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.

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