They rode for a few minutes in silence, then Niall spoke, “I don’t trust him.”

Gwyneira always appreciated when he spoke his mind, in private, “House Rhys has always been a respected member of the Council. Malachi’s father was a trusted advisor to the Crown.” Her practiced words came off sharply. She stopped her horse in front of a small, modest stone building just outside town. “But keep an eye on him,” she winked as she dismounted.

Niall dropped from his horse, feeling some of the tension in his back soften. He preferred being out in the country, away from the other Lords. Eldred was an old friend, to them both.

He brought the horses inside the small yard, paused as he tied their lead ropes to the fence. The air was stale and quiet of the forest seemed unnatural.  Niall’s skin on the back of his neck prickled on instinct, he sprinted to the door, and although he was a full 4 inches shorter, he passed Gwyneira and grabbed her wrist before she could knock, startling the queen. She turned, but stifled a protest when she saw the Commander’s sword was drawn and radiating with a dark aura.

Niall released her. Carefully sliding a dagger out of the folds of her gown, she nodded, took two silent steps backward, bracing for what they might find. There was an imbalance in the energy around the building, she cursed under her breath at her carelessness.

The intensity of the aura around Niall’s relic meant there could be a rift in the Void close by. The queen tightened her grip on her dagger as the door swung open with little resistance. Inside the cabin was dark and still. 

Niall kept his back to the doorway and surveyed the room. It was small, with doors to the east and west. Several pieces of wooden furniture lay in his path to the east door.

Someone could be hiding there, he thought.

He had only taken a step inside, when something the size of a small child sprung out from behind a wooden bench. The creature was dark and slick with a long tail. Sharp teeth flashed white as it lunged past the Commander and bolted for the door, straight toward Gwyneira. The creature hit her dead on, knocking her backward off the porch. She screamed and toppled backward, a 50-pound rat crashing down on her chest.

At the sound of her distress, Niall was at her side, but she gasped, “Eldred, find Eldred!” When Niall had disappeared into the building, Gwyneira rolled the nasty beast on its back, her dagger lodged deep in its flesh. As she withdrew the dagger, the blade pulsated with an iridescent glow and wisps of smoke rose up from the burning flesh. Gwyneira covered a dark gem on the end of the dagger and slowly the glow faded. The body of the rat slumped into a grotesque mass of bones and seared flesh as it disintegrated.

“He’s not in there. What the …?” he stared at the rancid flesh and covered his face with his tunic sleeve. “Come on, m’lady, we must leave. It’s not safe here.”

The Commander had to settle the horses now distressed and nervously prodding the ground around them, trying to get as far away from the stench as possible. Gwyneira made sure to conceal the dagger in the layers of her gown before she mounted her mare.

Soon the Commander would want to know what had happened, how she was able to take down the rat with one strike. But she wasn’t ready to reveal anything, not here, not yet. She rode on in silence, but she could feel his eyes boring into the back of her head. Fortunately, he was not the Enchanter. She shuddered.  Just the thought of him made her skin crawl.

“Were there any signs of a struggle?” changing the subject. .

“That’s the thing, except for that rat, it was as if no one had been there for weeks. Even the rat had only been there for a few moments, apparently. There were no signs it had been eating anything, no scratches, marks, food scraps. It’s like it had just appeared when we arrived.” As he finished, their eyes flashed with realization.

“The Void.” they said in unison. 

“Someone opened a rift in the Void,” Gwyneira continued.

“But why? If Eldred hasn’t been there, which is evident from the layer of the dust, why would anyone want to go there, at this time of night?” Niall’s voice trailed off, “unless…”

“Unless,” but Gwyneira finished, “they knew we were coming.”

“But wouldn’t they have stayed to fight us or send something more dangerous than a lousy rat?” he wrinkled his forehead, then shook his head vigorously. “No. There have been several strange occurrences in the past few months, this could just be another one.”

“What if they didn’t know Eldred wasn’t home,” the queen raised her voice, “They were after him!”

“Who? There aren’t many who can open a rift.” He shook his head again. No, this isn’t right, he thought.

Gwyneira sat up in her saddle, looking around anxiously, “It has been a long time since anyone has truly used the Void’s magic. As children we are taught the legends, but Wielders know the true nature of the Void, and of the creatures of light and dark magic.” She continued, almost mumbling to herself, “It has been ages since creatures from legend had been seen in the realm, like pitch rats.”

She stopped her horse in the middle of the trail, “Unless, the legends are returning.”

The Commander nearly fell out of his saddle when his horse careened into Gwyneira’s. “Whoa,” he calmed his horse and stifled a laugh at the suggestion. “Really? Those are just stories for children. There aren’t really any magical creatures with light and dark powers. The Void is just… well, the Void, the source of the Relics’ powers.”

“And what about the rat thing?” she challenged him.

“What the overgrown squirrel? A freak of nature. I’m more concerned that one of the Council is trying to play fast and loose with their Relic and steal power from the other Lords.”

Gwyneira pursed her lips a him, but she frowned and nodded. With Malachi here, that made sense. She snapped the reins of her horse and sprinted toward the manor.

“Crazy woman!” Niall half-shouted at her and kicked his horse to a gallop. As he caught up to her, he grabbed the reins of her horse.. “And what are you going to do? We don’t have any proof of…” tossing his hands up wildly, “…anything. Slow down, think.” He managed to get her to stop. “Let’s find out if Cedric knows where Eldred went.”

Gwyneira sighed. Even if Malachi was involved, how could she prove it? She hadn’t even brought the rat remains. She started to laugh as she imagined dragging a putrid rat to the Drystan Manor on Harvest Fest Eve. Not exactly an appropriate offering. 

Oh, I haven’t gotten my offering yet, the queen thought. “The markets will be closed by now,” she mused aloud.

Niall puzzled at her, “What use are the markets? Do you think Eldred is there?”

“Sorry, my friend, I was thinking of an offering for the Harvest Fest. With all the … commotion, I had not acquired an offering for the bonfire tomorrow.”

“Hmmm, not thinking of the rat, where you?”

“Have you been taking lessons from Malachi?” she jested, but lately, he was getting extremely close to her, could almost read her mind. She shook the thought from her head, that was his job, to anticipate her moves, which she had to admit was not easy of late.

“I am sure we can send your maids into the market tomorrow. Come now, they will be missing us at supper, and we should try to find out what Lord Drystan knows about Eldred’s whereabouts.” Niall released the reins and trotted alongside Gwyneira in silence as he prepared for the possible scenarios that could unfold, Cedric feigning ignorance, becoming enraged at such an outlandish accusation, or sending out a search party. Maybe all three.

And then there was the Enchanter. Lord Rhys had a way of being in the middle of a scandal. But something bothered the Commander about his unexpected appearance so far south, and at a “peasant festival”. Niall absently tapped on the hilt of his sword. With each touch, the obsidian in the Relic pulsed like a gentle wave of dark magic through his body tinting his pupils a bit darker than black.

“Of course,” Gwyneira’s comment fell on deaf ears. She rode the rest of the way in silence.

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