Monday, March 31, 2008

Chapter Sixteen

Tralingua’s eyelids fluttered in the early evening darkness. It was soon enough after nightfall that people were still about. Without this distraction Tralingua would surely have already fallen asleep. As it was, she fought the day’s fatigue valiantly. Unfortunately, a long day of begging in the religious quarter of Kath left her with little extra vigor for the task Maquin had set for her.

“It’s simple,” he had explained. “Just wait at the spot I tell you until some folk show themselves.”

“What folk,” she had asked.

“A man, a lizard, and a dog, my darling Tralingua” he had answered, adding feigned sweetness when he said her name.

After that Maquin dismissed Tralingua from his meeting room and she had gone back to her begging. She fumed the rest of the day thinking about how the boss had said her name. She may have been an indigent widow with no trade other than begging, but she recognized contempt when she heard it. She heard it often enough in the mumbled curses of her customers.

The sneer in Maquin’s voice assured her that he felt she did not deserve such a grand name. Most folk felt the same way. How could her mother have been so daft as to name her after perhaps the greatest beauty in the old stories? And a Princess, no less. To avoid the smarmy comments and teasing, she simply called herself Trali; a name she felt was more fitting for her humble job and her spotty looks.

Trali tromped back to her assigned begging territory. She cursed the fates that conspired to leave her with no option other than begging for a living. At the same time she secretly admitted to owning much of the blame for her situation. While being reared as the only daughter of a mildly successful merchant, Trali received better than average schooling, especially when compared to most women in Kath. Her first husband was affable but often described her as a challenge, but they were happy enough. Happy until the day the constables brought poor Ulrik’s bloody purse to her. They offered their condolences for the unfortunate loss of her husband. A nobleman had been in a hurry and had simply not seen Ulrik crossing the Temple Square before running him down with his new stallion. Her parents long since dead and having no siblings or children, Trali found herself alone in the world. She soon decided that being alone was not a state she wished to live in for long. Her second husband could most easily have been described as a necessary evil and he often described Trali as a shrew. A bitter end to that union was inescapable. That was how Trali found herself here in her current situation; waiting for an outlandish sounding group to enter the city through a forgotten gate, after her long day of begging to survive.

Looking more like a heap of rags rather than a once proud woman nearing old age, Trali lounged in a corner created where two of the more robust buildings in the poor quarter came together. From her vantage, she kept watch on the grime covered door once used by pig farmers to slop their hogs at the city midden. By the looks of the door, it had not budged in several score years, but she knew better. Although long forgotten by the city officials, those folk more comfortable in the shadows kept the door well maintained and oiled, despite its decrepit appearance. Only a few keys existed that would turn the old, iron lock, and they were guarded jealously. Trali knew if those she waited possessed one of those keys, the city’s shadowy underworld considered important by them influential or at least important.

Trali waited well after the sun fled and the tavern and inn keepers ventured out to place welcoming lamps on the door posts. She flirted with sleep, but the thought of Maquin’s anger if her prey slipped by was more than enough to keep it at bay. Her taskmaster often forgave small blunders, but had a reputation for harshness if someone made enough of a muddle of things.

Circumstances rewarded Trali’s diligence just as hunger began to pinch her belly. The door swung open and those that had been described to her emerged. Had they been any other three, she might have questioned it, but the dissimilar silhouettes of each made it clear that these were the folk she waited for.

Trali rose to her feet, joints popping as she stretched. She shambled toward the travelers as they closed and locked the door. As they turned to regard their surroundings, Trali reached them. Her back straightened and she affected her most dignified pose.

“Gentlefolk, I greet you.” She kept her voice low, but clearly audible enough for the three to hear her.

The three exchanged confused expressions, but said nothing for a moment. The creature that Trali would have described as a werewolf looked at the male Human and simply shrugged. The lizard creature cocked its head, watching Trali wearily and then turned to the Human.

“Well, you talk to it,” it gestured dismissingly at Trali. “It’s one of yours”

The man sputtered, looking embarrassed by the words. He turned to Trali and held out his hand.

“My apologies, goodlady. My companion sometimes lacks couth.”

Trali immediately revised her first impression of the fellow. Despite his bedraggled appearance, she decided at that moment that he was obviously a gentleman.

“No sorrys necessary, Lord. It’s quite a compliment to be lumped in with you.” Trali took his hand, bowing her head and performing a curtsy of sorts.

“Now, gentlefolk, if you follow me I’m to lead you to Master Maq…” Her voice trailed off for a moment, but then she continued. “I’m to lead you to our mutual friends. They’ll be eager to speak with you.”

“I am, bye the bye, Brayden. These are my companions Sethyr and Vijhan.” The man gestured toward the lizard creature and then to the werewolf.

“So pleased to make your acquaintance, good sirs,” Trali gave another quick curtsy, nodding at each in turn. She noticed that the werewolf’s tail began to wag back and forth when she acknowledged him. It reminded Trali how different Brayden’s two companions were, and that meant attracting unwanted attention. She gave the trio an embarrassed look. She motioned them over to a shadowy alley between a tavern and a shop outside of which a sign hung depicting a hat festooned with an impossibly long feather. The sound of gathered folk emanated from the open doorway of the tavern, but the shuttered widows indicated that the shop was closed up tight.

“I hate to ask it, but do all of you have long cloaks? Even in this dim night, you’re quite an unusual sight. My friends are the type that prefer as little attention turn their way as possible. If you wear the cloaks, it could help us avoid prying eyes.”

The Lizard creature hissed an unmistakable sigh, rolling its eyes in a peculiarly human way. The human, Brayden he had called himself, simply nodded and motioned for the others to comply as well. All three took a moment to retrieve long woolen cloaks from their packs. They were quite plain and looked nearly identical, probably purchased from the same craftsman.

Trali took a step back while they had donned their cloaks and nodded approvingly. It was quite an improvement in anonymity.

“Now I’d say that’s much better,” she commented.

“Oh course,” the lizard quipped, “no one shall find three shrouded figures stealing through the streets, led by…a bundle of rags, the least bit suspicious.”

“Sethyr, that is enough,” Brayden said with iron in his voice.

Sethyr’s gaze dropped toward the cobblestones.

Trali could not tell if this meant that the creature was repentant or merely cowed by the man’s rebuke. Either way, she did not care. She could not recall the last time anyone had come to her defense so readily…and it gave her a warm feeling.

Trali looked straight at Sethyr wearing a friendly smile.

“Better to look suspicious than be identified. Anyways, in this part of the city, a conveniently concealing cloak is almost a uniform.”

She stepped forward and adjusted the cowl of Sethyr’s cloak. She pulled it closer to conceal more of Sethyr’s elongated snout. The mage let out a quiet hiss, but submitted without an argument.

“Now, I think that’ll do it. Now if you would please follow me, I’ll have to there in not too long.”

Trali led them away from the alley and across the dark plaza to another alley. Their route look then through empty streets and cramped walkways, even through a burned out warehouse, before she held up her hand for them to halt. By this time, the circuitous route had thoroughly confused the trio as to their position in relation to the city wall.

They stood in front of a tenement resembling on a dozen they passed earlier. Trali smiled inwardly as she observed the confused looks the trio wore. Maquin would be pleased that she not only delivered them safely, but by a route the three had no hope of ever retracing.

Trali rapped on a decrepit looking, but solid sounding door. It slid open but the room inside was a pit of darkness.

Trali whispered to the guard she didn’t see, but knew would be there. “Please tell him that his guests are here.”

“Tell them to come in,” a voice came from the dark interior.

Trali turned to the trio she had escorted and motioned to them.

“This is as far as I go. The others will take you the rest of the way. Good Journey.”

Trali turned away as Brayden tried to thank her. She was tired and needed to rest. No matter how kind the man was, she knew the feelings it gave here had to be fleeting. Most of the world treated her with scorn and Brayden’s compassion only served to throw the rest of her life into sharp contrast. She heard a cheerful farewell as she hurried off into the night.

Friday, March 28, 2008

Chapter Fifteen

To Vijhan’s canine eyes Kath was still a distant smudge on the horizon but the smell stabbed at his sense of smell, alternating between the stench of rotting garbage and the cloying odor of thousands of unwashed humans. Hidden beneath the overpowering human smells the sharp tang of the sea teased Vijhan’s nose. He had never seen the ocean, but its crisp scent stirred his instincts.

As they drew closer to the city, the stench increased, but the Canid’s nose began to adapt to it. If he concentrated he could ignore the smell and pick out other, les powerful scents. Vijhan thought that with practice he might be able to bear it for a while.

The outline of the city sharpened, gaining clarity as they drew closer. The walls slopped upward like a slab-sided pyramid, the parapets topped with graceful, rounded merlons. From this distance it was impossible for Vijhan to see if the walls were manned, but he had to assume that they must be at least minimally guarded.

The gate lay directly ahead of them, the road they traveled on running perpendicular to the city walls. It stood at the end of the road, a fortress unto itself. A huge banner flew from its highest tower, billowed by a stiff sea breeze.

“We should think about leaving the caravan soon…that is if we believe our mysterious warning,” Sethyr said.

Brayden sighed. “I suppose you are right. I have grown accustomed to the luxury of riding, but I suppose I could stretch these old legs of mine.”

“We should go now,” Vijhan added. “If we wait much longer, the gate guards may see us abandon the caravan and send out men to see why. If I commanded that gate, I’d have men with spy glasses watching the incoming traffic for just such a thing.”

“What are we waiting for, then?” Sethyr asked. She gathered up her pack and a sack of food they had purchased from the caravaneers and gingerly climbed down from the slow moving wagon. She hopped off the last few feet, landing on the dusty road next to Vijhan. When she got close enough the Canid could smell the mage’s cinnamony scent. It always made him smile inwardly. He enjoyed the scent, but would never admit it to Sethyr. She strived to be as unpleasant as possible at all times and knowing that he found her scent pleasing could cause no end of disagreement.

It took Brayden more time to gather himself before hopping down. Vijhan had to steady him as he nearly toppled over after taking a bad step.

“Careful, my friend,” Vijhan said, his hand clamped firmly on Brayden’s elbow.

“I’m fine. My thanks for the steady hand,” Brayden replied, embarrassed.

A look passed between Vijhan and Sethyr. They both hoped that Brayden had not seen the concern in their eyes. It pained the Canid to admit it, but in the short time he had known the Protector Brayden had seemed to have lost a step. He seemed older, somehow.

One of the caravan guards turned impassively to watch the three friends hurry into the high grass next to the road. Vijhan hoped that if questioned, the guard would not mention the caravan’s temporary guests and their suspicious departure.

The others followed Vijhan deeper into the grass, away from the road. Just as he anticipated, the Canid soon came upon a wide game trail. This far from the road, the grass grew high enough that it reached over their heads, but just barely. The trail cut a neat furrow through the tall grass, which in most places nearly met, almost as if the tri were traveling in a swaying, golden tunnel of grain.

“Where in the blazes did this path come from?” Sethyr asked from the rear of the line.

“This is how animals travel to Kath,” Vijhan responded.

“What do you mean?” Brayden asked, cutting off Sethyr’s curt response to Vijhan.

“Well, the one thing that Humans have always been good at is making garbage. I’m always surprised at what you will throw away.”

“Go on,” Brayden said after the Canid paused for a moment.

“Well, at least you have enough sense to dump the garbage outside of the city…or so I assume. The animals know this and feed off your castoffs. This trail was most likely made by a family of steppe boar on their way to breakfast at Kath’s midden heap.”

“Garbage?” Sethyr asked. “We are following the trail to the garbage pit?

“Where else? In the old days the pig farmers probably slopped their stock at the midden heap…”

“So that would be the logical place for a swineherd’s gate,” Sethyr finished Vijhan’s thought.

“Yes,” Vijhan nodded. “And the wild pigs have provided us with a hidden way to get there. Smart creatures. If they weren’t so tasty I’d feel terrible for eating them.”

“None the less,” Brayden interrupted. “We had better hurry if we want to reach the city before nightfall.”

Sethyr eyed the Protector, “My good friend, after nightfall is the best time to enter the city. Less chance of being seen.”

“You’re right, of course,” he answered, wiping sweat from his forehead. “I simply don’t have the nose for sneaking.”

“Fortunately, you travel with two experts,” Vijhan said, eliciting a toothy nod from Sethyr.

The trail meandered left and right, following whatever porcine instinct had led the pigs toward the city, but it did lead eventually in the right direction. If a wild pig could be counted on for anything it must be its tenacious and unerring attraction to an easy meal.

The smell of the city’s garbage alerted the three companions before the city came into view. Brayden nearly gagged on the stench, but it seemed to excite Vijhan. Sethyr remained as calmly aloof as usual.

The high grass ended abruptly, obviously shorn by human hands. All three ducked back into the hidden safety of the grassy alley, hopeful that they had not been seen. Peering carefully from the edge of the grass, Brayden surveyed the land beyond. Mountains of refuse filled the space between the grassland and the city wall. He could see hunched figures swarming over the mounds, like human ants, gathering food around their hill.

Vijhan peeked over Brayden’s shoulder.

“It is amazing. Your folk squander such abundance,” Vijhan said.

“The poor put it to good use,” Brayden answered, a bit of defensiveness in his voice.

“I mean no insult, friend. You Humans can work and produce like no other race. That gives you the option of being what some would call wasteful.”

Brayden shot an irritated glance over his shoulder.

“I’m sure he is so happy that you approve,” Sethyr said, drawing a look of ire from both of her companions. “But I think that right now we should decide how to proceed.”

Brayden and Vijhan turned and walked back into the cover of the grass.

“I thought we had a plan?” Vijhan said.

Sethyr eyed the Canid.

“No, Vijhan, we have someone else’s plan. A plan, that I might add, only meets our unknown benefactor’s needs, however much they may be aligned with our own. We need our own plan.”

“Sethyr is correct. We should trust his suspicion. It is one of his most well honed traits,” Brayden said

“So what do you suggest?” Vijhan asked.

“Well, our benefactor expects us to enter on the sly. I propose we do nothing of the sort. I say we counter their circumspection with a flourish.”

“And what, exactly, does that mean?” Brayden asked.

Sethyr gave a predatory grin. “I suggest we make an entrance and force our benefactor to show himself, or themselves as the case may be.”

“We should, at least, wait until dark,” Brayden said.

“Yes, that would be for the best. We want to be audacious without being foolish,” Sethyr agreed.

* * *

Sethyr, Brayden and Vijhan watched the human scavengers as they went about their business, picking their daily treasures from the mounds of garbage. Brayden’s stomach wrenched at the misery that their lives must be. Most, he noticed, were either old or very young, the most helpless among the city’s population. A few squabbles broke out, but most went about their business with bowed backs and downward gazes. Some part of Brayden assured him that the downward gazes were more than simply watching for possible scraps. Shame showed in those bent heads.

The sight tore at Brayden, sending his mood into a dark place. He felt the guilt of not helping these folk, but pushed it aside to stay focused on his current task. He knew that focus was indispensable to a Protector. If he chased every injustice he stumbled across, he would never be able to right any wrongs. Being a servant of Chanti required focus, concentrating on the task at hand. With a sigh, Brayden fixed his eyes on the high city wall and followed Vijhan onward.

The Canid set a quick pace to the wall. A few of the human scavengers risked weary glances at the dangerous looking trio, but went back to their task once satisfied that they posed no danger. As they approached, it became apparent how large the mounds of refuse actually were. The smell increased as they neared as well.

Finally they reached the city wall. Vijhan pointed out a road that led away from the midden toward the main gate. This must be how the garbage was transported from the city to this dumping ground. They also saw a few forlorn folk shambling down the road toward the gate, finished with their day of scavenging and ready for a few hours of respite in whatever hovel they called home.

“So where, do you suppose, is this gate?” Brayden asked.

“It sounds like it was designed as part of the wall, which probably means it is not hidden,” Sethyr answered.

“The quickest way to find it would be to separate and each of us search part of the nearby wall,” Brayden said. “But, I am not comfortable with that. It puts each of us in too much danger. We are safer if we stay together.”

The others nodded in agreement. Without a word they began to walk along the wall. This close, the wall blotted out even that last vestiges of twilight, leaving the ground nearby in a pool on inky darkness.

Brayden stumbled in a small depression, cursing and limping for a few steps.

“Damn, maybe we should not have waited to find the gate after dark.”

Sethyr and Vijhan turned to regard the Protector.

“What? I am just frustrated that I am stumbling around like some infirm fool. I don’t see in the dark as well as you two.”

Sethyr grinned a grin so wide that it was visible even in the dark.

“Worry not, we will guide you. Would you like a stick to tap the ground with meanwhile.”

“Go sit on an egg!” Brayden snapped.

Sethyr’s grin disappeared, replaced by an angry hiss. Vijhan stepped between the two, interposing his wide body.

“Unless we want to wander until dawn we better find that gate,” the Canid said.

“It’s on the other side of the bastion over there,” a weak voice came out of the darkness.

The trio looked back and forth, searching for the source of the voice. They soon realized that it had come from a nearby heap of refuse. As they watched, a slumped figure stood up. In the darkness Vijhan and Sethyr could see that it was an old woman, wrapped in a tattered cloak. Brayden could only see an outline of the woman.

“That bastion,” the woman said, gesturing toward a small tower that projected out and away from the city wall. “When I was a child my father used it to slop his hogs here at the midden and he used that gate.” She approached the trio in a stiff, shambling gait.

Once she drew close enough Brayden could see to woman’s withered features.

“Oh, gran, what are you doing out here at night?” He asked, taking her hand.

“My legs won’t carry me back and forth, so I sleep here now,” she answered with a note of sadness. “It won’t be long before I am ready for the heap myself.”

“No, we will help you,” Brayden said with resolve.

“Don’t worry yourself, Protector. I have lived a long life and choose freedom over comfort long ago.”

“But, gran, it is my duty to aid you…as a Protector.”

“Young man, why do you assume I need your protection?” She cackled as she drew a long, thing knife from beneath her skirts. “I have been taking care of myself for more years than you can count. Now stop this foolishness and let me help you.”

Brayden nodded, but still looked unconvinced.

The woman cackled again but continued. Now, years ago they painted over the old swineherd’s gate, but it is still there. Someone actually opened it a few weeks ago, so I know it will still open, but I suspect it is locked once again.”

“My thanks, gran. We were gifted with the key,” Brayden explained.

The old woman’s grin collapsed into a deep frown. “Sometimes a gift like that isn’t worth anything but a peck of trouble. You three need to be careful. There have been rumblings amongst to beggars.”

“Really? What do you mean?” Brayden asked.

“Now that I think about it, anyone who see you could make themselves a nest-egg reporting it to the right folk.”

“And who would that be?”

“Can’t honestly say that I remember. I forget the damnedest things nowadays,” she replied followed by another cackle. She reached out, grasping Brayden’s wrist and drew him close in a hug.

“Now piss-off so I can get back to sleep,” she said, slapping the Protector on the back and letting him go. She turned and shuffled back toward the mounds of refuse, disappearing into the dark.

Without a word the trio made their way toward the bastion indicated by the old woman. After a few minutes of searching near the bastion, Sethyr discovered the crudely concealed gate. Brayden withdrew the key from the pouch on his belt and slipped it into the lock. It entered easily, meeting no resistance. Brayden turned the key, rotating it smoothly until all three heard the click of the tumblers falling into place. The lock had obviously been well maintained despite the shabby appearance of the gate.

“We shall see what kind of reception awaits us,” Brayden said as he pushed the gate inward.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Chapter Fourteen

Sethyr watched Brayden minister to Vijhan from across the campsite. She could not help the pang of jealousy that rose in her chest. She knew that Brayden would do the same for if she were injured…he had in the past. But, she still felt jealous. Before the Canid had come along, she had Brayden’s undivided attention. Now she had to share, and did not enjoy it.

Of course, Sethyr liked Vijhan well enough. He had proved to be a good traveling companion, despite the rocky start to their association. The Canid genuinely wanted to be helpful, and did not ask much in return.

“Harrumph,” she grumbled. In some ways Vijhan was just like a dog, eager to please. Sethyr felt a flash of guilt. She knew first hand that instinct was hard to overcome. Because some distant ancestor of her own was often the prey of huge birds, the back part of her brain jumped every time a large shadow passed by. It was not rational; it just was…

Sethyr sighed. Watching Brayden tend to Vijhan was not any easier, but she resigned herself to the sharing. If it came down to having a portion of the Protector’s attention or none of it, she chose the former.

“Will he survive?” Sethyr asked as she approached to two.

“Yes, he will. It’s just his arm that is the trouble now,” Brayden said.

“That’s why you should let me start scouting again,” Vijhan said, as he opened one eye.

“It has only been two days since the bear got a hold of you. You still need rest.” Brayden scolded the Canid.

“You haven’t let do anything but rest for two days. Frankly, I am sick of your cooking. If I don’t get some fresh meat soon, I’ll start gnawing on one of you.” Humor showed in Vijhan’s voice.

“Well, I’m much too stringy, so I suppose you’ll have to start with Brayden,” Sethyr quipped.

“I’d sooner eat my mother…which he is acting quite like, come to mind.”

They shared a laugh which ended with an uncomfortable silence.

Vijhan broke the silence with one of his canine yawns.

“Honestly, I know I can scout, even with a bad arm,” Vijhan said.

Brayden look skeptical. “I’m still not sure. What if you meet another one of those bears?”

“This time I won’t try to fight it. I’ve seen the errors of my ways.”

“Brayden, you forget our need for haste. Those rubes in Hedgewise may still be in danger” Sethyr added.

“I know…I know all that. I suppose it will be alright.”

Vijhan whined happily. “I can’t wait to run again.”


Sethyr watched as Vijhan loped along side the bouncing wagon. From her vantage atop the bolts of cloth filling the wagon, she laughed.

“Don’t you ever get tired?”

Vijhan just smiled up at her and shook his head.

Sethyr chuckled, which came out as a reptilian croak. She turned to Brayden who lounged next to her atop the wagon. He eyes were closed and his breathing shallow. The lines at the corners of his eyes did not appear so deep as he napped peacefully. In the time she had known the Protector, Brayden had aged more than his years. Sethyr assumed it had to be the result of all the warm-blooded business that mammals like the Canid always engaged in.

Sethyr could not understand why Brayden and his ilk did not appreciate simply lying in the sun and relaxing. They all insisted on hurrying hither and yon, busy for the sake of keeping busy.

She mused that perhaps someday Humans would manage to keep from destroying themselves to appreciate the simple joy of doing nothing but lying in the sun.

“Not likely,” she thought to herself. They seemed to be happiest when they were occupied with some trivial bit of business.

The wagon lurched to a stop, nearly dislodging Sethyr from her perch. The jarring also woke Brayden.

“By the titan’s testicles, what is going on,” Sethyr shouted at the drover guiding the wagon.

“Sorry, sir, the caravan has halted. Looks like ‘nother caravans already at Northfork. We’ll hafta wait our turn,” the drover answered sounding bored. “Bad luck is it’s a’going and were a’coming, so we gotta wait til it’s passed by the Northfork”

Sethyr remembered Brayden mentioning Northfork several days ago when he had described Kath to her and Vijhan. The Northfork, he had explained, was where the main road going north from Kath split. The branch they waited for headed straight west, toward the Sea of Grass. It was not as heavily traveled as the other branch. That one went north-east along the coast. Smaller roads branched from it on a regular basis leading inland to the cities of the heartland. Between Kath and the Northfork regular army patrols were common. This kept the ever-present caravans safe until well away from the city. This kept the area around the city officially free of bandits. This was a service the tax collectors emphasized when they made their rounds among the visiting merchants.

For Sethyr, this delay was merely the latest in a string of boredom that began when her and her companions had joined the caravan. The caravan master had been eager to let the three companions travel with the wagons once he discovered Brayden was a holy man. He was more circumspect about her and Vijhan, but was quickly won over after she performed a few tricks for the drovers. To ensure further goodwill, Vijhan continued his hunting each day, now bringing back larger prey to share with all of the caravaneers. Sethyr would never believe that these men of the West really trusted her or the Canid, but they had warmed well past a state of tolerance.

Sethyr dozed on and off before being jarred awake by the motion of the wagon once again began jouncing along the road. She sneezed from the renewed cloud of dust kick up by caravan as it traveled down the road.

“Dust or mud,” she said in Brayden’s direction. “I’m not sure which the worst choice is. When you have one you prefer the other.”

“Aye, isn’t that the fate of all mortals?” Brayden answered, a mordant note in his voice.

“So, how far to Kath from here?”

“A day at the most. Vijhan should start smelling it any time now.” Brayden snickered.

The Canid’s head turned, peering at Brayden.

“Smell it? A day away?” Vijhan asked.

Brayden nodded. “Yes. I’m afraid we humans often ‘soil the nest’, so to speak.”

“I have heard that monkey fling dung. It must run in the family,” Sethyr added.

Brayden laughed. “You could be right. I just wanted to prepare our friend here that his fine snout may soon be under assault.”

Vijhan smiled. “Not to worry. To my folk things don’t really smell bad, simply more or less interesting.”

“If that is the case, you should find a Human city very interesting…in an olfactory sense,” Sethyr said.

The actual crossroads came into view from where Sethyr sat atop the wagon. The main road they were heading toward was obviously much wider and better constructed than the hard packed road the traveled on. It was topped by uniformly sized cobbles made from grey stone. Where the two rougher thoroughfares split from it, an ornately carved stone plinth stood, marking the end of Kath’s influence and responsibility. A stone bust of a fat, jovial looking fellow stood atop the plinth, seeming to welcome all to the territory of Kath.

“Who is the grinning imbecile up there?” Sethyr asked, pointing at the stone bust.

Brayden craned his neck to see where the mage pointed. “That is Jombie, the patriarch of Kath. He founded the place a few hundred years ago. His line died out ten years before I was born. The Regent rules there now.”

“So why is his statue still up there?”

“He and his family were very popular. The common folk still celebrate his birthday here in Kath.”

“I suppose that irritates the Regent to no end,” Sethyr said.

The conversation died away as they neared the plinth. As they passed, a shabbily dressed fellow who leaned against the plinth eyed Brayden and Sethyr suspiciously. After their wagon passed he uncrossed his arms and then began to walk with the caravan. He slowly closed the distance between himself and the wagon they were riding in. He soon caught up and looked around to see if anyone else was nearby.

“Oi, you. Up on the wagon,” he hissed.

Sethyr sat up and peered at the man.

“Yes?” She answered.

“Not you, scale-face. The bloke.”

Sethyr reached over and poked Brayden with her claw. The protector started from his dozing.

“What…what is it?”

“I believe this gentleman would like a bit of your time,” Sethyr said as she pointed down at the man hurrying along next to the wagon.

Brayden sat up, peering down at the man.

“How may I aid you, friend?” he asked.

“Are you a Protector?” The man answered.

“Yes, I am. Are you in need of my healing touch?” Brayden looked the man over. He did not have any obvious injuries or infirmities.

“No, I supposed to give you a message.”

“A message? From who?” Brayden asked.

“A friend in Kath.”

“A friend, you say? I’m afraid that you may have me confused with someone else. I really don’t know many people in Kath.”

“I was supposed to deliver the message to a Protector who was traveling with a lizard. That must be you,” the man explained. “They said you had a dog too, but I guess they meant him,” the man pointed at Vijhan.

Sethyr hissed at the man, irritated at being called a lizard. The man pointedly ignored her ire.

“So, what is this message?” Brayden asked.

“I’m just supposed to give you this. Beyond that, I’ve no inkling.” The man tossed an oilskin bundle up to Brayden who deftly snatched it out of the air. The man immediately jogged away, quickly outdistancing the slow moving caravan.

The Protector looked it over, but found no markings or clues to its contents. He began to unwrap the packet, untying the leather bindings. Sethyr leaned closer, hoping to catch a glimpse of the contents.

Once open, the packet revealed a scrap of rough parchment folded over a large bronze key. The key was scarred and covered in a patina, but still looked quite functional. Brayden unfolded the parchment and began to read. Sethyr scooted closer and read the parchment over his shoulder.

“Danger lurks, waiting for you at the gates of Kath. For reasons unknown to me, Helgrim the darker seeks you and your companions. This key unlocks swineherd’s gate. It has not been used officially for many years but should serve you well. Seek it five hundred paces east of Northgate. Using this you should be able to slip their traces.”

The words were written in precise, blocky letters and the letter was unsigned. Whoever their possible ally was, they chose not o reveal themselves yet. Sethyr surmised that even if their new enemies were watching the Northgate for their arrival, their new allies would be watching the Swineherd’s gate carefully.

The caravan trundled on steadily, bringing closer the decision of how to use this unforeseen and troubling bit of information.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Chapter Thirteen

Vijhan stalked the low scrub bordering the nearby plain. A strange, pungent scent wafted toward him on the morning breeze, raising his hackles. He had to stifle a low growl. The Canid, a skilled hunter, inhaled deeply, trying to pick up more of the scent. Perhaps if he could get a nose full he would be able to identify the scent. Gripping his spear just a little tighter, he inhaled again.

Vijhan recognized some of the threads of the scent. Whatever it was, it was a predator. The coppery smell of a meat eater was easy to discern with his sensitive nose. There was also a curiously strong smell of rotting meat intermingled with the predator’s. The sweet-tinged rot masked the finer nuances Vijhan needed to identify what kind of predator it was.

Spooked, the Canid gave one last sniff and then began to back away. There was no way to know what was giving off the scent, but he could tell that it was very close. After warily retreating to a safer distance up a low hill, Vijhan strained his eyes to see if his new vantage point allowed him to catch a glimpse of the hidden predator. No such luck.

Felling confident he had slipped away undetected, Vijhan fell into a ground-eating lope. He decided to cut his scouting trip short and let his companions know that something seemed amiss ahead. Earlier in the day he had discovered a wonderful camp site, but had rejected it as not far enough along his route. If he hurried, he might be able to intercept Brayden and Sethyr before they reached the site and explain the situation. Based on their best guess, they would find one of the trade roads in the next day or so. Ending the day early would be a welcome respite from the constant travel of the past several days.

As Vijhan traveled gentle breeze began to blow from the north. He muttered a curse for the change in the wind. With the wind directly in his face he could smell anything that he was moving toward, but anything coming up behind him would have its scent blown away from the Canid’s keen nose. For Vijhan the effect was akin to wearing a blindfold, eliminating his ability to detect any pursuers by their scent. He was, however, comforted that he caught the faint scent of his companions on the breeze blowing toward him.

Vijhan’s pace remained constant and quick, as if the scent of his companions was pulling him along. The scent grew more distinct in his nose as he ran, reassuring him that he was growing closer every minute. Vijhan’s tail began to wag on its own at the prospect of seeing his companions again. Even though it was a natural reaction among his kind, it bothered Vijhan that his tail seemed to have a mind of its own. A few times he had considered wearing breeches that would conceal his errant tail, but dismissed it each time at the thought of the possible discomfort.

With a chuff of determination, Vijhan decided to leave well enough alone. Not even Sethyr seemed poked fun at him for the minor foible. He thought perhaps it could be that she might be as self conscious of her tail as he was in the presence of Brayden. Despite their vast differences, Vijhan knew that he and Sethyr both shared a strange admiration for Brayden. Before meeting the Protector, the Canid never had any interest in Humans, other than as possible prey. Vijhan assumed that Sethyr shared similar feelings because she chose to travel with Brayden rather than stay with her own folk.

The breeze shifted abruptly, no longer blowing in Vijhan’s face, but from behind. What he smelled stopped him in his tracks. He paused and inhaled more deeply to pick up the scent better. The strange rotting smell was so strong now it caused him to sneeze. He recognized the smell, with its mixture of rot and predator. However, this time the smell was much closer and it made his mind cry danger. The smell was unmistakably from a dákde t'ooch.

Vijhan whirled around, ready to fight. A massive bear galloped into the clearing, its head up and sniffing the air. Vijhan let out a gasp at the bear’s size. On all four feet, it looked directly into his eyes. He had seen one at a distance when he first began to hunt with his pack, but that experience utterly failed to prepare him for meeting a dákde t'ooch face to face. The bear swung its huge hear from side to side, scanning the clearing. It was then that Vijhan saw the reason for the rotting smell. A horrible burn marred one side of the bear’s face and neck, all the way down to its shoulder. The wound was blackened, but had broken open and putrid yellow ooze seeped from it. Vijhan saw that the wound was terribly infected and was driving the bear into a fevered rage. If the dákde t'ooch had not been deadly enough, being mad with pain made it doubly dangerous.

It took the bear a few moments to catch sight of Vijhan. Dákde t'ooch depended on hunting with their sharp noses and had very poor eyesight, but it was good enough to identify prey at a short distance. The bear shook its head and bellowed a challenge, flinging drops of ooze from the wound out to either side.

Vijhan’s knees nearly buckled from the roar’s ferocity. He imagined that the force of the roar ruffled the furry tufts of his ears, making them unconsciously flatten against his head. Vijhan, his reason frozen by fear, gave his body over to his hunter instincts. His lips curled into a feral snarl and he howled, summoning the rest of his pack to the kill. A kernel of though trapped beneath the carnivore reactions knew there was no pack to summon, but it remained trapped, unheeded.

Enraged by Vijhan’s challenging howl, the bear snorted, lowering its head for a charge. With another roar, the beast leapt forward. Vijhan reacted instantly, scrambling to the left, putting him on the side of the bear with the injured, cloudy eye.

The bear’s jaws snapped on empty air. Realizing that its prey had escaped, the bear reared up on its hind legs. It towered nearly three times Vijhan’s height. Letting out another titanic roar, it scanned the clearing for the Canid.

Before it spied Vijhan, the Canid jumped forward, stabbing his spear forward. The blade bit deeply into the beast’s hip, summoning forth another angry roar in response. The bear whirled around, dropping to all fours. The creature’s sudden move ripped the spear from Vijhan’s grasp.

Sensing an advantage the dákde t'ooch lunged at the Canid. Vijhan managed to dance out of the way, drawing a small, bearded axe from his belt. The bear snapped at him, but missed again. Vijhan smashed the axe downward at the bear’s head as it snapped at him. He scored a glancing blow against the blackened wound on the bear’s face. The scabious mass split wide, spitting a fountain of putrid corruption.

The bear let out a high-pitched bellow of pain, shaking its head in agony. The pain showed no signs of discouraging the bear. In fact, it seemed to redouble its ferocity. The bear struck out with a ham sized paw, catching Vijhan before he could backpedal. It connected with a glancing blow on the Canid’s arm with a sickening crack. Vijhan sailed through the air, landing in a heap at the edge of the clearing. The axe flew from his mangled grasp as he hit the ground, clattering against the trunk of a scrawny tree.

The bear plodded in a circle, bellowing and pawing at its injured Muzzle. The pain made it forget the fallen Canid for the moment. Vijhan took those precious seconds to gather his wits, getting to his feet. He cradled his broken arm close to his side, wincing with each movement. He spotted his axe lying under the tree where it had fallen and he stumbled over to retrieve it. Carefully leaning down to pick it up, Vijhan’s injured arm brushed one of the low hanging branches. He stifled a yelp of pain and grabbed the axe.

The sound was enough to distract the bear from its pain long enough to recall its prey. It rounded on Vijhan, panting, its huge shoulders heaving as it slowly padded toward the Canid. Vijhan raised the axe in a feeble defense, but the bear rose to his hind legs and batted it away, sending it flying into the trees. Now defenseless, Vijhan reverted to his instincts. Unmindful of his dangling arm, the Canid rose to his feet and leapt at the bear. His teeth closed on the bear’s thick neck and he bit down with all his remaining strength. His teeth met tough hide and a thick, oily pelt, but did not penetrate anything vital. There was just too much flesh there for the Canid’s teeth to find deadly purchase. The bear swatted Vijhan to the ground, dislodging him but paid for it by losing a large patch of hide from its neck. The back of the Canid’s skull struck a rock as he hit the ground. It sent stars across his vision and his head swam.

The dákde t'ooch loomed over the stunned Canid, a combination of saliva, blood and pus dripping down, spattering Vijhan. A shout drew the bear’s attention away from the fallen Canid. Its head lifted, searching for the source.

Brayden stood among the trees just outside of the clearing, his broadsword drawn and his shield held defensively.

“Leave him be, beast!” Brayden shouted. Dropping to all fours, the bear sniffed the air suspiciously. Some glimmer of guile still left in its fevered brain warned him to be wary of the newcomer. It growled threateningly, but did not make a move to attack.

Brayden took a step forward, shouting and banging his sword against his shield. The racket startled the bear, but it still did not back away from Vijhan.

Brayden took another step forward, continuing his clanging barrage. The bear shied away from the harsh metal clanging, but did not fully give ground. It continued to stand over Vijhan, unwilling to lose its prey to the newcomer.

It reached out with its paw, rolling the Canid closer and eliciting a pained groan. The bear leaned its head down, eyes never leaving Brayden, and began to pick up Vijhan in its mouth.

“NO!” Brayden screamed. The Protector rushed forward, swing his sword in an overhand arc.

The Bear, having a hold of the Canid, whirled on all four feet and galloped away from the charging Protector. Even carrying the Canid, the bear moved much faster than Brayden. It began to outdistance him, Vijhan flopping in its huge mouth like a doll.

“Blast you, beast…STOP!” Brayden yelled, but the bear paid him no heed.

“Sethyr, do something.” Near panic showed in the Protector’s voice.

Just at that moment, Sethyr did do something. The mage materialized directly in the path of the charging bear. She held nothing but a tree branch in each hand. The bear chugged on, bearing down on the mage like a charging bull. Sethyr simply smiled one of her knowing smiles and spoke a single word.


The branches she held burst into bright flames, whooshing as they ignited. The sight of the flames did get the bear’s attention.

The huge beast froze, its juggernaut bulk heaving to a halt five meters from the flames. Its good eye grew large, transfixed by the guttering flames.

“Ah, I see by you wound you are familiar with fire,” Sethyr said. She took casual step forward, moving the burning branches closer to the bear.

“Be a good, little pet and drop our companion.”

The bear let out a high-pitched whine. Its head swung to and fro, searching for a way around Sethyr. It stepped to the right, but the mage waved a branch and the bear shied away from the fire, sending it backward a few steps.

Sethyr slowly continued her approach, a step at a time.

“You silly bugger, drop the dog and you can go…Oh you stupid animal.”

With a bellow of pain, the bear dropped Vijhan and whirled around. Brayden stood behind it, his sword wet with blood. The Canid forgotten, the bear advanced on Brayden, enraged at its new tormentor. Sethyr could see more than a little concern on the Protector’s face.

“Allow me,” Sethyr said, and waved one of the burning branches in Brayden’s direction. A gout of flame leapt from the branch and executed a curved path through the air toward Brayden. The protector held his sword aloft, intersecting the path of the flame. When the two touched, the sword’s blade transforming into a brand of fire.

The flaming bland gave the bear pause. It hesitated in confusion, its fear of the flames warring with its insensate rage. The rage won out and the bear lunged at Brayden, its eyes filled with hate.

The Protector danced aside easily, avoiding the snapping jaws. With a quick chop, he brought the sword down on the bear’s neck, its blade slicing neatly through it. The flames sizzled as the bear’s blood splashed on the blade as it passed though the bone and sinew.

The bear’s head dropped neatly to the ground, but the body plowed into the ground a few more feet, driven by the momentum of its muscled bulk.

“Sethyr, douse these flames, we don’t want to start a wildfire,” Brayden called as he rushed to Vijhan’s side.

Sethyr gave a bored sigh. “As you wish.”

The mage held the burning branches in front of her and blew casually on them. The flames guttered out, leaving the branches smoking, but extinguished. As the flames on the branches died, so did the ones engulfing the blade of Brayden’s sword.

Brayden dropped the sword absently into the grass as he reached Vijhan. The Canid was unconscious, but still breathing. The protector carefully removed the Canids woolen shirt, searching for wounds. The bear had left several deep punctures on his shoulder where it had carried Vijhan in its mouth. The arm was obviously broken, but other than that, Vijhan seemed fairly intact.

Brayden hastily removed his heavy leather gauntlets and probed the wounds on the Canids shoulder.

“A am going to fix these first and then I’ll need you help to set his arm,” he said to Sethyr as she approached casually.

Without waiting for a response, Brayden put his hands over the punctures, closed his eyes and, began to chant a prayer to Chanti. A bright glow appeared around his hands. The visible bruising slowly faded as the chant continued. Finally, Brayden finished his prayer and moved his hands, flexing them painfully as if afflicted with arthritis.

He turned them over, revealing a web of bruises on the palms of his hands.

Sethyr hissed when she saw them. “It’s a high price to pay for the healing touch,” she said.

Brayden looked up at his friend. “Perhaps, but one I am willing to pay. I’d do the same for you.”

“It’s a pity it won’t knit bone as well as flesh,” Sethyr responded.

“Aye, but I don’t know if I’d even survive that…now help me make him comfortable so we can set his arm in a sling. It’s fortunate that he is still benumbed. It’ll make it much more pleasant for all of us.”

Brayden removed a blanket from Vijhan’s nearby pack and rolled it behind the Canid’s head, trying to make him as comfortable as possible before beginning the task of resetting the Canid's broken arm.

Friday, March 21, 2008

Chapter Twelve

Skirting the swampy ground filling the floor of the valley, Brayden, Sethyr and Vijhan had traveled eight days in a generally southerly direction, following the valley downward. The valley was fertile with game aplenty and Vijhan often returned from his scouting forays with a brace of robust hare or pheasant. Just before dusk came each evening Vijhan would lead them to a protected campsite he discovered during the day. Brayden was amazed at how far the Canid could range in a day and still return to them each afternoon. He thought how hopeless it would be to have an entire pack of the relentless hunters dogging his every step and thanked Chanti that Vijhan was their companion and not their pursuer.

Each morning Sethyr insisted on taking a private stroll. The mage refused to explain why, becoming angry and defensive when the Protector asked for an explanation. After the third morning walk, Sethyr returned, seemingly pleased with something that occurred during the stroll. Brayden decided it would be simpler to drop the subject as it appeared to be at an end. Vijhan followed his lead and did not bring up the subject again.

As they traveled farther, the valley widened, slowing dropping to meet a wide expanse of roiling, tall grass. From their vantage point Brayden could not count the animals moving across the plain in mixed herds. Many gathered at the edge of an expansive lake fed by several converging rivers flowing from valleys very much like the one they had just traversed. The veldt spread before Brayden.

The Protector called for a halt, causing Sethyr to grumble. Vijhan thoughtfully complied, but something about his demeanor gave the impression that he was on edge. Brayden slipped his pack off, setting it on the ground and squatting down to search for something inside. He retrieved a worn, roughly-drawn map. The map was inked on supple leather that had been bleached almost white. Despite its rough nature, the map contained very detailed, albeit messy, drawings.

Brayden sat down on a nearby stone and studied the map. Mumbling to himself, he ran his finger over several spots, mentally retracing their steps.

Vijhan peered over his shoulder, his eyes sparkling with curiosity.

“No wonder you Humans seek to build empires. They seem so small on a map,” the Canid remarked. “Hardly an effort to conquer something so tiny.”

Brayden ignored the friendly jibe but Sethyr rose to the challenge.

“Yes, Vijhan, I supposed it would be difficult to draw a map for Canids, what with having to mark all the territories with urine.”

Vijhan barked a laugh. “Aye, ye’d have to have a whole pack of us just to scent it right.”

Sethyr began to answer but closed her mouth. She had expected the comment to draw his ire, not a laugh. The mage knew that continuing this particular sparring match would only result in her own irritation. Vijhan’s growing good mood seemed to have grown during their trek and seemingly made him immune to her barbs. Sethyr decided to bide her time until the Canid was feeling more vulnerable. A sting in a soft spot always proved more effective.

Sethyr stifled a grin, but not quickly enough. Vijhan turned and caught sight of her smile, returning it warmly.

“Ah, Sethyr, tis fine that you find yourself in an agreeable mood this morning. You’re a good companion anyhow, but even better when the mood strikes you.”

A flash of guilt passed through Sethyr. She wondered how Vijhan could be so sunny and open. He hardly seemed the same Canid who they defeated in Hedgewise. She began to ponder this while returning his smile weakly. If Vijhan temper remained so clement Sethyr worried that she might lose her edge and actually begin to enjoy his company. She had made that mistake only a few times in the past, and with the exception of Brayden, each time it had ended badly.

Brayden broke Sethyr’s reverie, calling for her to come over.

“Look here, on the map,” he pointed at a spot on the map. It appeared to be a large area filled with crude squiggles labeled ‘Sea of Grass’. “Luckily we only need to skirt the edge to the south and pick up one of the trade roads to Kath.”

“That should be easy enough to run,” Vijhan commented. “And plenty of game to live off.” His eyes lit up with the thought of hunting.

“Easy enough for you, Vijhan,” Brayden corrected. “But not for us. We are not built for it, at least not like you are.”

“If it were really a sea, I’d be much more at home,” Sethyr added. “But these plains worry me.”

Brayden nodded, “they would worry me too, but we only have to travel for two or three days on them, and then it is a quick jaunt on a good road to the gates of Kath.”

Sethyr sniffed in disagreement. “Spending three nights on the plain does not sound wise to me. We have all heard of the monsters that stalk those herds down there.”

“I am surprised at you, Sethyr,” Brayden answered. “You, of all folk, I would have expected to take those stories with a grain of salt.”

“You forget, I have lived in the wild…as a youngling. Predators are not to be taken lightly.”

Vijhan nodded enthusiastically in agreement with Sethyr’s argument.

“I have seen the bears. When they get old and sick they sometimes wandered into our mountains. Even half dead they were a terror.”

Brayden remained unconvinced. “I have hunted bear. They are dangerous, but not overly so.”

Vijhan laughed. “Not these bear, friend. These are short faced bears, twice the size of one of a mountain bear, and with legs as long as a horse’s. They can even run one of my kind down and tear them to pieces. We call them dákde t'ooch: Black wind. They are one of the reasons my people never lived in the Sea of Grass.”

Brayden looked at Vijhan skeptically but remained silent.

“It that why you have been so nervous today?” Sethyr asked.

Vijhan’s head snapped toward the mage, scowling.

“You are not the only one with a keen nose. You smell musky when you are nervous; at least I hope it is nervousness.”

Vijhan nodded. “If you had seen dákde t'ooch before, you would be nervous too.”

Sethyr turned pointedly away from Vijhan and addressed Brayden.

“So, august leader, what is our plan, other than avoiding being eaten by bears.”

“I believe that there is not much we can do other than being watchful and traveling as quickly as possible. Once on the road, we should reach Kath easily.”

“I understand all that,” Sethyr said. “I was actually referring to our plan once we reach Kath. Shall we simply knock on the Argent Tigers’ door and demand an explanation?”

“I am not quite that naive or dense.”

“So…the plan?”

“Well…of that I am not sure of yet. Chanti will provide me with insight when the need arises. Of that, I am sure.” Brayden attempted to put as much conviction into his voice as possible.

Sethyr sighed. “I have little confidence in the vagaries of faith, but I suppose I have little choice.”

The three remained silent for a time, simply watching the herds below move to the water, drinking deeply and then moving on. Brayden counted at least a dozen herds of different species. Some were lumbering giants, taking their turn at the water, confident in the safety simply because of their size. Other herds consisted of fine boned antelope who jumped at any errant sound. The variety astounded Brayden and he made a silent prayer to Chanti, thanking her for all the wonders he had seen in her service. Many would disagree, but Brayden found the life of a Protector much more interesting than that of a noble’s son, one sure never to inherit.

Sethyr broke the silence, snapping Brayden from his musing.

“Is this where we will camp?”

Brayden looked to Vijhan, who nodded silently.


“I thought I might kindle a fire…if only I had something to cook...”

Sethyr let the comment hang in the air.

Vijhan gave one of his canine yawns, not rising to the bait.

“I have some oats left. Would you like to make some gruel?” Brayden’s voice carried an edge of humor.

“No thank you,” Sethyr answered. “I was thinking of something a bit more fresh.”

“I spied a patch of wild onions over yonder,” Vijhan said, pointing away from the campsite.

“Umm, perhaps, but those would hardly make a meal.” Sethyr scratched her head theatrically. “We need something else, but what?” Sethyr shrugged. “Onions always go well with a haunch of roast meat, but where would we get that?”

Brayden suppressed a smile, keeping silent.

Vijhan perked up, as if an idea had suddenly come to him.

Sethyr cracked a slight smile.

“I know,” Vijhan said. “I have some dried meat in my pack. We could make some soup.”

Sethyr’s smile disappeared.

“You are being intentionally dense, you hound,” she said. “It’s obvious that I want you to go and bag one of those delicious looking antelopes.”

“Yes, I know that,” Vijhan said.

“So why are you being so difficult?”

“I don’t rightly know what you mean.”

“Damn it, you know exactly what I mean.”

“I suppose I do, but I’d be satisfied with jerky soup, and Brayden seems content with his gruel…which leaves you…”

“Which leaves me hungry,” Sethyr snapped in mock anger.

Vijhan was nearly on the edge of laughter. “So where does that leave us?”

“You can’t seriously be that childish, can you?”


“What is it you want?”

“Just say it and I’m off to hunt.”

“Than go hunt.”

Vijhan cupped his ear, as if straining to hear a distant sound. “And?”

“And, just do it.”

Vijhan put on a look of deep disappointment. “Nope, not the right answer.” He sat down and began grooming his feet with a tool from his pocket.

“Fine…would you please go catch one of those thrice damned antelope?”

Vijhan looked up from his grooming, considering the request for a moment. The moment dragged on until Sethyr huffed in aggravation.

“Well, I suppose I could do that,” the Canid finally relented. He retrieved a bundle of javelins and an atlatl from his pile of possessions and turned to leave the camp.

“Good, and bring back a good one. It had better be good enough to expunge the bitter taste of courtesy out of my mouth.”

Both Brayden and Vijhan smiled at Sethyr’s comment.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Chapter Eleven

Leiftenant Cargill Munros watched the deserted street below intently. Torches mounted on the outside of the Company’s permanent stockade cast fluttering light into the dark night, illuminating the immediate area. Unit protocol called for constant tending of the torches so that the stockade would be constantly surrounded by a pool of light after the sun went down, making it nearly impossible to approach the building unseen.

A hundred years ago, when it was common for mercenary troops to wage private wars against each other to eliminate competition, that sort of precaution was necessary. However, nowadays that kind of vigilance was not really called for, but the Tigers still kept up the tradition. The Colonel always preached; Tradition creates standards, standards breed routines, and routines establish discipline. He often said that discipline is the only habit worth having because it ensured that you always did the proper thing, no matter the situation.

Five years ago, when he had first joined the Argent Tigers, Cargill had absorbed the Colonel’s lessons like holy writ, but no longer. Now he simply accepted them as rules that worked most of the time, but could seem as arbitrary as hell at others. Five years of garrison life wore a man’s illusions of glory very thin.

Cargill sighed, shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Nothing much happened during midwatch, and he was in charge of all that nothing. At this point he did not have much choice in the matter. As a third son of a minor noble, fortune had smiled on young Cargill when his father had secured a commission in the Argent Tigers for him. Cargill had jumped at the chance, his young head filled with tales of exotic places and dashing adventure. The reality of his lot bore little in common with those tales.

The reality added up to months of endless drills, interrupted occasionally by municipal patrols during major holidays or disturbances. Cargill wondered how the Colonel could keep the 300 men of the company paid, fed, and housed with out some sort of income. If someone were sponsoring the Tigers, why would they pay precious gold to keep them in garrison perpetually? Only kingdoms had that much coin to waste. He decided to take a little initiative and look into the finances of the company. At the very least it might break up the boredom.

Cargill spanned to attention as he caught sight of a hooded figure emerging from the shadows near the front gate. He shouted a warning to the sentries just as the figure hammered the iron knocker against the gate.

“Stand fast, men. I’ll be right there. Cargill bolted down the steps, risking two at a time at the bottom of each flight. He hurried across the last bit of parapet and then swung down to the gate post on a rope ladder.

The visitor struck the gate again, sending a solid boom through the empty courtyard behind the gate.

“Hold on,” Cargill shouted as he paused to compose himself. Sliding open a thin metal port in the gate, he peered out. Despite the light cast from the nearby torches, Cargill had difficulty making out their late night visitor.

“What business do you have here?” he said firmly through the open port.

“I am here to see the Colonel, now open the gate, boy.” The voice was like a whispered shout, sending a wave of cold down his neck.

“I…I…I’m afraid that won’t be possible. Standing orders prevent anyone from entering the casern until morning.”

“Hang the rules, boy. I am your employer and you serve at my sufferance. Fetch the Colonel or I’ll have you hung from the gate.”

Cargill nodded emphatically. “Yes…sir. I’ll go get him myself.”

The Leiftenant slapped the port closed and drew a heavy breath. Cold sweat beaded on his forehead as the voice replayed in his head. Without a word to the stunned gate guards he rushed toward the main building in the compound, headed straight to the Colonel’s rooms. He snatched up a shining lantern from a table in the common room as he passed.

Cargill burst into the chamber that the Colonel used as an office and flew to the door behind the heavy desk. With strength born of surprise and haste, He hammered the door leading to the Colonel’s bed chamber. His pounding immediately elicited a barrage of mumbled curse from behind the door.

The Leiftenant could hear the sound of a heavy bolt being pulled back. Colonel Birdwell emerged from the dark room bleary eyed and rumpled.

“What in the blazes is going on?” His eyes furrowed when he recognized Cargill.

“Leiftenant, I trust this is an emergency…or your resignation.”

Cargill nodded, trying to catch his breath.

“Yes…sir, an emergency. There is someone at the gate who demands to see you.”

Anger sparked in the Colonel’s eyes. “You woke me in the middle of the night because some idiot wanted to see me? You buffoon, send him away with an appointment for tomorrow and a boot in the backside.”

Cargill was about to explain further, but was interrupted.

“That would be ill advised,” a strange voice whispered.

Both Cargill’s and the Colonel’s faces turned ashen as they recognized the voice.

They turned toward the open door of the office to see the hooded figure standing in the doorway.

“Your subordinate may leave us now. We have business to discuss.” The mysterious employer stepped into the room and then to the side, leaving just enough room for Cargill to squeeze by. The Leiftenant glanced over at the Colonel, who gave him a quick nod. Cargill was grateful for the dismissal and brushed past the hooded figure. As he did he caught the sent of spices. Most were familiar but one not all were. The mélange smelled pleasant, but left a cloying sweetness in his nostrils.

As he exited the room he overheard the intruder speak.

“Colonel, you will have guests soon, and I want you prepared.”

The sentence was punctuated by the door slamming behind him.

In an attempt to put thoughts of the Colonel’s visitor behind him, Cargill brooded on the gate guards’ failure to keep the visitor from entering the casern. It was a terrible lapse of discipline and he intended to make their lives unpleasant for a few days.

Arriving at the gate, Cargill gasped. The heavy gate hung on a shattered hinge, the iron bolt used to secure it twisted and useless. The pair of guards lay on the ground near the gate, dead as drowned rats. Their faces were sunken and gray as if dead for months.

The Leiftenant made a sign against evil and shouted for more guards. All of the troopers gawked at the bodies of their fallen brethren and an angry current began to run through the normal soldier grumbling. Employer or not, the Tigers wanted vengeance. The Colonel emerged from the company building: alone and shaken.

“Give us the bastard!” one of the soldiers shouted.

His cry was met with loud agreement. The Colonel merely stared at the gathered soldiers, as if searching for the right words.

“Stow that guano, the Colonel has something to say,” Cargill shouted. Showing unusual courage, the Leiftenant purposely put the Colonel in a tight spot. If the commander could not assuage the troopers’ anger, the situation had the potential to spin out of control.

Colonel Birdwell glared at Cargill for a moment and then took a moment to compose himself.

“The blood price has been paid for our loss. Our employer regrets his anger, and has new orders for us.”

The gathered troopers jeered.

“I have agreed to share the blood price with the unit equally. Each man will be given 20 pieces of silver. In addition, our employer plans a feast for use in two days time.”

Cheers of excitement washed away the current of anger.

Cargill snorted in disgust at the quick change in demeanor of the troopers. They sold their brotherhood cheap with such a gleeful display. He wondered if they would accept his death as readily if compensated well enough.

Several other members of the officer corps stumbled out of their billet, looking confused and more than a little concerned. Most were only in partial uniforms and they all looked sleepy and confused. The Colonel eyed the officers with contempt and then turned to Cargill.

“Leiftenant, take over here and make sure that the troops either return to their barracks or to their posts…As you were.”

An officer with Captain’s insignia walked up to Cargill.

“What in the hell was that all about?” he asked.

Cargill briefly explained. The officers seemed as happy by the turn of events as the enlisted men, sending a disappointed ache through his heart.

“Carry on,” the Captain said offhandedly to Cargill as he walked away, slapping the back of one of the other Leiftenants and loudly bragging how he planed to spend his windfall in the local brothels.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Chapter Ten

Vijhan woke with a start, a growl beginning in the back of his throat. Something felt wrong, but he could not tell what. It slipped away from him like wafting smoke. He stifled the growl, craned his neck around and surveyed the camp. Everything was in place. Brayden and Sethyr were still asleep, just as they were when Vijhan had taken up his vigil over the camp.

Rising to his feet as quietly as possible, he scolded himself. Nodding off while on guard was a serious breach in discipline. He feared his new companions’ reaction if they woke and found him asleep at his post. Vijhan shook his head for side to side trying to clear his mind. The cobwebs cleared in an instant, like a veil lifting from his thoughts. Leaping to his feet, he drew the long-bladed scramsax from his belt and loped around the camp searching for any signs of trouble. He sniffed the air deeply as well, his ears perking up for a moment as an errant whiff of something tickled his nose but it disappeared in the early morning breeze before he could identify it.

Satisfied that all was as it should be, Vijhan sheathed the knife, and yawned a long-jawed canine yawn. He sat back down and rummaged in the pouch hanging from his belt. Feeling around for a moment, he retrieved a bundle of willow sticks. He slipped one from the bundle, placing its end in his mouth, and then returned the rest to the pouch. He chewed the end of the stick slowly, careful to reach every tooth. Satisfied that he had cleaned his teeth well enough, Vijhan stopped chewing and pulled and withdrew the stick from him mouth. His sharp teeth had reduced the stick to a frayed mess. With a quick flick of the wrist he threw the stick away, out into the forest, resisting the urge to chase it. He chuffed in irritation. Sometimes instincts could be such a bother.

Brayden stirred at the sound of Vijhan’s chuff. He shifted, sleepily searching for a more comfortable position and then groaned in resignation. Sitting up bleary-eyed, the protector pulled his blanket around his shoulders tightly and got to his feet. He nodded wordlessly to Vijhan and then shambled out of the camp looking for some privacy.

Vijhan wondered how the humans managed, being without natural fur. He would have felt so vulnerable with all that flesh showing. One of the highest Canid punishments was to be shaved and banished to the wilderness, bereft of the comfort of their coat or their pack. He could not imagine how humans without such comforts. Of course, Vijhan knew that humans had families, but based on what he saw, they were not nearly as close as a Canid pack.

After a few minutes Brayden returned from his business in the woods. He appeared much more awake, but still no happier or warmer.

“Good morning, Vijhan,” he greeted the Canid.

“Yes, a very good one. The first day a hunt is always a good day.”

The conversation woke Sethyr, who hissed in annoyance but did not stir.

“Yes, the hunt. If only we knew what our quarry was. Then we might know where to look.” Brayden spread his arms, stretching the cold muscles to warm them up. He still grasped the blanket, which made him resemble some sort of awkward bird, fanning its wings before flight. Vijhan chuckled silently at the sight.

A realization struck Vijhan like a thunderbolt as he thought about what Brayden said. He suddenly recalled something the hooded figure said offhandedly during one of their meetings.

“Brayden, I may be able to help with finding the trail,” he said.

“That is good news. You must be very talented if you can track him after all this time.”

“No need for tracking, at least not yet. But, I remember something that he mentioned. He once made a comment of how much better the weather was in Kath than here during this time of year. He said he could not wait to get back.”

“Kath? That is a goodly trek from here,” Brayden remarked.

“I have never been there, but how difficult can the journey be? Isn’t it through the Imperial Heartlands? Much more civilized than here.”

“Civilized does not mean safe. Some officials have no love for the Protectors. They see our order as meddling fools. Some even accuse us of sedition.”

“Perhaps you can travel in disguise,” Vijhan suggested.

“That could prove the best course, but will do little for you and Sethyr. As non-humans you two will be distrusted almost everywhere except the larger towns.”

“I can endure their scorn. I am strong.”

Sethyr rolled over and spoke, her eyes still closed.

“Just wait, Canid. You will be surprised how creative their scorn can be.”

“I will endure it,” Vijhan said, glaring at Sethyr.

Brayden walked over to the heap of firewood that gathered the previous day, retrieved two small logs and placed them carefully on the fire. This sent a glowing flare of sparks to rise from the flames.

“That solves the how in getting there, but once there how do we proceed?” Brayden asked.

“Hmm, if my memory serves, the man also mentioned something called the Argent Tigers,” Vijhan answered.

“I am not familiar with the name. Are you, Sethyr?”

Sethyr lay for a moment, silent. Then one eye opened, glaring at Brayden.

“No, I have never heard it before…but it does sounds like one of those inane names that soldiers are so fond of. I’d wager that anything named so has to have soldiers running it.”

Brayden scowled at Sethyr. “I happen to consider myself a soldier in many ways…”

“No,” Sethyr interrupted, “you are priest. That makes you a hypocrite, not an idiot. The difference is subtle, I’ll grant you, but you’re a bright one.”

Vijhan stared at Sethyr, mouth agape.

“How can you let…” the Canid hesitated for a moment, as if searching for the right word. “that lizard speak to you with such disrespect?”

Brayden gave Vijhan a wan smile. “You have to understand, my friend, that it is just Sethyr’s way. He only bothers to use his wit on those that he has affection for or those that have drawn his ire. Sometimes they are one and the same. For folk he has no feeling for, either way, he probably wouldn’t piss on if they were on fire.”

“I’ll thank you not to apologize for me,” Sethyr said, now sitting upright and wearing an irritated look.

“No apologies here, just understanding,” Brayden said, wearing his most absurdly peaceful face.

“Please…not before I have eaten. If I’m going to retch I at least want to do it correctly.” Sethyr rose and stumbled away from the camp carrying her backpack for some privacy of her own.

Once Sethyr was out of earshot Brayden leaned close to Vijhan.

“Sethyr is like a cup of chicory in the morning: strong and bracing but quite enjoyable once you have acquired the taste.”

“Don’t forget bitter,” Vijhan added with a grin.


Sethyr absolutely abhorred the cold, especially the damp cold that clung to the bones early in the morning. As a reptile she did not retain heat as well as the warm-blooded races. She cursed the furry buggers and their ease in getting the blood flowing. Sometimes she was forced to resort to artificial means to rouse herself from torpidity on chilly mornings. She shuffled out of the camp until she was far enough away to be assured of her privacy. She then sat down, her legs crossed, and set her backpack across her lap. After carefully removing all of the contents of the pack, Sethyr reached into the bottom, releasing a hidden catch that revealed a shallow pocket. Several small vials snugly filled the pocket. She plucked each out, setting them on the ground in front of her next to a small, hammered-copper bowl.

Sethyr picked up the first bottle, holding it up in the direction of the early morning sun. Through the colored glass she could tell that the vial was nearly empty. Grumbling she unstoppered the vial and poured its entire contents into the bowl. She followed this with measured drops from the two remaining vials. Satisfied that she had gotten the mixture just right, she stirred the liquids together using the pinkie of her right hand. She sniffed the residue on her finger. The smell reminded her of the fetid mud that collected at the bottom of stagnant swamp pools in her homeland. She shuddered, wiping the wetness on the hem of her robe and then raised the bowl to her mouth while tilting her head back. Sethyr quaffed the potion, pouring it quickly down the back of her throat. The less that hit her tongue the better. Despite her care, a few drops found their way to her tongue, causing her to stifle a gag.

Forcing herself to swallow, Sethyr chocked down the viscous brew. She let her tongue loll from her mouth rather than risk it coming into contact with any additional reside. She reached for her waterskin and gulped a generous amount. After being satisfied that the last of the mixture had been washed away, she replaced the stopper on the skin and set it down. She carefully replaced the vials in their hiding place, including the empty one.

“I must find more siltblade root soon or answer some very complicated questions,” Sethyr reminded herself. She repack her backpack, took care of her morning business and then returned to the camp, ready to be at least civil this time.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Chapter Nine

Najasat sat on his bed, holding the message gem in his hand. He still was not feeling quite well, but he felt worlds better than he had just hours before. His heaving stomach had subsided and the aching in his limbs had dulled, but his head still throbbed just a bit.

He pondered the gem, feeling its cool weight against his palm. He could almost feel the warm of the life that the greyling had given to deliver its message. They greylings had been one of his best acquisitions. He could still feel the turgid heat of their swamp wrapping him when he thought about them. Yes, that had proved quite useful to him. They were just smart enough to pay attentions to things that any good spy would find interesting. Yet, their will was malleable enough to turn toward his aims. The message gem, of course, was his small addition to their anatomy. It made them that much more reliable.

Rising from the bed Najasat walked toward his desk, stretching languidly. Several audible pops issued from his joints as he moved.

“Much better, everything back in place,” he muttered to no one in particular.

Najasat sat down in the chair, placing the crystal next to a bowl that had been carved from some sort of skull. He opened one of the desk drawers and retrieved a rack of small glass vials. Each contained a different powder or liquid ranging greatly in color from drab green to bright red.

Beginning with a luminous green liquid with the consistency of honey, Najasat began mixing the contents of each vial in the carved bowl. An acrid vapor wafted from the bowl as he added the last vial of stark white power. He snatched up the message gem and dropped it into the bowl. It disappeared into the bubbling concoction with a dull plunk. A moment later the gems floated to the surface and then dissolved, tracing a thousand tiny lines of light through the liquid.

Taking the bowl in his hands, Najasat it to his lips and drank deeply. He set the empty bowl back on the desk and leaned back in the chair. He shut his eyes for a moment, inhaling deeply through is nose and exhaling though his mouth. The rhythmic breathing continued for a few moments and then returned to a more natural cadence. His eyelids fluttered open, revealing a startling change.

Najasat’s eyes were opaque silver, like a polished mirror, but cast no reflection. He tensed for a moment as his eyes darkened and then images began to play across them. The images showed a familiar looking Canid leading a Protector of Chanti and a Cairnfolk dressed in mage’s robes toward a yawning cave mouth. A deep growl issued from Najasat’s throat as he recognized the Canid. It was the leader of the pack he had employed to harass the village of Hedgewise. For some reason the Canid, whose name he had never bothered to learn, was betraying him.

Najasat sighed. “These lesser ones can always be counted on to make the wrong decision eventually,” he thought to himself. The Canid had been simply a tool and not an especially effective one in fact. Like any other dog, he could be dealt with in time. Punishment could be meted out as required when any hound turns on its master. But that would have to wait. He found the sudden appearance of these new folk much more interesting.

The images flowing through his mind abruptly stopped, signaling the end of the greyling’s memories. Najasat’s eyes cleared quickly losing their silvery sheen and returning to their original jade green hue. He sat musing for a moment, thoughtfully stroking his chin.

“This could prove an interesting diversion,” he said aloud. “Yes, I think that I will find this entertaining.” He knew that the vision he had received from the message gem was hours old, but perhaps is was not too late.

Rising from the chair, Najasat stretched again eliciting even more cracks and pops from his joints. He turned back toward the bed and walked over to a large chest set near its foot. He opened the chest, retrieving a dark, woolen cloak and then donning it with a flourish.

The cloak covered him from head to toe, obscuring all his features except for his height, which was average so offered no advantage to an observer. Najasat returned to the desk, retrieving a small, rectangular block of obsidian from one of the drawers. His fingers brushed the dark surface of the stone, leaving behind a fleeting sparkle of golden light as they passed.

Satisfied that he had everything he needed for his planned deed Najasat moved to an open area of the chamber and set the obsidian block in the center of the open space. He began to sing a low melody, almost a chant. His voice had a rich, resonant tone, which carried through the quiet room filling with its musical warmth. The obsidian reacted to the mellow tones by beginning to glow. As song progressed ghostly voices joined in, accompanying Najasat’s voice in haunting harmonies. The obsidian responded to the chorus, rising from the floor and hovering in the air nearly seven feet from the floor. At the same time the block began to change shape, becoming thinner, but growing in surface area. Soon the block was a yard on each side and as thin as vellum.

Continuing the haunting melody Najasat walked forward, positioning himself directly beneath the glowing block. He folded his arms across his chest and looked up at the block. Even the bright glow didn’t penetrate the darkness beneath the hood of the cloak.

Suddenly the song changed. Its key shifted, making the harmonies clash. With a flash the block fell straight down toward Najasat. He disappeared into the block as if passing through a window. A hair’s breadth before striking the ground, the block disappeared with a crackle.


A flash of light filled the cave, followed by a crackling hiss. Najasat stood in the cave, transported there instantaneously by the magic of the block and the spell he had invoked. After appearing he immediately draw a willow wand from somewhere beneath the cloak and held it defensively before him.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Chapter Eight

A light gray creature clung to the bark of a birch tree near the mouth of a cave. It would have been nearly impossible for even a trained hunter to pick it out because of its color, but its motionlessness added even more to it ability to remain undetected. The creature’s color had even earned its name, a greyling. Only the most careful observer was able to detect the slight rise and fall of its chest or the ever present swiveling of its eyestalks as it watched everything around it. Most would have simply mistaken the movement as the flutter of a leaf in a mild breeze. Of course, these traits, and a few not so obvious ones, where the very reason that the greylings were bred. Greylings somewhat resembled a fleshy worm about a foot long and as thick as an average thumb. Of course, few worms sported wide, bat-like wings and grasping claws, but the greyling had them. The creature’s hodgepodge of strange features could only mean one thing. Greylings were not natural creatures. Most likely, they were the result of some twisted fleshcrafter’s art, meant to fulfill a specific task not intended by nature. This particular greyling was about to achieve its purpose in life.

Its eyestalks twitched eagerly as it saw several humanoids approaching its hiding place. The aerie keeper had magically imparted this location when he had released this greyling. The creature knew to wait and observe until it either dropped dead of starvation or saw something worth back. The greyling watched as a Human, a Cairnfolk and a Canid passed nearby and entered the cave it had been set to watch. As soon as they passed and nothing else seemed to be coming, the greyling took wing, flapping its leathery wings to gain altitude for its long journey back to its aerie.


Skitnik the goblin skittered through the hollow corridors with its shoulders slumped and wearing a worried expression. Its eyes downturned lest he see something he was not supposed to and be summarily executed. The creature navigated the maze of corridors like a rat in a maze. Most messengers did not last very long in the Tangle. Skitnik had outlasted most, mostly due to a healthy portion of paranoia and a knack for disappearing when it was time to deliver bad news to the Master. By far the most dangerous duty for a goblin here in the Tangle was that of being the bearer of bad news.

Luck had been with Skitnik so far, but today his number had come up. A greyling had come in that morning, exhausted from the long flight to the Tangle. The small flying reptile delivered its news to the aerie keeper and promptly died, its heart ruptured from effort. Using a sharp, hooked knife the keeper split the creatures gut, plunging two fingers inside. After a moment of concentration, the keeper extracted a small clear gem from inside the creature. Tossing the corpse of the greyling aside, he lifted a chamois from a nearby work table and cleaned the gore from the gem. He held it up to light streaming from the aerie’s entrance, peering into its facets. He grunted, seemingly satisfied and slipped the gem into a small leather pouch. He then turned to look for someone to deliver the message gem to the Master. Unfortunately for Skitnik, he was the only goblin unlucky enough to be nearby.

The aerie keeper was a Jurouk who, despite his jade green skin and red glowing eyes, looked almost human.

“You there,” he pointed at Skitnik. “Come here now. This message needs to be delivered to the Master.”

Skitnik whirled around, desperately hoping that the aerie keeper could possibly mean someone else, but he was not so lucky.

The aerie keeper took several steps toward Skitnik, scowling. “Yes, you moron, I mean you.” He held out the pouch. “Take this to the Master’s chamber immediately, and don’t trifle with it. I’ll have your head if you do.”

Skitnik bobbed his head in agreement, careful not to meet the Jurouk’s eyes.

“Now get going, you filthy git, or I’ll skin you,” the aerie keeper growled.

Skitnik peeped in alarm, his claws clicking on the stone floor as he hurried away. He muttered under his breath, angry that there had been no one else to take the message. He had a bad feeling about this one. Nothing seemed out of the ordinary, but his paranoia was scratching vigorously at the back of his mind. “Beware,” it peeped.

As he approached the Master’s chamber, the peep had become a shout. Skitnik trusted his paranoia, more than he trusted anything else in this world and so he decided to listen. He slowed his pace, careful to avoid letting the long claws on his feet click on the stone floor. With a wary look over his shoulder to ensure his privacy, Skitnik crept into the dark shadows left by the spotty light from the lanterns hung at regular intervals down the hall. He could see a brighter glow farther down the hall. This pearly luminescence came from the magic globes used for light in the Master’s chamber.

Skitnik hunched down, embracing the shadow and the invisibility it offered. His sharp ears strained for any sounds coming from the room ahead. He occasionally heard muffled footsteps and once he picked up the distant crash of dishes from the kitchen, but not a single sound came from the Master’s chamber. Skitnik’s heart leapt. Perhaps the Master was asleep, or away from his chamber. Neither was very likely as the Master did neither very often. Steeling what modicum of courage he did have, Skitnik crept forward, careful to stay as deeply in the shadows as he could. He quiet padded forward, wearily scanning the corridor for even the smallest indication that he had been seen.

The light pouring from the chamber banished all of the shadows directly around the entrance, leaving the goblin without any more room to maneuver without stepping out of the shadows. Skitnik stifled a whine, his eyes desperately searching for an alternative to showing himself, but there was not one.

Skitnik sighed, thinking to himself, “So this how I die?”

With a burst of speed the goblin scampered across the brightly lit corridor into the Master’s chamber. Having been there several times before, he knew the layout of the room and raced toward the large desk dominating the center of the chamber. Perhaps if he appeared to be doing is task as a messenger with gusto the Master might overlook the messenger’s role in delivering bad news.

Skitnik slid to a halt, his claws tick-tacking on the stone floor, seeking purchase to halt his slide. He hopped onto a step stool placed in front of the table, put there so that the Master could see his smaller minions without the need to rise from his usual place at the desk. At times the stool was insufficient because of the scrolls and books piled on the desk. They formed a veritable bulwark of vellum and parchment between the Master’s work area and his servants.

After hopping up on the stool, Skitnik craned his next to see over the musty books, but no one was at the desk. His heart leapt. Had he managed to come when the Master was not here? Had he escaped his doom?

Skitnik jumped down from the stool and scampered around the desk, careful not to knock over any of the books stacked under the table. A carved wooden chair topped by a thick red cushion sat behind the desk, pushed away slightly. Skitnik’s heart jumped at the sight. The Master might return any moment and find him there. Surprising the Master with his presence could prove very unhealthy for a servant.

Skitnik hopped deftly onto the chair, standing so that he could see the top of the desk, and set the message gem on the desk carefully. He placed it directly in the center of the desk, on top of a sheaf of yellowed parchments covered with strange writing, but then again all writing was strange to Skitnik. He thought that the Master was sure to see the gem when he returned. Flushed with the confidence of success, the goblin took an extra second to bounce up and down a few times on springy seat cushion. Its velvety texture felt good to his bare feet, making him almost purr.

“Who is there?” A loud, strangled voice disturbed Skitnik’s woolgathering. He jumped down from the chair, skittering under the desk to cower behind one of the heavy legs.

“I asked who is there?” The voice asked, sounding a bit clearer.

Skitnik scanned the room frantically from his hiding place. He suddenly realized that the voice was coming from the heavily draped bed. He strained to see beyond the dark canopy covering the bed, but only caught flashes of movement.

“WHO?” The voice bellowed this time, filling the chamber.

Mustering his courage, Skitnik piped up. “A messenger, Master.” The goblin’s head involuntarily bowed when he addressed the voice.

“Leave the message and be gone, before you are my dinner.”

“As you wish, Master. It is on your desk” Skitnik began to back away from the bed, thankful to have completed his task.

“Wait,” the voice murmured. “Bring the gem to me.”

Skitnik’s shoulders drooped in despair. Fate had handed him doom when he was at the edge of escape. His paranoia was chanting a steady mantra of ‘I told you so’ in his head as he retrieved the message gem and plodded toward the bed.

A hand and arm emerged from with the darkness of the bed’s canopy. It was twisted, covered with rippled and pocked skin the color of a corpse. It beckoned him forward with deformed fingers tipped with cracked and discolored nails.

Skitnik froze at the sight of hideous arm, not eager to lay eyes on the rest of the creature. The Master motioned again, this time annoyance showing in the choppy gesture. The goblin strangled a whine and began to inch forward, holding the gem out at arms length. As he got within reach the hand extend, palm out.

‘Strange,” Skitnik wondered. The hand seemed to be smoother and the nails more well groomed than he originally thought. In fact, it was almost pink, not corpse-like pale. It must have been a trick of the light or his own nervousness, he concluded. He quickly plopped the gem into the Master’s waiting grasp.

“Good,” the Master said, drawing Skitnik’s attention toward the dark recesses of the canopy. This close, some light penetrated the shadows and the goblin would later swear that he had glimpsed the face of a beautiful woman in the shadows. Just as quickly as the face appeared, it disappeared back into the dark.

“Go,” the master ordered.

Skitnik bowed deeply and scrambled out of the room, not caring if his nails caused a racket as he fled.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Chapter Seven

The early morning sun had just peaked over the edge of the valley where Sethyr and Brayden traveled. The surrounding hills were well forested and had offered the pair a comfortable camping site the previous evening. In contrast, the floor of the valley was nearly barren. Until a few years before, it had been as verdant as the hills, but a scouring flood had washed away almost all of the trees and underbrush, leaving behind an unbroken mud flat.

Sethyr groaned when she realized that they would have to cross the flat to reach their destination. She had spent her entire early life living in a swamp and was not eager to reacquaint herself with the mud. Brayden had merely nodded and set his shoulders determinedly, setting out into the mud. Nearly an hour passed, taking them almost halfway across the valley floor.

Brayden slogged through the heavy mud, his breathing deep and rhythmic. With each step his boot first broke through a paper tin layer of ice and then sank into the muddy ground past his ankle, making every move an effort. If the weather had been any colder and perhaps the mud would have been frozen enough to walk on easily. Unfortunately that wasn’t the case. Sethyr walk slowly next to the struggling Protector, but was somehow able to keep from sinking into the mud. On closer inspection one could see that her reptilian feet splayed widely when she set them down. In addition, a thick leathery web stretched between her three long toes. This combined to allow her to distribute her weight evenly enough to avoid the clutches of the mud.

Every dozen steps or so Brayden eyed Sethyr in irritation.

“You are enjoying this, aren’t you?”

Sethyr flashed him a toothy smile. “Actually no, I hat walking this slowly…and the edge of my robe is now terribly soiled.”

Brayden grumbled, but did not say anything else. Sethyr was baiting him for a good verbal sparring match and he knew it.

“Oh don’t be such a bear. I happen to be blessed by my heritage with a certain affinity for swamps. Believe me when I say I do not enjoy this any more than you do. I simply have the physical gifts to cope with these abominable conditions more easily.”

Brayden grumbled again.

They continued across the valley floor, the mud lessening as they approached the craggy hills on the opposite side. If Vijhan’s descriptions of the Canid campsite were correct, the camp lay in those hills. Sethyr did not share her friend’s faith in the truthfulness of the Canid packleader’s information. Perhaps she was judging Vijhan too harshly, but thinking the worst about the outcome of a situation had very rarely left her disappointed. In the rare case that things did turn out better than expected she was elated to be wrong.

In this case, however, she had little doubt that this investigation was futile. They just did not have enough information go deduce an intelligent hypothesis. Unless the hooded figure had left their shoe behind with their name sewn into the lining, she doubted their chances of success.

The laborious trudge through the mud finally came to an end. The ground abruptly rose upward, joining a sweeping hillside covered with soft, thick grass and dotted with small poplar trees. Further up the hill Sethyr could see much larger trees that had been out of reach of the flood waters.

Brayden pulled himself out of the last patch of mud, clinging to a nearby poplar. His breathing had increased, but he did not appear to be too terribly out of breath. He sat for a moment; his back cradled by the soft grass and closed his eyes. The sun had risen considerably higher and its bright rays helped chase the chill of the icy mud from his bones. Sethyr also turned toward the sun, pulling up her sleeves, letting the rays fall on her upturned face and arms.

“Brayden, you know I don’t believe in all that religious hoodoo, but I can see why the Cairnfolk worship the sun. It can be so…delightful, at times.”

Brayden peered up at Sethyr from where he lay.

“You are a strange creature, my friend.”

Sethyr’s head snapped down to glare at Brayden, “And what does that mean?” Anger showed at the edge of her voice.

“No, no, you misunderstand,” Brayden explained as he sat up. “I simply mean that most of the time you seem so, so…complicated. But then you can take such pleasure in something as simple as basking in the sun. Sometimes I think it is all some sort of elaborate joke you are playing on the world.”

“You give me too much credit,” Sethyr replied, her temper soothed. “I can most easily be described as difficult. I accept that, and at time embrace it.”

Brayden nodded slowly. He slipped his boots off and used his belt knife to scrape the clinging mud from the boots. He cleaned the mud from the blade using a handful of grass and then wiped it with a cloth from his belt pouch to make sure no moisture remained. He wriggled his toes, letting the sun shine on them.

“I think I am beginning to understand your appreciation of the sun. It banishes the chill quite well.”

“Try being wet half your life; you’ll soon appreciate the sun as I do.”

“I’ll remind you of that if we are ever stuck in some Chanti forsaken desert.”

“I’ll expect it,” Sethyr quipped, again getting the last word.

Brayden enjoyed the sunshine for a bit longer and once again slipped on his boots. He scrambled to his feet, shouldered his pack and set off up the hill, Sethyr silently following. He peered up at the hill’s peak, wondering how many others like it lay between him and the Canid campsite.

Thankfully, the Canids disliked walking up hills as much as Brayden and Sethyr and had made their camp in the lee of a nearby hill. It took the companions only a quarter of an hour to discover the remains of that camp. The Canids must have returned to gather their possessions because there was little evidence, other than a rough fire ring and bald patches in the grass where tents had been, to suggest that there was ever a camp here. There was, however, the dead Canid lying in the middle of the clearing. The creature had suffered a horrible knife wound to its abdomen, leaving much of its viscera lying in the dirt next to it.

“There must have been further discussion of the post of packleader,” Sethyr commented.

“Aye, I believe you may be right,” Brayden answered.

He squatted down to take a closer look at the corpse. “I don’t think that this fellow will be telling us much.”

“A shame. I was so looking forward to spending hours or weeks pursuing this. I don’t suppose you would consider dropping the entire matter?” Sethyr asked.

“You know me better than that.”

Brayden spent several more minutes scanning the immediate area for any additional signs. He examined the clearing thoroughly but finally gave up, shaking his head slowly.

“I’m just not sure how much more we can glean from this,” Brayden said.

Sethyr had taken a seat on the ground and she watched the Protector, wearing a bored expression.

“Perhaps I can be of help,” said a familiar voice hidden somewhere in the nearby undergrowth.

Brayden turned quickly toward the voice and drew his sword in one fluid motion. Sethyr lashed her powerful tail, sending her tumbling into an acrobatic roll which ended with her ready to cast a spell while still kneeling defensively.

“No need to worry. I am no threat.” The voice called again from within the undergrowth.

The sound of the voice tugged at both Brayden and Sethyr’s memory. The exchanged questioning glances and then refocused their attention on the unseen voice. It sounded very familiar, but neither could quite place it.

The brush rustled where the voice had come from. Something was pushing its way through the thick wall of bushes, but their thick foliage obscured what it was. Brayden approached a step closer, moving into a more defensive stance. Sethyr hissed, trying to get Brayden’s attention.

“Not so close old man. If I cast my spell you might be splashed with fire.”

“Hold your spell, Sethyr. We cannot just roast whoever this may be. We owe them at least a chance to explain themselves.”

“You are too trusting,” Sethyr hissed.

Their attention was draw back to the brush by an increase in the rustling. Brayden risked another quick glance over at Sethyr and then took a small step backward.

The rustling reached a crescendo as a figure began to emerge from the undergrowth. First a dog-like head peeked out, followed slowly be a humanoid body.

Both Sethyr and Brayden immediately recognized Vijhan. The Canid emerged fully from the undergrowth and stood silently, his hands held out to show he held no weapons.

“What in the blazes are you doing here,” Brayden asked, disbelief in his voice. The protector was, however, careful not to lower his sword.

“I have been waiting for you.”

“And why is that?” Sethyr asked as she rose from her crouch.

Vijhan tilted his head toward the mage. “I could only assume that you would come here. So I decided to wait here and see if I could help you in any way.”

Sethyr snorted. “Don’t imagine for a second that I believe any of that.”

“Sethyr, please, let him speak.”

Vijhan turned his head back toward Brayden. “She is party right. At first I did not think to aid you. I rushed back here to try and wrest back control of my pack. Unfortunately, they moved too quickly and had moved on by the time I arrived. They only left behind poor Haroosh there.” Vijhan motioned toward the corpse.

“You still have not explained why you want to help us,” Sethyr snapped.

“I am getting to that…young lizard. I am here to help you, frankly, because I have nothing else to do.”

“That is a comforting thought. Why don’t we just…” Sethyr interrupted.

“Sethyr, please let him speak.” Brayden cut off Sethyr, shooting her an angry look.

“Fine!” Sethyr crossed her arms, glaring at Vijhan.

“As I said, I have nothing now that my pack is lost to me. I could follow them and challenge for leadership again, but I have lost my taste for that. The only other thing that came to mind was waiting for you two. Brayden, you treated me fairly and kept your word. Those are not qualities we Canid normally associate with Humans. More often than not, we are hunted like vermin, just as wolves are. I feel a debt to you for sparing my life.”

Brayden nodded. “Chanti teaches that all life has value and should not be squandered lightly.”

“Even the life of a murdering savage,” Sethyr added, addressing Vijhan. She turned to Brayden, “Are you forgetting what he was prepared to do in Hedgewise? And what of the villagers who disappeared recently?”

“I have not forgotten,” he answered. “But he was prevented from it and has been offered a different path. We must do what we can to encourage his first steps on that path.”

“I have seen this new path and seek to follow it,” Vijhan added eagerly.

Sethyr hissed. “Then seek it elsewhere. I will never trust you…ever.”

Vijhan lowered his head. “I understand and accept that, but I will do what I can to help you find the hooded man and then I will go my own way.”

“Fair enough,” Brayden said. “We…I welcome your help.”

Vijhan grinned widely, but the sharp teeth showing did little to comfort Sethyr. Despite her trepidation, the tension had broken. Brayden sheathed his sword and then swung his pack off of his back. Vijhan walked forward quickly to help him.

Sethyr shook her head again. It looked like Brayden had earned himself a pet. The mage pondered this for a moment and then realized that she had come to join the Protector in much the same way. Vijhan was not a pet at all, simply someone seeking something better.

She had been living, just barely, in the slums of Kath when she met Brayden. The human inhabitants had showed little regard for her hunger or feelings. Fortunately, their scorn did not extend to open hatred, but they refused to help her and some had even gone so far as intimidating the few folk who did speak to her.

Brayden had appeared one day in the beggars’ quarter in search of a merchant’s son who was addicted to snake lotus. The young man hailed from a large town not far from Kath, but had run away from home when his father had discovered that his son was stealing from the other townsfolk to buy snake lotus.

Piet, the merchant, had implored Brayden, the local Protector, to retrieve the boy. The search for Piet’s son led Brayden to the Beggars’ Quarter. Most in the quarter were close lipped, distrustful of outsiders. Few would talk to the Protector, and those that would have selfish reasons for it.

Sethyr knew of the boy Brayden described. In fact, she had seen him the previous evening. The boy had been flush with coin, probably garnered from some illegal activity. She had been in the ramshackle tavern, the Cock’s Tail, when he had come in, shouting for a round of drinks. He pulled the barkeep aside and whispered something as well.

Everyone in the tavern cheered their good fortune because one of their number had seemingly struck it rich, but probably more appreciative of the free drink.

Sethyr was conspicuously left out of the festivities, not even offered a drink. She simply watched. Shortly after that, she saw the barkeep saunter up to the boy and hold out his hand for payment. The boy slipped him a few large coins, which brought a surprised smile to the barkeeps face. Once he was assured of payment, the barkeep handed the boy something rolled up in a dirty bit of cloth. The boy eagerly unwrapped the cloth, revealing a sprig of gnarled root about the size of his thumb. He attacked the root, chewing it with quick, almost desperate bites. A look of bliss soon passed over him. He stared wide eyed at nothing wearing a bemused smile.

Never having seen anyone act this way, Sethyr got up and moved closer. She stopped short when she got close enough to the boy to clearly see his eyes. His pupils had turned to slits very similar to her own eyes. She hissed, her head sliding forward and down into a defensive posture. The sound of her hissing attracted the attention of most of the peasant nearby in the tavern.

One particularly burly fellow stood up, glaring at Sethyr.

“Whatcah’ doing lizard?” He shouted.

Sethyr dropped into a defensive stance, a spell ready on her tongue.

“You got a problem with Iggy? He just bought us a round, so you better not upset him. We might get another outta him.”

The crowd grumbled agreement. She heard the isolated cries of ‘stinking lizard’ and ‘freak’ mixed in with the general sounds of disquiet.

“My apologies,” Sethyr nodded apologetically.

“Your sorrys don’t mean nothin’ here, egglayer.”

She hissed in rage at the insult. All but the most brave in the crowd began to eye the door for a possible escape route.

“Shut your face, or I’ll make a pair of boots outta you,” the man threatened.

Sethyr decided in that moment that discretion was called for. She turned on her heel and headed toward the door. No one did anything to bar her way, but once out the door, the laughs and taunts of the patrons chased her into the night.

She recalled all of this in the blink of an eye when Brayden asked about the boy, but she hesitated. Sethyr had been abused by humans in authority often enough that she was wary of them. Did she dare tell what she knew to this priest, or would she be accused if something bad had happened to the boy.

Sethyr watched Brayden for quite some time. No matter how wretched the people he spoke to were, he never belittled them or acted superior. This had impressed her. Something in the priest’s eyes, or maybe it was the way he looked at people, pushed her to trust him.

She continued to watch him intently; a bit too intently. Brayden finished speaking with a passing washer woman who was so short he towered over her. He looked up, his eyes catching Sethyr watching him. He nodded, wished the washer woman a good day and began to stroll in Sethyr’s direction. She began to panic, scanning the market for a quick and easy to lose herself in the crowd. Unfortunately, Brayden and Sethyr were taller than most of the folk nearby. She knew that hiding herself would be nearly impossible. Instead, she chose a different tact.

As Brayden approached, Sethyr motioned him to come closer.

“Ah, good sir. I heard a tale that you are seeking some poor unfortunate soul.”

Brayden nodded, “Yes, that is so. Perhaps you could help.”

“Hmm, that may be possible. What can you tell me…perhaps it will jog my memory.”

Brayden repeated most of what she had already overheard. There were a few less important details, but they hardly mattered, as Sethyr already knew who the priest spoke of. She politely let him finished and then put on her most convincing look of concentration. She even went as far as scratching her chin, as she had seen many humans do.

In truth she was using the time to decide if she would reveal what she knew. With a sign she came to a conclusion.

“Ah yes, I have seen this boy. In fact, I say him just last night. It was at the Cock’s Tail; quite a ramshackle place.” Sethyr recounted the rest of what she remembered, but was careful to leave out the anger she had shown at the human’s insult. The priest did not need to know everything.

Brayden thanked Sethyr for the information and was about to leave when she suddenly realized something. This priest was the first human in a long time to treat her as an equal. She nearly choked on the wave of loneliness that crashed over her.

“Wait,” she cried at him as he turned to leave. “I shall show you exactly where the tavern is.” She hurried ahead, eager to help and spend more time with this strange priest.

All of this had happened nearly three years ago and Sethyr had not left Brayden since then. She did not even pretend to understand his motivations most of the time, but she had grown to trust them. She silently decided to trust them in the case of Vijhan as well. If Brayden wished to accept his aid, so would Sethyr…but she could never let them know that.

“Are we done with the social grooming?’ Sethyr asked with more humor than sarcasm in her voice.

“Ah, yes. We should be moving on. I don’t think that staying here for the night is a good idea.” Brayden looked up at the sun, gauging the time. “We have a few hours before nightfall.” He turned to Vijhan. “How far are we from the place you met with this hooded person.”

“Not far at all, but it will take time to get there. Most of the way is up a steep hill.” Vijhan’s voice was bright with eagerness, pleased to be helping.

“Is there a good place to camp there?”

“Yes, yes there are many caves.”

“The we had better get started if we want to get their by nightfall,” Brayden suggested.

Sethyr chuffed, shouldering her backpack.

“I can carry that for you,” Vijhan offered.

Sethyr glared at him, “Don’t be absurd. I am perfectly capable of carrying it myself.”

“My apologies. I meant no offense. It’s just that you…” Vijhan paused, thinking for a moment. He looked over at his shoulder at Brayden who was intent on checking his pack.

“He has no idea, does he?” Vijhan asked.

Sethyr’s glare intensified.

“Interesting,” Vijhan said and then let out a low, barking chuckle.

Sethyr hissed, whispering as she passed the Canid. “Say nothing and I may let you live.”

Vijhan laughed softly again. He knew it would not be a good idea to reveal Sethyr’s secret. Not only would it be rude, but it would alienate the mage and there was no telling what Brayden might do. No, he did not plan on saying anything. Secrets always had more power if you kept them close.