Heads turned towards Ithelus, faces showing as pale ovals in the grey light. Running nearer, he saw Ricard in the centre of the huddle, the young nobleman the only one among them not wearing a coat or cloak against the rain. One of the shorter figures pulled back the hood of an oilskin coat, and Ithelus recognised Aloysius Faulebrand’s rounded face.
Behind him, over on his right, there was a distant sound of splashing and scuffling, and Leopold came staggering out of the trees on the other side of the Taalsbruck. Dripping with muddy water, he too ran towards the crowd in the square.
” he called. “He’s here!
Illiiya stared at the knight, and the knight stared back. He didn’t seem troubled by her words; he only looked back in silence, regarding the two of them like animals caught in a trap.
After a few seconds’ hesitation, he turned away. Pieter’s heart raced, daring to hope that Illiiya’s show of defiance had deterred him. He was soon to be disappointed: reaching the nearest tree, the knight reached up, breaking off a thick branch with two hacking blows of his sword.
Picking up the fallen branch, the knight broke away its twigs and leaves, holding the jagged end up before his eyes. He looked back towards the shrine, and Pieter felt a cold sense of understanding creep over him.
How good a throw is it?
Planting one end in the earth, the knight began to crudely whittle the other into more of a point. He had taken three strokes when voices began to rise from the direction of the river – the sound of a large group of people approaching.
The visored face turned at the sound. He hesitated for a moment, seeming to weigh his choices. Finally, betraying the tiniest flicker of frustration, he threw his makeshift javelin down to the ground. Striding over to his horse, he pulled himself back into the saddle. Casting one last glance back over his shoulder at Pieter and Illiiya down below, he kicked his heels against his horse’s flanks. Horse and rider sped back into the embrace of the forest, vanishing into the shadows beneath the branches in an eddy of disturbed leaves.
It felt like an eternity later when the first of the villagers reached the shrine, advancing carefully with lanterns held high. Ithelus and Ricard were with them, the young nobleman’s fine face and hair scratched and tousled. In the rear of the group, Leopold was practically towing his father: the younger Faulebrand looked as if he had taken a sudden swim.
Crows croaked far away in the forest, and no lightning-bolt of steel and horseflesh came bursting back onto the road to ambush the Hohlesbruckers. The knight was gone.