The creature stopped by the torch and at first looked like it was pulling something out of her eye. Then Heinrich realised the creature was actually tugging at one of her eye balls. She tugged and until she ripped out one of the pig eyes and threw the putrid seeing organ onto the ground. Then reaching down she picked up a small case at the base of the torch stand. Inside this case was a dozen disembodied eyeballs. The creature selected one and proceeded to jam it into the empty eye socket. Heinrich watched the creature adjust the eyeball by rotating it into position with both hands. Once the creature was satisfied with her new eye she picked up the container and the torch, and plodded off into the forest.
Heinrich watched the light slowly grow dim and then disappear into the abyss of tree trunks. Buried in the blackness of the forest he wrapped himself up tightly in his cloak. He caught himself murmuring prayers and had to cover his mouth for fear that the other creatures might be lurking in the forest nearby. He eventually decided against moving and thought better to wait until sunrise.
The following morning Sir Randall was woken by the other night watchmen and informed that Heinrich had gone missing during the night. The thane sprain out of bed; fully armoured and readied himself within minutes. He called up all the young men of the village and sent them out on patrols in groups of two. Klara had organised a group of young women eager to aid in the defence of the village.
“Sir Randall, I have here five women who wish to join in on the search for Heinrich in the woods.”
Randall looked them over, “Do you have any weapons?”
The women presented their slings and a number of large sharp rocks. They had clearly stayed up late the previous evening crafting themselves from weapons.
“Very good, now have any of you any combat experience?”
The women shook their heads.
“I suggest that instead you make your way over behind the stables and practice with your slings. Until you are confident with them I don’t want to put you in any risk.”
Klara frowned, “Surely sir, it is not too dangerous for us to just search in the woods for him like the other men? We have each of us gone there in groups to gather roots, berries, nuts, and mushrooms. It hasn’t been a problem for us in the past.”
Randall shook his head, “No, not now while there is danger here.”
“But what danger is there here now sir? Surely if there were that many robbers in the woods they would have attacked us by now?”
Randall eyed her carefully, he considered pulling rank with her, but decided instead to work on improving the trust with the villagers, “The danger is worse than mere robbers. There is band of alchemists at large.”
Klara squinted, “What’s an alchemist sir?”
Randall shook his head, “I don’t have time to explain, I need to move out into the woods and help with the search.”
The Thane mounted his horse and trotted off towards the grove. The young women gathered around Klara. Ennlin embraced Klara affectionately.
“You speak so bravely to a thane for a peasant, Klara,” cried Ennlin.
“It’s easy dear Ennlin. I just think of Heinrich out there lost or wounded, and I want to be out looking for him.”
“But what about the Alchemists? What are they?”
This time is was Helga who answered, “They’re wizards. They have magic potions and secret knowledge.”
“How do you know this Helga?” asked Klara
“I heard about them some years ago on a trip into town. They say alchemists seek ways of turning lead into gold and how to live forever.”
“Well they don’t sound particularly dangerous, nutty, but not dangerous by any means.”
“Well, I heard they sometimes use people in their magic making, even young little children. They milk them for their blood.”
“Oh my!” gasped Ennlin clutching her hands over her face with horror.
Helga started laughing hysterically. Klara scowled her, “you shouldn’t make jokes like that Helga, Ennlin is still very young. She doesn’t understand your dark humour.”
“Who says that I’m joking?” Helga erupted into more laughter.
Klara herded the women up to the stables to practice their sling throwing.
Randall was able to cover more ground on horseback than any of the villagers. He quickly covered a large area calling out Heinrich’s name. Heinrich stirred in this hiding place, during the night he’d grown so cold he’d lost consciousness. At the sound of his name he tried calling out but was too weak. He beat the side of the tree with his numb fists. As feeble as the sound was, it was enough for Randall.
He looked across and saw Heinrich struggling in the tree hollow. He swooped down and pulled him up. His arms were almost frozen stiff. The thane pulled off his riding cloak and wrapped it tightly around him.
“Who did this to you?” asked Randall.
“The monster… the mon-ster…” Heinrich struggled to get each syllable out.
Randall hoisted him up into his horse and took him back to the village. There he ordered the town’s folk to start a great fire to help warm Heinrich up. Klara ran to Heinrich and clutched him close to her bosom. He shivered and felt cold like a large lump of ice. He kept trying to speak but the Klara begged him to sleep as the other villages stoked the fire.
“What happened out there?” demanded Otto who was looking down at the helpless Heinrich.
“He couldn’t tell me anything more than that some monster attacked him.”
The villages nearby all gasped with horror, except for Otto who broke out in a break belly laugh and was soon joined in by Helga and a few other villages half-heartedly.
“The fool got lost in the wood and almost froze to death. That’s all,” explained Otto.
Randall stared at Otto. Otto eyed him back with an impudent flaring of this eyebrows.
“Otto, I remind you of your rank, do you understand me?” said the Thane.
Otto sighed, “yes, sir.”
Randall maintained his disciplined gaze for a few moments longer. “From now on, no one is to enter the forest. Even at night, and even with a companion. Normally, a village wouldn’t be permitted to have a wall around it. But am I going to authorise the building of a motte and bailey along the northern tree line of the village.”