NaNoWriMo 2012

NaNoWriMo

One of my biggest highlights of last year was taking part in National Novel Writing Month. Attempting to write anything on the scale that was challenged here (50,000 words) was something that I had never even considered before. Earlier in life the idea of writing a mere fraction of this for schoolwork would’ve left me dreading the days ahead. Unfortunately, when November bowed out and we welcomed in another snow-free December my word count was still sitting underneath this ambitious goal I had set myself. I didn’t hit the word goal but I still had an awesome time exploring and pulling together a story that I spent far too little time planning out in October. If I remember, the term for my approach is a ‘pantser’, which was certainly fitting, especially in the last week of November.

I haven’t had a chance to really add anything to this story since back then, but I would love to finish it off over the spring and summer. I’ve decided to post my entire story here, but until I find time to work on it some more, I ask that you could forgive me for the chapter 12 cliffhanger, and any horrible grammar errors you may find down there in the later stages. All going well I’ll be able to finish this story off in the next few months and then I can look forward to trying it all over again this November. I hope you enjoy reading my tale.

The Wrong Side of the Portcullis

Chapter 1 – The decision we made

The great oak tree that Edward had perched himself up against was starting to hurt his back; the rough bark digging into his skin. He was only vaguely aware of how long he had been sitting there, staring up into the sky. It was still dark when he resigned the idea of being able to get any sleep, and now the morning sun was piercing through the tree canopy. If his friends had seen him they would probably wonder what was so fascinating about a cloudless morning sky. His thoughts were not with them though; he couldn’t even remember their names. All he could do was revisit that moment two evenings prior. The site of that great, unfamiliar army stood outside the gates of his home. He remembered that sickening feeling of his heart plummeting when he knew from the size of that army all hope must be lost for those trapped inside the settlement’s walls. He was grateful that they had remained undetected; he didn’t dare to think what may have happened if they had been spotted, but with this relief came an incredible pang of guilt. He had abandoned everyone he had grew up with, his princes, and Lord and Lady Manson in favour of his own survival. While he knew there was almost certainly nothing he could have done, it didn’t stop the guilt from eating away at his heart and stealing any desire to get some rest away from him. He had been sat there all morning and his friends were beginning to worry.

“Edward?” The voice brought his senses crashing back to him with a start. It was Lysa, he could tell by the drained look in her eyes that her quest for sleep had only been slightly more successful than his own. On another day he might have been jealous, but today? Today, only death’s calling could bring him the gift of sleep. She sat down beside him and started to brush the morning tangles out of her long chocolate brown hair. It was exactly the same colour as his own, but while his stopped just short of his shoulders, Lysa’s hair flowed down in a silky smooth stream ending at the base of her back. “I share your pain,” she said sympathetically “but there’s nothing we could have done. There’s only four of us, and we have two good swords. I doubt we can count that ceremonial longbow.” Edward felt his mood lift a little away from the pit of resentment he had placed himself in back when the moon was sitting proudly in the sky as he thought about this comment. He visioned himself standing back on the fields surrounding Merehill, the great silver and ruby encrusted longbow gifted to Lord Manson by the court of Tymaria to honour to eighteenth birthday of his eldest son Matthew. In reality he knew a longbow made from silver would never work, but this was his vision with his rules. The arrows were flying true into the hearts of nameless figures from an unknown land. One by one his enemies fell; he felt great, the surge on adrenaline coursing through his veins. Nothing could stop him from saving his friends and family trapped inside the palisade walls of Merehill – he was back leaning against the base of the oak tree. Lysa had given him a prod on the arm, bringing him back to reality. She giggled, “you always drift off like that,” she said smiling “off on another of your little flights of fancy, leaving me here alone.” Edward smiled back. He was so grateful that Lysa had caught him in time to declare her intentions to accompany his caravan to Tymaria to collect the supplies for the upcoming celebrations. Normally she would wish him well, but always remain at home. Tymaria was a city that she had always wanted to visit though. The market was known across the land as the place to visit for exotic goods from far off lands and high quality local produce alike. The thoughts of what may have happened if she had stayed at home in Merehill didn’t bare thinking about.

He had always thought of Lysa like a sister. Ever since the age of five they had always been spending time together. Their parents were always working closely together while they were children. Their fathers co-owned the Lord’s caravan business and therefore would often have to travel to towns and cities up and down the land.  Occasionally, when they were a little older, they had travelled with their fathers on some of the journeys to more local, neighbouring towns. Edward’s father had told him numerous times that he wanted him to take the reigns of the company after he had retired. Edward had always been excited by this; the idea of always being able to travel to the distant cities and islands that he knew he would never be able to visit as a child.

The opportunity to join Edward had been offered to Lysa, but she had her heart set on moving south to Tymaria to run a stable. She had always had a great love of horses, and once she had learnt that she could make a living breeding and looking after them her mind was made up and Edward could see no going back.

Their mothers had worked together to give the town its relatively well-known inn, The Jolly Blacksmith. Lysa had been told that they named it in homage to her grandfather Walter, who had passed away a year before her birth. He had been the settlement’s blacksmith for thirty five years and the quality of his metalwork customers from most of the nearby towns, and the inn named in his honour continued to have this appeal to residents across the region. During the evenings the inn would always get relatively busy so Edward and Lysa were always happy to help out. They were sometimes mistaken for being siblings by travelers from neighbouring towns while helping their mothers. People saw their similar hairstyles, heights and judged from how well they got along that they must be brother and sister. When asked the pair just giggled and agreed. They weren’t blood related, but they were damned if they weren’t just like brother and sister in every other way. He wondered how much, if any, of that old life could be salvaged after that army marched on Merehill. They had to go back and check to see what remained of their home. It had to be tonight, he couldn’t let all the possibilities fight amongst themselves in his mind. He had to know for sure, one way or another, whether the others wanted to come with him or not.

Edward opened his eyes. He noticed the temperature had dropped compared to earlier when Lysa had joined him under the tree that had been his home all morning. The clear blue sky that greeted him this morning had been replaced by stone coloured clouds which looked ready to drop their payload onto the forest where they had sought shelter last night. He looked down and saw that Lysa had fell asleep on top of his leg. The early morning warmth must have sent them both off to sleep. In the distance he heard the crackling of a fire, which told him that his other companions must be awake now. Edward tried his best to move his leg from under Lysa’s head, but he knew this would be a tough challenge. She was always a light sleeper and, sure enough, she awoke the moment he started moving. “So much for that sunny day I was hoping for,” she said after a long yawn, “we should probably start making our way back to the others before these clouds give us what it looks like they are promising.” She picked herself up from the floor and started brushing the fallen leaves from her clothes. She was wearing an emerald coloured dress today, which contrasted with his own sky blue attire. Her dress matched her deep green eyes, which he had always been a little jealous of.

“We should.” Edward replied, “It sounds like they are preparing a meal.” Which meal he could not say; he had no idea how long he had been asleep for under that tree. As he got to his feet he cursed aloud. His legs had become numb due to the length of time he had been sat there. Lysa offered him a shoulder and they started making their way back to the camp. The numb feeling in Edward’s leg soon began to give way to the hot stabbing pains of a thousand pins being poked up and down his legs. Edward started to wish he could have the numbness back, but thankfully, after a few minutes the pain started to subside and he could move his toes freely again.

A short walk later they arrived back at their makeshift camp where Edward’s quest for sleep the night before had been so unsuccessful. Maxwell was standing over their metal cooking pot, a fire crackling away with a happiness that couldn’t be found anywhere else underneath. “Edward. Lysa.” he said nodding his head in a curt welcome. “Beef stew will be ready in a few more minutes.” Much like himself, Maxwell had also been a man of few words since they retreated into the forest. It didn’t surprise Edward, they were all worried about what fate may have become their loved ones. Maxwell was both taller and older than Edward. A man of twenty four years, Edward liked to think of him as the group’s bodyguard. He had short black hair and Edward had noticed that he never seemed to wear any vibrant clothing. Today he was dressed in his usual grey, covered by a boiled leather vest. Even now he still had one of the group’s swords sheathed at his side; ever prepared Edward thought to himself. He was friendly enough, but often hid his emotions behind a stern looking face, making it difficult to work out how he was feeling. But today that mattered not, he knew that all four of them felt the same.

Edward joined Lysa who had taken a seat at the front of one of their two caravans. They had let their horses roam free in this part of the forest for the time being, Edward could see the head and front legs of one of them through the trees when he looked to his left. It was happily grazing on the long grass that was abundant here. We should be grateful we were returning from a trade mission and have two caravans full of goods to sustain us comfortably, he thought to himself while they waited for the stew to finish.

About twenty minutes later Maxwell announced that the stew was ready. He knew that no-one would particularly feel like eating, himself included, but starving yourself wasn’t going to accomplish anything. Just as Edward to climbing down from the caravan he felt a spot of rain hit his lower arm. The clouds had promised to open earlier, and now they were ready to deliver. Maxwell had served the stew up into four bowls already. Lysa and Maxwell grabbed their bowls and Edward picked up one for himself and one for Peter, who didn’t seem to have come out of the tent. They all headed inside one of the two modestly sized tents they had brought with them before they fell foul of the weather’s promise of a heavy storm.

Inside the tents everything was very basic. Two makeshift mattresses made of leaves and grass stretched out down each length of the tent and in the centre was a lantern, which was no giving off a bright glow in stark contrast to the now dull outside. Edward didn’t mind; if he had his way they would only be stopping there one more night. The fourth member of their group, Peter, was sat cross-legged on one of the mattresses reading one of his books by the light of the lantern. Peter looked up from his book when they came in and smiled “Feeling any better?” he asked to everyone in general as Edward gave him his bowl of stew, and they each joined him sitting on the mattresses.

“Better than earlier.” Edward replied.
“I guess so.” said Maxwell.
“I just wish there was something we could do.” said Lysa.

Edward had wanted to leave bringing up his wish to return to Merehill until they had all eaten something, but Lysa had presented him with the perfect opportunity.

“I want to go back to Merehill tomorrow.” he said after a few spoonfuls of his stew. There was a few moments silence before Peter replied “Is that wise? What if it has been garrisoned, you saw how many of them there were outside the walls. That doesn’t even include any that were doing goodness knows what inside—”

“We’ll never know for sure if we don’t go,” Lysa interrupted “if there is nothing we can do when we’ve seen the situation, then I guess I can live with that, but good or bad I hate not knowing. What if Mother and Father and everyone else can be saved?”

After that Peter quitely agreed. It was quiet for a few minutes afterwards. The rain had started to get heavier, and the sounds of the droplets hitting the top of the tent and the trees was the only music that broke the silence that filled the tent. Edward didn’t feel particularly hungry, but the beef stew was very tasty and he found it easy to enjoy. Most of this food they have with them was meant for Prince Matthew’s birthday feast – he stopped that train of thought right there, refusing to acknowledge the dark possibilities that he kept hoping wasn’t the reality. Lysa and Maxwell were the first to finish their stew, Peter chose to have some of the crusty bread with his, and Edward was just cleaning out the last few chunks of beef with his spoon. After they were all finished Maxwell offered to take the bowls down to the stream about ten minutes walk from their tent to give them a wash. Edward followed him out of the tent. The rain greeted him like an old friend, and within a few minutes he was soaked through. He walked towards their horses, which were taking shelter stood under one of the larger trees he could see. They both looked calm and content, if rather wet, and one of them neighed happily as he stroked their manes. As he was standing there the rain started to subside a little, but he could tell the sun was setting because the light was fading fast in the forest. Now what little light made it through the clouds was blocked from completing its journey to the ground by the tree canopy.

Maxwell returned a few minutes later carrying the now clean bowls and cooking pot. “We should get some sleep if we’re going to be awake in time to make it to Merehill before sunrise tomorrow.” he said as he got close to Edward. Edward nodded his head in agreement. “I just hope I can actually get to sleep tonight.” They walked back to the tents and entered the empty tent opposite the one Lysa and Peter were inside. Once inside Edward unfolded his wool quilt and placed his feather pillow at the head of his leaf mattress. He laid down and placed the quilt over himself, which quickly started to take some of the chill out of his bones. The days had been getting noticeably shorter for weeks now and he knew it wouldn’t be too much longer until the first snowfall of winter. They had to have a course of action before then, which is why Edward felt it was so important to get some closure to the sight they had witnessed a few nights ago at Merehill. As he was laying there, in the dark, Edward was pleasantly surprised to feel his eyelids getting heavier. After a few more minutes the urge to close them had become too great and he had drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 2 – Future sight?

Edward’s vision was very limited as he waded through the knee deep snow; he couldn’t see more than about ten metres in front of himself. He turned to look behind… nothing but snow and fog. To the left… the same sight, and to his right was a great oak tree strangely similar in height as the one he had chosen to sit up against that morning. “Lysa?” He called out looking every which way. “Maxwell!” Again only the sounds of snow and wind responded to his call. “PETER!” This time he called out so loud that he coughed heavily, but even for the added effort it was as fruitless as the previous two calls. He was alone in this place. He tried to run forward but the snow had numbed his legs and feet as well as his hands. He tripped over landing face first in the bed of snow; the cold blasts of wind had made his eyes water impeding his vision completely and he had fallen over something hard and twisting which had long since been buried by the heavy snowfall. Edward rolled helplessly over on to his back and was greeted by an orange ball standing between his legs. He blinked a few times and managed to lift his arm up to his face to wipe the frozen tears and snow from his face. He saw that it was a cat; it must have been no more than a year old. After a few seconds it started to walk up his body, starting by stepping on to his stomach. When it got to his chest it sat down, stared him straight into the eyes… and after a moment, it simply meowed. The first meow was normal, if a little more high pitched than Edward was expecting. The second however made the hairs all over the Edward’s body stand on end. It wasn’t a cat’s voice; it was… Peter’s. Peter was the cat that sat before him.

Chapter 3 – Thirst for truth

It was still dark when Edward was awoken my Maxwell, his figure silhouetted by the glowing, comforting light of the lantern shining brightly in the centre of the tent. “It’s time we made haste for Merehill, if we are to arrive before morning’s light.” He then turned back round and started shuffling with something over on his side of the tent. Edward slowly sat up, his eyes had now adjusted to the light of the lantern. After a few moments he turned to face Maxwell. “Are Lysa and Peter awake?” he said, the grogginess still present in his voice.
“I believe so. I heard Lysa’s voice a short time before waking yourself” he replied, still shuffling with his belongings. “I hope we all see what we hope to see when upon our arrival.” Edward wasn’t too sure what that was. He really wished he could have believed that they would arrive to find their friends and family safe and well. He didn’t remember seeing any signs of destruction when he stole a glance that night, for which he was grateful, but the harming or death of the residents – his friends and family – beyond that palisade wall wouldn’t make any impression visible to anyone on the wrong side. That’s what worried him, but he tried to comfort himself by saying from the lack of destruction to the settlement there was not much of a fight. Surely only the most heartless of demons could bring harm to a peaceful settlement that stood no resistance to their path? A gust of chilled air collided with his chest; Maxwell had left the tent with a sack of his belongings. Edward reached for his clothes and got dressed. He put on his black tunic and wrapped his cloak around him. You can’t see a shadow in the darkness of night he thought as he looked down at his entirely black garb. He had already packed his property back into his own sack after trying to preoccupy himself during an interrupted sleep last night. He picked up the sack and made for the tent’s exit.

As he opened the tent he was very grateful to see that the others had chose to make a fire, at least twice the size of the one used by Maxwell yesterday to cook upon. They knew that making larger fires during the day was a risky strategy, the higher levels of smoke were easily noticeable. As well as the risk, there had not been a general need for a  larger fire; the weather on their journey to Tymaria had been reasonably good. Yesterday had been the first time they had encountered rain since the fourth day of their trip. Tonight was different though, and as Edward walked around the fire to place his belongings in one of the caravans he could feel the pleasantly warm air from the fire battling with the frigid breeze howling through the trees around them for supremacy across the uncovered skin of his face and hands. After he had placed his belongings into the caravan he harnessed one of their horses to each caravan and brought them closer to the fire, making it easier to pack away the tents and to allow the horses to warm up a little themselves before the journey.
“Now pull out the centre pole.” he heard Lysa say. Their tent only needed to be folded away now, as Peter crawled out of the now collapsed tent holding the central support pole of the tent. He joined Maxwell to bring down their own tent. Edward had always liked the tents they used for their simplicity. They could be put up and packed away very quickly. They were not the strongest of structures, and he knew they wouldn’t survive a night in the wind ravaged mountains and valleys to the west, but for the journeys they embarked upon these tents were more than adequate. After a few minutes the tent was down and packed away along with the other one. “Let’s sit and warm our bones for a bit. We should be travelling for about two hours to make it back to Merehill.”
“A long, cold two hours nonetheless.” Edward replied. “We’ll make haste in twenty minutes.” The fire was brilliantly warm, and the glow from the flames seemed to cast a shield around the four of them preventing the icy blasts of wind from cutting across their skin.
“Where will we go after visiting Merehill?” Lysa asked after a few minutes of quiet. Edward had been so caught up in seeing what, if anything, remained of their home and hadn’t given this a second thought. If luck had shone brightly upon them they would be able to return home with their supplies for the ceremony and run straight into the arms of their loved ones. Edward had very little hope of this being the case, but he had no ideas for where their journey would take them after Merehill.
“I think we should make our way back to Tymaria.” Peter replied after a few moments of silence amongst the group. “Whoever it was who marched on Merehill would be foolish to try and take Tymaria. It’s our region’s capital city, and has at least a few thousand soldiers garrisoned there at all times.”
“If they did try and take it they wouldn’t make it to the walls. I guarantee that much.” Maxwell said with an evil looking smirk coming across his face. “In fact, I’d pay good gold to see them attempt it.” They all smiled at the thought of this unwelcome force marching towards the great sixty foot stone walls on Tymaria. Edward saw the great boulders flying from the catapults atop the city’s walls. He imagined his enemy fleeing in all directions as one after another the boulders crashed down amongst them, the archer’s arrows taking out those fortunate enough to survive the bone shattering force of the boulders. They all agreed that heading to Tymaria after sneaking a look at the situation at Merehill would be for the best. Their towns were long term allies, and there simply didn’t seem to be anywhere else that sprang to mind that could present such a formidable resistance to any incoming threats if this unknown faction was intent on conquest of the region. Heading to Tymaria would also present them with the opportunity to hire a ship if needed. Edward couldn’t think of any major reasons why that would be required in their present situation, but it would be good to have as many options available to them until the intentions of their enemy was known to them.

After a short while longer Maxwell said “We should start heading towards Merehill now if we are to make it before the morning light” as he was getting to his feet. He started to knock away the twigs they had used to build the fire with his boot; it wouldn’t be long now until the icy winds reclaimed this piece of land from the dying fire. Edward could feel the temperature drop rapidly as the final flames from the fire danced one last time upon the twigs before flickering out. He wrapped his cloak tightly around his body. As he saw the others do the same he guessed that within a few more weeks they would be in the firm grip of winter and a blanket of snow would cover the land. Until that day came though, he was able to comfort himself in the knowledge that during the night they would be almost undetectable because of their black cloaks. They each climbed up into the caravans. Edward and Lysa took the front one and Peter and Maxwell climbed into the one behind. Edward guessed that the horses were grateful to be moving now. They had been pawing the ground since the fire had started to die down. Their journey started slowly as the avoided the trees that were scattered everywhere this deep in the forest, giving no real clear path to follow. The forest seemed to be trying to disorientate them, an attempt to prevent them from seeing what, if anything, remained of their home. Edward lost count of the number of times they were steered left, then right looking for the openings large enough to pass through with there caravans. Looking back, maybe they should have moved to the outer edge of the forest before nightfall. They could have been traveling north by now. He knew that hindsight wouldn’t help them now and another day and night stuck in the depths of this forest would help even less.

Eventually, after what seemed like hours of weaving aimlessly between trees the forest began to thin out, and their progress started to get better. The first benefit of this was Edward wasn’t having to wrestle with the low hanging branches as they tucked at his cloak, trying to steal it for their own purposes. Soon after they found themselves back at the side of the road that they traveled upon so much recently on their journey down to Tymaria and back, and after their escape from the horrible sight that greeted them upon their return to Merehill. Thankfully the wind had subsided a little now from earlier, and although the general night chill remained it was a major improvement from when they set off. As one of the main roads that spanned the length of the region Edward had seen many different potholes scattered across the road on his journey down to Tymaria; the road was certainly showing its age from all the wear and tear. During the day you would see many different people making their ways up and down the land using this road. There was rarely a time when you’d go more than about an hour without seeing another soul. Now, in the enclosing darkness of night there was no company but the long, eerie shadows cast by the trees either side of them from the light off the moon and their flickering lantern on Edward and Lysa’s caravan. It was a while before anyone said anything after they had joined the road. There had been the occasional small talk while they were making their way out of the forest, but now the silence was only broken by the horses hooves colliding with the graveled road and the wheels of their caravan carving a path down the road. They were all worried, even though it was still the dead of night, that they were being watched. The first rays of light from the sun were a few hours away still, so the sky was ruled by the moon and stars. There was no reason for anyone else to be around, but Edward at least could not shake that feeling of unease.

“This brutal wind is starting to pick up again.” Lysa whispered to Edward as they continued to make their way north. She wrapped herself tightly inside her cloak again to shut out the biting winds as best as she could. This frigid wind had plagued them for the length of their journey, coming and going seemingly as it pleased.
“We shouldn’t be too far from Merehill now.” Edward replied following Lysa’s lead to retreat back inside her cloak. He knew this road reasonably well, but in the darkness he had lost his sense of time and couldn’t be sure exactly how far away they were. A rough estimate was all he could manage. “It would likely be best if we put out the lantern now. Any eyes trying to spy us from a distance will see the glow long before we have any time to react.” Lysa agreed, if a little reluctantly it would seem. Edward could understand, the lantern was giving off a nice piece of precious heat, but they needed to be stealthy and, if needed, have the element of surprise on their side. The last few seconds off flame danced around inside the lantern before finally dying out, plunging Lysa and Edward into almost complete darkness. Edward could occasionally hear Maxwell and Peter talking in their caravan too, but the noise from the horses and caravans drowned out most of the conversations between them.

Edward couldn’t be sure how much longer they had been traveling, but he knew they were now just a short distance from Merehill. The southern approach to the settlement involved navigating three sharp corners, one to the left and two to the right. This part of the road took them around the outskirts of the great forest known as Rain’s Wood, which stretched out from the southern fields surrounding Merehill half a day’s ride to the eastern coast of the region. Edward realised suddenly that curiosity had never gotten the better of him on this subject; he had never asked anyone as to why this great forest was known as Rain’s Wood. The origin of its name was a relatively minor detail currently though. The forest had a whole new level of significance placed upon it. As the navigated this final right hand bend up ahead they would cast eyes on Merehill for the first time since that fateful evening. Edward could feel his heart beating faster as they got closer and closer. He could hear Lysa’s breathing become heavier with anticipation too. He saw that she was also shaking, although the coldness was likely as much to blame as the rainbow of emotions they were going through: anticipation, fear, anger, hopefulness and if he was honest with himself, a little excitement. As that curve in the road inched ever closer Edward closed his eyes, not wanting to see the vision of carnage he had predicted. This seemed to have the effect of stopping time; he could hear the caravan moving ever forward, and the horses hooves marching a pass through the worn road, but that corner never seemed to come. He felt his heart beat faster still, and he began to shake himself as anticipation and adrenaline charged through his body making it impossible to relax. It felt like a lifetime until something happened. Lysa let out a huge gasp which broke the monotonous sounds of hooves and wheels, but it was such a surprise that it sent Edward’s heart plummeting in fear from its lofty position wedged in his throat down his body before crashing into the pit of his stomach. In that moment he feared the worst and nothing but sheer dread occupied his thoughts. “Look! Edward! It’s okay, Merehill is still standing.” Lysa whispered into his ear. Her voice was shaky with excitement, which reminded him of all those happy Christmas and birthday mornings they have spent together. Edward slowly built up the courage to open his eyes and there it stood before them. It was little more than a silhouette against the deep blue of the early morning sky, but he could see there were no visible signs of destruction. His heart leaped with joy inside his chest as the worry and fear he had bottled up over the last few days fizzled out as relief and… curiosity. He started to wonder why, or even how Merehill was still standing proud after having an army of that size march upon it. Suddenly he felt himself start to worry again, what about their friends and families? He hoped they were still standing tall and proud themselves inside the settlement walls.
“We should make our way up to the gates on foot. We’ll draw to much attention of anyone in the area on two generously loaded caravans.” Edward said as he ushered the horse to come to a stand. To his right he could see the crimson red glow of sunrise just creeping up over the horizon. I wouldn’t be long now before no amount of black clothing would hide them from prying eyes, and they needed to be able to escape from Merehill undetected if the need arose. As soon as the horse pulling their caravan came to a stand Edward jumped off and went back to discuss his plan with Peter and Maxwell. Lysa joined them a few moments later.
“It looks like, somehow, Merehill has managed to escape any harm. May good fortune shine and that be the case for our friends and family too.” Edward said.
“I can’t understand why an army with such a huge numerical advantage would just vanish into the night.” Peter replied. “It makes me feel uneasy about the whole thing.”
“It’s clear to me that conquest was not their objective. As to what they wanted here… your guess is as convincing as mine” Edward said as he climbed into the back of the rear caravan to bring out their two swords. Edward would never even enjoy humouring himself that he had any level of real combat experience, but a weapon is a weapon nonetheless. After he had climbed back out of the caravan he passed the second sword to Maxwell. “I hope these blades will still have the same shine to them when this day is done.”
“If the need arises you won’t find me hesitating.” He replied with a coolness which mirrored the fact that he was the only one of the group to have wielded a weapon of battle before – never in a real war scenario, but he had been amongst the ranks of Merehill’s defence for the last few years. The fact that they had Maxwell with them on each of their trade journeys had always made Edward feel much more comfortable. They had been fortunate that his skills had never been required, but he would have never switched Maxwell with another person. They had been friends for six years now and would always do whatever it took to protect and look out for one another. A mentality like this was seen across the whole population of Merehill; it was a community with a closeness that Edward had not seen anywhere else on his travels, and was why he was hoping more than anything else he could ever remember that his friends and family had found a way to survive that night. Lysa and Peter stayed with the horses and caravans while Edward, his heart beating furiously in his throat, joined Maxwell and they started their slow walk towards the settlement walls.

Chapter 4 – The gate

The sun had now cast its bright yellow net over the landscape, casting enormous shadows against the trees and Edward and Maxwell. Unfortunately, the dazzling brightness of the sun was a false promise of the heat it brought to Edward’s frost chilled hands and face. The temperature had barely risen, and any hope for a surprise entrance if it was needed had long since past. As they both crept closer to Merehill’s gates Edward noticed something… or at least the lack of something. He couldn’t hear any sounds coming from the other side of the palisade. In that moment his hopes of finding a happy ending to all this dwindled away. He stopped in his tracks, staring blankly at the gate some fifty metres away now. Maxwell continued walking for a few more seconds before noticing the lack of any footsteps beside his own. He stopped and turned to face Edward. He walked back towards Edward and put his hand on Edward’s shoulder. “Now is not the time to give up hope.” He said barely louder than a whisper. “We’ve traveled all this way back north with nothing but the worst case scenario plaguing our thoughts. I thought to find Merehill a pile of smouldering rubble myself, seeing it still standing tall on this piece of land has surprised me – made me confident that everyone is safe and well somewhere in there.” Edward felt better after Maxwell had finished talking. His legs had unfrozen, allowing him to continue the last few metres to the gate.

There return to Merehill was meant to be one of great celebration, Edward thought as they made it to the gates of his home town. Those two caravans were filled with luxurious foods from Tymaria, neighbouring and distant lands alike. Lord Manson’s eldest son was about to turn eighteen and with it enter adulthood. Lord and Lady Manson had four days and nights of celebrations planned to mark the occasion. Today would have been the first day of those celebrations with Matthew’s birthday being tomorrow. There wouldn’t be a crueler time to have your life stolen away, and Edward wasn’t sure how he would cope if that turned out to be the case.

Edward noticed that the gate was ajar. This only made him worry more about the fate of his friends and family. Surely if they had survived that attack they would have taken measures to make the settlement as secure as possible given the good state of the palisade walls. Anyone could just walk in or out with the gate welcoming who knows what into the town. “I’m dreading to see what we might find.” Edward muttered to himself as Maxwell crept through the opening in the gate. Edward followed hopelessly behind him, a gust of frigid wind hitting him from behind sending him through the gate with chills running down his spine.

Inside the gate the situation showed no immediate signs of improving. The street that took you from the gate and walls to the settlement’s central green and the Manson’s household was as empty as the fields that surrounded Merehill. The cobblestones of the path beneath their feet echoed their footsteps across the settlement. Edward could see no reason why anyone who still occupied the buildings to their flanks would not know of their presence. “We should head to the Lord’s house,” Maxwell said “that’s where I would go in that scenario.” That made sense to Edward, Lord and Lady Manson’s home was the largest building the settlement had within its walls by some margin. It had been the setting for all of the town’s celebrations and great feasts for as long as Edward could remember, and on a better day they would be in there right now toasting Matthew on his coming of age. As they continued to walk Edward saw The Jolly Blacksmith to his left. He felt rather upset seeing it standing empty like this, the only sign of life coming from the sign above the door as it squeaked back and forth at the mercy of the breeze. Edward couldn’t remember a time when The Jolly Blacksmith had stood so quietly. His and Lysa’s mothers had done such a good job with it that you would always find fellow residents of Merehill or travelers within its bright yellow walls. Edward thought that the layout of the buildings within the boundaries of Merehill was brilliant. All of the businesses and services that the settlement had to offer were found on this central road that weaved its way toward the central clearing, where any traveling trade caravans would set up to offer their wares to the settlement in a prominent position. This was also where Lord and Lady Manson had taken to build their own home. No business in Merehill had ever really struggled to thrive, and Edward knew that this layout Lord and Lady Manson had settled on all those years ago had played a role in making his parent’s lives easier. The smaller roads that took you to the homes of the residents sprouted off this main thoroughfare and ensured that there was a minimal disturbance to the normal day to day lives of residents. Everything was in one place, another unique feature of this settlement that Edward proudly called home. I just hope I can still call it home by evening’s arrival he thought to himself as he and Maxwell continued to make their way up to the Lord’s home. The sun had been rising rapidly in the east, but it was still as chilly as it had been on the later stages of their journey back to Merehill, and the wind found itself with a ghostly voice as it echoed off the silent buildings making its own way back down the street, biting Edward’s face and hands with its ice fangs as it collided with him. He noticed that Maxwell had his right hand wrapped around the hilt of his sword and in that moment he felt himself do the same with his sword.

As they rounded the final corner in the road the home of Lord and Lady Manson came into sight. On the first glance it looked as deserted as the rest Merehill, the window shutters were pulled shut and there didn’t seem to be any signs of life anywhere in the grounds. The gate was bolted when Maxwell made it to the boundary wall. “This is it.” He simply said in a matter of fact tone. He lifted the bolt, the noise of which was only magnified by the silence of the rest of Merehill, and the gate swung open effortlessly with nothing but a small squeak. Edward felt the hairs on his arms and neck stand on end as Maxwell walked through the gate. They were minutes – maybe seconds – away from seeing what fate had befallen their friends and families. Suddenly Edward’s thoughts were cast back to Lysa and Peter who had been left outside in the fields. He stood rooted to the spot. “I’m going back to get Lysa and Peter.” he called up to Maxwell.
Maxwell turned around “You’re right, they shouldn’t be left out there now. It seems safe inside the walls so we should bring the caravans in too. We don’t want them being lost to raiders or other opportunists. I’ll wait here just to keep an eye on the area.”
Edward nodded, turned and ran back the way they came, the cold air making his eyes water which massively impaired his vision. He couldn’t say why he ran back so quickly, but something inside him made him he feel that Lysa and Peter’s safety depended on it. He stopped at the settlement’s gate to wipe his eyes and catch his breath for a few seconds before squeezing back through the gap between the gate and the wall, and running down the sloped road back to where they parted with Lysa and Peter. He felt an incredible sense of relief when he saw they were still sat there on the front caravan safe and well. By the time he made it back to them he was panting for air. This seemed to frighten Lysa. “What’s wrong? Is… is everyone okay?” she said, a noticeable panic in her voice.
“We… haven’t found… anyone yet” Edward replied as best he could between his pants for breath. “You need to come inside now. It’s not safe out here.” It didn’t take either of them long to agree, they were two unarmed and unarmoured individuals sitting on what would seem like a treasure trove of high quality wares to any wandering the area with a rogue’s mindset. Edward started to walk towards the second caravan while Lysa and Peter encouraged their horse to start moving forward. They were a short distance ahead by the time he had gotten moving on the second caravan, but he was able to make up the gap before they made it to the gate. Edward saw Peter jump off the caravan as they came close to the gate. Lysa and Edward both stopped the horses while they waited for Peter to haul the gate open wide enough to allow the caravans passage. Just as Peter had opened the gate wide enough Edward heard a low rumble of thunder off to the west. Great, more rain. Just what we needed. Lysa and Edward rode their caravans through the now open gate, and Edward instructed Peter to close and bolt the gate after his caravan had made it through. The gate closed with a satisfying thud and Peter slid the two large bolts into place, sealing them from the outside world. Much better than any of the alternatives he thought to himself as Peter climbed back onto the front caravan. They continued onwards up the road back to where Maxwell was awaiting their arrival. Passed The Jolly Blacksmith they went, and Edward imagined that the sight of it standing empty and abandoned was as hard for Lysa to take in as it had been for Edward an hour or so earlier. After a few more minutes the rows of businesses either side of them came to an end and they were rolling into the clearing where Maxwell had watch in. As they brought the horses to a stand he started to walk over. “Still no signs of movement from anywhere.” This news troubled Edward even though to some extent he had been expecting it since the first set foot inside the settlement walls.
“Have you checked inside the Manson’s home?” Lysa said, still clinging to the quickly fading hopes that they were not alone.
“We were, but bringing you two in first was our priority. You can’t know who is hiding out there, and we’re such a plump target that we need all the protection we can get. Did you seal the gate?”
“We have. No one is getting in now without making a lot of noise.” Edward said.
“And no matter how hard they knock, we won’t be answering.” Peter added, seemingly trying to bring a little humour to the situation.
“We’ll check the Manson house now.” Maxwell said after a short pause. “Edward, you go with Lysa and check the second floor. Me and Peter will see if we can find anything on the first.”
Maxwell lifted the latch on the Manson’s front door with a clink that seemed to echo much more than Edward had ever remembered it to. The door opened effortlessly with a small creak as a beam of the morning sunlight burst into the residence through the opening. Maxwell went in first, followed by Lysa, Peter and then Edward, who turned around to cast one last look upon the buildings below before walking in himself.

Chapter 5 – Findings

Their footsteps across the wooden floor echoed ominously off the walls of the entrance hall as Edward, Lysa, Maxwell and Peter all spread out to start their search. Edward found himself wondering what they were actually looking for anymore. He no longer had any hope that they would find anyone inside this house. It was now just an expectation to find nothing to help their cause, and they needed to start planning their next course of action soon, the cold jaws of winter would not wait forever.
“Shout if you find anything.” Maxwell said to the others as he and Peter walked towards one of the large oak doors leading off the entrance hall. It seemed to Edward like an obvious and rather needless thing to say, but he acknowledged it by nodding. Fortunately, the Manson household had no shortage of windows to let the late morning sunlight shine in, and with the light it also brought a much appreciated warmth to the home. It’s been too long since I’ve had this much relief from those frigid winds Edward thought as he signalled to Lysa to come over. “Upstairs we go then.” He said in a rather over simplifying way.
“Best to start with the bedrooms, I think.” Lysa replied. “If there is anything for us to find in here I just know it will be in Lord and Lady Manson’s bedroom.”
“Seems as sensible a place as any.” Edward did not know if the Lord and Lady were they type to hide things around the house, but they certainly were not going to find out the answer to that question standing around in the entrance hall. Edward started to make his way up the stairs, followed shortly after by Lysa. The stairs seemed to creak an awful lot more than Edward could ever recall before; it was as if the house had aged dramatically since they had left to travel south to Tymaria a few weeks prior. He didn’t know why, but that thought gave him the creeps. Finally they made it to the top of the stairs. Edward knew the layout of the Manson house reasonably well. He knew that the door currently on their right would take them to the Lord and Lady’s bedroom. The door straight ahead of them would find them in the bathroom; there did not seem to be much reason to go in there. The door to the left had always been locked from what he could recall, but as far as he knew it tooked you up another flight of stairs into the roof space. Edward could never remember seeing anyone go up there, and for that reason he couldn’t bring himself to think about what great masses of spider webs anyone who dared to go up there would find. The door was locked and bolted though, so whatever secrets were up there were staying up there… for the time being at least.

While Edward had been looking around the landing Lysa had made her way to the bedroom door. She turned the handle and the latch gave way with a satisfying clunk. The door opened easily enough, even though it creaked just as much as everything else seemed to in that house. It moved aside to reveal a surprisingly spotless bedroom. Edward had expected to see a mess given the way that everyone seems to have just vanished. This certainly wasn’t the case though, the bed was freshly made, no clothes were out of place, nothing suggested that anyone was in a hurry to leave. Plus, if they were planning on leaving, wouldn’t they take this stuff with them? The whole situation was just starting to make Edward’s head hurt as the facts were swimming around in his mind. He walked over to the bed and sat down, placing his head into his hands.
“I… just don’t get it.” He said to Lysa after a few moments silence. She was looking amongst the books placed neatly on the bookshelf.
“Nothing points to a struggle.” She replied, an unsurprising air of confusion in her voice. “Nothing points to a planned exodus. Everything is still neat, tidy and cared for. It’s like you could just expect to hear them walk right in the front door and invite you to stay for dinner.”
That reminded Edward. They had forgone their breakfasts again in their attempts to find the truth. They would have to regroup shortly and eat, then it seemed only logical to plan their next steps. He didn’t know what was for the best. If they left Merehill they would be handing it over to the mercy of any and all opportunist travellers. The thought of leaving behind his home – the place where he was born and raised – made him feel sick, but if they stayed that would present its own problems. They were four in strength, and even though Merehill had never bragged of a huge population, four people would never be enough to hold a settlement of any size by any stretch of the imagination. He hoped that Maxwell and Peter were having better luck than them in drawing conclusions as to what happened here.

Lysa had moved over the the large arched window at the front of the bedroom looking out over Merehill. The sunlight was still pouring into the room as the earlier threats of more rain from those distant clasps of thunder had not come into fruition. Edward hoped that if there was going to be another heavy storm it would come either this afternoon or tonight. They would be at home with plenty of shelter from the weather tonight, it was welcome to do its worst. But after tomorrow they could be out travelling for weeks on end again, and Edward, and he was sure the others, were not looking forward to more nights of being drenched under a night sky with a less than friendly wind biting at their exposed skin with an icy clasp. A few minutes later Edward decided to join Lysa at the window. The window faced southeast. Beyond the palisade walls of Merehill Edward could see some of the road they had travelled up on their journey this morning. Beyond that, too far away to ever hope to see was Tymaria, almost certainly oblivious to everything that has happened up here. On another day this would have been a beautiful sight from the window, but the emptiness of the settlement below marred any feelings of such beauty. If only there were some clues left behind to give some – any indication of what had happened they could move forward. He hoped Peter and Maxwell were having some better luck than they had. He turned to face Lysa and saw that she had tears rolling down her cheeks. He put his arm around her shoulders and pulled her close, turned around and walked her over to the bed. No words that came to mind that would make the situation seem better, so he sat her down in silence, and she put her head against his shoulder, and he could hear her start to sob slightly.

Edward and Lysa sat there on the edge of the bed for a few minutes. Edward was watching the dust as it flew about in the beam of light the sun was piercing through the window. A sign that this whole thing was doomed to failure? Were we really that late to get here and do anything? The thoughts crossed his mind, and made him feel sick with himself. Just as he went back to a previous train of thought, hoping that he and Lysa had simply been given the wrong part of the house to check, and that Peter and Maxwell were having better luck downstairs a loud crash shooked the whole house, the shock of which sent Edward flying to his feet in fear. Lysa let out a short scream as she joined Edward in bolting to her feet. Edward feared the worst. Was that army back to finish the job? He picked up his sword that he had rested upon the bed ran over to the window. He was surprised to see nothing had changed across the settlement. Beyond the settlement walls there was not a soul to be seen either. He cast his view as far left and as far right as the window would allow him but still saw nothing. While he was looking out of the window Lysa, visably shaken, had pushed one of the bedside drawers across the mouth of the door. “You’re not getting me. You’re not getting me.” She kept saying to herself in a hushed tone. A voice bellowed out through the house, giving them both a second, although much milder shock. “Edward! Lysa! Come down here quickly.” It was Maxwell, Edward knew that much, but what he couldn’t tell was if it was excitement or fear that awaited them.
Lysa had straight away started to push the drawers back to their original place; Edward joined her. They flung the door open so hard it crashed against the drawers they had just moved out of the way, but Edward really didn’t care at this moment. They had to get downstairs. “Hurry.” and “Quickly.” were heard from downstairs as Peter had joined Maxwell in calling out to them. They both rounded the corner to the left and thundered down the stairs.
“What have you found?” They both called out almost simultaneously as they made their way to the bottom of the stairs. Edward saw that Maxwell still had the sword he had taken with him sheathed, which gave him a great sense of relief. They were not in immediate danger at least. He did notice that Maxwell and Peter were covered in a grey dust. He was confident that he knew what they had done down here now, given the state of them.
“That crash… it nearly brought the house crumbling down around us. What did you do?” Lysa said to them in a rather angry tone as the reached the bottom of the stairs. Maxwell just smiled.
“Didn’t mean to scare you two, but we have found ourselves quite the treasure trove of information. We can find out now where our friends and family have headed.”
“What do you mean ‘treasure trove’?” Edward said with a mixture of both uncertainty and fascination. He felt his heart beat faster. If this is what Maxwell says then that means it was not a wasted journey coming back here after all. He felt the hope that they would find their loved ones safe and well rekindle in his heart. They must be hidden away somewhere, biding their time before returning to Merehill.
“Come and see.” Maxwell said as he turned and walked through the door to the left of the staircase. Edward and Lysa followed closely behind.
“I’m going to check and feed the horses. I’ll catch up to you.” Peter said, and he walked over to the front door. They heard him open the front door before Lysa closed the door they had entered behind them sealing out any outside noises.

Chapter 6 – In the footsteps of those who walked before

The room they entered was filled with a heavy dust. Edward and Lysa coughed as they continued to follow Maxwell into the centre of the room. Maxwell was clearly used to it having caused the mess himself as he didn’t cough once. Edward remembered that this room was the study, Lord Manson had often come in here to work on his plans to bring together more settlements into the agreement he had set up between Merehill and Tymaria. As Maxwell continued to lead them they rounded the final bookshelf, which used to be against the wall, but had clearly been pulled out by Peter and Maxwell. There, in that space where the bookshelf had been Edward could see a hole going through the wall. It was about half his height, and was just over a foot off the floor. “This should be the back wall of the house.” Maxwell said to them after he stopped walking. “There are no rooms behind this one, but if it was a true boundary wall then I would not have been able to do this.” He gestured to the hole, smiling again. Edward knew this was true. The perimetre walls would have been at least three times the thickness of this wall. Clearly there was something behind it.
“I’ll get us some light. Then we solve this whole thing once and for all.” Lysa said as she walked back over towards the door they had entered through and grabbed the torch from the wall. Either Maxwell or Peter had lit it earlier on which saved the hassle of doing it now. She walked back over to Maxwell and Edward. She handed the torch over to Edward who turned and shinded it into the hole Maxwell and Peter had created. Edward was first to try and make it through the gap. He put his right hand on the wall for support, but the wall showed its new-found weakness and the brick he had tried to use for support crumbled away from the wall, taking a few more with it. They crashed to the floor, very nearly landing on Edward’s right foot. It did succeed in sending another cloud of dust up into Edward’s face. He backed away from the whole as the dust made his eyes sting, and make him cough harder than he could ever remember doing so before. He fell to his knees coughing again and again, so much that he thought he was going to be sick. “Hold on, I’ll get you some water.” Lysa said, and she turned and bolted from the room. Edward wanted to wipe his eyes so badly to make the stinging stop, but he knew his hands were covered in the same brick dust that was making breathing and seeing so difficult, so it would not do any good. After what seemed like an hour Lysa came running back into the room, opening the door with a crash. She was carrying a pitcher of water. She got to Edward and he instantly felt cold water pouring over the top of his head. It was a horrible and sudden sensation and make him let out a slight scream as his body tried to adjust, which in turn started his coughing again. It did clean his eyes though and made it possible to see again. After he could open his eyes again Lysa gave him what remained of the water, and he took a nice, long swallow of the water. It felt fantastic as the water soothed his throat and washed away the dust that was choking him. “Thanks.” He managed to say weakly as he looked up at Lysa. In that moment he felt there bond had never been stronger as she smiled back to him, looking grateful that he was okay. Edward looked around, he could not see Maxwell. Lysa motioned towards the whole in the wall. “He’s gone in there to see what he can find.” She said, working out what Edward was looking for. Edward tried to stand up; he managed to do so slowly, and Lysa allowed him to use her shoulder for support. They both walked towards the whole together. This time Edward was more careful, and made it through without even putting his hands on the weakened wall. I’m not doing that again he thought to himself as he stood up straight again on the other side of the wall.

Lysa followed him in a few seconds later, carefully stepping over the remains of the wall under the hole. The room was simple, undecorated and rather small. Maxwell had put the torch in one of the wall fittings, and was busy looking around the room, although the table in the centre seemed to have grabbed his attention. He was shuffling through some books which had been placed there. “This is where we find out what happened here and where everyone has gone.” He said when he looked up from the books at Edward and Lysa. “These books each tell a story in their own right, and together they will tell us what we need to know. I am confident of that.” He walked over to the back wall of the room, turned around and said “When I find out where my beloved Reya has gone nothing that fate can throw at me will stop me from finding her. You can throw the full fury of your winter into my path; strike me down with lightning; send the great waves of the legendary stories to drown my courage, but me and Reya will spend our final moments together. That much I promise you.” Edward felt the hairs on his arms stand on end as this speech echoed around the room. He had not heard Maxwell speak directly about his family since they set of for Tymaria all those weeks ago. He didn’t know where Maxwell had met Reya, other than she was from a distant nation that he had never heard of before. The fire of desire that filled the room as Maxwell was talking was shared by Edward too, and he was sure Lysa felt the same. She had since gone over to look at the books placed on the table for herself. Edward walked over to join her, and Maxwell seemed to be examining the walls for another opportunity to play destruction.

At first sight none of the books stood out as the answer to any of their questions. Edward picked up the first book that caught his eye, it’s yellow cover flickering in the torch’s light. It was titled ‘Undiscovered West’ by someone called Henry Mantis. It wasn’t one that Edward had ever seen before, which made him wonder if these books always stayed down here. He picked up another book. This one was title ‘The Treasures of the Grey Men’. Once again it was a book that he had never seen before, although he did know a few things about the Grey Men. They had been a clan that had started up in the mountains to the west and south west of Merehill. They eventually came to own most of the land and settlements in the western half of the region. This success from greed had been little more than a prelude to failure through greed as individual members of the clan split away from the ideals of the group to pursue great individual wealth, leading to a civil war which brought the whole mess collapsing around them. No-one knows for certain now whether any still live up in those mountains, but as Edward and this book both knew, the legend was that some of the Grey Men had retreated back to their beginnings with treasures from lands local and far. All anyone knew for certain was that many of them had died purely in the name of greed.

Edward started to look through the pages for anything that could point them in the right direction. Lysa was also doing the same with her book, ‘Mouse Problems Underfoot’. Maxwell was still giving the wall a thorough examination with a second torch that he had lit off the torch they brought into the room.
“Hey.” Lysa said suddenly which almost made Edward jump. “There’s a letter that has been marked on this page. Come have a look.” Edward walked around to her side of the table, and sure enough someone had marked the letter ‘E’ in word ‘eventually’. “Check the other books again, especially page 40.” Lysa said pointing to the other two books on the table. Edward picked up ‘The Treasures of the Grey Men’ again. He turned to page 40 not knowing what to expect, but there it was, on page 40 someone had put an ink mark under the letter ‘S’ in ‘summer’. He did not know what it meant, but this was deliberately trying to tell them something. He quickly dropped the book and picked up ‘Undiscovered West’, turned to page 40, and there was the ink mark. This time it sat under the ‘N’ in ‘wonder’.
“An E, S and N. What does that mean?” Edward said after a moments pause.
“And what significance does page 40 have?” Lysa added. They knew they were making progress now even if they were stumped. These had been put here for them to find, even if they did that part in a rather unauthadox manner.
“They wanted us to find them. They must have knew about what was going to happen that night we returned, and escaped. That must be why when we saw the army outside the gate there was no fighting going on. They were just as confused as us when we knew there was no one here. Our friends and family were never in any” –
“Got it!” Maxwell called out. “It’s sneaky, I’ll give the Lord that much credit.” He was crouched down in the corner of the room, looking at the floor. Edward went over to get a closer look at what he was doing. “Those books were the clue,” he said smiling at Edward and Lysa “E, S and N, what is missing from that?” It took a few moments for Edward to realise what the connection was, but he soon got it and it all seemed obvious now.
“Points on a compass.” Edward said “Lord Manson was telling us which wall to look at. North, east and south are marked, that just leaves west.”
“That’s right,” Maxwell replied “and this is why.” He pushed in the brick right in the corner, and as he did that they heard a dull rumble echo around the room. An opening slowly began to appear in the centre of the wall as the bricks slid back and across behind the rest of the wall. The opening wasn’t very wide, and Edward knew they would have to go through it sideways. He tried to look through the opening to see what lied ahead, but he was just greeted by complete darkness. Maxwell shined his torch into the opening, trying to see for himself if there was anything of note down there. “It does not get any wider.” He said turning back to Edward. “We’ll have to shimmy along all of the way. I hope tight spaces do not keep you awake at night.”
“It’s snakes for me.” Lysa said after a short pause.
“I’m okay so long as we do not somehow come out of this tunnel atop a tower. Heights are my worst fear.”
“I’d hope we don’t meet either of those.” Maxwell said as he started trying to make it into the passage.
“I’m bringing the books.” Edward said as he walked back over to the table and scooped up the three books that had brought them this far. After Maxwell had made it far enough into the passage for another person to enter Lysa started making her way through. Edward followed her in. By now the smoke from the torch was starting to make it back into the room along the top of the tunnel. Edward ducked his head down a little bit so that he was not breathing in the smoke.

The walls of the tunnel were cold on Edward’s hand as he slowly followed Lysa and Maxwell, shimmying along step by step. He noticed that the tunnel had started to slightly descend shortly after starting, and looking back confirmed this. He had to look upwards to see the dull light coming from the room the had left behind. It was not a large amount the had descended, but it was already noticable and they were still descending as they went along. “I don’t like the fact that we are descending.” Edward finally said, sharing his uncertainty with the others.
“Me neither, but we were meant to take this route. Something will reveal itself to us.” Maxwell replied. Edward did not think that Maxwell seemed to convinced with that second part himself because of how it sounded. What other alternatives did they have though? Eventually after a few more minutes the floor stopped descending and levelled out. Edward was not sure how far they had gone down, but he could no longer see the entrance to the passage, so he could only begin to imagine how far they had travelled. Shimmying along this passage had robbed him of all sense of distance. The only thing he could see was the golden sheen to the walls of Maxwell’s torch as they continued forward. Everything behind him was caked in darkness. He didn’t like this one bit.

After a few more long and difficult minutes Maxwell finally called out to Lysa and Edward. “It looks like it gets wider from here on.”
“Oh, brilliant.” Lysa replied. This was music to Edward’s ears, he was so tired of shimmying along. He just wanted to sit down now and give his aching legs a rest. Maxwell had the truth of the situation, not only did the passage widen; it ended, opening out into another room similar to the one they had left behind. As they all made their way out of the passage Maxwell started shining his torch around to get his bearings. This room didn’t brag any of the furnishings the last room had to offer. There was just an old red rug centred on the floor; when the light from Maxwell’s torch allowed Edward to see it in some detail he saw that it was red with a golden ring going around the perimetre. There was only one other feature of note inside this room, that became clearly visable when Maxwell walked over to the far end of the room. A ladder stretched upwards into the darkness. “That is our way out.” Lysa commented as she went over to it and started to climb. She had clearly had enough of this dark and dingy place.
“Take the torch.” Maxwell said, walking up to her. Edward wasn’t too eager to climb the ladder, especially if he had to carry these books as well. Maxwell, picking up on this, gestured to Edward to hand the books to him, and then he started to make his way up the ladder too, carrying the books under one of his arms and using the other to climb. Lysa had now made it to the top because a hatch opened in the ceiling of the room. In that instant the room was flooded with evening sunlight, which hurt Edward’s eyes and made it difficult to see after all this time in these dingy passages. After a few minutes his eyes adjusted to this new light and he was able to encourage himself up the ladder to join Maxwell and Lysa on the surface. Just a few more steps. Not long now. He kept saying to himself as he went ever higher. At long last his hands made contact with the moist grass that surrounded this hatch and he pulled himself out of the hole. He rolled on to his back and started coughing slightly as he was greeted by fresh air. Maxwell and Lysa sat down beside him taking some time to get their breath back and freshen up a bit. Soon, the question they would have to ask themeselves is ‘where are they?’.

Chapter 7 – Forgotten

Edward felt a great sense of relief as he laid there in the grass. He had been yearning for the fresh air for so long down there, every breath had started to get harder and harder. He could tell by looking at the sun’s position in the sky that they would soon be in the midst of night again. It was now falling fast from the sky, and it’s power to defend Edward, Lysa and Maxwell from the bite of the night air was fading fast.
“Okay, this is good, but where did they go after this.” Lysa asked as she sat to the left of Edward scanning between the trees for any signs that could give them their next lead.
“They must have kept heading west.” Edward said, trying to sound more confident about that idea than he actually was. It was as likely as any other possibility, but to where they went and how far they travelled, he could not even begin to guess.
“Should we head back down to Merehill?” Maxwell asked them both. “And what happened to Peter?” Edward sat upright suddenly, they had completely forgotten about Peter. He remembered him saying that he was going out to tend to the horses, but after that, nothing.
“He must be back in Merehill somewhere.” Edward said after a moment’s thought. “Whatever we decide to do next we need to return to Merehill to collect our supplies anyway.”
“And it would not hurt to pick up some extras while we are there too.” Lysa added. The three of them got to their feet and Edward led the way as they made the walk east back to Merehill, weaving around the trees as they went. The wind continued to come and go as the sun continued to fall from its perch in the sky. After a few minutes of walking the shape of Merehill came into their view once again. Edward was surprised how far they had travelled underground through that passage. When he shared this thought with the others Maxwell said “Fooled me too. Mind games that is.”

Edward’s thoughts started to turn to Peter and what might have happened to him. He should have been able to catch up with them in Lord and Lady Manson’s house without a problem. Even following the passage, the path they had followed was left clear and easy for all to see. His attention was brought back to his own situation when they were finally nearing the walls of Merehill once more. Edward started to run, and heard Lysa and Maxwell do the same. He had had enough of the suspense today and just wanted nothing more than a quick conclusion to Peter’s whereabouts. Before he knew it he was making his way back through the gate and into the settlement. Hang on! We bolted this gate shut earlier, no one has been out here since. The thought made him stop dead in his tracks. When Lysa came running through the gate she very nearly collided with Edward, who was frozen to the spot in the middle of the pathway.
“What’s wrong?” She asked as she walked around to face him.
“The gate. We bolted it closed before we went into the Lord and Lady’s house. It’s open now.”
“Yes, I remember it getting locked too.” Maxwell added as he too made his way through the gate.
“Peter must have been the one to open it. No one else was in here and it would have been impossible for anyone to climb over the wall without leaving a trace.” Edward replied. He was looking around now. This whole thing had made him start to feel very uneasy.
“He had no reason to leave.” Lysa said as she joined Edward in looking around between the buildings either side of them.
“We should head back to the Lord and Lady’s house. I’m not sure what exactly Peter has done, but we need to get our supplies and horses and get out of here.” Maxwell said as he started to walk up the road towards Lord Manson’s house. Edward and Lysa followed cautiously behind, checking the alleyways as they went. The light from the sun was fading fast now, which made this checking more difficult, but Edward was not going to be taken by surprise by anyone, whether they were friend of foe. The fading evening sunlight cast long, haunting shadows up the walls of the buildings to their right as they made their way up the road to the Manson house. The sun was also retiring its heating duties now and the bite of that cold late autumn wind had returned to make a start on its goals of freezing Edward’s hands again.

About half way to the Manson house Lysa stopped dead in the middle of the road. She was walking behind Edward and Maxwell so it took them a few moments to realise that her footsteps had left the group’s rhythm. Edward turned around and saw that she was staring intently at one of the buildings to her left. “What’s wrong Lysa?” He called back to her. No response. He walked back over to her and put his eyes onto the building she was staring at. He saw why she had stopped almost immediately after. It was The Jolly Blacksmith, in this fading light and with the pressing issue of Peter’s location Edward had walked straight past it without even giving it a though. Lysa had looked though and what she saw, Edward knew now, was that the door was slightly ajar. It was hardly noticeable unless you were looking purposly for something out of place, so Edward was able to forgive himself for missing it. In some ways he wished Lysa had missd it too because he found himself feeling more scared than ever. What had Peter been doing this afternoon? Maxwell had also walked back to join them now, and was sharing their puzzled looks now that he had also found what had grabbed Lysa’s attention so successfully.
“Should… should we go in?” Edward managed to whisper nervously after a few minutes. Lysa did not say anything directly in response to that question, but she did start to walk slowly towards the door and place her shaking hand upon the handle. In that moment and after everything they had been through today Edward realised that Lysa was braver than he was. The door opened with a small haunting creek as Lysa pushed the handle into the building. In the door’s place a dark void into an unlit and abandoned business opened its mouth. Lysa slowly and quietly walked into the darkness, closely followed by a nervous Edward and Maxwell.

In the minutes that immediately followed Edward’s entry into The Jolly Blacksmith his eyes would have liked to fool him into thinking he really had just entered a black void of emptyness. In that time he was unable to see anything, although he could hear either Lysa or Maxwell walking around in front of him. The sun had given up with shining sunlight onto the inn’s entrance for the day, so until Maxwell finally found a torch hinged to the wall and lit it they had no source of light in the room. The initial flame that bounced around happily on the top of the torch hurt Edward’s eyes to begin with; his eyes had just started to grow accustomed to the darkness and now fire light bounced off the walls of the inn giving it a welcoming glow which contrasted greatly with the imposing atmosphere of a few minutes ago. The scene that had been waiting patiently for a source of light to allow itself to be seen by Edward, Lysa and Maxwell was an unexpected one. Looking around Edward saw that there were still pitchers half full with various wines and beers. There was a cake standing on a table in the far right corner, and a few silver coins sat unloved on a table in the centre of the room. The whole scene gave the impression that everyone had either simply vanished or they had planned calmly but suddenly to leave and had done so purposely leaving their belongings behind.
“It looks like they planned to come back at some point.” Maxwell said, clearly thinking along the same lines as Edward had just been.
“But when?” Lysa replied. “If they had just left to avoid that army’s unwelcome visit I would think they would be keeping a look out for an opportunity to return, but we have been here all day and not a soul has come within visable distance of the walls.” It’s certainly a puzzle Edward thought to himself. There was no reason he could think of as to why Merehill had not been able to return to its normal happy day to day buzzing. On the bright side they had found out how the residents of Merehill had managed to escape undetected. Tomorrow morning they could get a fresh start and head west again to see if they can find any more help in finding their friends and family.
“We should keep heading up to the Manson house.” Edward said after a few more minutes, now confident that there was nothing of note to be found in The Jolly Blacksmith.
“Yes, Peter should be our priority.” Lysa replied, now heading for the door. Edward took one last look around the room, thinking of all the good times that he and Lysa had enjoyed together in here. They now seemed years ago, even the ones that were only weeks ago in reality. He walked towards the door and Maxwell joined him, picking up the torch as he went; a good idea, Edward thought, it was getting reasonably dark outside now.

Just as it took Edward’s eyes some time to adjust when Maxwell lit the torch inside The Jolly Blacksmith, now it was the same. The sun had left them to another cold night now and the wind that Edward had grown to hate so much over the last few weeks had got an early start to making him miserable with cold again. The streets were still as dark as ever, but when Maxwell got closer to buildings they saw their shadows flickering wildly up the walls as the blocked the torch’s light from hitting them. It make for a rather creepy scene Edward thought, and without knowing what Peter had been getting up to, or where he had gone, each shadow cast Edward’s thoughts into doubt about whether it was really always just his, Lysa’s and Maxwell’s shadows they say dancing against the torch’s light. As they rounded the final corner in the road leading up to the Manson house, they saw it standing there as before, only now it was silhouetted slightly against the dark red evening sky. Looking down from the house to the boundary wall Edward saw that the torches by the gate had been lit. He knew they had not done that when they went into the house earlier, so Edward assumed that Peter must have done it. Where are you hiding exactly? Edward thought as the now illuminated gate came closer and closer. The wall that surrounded the Manson house was the only one to be made of stone in Merehill; most others were just wooden fences, and the palisade wall had stood proud for many years. The hill that it was stood on gave the Lord and Lady a good view of the settlement and, just as importantly, what lay beyond the palisade wall for some miles. It also allowed everyone to look up at their home and see if anything was happening. Edward saw that the house looked more empty now than it had done earlier. In happier times lights would be seen to be flickering merrily in the windows now, but they were as dark and empty as an abandoned cave lost in the wilderness. Maxwell was first to the gate, and as such placed his hand on the latch and opened the gate with the same eerie squeak as they heard earlier. The effect was multiplied now by the darkness of night that surrounded them. As he opened the gate Maxwell called out for better or worse. “Peter?!” He shouted louder than Edward thought was wise but they needed to find him so he did not object. Even though Maxwell’s voice echoed around what seemed like the whole settlement, it was met with as much response as one would expect if he had whispered it into the ground. Not to be deterred he tried again. “Peter, it’s okay, it’s Maxwell. You are safe.” Again, this was met with nothing but silence from the settlement. Maxwell started to walk through the gate, followed by Edward, who had started to wish that they were not here anymore, and Lysa following at the rear. They walked quietly at cautiously up the sloped of the hill to the Manson house with nothing but the sound of their feet slicing through the taller than usual grass for company. There was still no sign of Peter, and the whole situation was starting to make Edward think he was not even here anymore. He suppressed these thoughts though and decided not to share them with the others as they made it to the front door, still closed as Peter had left it when he came out to tend to the horses. Wait… the horses!? Edward could not believe they had not noticed sooner. Their horses were no longer up against the wall inside the Manson’s garden. They had been taken, and worse still so had their supplies. Lysa and Maxwell seemed to be too preoccupied with making the journey up to the Manson’s front door to notice, so he called them back.
“Maxwell, Lysa, our supplies have been stolen.” Edward said, and he knew right away that he had been unsuccessful in keeping his own panic from entering his voice when he saw how quickly Lysa span around with her look of horror being illuminated by Maxwell’s torch.
“It can’t be! They must be here still somewhere” She replied.Maxwell held the torch up as high as he could hoping to send the dancing light into the darker recesses of the Manson garden, with the hope that they had either just gotten bored of staying in one spot for so long or Peter had moved them, for whatever reason, when he had come out of the house to tend to them that afternoon. In that moment of realisation looking for Peter had come to mean almost nothing to Edward. Without their supplies none of them would survive for long if they had to leave Merehill in a hurry. And if that need did arise they had lost their only form of transport, a journey on horse ends much faster than a journey by foot, which normally ends with you lying on the side of the road, exhausted. Edward left Lysa and Maxwell to look around the perimeter of the Manson house. He was determined to check every square inch of that land, and in his sheer determination he had, rather foolishly maybe, left behind Maxwell, who had possession of their only source of light and heat now that the sun had fell below the horizon completely. The cold blasts of wind that Edward hated so much could now have their way with him. He pulled his hands up into his cloak’s sleeves in an attempt to reduce the effect the wind was having on numbing his fingers so successfully. He vaguely recalled Lysa or Maxwell calling out to him as he ran to their left in to the darkness, but he could not say with any level of certainty which of the two had made the call, his only thoughts were with his desperation to find out that their supplies, horses and transport were still in their possession. Nothing else mattered; it all just background noise. They are still okay, just not where we are looking Edward continued to tell himself. His eyes were well adjusted to the darkness that surrounded him now, which made it possible to see a slight detail in the wall that marked the boundary of the Manson home, and the building itself. The muffled sound of the crash giving way under his boots occasionally entered his hearing as it battled with the panic for his attention. It was not a battle it was winning, by any means, but it did not stop it from trying.

The thoughts of what had happened here while he, Maxwell and Lysa were underground in that passage were now swimming around in his mind, each one was slightly more unexplainable that the last. His first thought was that Peter had been captured and taken against his will by some unknown force. The reasons why this could be disproved hit him a few moments later, just as quickly as the initial idea had seized his attention. They had barred the gate, meaning that any unwelcome visitors would have to mount a siege, no matter how small, to gain access. This would have made a lot of noise which, surely, they would have heard. There would have also been enough time for Peter to react and raise the alarm with them. There was no reason why he would have just sat out here waiting for an inevitable capture. The final reason that jumped out at him to try and disprove this theory was that they had two horses and two caravans. Any intelligent invaders would guess that there was at least a good possibility of there being other individuals here with Peter. He could not see why anyone would just take him and the supplies without checking the Manson house. Captives, after all, were often much more valuable than any silver, food or jewels.

The second idea that jumped out at him was that Peter had left of his own will. This theory seemed as difficult to believe as it was for Edward to even want to think about. Peter, Maxwell, Lysa and Edward had all been working together as a trade envoy for almost two years now. He had been friends with him for at least a year before that, so why would he want to abandon their partnerships and friendships in favour of a journey into the unknown alone? Edward had felt like he was riding on a nice big target circle when there was the four of them travelling back from Tymaria laden with ceremonial supplies. He could not imagine how daunting that prospect would be to carry out on your own. This theory also seemed unlikely because Edward and Maxwell had the only two things from the group’s possessions that could pass as a feasible weapon – the two short swords that they had taken from the armoury before making the journey to Tymaria. He could not see how he would be able to acquire weapons from any other sources In Merehill. All swords and longbows were kept in the guards’ barracks and only Lord Manson himself and the head guard – Maxwell’s boss from when he was a guard – had a key to the storeroom, and they were nowhere to be seen. He also did not think that Peter, or anyone, would want to chance a night alone in the wilderness, especially if he was headed west, as they had planned to do a few hours earlier. All these reasons came together to make this theory seem highly unlikely, but as Edward continued to make his way around the Manson garden, growing steadily more desperate with panic, he no longer knew what made sense to believe in this situation. Eventually he saw the sight that he had hoped would never come. He rounded another corner of the Manson house and saw Lysa and Maxwell standing there under an umbrella of light from the torch. This sight made his heart plummet with disappointment, he had checked the entire garden and there had been no sign of the horses or caravans… or even Peter.

Maxwell and Lysa must have seen him coming because they started walking his way. They must have predicted by the way Edward was just running towards them that he had been unsuccessful in his search, but this prediction would have been proven when they came together and the light from Maxwell’s torch flickered upon Edward’s face to show a look of dejection. When Lysa and Maxwell drew the same conclusions for what repercussions this had a few moments later their faces soon mirrored the same look of hopelessness they must have seen on Edward’s.
“Peter has a lot of explaining to do.” Lysa said, her fear slowly being replaced with anger.
“Seems like he has taken the lot and ran.” Maxwell added. “We should check in the Manson house; if he is still in there or anywhere in Merehill and I find him he is going to regret that meeting taking place.” Edward could see that the thought of Peter betraying their friendships and trust had also nestled in the minds of Lysa and Maxwell. Edward turned and looked down towards the gate to the Manson’s garden. Why? He thought to himself, what possible reason could Peter have to do this? Maxwell and Lysa started walking towards the front door of the Manson house once again, this time with a fresh determination to hunt down Peter and find out what exactly he thinks he is doing. He slowly started making his way up to the door himself a few metres behind them.

The wind was biting harder than Edward had felt for weeks when Maxwell closed the front door behind them. Edward held his hands under his armpits in an attempt to warm them up as Maxwell went round the entrance hall lighting the torches mounted on the wall with his own. The room began to glow with welcoming warmth that could have made you forget all your worries in the world. It almost did manage this, but the anger and frustration that Edward felt after Peter’s disappearance was just too overwhelming for the dancing flames to overcome.
“We will all check together.” Edward said in a matter of fact tone that did not welcome any disagreements. “We do not want Peter to take us by surprise if we are separated, although it is very likely that he is not even with us here any longer given the disappearance of our horses, transport and supplies.”
“Let’s start with the bedroom again.” Lysa suggested.
“There can’t be many places he can be hiding if he is here, anyway. Most of the doors upstairs are locked.”
“Good. We can be out of here quicker if that is the case.” Maxwell replied. “He may have taken our horses and supplies, but we still need to get out of here. There is a village, maybe two hours north of us – Rymore Creek. The Manson’s have always been on good terms with the people there; they can loan us some horses to make our way west and bring this whole miserable situation to a close.”
“Two hours walking at night?” Edward said. “There is as much chance that we stumble in to bandits and not live to see the morning if we head out now.”
“We cannot stay either. If news has found its way to the wrong people that Merehill sits here almost deserted, how long do you think it will be until every opportunist leech is outside the walls trying to stake their claim?”
“Those bridges will come in time. For now we should focus on why we are still here in Merehill.” Lysa said, seemingly hoping to bring the conversation back to a less argumentative level.
“Yes, the hunt for Peter.” Maxwell said as he started to smile. They all started to make their way up the stairs, Lysa leading with Maxwell and Edward following behind. The flames on the wall behind them made their shadows flicker creepily against the stairs as they made their way up to the top.

Nothing looked out of place as they reached the first floor landing. It all seemed to be the same as Edward and Lysa had left it as they ran down the stairs to the calls of Maxwell and Peter that afternoon. Even the door to the bedroom was still sitting partially open from when they had flung it open haphazardly to respond to the calls from downstairs. Through the door Edward could see nothing. Edward was still so thankful that Maxwell had brought a torch. Looking down at his other hand he noticed that he still had those three books they had brought out from the passage under his arm. He wished they still had the horses and were traveling west now to find out the meaning of those books, because as much as he enjoyed being back in his hometown in its current state this was not home. Home was Merehill shops and businesses filled with residents buying their daily produce and having a good time chatting in the streets. The sooner they headed west, the quicker this Merehill could come back. Maxwell led the way as they walked in to the bedroom, the shadows reclaiming the hallway as the torch’s light left the room. As Maxwell moved to the centre of the room Edward could see that the same story about nothing changing was true in here too; he could even see the ruffles in the quilt that he and Lysa had caused by sitting on the end of the bed. “Was there anything you saw in this room that would help explain what happened?” Maxwell said as he gazed out of the window on to the wind torn settlement below.
“It looked like a few books had been taken, but everything else made it look like they all just vanished.” Lysa replied, looking back at the door to the landing. Edward had heard it too; a faint scraping sound, barely audible over Lysa’s reply, seemed to enter the bedroom. Maxwell joined them in their curiosity, although he may not have heard it he still placed the books he had been carrying down on the bed and put his hand gently on the hilt of his sword. Out on the landing they could see nothing but the faint glow of the torches flickering downstairs, but Edward was sure that he could not have imagined that sound. If he had imagined it, how did Lysa hear it too? He also made sure that he was ready to draw his sword from its sheath if he needed. Slowly, Maxwell crept towards the door, making sure he made as little noise as possible. He had now pulled out his sword and held it at his waist. Again, they heard another creak. This one was more distinct than the last one, and now Edward had also unsheathed his sword, ready to strike at a moment’s notice. He was aware that this was a relatively old house compared to most of the others in the settlement, so it was likely to have a voice of its own, but in the current situation it was wise to take no chances. Feet cause cause creaking as much as aged timber. Edward thought as Maxwell reached the threshold to the landing.
“Close the door.” Lysa whispered at quietly as she could in Maxwell’s direction. He turned to look at her, the light from his torch still slightly illuminating her and Edward. He placed his hand on the door and pushed it closed as quietly as he could. The door did not seem to want to cooperate though because it let out a high pitched squeak just before it closed with a faint thud.

The three of them stood there motionless and silent for a few moments, straining their hearing for any signs of noise from beyond the door. A sound satisfied this much quicker than they thought… or hoped it would. A third, unmistakable noise, this time it was a thud that came so suddenly that Edward felt himself jump. “Maxwell!” A voice called from the other side of the door. Edward’s heart started racing as Lysa started stepping back from the door. Someone was in the house with them and they had no safe way to escape from this room. The only alternative to the door was the window, but they would not walk away from that fall if they were to escape that way. A knock came at the door, followed by another call. “Lysa, Edward, Maxwell, it’s okay.” Maxwell was stood a few feet away from the door and looked ready to strike if the door opened. Lysa stood beside Edward who also had his sword ready to defend himself. “I know you are all in there.” came another call through the door. Next came a click as the latch was lifted from the door, and the door was creaking open, a beam of light entering the room as more of the hallway came in to view. Edward felt the sweat on his palms as the door opened wide enough to reveal Peter stood in the centre of the doorway, holding his own torch. Edward could see a smile on Peter’s face. He did not know why, but that sight send a chill straight down his spine. “You didn’t forget me after all, I see.” Peter said more quietly than Edward had expected. “You should have just gone west after you came out that hole… Why, you ask? Well, let me just say, you are about to find out.”

Chapter 8 – Theories and truths

“Where are our horses?!” Maxwell asked, and Edward picked up a notable hostility in his voice.
“You three left them in little more than a fancy enclosed field.” Peter replied cooly. “They are safe, I’ll tell you that. If I had not moved them, they may well have been dead now.”
“We left them in this garden. What do you mean, dead?” Edward said.
“You really don’t know? You all left your only means of transport in a town that has no defence, no inhabitants, and expected them to be perfectly safe? More people than you think know that this town is deserted… well, almost deserted, but we are here to try and address that matter now.”
“We’re not helping you with anything after this disappearing stunt you have pulled.” Lysa yelled at Peter, who seemed unfazed by this outburst.
“I don’t need, nor ask for your help. I just need you to cooperate quietly and things will be simple.” Peter said with the same calmness as before.
“What is simple about any of this besides you lied to us earlier?” Maxwell asked.
“You’re right that is a likely conclusion to jump to. Please add the fact that you are outnumbered five to one to that list.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Edward said, trying to hide his fear.
“It means that you have little choice but to do what I want. The people that I am with have little patience; I want you to live through this ordeal, because as much as it doesn’t seem like it, I do still respect our friendship.”
“Found them yet Peter?” came another voice that Edward had never heard before from downstairs. Peter turned his head to the left to look in the direction the voice came from.
“They were in the good Lord and Lady’s bedroom playing a rousing game of hide and seek.” he called down to the voice. He turned to look back at Lysa, Maxwell and Edward. “I guess now is as suitable a time as any to introduce you to my business partner, Rowan. He is going to make sure everything turns out the way we want it to.” Edward could hear his footsteps as he seemed to stomp up the stairs. He had been so used to creeping around all the time they had been in this house that he had actually forgotten what it sounded like to walk up the stairs normally. Edward counted the footsteps as Rowan climbed them one by one. Twelve. Thirteen. Fourteen. Seconds later he appeared by Peter’s side. Edward could not make out the finer details of his appearance, but he could see that Rowan was at least half a foot taller than Peter. He also had a much more muscular build than Peter, more similar to Maxwell than any of the others. As he walked in to the room closely followed by Peter and started to light the torches on either side of the room Edward could see him in greater detail. He had short hair which barely touched his ears, and it was as dark as the night sky that greeted a glance out of the window. He was wearing a grey tunic and had black trousers on and his black riding boots were the reason for his loud footsteps. He is not prepared for a battle, Edward thought as he continued to look at him. That gave him at least a little hope. As Peter and Rowan had made themselves welcome in the room Edward, Lysa and Maxwell had been slowly retreating back closer to the wall at the opposite end of the room. They stood there motionless, Maxwell and Edward still with their swords in hand, ready to defend themselves and Lysa should things get sour.
“It really pains me that you did not figure it out.” Rowan said, finally breaking the dreadful silence that had greeted his arrival. “Should we tell them Peter?”
“I don’t see why not. And you might be wrong, they might have figured out what those books were trying to tell them. Earlier they told me they just came back here to get the horses and then nothing would stop them riding west.”
“West you say? Well, I guess I owe you all an apology. I was telling Peter that I didn’t even thing you would crack that bit of the puzzle.” Rowan looked at the bed and saw the three books laying there on the quilt. “Tell me, did you work out the rest of the clues?” No one said anything. “Well, if that is the case, then I will try and make you feel somewhat better about this whole thing. If you did take the advice Peter gave you a few minutes ago and went west on this knowledge, hoping that the answers to all your questions would jump out from behind a tree or something else equally amusing, you would be mistaken. If you did that the only thing you would find is disappointment, confusion… and the ocean I guess.” He couldn’t seem to help himself from chuckling at that last remark. He reached down and took the three books. “Now, you have found the underlined letters in the book, so showing you that is a waste. My favourite bit, it has to be said is this.” He placed the three books back down on the bed, side by side this time instead of in a pile as they had been before. “You remember the titles I trust? The Treasures of the Grey Men, Undiscovered West and Mouse Problems Underfoot. If they were actually books you could buy from your favourite shop I am sure these titles would see them flying from the shelves. Here and now though the titles have a different meaning. You see, if you take the first word from one title, the second from another and the third from the next you get a few neat little combinations. My favourite, as I am sure you will see why, is Undiscovered Treasures Underfoot. Doesn’t that sound simply fascinating? Me and Peter, that is as far as we have gotten, but that is also why I could have told you with one hundred percent certainty that any journey west that you had embarked on would have been a waste of time.”
“That’s why I took the horses. They were not risking their lives in vein for your foolhardy assumptions.” Peter added after Rowan had finished. Edward thought about what he had heard. It seemed so obvious now that those books were picked for a reason. Why did he not question the fact that he had never seen those books anywhere before. He wished so desperately that he could turn back the clock to early that afternoon. They could go down those underground passages, find the books and solve both of those parts to the puzzle. They would then head straight to Rymore Creek to gather help and extra resources before heading west. They would have never needed to return to Merehill tonight, and they wouldn’t be standing here with two people who’s loyalties were very questionable. What lay ahead for them now? If Peter was telling the truth and they were outnumbered five to one there was no hope of escaping against the will of Peter. The tide had turned and now it was Peter who had all the power at his fingertips.
“Well they seem incredibly quiet now.” Peter said after about half a minute of silence from all parties. “I do hope you are ready, because we are all going on a little trip.”
“We are not going anywhere with you.” Maxwell blurted out. Edward really wished he had just stayed quiet. They were hardly in a situation that would make arguing beneficial.
“Oh, but it’s all planned out, and without you three by our side it won’t be nearly as much fun.” Peter replied cooly once again, and Edward found it hard to tell whether that sentence was full of sarcasm or not. “Maybe you misheard me earlier Maxwell but I told you that I have the better of your numbers five times over. Seems unwise to fight against those odds, wouldn’t you agree. And besides, I am only prepared to offer two choices going forward from here. You can either come with us on our little trip and we can catch up with each other and have a good time, or you will find yourself never leaving Merehill again, owing to some most unfortunate circumstances. I wouldn’t want that myself; we are friends after all, and would I be correct in thinking that scenario wouldn’t be much fun for you either? Now put your swords down and if we set off before long we may even get there before sunrise.” It made Edward feel a little sick in doing so, but in the silence that followed Edward and Maxwell laid down their swords; Edward placing his own on the floor, but Maxwell could have been mistaken for throwing his down. Moments later four more people entered the room. These were ready for a fight, clad in shining armour from head to foot. They formed a circle around Edward, Lysa and Maxwell and served to reinforce how pointless fighting was. Edward was not even sure if their swords would go through steel armour; they were not exactly sharp after all. After the four guards had formed their barrier preventing the escape Peter made a hand gesture signalling them to follow and turned to walk out the room, closely shadowed by Rowan. The one to their left also took this opportunity to lay claim to Maxwell’s torch. Before Edward knew it they were at spear point and being shepherded out of the room after Peter.

When they got out to the landing Edward could see that Rowan and Peter had made it down the stairs and were heading out of the door. The openness of Peter and Rowan in that conversation in the bedroom made Edward worry for their safety – why would they spill the secrets behind those books’ names if they wanted to find out where the clues led before anyone else. He did not want to think about where Peter was planning on taking them. That was the only part of their plan that he seemed keen to keep secret. Down the stairs they were marched, the slightest act of dissent likely as not to land a spear head in your back, so Edward, Lysa and Maxwell kept themselves tightly packed in between the guards. As they made their way out the front door it was difficult to make anything out in the darkness. The cloud overhead now blocked any moonlight that might have hoped to act as a beacon, and Edward’s eyes had become adjusted to the lights they had set in the house. They continued down the slope towards the front gate of the Manson garden before the guard in front of them stopped so suddenly that Edward nearly walked right into him. Edward’s eyes were now slowly beginning to adjust and when he looked around he could see the faint glint of metal armour in the distance all around them. Peter certainly was not kidding when he said they were outnumbered, further reinforcing his strange feeling of gratitude that they found themselves being taken prisoner as opposed to fighting and dying pointlessly. A horse and carriage came through the gate and stopped a few metres in front of them all. “Get on.” the guard behind them said after the carriage had stopped, hitting his spear against the paved road which took you from the front gate up to the doors to the house. It was not like Edward, Lysa and Maxwell had any real say in the matter because as soon as the command to get on was given they found themselves being marched at spear tip again. As the walked around the side of the carriage Edward noticed that it was less a normal carriage and more of a prison. It was little more than a wooden base with a metal cage and wheels. The guard at the front opened the door, which gave out a high pitched squeak in objection, and they were shepherded in through the door with less regard than one would give to rounding sheep in to a pen. After they had been forced in one of the guards slammed the door shut and chained it locked. That was it; they were trapped and at the mercy of Peter and his new found companions. Edward found himself thinking of the dream he had that night in the forest. It all made sense now, he thought. Cats always take the option that is best for them with no regard for anyone else. The fresh cream always beats the loyalty to friends. Peter was the cat that night, and now he knew why. An army, a feeling of power. That was Peter’s cream.

Chapter 9 – On the road

The cage did not leave Edward, Lysa or Maxwell much room to move around. They each picked a corner and sat down trying to keep themselves warm as best as they could. Edward was grateful that they all still had their black cloaks on from that morning. He looked back on the day and could not believe that so much had happened since Merehill had come in to sight that morning. It seemed like Peter had abandoned their friendship, even though he said otherwise. Edward could not see the logic there; he had held them at spear point and now they found themselves locked in a cage by his hand. He has clearly developed a bewildering idea of what friendship is today. Edward did not believe someone could change so much over the course of the day. Peter had always been the quietest one of the four of them, but here he was with his new partner Rowan calling the shots and seemingly knowing so much more than any of they did about the goings on over the last few days. Now they were securely locked away the guards had wandered off to attend to other tasks. This gave Maxwell an opportunity to express his disgust. “They are all going to pay for this.” he muttered to Edward and Lysa as he sat there looking left and right at the guards walking about.
“I never thought Peter would do anything like this. Why would he? We have always gotten along well.” Lysa added to the discussion. Just as she finished saying this Peter emerged from the darkness in to the torch light around them. They all stared at him quietly as he came up against the bars of the cage.
“Apologies for the unsuitable accommodation, but we need to make sure that you won’t run off… or cause trouble. Just remember if it gets hard to bear what is happening, we are all in pursuit of the same thing.”
“What happened to our friendship?” Edward heard himself ask.
“Nothing. We are still friends… at least I like to think so. If you would like an explanation for all this I suggest you look at the situation we were in for a moment. Did we have any hope of making progress? Just four of us fighting against the entire region, if it came to that, to find what we are looking for. We had two weapons and a pair of caravans filled with fancy finger treats. One wrong move and an ambush would have meant the end of us. I’m actually surprised we made it back to Merehill at all this morning. This doubt was the reason I sent word to my partner Rowan to enlist his help in this journey. He has weapons and soldiers trained in battle to wield them. He paused to look at Maxwell. “And with due respect to your experience, but being in the heat of battle not knowing where the next swing of a sword or axe is coming from cannot be replicated in the melee yards.”
“I wouldn’t jump to any conclusions there, Peter.”Maxwell interrupted. “Maybe we should compare your battle experience with mine right now. Maybe you will have a little more respect for my time in the Merehill guard.”
“Please, don’t get the wrong side of what I am trying to say. If I did not respect your time in the Merehill guard I would give you the opportunity to prove its value against one of Rowan’s battle hardened soldiers. That will not happen yet though, I still regard you as a friend remember, and friends don’t do that to each other. I hope you can remember that.” Maxwell just grunted at this. “We are about to start our journey now, so I would recommend you all be grateful for being truly safe for the first time since we started that trade mission to Tymaria. There will not be a more perfect time to catch up with your sleep; you all look awfully exhausted. I promise to wake you when we get to our destination.”
“Where is that exactly.” Lysa interrupted, an air of impatience clearly noticeable in her voice.
“I’m sorry, but if I was to tell you it would ruin the surprise, and Rowan wants to see your reactions first hand. He does seem easily amused that one, but I can’t complain, he has the power and resources to make our mission possible.” Peter stopped talking and looked from Lysa’s face to Maxwell’s, then on to Edward’s, his emotions about what he had done this evening buried deep in the undisclosing look on his face. “I must leave you once again now. We will be moving off momentarily. Please take my advice and get some sleep, you will need all the energy you can get when we get to our destination.” He reached in to the cell and placed a large black blanket on the floor between them. With that he turned around and walked back in to the darkness beyond the torches’ reach. Edward turned his head and looked at the others; Maxwell was sat in the far corner his arms around his legs, and Lysa was sitting on her knees looking out to where Peter had disappeared in to the darkness. He joined them and sat down himself against the metal bars facing Lysa. He really wished he could say something comforting to start a conversation which would make them all feel better, but his vocabulary had abandoned him. They all sat there in silence listening to the rustling of the grass underneath the guards’ feet as they went about their businesses preparing to leave Merehill. Even though the bite of the cold wind was still making the desire to keep going difficult to keep for Edward he felt his eyes begin to get heavier from exhaustion. He couldn’t say what happened after this thought because he was claimed by sleep.

He was awoken by a sudden thud. He opened his eyes to be greeted by sunlight shining over the top of hills. After a moment he fully realised that they were no longer in Merehill, in fact, he had no idea where they were. To his left he could see pine trees, and to his right off in the distance… is that the ocean. He sat upright, looking around wildly now he could not believe it took him as long as it did to notice the snow on the ground. He knew the winter snow was coming; the last few nights’ temperatures have proved that. This was bad for any hope of escape. It seemed to have stopped snowing for the time being though and the sky had cleared up quite a bit. Edward could see the light blue of a hopeful morning when he looked up in to the sky. They did not know where they were, where they were even going, and now the weather had acted to slow down any forms of transport all but removing their hopes of an escape at any point. He looked down at Lysa and Maxwell, who were both still asleep under the blanket Peter had given them last night. Next he turned his attention to the driver of the carriage. He was still wearing the armour of the people who had surrounded them last night, and Edward predicted that it would have been one of those four who had escorted them out of the Manson house who was driving the carriage. He could not tell for certain though, all the guards looked very much alike clad in that armour from head to toe. Edward imagined that he was only thinking like this because if it was one of those guards it would possibly mean there were less guards moving with them. Adding a new image to this guard only seemed to leave him, Maxwell and Lysa even more outnumbered. Looking behind them he saw that they were the last carriage in what he imagined was a convoy, although there was not much he could see out the front between the frosted metal bars and the back of the driver’s head. Every so often they would go over a bump in the road which would cause Maxwell and Lysa’s heads to lift a few inches off the wooden base of the cage they were in. On and on they went with no distinct landmarks that Edward had ever seen before that could give him any indication of where they were heading.

It must have been an hour later when Edward had an idea. He doubted very much that it would get him anywhere, but he was stuck in a seven foot square cage so he didn’t see what he had to lose by trying. He stood up slowly making sure that he was able to keep his balance as the carriage rocked left and right over the uneven snow sprinkled road. He knew that holding the metal bars would give him much needed support as the carriage trundled on but he felt his hands had suffered enough recently and did not really fancy wrapping his hands around the ice enclosed bars. He crept forward, looking down in surprise that Lysa and Maxwell still seemed to be fast asleep. Lysa, in particular, must have been completely exhausted because he remembered that afternoon in the forest when he woke her up with little more than a small movement of his leg as he tried to get up without waking her. Now she looked like she was sleeping in her favourite feather bed with absolute silence, not rocking down a road to who knows where inside a small cell. Finally Edward had moved himself forward to the front of the cage. He wanted to get the attention of the driver but did not know how to address him. After a few moments he settled for a “Hey.” The driver turned around, a look of surprise on his face.
“Who do you think you’re hey’ing?” He spat back. He did not care for the driver’s disapproval, he only wanted answers.
“Where are you all taking us?” He asked, trying to sound a little more polite for the sake of making progress.
“Even if I knew, what reason would I want to give that information to you? Look around you and you will see that you’re still trapped inside a cage. Knowing your destination won’t help you there. I was expecting something like “Let us out and I’ll give you more gold than you will ever need.” Peter told me to give you some water if you complain of thirst. Nothing more, nothing less. Telling you where we are going would be more than this job is worth, even if I did know.” He paused for a moment. “So, do you want water, or are you going to be quiet and only talk to me again when you want water?” The drover turned back around and Edward knew it would be pointless to pursue the conversation any further. He slowly walked back over to where he had been sleeping, trying not to lose his balance and sat back down. Peter was nowhere to be seen, and he seemed like the only one who truly knew what was happening here. Until they met again, there was nothing to do but wait. Maxwell and Lysa had not stirred while he had been awake, so he laid back down, pulled the blanket back over his chest and tried to join them back in the realm of sleep.

Edward felt warm, the cold days had left and the sun was shining brightly against his face. He could hear the crash of water to his right but he did not want to open his eyes and ruin the sunbathing. He rolled over on to his right side and realised the ground felt very weird beneath his head. He opened his eyes quickly wondering what was going on and found himself laying near the ocean on an unknown beach. He felt himself jerk up in to a sitting position quickly, and started looking around trying to work out where he was. This was getting rather too common for his liking; first he wakes up on a snow covered trail, and now he is here on a beach with no explanation of how or why he got here. Looking around he saw that he sky was a perfect light blue without a cloud in sight. The beach was golden, it was all just like the stories he had heard during his time working in The Jolly Blacksmith back in Merehill. Beautiful sands, lovely crystal clear ocean and a warmth to make those long nights camping on the road down to Tymaria melt away in to insignificance. He closed his eyes again lazily hoping to make the most of this peace and warmth. Then his peace was broken by an awful crunching sound which made Edward cringe without even knowing of its source. He opened his eyes again and instantly wished he didn’t. The sky had transformed from its comforting blue just a few moments ago to an evil fiery red which seemed to drain the happiness from the landscape. The ocean had adopted a strange green colour and sitting in the ocean no more than a few hundred feet away was a great ship, fires scattered across the deck. Up the sides were great holes in the wood which must have been caused by cannon balls. The ship began to list towards him. It seemed to be sinking much quicker than would be expected. Eventually it lost all of its integrity and fell over on to its side in the water, sending a great wave towards him. This water did share either the clear purity of the water from a few minutes ago or the strange green colour of the water around him now. This was as red as the blood pouring from a fresh battle wound. Suddenly unbearable, blood curdling screams filled the air, and if he did not know better, he would have swore they sounded like Lysa. The scene faded away in that moment as quickly as it had appeared. Darkness surrounded him again.

Chapter 10 – Arrival

“You hoo, sleepy head. I have something I want you to see.” Edward opened his eyes and saw Maxwell, Lysa and Rowan all looking at him. He knew that it was Rowan that had spoken though. “It looked like you were having quite a brilliant time there. Care to share the excitement with us all?” He looked hopeful for a few moments, but Edward remained silent, trying to calm his heart down by taking deep breaths. “That’s a pity.” Rowan continued after a moment. “Anyway, I want you to see the answer to the question that Stavely informs me you have been asking on the way here. Peter has also mentioned you have all been quite eager to find out, so here we are.” He put his hands in the air and gestured around them. “Now for extra points who can tell me where we are now you have seen it with your own eyes?” They all stayed quiet. Edward knew that he had never seen this place before. The snow that he had saw when he had awoken earlier that day had been nothing to what he saw around him now. No grass was visible any more; nothing but the white of snow covered the ground in all directions. They had stopped in front of a large gatehouse, at least fifty feet high, made out of a dark grey stone. Great towers half the height again stood at the corners of the stone wall either side of them. It all made Merehill’s defences look very pitiful… almost unfit for purpose. “Well you three really do disappoint me. Have you never been north of that Merehill of yours? Have you never heard of Fort Moonwatch? That is where we are, the most northern civilisation on this island. Any further north and you would be enjoying a very cold bath indeed. It’s also known as my home, Rowan Moonwatch is my full name, although I would hope you were reaching that conclusion yourself. One day I will own all of this that you see before you. In addition to this the treasure of the Grey Men will also find its way in to these castle walls. From there… well I will keep that to myself for now, but maybe you can imagine what lies in store for everyone else then.” He walked off towards the gatehouse not given them a chance to ask him any questions of their own. That is the problem Peter will have to face alone then Edward thought as he watched Rowan disappear under the portcullis in to the castle. “What possible reason did they have to bring us here.” Lysa asked, trying to start a conversation.
“My guess is we are going in the dungeons.” Maxwell replied, the fire of his soul seemingly extinguished at some point on the journey here.
“I don’t think we will be.” Edward said. “If they just wanted rid of us why would they have wasted their energy and space bringing us here, when they could have just finished back in Merehill.” Maxwell and Lysa sat quietly for a moment while they thought it over. Edward was confident he was right. Peter had been very difficult to predict over the last day but he knew that Rowan would not have wanted to bring them here for nothing more than a stay in the dungeons. He was just glad it was still daytime and they had a good view of what was going on around them.
“There must be more clues they have not found or solved yet.” Lysa said suddenly, and it took Edward a moment to work out what she meant. “If they knew everything that is required, Rowan certainly looks eager to get his hands on whatever it is they are after, so there is no reason why he would want to waste time coming here.”
“You are pretty close there Lysa. I always knew you would be a valuable asset on this journey.” Peter said as he walked up to the side of their cage. “The problem is not that we have not got all the clues. The issue lies with the location of the Grey Men’s treasure.”
“But it’s west of Merehill, isn’t it?” Edward asked.
“Indeed. Although that is true I bet you would not want to be digging holes every few feet across the entire region that happened to lie west of Merehill would you? I do imagine it would get boring quite quickly.”
“Why are we here anyway?” Maxwell said with a notable irritation.
“You three are going on a little trip. I told you it would be exciting and surprising didn’t I? We need you to go with Stavely and myself to find the final resting place of the last Grey Men.”
“Final? How can you be sure.” Edward asked.
“Well, have you seen any Grey Men on your travels the last few years? I know you certainly have not seen anything of the sort while I have been working with you. There true history will make a nice time killer while we travel though so I won’t share it with you right now. Oh, and don’t worry, the accommodation for the next leg of our journey will be a fair bit nicer than this. I’m going to let you out now, but do promise not to try and kill me. Remember, you are under the shadow of the greatest force in the north of the region. Best to play nice; Rowan has given you free wander of the city while you are here. Best not to waste such a kind offer.” Peter reached in to his pocket and pulled out a small key. With a quite turn the chains holding the door to their cell fell loose and the door opened. Even though Peter was in no danger owing to at least seven guards in clear view he still stepped back from the door as Maxwell led Lysa and Edward out of the cage. “Now, play nice, do not try and escape and meet me at the docks tomorrow morning. Rowan has booked a room at the Snowy Horse for you all. I’m sure you will find the residents most happy to help you if you can not find it.” With that he jumped on to a horse that had been brought to his side by one of the guards and galloped down the road away from the castle. Edward turned around, his legs aching as blood made its way back in to them. He looked up at the imposing castle; it looked anything but inviting, but apparently they were free to stay there. He, Lysa and Maxwell started walking towards the great gatehouse that loomed larger than any he had ever seen before. What does Peter have in store for us tomorrow Edward thought to himself as they made their way in to the castle.

Chapter 11 – Unexpected hospitality

The snow crunched underfoot as Edward, Lysa and Maxwell made their way towards the gatehouse. Strangely, it was not as cold as the last few afternoons had been even though there was snow covering the ground up here. Edward had no idea how far north they had traveled, it was all an unknown land to him as all of his journeys had been either east or south with Tymaria being the most common destination. Merehill could have been many miles south from here, but his thoughts were still there and were still with the settlement’s residents. If only he had found out where they had gone his mind would be able to rest a little easier. Peter seemed to have assumed that they had also been bitten by the treasure hunting bug when they found those books in those underground rooms, but a journey west would not have been to find some lost treasure for Edward. His goal remained, as it always was, to find his friends and family. Now he could only hope that wherever they were they had found a safe refuge. Peter did not seem likely to be letting them go any time soon, so this comfort had to make do.

As they made their way through the gatehouse the two guards that were manning the entrance moved aside. They both looked the same in their identical armour, and Edward was grateful that they were able to walk past them without any interaction. He did not feel like talking to anyone at this time. He assumed that Lysa and Maxwell felt the same considering they had been just as quiet as he had been since their release. Edward could not quite believe the width of the walls this castle had surrounding it. All but the most dedicated and well prepared sieges would be laughed away. On the other side of the gatehouse Edward’s breath was taken away. He was met face to face by a great, sprawling city stretching out in every direction. Buildings big and small with roads wide enough for two caravans to fit comfortably side by side giving Edward, Lysa and Maxwell more choices than Edward had hoped there would be. It suddenly hit him why Peter had seemed amused by his own comment about asking if they got lost. To their right they saw a road that seemed to head fairly straight along the inside of the wall, so Edward was drawn to following that one simply because they could keep track of where they were. “Let’s go this way.” He gestured to Lysa and Maxwell. Lysa nodded.
“It can’t be any worse than the other possibilities I guess. What was the name of that inn he told us to stay at again.”
“The Snowy Horse, something like that.” Maxwell answered. Before they headed there, Edward had an urge to go down to the docks to see if he could find any clues to what Peter had in store for them tomorrow morning. He was resigned to the fact that they would only be able to do that if they found them on the way to the inn. He did not really like the idea of raising suspicion by asking someone where the docks were. He had to remember, he was in a foreign place and it was unclear what even the people he thought he knew were planning, so he didn’t really want to start taking chances with the guards or residents. Edward thought about the dream he had while they were traveling up here. The last one he had in the forest had held some truth relating Peter to a cat, the cat and the cream as it were. Now Peter had told them that he wanted the three of them at the docks tomorrow morning. It was clear that they were going to be sailing somewhere. The thought of this mixed with the dream he had experienced earlier did nothing to fill him with confidence. Whatever it was that Peter had planned for tomorrow onwards Edward would only go along with it because it was preferable to an unwanted end to his life. He felt that Peter, or at least Rowan, would think nothing to ending his existence if he was not to cooperate. Edward suddenly came back to his senses. In his daydreaming he had not noticed that Lysa and Maxwell had stopped about twenty feet ago and were trying to get his attention. “Edward, the Snowy Horse is this way.” Lysa called out to him, pointing down a considerably thinner path than the one they were currently standing on to her left.
“How do you know?” Edward replied as we walked back up the path to where Lysa and Maxwell stood.
“That guard has just told us. He must know who we are and why we are here, which is not a perfect situation, but I just want to relax.” Lysa said. Her and Maxwell started walking down the path the guard had pointed out, and Edward followed a little way behind. He was appreciative that the wind was mcuh calmer inside the walls of this city than the wilderness would allow him to enjoy. Out there the wind would try and bite your fingers off, but in here, with the warmth of the smoke from people’s fireplaces giving the city a thin blanket of heat the wind was actually quite nice to have. He did not think he would say that until the summer flowers covered the grass again, but nothing of the last few weeks had been as straightforward as that. This road was a thin as it had looked from the angle Edward had looked down it when Lysa had pointed it out. He also noticed that it did not seem to be nearly as well maintained as the main road that it split off from. On at least five occasions when he was paying attention he noticed that the stones were uneven, and at one point there was a stone that was just missing. He thanked the powers that be that he was paying attention at that point, otherwise it may have ended with him face down in the middle of the road. He found himself thinking back to Merehill life again. Unmaintained roads were never a problem there, but then his senses kicked in and he remembered there was quite a size gulf between Merehill and here. Hang on, why do I even care? This is the home town of someone who has held us hostage for the last day. he thought. Eventually this road came to an end, branching off the left and right. Edward let Lysa lead the way considering she was the one who had asked the guard for directions. She turned left, so Maxwell and Edward followed. This road was better; they were clearly back on the carriage tracks, and this was confirmed when a middle aged man came up behind them riding his horse, and pulling a carriage filled with supplies of some sort. They moved up against a white stone building to let the man on his horse pass. “Thank you kindly.” He said to them as he went by, continuing his own journey through this huge city. Lysa continued to lead the way as the rounded a corner to the left and then were greeted by a sharper corner back around to the right.
“That guard said it was just up this road.” Lysa said as she led them left off this road on to another, thinner road. This one was in better condition than the last road like this, although it seemed to have been used like a dumping ground for the snow from the main roads for some reason.
“There it is. Over there.” Maxwell pointed out a sign sticking out above the road and sure enough, he ws right. On the sign was a painting of a brown horse galloping through a field covered in snow. The picture did enough to prove it was the place they were looking for, but above the picture the words ‘Snowy Horse’ were written in gold confirming any lingering doubt one may have. It looked like a nice place from the outside, similar to the country cottages Edward had seen spotted here and there along the road from Merehill to Tymaria. Looking through the window Edward saw the promising glow of a fire. Finally a chance to warm these cold bitten bones. Lysa was the first one to reach the front door. With a backward glance at Maxwell and Edward and a deep breath she opened the door. Edward instantly felt a wall of warm air hit his face; it was lovely, something he had wanted for so long but had eluded him harder than ever. Heat, comfort, warmth. Peter and Rowan vanished from his memory in that moment as he followed Maxwell and Lysa in to the Snowy Horse.

The memory of Rowan was only removed from his memory for that moment though. He was sitting down on a table near the centre of the wall to the right of the front door. When he saw the three of them walk in he got to his feet. “Welcome home.” He said with some kind of friendly smile and loud enough to grab the attention of everyone else the inn was keeping warm. He walked over to them. “Come on in, close the door. Rodrick would not be pleased that you are giving all of his fire’s heat to the snow outside.”
“Sorry, Rodrick?” Edward said.
“Oh, remember to tell me that I need to introduce you all. Rodrick is the owner of this inn, and he is the one who opened his doors of hospitality to you all. Be sure to thank him when you see him. If it was not for his kindness it’s entirely possible your only blanket tonight would have been a snow one.” Rowan escorted Maxwell, Lysa and Edward over to a table close to the fire. As they moved closer the intense warmth claimed them, and even though Edward was not tired he felt his body start to relax so much that he wanted to sleep. They sat down at the table. The seats were lovely and comfortable, especially after weeks of nothing but a wooden bench of a carriage, or in last night’s case a base of a cage for comfort. The padding was so thick that Edward felt his body sink in to the chair as he relaxed. “Now, I trust you would like a drink after your… umm… shall we say unique trip up here? Rodrick will be round momentarily with his house’s best drink. Allow the fire to warm your bones and the drink will warm your heart and soul.” With that he walked back over to his own table, opened the book he was reading when they entered and carried on reading.
“Why are they being so friendly?” Lysa whispered to Edward. It did not make any sense to him either, but he guessed that it could mean whatever Peter has in store for them will not be a great deal of fun.
“I’d be lying if I said I knew, but we don’t know what tomorrow will bring yet, so I would say let’s just enjoy it while it lasts. He replied in the same hushed tone as Lysa.

After a few minutes of total relaxation where Edward had found himself having trouble to stay awake Rodrick came up to them as promised carrying three pitchers of drink on a silver tray. No one seems short of money here. Edward thought looking at the silver. Rodrick was more his own build, with blonde hair that stretched down his back, although he had tied it back. He had a friendly looking face which reminded him a little bit of Lord Manson. He was wearing a deep blue outfit, as beautiful a blue that Edward had ever seen, which ended at his feet. His feet were covered by his green and gold shoes, and the whole outfit just reinforced the theory that this guy made a lot of money. “Prince Rowan has informed me that you would like to try some of my house’s finest, his treat?” Rodrick said in a soft voice. He picked the pitchers off the silver tray one by one, placing them in front of Edward, then Lysa and Maxwell. “You stand on the threshold of a good evening indeed. Please enjoy it.” He walked off towards Rowan and they seemed to exchange a few words before he walked back towards the door to back rooms. Edward looked at the drinks. Lord Manson and his father had always warned him of taking drinks from people you were not one hundred percent confident in. The situation they found themselves in and the way they were brought here certainly would have given him that layer of doubt, but he kept thinking about what Peter had said. They have a plan for us, and they brought us all the way here. Why even do that if they just wanted to see us die from poisoning? He raised the pitcher to his lips slowly and took his first sip. It tasted like the wine he used to drink on occasion back in The Jolly Blacksmith, but this had a brilliant warming quality to it. He felt the heat as it traveled down his throat and even when it hit his stomach he could still feel the heat being given off. It was a weird sensation that he had never felt before, but it lived up to what Rowan said about it warming your bones. It also took away his feeling of tiredness that had hit him when they sat down at the table. Whether it was the drink itself or whether it was just because he had something to do now by drinking it he could not tell. He looked at Lysa and Maxwell who also seemed to be enjoying it just as much as he was; Lysa had already drank half of her pitcher. This is the life Edward said to himself as he laid back in his chair.

After a few more minutes of sipping from his pitcher Edward started to take in the scenery around him. Everything about the inn was warming. The walls were painted red, the fire was big enough to both heat the room to beautiful levels and also act as the only source of light that the room needed. The flames danced merrily upon the logs and there light gave everything a welcoming feel. On a shelf to their left Edward saw a line of four trophies. Someone was obviously very accomplished at whatever sport they practiced. He guessed they belonged to Rodrick if he was the owner of this inn. There were only two other tables besides their own and Rowan’s that had people sat at them. He had never seen any of them before, but he wondered if they too were drinking Rodrick’s house drink. If they were not they were missing out, he thought as he took another sip of his own. For the next few minutes Edward closed his eyes and let his body relax completely. He had almost drifted off to sleep when someone tapped his shoulder. He opened his eyes quickly and saw it was Lysa, she was pointing at the door. Edward turned around and saw Peter stood in the doorway of the inn taking off his gloves before walking over to the table Rowan was sat at. Peter walked around the table and stopped by Rowan’s left side as Rowan got to his feet. Rowan smiled at Peter before clearing his throat, which got the attention of everyone else in the room. They all turned to face him. “It is with my great pleasure that myself, Peter and of course Rodrick invite you all to the great feast of the Passing Night. If you would all thank Rodrick for his custom this evening and follow myself and Peter to Moonwatch House you will be greeted by the greatest feast anywhere in the north of the region.” He looked around at the faces looking in his direction. “Of course there is still some time for you to finish your drinks and business here, but then we must make haste. I do hope that you will all be joining me and” he pointed at Edward’s table “I request the company of my three friends Edward, Lysa and Maxwell. Now, if you will excuse me for a few moments I must speak with Rodrick before he closes the inn.” With that he left his table and went out to the back rooms, closely followed by Peter. Edward drank the last few sips of his drink before looking back at Maxwell and Lysa.
“The Passing Night? What is that?” Lysa said, looking puzzled.
“I wouldn’t know.” Edward replied. “Maybe he will let it slip at the feast.” The whole situation just kept getting more and more weird. A few hours ago they were stuffed in to the back of a caravan and now they were here about to enjoy a feast hosted by the seat of the self proclaimed Northern Prince. Edward did not know how much of his claims to power were true, but he liked the idea of eating good food for the first time in weeks, he was not going to lie.

After a few minutes Rodrick, Rowan and Peter came out from the back rooms laughing and joking with each other. It annoyed Edward that they wanted the help of himself, Lysa and Maxwell, but were not willing to share any of the details of what they had planned. The only detail of meeting at the docks tomorrow morning was not one that the dream he had earlier made him very comfortable with, but he was not going to share that with Lysa or Maxwell for fear of scaring them. He also was not in a situation that lent itself to arguing with Peter or Rowan. They were who knows how far north of anywhere Edward had been in his lifetime and surrounded by people who Rowan signed the paychecks of. He could only hope that his dream was wrong this time, although that did not make him feel any better if he was honest. During this time Rowan, shadowed by and Peter had made their way over to the door. Rodrick had gone over to the fire and had started to put it out.
“Now I trust you are all ready to enjoy a great night of good food and entertainment?” Rowan said loudly with pride. “If you would follow Peter and myself we will start making our way to Moonwatch House. Remind anyone you see along the way that we will be feasting tonight and all are welcome too. I do not want anyone missing this; and I think some of my friends’ questions may have answers given to them too.” He smiled in Edward’s direction. “Shall we?” Peter said, before lifting the latch on the door, opening it and walking out. The cold had started to find its way in to the room as Edward, Lysa and Maxwell got to their feet. Everyone else was now being shepherded out of the inn by Rodrick. “Come on, you don’t want to miss any of this. A night to remember, from the Prince’s own lips.” He was saying as he ushered them towards the door. Edward had lost track of how long they had been sat in there, but when he made it outside he could see that the sunlight had faded significantly and estimated the time at early evening. The sky was still clear and even though the ground was home to at least two inches of snow he still had not seen any fall with his own eyes. Peter and Rowan had turned right as they went out the door, they were now about a hundred feet in front of the rest of the crowd, but Edward could still here Peter calling out various things in all directions around him. “Feast of the Passing Night.”, “All Welcome.”, “Food, entertainment. Prizes maybe.” Edward saw people coming out of their houses and joining the pack of people that him, Lysa, Maxwell and the other people in the Snowy Horse had formed. Seeing the sheer number of people who had joined them on the walk to Rowan’s house made him even more grateful that they had not tried anything to escape since arriving here. It was clear that Rowan was very well liked and he kept saying that he had a lot of power over the towns up here. Whether this was true, Edward did not know for sure, but was it really worth taking the chance to find out first hand?

As they rounded a corner to the left Edward saw what he felt confident was Moonwatch House. He could see the windows aglow with candle light. It was at least six stories tall counting the illuminated windows, and looked very much like a castle in its own right. The deep red glow from the sunset shined against the dark stone walls and gave the whole building a fiery appearance. The road started to slope upwards now, similar to how it did on the approach to Lord Manson’s house back in Merehill. It was on a much grander scale here though. Now there were at least two hundred people all around him and each was playing a part in their own conversations. “I wonder if it will be greater than last time?” and “I hear we are in for quite the treat tonight.” were some of the snippets of chatter that went on around him. As they road went higher and higher Edward saw that there were now guards on each side of the road. They did not seem to be there for any reason other than to keep the peace; Edward, Lysa and Maxwell did not even grab their attention. It was still a little bit intimidating nonetheless because they were carrying spears against their sides. Now there were no building on either side of them, replaced instead with open green gardens. Edward noticed as they went over a small hump back bridge that there was also a small river that ran through this land. This city really did seem to have everything. He was grateful that they had never crossed swords with Merehill; he would not be here if that was the case. That much he was confident of.

Chapter 12 – Feasts

At long last they made it to the entrance to Moonwatch House. Rowan and Peter were waiting for the pack of people to congregate around him before he felt the need to say anything. “Ladies and Gentlemen. Allow me to welcome you to Moonwatch House, seat of power for all territories North of Madrock River. Tonight we open our doors to all you would share our company and hospitality for feasts, games and if I can say so myself, a fairly big announcement. But we will save that for when everyone has had their fill of the fine food laid out this evening. My team of guards will organise the seating; they will tell you which table to sit at in the interests of getting everyone in and comfy as quickly as possible. The snow has already shown its presence to us this morning, we can guess that more will follow tonight, so Moonwatch House is prepared for the eventuality that some of you may not wish to travel home tonight. Free accommodation will be provided for any who desire to make the journey home tomorrow in favour of tonight.” He turned around and the great front doors opened to give access to the innards of the house. Edward could not believe the size of the entrance hall he saw when they doors had opened fully. He turned to Lysa. “That room alone puts the size of most houses I have seen to shame.” he said trying to make his voice audible over the mess of conversations going on behind him. One of the guards moved forward from beside the doors. “Okay, single file as you go in.” he called loudly over the top of everyone else. “Everyone who goes in sit at table one in the far left corner.” People started to filter in through the doors. After a couple of minutes the same guard called out again. “Table two now if you would. To the right of table one.” People continued to pass through the doors, and Edward was certain they would be in the next group to go through. There was only four people in front of him now, and he guessed they were a family. A man and a boy, both shared a similar hairstyle; short and hazel brown. The two females also shared a very similar hair colour and their hair flowed beautifully down their backs. Sure enough when table three was called out he, Lysa and Maxwell were being lead through the doors. “Far right table please.” one of the other guards just inside the entrance hall said as they made their way in. The entrance hall was even larger than Edward thought after seeing a glimpse of it through the door. Huge peach coloured walls stretched up as far as the eye could see. Edward guessed that this entrance hall went all the way to the roof. The stairs were to the right as you entered the entrance hall. A light blue carpet with a gold pattern spiraling up the staircases. There was a guard at the base of the stairs though, and Edward guessed that he was put there to prevent any adventure quests deviating from the path to the feast hall.
“Straight ahead please.” said another guard as they walked across the entrance hall. When Edward walked in to the feast hall he very nearly had his breath taken away. Twelve huge tables sat in the hall; six stretched from the far end of the hall to the centre, and another six picked up where they left off and made their way to the entrance door. Down the left and right of the hall were six great roaring fires, three on each side. The room was unbelievably warm because of this. Edward did not think the time would ever come again when he was too hot, but this brought him very close to that point. Up above were three chandeliers with at least twenty candles on each. They did a more than sufficient job of lighting the room. Him, Maxwell, Lysa and the rest of the visitors that had come in to sit at table three made the walk between the tables. Edward sat in the centre along the bench down the left of the table. Maxwell and Lysa sat at either end of him. Looking up to his left he saw another table with Peter and Rowan sat at it. Peter was already enjoying a drink, while Rowan was writing something down on a scrap of paper. A few minutes later Edward saw Rodrick come in to the hall, he walked passed all of the tables and was greeted by Rowan before sitting down to join them. Edward turned back to Maxwell and Lysa.
“He has a lot more to do with whatever it is Peter is planning than they want us to think. He gave us free drinks, we have a free room at his inn tonight.” he said to them.
“Rowan is offering free accommodation to anyone who needs it here anyway, so that might not mean anything.” Lysa replied. Edward thought about this for a moment before he saw where she came from with that comment. It still did not all add up for him though.
“No other inn keepers are joining Rowan and Peter up there though.” Edward said.
“Now that is a point.” Maxwell replied. “I think he may be joining us in whatever thrilling adventure Peter has planned for us tomorrow.” By this time two more tables had started to fill. It still seemed like it would be a while before things really got started in here. Looking around Edward saw people from all walks of life. Most of the city must be congregating in here tonight. Whatever the Feast of the Passing Night was it was highly regarded. He just hoped that Rowan did not think it would be funny to put them on the spot without first letting slip what exactly they were celebrating. He could just imagine the hostilities they would receive from a room full of Rowan’s people if people found out they had never heard of the Feast of the Passing Night.

The tables slowly continued to fill up. The sixth, seventh and eighth, and finally all twelve were filled with eager celebrators ready for what was looking to shape up to be the feast of the year. Once everyone had taken their seats Edward saw Rowan get to his feet and stand between his table and the table to the left of the one Edward was sat at.
“Welcome everyone to the marvelous feast hall of House Moonwatch. Now before we get stated I would like to first introduce you to some friends of mine.” Edward felt his heart plummet. “First, here to my left is Peter. He has already been and will continue to be playing a very important role in my plans over the coming months. He has helped me to bring us closer to our ultimate goal of spreading our influence around every land we find.” The people sat at the tables around Edward took this opportunity to give a round of applause. Once it died down Rowan continued, although Edward wished the applause had continued forever more to prevent this from happening. He had a good idea of what he thought was next. “We are also joined by three individuals who are good friends of Peter’s. Unlike Peter though I would bet a good portion of my power that they not only do not have any idea what we are here this evening to celebrate in the Feast of the Passing Night, I also bet they do not know where they are in respect to their hometown of Merehill.” Edward had started hearing the murmers around them as soon as Rowan had mentioned them. He looked at Maxwell and Lysa, and saw that they also shared his sudden onset of fear over what might happen next. “

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