Toran looked anxiously at the hillside. “Perhaps we should wait for Lord Deveric’s instructions. This is something new.” There was a murmur of agreement in the group of villagers surrounding them.
Sir Selwyn shook his head. “We can’t risk waiting. So far only cattle have been taken. It could be a child next.”
Toran closed his eyes against the thought. “Goblins come in numbers. We all know that. What if we are overrun?”
“There are only traces on one set of tracks,” Sir Selwyn said. “And it is unheard of for goblins to come down from the mountains before the snows. It may be just one.”
“Lord Deveric should be leading us instead of dancing in Aldberg,” one of the men muttered.
“None of that talk!” Sir Selwyn snapped. “I know you, Berun. You’re brave enough after a drink. I’m sure if you have a beer or two, you can keep up.”
There were a few quiet chuckles around the group but they fell quiet. Berun clenched his fist. “Pardon, Sir Selwyn, but it is the Lord who should protect his lands.”
“I don’t know what he is doing or why,” Sir Selwyn said, “But the tracks are now and we are here now and I can’t risk a real person being taken. It’s bad enough losing the cattle. Istan lost his best bull two nights ago, and Agatha lost half her flock of goats. I don’t know how she will manage. We cannot lose more this close to winter. So my squire, Toran, will go with me to the cave. The rest of you, stay close to the village, with plenty of light, and keep watch. Protect our own.”
Orvin nodded. “We’ve brought all the beasts to the Infield, and we’ve got the dogs as well.” He hesitated. “If there are a lot of goblins, you won’t be able to drive them back.”
“If there are more than three goblins I shall come back here and make better plans,” Sir Selwyn said. “But we need to know. If there is a troop of the goblins already down from the mountains, then we can send word to the king’s court and Lord Deveric will return. He is a good lord.”
“It may be that there is no trace tonight at all,” Toran added. “We blocked the entrance to the cave this morning. It may still hold, and we will be spared more raids.”
“Or we will find out how well they move stone,” Berun muttered. “My grandfather said there were no goblins when he was young, that they came out of nowhere. That it took years to learn how to protect ourselves. What if it is something else new?”
“Enough,” Sir Selwyn said. “It could just be bandits, and they have been around since the time of the ancients. We will deal with whatever we find. Take your posts and pray for a quiet night.”
Sir Selwyn and Toran trotted towards the waterfall in the woods. The moon was bright and the damp path gleamed. Toran found himself peering into the dark shadows. “It took ten men to get the boulder in position to block the cave,” he said. “Do you think that the goblins could have moved it.”
“I don’t know,” Sir Selwyn said, also scanning his surroundings. “Whenever I’ve faced goblins, I’ve always been aware of their numbers and speed, but not their strength. They’re scrawny little things.”
“Do they really carry poisoned knives?” Toran asked.
Sir Selwyn nodded. “Some of them, not all. It’s always the numbers, not the poison on their stone knives. Now, quiet, and keep alert. We’ll leave the horses by the boundary stone.”
The path was tricky in the dark, and it took longer than expected to reach the clearing. The moon was dipping behind clouds and it was getting harder to see the way.
“I don’t want to light the lantern,” Sir Selwyn muttered. “I don’t want to alert anyone, especially if it’s bandits that are raiding.” He stumbled over a tree root and bit back a curse. “But I don’t want to break my neck in the dark either.”
Toran stifled a yawn. “Won’t it be dawn soon?”
Sir Selwyn paused for a moment and thought about their travel. “We’ve got an hour or two yet, lad. And I don’t want to miss them.” He strained to see through the gloom. “This way, I think.”
Toran followed him. There was barely a gleam from the moon and only his familiarity with the path was keeping him steady. “I can hear water.” He murmured.
“I can hear something else as well,” Sir Selwyn whispered. “Light the lantern, but keep it hooded.”
They crept closer to the waterfall, the trickle slowly growing into the roar of a stream swollen by autumn rain. Sir Selwyn moved a little quicker, trusting that the sound of the water would hide their approach. Whoever was there was not trying to be quiet. They could hear the thrashing of branches even over the sound of the falls. “Get the lantern ready,” Sir Selwyn hissed.
Toran held the lantern out in his left hand away from him, his short sword in his right hand. Sir Selwyn had his sword out as well as they crept closer. The moon shone briefly over the clearing. Toran looked at Sir Selwyn. “The boulder has gone,” he breathed.
Sir Selwyn nodded and pointed near the pool. “Look.”
The carcass of a large cow had been dumped at the water’s edge, its broken neck at a grotesque angle. In the brief moonlight, the blood seeping into the water made a dark patch. Sir Selwyn touched Toran’s arm and pointed to the other side of the clearing. Broken ferns and branches made a gap in the woodland. Something had dragged the cow through there. Sir Selwyn eased towards the gap and pointed at some of the destruction. “They went that way,” he mouthed, pointing down the new track. “Follow me and keep the lantern ready.”
It was surprisingly easy to follow the tracks, even in the deep darkness between the trees. Enough moonlight was getting through to give a shape to the darkness, and whoever had gone this way had left a clear path. The going was still slow, though, and painstaking as the men picked their way through the woods in pursuit of the cattle thief.
“It will be dawn soon,” Toran said quietly. “It’s getting lighter. Whoever it is may be coming back this way soon to hide in the caves.”
Sir Selwyn nodded. “Well thought. Keep alert. We’ll hear them before we see them.”
“They’ve headed towards the Far Lea Farmstead,” Toran said. “But there’s no-one there. They’re staying in the village.”
“Then whoever it is will be back soon.” Sir Selwyn said. “We’ll wait here. They are likely to be coming back for the cow no matter what. Get the lantern ready. As soon as they approach, shine a beam right at them and I’ll attack.” He caught Toran’s doubtful look. “Or we’ll know to get back to the village as quickly as possibly to raise the alarm.”
“I can hear something,” Toran whispered.
Sir Selwyn strained his ears, then nodded. “I hear it too,” he said. He worked his sword shoulder and took position behind a sturdy oak. “Get ready, lad.”
As the figure burst through a stand of birch, Toran raised the lantern and shone a beam straight into its eyes. It let out a pained screech and lurched towards Toran, who backed away.
“What in the Name of the Most Holy One is that?!”
Sir Selwyn swore loud, long and hard. “Run, lad, run for your life. Get to the village and warn them. Run!” He raced forward, his sword swinging.
“I’ll not leave my lord,” Toran shouted, but he felt sick. It wasn’t a goblin that they faced, nor was it a man, It was something else like he had never seen. Whatever it was stood a head and a half taller than Sir Selwyn, who was a tall man. But it wasn’t cleanly built and athletic, like the knight. Instead it was a lumpy figure, like handfuls of river clay squashed together by a child. Dull, small eyes gleamed in the light of the lantern and a half formed face snarled as it swung a thick fist towards Sir Selwyn.
Sir Selwyn jumped back and swung. The creature didn’t try to move out of the way and the sword sliced into its arm. But it didn’t get far. “It’s got a hide like boiled leather,” Sir Selwyn yelled. “Keep the light in its eyes.” He swung again.
The creature yowled. Slime trickled from the cut, but the thing still swung again at Sir Selwyn, flinching at the light. Sir Selwyn dodged back but slipped and lost his footing.
“Over here!” Toran yelled, desperately dancing back to distract the thing as it loomed over Sir Selwyn. It turned and lumbered towards him, before suddenly screaming in pain. Sir Selwyn rolled to his feet and took his chance. He sliced the sword across the back of its legs. This time he had got the aim and the power he needed. The thing toppled forward, hamstrung and howling.
“What is it? What is it?!” Toran cried.
“Stay clear of it,” Sir Selwyn said. “It’s not finished yet.”
Toran stumbled further back, directing the lantern at it. “This is no goblin.”
Sir Selwyn stepped away from the swinging arms. “It’s not even a big goblin,” he yelled over the cries of the creature. “It’s a different shape. I don’t know what it is.”
Torun stared at the thing, lumpen and huge, flailing around at them as it howled in pain and frustration. “What do we do?”
Sir Selwyn stared at it. “I’ll stay here,” he said. “You get the men up here with nets. If we can pin its arms, we can finish it off and take the carcass to Lord Deveric. He’ll know what to do.” He glanced at the tops of the nearby mountains, already gleaming gold. “But wait until the sun’s up. There’s no point in taking risks.” He stepped back quickly as the creature managed to lurch closer to him.
“I’m not leaving you,” Toran said. “I mean, I’m not leaving you, sire. They’ll hear the noise down in the village. They’ll come and see.” He skirted quickly away from the creature that had dragged itself to its feet and was hobbling painfully back towards the waterfall and its cave.
“Use the lantern in its eyes again,” Sir Selwyn dodged as the thing flailed madly, trying to get past and to its lair. “We can’t risk it getting underground. We’ll never be able to track it there.”
“The sun is almost up,” Toran said, twisting the horn panel on the lantern to direct a beam. “The light won’t work much longer.”
The creature flung up a thick arm to shield its face from the lantern but then slowed to a halt. Sunlight flooded down the slopes as the sun rose, the rays shining straight into the thing’s face. Sir Selwyn braced, ready to swing again and then stopped. He looked closer, and then leaned forward.
“Watch out!” Toran cried.
“It’s not moving,” Sir Selwyn said. He slowly reached forward with his sword and tapped the shape. It rang like iron on rock. The creature still didn’t move. Sir Selwyn moved closer still and rapped his mailed fist onto the creature’s arm. “It’s rock. It’s solid rock.”
Toran looked at the sunlight shining into the clearing and then back at the shape. “It was trying to get back to the cave before dawn. It couldn’t stand sunlight.” He touched the slashed leg. It was dry like a stone split for building.
Sir Selwyn stared for a few moments more, then turned to Toran. “Get back to the village. Bring back the priest to see what it is and to pray over it, and all the men of the village you can quickly find. Tell them to bring hammers. We’ll smash this thing to rubble before nightfall. And we use the rubble to block the damned cave.” He sank onto a fallen tree, his face set. “Go! And then we will send word to Lord Deveric, and he will know what to do.”
A little insight into the world of King’s Silver, out tomorrow.