The Well

The Well

He was a young man, I thought.  I didn’t even shave, at the time, but I still thought he was young.  Rich, too, with fancy armor and a fancy sword and fancy cloak and the biggest horse I’d ever seen.  I didn’t think much of him the first time I saw him.  Maybe because Ellie looked at him the way I wanted her to look at me.  I’d started noticing how girls were pleasantly different and Ellie especially.  I guess it didn’t matter too much how she looked at him.  Heroes came through the village now and again and stopped only long enough to eat.

That day was a little different.  We needed a hero.  Don’t heroes always go where they’re needed?

He reined his horse in front of Jollo’s, the village pub.  It—she—stood quietly and waited while he went inside.  He didn’t even drop the reins.  I didn’t like the horse.  It stood perfectly still, like it didn’t want to waste the effort of fidgeting.

“Isn’t he handsome?” Ellie sighed, and put her chin in her hand, watching the door he vanished through.

“Dunno.  He’s just some other guy in armor, I guess.”

“But that hair!  Sooooo black!  It’s like he wears the night like a crown.”

“What are you, a jongleur?”

“I could be.  Father Aeschluss says I’m the best singer.”

“Father Aeschluss is a drunk,” I muttered, but she wasn’t listening.

“I wonder if he’s here for the old ones.”

“Better hope not,” I decided.  “He won’t look so pretty after meeting them.”

“Oh, you don’t know,” Ellie flared.  “He might be a great hero and fight them for six days and nights until they finally go back to whatever realm they came from!”

“Or he might be another dumb hero and rile them up again when they eat him.”

“You have no imagination, that’s your problem, Miles!”

“I’m imagining him being pulled apart by tentacles,” I reasoned.

Ellie hmphed at me and said nothing else.

Her hero did come out again, after a while.  Jollo’s youngest, Otto, led the stranger past the livery stable and us to the house of Elder Mason.  Otto knocked, the stranger went in, and Otto returned to the pub.

“I reckon he’s getting the quest now,” Ellie declared.  I kept my mouth shut, a practice I have since found useful when a woman makes a statement.

Sure enough, the would-be hero stayed in Elder Mason’s house for quite a while.  It’s a long story, explaining how the tentacles come out of the old well, and it takes four times as long with all the embellishments Elder Mason adds.  He’s never told the story twice in the same way and I think he’s proud of it.  I always thought he should write it down, just the facts, but he tries to scare people with his storytelling.  I never liked him much.

It was getting on in the afternoon before Ellie’s latest crush returned to the pub.  He paused to stroke his mare’s nose for a minute before going inside.

“Well, he won’t be back out today,” I ventured.  “He’ll be for a dinner and drinking and a good sleep upstairs before he sets off tomorrow.”

“To the ruins,” Ellie added.

“Out of town,” I countered.

“He’ll investigate.  He’s a hero,” she persisted.

“He’ll move on.  There’s no money in it.  We can’t afford a real hero.”

“It’s not our fault we’re poor.”

“No, it’s elders’ fault for gathering up the harvest and selling it in Brynnarium.”

“It’s our fault for not having a good harvest?” she demanded.

“I guess not,” I shrugged, “but it seemed better to me than we got for it.  Doesn’t help Father Aeschluss keeps begging for more money.”

“It’s our duty to support the church,” Ellie stated, positively.

“Is it our duty to keep the priest in rye whiskey?”

“He tends the ravens.  How would we know what’s going on in the world without him?”

“Take care of the ravens ourselves?”

“The problem with you, Miles, is you have no piety.”

According to Ellie, I had a lot of problems.

Karno walked up about then, pausing to lean on a hitching post outside the livery.  Karno was my chief rival for Ellie’s attention and a successful one.  He was a handspan taller and wider and had a much deeper voice.  He wasn’t too bright, but he had a low, animal cunning I lacked.  I didn’t hate him, exactly.  I just hoped he would trip over something in the night and break his neck.

“Good afternoon, Ellie.”

“Karno.”

“Anything interesting happening?”

“There’s a hero come to town.”

“Really?”

“He’s at Jollo’s.  He had a long talk with Elder Mason so he might try to stop the old ones from grabbing anyone else.”

Karno regarded Jollo’s pub and considered.

“Is that big beast his?”

“He rode in on it.”

“Doesn’t look right.”

I didn’t explain why.  Let it annoy him.

“I think,” I said, “he’s going to move on in the morning.”

“Why’s that?  Because you would?” Karno grinned at me.

“Because he doesn’t look as stupid as some people.”

“Or because he’s a skinny runt who would get his head kicked in?” Karno replied, grin gone.

“I think,” Ellie interrupted, “he’ll stay to fight.”

“We’ll find out in the morning,” I agreed.

“Maybe we can find out now,” Karno mused.

“He won’t be leaving the pub before morning,” I told him.  He snorted.

“Watch me.”

He strolled across the street and down to the pub.  He paused in front of the mare, still trying to put his finger on why she seemed unusual.  I was pleased he didn’t manage.  He shrugged and went inside.  Even if Jollo demanded he buy something to stay, he probably could.  Karno’s father, Elder Cooper, usually had money.

We watched and waited.  Ellie was probably in trouble already, late to home and supper.  I wasn’t.  My mother was still in Jollo’s pub, looking for business.  I could wait all night, if I wanted—especially if someone with coin in his purse wanted her to stay.  Some heroes stay overnight, and some have money.

He came strolling out a little before sundown, the self-satisfied look on his stupid, smug face telling me everything.  Ellie would be impressed for days and pester him with questions, demands for every scrap of information.  My only consolation was the nature of her questions.  She would be asking about the hero.  Karno might not notice as a long as Ellie paid attention to him.

“Simple,” he said, leaning back against the wall of the livery.

“Well?” Ellie demanded.  “What?  What did you find out?”

“Oh, just the usual hero stuff.”

I thought Ellie might scream at him, but she merely clenched her fists and stamped her foot.

“Karno!  Talk!”

He shrugged and spoke.

“The hero ate a big meal and took a room for the night.  Ingrid says he ate like three men.”

“And!?”

“He definitely spoke to Elder Mason.”

“I knew that!”

“Ah, but Gaffer Gerrity says the hero mentioned he’d look at the old temple and its well!”

Disaster.  Ellie shot me a triumphant look and hugged Karno.

“So he’s definitely staying?”

“Hard to say.  He only said he’d look at it, but Harron says he’s obviously a hero.  If a hero goes to look at it, the hero’s gonna deal with it.”

“That’s how they work!” Ellie squealed.  “Oh, I’d love to see him fight the old ones in the well!”

“Can’t,” Karno reminded her.  “Anyone who sees them goes mad.  Unless you’re a hero,” he added.  “Maybe.”

“We’ll have to come back in the morning,” Ellie went on.  “He’s sure to want to see it in daylight.  It’ll give him the advantage.”

“You know they don’t come out during the day,” I reminded her, trying to get into the conversation.  “Every hero’s had to battle them at night.”

“Then we’ll have to follow him when he goes out tomorrow.  Unless he’s going tonight?” Ellie asked, directing her question at Karno.

“Dunno.  He’s already gone up to his room.”

“Mmm.  Tomorrow, then.  Probably at dawn.  That’s heroic.”

“There’s no point in waiting here,” Karno reasoned.  “Come on.  Not you,” he added.  I hadn’t bothered to get up.  He offered his arm to Ellie and she giggled as she took it.  They walked away into the sunset and I sat there like a fool.

Maybe a lucky fool, I consoled myself.  Mother was still inside when the hero came out of Jollo’s.  If he wasn’t her business, she was probably chatting up the usual clientele.  She’d be hours, yet.  The hero, on the other hand, went straight to his horse and half-mounted, half-leaped up into the saddle.  I wouldn’t have believed it if I hadn’t seen it.  Nobody mounts a horse in full armor, not without a mounting stool.  And nobody mounts a horse that big without a ladder.  He didn’t even grunt.  Maybe he was a hero.

The big mare turned in place and stepped into a trot.  Her hooves sounded odd on the dirt road.

The direction they took could lead them to the old well in the temple.  There was enough moonlight I might be able to cut across and beat them to it.  I might even see something Ellie might enjoy hearing.  I could show up that big oaf, Karno, too—but not if I sat like a wart.

The ruined temple sits on a hilltop, surrounded by trees.  It’s all overgrown and hidden.  You wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t stumble into it.  There’s a good path up, what’s left of the original temple road, but it’s not hard to get through the forest around it if you know the way.  We’re not supposed to go up there, of course, but every kid knows how.  I played there during some days while Mother was sleeping.  I even laid down on my belly and inched over to look down into the old ones’ well.  If I did it at just the right time of day, there was enough light to see the shadow of my head against the sky, reflected in the black water.  But, like everyone else, ever, I was out of the ruins before dark.

When I reached the broken wall around the temple court, I stopped.  The trees cut down the moonlight, but the white stone threw what little there was back out again.  They seemed to glow, almost.  It was very different at night.  It was silent except for the trees, whispering, creaking, leaning over to see what mysteries came forth.  I almost didn’t go in.  But I smelled smoke and wondered.  And there was Ellie to think about…

I crept over a broken-down part of the outer wall and lay down immediately, peering over one of the fallen slabs to see.

I didn’t beat him here.  His horse was the biggest thing I’d ever seen, but it was fast as a fart in a crowded room, too.  I went over two fences and cut across a cornfield and they were still here ahead of me!

It snorted fire like orange lightning in the night and I held very still, indeed.  Horses don’t breathe fire.  Demon horses, maybe.  Could I make it over the broken part of the wall before they spotted me?  Maybe.  I didn’t like maybe.  I stayed hidden.

The hero approached the edge of the hole.  The wellhouse had fallen long ago.  He tested the last few steps, careful of any loose stones in the paving, and looked into the well.  I don’t know what he expected to see.  It was dark enough up here.  Down there it could only be pitch black.

He spoke in a language I did not understand.  He made gestures with his hands.  Maybe he was a sorcerer with a demon conjured from blood sacrifice to serve as his steed.

He finished speaking and waving, leaned over the edge, and asked a question.  A voice answered him from below.  Every hair on my body stood up and tried to jump off.  The voice was deep and had a peculiar echo to it and I didn’t think it had anything to do with being from a well.  It reminded me of a plucked lute string, only much deeper.  I felt it as it spoke, as though the ground vibrated with each word.

They spoke for a few minutes and the hero—I’ll call him that—turned away.  I caught a flash of his face in the moonlight.  He looked puzzled.

As he approached his horse-thing again, he stopped, crossed his hands, and drew a pair of swords.  The right hand held the big sword, the left hand held the smaller, thin blade.

“Come out, come out, wherever you are,” he sang.  I cringed back behind the slab, certain I was about to be carved into piglet pie and dumped down the well.

Just when things couldn’t get any worse, they got worse.

I heard the sounds of movement, a lot of it, from all around the temple court and the rest of the ruins.  I had visions of tentacles rising up from the well and writhing over the stones.  Any second and one would writhe over me and I’d have my face grabbed by a slimy sucker.

My hand, all on its own, drew my belt knife.  What good it would do against an ancient god awakened by some sorcerer in the depths of the night was open to question, but I wasn’t asking.  I lay there and prayed Someone—Someone friendly, not the thing in the well—was willing to make a deal for my survival.

Fires flickered to life.  I risked one eyeball by sticking it over the edge of the slab.  A dozen torches illuminated the court, most of them by the temple ruin, a few in the open space where the ancient gates had fallen.

“You’re a sorcerer,” someone said.  He was a big man, with a bald head and earrings in one ear.  He held a torch in one hand and a curved sword in the other.

“Wizard,” the hero corrected.  “Among other things.”

“Wizard, sorcerer, whatever.  We’ve one of our own, you know.”

“So I’ve been told.”

“Told?  By who?”

He pointed at the well.  The bald man did not like this answer.  He gestured and the men, torches in one hand, swords in the other, started to close in, cautiously.

“I think I see where this is going,” the hero sighed.

“Do you?”

“From the look of you, you’re mercenaries.  I’m guessing you hide in the temple ruins when you’re not out robbing people.  Someone in town sends likely travelers up here and you kill them.  Anyone who finds you is killed and thrown down the well.  Am I close?”

“Are we really so obvious?” asked the bald man, the leader.

“Not really.  I have an informant, remember.  I don’t know how you get word from town so quickly, but it seems to all hang together.”

“I want his armor,” said another of the men.

“I call the little sword.”

“You can have it.  I want the big one!”

“Who wants the horse?”

“Gentlemen,” interrupted the hero, “I think you’re getting a little ahead of yourselves.”

“He’s right,” said the bald man.  “Eskel!”

Eskel wore breeches, a leather jerkin, and a pair of tight-fitting bracers.  He passed his torch to another man and began waving his hands, chanting.  The hero stood there and waited for him to finish.

Eskel delivered a final, high-pitched word and pointed at the hero.  Nothing happened that I could see.  No doubt there was some sort of magical thing, but I’m not a sorcerer.  I assume this because Eskel paled in the firelight and stepped back, not bothering to take his torch.

“It’s not working!” he shrieked.

“Sorcerers,” spat the leader, disgusted.  “And things were working out so well.  All right.  Take him!”

Things became… confused.  The hero was a black blur with a line of fire hanging in the air behind it, broken by sharp flashes like lightning made of moonlight.  The horse screamed, an ear-splitting sound, and it seemed to go on forever.  I realized, after a moment, it was only the ringing in my ears.  The demon horse moved to the gateway and breathed fire on two men while trampling the other two.  They didn’t groan and crumple the way Rikso did when a horse trampled him.  They splattered.

My ears were still ringing when the black-armored hero, one-handed, picked up the leader and tossed him, screaming, into the well.  I didn’t hear him splash.  Maybe the tentacles ate him.  Whatever lived in the well said something, but I don’t know what.

Fallen torches illuminated the court, along with a bar of fire, a burning sword.  I couldn’t look away, partly because it didn’t occur to me, partly because I didn’t know what to make of what I was seeing.  It finally registered.  The bodies—the pieces of bodies—were bleeding, sort of.  Blood oozed out of them and flowed toward the hero-sorcerer like he was downhill from all of them.  I don’t know what happened when the blood reached him, but it must have gone somewhere.

Eskel was still alive, although unhappy.  He was dangling over the well by his jerkin, in the hero’s grip.

“Eskel, is it?” he asked.  “Nice to meet you.  Decent little death spell you have, there.  You’re good with it, too.  I presume you practice with it.  You need to work on picking your targets, though.”

Eskel didn’t give a coherent answer.  He was busy clutching at the gauntlet as though trying to climb up the arm.  The burning sword thwacked him with the flat, scorching his hair and drawing a strangled yelp from him.

“Let’s try this again.  Focus, Eskel.  You’re a professional sorcerer.  You’re supposed to be able to ignore distractions.”

“Ghurk.”

“Oh.  Air.  Right.”  Eskel flopped to the ground beside the well, on hands and knees, racking great breaths in and out.  “Now, answer my questions or I’ll shout ‘This is Sparta!’ and see how long it takes you to splash.”

“I don’t… I don’t understand.”

“Answer my questions or I’ll kick you down the well,” he clarified.

“What do you want to know?”

“Just the usual.  Who you work for, who he worked for, how you pick your victims, all the usual stuff.”

“What’s in it for me?”

Personally, I thought that was about as gutsy as anything I’ve ever heard of.  The hero did, too, judging from the way his eyebrows went up.

“Well, I suppose I could let you keep all your limbs,” he mused.  “I could summon up the ghosts of the various dead guys, but it’s easier to interrogate a live subject.  Of course,” he added, “it doesn’t have to be an intact subject.  I can start with one leg and whittle on you until you answer.  So, what do you get out of it?  I don’t carve you into bite-sized pieces while you make up your mind.  How’s that for a deal?”

Eskel didn’t think it was a good deal.  He shouted something and made a gesture.  The hero grunted and took a pace backward.  He recovered immediately and took two paces forward, kicking.  Eskel screamed the whole way down.  I did hear his splash.  I guess he didn’t know a spell for flying.  I wondered if he knew a spell for breathing water and avoiding tentacles.

The hero cursed for several seconds and the sword went out.  He sheathed it and moved to sit on a stone block.

“How should I know?” he asked.  “Someone is working with them, but short of pulling an undead inquisition, how am I supposed to find out who?… No, I don’t really want to summon them all.  Necromancy isn’t my strong suit…. Who?  Oh.  Yeah, I saw him.  I don’t see how he’d be useful, so there’s no point in scaring him…. True.  I suppose I could ask.”

I was wondering what sort of familiar spirit he addressed.  As I wondered, he looked right at me and waved.

“Hi.  Sorry to have to let you know you’re spotted, but I might could use your help.  Can I ask a favor?”

I glanced behind me.  There was a giant horse just outside the gap in the wall.  How it got there in total silence was a mystery I did not want to explore.  It nodded at me in an almost friendly fashion.  It’s ears were perked forward.  Does that mean the same thing in demon horses?

“I’d be happy to help,” I decided.  He beckoned me over and I approached.  Behind me the demon horse stepped over the low place in the wall, kicking free more masonry and not noticing.  I made a poor decision in coming up here, but my decision to be agreeable was a fantastic one.

“Pull up a rock and palaver,” he suggested.  I sat down.  “What’s your name?”

“Miles.”

“You can call me Vlad.  You live in the village, Miles?”

“Uh, yessir.”

“Good.  I want you to help me go through their things, here in the temple.  I’m looking for anything that might indicate who they were working with.”

“Yessir.”

“And I think you can put the knife away.  Not a requirement, you understand.  Just letting you know it’s okay.”

I glanced down.  My hand was still holding my belt knife.  Considering how much good it would do me, it wasn’t a comfort.  I sheathed it.

“Look, I know you’re scared,” Vlad went on.  “Calm down.  You’re in no danger.  I try very hard not to kill anyone who isn’t trying to kill me.  For the moment, think of me as just some guy who happens to need your help.  Can you do that?”

“You… you need my help.”

“Yep.  I’m not going to do anything awful to someone I need, now am I?”

“Huh.  I guess… I guess not.”

“See?  Perfectly safe.  Come on.  Let’s see what sort of loot these guys had.”

He conjured several small, glowing orbs and they floated over our heads, following us and illuminating everything.  Sorcery, but useful sorcery.  I was brave enough to touch one.  It was cool, not hot, and my hand didn’t shrivel from contact with demonic forces.

We went into the temple ruins.  I went in not entirely willingly, but, first, I didn’t dare try to leave, and second, there was mention of loot.  Still, it took some deliberation to enter.  I’d never been in there before.  There was never a way in through the heavy, leaning stones.  Now, though, the entry was clear.  A system of rollers let them slide a big stone into place to seal their hideout from prying eyes and nosey children.  I still didn’t want to go in.  Sure, they lived in the old temple so it was probably safe enough, but I kept remembering the voice from the well.  Vlad urged me on, clearly not understanding why I was slow to enter.

Searching the place didn’t take long.  The mercenaries—bandits, I suppose—had quite a bit of loot.  I recognized an ornate cloak pin from a traveler some weeks back.  Ellie had liked it at a lot.  There were coins in pouches and small chests, too.  They had fine clothes—some of it bloodstained—and bottles of wine, a whole pig on a spit, even some art and jewelry.  Their horses were stabled in the temple’s old sanctuary.

“Anything here that would connect to the village?” Vlad asked.

“Well, they got raven cages.  They carry messages.  They might be trained to go to the village, but the only way to find out is to send them.  Even if they do, the only person who gets the messages is Father Aeschluss, and he’s a drunk.”

Vlad looked thoughtful for a moment.  He went back to the crates of wine and selected a few bottles.

“Any of this the sort of thing he drinks?”

“Yessir.  This is the rye whiskey he favors.  The others are wine.  He doesn’t drink that unless he’s sober enough to give a sermon.”

“Hmm.  All right.  Can you let the ravens out?” he asked.  I looked up at the roof.  There were holes in the north end big enough to let small dragons through.

“Yessir.”

“Wait.  I’ll tell you when.”  He went up a ruined wall like a spider and vanished outside.  “Now,” he called in.  “Let them fly.”

I opened the cages and shook them.  All three ravens complained, but ravens always complain.  They flapped up and out into the night.

“Sir?”

“What?”

“Why are we sending ravens without messages?”

“To see where they go.”

“You’re watching black birds fly through the sky at night?”

“Yes.”

I decided not to ask the sorcerer any more questions.  He climbed down the same way he went up, like a spider on a wall.

“Say, Miles?”

“Yessir?”

“Why are you up here, anyway?  You’re no bandit.”

“No, sir.”

“So what are you doing here?”

“I followed you.”

He looked at me with a scolding expression.

“Son, if you kept up with me, where did you hide your wings?  No.  What are you really doing here?”

So I explained about Ellie.  I didn’t want to, but he kept asking questions.  Every time I tried to leave anything out, he asked about it.  It was uncanny.  It was like he could read my mind.  It was embarrassing.

“To put it another way,” he finished, “you came up here hoping to impress a girl.”

“That’s not how I would put it.”

“Obviously.”  I felt my face get hot while he looked around the room, considering the loot.  “Help me get this stuff loaded on the horses.”

We led the horses out to the court, first.  They wouldn’t have fit with loads.  With them lined up and waiting, we shuffled back and forth, hauling out all the valuables.  When we had it all laid out next to the horses, he called a halt.  I kept looking at the well, wondering which was more dangerous, the man, the horse, or the tentacles.

“What’s the problem?”

“The old one in the well,” I told him.

“She’s not a problem.  She’s trying to sleep and people keep throwing stuff down her well.  The dead ones are okay, but the live ones are tastier.  She’d still rather sleep.  If people can avoid chucking human sacrifices down, she’ll sleep away the eons.”

“Am I supposed to understand that?”

“Don’t throw people down the well and there won’t be any problems.”

“Oh.”

“Now, listen, kid.  I don’t know this Ellie of yours, but she sounds like a nice girl.  Here’s the thing.  She’s still young, so she’s probably still impressed by good looks, big muscles, and heroic deeds, which is fine.  Most women grow out of that phase, though.  Then she’s going to be interested in money and brains, since those are signs of a good provider.  If we go back to town and I tell people you helped me, you’ll get a lot of recognition.  Don’t let it go to your head.  Be modest.  I’ll also give you your share in loot—most of it will be wasted, confiscated, stolen, or whatever.  Not to worry, that’s why I’ll give it to you in front of everyone.  They’ll know the elders took it or your mother spent it or something.  We’ll hide the rest of your share somewhere so you can get at it later, when you’re ready to settle down with Ellie or start a farm.  What do you say?”

“You’re going to give me gold?”

“I don’t have much use for it,” he admitted.  “You want some fame and fortune or not?”

“Yes!” I agreed, seeing my prospects suddenly skyrocket.

I started loading the horses while he went inside for a while.  A little after sunrise, he came out, helped finish loading, and helped me into the saddle.  I’d never ridden a horse before, so he led us off slowly, giving me pointers on how to sit and how to guide the horse.  I thought you just used the reins, but there’s a lot of stuff about leaning forward or back, using your knees, all sorts of stuff.

We stopped at the edge of the woods to bury a small chest of gold.

“There’s your retirement fund.  Don’t dig it up until you’re ready to spend it.”

“Yessir.  Thank you, sir.”

“Now let’s get to town.  Oh, and who is it who tends the ravens?”

“Father Aeschluss.”

“They fly in and out through the bell tower on the church?”

“Yessir.”

“Anyone else ever deal with them?”

“Not that I know of.”

“And where’s the next nearest priest?”

“Uh, probably Issarium.  Maybe Pyzanrium.  They’re both about as far.  I know for sure there’s a priest in Brynnarium.  It’s a real city, with walls and a cathedral and everything.  They have a school for priests there.”

“Can you write?”

“Write?’

“Do you know your letters?”

“I can write.  Some.  I can’t write script, but I can draw the low speech.”

“It’ll do.”

The horses walked us into town.  The first person to see us was Higgs, out in his field.  He stopped and stared at us as we went by.  Later, more people saw us.  Nobody did anything, just watched, until we got to Elder Mason’s house.  He saw us coming and was waiting on the step.

Vlad was as good as his word.  He told a story about how he fought with the possessed minions of a dark and terrible force, and how he would have lost if I hadn’t followed him up there.  How a good, true-hearted, brave young man distracted a frothing, fang-mouthed monster of a man just long enough.  I wasn’t sure if I should be ashamed of his lies or if I should look proud at my deeds or if I should try to be humble about it.  He said not to let it go to my head, so I did my best to be humble.

He even handed me a pouch of gold and the best of the swords, all to the oohs and aahs of everyone in the village.

“I’d suggest building something over the well,” he finished.  “It’s still got something in it and it’s not going away.  It’s weak, though, and shouldn’t be a menace any more as long as you don’t feed it.”

“Feed it?” Elder Mason asked.

“People, animals, all the usual stuff.  Build a wall around it, build a roof over it, seal it.”

“We will!”

“Good.  Now, we’ve fought with the forces of darkness.  Do you have a priest?  Miles and I should probably see him for cleansing prayers and the like.  I feel fine, but it’s good to be safe.”

“Father!  Where’s Father Aeschluss?  Find him!”

“He’s probably in the church, Elder.”

“Sleeping it off,” I muttered.  Vlad glanced at me.

“Then we’ll go to the church,” Vlad announced.  “Elder, would you take charge of my loot?  I’ll be returning a lot of it to the village, of course, but I’d like to do it after cleansing any possible stain from us.”

“Naturally, sir.”

“Good.”  Vlad led us, still mounted, down the street to the church.  We dismounted and went inside.  Vlad waved away a few followers, claiming this was something to do in private, and shut the door.

Father Aeschluss was easy to find.  He was sleeping in the back, on his cot.

Vlad stood over him for a minute or so, eyebrows low and drawn together, left hand tight on the dragon-headed hilt.

“Miles?”

“Yessir?”

“Go find the writing materials for the ravens.”

“Yessir.”

I went off to find them and counted the ravens, too.  There were eight, five in the cages and three more on perches.

I returned as Vlad emerged from the priest’s chamber.

“Good.  Now, sit down and write,” he commanded.  “How many ravens are there?”

“Eight.”

“Write out eight times, ‘We need a new priest.’  Got it?”

“We need a new priest?”

“Yes.”

“… why?”

“Because you need a new priest.”

“What’s wrong with Father Aeschluss?”

“He’s gone on a journey to find God.”

“A pilgrimage?”

“Of a sort.  Write.”

I wrote the messages.  We tied them to the ravens and sent them on their way.  After that, we found the water and the wine, splashed on the one, drank the other, and headed for the door.

“Remember,” he cautioned me.  “You don’t dig up your treasure until you’re ready to use it.  We didn’t see the good Father, but we prayed and washed in the holy water, drank the holy wine, so we’re fine.  Right?”

“Right.”

He was right about many things, the hero.  My money did vanish mysteriously quickly.  I think Mom got the lion’s share of it, but she could squeeze a copper out of a piece of wood.  Ellie was impressed by my bravery—extremely impressed, much to my repeated delight.  People looked at me differently.  I don’t know if it changed my life, not like the bards describe it, but maybe it did.  For years, I took out my sword and looked at it every day, wondering about it.

He told a lot of lies about me, and I haven’t let them go to my head.  Still, I wonder.  I have a small chest of gold, a good sword, and, since Ellie married Karno anyway, no real reason to stay.

What does it take to be a hero?

I guess I’ll find out.

Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

ten + eleven =

Pin It on Pinterest