Avarron sighed. If he had known that everything was already packed, he’d have said: “Then we prepare for departure after breakfast.” Before he realized it, he had found himself having breakfast in the saddle, with eight pairs of eyes glancing up at him,waiting for him to make good on the promise of his tale. It made him more nervous than he already was and he ate slowly, simply to delay.
He spent a good hour on breakfast, but time failed to prepare him, and everyone was still eyeing him patiently. “It has been six days, almost to the hour, that we were separated,” he started without warning. He had not even intended to speak the thought out loud, but it was there now. As all his attempts to make proper sense of the events had been in vain, he decided to simply stumble onward with his story and pray that they’d believe him. He scarcely did so himself anymore.
With hesitating pauses, the tale came: the old keep and impossible transportation to the ruined palace on the hill, the trek north and eventually the Witchwood. By that time, he had given up on making the tale believable and told them a fairy tale of Llaweyra, the goblins, troll, ogre and of course the banshee.
Asratorix chuckled as he finished his tale of Nariain’s resurrection. “Your telling skills improve when you stop trying to convince us of the truth of it all.”
Telling the tale, he found himself barely convinced and knew better than to expect anyone to believe him. He wouldn’t have if anyone had told him such a tale. Yet it had not been a dream, he argued to himself.
“So, what really happened? Your guide left you in the forest and you were lost for three days?” Behr asked mockingly.
Avarron smiled faintly and nodded. “That’s an apt summary,” he answered and left it at that. Thankfully, everyone seemed to conclude that Avarron had spun a tale simply to entertain them and that little of interest had actually happened.
Suddenly, Dann gestured the group to halt. They had just entered a small thicket of forest, with ample sunlight penetrating the canopy. There was no sign of danger and Avarron expected no attack while they were still in the shadow of Teròfaer’s castle. “What’s wrong?”
The scout shook his head. “Nothing serious. Just unusual.”
“What is it, then?” Rogan aked curiously.
“One person made a lot of tracks here, as if pacing impatiently. And aside from having small feet, he’s also barefooted.”
“A bandit that can’t even steal himself a pair of boots, how pathetic,” Ferdiag chuckled.
“Have you not heard of the bootless bandit?” Asratorix asked him. “He’s a legend around these parts. They say he’s so agile that boots only get in the way of his deft climbing. Nobody has been able to catch him. He moves silent as a mouse and is a master of the bow. And,” the bard paused and turned to Rogan; “He’s got an unusual hatred for children.”
Rogan immediately started to eye the forest nervously.
Avarron frowned at the bard. “You’re not serious, are you?”
Asratorix smiled mischievously. “That’s payback for calling Cullean and I stuffy old men.”
“You…,” Rogan eyed them furiously for a moment, but then revealed a satisfied smile. “I underestimated you, but the last laugh will be mine.”
As they continued through the forest, Avarron had the impression that they had all forgotten his tale already. It put him at ease to know that he had managed to not make a complete fool of himself in front of the men. He considered himself lucky, until Asratorix, who had been walking on his left side, gestured him to lean in to him and then whispered: “If it’s any consolation, I do believe you.”
Avarron raised an eyebrow, wondering if the bard was pulling another prank on him, but Asratorix said nothing more and only gave him a grin and a wink.
A short while later, Dann halted them again.
“What is it this time? Handprints from a footless bandit?” Rogan asked, wary for any more jokes at his expense.
“Rising mist,” the scout said somewhat confused. “It’s almost noon.”
“Should we scout ahead, then?” Behr asked.
“No. Just be on your guard,” Avarron decided. The mist sent a shiver of dread memory down his spine and he couldn’t leave the patch of trees soon enough.
The whole group dropped their casual behaviour, drew their weapons and silently continued into the increasingly thick mist. Only the sound of hooves and boots on the hardened soil of the road disturbed the silence.
After several minutes of silence, there was a sudden rustle of leaves. Avarron turned to face the sound and a large man leapt into him, throwing him out of the saddle. He pushed the assailant off of him. The sound of weapons and battle cries told him that there were more attackers. As he climbed to his feet, his shrouded attacker charged again.
He raised his shield to take the blow, but the attacker was much slower than he had anticipated. In fact, the bandit seemed to stumble towards him. Guessing that he had hurt himself during the dive from the trees, Avarron advanced. The bandit didn’t even parry his strike, and collapsed under his sword.
Immediately he felt guilty for striking down an opponent that couldn’t fight back. He knelt down at the fallen, but the man showed no signs of life anymore.
The fighting around him also died down, and he heard Ferdiag cheer: “Hah, those were the most pathetic pushovers ever!”
Avarron left the dead bandit and headed towards the sound of cheering men.
“Fool,” someone whispered in his hear.
Startled he turned around, and saw the slain bandit stand up straight again.
“What is this devilry?” Neval roared behind him.
Avarron quickly charged and hewed down the opponent again. Before the body hit the ground, he ran off in the direction of others fighting. “What’s going on?” he yelled into the mist.
“They won’t stay down,” Behr complained loudly.
“Even without head, they get right back up,” Ferdiag added.
“Necromancy,” Avarron hissed as he realized who was attacking them. “Someone is raising the dead back up the moment they fall.
“How do we fight them?” Cullean asked, appearing from behind Avarron.
Avarron had exactly the same question in mind, but lacked an answer.
“We have to find and slay the necromancer,” Asratorix joined the discussion.
While the bard was right, Avarron knew that it was no immediate solution, since the necromancer himself was far away, in Lainthair. Yet there was one thing he knew that worked: “Fire! We need fire!”
“Good luck making fire in this mist,” Dann yelled from somewhere, shrouded by the thick fog.
Avarron loudly swore at Donash for his cunning trap. With no other option in sight, he called for a retreat.
Dann quickly caught up with them and took the lead to guide them through the mist.
“Wait,” Avarron halted him. “Where’s Tanac?”
As they started calling his name, a flash of blue light burst through the mist and struck one of their lifeless foes. The dead bandit flared up in blue flames and collapsed.
Shortly after, another bolt of blue light came, and another. One by one, the dead flared up and quickly burned to a crisp. As the last one fell, a woman’s voice called out: “Well, that was entertaining.”
Avarron oriented at the source of the voice and bowed deeply. “My lady, your assistance is very much appreciated.”
“The pleasure is all mine,” she replied and chuckled: “Hah! To see Sir ‘noble’ discard his honour and flee for his life.”
Slowly, Avarron realized that the voice sounded familiar, but he could think of no woman with such a sadistic sense of humour, or bearing any hatred for him. “Do I know you?” he asked puzzled.
The woman laughed heartily and said: “You’re such an idiot.” she somehow managed to instil the words with a clear fondness.
As she did, the mists began to stir. Within a few moments, they were swirling to form many different patterns in the air and gathered.
The sense of dread he felt from the stirring mists was all too familiar and before he realized it, he had already taken several steps backwards. “Nariain,” he said with a dry mouth.
The mists conglomerated into the known figure of the mist-woman, who somehow drew substance from the fog and a moment later, the pale skinned Sidhe stood before him, grinning with a bow held lightly in her hand. Her long black hair danced in a gentle breeze. There was no trace of the mists at all. “What took you so long?” she asked.
“Me? Your Faefire was welcome long before you started shooting,” He retaliated more fiercely than intended.
“That would’ve ruined the test, now wouldn’t it?” she said teasingly.
“Test?” Avarron asked, utterly confused.
“Yes. You and your friends are clearly not ready to face Donash,” she said decisively.
He gave her a blank stare. “How did you know we’re-”
She interrupted, stating as if more than obvious: “It’s written in the prophecy.”
It raised a repetition of the same question from Avarron: “How do you know about…”
“I’ve known since our battle. Or did you really think that having your blood in my veins does nothing but give me itchy skin?”
Avarron rolled his eyes. The things women could complain about. “Would you rather go without any skin at all again, then?” he asked her teasingly.
“It itches everywhere,” she responded and shuddered.
“Well, my skin never itches, so don’t blame me,” Avarron responded, wondering if maybe this was not a joke after all. “I’d rather suspect that mouldy, ragged shroud you’re still wearing. Speaking of which, why are you still wearing that thing?”
“Because you get uncomfortable around naked women,” she said in an accusing tone. It was amazing to Avarron how she still managed to make her itch somehow his fault.
Unsure how to respond, he became aware of some forcefully contained laughter among his men. “Sir, your tale forgot to mention that you married the Sidhe,” Asratorix said with sarcastic pleasure. “As a bard, I must say that it’s poor conduct to leave such details out.”
“What? But…,” Avarron sputtered, realizing that nothing he could say would halt their mockery.
Of course, Ferdiag could, in the worst possible way. The moment he opened his mouth, Avarron yelled: “No! Ferdiag, no.”
The warrior’s mouth snapped shut again, but still Narian spun around to face him with a furious glare that made the warrior take a step back. Avarron had never seen the warrior afraid before, but under the banshee’s gaze, his face turned white, a striking contrast with his reddish hair.
“I know what you were about to say,” she said and he took anther step backwards. “And I’ve noticed the way you’re looking at me. Keep your thoughts to yourself.”
“Yes, my lady,” the words came faintly out of his dry mouth.
Avarron cringed as the memory of her swift and furious response to those words came to him. But she did not strike Ferdiag as she had struck him. Instead she simply turned again to Avarron, giving no further acknowledgement of Ferdiag’s existence. “Let’s get a move on, shall we?”