Mhyra started away early the next day. She used the last of her gold to buy a horse – at least the man who sold it to her claimed it was a horse. Mhyra suspected more than one donkey, mule and goddess-knew-what in its ancestry. Still, it had the requisite number of legs, it was obedient and the ride was reasonably comfortable, if not as smooth as she would have wanted. She wasn’t in a position to refuse in any case, so she paid the smiling man as much as she could – more than likely many times what the beast was actually worth – and managed to get on to it. It kicked a couple of times at first but it quickly calmed down and went where she wanted it to go.
As Mhyra rode through the outskirts of the village she passed a few milkmaids sitting near cows, empty buckets beside them waiting to be filled with milk. Mhyra sighed to herself. More than a few milkmaids had required her aid over the few years since she had left Golian, only a few of which were actual bovine related injuries. In fact, at least one or two had resulted in hastily arranged marriages. Mhyra shook her head as she left them behind. Nothing good ever came from milking a cow. Soon enough she had left the last signs of the village behind her and was moving out into the countryside.
The fields spread to either side as Mhyra’s steed made its slow, plodding way along the dusty road. Mhyra admitted to herself that even though she was really in the middle of nowhere it looked very pretty, with the grass gently rolling in the morning breeze and the hills rising out of the landscape. She began to feel better and started humming to herself – some nameless ditty she had picked up on her travels. The horse ignored her and continued to move forward.
As the sun reached its highest point Mhyra saw a forest. She didn’t really have any idea how far she had come – the bartender had said about eight miles but that could have meant anything. The horse became more and more reluctant the closer it came to the first few trees. Mhyra gently pressed her feet into the horse’s flanks and it sped up slightly, as if wanting to get the journey done with as quickly as possible. As they crossed the threshold of the forest the air became cooler and the light from the sun became dimmer.
Mhyra started to feel apprehensive. The trees around her had twisted trunks and gnarled roots. She couldn’t hear any birds or rodents or any animal life normally associated with forests. The road she had been following grew less and less distinct from the ground around it, and Mhyra started to wonder if she had come the right way. The horse seemed to be making a huge effort just to take the next step, and more than once it jolted as though hearing something in the distance.
After what felt like hours they came to what looked like the ruins of an ancient structure – there were crumbling archways, columns strewn in pieces on the ground, other columns still upright, pointing towards the sky hidden by the forest canopy, and sections of wall, some high some low. Mhyra halted the horse and dismounted. She tied the horse to the nearest column and unhooked her staff, holding it ready as she began to explore the ruins.
It was possible that this was the place the bartender had told her about, but Mhyra had no way of knowing for certain. There didn’t appear to be any sign of a bandit camp – no scorched remains of fire, no indentations in the ground where a tent may have stood or where someone may have lain down. The only thing of interest was a short set of stone stairs leading down to a heavy looking door. Mhyra walked down the stairs and pushed on the door, not really expecting it to budge.
To her surprise the door swung open fairly easily. It looked as though the locks and bolts had been broken by some great force. Darkness lay beyond the threshold. Mhyra lit a small flame on the end of her staff and held it before her. The fire lit up the space beyond the door and, nervously, Mhyra entered. The first area – or possibly room – was a fairly small space with two passages leading from it. Mhyra bit back a gasp as she saw skulls and bones, bleached with age, scattered along the walls. Then she saw the rats.
Or at least, she saw the remains of the rats. Presumably they had been large, about the size of dogs, but now they were lying in bloody pieces on the ground. Feeling somewhat nauseous, Mhyra crouched down to examine some of them. It looked like they had been sliced open – the cuts were clean and obviously made by someone with considerable strength. The blood was still flowing so it looked like whoever did this had passed this way not too long before. Mhyra stood up and turned back towards the door. In the light from her staff she could see part of the stone door frame. About half way up there were more signs that the door had been forced open, again by someone very strong.
Mhyra shuddered, but she didn’t have much choice. She turned towards one of the passageways leading away from the chamber and moved onward. On the ground were more dead rat parts, just as fresh as the ones she had seen already. The thought that there was someone else here sent shivers down her spine but she pressed on, hoping to find something useful to her quest.
The passageway eventually widened into another chamber, larger than the one she had entered through. The light from her staff didn’t quite reach to the far end, however she heard lots of scratching coming from the darkness. Suddenly the scratching turned into screeching as two large rats came rushing out of the darkness towards her. With honed reflexes, Mhyra brought her staff round and fired a searing bolt of flame at them. The rats disappeared in the ensuing fireball, leaving nothing but charred skeletons, which crumbled to ash and fell on to the ground.
Mhyra sighed with relief. She didn’t mind rats as a rule, but they were more the usual size, not these giant monstrosities. She pressed on and eventually came to another open area. This one looked empty aside from the usual skulls and bones. There were no rats this time, for which she was grateful. A sudden noise behind her made her spin round. She came face to face with a Wild One. A very familiar Wild One. It was the one whose drink she had knocked out of his hands the previous night. This can’t be good, she thought.
The Wild One grabbed her by her neck and slammed her against a wall. She dimly wondered why he seemed so much smaller than he did last night, but that was a secondary concern. The Wild One leaned his snout in close and growled.
“You owe me drink.”
He let Mhyra go and she slid to the floor. She watched him stomp out through another doorway, fresh blood dripping from the two swords on his back. She stayed there a few moments to catch her breath and make sure she hadn’t been injured, then she stood back up, picked up her staff from where it had fallen on the floor when he grabbed her – the flame at its top still blazed – and started for a different doorway than the one the Wild One had gone through.
Questions ran through her mind. Why was he here? Had he followed her? Was he after some sort of revenge for the previous night? Was he searching for something like she was? Above all the others, one question was at the forefront of her mind. What was here that was worth finding?
Mhyra walked on through the darkness, her senses alert, her eyes darting from side to side, her staff blazing light for the few feet it could reach.