Early in the evening they reached the path that led to the house in the woods.
Lee-Lack glanced over his shoulder.
“Follow me,” he said, riding into the path.
After about a mile he stopped.
“Get off your horse, and lead it into the trees to your right until you can’t see the path anymore and, conversely, you can’t be seen from the path. Take the spare horse as well. Make yourself comfortable. This might take awhile, but I will come back for you.”
Though he didn’t like being left alone, Yllyesh nodded, dismounted, and guided his horse among the trees. When Lee-Lack had been gone for five minutes or so, the Mukthar, leading his horses by their reins, reemerged from the trees, crossed the path, and went into the forest on the opposite direction.
Lee-Lack tried to formulate a plausible story that would explain how he had come home without any gold but with a spare horse and a young Mukthar in tow. Nothing convincing came to mind, and as he got nearer the house in the clearing, he slowed down.
It was still light, and as he wasn’t riding at full speed, he saw the rope that had been strung low over the path between two trees just in time to avoid it. It wasn’t a sophisticated trap, but all the same, his horse could have stumbled over it and either he or his animal, or both, could have lost their balance and fallen. At best he would have hurt himself in a nasty way. If worst had come to worst, he would have broken his neck.
He cursed under his breath. With a lopsided smile, he guided his steed carefully over the rope, then he gave it the spurs.
“Crazy old bat,” he raged silently, “did you really think I would fall for this primitive devi—”
He pulled the reins sharply and the horse reared up coming to a brusque halt.
No, his grandmother knew he would be able to avoid her crude contraption. That meant it wasn’t the trap. Or rather, the trap was that he was meant to discover it in time. It was designed to lower his alertness for the real thing.
He estimated he was only about three miles away from the clearing, and he decided to get off his horse and cover the remaining distance on foot.
After five minutes he stopped. It was high summer, yet there were a lot of leaves and branches on the path. And it hadn’t stormed lately. He went to investigate. As he had suspected, the leaves hid a piece of rough cloth, held in place by some rusty tent pegs which had been stretched over a shallow trench, going the full width of the path.
Lee-Lack scratched his head. Lee-Lonia was an old woman, and preparing the two traps must have taken a lot of work. The ditch wasn’t deep, but a horse could have stumbled and broken a leg.
The thought made him furious. What was she thinking, playing these dangerous games? Well, he had avoided both of them.
“And what if there is a third?” he thought as he mounted his horse. “Or she could shoot a poisoned arrow at me while I’m on the lookout for more of her contraptions.”
He found nothing further in the way of traps and ambushes and he arrived at the house about forty minutes later.
“Are you sure the treasure is inaccessible?” Lee-Lonia asked as she served Lee-Lack a loaf of bread, covered with a thick layer of butter.
“Difficult to say. One thing is sure, you’d need a lot of men, and the whole system of passageways and chambers is unstable. The least tampering could cause further collapses and make the problem worse. Not to mention that those men would be risking their lives almost every minute they were working.”
“You needn’t tell them that,” Lee-Lonia said. “Not in so many words.”
“She’s taking it better than I’d thought.”
Lee-Lack had feared his grandmother would have been mad, livid with rage when she learned that there would be no more gold. She wasn’t. Yes, he had seen a dangerous flicker in her eye, but it had passed quicker than lightning. Nevertheless, his uneasiness grew by the minute. Added to that he was extremely irritated. One shouldn’t be afraid of one’s own grandmother. It wasn’t natural.
He took a sip of wine.
“You look tired, Lee-Lack,” his grandmother said. “Go lie down under the chestnut tree. I’ll join you in a few minutes when the almond cookies are done.”
The smell had always been there, but his grandmother mentioning the almond crescents drew his attention to it.
“Why not?” he thought. “I do feel a bit tired. The sun is still shining and there is a cool breeze.”
“Yeah, okay,” he said. “I still have to tell her about Yllyesh, and, by the Gods, whatever she says, she can’t be in a good mood.” He took the jar with wine and two beakers. “Bring some of those cookies when they’re done,” he said as he walked outside.
Lee-Lack sat down and leaned against the chestnut tree. He poured himself a beaker of wine and started slowly drinking it.
”A Mukthar. However am I going to explain to her why I brought him along? I am not certain why myself.”
He began to feel tired. Maybe it was his body reacting to the journeys that had now become unnecessary. As he heard his grandmother coming, and smelled the delicious scent of her almond cookies, he lay down in the grass and closed his eyes.
Lee-Lonia knelt behind him. She took his head and laid it in her lap.
“That’s right,” she cooed. “Close your eyes. Rest for a while. We can talk later.”
The natural scents of trees and plants mingled with that of the freshly baked cookies and his gran’s clothes, smelling of soap. The sun still gave some warmth, and he was lying comfortably. It all made him drowsy. He had earned some rest and everything else could wait.
“Lee-Lack,” Lee-Lonia asked in a soothing voice, “you’re very sure the rest of the gold is as good as lost?”
“At the very least we’d need help. A lot of help. The risks—”
“The risks would be unacceptable.”
“Even the most credulous of whomever we hire to help us dig out the entrance would soon guess we were looking for the treasure of the Renuvian Plains Robbers. What is to keep them from turning against us?” Lee-Lack wanted to reply, but he was far too tired to speak. Or to open his eyes.
“It doesn’t matter, my boy,” he heard his grandmother mumble. “You already brought home enough gold to live off very comfortably.”
“You’ll get some. More than you deserve but not nearly as much as you think you’re entitled to,” he thought. “For the moment it can all wait. First, a little nap…”
Through his closed eyelids he noticed that it was getting darker. He was about to doze off, and it was so tempting to let himself drift off into a peaceful slumber.
Then he heard a voice calling from far away.
“Lee-Lash, Lee-Lash, look out.” It sounded like Yllyesh. “Open your eyes, Lee-Lash. Open your eyes. Open them now.”
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