sternly, as a parent might speak to a young child who had shoplifted candy from a convenience store.
Wilkey stopped walking and began fidgeting, moving his weight from one foot to the other and back as though he stood on a bed of hot coals. “I don’t know what you mean, Marcus,” he said in a higher pitched voice.
Marcus stopped and turned completely to face the halfling. Placing his hands on his hips, he said nothing. Feeling the penetrating gaze, he reached into his pocket and slowly pulled out a glittering ruby as large as a tennis ball. He gazed at it longingly for a long moment, then handed it out to Marcus.
“There were two,” Wilkey admitted, speaking at the ground. “But I used one to pay for my room at the pub and all the food and drink I could want for the next five years.”
Pocketing the ruby, Marcus gave a look to Heather who had stopped just behind Wilkey. Her face had lost its shocked mask and now only told of extreme weariness from the day’s events.
“We’ll make camp here,” Marcus decided. Looking around the grassy hills surrounding them on three sides and the river on the fourth, he did not like the openness of their position along the trail, but knew he could not drag Heather much further without her collapsing. He, too, felt exhausted, the adrenaline from the pub brawl having long departed. As he thought of how close he had come to getting Heather and himself killed, his hands trembled and he immediately sought to put them to some work by finding a suitable spot to sleep for the night.
Heather sat down at once, unceremoniously plopping down into the tall grass. Wilkey unshouldered his pack and sat down a few feet away.
“So, Marcus being very rude, we’ve not been properly introduced,” he said to Heather. “I’m Wilkes Poppinjay, an old friend of Marcus’s. What brings you to our lovely land.”
Marcus listened to the conversation intently, pretending to scan the area around them for anything of interest and was surprised when Heather answered in a perfectly casual voice.
“I’m Heather,” she said. She did not offer her hand in greeting, but Wilkey took it anyway, planting a kiss on its back.
“A pleasure meeting you, Heather,” he said cordially. “Are you and Marcus united?”
Marcus knew this translated to “Are you married?” and apparently Heather figured it out as well.
“No,” she answered, wiping the hand Wilkey had kissed absently. “We’re just friends.”
The words stung Marcus as though he had fallen on a porcupine.
“Some friend to drag you to this place,” Wilkey said. “This land is dying and soon every one of us will die with it. The Necromancer will see to that.”
“Hey, Marcus,” Wilkey said, twisting around to look at him. “Why didn’t you just blast those guys in the pub with a spell or something? You could have saved both of us a lot of trouble.”
Marcus, already underwhelmed by Wilkey’s faith in his ability to stop the Necromancer, decided to go for broke. “I couldn’t have. My power is gone.”
Wilkey twirled quickly, coming to rest on his knees, and stared open-mouthed at Marcus. “What? How can that be? Where did it go?”
Marcus gave up the pretense of searching the area and sat down across from his two companions. “I don’t know. That’s why we’re going to see the elves.”
“You think they’ll know?”
“I hope so,” Marcus answered. “If not, we might as well go hand ourselves over to the Necromancer now.”