Grave Errors

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Fantasy  |  House: Booksie Classic
This story is a continuation of A Familiar Face, this time being told from the perspective of Grace's husband Roy.

Submitted: June 17, 2019

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Submitted: June 17, 2019

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Roy stood over the cradle in his house, watching his son Tyler as the tiny baby gradually woke up.It was a slow process, with much yawning, wiggling, waving and kicking before the baby opened his eyes.Roy waited patiently for his son to decide whether it was worth waking up or not until the baby stared back at him.Satisfied that he wasn’t upsetting the baby’s sleep, Roy bent down and scooped up Tyler.

“I want to hug the baby,” Jenna pestered him.Roy’s daughter loved her baby brother, perhaps a bit too much.It wasn’t easy to explain being gentle to a girl not yet three years old.

“You’ll get your turn,” Roy told her.He cradled Tyler in his strong arms while the baby kicked his feet.At two months the boy couldn’t crawl, but he wiggled so much it was hard to hold him.

Jenna pouted and put her hands on her hips.“Want to hug baby now.”

Roy’s wife Grace laughed and scooped up her daughter.“There, there, let daddy play with Tyler.”

Roy shared his son’s restlessness and would have liked to walk around, but his small house didn’t leave room for pacing.The single room wood house was well made but small, and the stack of clay jars filled with food Grace had pickled for the winter left even less space. Nor could he take his son outside when the weather was cold.Confining as their small house was, it was about to get even smaller.

Grace took Jenna by the hand and led the girl to a wood chest filled with clothes.“Come on, I want you in your best dress for your grandparent’s visit.”

That made Roy smile.He was poor, all woodcutters were, so their best clothes were old and made of cheap cotton. The rest of their belongings were equally simple with no trappings of wealth, just two poor people, their young children and a mob of gray cats.Simple though their lives were, Grace wanted to put on the best possible face for her parents.

Keeping the house clean had been tricky even before they adopted the cats currently scattered across the room.The mother of those cats was a gray furred familiar of the late sorceress Esme, and the animal retained the magic Esme had poured into it.The cat had brought her kittens here after the sorceress passed away and had adopted Roy, Grace and Jenna as her new family. It was an unusual arrangement that worked after a fashion, even if Esme’s cat was at times a pest.

Getting Jenna clean and presentable was no small task, and Roy had to put his son back in the cradle to help when his daughter got fussy.Once Jenna was ready, Roy went to the door to wait for his in-laws.They’d be here soon to spend the day sharing gossip and stories of old times that always seemed to be better than the present.

He didn’t have long to wait.Roy smiled as his in-laws walked up to the house.He got along with them as well as could be expected, an odd situation when they were only ten years older than he was.Grace’s parents were wealthier than he was, but not by a large margin. Farming generated little more profit than woodcutting.They didn’t come alone, either, bringing their youngest daughter Stacy with them. Stacy was all of ten years old and bounding in her eagerness to see Roy’s children.

“I’m glad you could make it,” Roy told them as they came inside his meager house.

“It’s no hardship,” his father-in-law said.“The neighbors are looking after our livestock, and there’s no work in the fields this time of year.We have more than enough time to visit our grandkids.Jenna, look how you’ve grown!”

Normally Jenna was loving to a fault, but this time she raced to the cradle and put herself firmly between the baby and her grandparents.“My baby!” 

Grace’s mother watched with some concern.“What’s the matter?”

“It’s our fault,” Grace explained.“Esme’s kittens are big enough to do their own hunting, even if they’re not very good at it.Roy and I wondered if we could give one or two away to the neighbors.”

“My kittens!” Jenna yelled.One of the gray cats rubbed up against her.Usually that was enough to distract the little girl, but not today.

“Now she’s convinced we’re giving away everything, including the baby,” Grace finished.Jenna ran over and tried to climb into the cradle with her baby brother.Grace picked up the little girl and said, “Jenna, only the baby goes in the cradle.”

Just then one of the cats jumped up into the cradle and lay down at the baby’s feet.The in-laws laughed while Grace scolded, “What did I just say?”

“They get into everything,” Roy added.He spotted movement in the supposedly empty stew pot and plucked out another cat.“They’re nearly grown and will leave soon whether we give them away or not.Still, I figure Esme’s cat will give us a new batch of kittens soon enough.”

Esme’s cat had been minding her own business in a corner when she heard this. The gray cat gave Roy a look that said ‘don’t judge me’ without saying a word.

“My baby, my kittens!” Jenna yelled.She was working herself into a tantrum.

Roy went over and scooped up his daughter.He held her against his chest and wrapped both arms around her.“Shh, it’s okay.No one is giving baby brother away.He’s ours forever and ever.That’s a promise, and daddy keeps his promises.”

Jenna calmed down slowly.Roy set her on the table and then picked up his infant son.He set the baby in Jenna’s lap and she grabbed him.The baby looked like he didn’t even notice the commotion and kicked his feet.Roy spotted his ten year old sister in-law waiting at his elbows with a smile.

“Stacy, you can play with them, but Jenna gets to hold the baby,” Roy said.

Stacy squealed in delight and wrapped her arms around her niece and nephew. “I’ll be extra special careful with them, and hug them and kiss them and hold them.”

Roy patted her on the back.“That’s a good girl.If you folks will excuse me, I’ve got work to do.”

“I wouldn’t mind helping,” his father-in-law offered.

“I might take you up on that another time, but it’s light duty today,” Roy said.

Grace handed him his ax before kissing him.“Mother and I will have a hot meal ready when you get back.You be careful.”

“I always am.”

Roy was about to leave when he saw Jenna give their guests dubious looks and said, “Don’t squish my baby.”

 The extended family burst out laughing, letting Roy leave the house on a high note. He set his ax on the wood sledge he used to haul wood and pulled it to the nearby forest.Farming slowed down to a crawl during winter when there was nothing to do but look after animals, but woodcutting sped up in cold weather. There were no mosquitoes or biting flies to bedevil men, and cold air cut down on sweating.A thin layer of snow crunched under his feet as he left his family behind.

On his way there he passed the sheriff and four soldiers.The sheriff had been a busy man ever since winter started. Wolves were growing more desperate with the cold weather, and bandits were always a threat.Roy had been a soldier once and appreciated the risk those men took.

A soldier pointed at Roy and asked, “Sheriff, should we let him go in the woods alone?”

The man meant to be quiet, his voice just above a whisper, but it was as plain as day to Roy, as was the sheriff’s reply.“Roy is one of the 157.If there’s trouble, he can handle himself.”

Roy continued on as if he hadn’t heard them and entered the woods that other villagers avoided.Roy didn’t begrudge them such concern given the things he’d found among the trees. He’d come across the ruins of farmhouses long abandoned, nothing more than stone fireplaces and half rotted beams that used to be homes.To be fair, there were parts of the woods where even Roy didn’t go, old, malignant places best left forgotten.

Nor were the woods entirely empty.He’d seen odd tracks in the dirt from passing monsters, remains from their kills, and now and then he saw unidentifiable shapes moving in the distance. Most monsters kept their distance, wary of humans with steel axes.Over the years two beasts had shown poor judgment and attacked Roy.They’d been surprisingly tasty.

Entering the woods was a disorienting experience if you weren’t ready for it.The woods were dense with large trees growing close together.There were narrow trails that Roy knew by heart but few others did. You couldn’t see far even without the dense cloud cover overhead, and help was far away if a man was in danger.

Roy had seen a few promising dead trees last week that would make excellent firewood.Dry wood burned far better and cleaner than green wood, but those trees were deep in the forest.Going more than a mile into the woods held no real risk with the company he’d soon get.

“Hey there, champ,” a squeaky voice called out.Roy nodded to the messy goblin ambling through the woods.This one was squat, dirty, hairy, dressed in rags and had a wide mouth and head.

Roy tipped his hat to the goblin.“Hi, Gristle.”

“Getting away from your in-laws?” Gristle asked.

“No, just getting some work done.Snow doesn’t slow down my day.”

Gristle jumped onto Roy’s sledge.“Mine if I come along?”

Roy hesitated.“I’d rather be alone today.”

“That’s reason enough to stay with you.I can’t have you getting into one of your moods again, not with little tots at home.”

All manner of responses ran through Roy’s mind.During his years as a soldier he’d learned enough insults and obscenities to fill a book.It took some effort not to use them, but resisting the urge wasn’t that hard. After all, Gristle was right.

“How are the little ones doing?” Gristle asked as Roy pulled the goblin down the snowy trail.

“Jenna’s more of a handful than ever.She treats her brother like a new toy, one she’s not always careful with. Don’t get me wrong, she loves Tyler, but we’ve got to watch her around him so she doesn’t get too enthusiastic.”

Sounding cheerful, Gristle asked, “And the little man?”

Roy smiled.“He wiggles so much I wish I had another pair of arms to hold him.Always moving around, kicking and waving his arms.”

“Now there’s your real problem.What you’ve got is an ambitious baby.Most little ones are happy to let people feed them and clean up after them. That’s the life!But your kid’s got gumption.You mark my words, he won’t be satisfied just sitting around. Before you know it he’ll set out on an epic quest.”

Roy stopped and turned around to give the goblin a disbelieving look. “He’s two months old.”

“It could happen any day.”

This bizarre conversation was typical of interactions with goblins. They were stupid and a bit crazy, making dealings with them nearly impossible.Roy had also heard that goblins were mischievous and set traps for the unwary, but he didn’t believe it.Gristle and his fellow goblins had never bothered him in the slightest.

Gristle bounded off the sledge and walked alongside Roy.“So does that make them 158 and 159?”

Roy froze.“What?”

“I’ve heard people call you 157, so if you’ve got two kids that would make them—”

“No!”Roy’s shout startled the goblin.It took some effort for him to calm down.“I’m sorry.It’s just, I don’t like that nickname, never have, and I don’t want it to ruin them the way it did me.”

Gristle paused.“You want to talk about it?”

This wasn’t a topic he was comfortable with, but he knew Gristle wouldn’t let it go.Best to clear the air before the goblin started making guesses and spreading confusion.

“You know how I was drafted into the army,” Roy began.“Those weren’t good times.The king needed men to stop the Skitherin invasion.It was only supposed to be for a year, but once we beat back the first invasion there was another one, and another after that. They thought they had us nearly beaten and needed one more battle to break us.The king needed his army ready to deal with it, so we never went home, ten years of one invasion after another.”

“Ten years?” Gristle asked.“Didn’t Skitherin soldiers get tired of losing?”

“Every loss left dead to be avenged,” Roy explained.“Every war put them deeper in debt they could only cover by looting our kingdom.They gave up only when they couldn’t afford to lose any more men or pay the ones they had.

“The last battle was the worst.Skitherin generals gambled everything on one last push.They sent eleven thousand men across the Yathin Plains at our army.We were dug in with trenches, barricades, forts and even had three wizards.There was no way they could break us, but there was a narrow mountain pass leading into the plains that led to the back of our army.Our general sent my regiment to cover the pass.”

“And they attacked the pass,” Gristle said.

“Two thousand of them,” Roy replied.He winced as memories flooded back.“We had eight hundred men.The pass was narrow enough that two hundred men could block it.That’s what saved us.They couldn’t swarm us, but every time we defeated one company they’d send another.If we’d retreated those soldiers would have hit our army from the rear, so we held.”

Roy stopped and sat on his sledge.“The battle on the plain was a rousing success, enough to make sure Skitherin wouldn’t invade again for generations.When our general sent word for us to return, the messenger found 157 of us alive and only 23 still standing.We’d held the pass, and we paid for it.

“The healer who found me said my wounds were so serious I wouldn’t survive the night.A week later they told me I’d never walk again.By the time our general finally let us go home they said I’d never be normal. They were wrong the first two times. I wonder about the third warning.”

Gristle didn’t answer, instead watching Roy.Roy looked at the goblin and said, “I was called to serve and I did, coming home with scars, empty pockets and nightmares that won’t stop. The first year back was the worst. I built my house at the edge of the village and became a woodcutter because I didn’t want to be around other people.I came so close to coming apart at the seams, sometimes breaking down in tears twice a week. I was honestly shocked when Grace came to check up on me and bring me meals.”

“Her mother told her to do that,” Gristle said.

“I figured that out eventually.”Roy gave the goblin a curious look and asked, “How’d you know?”

Gristle shrugged.“People say things when they’re in bed at night and think they’re alone.”

“That’s really disturbing.”

Gristle grinned.“You don’t know the half of it.But it all turned out for the best.You and Grace spent time together, she got you hitched, and now you’ve got two of the cutest kids I’ve seen.When are you going to bring them with you to work?You don’t get all weepy or beat trees to bits anymore.”

Roy trudged deeper into the woods.“Too risky.They could get lost out here, especially Jenna.But, ah, I appreciate you and the other goblins living here not telling anyone about my breakdowns.”

“Of course we didn’t.You don’t hit a guy when he’s down.”

Roy laughed.“I’m down?”

“You used to be,” Gristle said.“Still kind of are.”

Collecting firewood was only one reason why Roy had come out today.He’d picked up a lot of bad habits from his days as a soldier, including poaching.A fellow recruit had taught him how to set snares and how to spot the best places to put them.Hunger had compelled Roy to become a good student.Leaving the army should have meant giving up the practice, but woodcutters were notoriously poor, and he had children to feed.No one minded him taking squirrels or rabbits provided he didn’t flaunt his catches and occasionally shared the meat.

The first snare was set on a small game trail.Animals used the same paths over and over during the winter so they didn’t have to constantly make new trails in the snow.This snare was empty, but he’d set many such snares.He checked the next one and found it empty with no new tracks in the snow.Then he got to the third snare.

“This is new,” Roy said.

Gristle walked over.“What?”

Roy held up the snare.His snares were simple affairs made of wood and sinew, but this one was different because the loop of sinew that caught animals was gone.“This wasn’t torn or chewed off.It was cut with a sharp knife.”

“You’re the only human who comes in these woods,” Gristle said.“Me and the boys don’t have sharp knives or bother your snares.”

“Somebody’s been here and helped themselves.”Roy bent down and looked for tracks.The snow layer was so thin it didn’t preserve tracks well, but there were large scuffmarks.“I don’t like this.”

“When did you set the snare?” Gristle asked.

“Yesterday night.”

Gristle waddled off the trail and politely knocked on a large tree stump. Moments later a door opened on the stump and another goblin came out.“Somebody swiped one of Roy’s bunnies.You see who did it?”

The new goblin hurried over and looked at the snare.“No.Didn’t hear anything, either.What jerk would take food out of a poor little baby’s mouth?I’ll fetch the sheriff.”

Roy grabbed the goblin by the arm before he’d gone three steps.“Let’s not bother him with this.I don’t mind sharing food with a soul in need, but honest men would come forward and announce themselves.”

Gristle scratched his head.“That means we have a dishonest man.What’s he here for?”

“I’ll check the rest of my snares,” Roy said.“Ask if other goblins saw anyone.”

Roy and the goblins parted company, giving him much needed peace and quiet to think.He didn’t want the sheriff involved for two reasons, even if it made the situation riskier. The first was he didn’t want to be caught poaching.He could destroy his snares and scatter the pieces if he had to, but that meant rebuilding them and no fresh meat for days. The other reason was that this stranger might not be a villain.He could be a smuggler, another poacher, maybe an army deserter, none of which Roy considered serious offenses.The sheriff might disagree, and crimes were harshly punished.Roy had to see who this was before bringing in the law.

That meant finding the stranger.Roy was good at tracking prey and used those same skills here.Cold made the ground hard and less likely to preserve tracks, and the snow had been so light that much of the ground was bare. He spent nearly an hour searching before he found a footprint.It was an inch smaller than his and rounded at the sides.More searching turned up identical prints, but all facing different directions.He couldn’t say which direction the person was going in.

“Hey there, soldier boy,” Gristle called out.Roy looked up from one of the tracks to find a dozen goblins approaching him.Gristle pointed at a thin goblin wearing glasses and said, “He’s got news for you, not all good.”

The thin goblin stepped away from the rest of the mob and took off his glasses. Wiping them off on his raggedy shirt, he said, “I saw a man carrying two rabbits in the woods late last night. Betting money says they’re yours. Guy was wearing ratty clothes, worse than us, and he looked thin.He was heading into the dark parts of the woods.”

“So, he’s a moron,” another goblin said.

“More than most humans,” Gristle replied.“Not everybody who goes in there comes out.Some of the ones who do leave behind arms, legs, important stuff like that.”

“There’s no good reasons for a man to go there,” Roy said.Problem was there were bad reasons to enter the dark woods. Grandmothers told stories about the bad old days of the elf civil war, where warlords had tried to seize the throne, or barring that carve out a piece of the empire for themselves.Modern wars couldn’t compare to the savageness of those decades of endless conflict.

One of the stories said that a battle took place not far from where the village was today.It had been farmland at the time, rich and productive according to the stories, and two armies fought over it.When they were done thousands had died and too few had survived to give them proper burials.Instead the bodies had been piled up and covered with stones and soil.The land never bore good fruit after that and trees gradually took over.Centuries later the taint was lessened but not gone, and wise men stayed well clear.

“Dragon lairs are safer than those woods,” Gristle said.“Why would he go there?”

“He could be a necromancer,” Roy told the goblins.“Old battlefields like that have bones they could use for their magic. He could be a thief looking for loot. God only knows what could be left over after so long.Worst answer is he could be trying to contact monsters living there, make deals with them, make offerings.”

Gristle’s face turned pale.“Oh boy.”

Roy took the axe off his sledge and pointed at the goblins.“There’s not a moment to lose.Tell the sheriff he’s needed and to bring his men.Spread the word to the village that they need to keep an eye out for this stranger.He’s either evil or stupid enough to get good men killed.”

“Exactly what are you going to do while we spread fear and despair?” a goblin asked.

“I’m going after him before he does something dumb.”Roy marched in the direction of the deep woods, getting only a few feet before he heard footsteps behind him.Eleven goblins were following him into danger.“What are you waiting for?”

Gristle pointed at a goblin running off into the distance.“We sent Biff to warn everyone.It shouldn’t take more than one goblin to start a panic.”

“You can’t come with me.This is going to be dangerous.”

“That’s why we’re coming with you,” Gristle said.“There’s exactly one person around here we can talk with: you.We don’t give up on friends.”

“I,” he began before stopping.Help was coming only if the goblin could both find the sheriff and convince him to come, no easy feat.That meant waiting for help that might never arrive, going for the sheriff himself or going after this deranged stranger who willingly went into dark places.There was no telling what damage this fool might do or how long he’d been in the woods.He could have released some horror that could threaten his village, his family.Waiting wasn’t an option.And there was a very real chance he was going to be outclassed.Goblins weren’t strong, fast or smart, but they were the only support he had.

Roy pointed his ax at the goblins.“If you’re coming, you follow orders.No heroics.We bring him in, one way or the other, and I’ll see him in a grave rather than any of you.”

“Got it,” Gristle told him.

Roy headed into the deep woods with the goblins steps behind him.Twice he actually had to glance back to make sure they were there because they were so quiet.Any doubts about his new followers quickly vanished when he saw the determination in their eyes.There was a threat in these woods, a risk to men as well as goblins, and they meant to end it.

They didn’t have to go far to reach the deep woods.Trees here grew large since no one harvested them, but they grew in unnatural patterns, with spiraling branches and corkscrewing trunks. Strange rocks jutted up from the ground to form patterns that were both unrecognizable and still intimidating. There were no animals, and birds flew around this portion of the woods rather than go over it.

Large white marble statues showing a man praying marked the separation between the deep woods and the regular forest.Roy saw one near the trail and two more in the distance.Gristle pointed at the nearest statue and said, “I’ve seen these, but I don’t know what they’re for.”

“Barrier statues,” Roy explained.“Years ago the Brotherhood of the Righteous placed a ring of them around the deep woods to seal in the taint and darkness, and at the same time fight it. Every seven years brotherhood priests move the statues a little father into the woods.I saw Father Amadeus Firepower lead a group of priests to move the statues last winter.They only put them forward ten feet.Word is that one day these statues will remove all traces of evil here, but it won’t happen in my lifetime.”

“But they hold the bad monsters in?” Gristle pressed.

“Usually.The real powerful ones can force their way through.My father said that happened eight years before I was born.It took the whole village to kill it, plus a lot of soldiers and a few adventurers.”Roy paused before stepping past the line of statues.“I won’t blame you for turning back.”

“I heard you and the sheriff both went into the deep woods and came back okay,” Gristle said.“If you can do it, so can we.”

“Yeah, that happened.We were chasing an escaped convict who ran into the woods.The fool ignored the statues and went right into the worst part of the woods.”

“Did you find him?” another goblin asked.

Roy grimaced at the memory.“Most of him.”

Near the statues were footprints identical to the ones Roy had already found. There were enough tracks to make a definite trail.Roy frowned and traced his fingers over a part of the trail where the snow had been trampled so often it had melted.

“This many tracks means he’s been here for a while,” Roy told the goblins.

“But you only lost bunnies to this jerk last night,” Gristle said.“What was he eating before that?”

“He must have brought food with him, or set trap lines of his own in other parts of the woods I don’t visit.”Roy rubbed his chin and pointed down the trail.“Word is the burial mounds aren’t far from here.Looks like that’s where he made camp.Brace yourselves.”

Roy and the goblins ventured further into the depths of the woods. Shadows grew longer and darker. Plants grew into warped versions of normal objects and even animals.A strange whispering sound called out from the woods, like multiple voices speaking at once so it was impossible to understand.

One goblin turned to face where the whispers were coming from and asked, “Are you giving stock tips?”

There was a long, awkward pause before the conflicting voices grumbled and fell silent.

“Keep quiet,” Roy said.He squinted and spotted a light ahead of them.It could be a will-o wisp or other spirit trying to trick travelers into following it into dangerous places like pits and bogs, but the light wasn’t moving. He waved for the goblins to stay back and approached it.That required crossing a river large enough that it was still free of ice.Roy picked his way across rocks rising up from the water and reached the other side.

It was bad.Not far past the riverbank was a burial mound thirty feet long and eight feet high. Mostly it was made of rocks with dead weeds sticking out, but where the rocks separated Roy saw dirt froze solid. What chilled him to the bone was the gaping hole in the side of the mound.Someone had dug into it, dumping stone, frozen dirt, yellowed bones and rusty bits of metal.

Next to the mound was a crude camp with a fire pit lined with rocks and filled with burning logs.Roy picked through the camp and found rabbit bones stripped of meat and broken open for the marrow.A pickaxe, hammer and bedroll were next to the fire pit, but no one was present.

Clunk.The sound came from the hole in the burial mound.Roy edged closer while more sounds came from the hole.As he neared the mound he saw a weapon wrapped in leather. Roy picked it up and took off the wrapping to reveal a sword that gleamed like it was fresh from the forge. The edge was sharp, and there was black writing on the blade.Roy put it down at once.

Clunk.A rock flew out of the hole in the mound, followed by a small pile of broken bones. Roy had enough familiarity with bodies that he identified them as human remains of great age.He heard someone cough and swear, and then a raggedy man stepped out of the hole and set down a shovel.

The stranger was a man, a bit shorter than Roy and a good deal thinner, wearing threadbare clothes and a patched cloak.Roy guessed the stranger’s age at twenty, maybe a year or two older, but no more than that.He had brown hair and brown eyes that locked onto Roy the moment he left the mound. The stranger said nothing as he ran for the sword.

Roy swung his ax at the man’s heels.He timed the blow carefully to catch the stranger with the ax handle rather than the blade, tripping him instead of maiming him.The stranger cried out in pain as he fell to the frozen ground.Roy kneeled down on the man’s back to pin him down.

The stranger struggled beneath him.“Get off me!”

“What’s your name?”

“Get off!”

Roy pressed down on the man as hard as he could.“I found you desecrating a grave.You could have woken up spirits with your digging.Not a man alive would blame me for turning you over to the sheriff or taking your life here and now.Your name.”

The stranger wiggled underneath him, helpless to get away with the larger and stronger man on him.“Nobody you know is buried here.”

Roy swung his ax into the ground three inches from the stranger’s head. “There’s got to be a hundred people buried here, men or elves makes no difference, and at least another twenty mounds just as big.That’s a lot of people who died in battle and were covered over, no funeral, no holy man offering prayers to keep dark spirits from finding their bodies and moving in.This part of the woods is tainted from what happened.You can feel it, hear it, and you opened up a burial mound.That’s a hanging offense if the spirits in the mound don’t kill you first.”

The stranger laughed at him.“You think I’m worried about spirits?I’m worried about starving!I had nothing, no coin, no goods, no hope, and you worry about spirits.There’s money in these mounds, pay the soldiers had when they were buried, rings, amulets, magic!I need it!”

Roy reached for the sword, but it was too far from him.He hit the stranger in the side of the head with the butt of his ax blade before getting up and taking the sword.The stranger staggered to his feet, stopping when he saw Roy holding the blade.

“There aren’t coins or jewelry in mounds like this,” Roy said.“Soldiers don’t bury the dead with anything they can use, so if you find anything they didn’t want, you can be sure it’s not worth having.This is what you risked your life for?This sword?”

“It’s magic,” the stranger said.“I know it is.”

“I know it is, too.What makes you think the soldiers who made this burial mound couldn’t tell the same thing? They buried it rather than keep it. That should tell you the kind of magic it is.”

Roy threw the sword aside and pointed his ax at the stranger.“I’ve seen magic before.Most of it was cheap dwarf workmanship, more likely to fall apart than do what it promised.I’ve seen a few pieces of old elf magic dating from their empire, works of art that could kill a man at a hundred paces.And I’ve seen magic like this.It’s an old sorcerer lords magic item.Their power comes at a terrible price.That’s why the soldiers buried it.They saw what it did to the man who used it and were smart enough to leave it here.”

The stranger scowled at Roy and rubbed where he’d been hit.“There are still folks who will pay for it.”

“And die from it!Can you read?”When the stranger nodded, Roy said, “The writing on the blade says, ‘None may harm thee for a thousand heartbeats, then be stilled’, right over an old glyph for shadows.If that doesn’t scare you, then you’re a fool ten times over.The one time I saw a man with a sorcerer lord magic item, it was a magic ring he used to kill a dozen men.The ring had to be recharged after being used.It recharged itself by turning him to dust, then was ready to kill again.Sorcerer lord magic is like that.If you don’t know what you’re doing it costs you, and it’s not cheap.”

“What fool would make a magic weapon that hurts its owner?” the stranger demanded.

“I don’t know,” Roy answered.Wizards had never made sense to him.Many wizards he’d met were so arrogant they seemed to think they weren’t human anymore, but something new and superior.“Maybe there’s a way to use them where you don’t get killed.Maybe only sorcerer lords could use them without dying so nobody could steal their magic.Maybe the wizard who made this was stark raving mad.That’s something you should appreciate after desecrating a burial mound.”

“It’s not that simple!” the stranger yelled.“You stand here and judge me, talking about danger and risks like you know what it means!This morning I had my first meal in five days.I’ve got no one to turn to for help, no one who cares whether I live or die. I take chances because I have no choice.”

Roy pointed at the stranger’s right hand.“You already took a big chance.I saw the bleeding crown brand mark on your hand.That’s the mark of the Fallen King, a disgraced royal who rounded up an army of thieves and bandits to overthrow his father.I’d heard they all died.Guess at least one of you got away.”

“I know men who will buy the sword, no questions asked,” the stranger said. “They’re smart, the kind who can figure out how to use it without getting killed.The money’s enough to live off for years.”

The stranger edged closer.“You’re a poor man yourself.Don’t lie to me!I can see it. Those are old clothes, and that ax has seen a lot of use.You came here to get wood for your fireplace or to fix up your home.No buying what you need, you have to get it all yourself, find it or earn it or take it.We can split the money.”

Roy gripped his ax with both hands.“You’d kill me the first chance you get, and whoever you’re thinking of selling this to will kill you for the sword instead of paying.”

“I’m not walking away from this, and I’m not going to jail,” the stranger said.

“Jail or the grave,” Roy said.“I can’t let you leave after what you’ve done.You’re not my match, boy, not by a long shot.Don’t be stupid.”

The stranger’s eyes narrowed and he balled up his fists.Roy readied himself for what was sure to be a reckless charge, a threat that ended when the burial mound began to stir.The center of the mound bulged out, rocks sliding away, aged bones pushing to the surface, and a high pitched howl pieced the air.

Roy recognized the sound.“Barrow wight.Get behind me or you’re lunch.”

The burial mound burst open as a single barrow wight broke free.It was hideous to behold, like a man bleached of color with white eyes, long black hair, sharp nails and pointed teeth.It stank of rotting meat, an overpowering stench that threatened to make Roy throw up.

The creature’s name meant ‘tomb man’ in an old and forgotten tongue, a dead body possessed by some fell spirit after the soul had left.Roy had seen such monsters on battlefields after dark, feeding on the dead and hunting stragglers.Barrow wights hated sunlight, but a cloudy winter day like this was just dark enough for their liking.They were hard to kill and hard to keep dead.Was this horror strong enough to cross the barrier statues and attack his village?Roy didn’t know.He couldn’t let it escape when it might attack his family.

The barrow wight charged Roy and leapt at him.Roy ran to the left and swung his ax, missing it by inches.It bounded after him and went for his face. Roy struck it across the jaw, a wound it healed from the moment the ax head pulled out.Making matters worse, the stranger did the stupidest thing imaginable, grabbing the sword and pressing his thumb against the glyph for shadows.

“You fool, no!” Roy yelled.

The warning was too late.The black letters turned gold and the sword glittered like the sun.He charged the barrow wight and drove the sword through its gut. The second he pulled the sword out the wound closed, and the barrow wight turned to face him.It jumped on him, biting and clawing.To Roy’s shock the barrow wight’s attacks were totally useless.Its claws shredded the man’s thin clothes but left his skin intact.The stranger stabbed it again and again, only for its wounds to heal.The two were locked in a vicious and pointless battle where neither could kill the other.

Roy ran after them as the barrow wight shoved the stranger against the burial mound.It savage attacks laid his chest bare without so much as leaving a scratch.Roy struck the barrow wight from behind and did no real damage.It turned toward him as the stranger raised his sword.

“Aim for the joints!” Roy shouted.The stranger either didn’t hear him or didn’t care as his sword came down on the barrow wight’s chest.The blade went halfway through the monster, only for the damage to heal around the sword. The barrow wight pushed the stranger back until the sword came free, and the wound fully healed.

With the barrow wight’s attention on the stranger, Roy had another opportunity to strike.He swung hard and hit the monster’s right arm at the shoulder.The ax went fully through and took off the arm.The barrow wight howled and knocked Roy aside with its other arm.The stranger attacked again but missed.The barrow wight’s retaliation tore the stranger’s shirt to pieces without drawing blood.The magic sword was a potent weapon, but it claimed there was a time limit for its gifts. Roy had to end this fight fast.

Roy got up and swung his ax again, catching the barrow wight’s right knee. Again his ax went fully through its target, costing the barrow wight a leg.It fell screaming to the ground, and Roy stood over it and swung again, this time aiming for the monster’s neck.

Whack!The barrow wight fell silent.

“It’s dead!” the stranger yelled in triumph.

Roy raised his ax again.“Not even close.”

Four more times Roy swung his ax until the barrow wight was in pieces. Breathing hard and covered in sweat despite the cold, he stepped back and leaned against a tree.“That should keep it quiet for now, but it can heal from even this.We have to burn the pieces individually to keep it from recovering.”

Roy was going to tell the stranger how easily he could have been killed if the barrow wight had taken him by surprise, or how great a threat the monster would have been to neighboring villages, but he didn’t get the chance. Instead he dropped to his knees as the stranger swung the magic sword at his head.The blow missed Roy and cut the tree down with one swing.Roy sidestepped the next swing and the one after that.

“I saved your life!” Roy yelled.The stranger didn’t slow his attacks for a second, lashing out with all the skill of a drunken halfwit.He obviously had no training with a sword, but the magic blade could cut Roy apart if the fool got lucky.

Roy scowled and swung his ax with lethal intent.He hit the stranger across the face with enough force to knock the fool back three feet, but the ax did no more damage than the barrow wight’s claws had. He followed up with a swing at the stranger’s sword hand that would have crippled anyone else, yet did nothing but force the stranger back.

Roy dodged a clumsy swing aimed at his legs, but he was holding his ax too low and the sword took off the ax head with contemptible ease.Roy was unarmed and fighting a man he couldn’t hurt.The stranger tried to run him through, missing by an inch as Roy threw himself to the left.He got as many trees as he could between himself and his enemy, watching in horror as the stranger hacked through every obstacle in his way.

With the stranger steps behind him, Roy ran for his life.His enemy was an idiot, but he knew Roy could tell the authorities what had happened here, and his magic invulnerability wouldn’t last forever.A thousand heartbeats, how long did that take?The faster a man ran and fought the harder his heart beat, so the magic might only last another few minutes.Even when it was done, Roy didn’t have a weapon.He ran to the safety of his home village, praying he could keep ahead of this madman long enough to reach help.

Panting and exhausted, Roy reached the river and ran from rock to rock to cross it.The stranger wasn’t so careful and splashed through the cold water, soaking himself in the process.Roy stumbled on the last rock and fell on his face.He scrambled away on all fours, looking behind him as the stranger raised his sword with a crazed look in his eyes.

Splat!A gob of mud splattered against the stranger’s face.Three more followed and hit him in the chest.The fifth one hit him in the eyes and blinded him.The stranger howled and clawed at his eyes with his left hand while he swung the sword wildly in front of him. Splat!More mud gobs followed, one right in his mouth.The stranger gagged as he tried to cough up the mud.

Roy turned to see Gristle and the goblins standing at the edge of the river as he’d instructed.They held their ground and grabbed icy cold handfuls of mud to throw at the stranger. With impressive aim they splattered him across nearly his entire body.It was a temporary delay at best, but one Roy needed badly.

“I’ll kill you!I’ll kill you all!” the stranger screamed as he cleared mud from his eyes.The man splashed through the river while goblins continued pelting him with mud.Some threw rocks, which did no damage, and others raised clubs to meet him when he finished crossing the river.Two more mud balls hit the stranger in the face, blinding him again and giving Roy the time he needed to regain his footing and grab a long branch off the ground.

Then the sword stopped glowing.The writing on the blade turned black as its enchantment faded, and the stranger winced when the goblins hit him with rocks.Whatever pain those caused paled in comparison to what happened as the sword turned entirely black, an encroaching darkness that spread onto his hand.

“Drop the sword!” Roy screamed.“Drop it before it kills you!”

The stranger stared in horror as the utter blackness stretched up his arm. “I can’t!My fingers won’t move!”

Roy’s anger at the man’s attack was replaced by fear as the sword extracted the price for its aid.This man was violent, stupid, ungrateful, but Roy had seen too many men die to ever want it again.His mind raced as he tried to come up with a way to save the fool.

The darkness spread further.The stranger held out his arm and cried out, “Cut it off!”

Roy held up his ax, its head hacked off during his battle with the stranger. “I can’t.I’m sorry.”

There was a terrible bang like a thunderclap as the darkness raced up the stranger’s arm to his heart.The stranger looked at Roy and said, “It wasn’t supposed to be like this,” and fell dead.

The goblins backed away.Gristle asked, “What happened to him?”

Roy’s heart was beating as fast as a racehorse as he stared at the stranger. “The sword, it’s magic, but it’s cursed. It promised him invincibility for a thousand heartbeats then be stilled.I wasn’t sure what that meant when I first read it, but now I do. After those thousand heartbeats the sword stopped his heart.”

It was so stupid.The stranger had risked his life for the very weapon that had taken it, an act of cruelty perpetrated by a sorcerer lord who must have died over a thousand years ago. There the sword sat in the river, shiny again now that it had extracted its toll, waiting for its next victim too desperate or foolish to understand the dire risk.Roy could return it to the burial mound, but one person had already been willing to plunder it, so another man could be just as stupid.

“No more,” Roy said.He grabbed the sword and plunged it into the wet ground near the river.He drove it down as far as he could, then grabbed a large rock and slammed it into the butt of the sword like a hammer to force it down further.Roy growled his hatred as he forced the sword ever deeper until only the handle stuck up from the mud.He piled rocks around it and then covered that with mud.

Gristle and the goblins gathered around and helped.Where Roy had been trying to bury the blade, the goblins worked to conceal it.They were naturals at camouflage and reshaped the riverbank around the buried sword. Goblins moved large rocks and mud until they made a new bend in the river that looked as if it had always been there.The magic sword was buried in that new bend where no one would think to look for it. Gristle then led the goblins in replanting small pine trees around the sword where their roots would wrap around it.

“A barrow wight came out of the mound,” Roy told the goblins.“I need as much dry wood as you can find to burn it.”

“We can do that,” Gristle told him.He looked at the stranger and asked, “What about him?”

“Don’t worry.I’ll do what’s right.”

* * * * *

Roy was late getting back home.He found the place alive with activity as his relatives laughed and played with Roy’s children.He dragged his sledge to the woodpile and left it there.Roy’s mother-in-law came out of the house and saw him take his ax head from his pocket.

“There you are,” she said cheerfully.“We were beginning to worry.What did you catch this time?”

She looked at the sledge and saw the stranger laying on it.She gasped at the sight.Roy stepped in front of her and put a hand on her shoulder.“The children can’t know about this.Smile for them.Tell your husband that I need his help outside.Then play with the children and keep them inside.Please.”

Roy’s mother-in-law nodded and forced a smile.She went inside and closed the door behind her.Roy waited until his father-in-law came outside. Roy pointed at the stranger and said, “It’s as bad as it looks.”

His father-in-law stared hard at the body before saying, “The sheriff and his men were here earlier looking for you.I guess a goblin said you needed help, and they weren’t sure if the pest was being honest.”

“He was.I found this man in the dark part of the woods.He’d dug open a burial mound looking for loot.”

His father-in-law spat.“There’s no telling what monsters he could have let out, but if you ask me the monster was on the outside of the mound.That mark running up his arm, what do you make of it?”

“Magic, the kind I want no part of.”

“That makes two of us.Any idea who he was?”

“He didn’t say before he died.”Roy was very careful not to say how the man had died.He trusted his in-laws, but they could tell men who told men who might look for the sword.

“You’ve been through a lot.Go inside and eat.I’ll take this fool to the sheriff and share what you’ve told me.”

“I want him to have a proper burial,” Roy insisted.“He was evil, but that’s all the more reason to make sure his body stays quiet.”

“We’ll do it in the morning,” his father-in-law promised before pulling the sledge away.

Exhausted, dispirited, hungry, Roy went in his house and tried to look better than he felt.He saw his wife waiting at the table with their son in her arms.Jenna was at her mother’s feet, waiting none too patiently for her chance to play with the baby.His sister-in-law and mother-in-law were behind them cleaning dishes.

Jenna looked over when she saw her father come in.The little girl’s eyes locked on Roy’s, and whatever she saw worried her.Jenna ran over and hugged his legs.“Mommy, hug daddy.Daddy needs hugs.”

Grace saw the look on her husband’s face and hurried over to embrace him.Even Esme’s cat ran over with a look on its face that said 'dear God, what happened to you?' Roy wrapped his arms around his family and closed his eyes.The stranger had thrown away his life for a chance at riches.Roy had a family who loved him, a treasure greater than all the gold in the world.


© Copyright 2020 ArthurD7000. All rights reserved.

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