“What did you tell her, sir?”
“That I might need to murder Otto if he should ever return here,” said Randall flatly.
“Sir Randall, that was most improper of you to say. Even though it may well be true the girl is young and easily frightened by such ideas.”
Randall smiled and looked at Klara warmly. He motioned for her to sit on the stool Ennlin had just vacated.
“Well said, lady Klara, I heed your wisdom and will watch my tongue around such tender minded girls in the future.”
“You do me too much honour, sir; I am merely serving you faithfully.”
“No, you are being honest and speaking your true mind. That is the mark of a lady, and I appreciate that.”
Klara bowed her head courteously.
“Thank you, sir.”
“Tell me what is the situation with the villagers?”
“While no one is saying that they do not respect you, sir. Few are taking your words seriously. Most people are ignoring your instructions to improve the defences of the village. There is much sympathy for Otto’s position. Most villagers complain that we have had to deal with raiders for years and the lord never bothered to send us help then, so why send us a thane now?”
Randall nodded thoughtfully, “That confirms what I believed to be the case. I shall have to take care not to kill Otto when he comes back from the forest.”
“When he comes back, sir? Do you not think he will keep his word and not return until you leave? He is quite a stubborn man.”
“I think you are right lady Klara, but I will tell you more when he returns, for now that conversation would be premature.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“What are you thankful for?”
“For respecting my counsel, sir.”
“I am grateful for your counsel, lady.”
The tender exchange of compliments was interrupted by the sounds of Heinrich stirring. Klara quickly found a bucket of water and rag to douse his forehead. However, no sooner had the water touched his forehead that Heinrich pushed it away.
“I am fine, no water please, I am good,” Heinrich’s voice betrayed that he was still not fully recovered.
Randall leaned in, “are you well enough to tell us what happened to you?”
Heinrich nodded, “Yes, I saw a light in the forest, it was a fiery torch. The devils were no doubt using it to kind their way back after raiding out supplies.”
“Did you see any thieves?”
“Yes, that I did sir, I saw a little woman. But she wasn’t an real woman. She was some sort of devil woman. A real disgusting beast. She plucked her own eye out of her head and put a new one in like it was ordinary for her to do.”
“What did she look like?”
“She had skin like a slug. Gray and slimy. Utterly disgusting. When she stood near the torch I could see right through her.”
“Did you see anything else? Where she went for instance?”
Heinrich shook his head. He recalled all the other details he could but nothing more of value could be gleaned from them. Randall thanked him and ordered him not to leave the village by himself in that manner again. He left Heinrich in the care of Klara and started a patrol of the village. Everywhere he went the eyes of the villages tracked him surreptitiously. Some were digging trenches, some working in the fields, while others were arguing with the ones working trying to convince them to stop what they were doing.
Randall finished his patrol and was sitting in the middle of the village watching the sun setting into the forest canopy. The village dogs started barking at once and from out of the brush stumbled Otto. The dogs surrounded him barking frantically. They quickly drew a large number of villagers. Otto had his hands out in front of him in a vain gesture urging the dogs to calm down. Eventually the other villagers called them away and Otto stumbled sheepishly into the village centre. Randall studied him carefully. Klara and Heinrich arrived at the scene along with Okken.
“Otto! You have returned so soon?”
“Soon? Is it not late in the day?”
“You forget my rank Otto,” said Randall firmly.
Otto stared dopily at Randall for several moments. His mouth gaping wide.
“Sorry sir, of course sir, I forgot sir,” Otto sounded very earnest. Klara noticed than Randall’s hands were clasping the hilt of his sword.
Okken stepped forward to speak, “Where’s your axes, Otto?”
Otto turned to face Okken, still gaping, and pointed back the way he had come, “Back there in the forest. I forgot them.”
Randall was so tense that he appeared like a statue. Klara sensed his tension she was about to say something but noticed that Ennlin had noticed Randall poise too. Ennlin looked like she was ready to scream so Klara quickly darted over to her and pulled her aside. Heinrich spoke next.
“What happened to you out there? Were you attacked?”
Otto’s eyes wandered about barely focusing on anything about him.
“Yes, I was attacked.” He said at last.
“Who attacked you? Was it-,” Heinrich was cut off by an elbow in the ribs by Randall.
“Who attacked you?” repeated Randall.
Otto’s slow gaze drifted between the two men.
“Bandits. Bandits attacked me.”
There was immediately an exited murmur from the villagers, several of the young men peeled off and started scanning the perimeter. When the conversation had settled down Randall stepped forward putting one leg forward authoritatively on a rock in front of him.
“So now you see why we need to improve the village’s defences?”
“Will you help us by cutting down some big frees for lumber?”
“Yes sir, right away sir!”
It was completely dark by now but Otto turned as if to go to the forest to cut some wood in the twilight. Okken interrupted him.
“But Otto, you haven’t got an axe!”
Otto stopped and glanced at each face cast in his direction blankly. Then without warning the big man burst into massive fitful sobbing. Klara returned to Randall’s side and clutched the thane’s elbow fearfully. The woodcutter tumbled to his knees and sobbed violently, while intermittently howling, “my axes, my axes!”