Friday, February 29, 2008

Chapter Three

A slow, steady throb of pain beat a rhythm behind Brayden's eyes. Awareness scratched at the edges of his mind, driven by that very same pain. Slowly, his senses returned. At first it was the dull ache in his head. Then, he noticed the scratchy texture of whatever it was that he lay upon. Next, the pleasant scent of roasting meat tantalized his nose, making his stomach rumble. Finally, the sound of nearby merriment drew Brayden to full wakefulness.

Gritting his teeth, Brayden rolled onto his side. He was rewarded with a fit of racking coughs. After resting on his side for several minutes Brayden steeled himself for an attempt to sit up.

Beginning slowly, he used his arm to lever himself upward. Pain shot through his ribs like an icy knife. It robbed him of his breath, sending him into another paroxysm of coughing. He gasped for breath, nearly toppling off of the cot but steadying himself. Groaning in pain, Brayden took a moment to recover his breath and a bit of his strength. A voice from somewhere inside his head chided him to lay back down and rest, but concern for Sethyr drowned out the voice.

Brayden rubbed his eyes, massaging his temples to clear his head. He opened his eyes for the first time. Taking in his surroundings, Brayden pondered his situation. He sat on a rough cot covered by a thin, homespun blanket. The cot sat in one corner of a crude, yet neatly kept hut.

A workbench of some sort stood against the far wall. Several shelves were mounted above the workbench, each lined with ceramic jars of various sizes and shapes. Each was labeled, but in the dim light of the hut Brayden could not read the flowing script from where he sat.

With a start, he realized that he was wearing nothing but a long, linen nightshirt. Someone must have changed his clothes after he had passed out. Brayden reflexively snatched up the rough blanket, covering himself modestly. The effort earned him another fit of coughing. After it passed Brayden pulled the blanket over his shoulders like a cloak and held it close. He shivered despite the mild temperature in the hut.

Pulling the blanket even closer, he rose unsteadily to his feet and shuffled toward the door of the hut. Fatigue and pain forced him to stop every few steps to catch his breath and steady himself. As he shuffled toward the door the sounds of merriment grew louder and more distinct. It sounded like the entire village was celebrating.

Nearly to the door, Brayden rearranged his grip on the blanket to free one of his hands and reached for the door. As his hand brushed the door it flew open, startling him. An involuntary flinch nearly sent him to his knees as he swayed on already unsteady legs.

Sunlight streamed in through the open doorway revealing a burly man dressed in fine clothes. He wore a grim expression that did not match the celebratory sounds outside. The man strode forward, steadying Brayden with a strong hand.

"I am Ernst, headman of the village of Hedgewise and I must speak with you." The look in Ernst's eyes chilled Brayden. Years of hearing confession during his training as a protector let him recognize irreconcilable guilt in Ernst's expression.

"Yes, we must talk," Brayden replied.

Ernst gingerly helped Brayden back to the cot, helping him settle himself.

"I hope that out wise-woman's ministrations have been of help to you," Ernst said. "She even offered up her home for your recovery." He gestured around the hut casually.

"Of that, I am very grateful. However, young man, I doubt that this is the matter you feel so compelled to discuss."

"Yes, that is so." Ernst paused momentarily, gathering his courage to speak. "There is a more grave matter at hand."

A surge of cold fear ran down Brayden's spine.

"Is Sethyr here?" he asked, cutting through the preliminaries.

"If you mean the lizard, then the answer is yes."

Brayden felt a wave of relief.

"Where is he? I must speak with him," he asked.

Ernst frowned. "So, this lizard was your acquaintance?"

"Yes, he is my companion and a good friend," Brayden answered.

"This is what we must speak about."

Brayden hesitated, gathering his wits, and slipped into the practiced role of confessor. His entire countenance changed, becoming open with an understanding expression. "Go ahead and tell me," Brayden said using a reassuring tone.

"Your lizard friend dead!" Ernst blurted. "There was nothing I could do."

Brayden stared at Ernst, his face not changing. It was if Ernst had not spoken the words.

"Did you hear me?" Ernst asked. "Your friend is dead. There was a trial and he was sentenced to death. I am sorry."

Ernst reached out, putting his hand on Brayden's shoulder. The touch of Ernst's hand jolted like a splash of cold water. His blank expression melted, replaced by a rictus of rage. Brayden knocked Ernst’s hand away and leapt to his feet. His other hand shot out like a snake, striking the bigger man in the nose. He stumbled back, hands flying up to cover his nose. Blood dripped freely from behind his hands, confirming that Brayden had broken Ernst's nose.

Brayden advanced toward Ernst, his face still full of rage. The headman babbled a quick apology and fled out of the door of the hut.

Brayden followed, hard on Ernst's heels. The bright sunlight outside shocked Brayden as he emerged from the hut in pursuit. Squinting and shading his eyes, he paused, not able to follow the escape of his quarry. Ernst used those few moments to remove himself from Brayden's immediate reach and disappear into the shocked crowd.

A murmur of confusion passed through the crowd at Ernst's flight and Brayden's appearance. The protector scanned the crowd for some sign of the escaped headman. Seeing none he took a step toward the crowd, still fuming. Instinctively everyone took a step back from him, shying from his anger.

"Where is Sethyr?" Brayden addressed the crowd.

Muttered confusion filled the air. People looked at each other shaking heads and shrugging.

"Where is my friend Sethyr!" He shouted, his anger boiling over.

The crowd shrank back another step and then began to unravel at the edges.

Brayden stepped forward, pointing a peasant at the forefront of the crowd.

"You! Where is my companion...the lizard?"

The man's face paled, panic showing at the edge of his eyes. The trickle quickly turned into a flood.

Seeing the people fleeing, Brayden launched himself at the peasant he had addressed. They both went down in a heap and they began to wrestle. Brayden's fighting experience helped him quickly gain the advantage. He pinned the man down and sat astride his chest.

"Where is the lizard?" Brayden asked, barely containing his anger.

The peasant squirmed, eyes full of terror.

"It wasn't my fault."

"Chanti subdig vos!" Brayden growled, his voice taking on an otherworldly tone. His hands grew hot from the swell of energy he channeled to compel the man to answer him.

As the energy poured into him, the peasant stiffened and then relaxed, all fight having left him. The power of Chanti drove the man's will before it until it cowered in some forgotten place deep within his mind.

Brayden loosened his grip on the man. Once he was sure the peasant would not bolt he levered himself up to tower over him.

"Tell me where the Lizard is."

The peasant stared up at him in terror, struggling to speak.

"P...p...please don't hurt me. Please," he sputtered.

"Answer my question and I won't have to." Brayden responded sharply.

"It's gone."

"What do you mean, gone?"

"Gone. Dead...we killed it...for hurting you."

The man's last few words hit Brayden hard, making his brow knit in confusion.

"What do you mean, for hurting me?" he asked.

"We captured the creature and then you showed up, sorely hurt. We figured it had done it."

Brayden took a step back from the peasant. The strength drained from him as he realized what had happened. Evil had no hand in what had happened. Surly ignorance and fear played their parts, but evil never entered into the situation. Brayden's rage suddenly lost its focus, replaced by a deep sorrow. His head falling to his chest, Brayden let out a deep breath letting his channeled energy melt away.

Released from the protector's geas, the peasant scrambled to his feet and fled leaving Brayden all alone.

The solitude enfolded him like a blanket, smothering hope and light. A chill breeze whispered though the lonely village, robbing him of his last bit of comfort. Not sure what to do next and the last of his strength gone, Brayden carefully lowered him self to the ground and sat down, his legs crossed. His head dropped into his hands and he let out a sign of despair.

"Chanti, guide me," Brayden prayed.

"I have truly lost my way. May you forgive me for using your power for anger. Watch over and guide the Soul of my friend, wherever it may dwell."

Brayden heard a door creak open. He made a quick sign of veneration and looked up. Ernst emerged from a nearby hut, holding a bloody rag to his broken nose. He approached, his hand held out in peaceful greeting.

"Sir, I beg your patience. Do not blame these folk. Blame me. My courage was not string enough."

Brayden stared blankly at Ernst as the headman approached.

Ernst continued. "They have suffered this past year. Creatures come in the night, unseen and silent. Some folk have disappeared and most of the livestock has been slaughtered. The village is beset by fear."

"Does fear excuse all? I'm sure Sethyr was afraid when you killed him."

Ernst nodded. "Of course you are right. He did nothing to deserve his fate. It is my fault. I did not have the courage to face the fear and anger of my own people. And for that I will always be sorry.

Brayden looked at Ernst with hard eyes.

"By Chanti I hope that is enough."

With the words barely out of his mouth Brayden collapsed in a heap.

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