The frog did not seem to immediately realize what it had just brought down upon itself; in a very short time it was surrounded. Gannon swung his blade at the creature with some feeling, inflicting a nasty wound. Llweder fired off his thorn spell, peppering it with sharp projectiles. I joined Gannon in hacking at it. Meara tried a fire spell, which didn't appear to affect the beast, and Conner's arrow missed. Gannon got in another blow.
The frog leaped twenty-five feet in a single motion and disappeared into the river.
"Obviously, he feared our swords," remarked Conner, who had just drawn his dagger.
"I should bloody well hope so," I replied mildly.
Meara sighed. "Damn. We're going to have to start hunting these things with raccoons or something."
"Probably good eating on one of those...."
There was a loud noise from the direction of the river, and a ripple spread out across the quiet surface as the fish that had just eaten the frog disappeared once more.
"Isn't nature amazing?" A rare smile appeared on Llweder's face.
"Let's not go swimming here," the priestess suggested, taking a look at Gannon's head. The frog's tongue didn't appear to have hurt him too badly.
"Y'know, that's got to happen to you a lot, too," Conner said, looking at where the frog had gone.
"Well, I am an accountant."
I'm told they get more respect in the central parts of the Empire of which Powys is a nominal part. Conner kept an arrow ready as we continued on our way. We did see a giant leech in the water, and gave the huge, sickly-grey creature a wide berth. Gudrun's hut was hard to miss in the middle of the water, with a walkway leading out to it. It was huge. A number of skulls on stakes were planted outside in a sort of fence, mostly not human; there were frog, wolf, a lot of unidentifiable things.
"Hello, the hut?" I tried calling from the edge of the causeway after some discussion of the order of progress.
No reply. Meara, Llweder and I went up to the door and knocked; the other men kept their distance. The echoes were impressive.
The door creaked open a few inches. "Well, come on in, don't let the daylight in."
"Sorry ma'am," Meara said immediately as we hastened through the door.
"Greetings, good trollwife," Llweder intoned, as the other two jumped to catch up with us.
We found ourselves in a large room, a fire burning under something in a cauldron. In the back corner sat a very large shadow, well away from the door.
"We apologize for disturbing you during the daylight, Madame Gudrun," I said. "We are investigating the keep and its curtain of darkness."
"We have come to seek your counsel on the matter," the druid added.
"What do you want to know?" she grumbled.
"The people of the village have not been able to tell us much about where the darkness came from," Llweder told her.
"Probably because they don't know where the darkness came from."
"Yes, that would be why...." More literal-mindedness.
"Let's rephrase the question," Meara suggested. "Do you have any idea what's going on? We're about to poke our noses in and stir up a whole mess of trouble, so we thought we'd actually get some information ahead of time before we did that."
"About fifty years ago or so," Gudrun began, then paused. "I don't entirely know what happened."
"Were you here at that time?" Llweder asked.
"Of course. Emer panicked about something," she told us. "Called up his whole warband, and the next thing I knew there's a curtain of darkness halfway through my swamp. Emer's dead, I don't know what happened to him but I know he's dead."
"Apparently he walks as a ghost through the castle?"
"Yeah, that I did know."
"All the giant animals and stuff showed up after this happened or before it happened?" Meara asked.
"Depends on which ones you're talking about. The natural ones were here before."
"The unnatural ones, after?"
"After. As far as I can piece together, and it's relatively hard to tell, because if anybody's actually dead in this they're not talking dead, dead, as opposed to walking around and annoying us dead there used to be, across the valley, an iron mine. Last time I saw Emer, he and his warband were riding off toward the mine hellbent for leather."
Meara dug around in her pack and found the banner the goblins had been flying. "Ever seen that before?"
"Where'd you find that?"
"Some really ballsy goblins."
"What do you know, they must have gotten past Emer."
"They?" I asked.
"There's some goblinkin over that way," she waved northward, "who were carrying that thing around. They don't usually manage to get through the swamp all too well. Orcs don't swim worth a damn. Especially if you stick a leech on them."
"I imagine the pike thinks that they're kind of fun to eat. So Emer may have found something underground that he feared? Or was riding that way for refuge?" I wondered.
Meara shook her head. "You don't summon up your whole warband for refuge, though."
"He didn't try to evacuate the town or anything," Gudrun told us.
"Probably thought he could deal with it. An iron mine would be a wonderful place to lock something up."
"That was the last I heard of him," the trollwife continued. "There was darkness, the dark fell. I went looking for the druids, but they weren't there. There was only a couple of them to begin with."
"Do the plants live on the other side?"
"Oh yeah. That's downright creepy." She may have smiled in her dark corner.
"Do they go through seasonal, cyclical changes?" Llweder asked.
"So it's not like they're in one day, or one night?" Meara followed.
"No, it's just the sun doesn't come up. Winter happens."
Conner and Gannon were having a whispered conversation. Eventually the former spoke up. "You don't like the light. Why don't you live over there, where it's night all the time?"
"One, I don't know why it started, so I don't know when it's gonna stop," she pointed out. "I'd hate to be out walking through the swamp and all the sudden the nice comfortable dark went away."
"Very logical. Thank you," Gannon replied politely.
"That was just eating at me, I'm sorry," Conner apologized. "Begging your pardon."
"How far away is this iron mine? What are the landmarks on the way there?" Meara asked.
"It's on the other end of the valley." The other claw of the pincer, as I thought of it. "Landmarks, it's been a while since I've gone all the way over there.... You keep going that way 'til you get past the druid grove to just about when you hit the mountain wall, then you turn before you actually hurt yourself, and keep walking 'til you find an iron mine."
"All righty, then, you want to go get ourselves toasted by a ghost?" Meara looked around at the rest of the group.
"Shall we stop in and visit Emer first, or check out the mine?" I inquired.
"I'm all for hassling the ghost in the daylight."
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© 2002 Rebecca J. Stevenson et al