A Quest of Heroes (Chapter Thirteen)

Gareth walked quickly through the forest trail, Firth beside him, his hood pulled over his head, despite the heat. He could hardly conceive that he now found himself in exactly the situation he had wanted to avoid. Now there was a dead body, a trail. Who knows who that man may have talked to. Firth should have been more circumspect in his dealings with the man. Now, the trail could end up leading back to Gareth.

"I'm sorry," Firth said, hurrying to catch up beside him.

Gareth ignored him, doubling his pace, seething.

"What you did was foolish, and weak," Gareth said. "You never should have glanced my way."

"I didn't mean to. I didn't know what to do when he demanded more money."

Firth was right: it was a tricky situation. The man was a selfish, greedy pig and he changed the rules of the game and deserved to die. Gareth shed no tears over him. He only prayed that no one had witnessed the murder. The last thing he needed was a trail. There would be tremendous scrutiny in the wake of his father's assassination, and he could not afford even the smallest trail of clues left to follow.

At least they were now in Blackwood. Despite the summer sun, it was nearly dark in here, the towering eucalyptus trees blocking out every shaft of light. It matched his mood. Gareth hated this place. He continued hiking down the meandering trail, following the dead man's directions. He hoped the man was telling the truth, not leading them astray. The whole thing could be a lie. Or it could be he was leading them to a trap, to some friend of his waiting to rob them of more money.

Gareth chided himself. He had put too much trust in Firth. He should have handled this all himself. Like he always did.

"You better just hope that this trail leads us to the witch," Gareth quipped, "and that she has the poison."

They continued down trail after trail, until finally they reached a fork, just as the man said they would. It boded well, and Gareth was slightly relieved. They followed it to the right, climbed a hill, and soon forked again. His instructions were true, and before them was, indeed, the darkest patch of wood that Gareth had ever seen. The trees were impossibly thick, mangled.

Gareth entered them, and felt an immediate chill up his skin, could feel the evil hanging in the air. He could hardly believe it was still daylight.

Just as he was getting scared, thinking of turning back, before him the trail ended in a small clearing. It was lit up by a single shaft of sunlight that broke through the wood. In its center was a small stone cottage. The witch's cottage.

Gareth's heart quickened. As he entered the clearing, he looked around to make sure no one was watching, to make sure it was not a trap.

"You see, he was telling the truth," Firth said, excitement in his voice.

"That means nothing," Garrett chided. "Remain outside, and stand guard. Knock if anyone enters. And keep your mouth shut."

Gareth didn't bother to knock on the small, arched wooden door before him. Instead, he grabbed the iron handle, yanked open the two-foot thick door, and ducked his head as he entered, closing it behind him.

It was dark in here, lit only by scattered candles in the room. It was a single room cottage, devoid of windows, and he immediately felt enveloped by a heavy energy. He stood there, stifled by the thick silence, preparing himself for anything. He could feel the evil in here. It made his skin crawl.

From out of the shadows he detected motion, then a noise.

Hobbling towards him there appeared an old woman, shriveled up, hunchback. She raised a candle and lit her face, and he could see it was covered in warts and lines. She looked ancient, older than the gnarled trees that hovered over her cottage.

"You wear a hood, even in blackness," she said, wearing a sinister smile, her voice sounding like crackling wood. "Your mission is not innocent."

"I've come for a vial," Gareth said quickly, trying to sound brave and confident, but hearing the quivering in his voice. "Sheldrake Root. I'm told you have it."

There was a long silence, followed by a horrific hackle. It echoed in the small room.

"Whether or not I have it is not the question. The question is: why do you want it?"

Gareth's heart pounded as he tried to formulate an answer.

"Why should you care?" he finally asked.

"It amuses me to know who you are killing," she said.

"That's no business of yours. I've brought money for you."

Gareth reached into his waistband, took out the bag of gold, in addition to the bag of gold he had given the dead man, and banged them both down on her small wooden table. The sound of metallic coins rang in the room.

He prayed it would pacify her, that she would give him what he wanted and he could leave this place.

The witch reached out a single finger with a long, curved nail, picked up one of the bags and inspected it. Gareth held his breath, hoping she would ask no more.

"This might be just enough to buy my silence," she said.

She turned and hobbled into the darkness. There was a hissing noise, and beside a candle Gareth could see her mixing liquid into a small, glass vial. It bubbled over, and she put a cork on it. Time seemed to slow as Gareth waited, increasingly impatient. A million worries raced through his mind: what if he was discovered? Right here, right now? What if she gave him the wrong vial? What if she told someone about him? Had she recognized him? He couldn't tell.

Gareth was having increasing reservations about this whole thing. He never knew how hard it could be to assassinate someone.

After what felt like an interminable silence, finally, she returned. She held out the vial, so small it nearly disappeared into his palm.

"Such a small vial?" he asked. "Can this do the trick?"

She smiled.

"You'd be amazed at how little it takes to kill a man."

Gareth turned and began to head for the door, when suddenly he felt a cold finger on his shoulder. He had no idea how she had managed to cross the room so quickly, and it terrified him. He stood there, frozen, afraid to turn and look at her.

She stood there, inches away, grinning back. She leaned in so close, an awful smell emanating from her, then suddenly reached up with both hands, grabbed his cheeks, and kissed him, pressing her shriveled lips hard against his.

Gareth was revolted. It was the most disgusting thing that had ever happened to him. Her lips were like the lips of a lizard, her tounge, which she pressed onto his, like that of a reptile. He tried to pull away, but she held his face tight, pulling him harder, kissing him on the mouth.

Finally, he managed to yank himself away. He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, as she leaned back and chuckled.

"The first time you kill a man is the hardest," she said. "You will find it much easier the next time around."

Gareth burst out of the cottage, back into the clearing, to find Firth standing there, waiting for him.

"What's wrong? What happened?" Firth asked, concerned. "You look as if you've been stabbed. Did she hurt you?"

Gareth stood there, breathing hard, wiping his mouth again and again. He hardly knew how to respond.

"Let's get away from this place," he said. "Now!"

As they began to move, to head out of the clearing into the black wood, suddenly the sun was obscured by clouds, racing across the sky, making the beautiful day cold and dark. Gareth looked up, and had never seen such thick, black clouds appear so quickly. He knew that whatever was happening, it was not normal. He worried about how deep the powers were of this witch, as he felt the cold wind rise in the summer day, creep up the back of his neck. He couldn't help but think that she had somehow possessed him with that kiss, cast some sort of curse on him.

"What happened in there?" Firth pressed.

"I don't want to talk about it," Gareth said. "I don't want to think about this day – ever again."

The two of them hurried back down the trail, down the hill, soon entering the main forest trail to head back towards King's Court. Just as Gareth was beginning to feel more relieved, preparing to shove the whole episode to the back of his mind, suddenly, he heard another set of boots. He turned and saw a group of men walking towards them. He couldn't believe it.

His brother. Godfrey. The drunk. He was walking towards them, laughing, surrounded by the villainous Harry, and two other of his miscreant friends. Of all times and places, for his brother to run into him here. In the woods, in the middle of nowhere. Gareth felt as if his whole plot were cursed.

Gareth turned away, pulled the hood over his face, and hiked twice as fast, praying he had not been discovered.

"Gareth?" called out the voice.

Gareth had no choice. He froze in his tracks, pulled back his hood, and turned and looked at his brother, who came waltzing merrily towards him.

"What are you doing here?" Godfrey asked.

Gareth opened his mouth, but then closed it, stumbling, at a loss for words.

"We were going for a hike," Firth volunteered, rescuing him.

"A hike, were you?" one of Godfrey's friends mocked Firth, in a high, feminine voice. His friends laughed, too. Gareth knew that his brother and his friends all judged him for his predisposition – but he hardly cared about that now. He just needed to change the topic. He didn't want them to wonder what he was doing out here.

"What are you doing out here?" Gareth asked, turning the tables.

"A new tavern opened, by Southwood," Godfrey answered. "We had just been trying it out. The best ale in all the kingdom. Want some?" he asked, holding out a cask.

Gareth shook his head quickly. He knew he had to distract him, and he figured the best way was to change the topic, to rebuke him.

"Father would be furious if he caught you drinking during the day," Gareth said. "I suggest you set down that and return to court."

It worked. Godfrey glowered, and clearly he was no longer thinking about Gareth, but about father, and himself.

"And since when did you care about father's needs?" he retorted.

Gareth had had enough. He hadn't time to waste with a drunkard. He succeeded in what he wanted, distracting him, and now, hopefully, he wouldn't think too deeply about why he had run into him here.

Gareth turned and hurried down the trail, hearing their mocking laughter behind him as he went. He no longer cared. Soon, it would be he who had the last laugh.