Things seemed to move slowly at that point. Reginald could see Andre’s outstretched hand ready to accept his sword. The knight stepped around him – knowing how the Frenchman would react. An affirming rasp of the sheriff’s sword leaving its scabbard warned Reginald. The knight turned sharply as he drew his broadsword. Andre’s eyes widened and he reared his sword back to strike the first blow. Reginald’s sword intercepted the hasty attack and a deft twist of the wrist disarmed the sheriff. The finely polished blade skidded across the tavern floor. So complete was Andre’s shock that he fixated on the lost weapon – even as Reginald’s mailed fist collided with his chin. The sheriff of Guérande collapsed.
Reginald immediately turned to face what he knew would be a second threat. He dashed to the counter as the Barkeep fumbled with a heavy crossbow behind the cover of the counter. The short, ill-tempered man rose up from behind the counter only to have Reginald strip the loaded weapon from his hands. The knight deftly flipped the weapon around and pointed it directly at the terrified owner of the tavern. Reginald was very tempted to fire the loaded bolt into the hateful little man, but forced himself to toss the weapon aside as he leaned in closer.
The barkeep shrank away, cowered like a whipped dog as the knight stared down at him. Reginald collected all the coin he had placed on the counter and said,
“The service here is deplorable. Then again, French hospitality was never very impressive. If you know what’s good for you – you’ll stay there like the cowardly serf that you are.”
Reginald turned away from the man and towards the door. He kicked the groaning form of Andre hard in the ribs as he passed. Once Reginald was back onto the street, his rage at last dissipated enough for him to think clearly. People stared his way. He could tell they expected him to be wearing irons or at least accompanied by their sheriff. The absence of the local authority figure would only go unquestioned for so long.
There was nothing to be done about it now. He needed to leave before things got out of hand. Frustrated at the futility of his efforts, Reginald unfettered Misery and rode quickly out of town. Without being able to operate within Guérande, he would need to make camp somewhere close by. An unappealing prospect given whatever evil he was hunting for was no doubt nearby.
Reginald rode through a farmer’s fallow field and along the marsh’s edge. He needed to find some place suitable to keep Misery while he attempted to return and watch over Guérande. Hopefully without being apprehended by the very people he was trying to protect. A dilemma he faced when he slew the necromancer of Bern. The knight preferred not to repeat history and be chased out of Guérande by an angry mob – no doubt lead by a vengeful Andre Laurent.
The smell of wood smoke reached Reginald’s nostrils. This was odd – given the distance he was from the village proper or any farm. Who would be out in the marshes at this time of night? Reginald scanned the tree line and spotted the tale-tell wisp of gray smoke. He rode towards the source slowly. Through the screen of trees Reginald discovered a hut. The structure was of rough timbers and a thatch roof encrusted with growth. Layers of moss and vine concealed the hut in a naturally camouflage. Indeed – if not for the smoke – Reginald would have rode on by.
Reginald dismounted Misery and walked the gray stallion up to the hut. The door suddenly opened. Out stepped a hermit with short gray hair and a well-trimmed beard. His face was lined with the deep creases of age. The old man’s noise had been broken at some point in his life, for it leaned to the right. The hermit looked upon Reginald with calm and knowing eyes.
“Well now,” the hermit began, “You look like trouble.”
Reginald cringed. He didn’t want to antagonize another person with his presence, but needed some help if he was to uncover the source of evil stealing Guérande’s children. Reginald met the hermits gaze squarely and stated,
“I’m looking for some place to tether my horse, there’s…a beast on the prowl and I’m hunting it.”
“…Is that so? And I suppose you’ll want something to eat while you’re here as well, my lord?” the hermit offered more than asked.
Reginald tilted his head suspiciously. He was naturally skeptical of such quick and unforeseen acceptance. The knight remained by his horse. For all he knew the old man had some dagger tucked away in the faded red robe he wore.
“What is your name young man?” The hermit asked, sensing Reginald’s hesitation.
“Reginald,” the knight answered.
“Well Reginald, you have my permission to tether your horse to my home and go about pursuing your quarry. My invitation for dinner still stands,” the hermit stated politely.
Without a further word he re-entered the hut.
Reginald could now smell the roasting meat, wafting from the open door. His stomach growled audibly and the knight could not deny the temptation. Reginald also knew he needed to keep his strength up. There was a likelihood he faced danger later that night. And…for some reason there was just something about the old man that put the knight at ease.
Reginald decided to accept the hermit’s offer and entered the hut. What he saw was surprising. On the walls were shelves lined with glass bottles. Within them were small wooden ships, complete with tiny cloth sails! Reginald had never seen the likes of these creations. He stared in wonder at the displays until his eyes caught the dull shine of something. In the corner of the small hut was a strange staff with an intricate headpiece. Reginald felt he’d seen the staff somewhere else before…
His musings were disrupted as a wooden bowl filled with hot beef stew was passed to him. Reginald devoured the meal. The hermit smiled and took the empty bowl when the knight was finished. It was then that Reginald realized that he hadn’t even asked for the hermit’s name.
“Nicholas,” the old man answered, “Now, I have a question for you. What “game” are you really after? Outside my door lies La Briere. Long stretches of brackish water and suffocating vegetation are what you have to look forward to. It’s hardly the place for a lord as yourself to hunt for a stag or deer.”
Reginald’s suspicion flared anew, “And how did you come to that conclusion!”
“My lord is in full armor and noticeable lacking a bow,” Nicholas humored Reginald with a smile.
The knight palmed his face in embarrassment. He was surprised when he actually found himself laughing. He looked back to Nicholas with a smile and nodded his head in agreement. Reginald then proceeded to repeat the same story he told Andre. Honesty was still not an option. As much as Reginald appreciated the rare showing of kindness, there was only so much he could tell. And in any event, only so much someone would be willing to believe.
Nicholas was silent for a long time. He looked over Reginald skeptically, seemed to want to say something more, but remained silent. When he did speak it was to enlighten Reginald on what he sought,
“A very old evil has taken residence in La Briere. I’ve felt it in the depths of night, stalking towards the village. I’ve heard what’s been happening. It’s evil, young man, a powerful evil. My advice to you is simple. Get on that horse of yours and leave this place. Take my word – this land is fallen to darkness.”
Reginald smiled sadly as he said, “If only I had a choice…I thank you for your hospitality Nicholas. I’ll take my leave now and return to Guérande.”
Nicholas sighed and shook his head sadly, but said nothing more. Reginald closed the hut’s door behind him. In the distance he could see the lights of Guérande. Large clouds drifted slowly across the face of the moon – casting inky shadows across the village. Again, an overwhelming sense of foreboding filled the knight as he sprinted towards the village.
It didn’t take Reginald long to cover the distance back to Guérande. Though his mail armor was heavy – the knight was in his prime and conditioned for such exertion. Reginald pressed himself against a section of stonewall which encircled the village. He still needed to get within Guérande without being seen and have the good (or bad) luck of disrupting whatever happened to be stealing its children.
Reginald had crept along the wall looking for an accessible point to climb over when a voice nearly jolted him out of his boots…