Having gotten the chambermaid to finally accept his explanation and leaving her to change the bed-sheets, Gillam only just stepped out of his room when a large bang came from downstairs. He hurried down to find Erol and Phaedra desperately looking for him.
“The herb-gatherers are in trouble!” Erol announced. Gillam didn’t quite know what he was talking about. “The what?”
“The Al’Qeri herb-gatherers!” Erol clarified sharply. Gillam had not spent much time in the Al’Qeri village at all, so he was unaware of the village roles, but now that he knew it was to do with the frogmen he understood the urgency. He was just about to ask what had happened when a roar of angry voices erupted outside the inn.
It was a mob, which contained almost the entire population of the tiny village, and at the center were three Al’Qeri being bound to stockades. Erol led the way as they rushed out. He sped over to the Al’Qeri and spoke to them in their own language. Gillam was amazed by how quick he had picked up their language, but the villagers’ response was not of admiration. They turned on him with shouts of “Frogman sympathizer!”
Gillam looked around for a ringleader and spotter a local farmer, leading the protest from atop a barrel. He and Phaedra went over to the man to ask him what the meaning of all this was. The farmer told them that his horse had been stolen and when he and his lads had searched the local forest, they had found the Al’Qeri sneaking around. Phaedra looked like she was about to hit the man. “They are herb-gatherers so they were gathering herbs,” she explained, “Besides, they don’t even ride horses! They certainly don’t eat them!”
But even with the back-up of horse-rescuing local superstar hero Gillam, her explanation was ignored. The villagers’ suspicions of the frogmen were too strong; they disliked the proximity of the Al’Qeri village to theirs. Phaedra snapped and ordered them to stand down. Gillam also gripped his sword hilt. They listened now.
One woman came forward and tearfully explained that just four days prior her two children had gone missing after going to play in the woods. With the horse rustlers a month ago, the missing children and missing horses, obviously tensions were high among the villagers. Erol quickly assured the woman that they would find her children as long as the Al’Qeri were unharmed until their return. Gillam felt a little more persuasion was needed: “If they are hurt in any way, I’ll bash every single head in this village together.”
With the crowd dispersing like a sell-out performance by a famous artist had been prematurely ended and no one was sure what to do with themselves, Erol took the opportunity to bribe a local boy to keep the Al’Qeri watered. Gillam got Vaprus from the stables and the group headed into the forest.
As they followed tracks easily spotted by Erol, Gillam introduced his horse to the others. Erol recognized the beast as Mrissan and welcomed him, but Phaedra kept a scowl on her face and stayed a few steps away from it.
“How did you know the Al’Qeri were in trouble?” Gillam asked the archer.
“It was a dream I had which came true,” he replied.
He had heard Erol talk about his dreams before, but suddenly it seemed as if they would be useful. “So if it’s true, what happens next?” he asked but still skeptical.
“I don’t know. The dream ended. But I did see a great on a river and Harald, the priest in Sallen, lashing out at a man and laughing maniacally. And as I watched him, two great waves came from the east and west and enveloped me.”
Even if he did see Harald, this didn’t seem to Gillam like any reason to stop doubting all this prophesizing mumbo-jumbo. “Sounds like you’re just having nightmares,” he shrugged and added, “I had a pretty weird one last night. I fell off my horse and this girl appeared. She had bright white hair and these fierce green eyes. She asked me ‘Who are you?’”
The others gaped at him. Phaedra gasped, “I dreamt about the same girl!”
“As did I,” said Erol thoughtfully. They looked at each other unsurely for a moment and fell silent.
The tracks they were following suddenly branched off in two directions. One had very large footprints, one had small ones. With no better reason than hoping to find the children alive, they followed the small tracks.
A little further on, they came across a pile of sticks – a childish attempt at building a fort; something Gillam recognized from his youth. In among the branches they found a small shoe, and heading away were yet more large-footed tracks. Erol suddenly became alert – he had heard the rumbling call of a beast to the north. Vaprus too became nervous. Gillam dismounted and led him as the group carefully made their way towards the sound.
Ahead of them, through the trees, they saw the land incline, and then they saw a massive lizard, as big as a cart, dragging a dead horse into a cave. None of them wanted to follow and enter the cave so boldly, so they agreed to stake it out. Erol hunted down a deer and place the corpse outside the cave. Some three hours later, a lizard came out. Phaedra and Erol leapt on it and slayed it before Gillam even had a chance to react. But even as they were congratulating themselves, Gillam coughed. “Wasn’t the one we saw before a lot bigger than this one?”
With the deer cut up some more so its guts were well on display, they continued to wait.
“If it likes horses, we should leave your horse out as bait,” Phaedra kept suggesting with a smirk. She repeatedly showed her dislike of Vaprus, which irked Gillam no end. He had never hit a woman before but…
It was already now long past noon and nothing was coming out. Erol volunteered to take a look inside the cave and using his strange light stick he went in. Gillam, Phaedra and Vaprus waited by the entrance in silence, though Phaedra still made gestures towards the horse.
Minutes later Erol came racing out. He looked a somewhat spooked, saying that he had come across a lair of lizards who, when they saw his light, hissed and chased him. But they hadn’t followed him outside. It became clear the only option was to go in.
Gillam took head, holding the light in one hand and leading Vaprus by the reigns in the other, with Phaedra and Erol behind. They walked slowly, careful of every footfall, but Vaprus was nervous and it was a task to keep him settled.
Coming across the cavern to the side, Gillam’s light fell upon a group of lizards lurking in the water. He quickly hid the light beneath his cloak and it seemed he had avoided their attention. But in the darkness, a small lizard jumped out from another direction at Vaprus. It missed and the thing was subsequently squashed under his hooves. For a moment, they all held their breath as they waited to see if the noise from the encounter had attracted any others. But it seemed they were lucky and continued on.
The tunnel continued and led them through a shallow stream and soon they could see a faint light coming from round the corner. They came upon a large cavern with a gaping hole in the roof through which light and a waterfall fell into a pool. The rest of the cavern was littered with scree as well as broken tables and beds. There was also a large lizard, munching on a dead horse while other smaller lizards hung around scrounging for scraps. And at the edge of the cave, they could see two mangled corpses of children.
They were all enraged, Phaedra especially. Gillam quickly hid the light as she carefully but purposefully stepped around the edge of the cave, gripping her dueling swords. But despite her skill, she was seen by one of the small lizards. It hissed and leapt at her. With lightning reflexes, Erol shot the thing mid-jump and its skewered body fell to the floor. The fight had begun.
Gillam took Vaprus and together they attacked the great lizard from behind, while Phaedra dodged her way in and attacked it head on and Erol shot the other lizards where they stood. At first they found its tail was tough to cut, but finally Gillam hit a sweet spot and sliced the tip off, following it up with a crumbling bash to its knee. Bones smashed and he had its attention. It turned and opened its massive mouth to hiss in his face. Gillam could see right down its throat and got a good whiff of its repugnant smelling breath. The stench hit him so hard he felt dazed, and Vaprus was the same.
What’s more, the hiss disturbed a colony of bats which swarmed about the cave and descended upon Phaedra, nipping at her as she tried to fight. The lizard attacked her again, and Gillam reacted to it with a swing, but Phaedra moved smoothly in response and accurately buried a blade deep in the beast’s abdomen and it was dead.
There was no time to rest however, as Erol, who had killed the other lizards and pinned a few bats to the walls with his arrows, alerted them to the fresh pack of lizards now coming up the tunnel. As this was his first time in real combat, at this development Vaprus turned-tail and tried to flee but stumbled to the ground in the gravel. Gillam and Erol finished the remaining lizards only to find Phaedra still hounded by the bats and looking worst for wear. Finally, Gillam ran over and used his shield to swat them out of the air like flies.
With the cave cleared and a good horde of gold discovered, the group took the children’s bodies back to the Bermi as well as a few dead lizards as proof. Despite the evidence, the people were still unconvinced that the Al’Qeri were wholly trustworthy and still concerns were voiced about the nearby village. Under pressure, though, they released the prisoners. Before they left, the group gave the grieving mother some of the gold they had found in the cave and then they returned to the Al’Qeri village with the rescued herb-gatherers.