The wind sliced down the channel through the woods, made by the clearing of the narrow road. The pennants on the men-at-arms’ halberds fluttered a grim dance as they rode back toward Gran Rio. Two men remained behind, lingering at the crossroads, monitoring the wake of the adventurers who they’d been dispatched to escort from town. Both of these men mirrored each other in time, the older could have passed for the father of the younger, and they were of a size. These otherwise similar men were, however, greatly disparate in both mien and investiture. The older of the two, Sir Gapala, was iron of hair, keen and clear of eye, but sallow of countenance. His Espanish-styled breastplate and helm were dinted and shone tarnish from decades of healthy use. Of the clothes beneath, only the emblazoned belt did signify his station as a knight of the region. The man’s clothes were as well worn as the armor covering them, and as well kept as the man upon which they were donned. The knight’s eyes focussed well into the Spyder Wood beyond his associate. They did not follow the departure of his charges. It was as if the glare of the other man’s gilt-edged, white enameled armor was overwhelming him, despite the overcast gloom of the afternoon.
When the exiles crested the hill and were swallowed up by the think moss-green wood, the knight turned to his companion. Sir Gapala was deferential toward the younger man, Alonzo Tejada, who was fair yet flinty, stern with a callous gaze. This man’s flaxen tresses fluttered like golden pennants in the spirited breeze, yet he maintained an immaculate countenance. The Captain bore the Vizcondesa’s crest upon roundel, shield, belt clasp and many other strategic locations on his person, and wore a spotless kit of plate-maille, tabard, and fox-skin cloak, despite the dusty day and mile-long ride to La Carrentera del Ray.
The two men sat astride powerful steeds in silence, and once satisfied the exiles were out of sight and their duty discharged, they slowly wheeled their destriers around, taking a lounging pace northward, back toward Gran Rio. They rode in silence for a space, the knight continuing to stare absently ahead. The golden Captain reigned his horse, stopping, a querulous look in his lapis lazuli eyes.
“Sir Gapala,” he said, rousing the older man from his reverie, “tell me… I clearly see you are troubled by this. If this is a matter that concerns Her Grace, I think now would be a better opportunity to discuss it, rather than later. In town.”
Sir Gapala drew back his reins, and turned to face the Captain. The gray man’s eyes spoke volumes; he was searching for words. Proper words. Appropriate words. Words that would not condemn him.
Captain Tejada’s gloved hands cupped the pommel of his saddle, reins held there as firmly as his gaze held fast upon the knight.
“I know there is more going on here,” said the Captain, “much more than a few troublesome goblin raiders. They could not have slain Don Hodonar in his own villa. And once their threat was gone, dispatched as they were by those meddlesome heroes, your so-called lost spirit so very conveniently found its way back to High Mancilple Cierra’s shrine. Tell me, Gapala, were you truly dead, or was it all some elaborate ruse?”
The grey knight fought himself, his brows tight in frown, his beard rippling over a clenching jaw. Shame twitched the knight’s eyes ground-ward, and silence continued to still his tongue.
“I remind you,” Tejada barked coldly, “you have a duty to the Vizcondesa! This will come out, I assure you. Your honor as a knight…”
“It was my honor that got me into all of this!” Sir Gapala interrupted. “It was honor that they played upon, and convinced me to do the things I have done… for the sake of the town.”
Captain Tejada sat his horse in silence as the wind whistled through the boughs of the Spyder Wood, stolidly waiting for Sir Gapala to gather the courage to continue. The knight’s mare shifted uneasily beneath him, and she pawed at the road. Sir Gapala shook his head in resignation, then at last continued, broken by the will of the younger man, or perhaps reassured.
“What I have done, to my dishonor, has been against my sworn vows. But I now swear to you, captain, I believed I was protecting the town’s interests. At least that was true in the beginning.”
Like a broken levee, Sir Gapala’s story flooded out, and with it a destructive torrent of accusations as devastating as any flood tide.
“It is well known that Don Hodonar was a poor mayor… not that the Vizcondesa had chosen inadequately… I mean no defamation towards her Grace, but Don Hodonar simply did not live up to her expectations. The Elder Council had stated their concern…”
“To which Her Grace objected,” cut in the Captain, “and for which she instructed the Council to do their jobs, and council the mayor, rather than submit petty complaints about him with every report.”
“Yes,” the gray knight nodded in agreement. “But certain members of the council needed a clear excuse to have the mayor replaced. And that was the beginning of my involvement in this terrible affair.”
“I do not wish to disclose which of the Elder Council approached me, for I am still duty bound to protect them, but let us say that it was a pair on the council.”
“Gapala, it is your duty to protect the Vizcondesa, not miscreant council members. I knew your honor would be your downfall, and this just proves I made the right decision when I turned down her offer of knighthood. A knight cannot keep allegiance to everyone. I’d have gone mad with all those petty, conflicting orders.”
“Yes, mad,” Sir Gapala agreed. “What I have done for the council was indeed madness. But as you will see, once I was in for a Real, I was in for a Dolar.
“I was approached by, let us just call them ‘The Conspirators’, who wanted me to help them prove that Don Hodonar was ill-suited to his position. They told me that if the town were threatened, by say, a band of goblin raiders, that the Don would handle the situation poorly. He had certainly been squandering away the people’s tax money, and we all knew the deplorable way he treated his wife Melodia, not to mention the mistresses he kept. I had heard the rumors of his affairs with their servants, though I did not want to place faith in such gossip. But that day, when it all began, I was shown a document where Don Hodonar had taken money from my funding as Sheriff, and I would have to let go half of my deputy force, as well as take a pay cut myself. The money he’d taken from me was destined to purchase a new coach for the mayor, though he rarely even left his manor, and also despite having a perfectly functioning carriage. “It was too old and out of fashion,” he’d said, and “What would the Vizcondesa think of her servant if he were seen bandying about in such a decrepit hackney”.”
The horses shifted uneasily at Sir Gapala’s emphatic exasperation. Calming himself, the knight continued. “Of course my anger was natural. Therefore, the Conspirators’ plan made complete sense to me. If the town were to undergo an attack, between Don Hodonar’s cutbacks and his general lack of temperance with the town’s money, he would certainly buckle under the threat, and the Elder Council would have a clear complaint against him.”
“So you were sent out to enlist the aid of those goblins,” stated the captain; it was not a question.
“Yes,” answered the sheriff. “I’d chased them off on several occasions, and knew the whereabouts of one of their many camps in the hills beyond the rio. I was sent with a sack of gold and a promise that they would be left unharmed if they raided the docks. In addition, they were allowed to keep any goods they captured on the raid.”
“How did that work for you? What was Don Hodonar’s response to the raids?”
“Don Hodonar surprised us all. He dug into his precious coffers and had the guard reinstated, then doubled. Also, for the protection of the citizens, he posted a curfew.”
Captain Tejada stroked his trim blonde beard. His light eyes narrowed. “He acted appropriately, as Her Grace suspected he would given such a trial. Tell me, why then did it not stop there? Why didn’t you dispatch the goblins then, or at least drive them off?”
“It was not as easy as that, Captain.” Sir Gapala’s face had soured as though he were sucking on lemons. “I was ordered to have the goblins continue the attacks. The very next attack, I was told to open the gates so they could wreak havoc inside the walls. With a clear breach, the Conspirators believed that the mayor’s resolve would buckle, and that the shame of the incident would drive him off.”
“And you went along with this folly?”
“At first I resisted. I told them that the Don had been tested, and passed the test. He had taken the proper course, and that I should gather some men to cross the rio and dispatch the threat before anyone got hurt.”
“They told me to do as I was told. They had preyed upon my honor, and I was next told that if I did not comply with them, they’d report to Don Hodonar and the Vizcondesa that the whole affair was my idea, and that I had broken my vows by endangering the town. My more honorable motives, to help the town by proving the Don incompetent, would never be believed, they threatened.
“At that point, it was my word against theirs. They had each other’s word to back them, and I stood alone.”
“It seems they exploited your weakness, and you willingly fell into their trap.” Tejada’s voice was without mercy. “What then, pray tell?”
“I was given a chest and told to bury it on the other side of the river. There was a magic password to open it without harm. I was instructed to give this password to Murg, the goblin’s leader, so that messages could be passed to him in secret. At that point, I thought that perhaps there was still a way I could help the town by continuing with the charade, so I complied.”
“Of course you did,” replied the Captain. “Yet you still went along with them when people began dying?”
“I did not want to, but by the time folks were dying, I was too involved. I was trying to save the situation, but things kept getting worse. I wanted to just disappear, but my duty to the town, however tainted, held me here.
“Then, they came up with a plan…”
“The conspirators?” chided Tejada.
“Yes. They gave me a ring, and told me the command to activate its magic. Then, during one of the goblin attacks – this one taking place just after dawn, so that there would be ample witnesses – a great illusion spell was used on me. I activated the ring at that moment, as commanded, and vanished – invisible. To the witnesses it appeared that a great pillar of fire from the heavens consumed me, and I was nothing but a small pile of ash. I quickly went to my office, where I camped out until more orders were given me.”
“I’d heard about the flame strike,” said the Captain, “but thought it odd. Nobody here in town has that kind of power, not even the High Manciple. A spell of such magnitude was surely beyond the ken of goblin sorcery. Yes. An illusion, then, makes perfect sense. What happened then?”
“The attacks, I guess, were not having the appropriate response from Don Hodonar. I don’t know much of what happened during that time, because I had to keep a low profile. I spent much of my time in hiding, waiting for new orders. At one point, I thought they’s abandoned me.”
Captain Tejada canted his head and shot the sheriff a tetchy glare. “You sat by and let them continue their plans? Why didn’t you investigate them? Given your invisibility, you had the perfect means to conduct an investigation.”
Sir Gapala exhaled, more moan than sigh. “I know. You are right. I should have, and that is yet another shame on my honor. I was so caught up in fear and shame, that it did not even occur to me that I could use that tool to make things right. I was simply more focused on hiding. When Don Hodonar was murdered… my shame was complete.”
“Why is that? What had you to do with the Don’s death?”
Gapala of Gran Rio was not a man known for outbursts of emotion. He prided himself on remaining calm in the face of the most dire obstacles. Even when his anger got the better of him, he was quick to contain it and hide it from others. But now, beneath red-rimmed watery eyes, twin tears tracked down his cheeks and into his beard.
“I swear to you, Alonzo… Captain… I did not know they planned Don Hodonar’s assassination. Perhaps from the orders I was given, I should have suspected, but…” The knight’s words faded to silence.
“What? Tell me!” commanded the Captain at last.
“I… I was ordered to ensure the gate to the manor was unlocked, and… and also the door to the manor’s servants entry. I did not know why they would order this, so after sneaking inside invisibly, and waiting for an opportunity to unbolt door and gate, I stayed nearby in hiding. I thought perhaps they might have intended for the goblins to seize upon the house. But I had been given no orders to pass to the goblins, nor had I been told to open either of the river gates. I never did see anyone enter the manor house. When I heard the screams and cries of grief from within the manor, when Don Hodonar was found slain, I could not even respond. Fear had gripped me. Fear that I would have given myself up as the traitor I was. I drank myself to sleep that night, and have done so many nights since.”
“Yes, yes. But why did they kill him? Was it merely to assume his place? Was Don Rodrigo behind it?” Captain Tejada scanned the woods nearby, insuring their conversation was not overheard. They were still a mile from Gran Rio’s gates, but men like him were ever vigilant for eavesdropping conspirators.
“They later told me, when I asked the very same questions of them… they told me the late mayor had hired some old acquaintances; adventurers. The Elder Council, the Conspirators told me, had previously requested the mayor send report of the town’s troubles to the Vizcondesa, but Don Hodonar refused. His pride would not allow it.
“The Conspirators said he brought his adventuring allies to investigate, to get to the bottom of things. The Don was killed before they arrived, and once they did arrive, they were never told of Don Hodonar’s plans for them, and they were never asked to undertake an investigation. Instead, they were split up and sent out with pleas of help. It was the council that sent them out, according to the Conspirators. Those pleas, however, would never reach their destinations. With Don Hodonar dead, the Conspirators did not want the news, and I imagine the associated shame, to spread to our neighbors. They arranged for… accidents… to happen to the couriers.”
The wind suddenly gusted, knocking free a dead branch from a nearby tree and spooking Sir Gapala’s mare. Both men instantly drew steel, but upon inspection of the area from whence the noise occurred, they were satisfied of their seclusion on the road.
Captain Tejada slid his pristine sword back into its enameled sheath, and turned once more to the grey knight, who by now no longer tried to hide his shame, or his sorrow. “You mentioned certain accidents… to the couriers. Please elaborate.”
Sir Gapala nodded, wiped his cheeks with the sleeve of his gambeson, then continued.
“I was sent to gather the goblins and lead them to ambush two of the adventurers, destined for Alhambra. I am fairly sure the assassin, whoever he was, had charge of to waylay the second group. As for the last messenger… For some weeks, there had been a pack of thugs residing at the Dead Duck, with no particular aims or employment. This group left town a day before the adventurers were dispatched, and I now suspect they were sent to waylay the remaining courier.
“As for my group, we subdued the two we were sent after: a halfling and an Espagian rogue. They put up little fight once they realized their hopeless situation. The goblins ferried them across the rio and were instructed to ride them into the hills. The worgs bound like lightning, if you’ve never seen them run. Once taken to the mountains, the goblins were instructed to let their captives go, but I am fairly certain the goblins slew them. They may have been given orders to that, but not from me. I just pray the souls of those two innocents find their way to a shrine. My shame and dishonor fears otherwise.”
The golden warrior uttered a snide chuckle. “In for a Real, in for a Crown, you should have said. By the gods, man, you are despicable.” Captain Tejada’s tone did not match his words. To a careful observer, it would have seemed the captain was appraising the knight akin to a hostler determining if a steed was best fit for riding or for labor.
“I kept telling myself I would make this right,” continued the knight, “that once this was over, I could redeem myself and atone for my wrongdoings, well intended or no. I still plan on seeking atonement for my sins and crimes, may the gods forgive me.” Almost as an afterthought, Sir Gapala added, “In a way, this confession to you, it is a great relief. Getting this out and into the open… it…”
“Yet you still hid and did nothing, for weeks.”
“No,” Gapala swallowed. “You are correct Captain. I tried to find a way. I wanted to confess, but I didn’t know who were conspirators and who were not. For all I knew and suspected, the entire Elder Council were complicit with the murders. By then my guards had been dying regularly, defending the town from the goblins. I suspected some of their deaths were not committed at goblin hands, but perhaps by assassin’s blade. I was unable to discover the fact, for I was no longer given orders to pass on to the goblins. Someone else was delivering messages to the goblins. Also, I determined that as long as Murg lived, if were to be captured, I was sure he would implicate me as his sole contact.“
“Then came the adventurers we just escorted from town,” Gapala said, jerking his head back toward La Carrentera del Ray and the now long-departed exiles. “The Elder Council decided to put these fool-hardy adventurers to the task of killing the goblins. I am certain it was their wish to bury the conspiracy behind Don Hodonar’s murder with the corpses of the goblins. Once the goblins were dead, these adventurers would be on their way, none the wiser… or so hoped the council. I am sure of that.”
“Yes, that sounds like the council alright.” Captain Tejaja yawned. It was the hour for siesta and it was apparent he was growing tired of this tale. Still, he asked, “Why, do you think, did the council simply not send these fools up to the castle with word for the Vizcondesa?”
“Obviously, that tack had failed once before,” the knight replied. “I am sure, after so much time had passed, with no word having had returned by the first set of messengers, the council was just itching for the whole affair to be put to rest.”
Tejada nodded his agreement.
“You call them fools, Captain,” continued Sir Gapala, “but they were quite clever. Like yourself, they knew that the goblins could not have assassinated the mayor. Goblins are not creatures of stealth and subtlety. Why, they even came snooping around my office, and nearly caught me within. Thank goodness I still possessed that magical ring, or they would have had me out.”
Gapala paused, a flash of doubt touching his eyes. At last he reconciled himself, and decided to confide his previous thought. “I know it would have been madness,” the grey knight said, “but I almost revealed myself to that dwarf, Dorak. I nearly confessed all to him. I had not been drinking that night, thankfully, or I am sure things would have gone quite differently.”
Restlessness overwhelmed the captain then, and he urged his charger on at a slow walk. “Finish your confession, Sir,” he said. “You still have not told me about your miraculous resurrection.
What of that?”
Swinging his own destrier around and alongside the captain, the knight concluded his tale. “I was distraught, and the scare at my office… and the fear of being discovered by these outsiders… caused me many sleepless nights. I had run out of my stores of wine…”
“Yes, yes… get on with it. I’ve no need for the trivialities of your conscience!”
“Of course, Captain. Being distraught, as I said, had weakened my resolve. The only person I could trust was her holiness, the High Manciple. I went to Manciple Cierra secretly, wearing the ring. I spoke to her when she was alone in prayer.”
“Do not be alarmed good lady,” I said. “It is I, Sir Gapala.”
“She did not flinch one bit, solid woman that she is. “You have a troubled heart, my dear,” was her reply. “I have suspected you were not dead. Tell me what brings you to the Hearth of blessed Anwyn, skulking unseen like a servant of Asmodeus?”.”
“At that point, I was beyond complicated explanations. I still did not know as much as I do now. I simply told her I had compromised myself, and my honor. I told her I could not come into the open and confess myself, for everyone believed me dead. I promised her, once the worst of the situation had passed, I would confess all, and atone for what I’d done, even if my intentions at the start had been honorable.”
Tejada reigned his horse to a standstill, and stared impatiently at Sir Gapala. The man did not seem happy for this latest disclosure.
Stopping and turning back to the captain, the grey knight continued. His temperament belied the fact that he was disconcerted by the captain’s disapproval. “It was her idea. Manciple Cierra’s. She reassured me. Told me everything would be fine; it would all work out. I didn’t see how that was possible, and still don’t. But the High Manciple told me that we would be telling a “little fib” for the greater good. She suggested we tell everyone that I was miraculously raised, that I had found my way, in spirit form, back to the Hearth.”
“She did, did she?” said the captain dubiously.
“Aye, that she did. And to my surprise, the ruse seemed to work. I was welcomed back into the town a hero, having sacrificed a gift in its defense. Even the Elder Council was quick to reward me, once I was ‘raised’. They even offered me a seat on the council, on the condition that Don Rodrigo get the Vizcondesa’s blessing to replace Don Hodonar as mayor.
“The rest, I think you know. You were here to witness the unfolding drama of the last few days.”
A long moment passed then between the two warriors. The wind whistle and groaning limbs of the trees, the occasional animal noise and horse whicker were the only sounds. Captain Tejada held those lapis eyes expectantly. They bored right into the wayward knight. Yet Sir Gapala, for the first time, held the gaze, his own fulvus eyes shielding him against the wroth of his better. What the golden captain was waiting to hear, did not materialize.
“You have not said the names of your conspirators,” the captain chided at last, breaking the long, tense silence. “You would hold to your honor and protect them even after they betrayed you, dishonored you?”
“I am a Knight, Alonzo,” was Sir Gapala’s reply. “I failed. I dishonored myself by mine own actions. My atonement is to regain my honor. Disparaging the Conspirators will not gain me back my lost honor. They will speak for their actions, I will speak for mine.”
“Fool,” uttered the captain. His tone was low but the knight heard it well enough.
“Fool I may be,” said Gapala, “but I will remain an honorable fool.”
The golden captain adjusted his posture as well as his hold on the reins. Although he was, sitting his horse, of a height with Sir Gapala, he was none the less looking down upon the knight. His next words, surely a test, were delivered clearly and in a steady voice. “Had you simply told me the Zambrano’s were the conspirators, the Vizcondesa might well have let you live.”
The captain then spurred his horse onward, north towards Gran Rio. The expression of surprise, no matter how faint it may have been, was plain on Sir Gapala’s face. For a long moment, Sir Gapala eyed the road from whence they’d recently come, back toward La Carrentera del Ray. A nest of quail burst from the brush nearby, having taken flight escaping a nearby prowling fox. The brown mare skittered sideways two steps before Sir Gapala reined her in.
Sir Gapala, true to his honor, guided his steed around, towards Gran Rio, his town, and his charge, and urged her onward.
The sun crept across the sky and crawled behind Spyder Wood. The clouds had fled shortly after the knight’s departure, and even the wind had calmed to a gentle zephyr. Although Faro was a dark orb hovering lightlessly above the western wood, Kismé shone brightly, a near full moon topping above the eastern edge of the trees. Her glow lit the tops of the trees, festooned as they were with the famed webs for which the wood was named. They looked like an endless row of dark candles, aglow with the white light of the moon’s flame.
From the thick brush below, as silent as shadow, crawled the little halfling. She stood, smiling, and brushing dirt and nettles from her trousers. Putting her back, for the last time, to Gran Rio, Obedient Sister Duskridden Shadowborn, holy warrior of Mormekar, skipped merrily along the road. She’d been witness to the knight’s confession, and the satisfied smile on her face told such a tale. Her companions, though surely worried about their friend, would forgive her tardiness, with the news she would soon bestow upon them.