Chapter III: Fertheaux

I left the castle town of Ilianath just after nightfall, mind brimming with magic and with anxieties. Fertheaux was along one of the old Ivian League roads, in a section that had seen more or less continuous use over the last nine centuries, and so it was in relatively good repair. That would alleviate the exhausting, frustrating stumbling that often accompanied overnight journeys. But it would only slightly reduce the risk of encountering something unsavory. Predators—human, animal, and otherwise—share an affinity for the night.

But I had already made up my mind. I wanted to be in Fertheaux as soon as possible. And besides, this way I would arrive there sometime just after first light. As I said, many predators are fond of the night, and perhaps what Malisa was dealing with was a predator of some sort. Life or death, she had written. My mind ran wild with the possibilities. Well, it didn’t quite run. It was more of a staggering, lurching motion, burdened with several spells and slightly ill with worry.

I reached Fertheaux at sunup. I had been there twice before, and I was relieved to see that little had changed about it. About thirty timber buildings of various sizes huddled in a shallow dale, flanked by hills on the northeast and the south. The northeast hill was fairly low but very wide, crowned with a hundred or so trees, currently heavy with apples awaiting harvest in a week or so. The southern hill was higher, and the forest that blanketed the countryside for leagues and leagues south of there seemed to loom up over that hill at the little town below.

The road curled in from the east around the foot of the orchard hill and ran directly through the town on its way out in the general direction of Duranlach. As a result, most travelers from this direction would be greeted with the warm, colorful sights of the orchard, and then they would turn the corner of the road into the snug, hospitable embrace of the little town.

I was too troubled to fully appreciate either of those things as I wound around the base of the orchard hill. A shame, since it was the last chance I would ever get. But in my defense, I had a lot on my mind.

Right before turning the final corner into plain view of the town and its inhabitants, I hesitated. If I marched into town, I would need to introduce myself and conduct “official business.” Small talk, official greetings, concerns, niceties: all things I was well-practiced at but dreaded doing. I would also need to speak to the Reeve upon arriving and upon leaving, and I would probably need to use a fending pole to keep him from nosing his way into Malisa’s affairs. For his sake and for hers.

On the other hand, I would probably get to have breakfast. My stomach rumbled sourly.

I muttered something rude under my breath and continued down the road. I had spent all that time in my study studying my spells and hadn’t thought to bring something to eat on an eight-hour trek. How typical of me. Well, at least this way I would be rewarding the Marquis’ faith in myself by conducting business his preferred way. That would help in case something went really wrong.

A little copper bell rung as I pushed the door open to the courthouse and again as I closed it behind me. As the door closed, it took the bright morning light with it, and it took a moment for my eyes to adjust to the sudden darkness. I craned my head about, seeing that the two windows to the building had been shuttered from the inside. My eyes strained to accommodate to the little red pinpoints of light that were strewn about the modest chamber: candles, placed upon the windowsills and on the arms of the benches that ran parallel down the length of the room, facing a lectern in the center back that itself boasted two lit candles. It all made for quite a somber scene.

I took a seat at one of the benches and waited, smelling the familiar smells of oak and candlewax. I didn’t have to wait long.

Reeve Piear all but threw open the door, stinging my eyes with the bright white sunlight for a moment. He was trailed by a tall woman, his wife, likely, who closed the door with her hips to avoid taking her hands off the wooden tray she carried with her.

I rose to greet them, and the three of us exchanged polite bows befitting officers of the Marquis’ peace. His eyes glinted with ill-contained frustration in the candlelight. He had made the journey back here just a few hours ahead of me and was likely irritable with sleep deprivation.

His wife, introduced as Jan, laid out the tray on one of the benches, and we broke bread with a sweet apple spread for breakfast. I scarfed down as much as I thought I could get away with without seeming like a pig.

Piear, to my dismay, didn’t quite wait until I was done before he seized the initiative.

“It is well that you are here so soon, wizard. The Marquis should know that we are grateful for his swift action.”

“Mmmf,” I replied, swallowing hastily. “I will make sure he knows.”

“But I must ask what he intends by this.”

I was multitasking now, trying to discreetly brush crumbs off of my traveling robe while trying to hide my dismay at his jab. “What do you mean, sir?”

Jan cut in before Piear could reply. “He means that we expected the Marquis to send men. Soldiers. Not a single wizard. We don’t know… we don’t know what this means.”

“Oh,” I began. That bought me just enough time to figure out a more diplomatic way of saying it means it’s probably not a demon. “There are many kinds of demons and spirits known to us. And there are even things that masquerade as demons to seem more dangerous than they are. In any case, my long study of magic means I am well-suited to the job of determining what the threat may be.”

“Determining what the threat may be?!” gasped Piear. “We do not need it determined. We need it banished!”

“I… I can do that too. Allow me to explain, please.”

I felt frustration creeping in. I was not normally a very confrontational person. Big, shouted fights are well and good—some people like those, and I won’t look down on them for it—but they always seemed fruitless for me, and they made me anxious. I much preferred to deliberate and to find agreement and try to expand from there. In the worst case, I preferred to leave aside differences, promise that they were best ignored, and then hypocritically brood on them for hours after, certain that either my respect for my counterparty or their respect for me had been permanently damaged.

But right then, Piear was wrong. Very, very wrong. And I feared that he was going to get a lot of people hurt.

He eyed me uncertainly. “Go on.”

I gathered myself and started from where I hoped we agreed.

“Yes, we are in trouble here. Something is going on in these woods. But, as I’m sure you well know, you must hunt different game differently. A bow that could kill a hare at fifty paces has no hope of stopping a bear. Bait that could lead a bear into a trap wouldn’t interest a deer. Hunting deer on foot alone is extremely treacherous if there are whole packs of wolves around.

“So it is the same with creatures of magic. Demons from the abyss rampage and kill with reckless abandon. Sometimes they do it with brute strength, sometimes with pestilence or fear or fire. But most of them aren’t particularly clever, and they may be lured into traps. But what if it’s not a demon? Perhaps it’s a spirit of fire from the Fae. Fae are clever and manipulative. If you tried to trap one, you’re more likely to end up in the trap than they are. But you might be able to give them what they want to go away, or else banish them with iron. Or planar magic.

“My point being, if we send ten people into the woods with swords and shields, those people might all die. But if you send one wizard into the woods…”

“Just one wizard dies, then?” laughed Piear.

I couldn’t help but roll my eyes. This was a seriously petty man I was trying to reason with. “Yes. Just one wizard dies.”

Piear and Jan studied me in the dim candlelight for a minute. I broke in, hoping to set the tone.

“What has been happening in town? What makes you think that… the witch has called a demon?”

Piear shook his head gravely, stroking his goatee, while Jan explained.

“Bad dreams, sir. It started happening six nights ago. I know it sounds silly, but it all happened at once. To everyone, I mean. We were shocked. I told Piear that morning that I had slept badly and had been running… running from something.” She shivered. “He had too. And so had Ogan. And Trelan. And Margot. By noon, everybody in the whole town was talking about it.”

I felt my brow furrow. Dreams are complicated. But dreams are undeniably magical. The realm of pure thought, mediated only distantly by language and culture, is sensitive to… well, thought, and the connections and ideas and even emotions that create magic. “It is not silly at all. Quite the opposite. Please, go on.”

Piear continued for her. “Nobody remembers anything specific about the dreams. But there’s more, like I said at court. Fires burn hotter. When Margot went to ask for a salve from the witch, she said she saw shadows dancing… ‘playing’ at her hair. These candles here, in this room… you can see them sway and shimmer when the witch is near. She is not, now.”

It wasn’t much to go on. I had all sorts of guesses. New ones, not the same ones I had spelled out to Lord Henri. Malisa might have been working a bit of magic to enhance her reputation. To be a little more spooky and mysterious. To persuade people not to go stalking around her cabin. That would explain the candles. In fact, it was one of the only things that could explain the candles. If a demon or a fire elemental is near enough to make fires rise, it’s usually not much of a mystery. At that point, they’re close enough to be causing much more spectacular problems. The shadows were probably poor Margot’s overactive imagination after the fact. But the dreams…

… the dreams were concerning. There wasn’t much else to say about it to them.

“I should go, then. I need to see what it is out by her home,” I said, rising.

Piear rose quickly to his full height. “And Jan and I will be going with you.”

Uh oh.

“Piear, sir, I do not think that’s wise.”

“I am not a dimwit, wizard. I know that you feel more kin to the witch than you do to me. So I don’t trust you. So I’m coming with you.”

“Piear, are you sure about this? Remember what you said earlier?”

Piear crossed his arms. Jan, still seated, was watching my face carefully. “What’s that?” asked the broad man.

“Only one wizard needs to die today.” I shrugged.

I could be witty sometimes.

Piear smirked. “Fine. be back by sundown or we will come looking.”