Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Chapter Five

Brayden struggled toward consciousness once again. The pugnacious part of his personality bridled in frustration at yet again having to recover from a collapse. Doubt about his ability to serve the protector in the wilds was beginning to scratch at his pride. Damn the sisters, he knew he was getting older but was not, by most definitions, old.

The prideful part of Brayden’s personality preferred to think of him as seasoned. His years of experience were an asset, not a countdown to uselessness. There was a time when Brayden was more apt to solve problems with his fists rather than his mind, but twenty years as a Protector in the service of Chanti had changed that.

Twenty years had given him quite an arsenal of techniques to handle conflict, but he had also been confident that if those failed, he could still rely on his sword arm in a pinch. The worrisome part of Brayden’s personality wondered if he could still trust that assurance. Age overtook everyone eventually, he knew, but that did not make the realization any more palatable.

The stubborn part of Brayden’s personality suddenly asserted itself; kicking the pugnacious part in the balls, punching the worrisome part in the eye and calling the prideful part a strutting turd, and then sent them all back into the subconscious without dinner.

Brayden woke, filled with a strange determination. He heaved himself into a sitting position, swearing as a wave of vertigo hit him. A hand reached and grasped his arm, steadying him. Bright morning light streamed in though the open door of the hut, hurting Brayden’s eyes. He squinted in the glare, but managed to look up to see who was offering the steadying hand. His eyes shot fully open when he saw that it was Sethyr. He reached up and grasped the hand.

“By Chanti am I happy to see you.”

“And I, you,” Sethyr responded.

“How in the nine hells are you here? They told me you were dead.”

“That is not important. It suffices to say that they removed my gag and I took it from there,” Sethyr said, hissing a laugh.

“You talked them out of it?” Brayden looked confused.

“Not quite. I convinced them to throw me in their pond. Were it not for my particular heritage I surely would have perished.”

“Sethyr, you could sell soap to a goblin. They never stood a chance, did they?”

“No really, but it was a near thing. Luckily Ernst here proved to be an accommodating fellow.” Sethyr gestured toward the village headman who waited silently off to the side. Ernst wore a look of concerned embarrassment.

“I suppose you are feeling better, with all the rest.” Sethyr asked.

“Not funny, but I am actually feeling better. I guess I am just getting older.”

“Nonsense, you told me you were barely two score years old.”

“In this game, that is old enough to begin feeling it. Anyway, what would you know? You are still young, Sethyr.”

“That is true enough, but my folk often enjoy lives of a century or more.”

Brayden coughed in disbelief. “One hundred years? You must be joking.” He realized just how little he really knew about Sethyr and the cairnfolk.

“Given favorable conditions that is not uncommon. Unfortunately the lives of the cairnfolk are very seldom ideal. Our lives are often short and violent.” Sethyr seemed to want to continue, but paused and then signed, remaining silent.

Brayden nodded. “Well, it is a good thing that you have me to look after you…that is when I am awake.” Both Sethyr and Brayden laughed out loud. The human’s book laughter contrasted with the hissing of Sethyr’s laughter, but both shared the same spirit of familiar humor.

Brayden excused himself to use the chamberpot and then called for them to come back in.

“Please friends, tell me everything that happened while I was napping.” He drew out the last word, rolling his eyes at the same time.

Sethyr smiled. The closest thing that Brayden could compare it to was a crocodile about to snatch an unsuspecting gazelle off the shore.

Brayden’s eyebrows knitted with a question. “What are you playing at, Sethyr?”

“I failed to mention that we have a guest. While you were napping a pack of canids slipped into the village and were preparing for a bit of mayhem. Luckily, I had already had a chance to retrieve my magical accoutrements from our camp and I was able to deal with them. I suspect this is the same pack we crossed swords with earlier. Chanti smiles on us because we captured their leader. I assumed you would like to have a little talk with the fellow.”

Brayden nodded, a smile creeping onto his face. “Yes, that should prove useful. We should be able to clear up matters quite nicely.”

Brayden rose from the cot gingerly, his joints popping. Sethyr left the steadying hand on his arm, but had enough sense to avoid bruising Brayden’s ego by helping too much. The protector muttered a thank you, taking a few tentative steps. He felt quite well considering how much he had been through in the last few days.

Brayden’s gaze swung toward Sethyr suspiciously. The mage met his gaze with mirth, eyes glinting with mischief.

“I can divine your thoughts, friend. And the answer is yes,” Sethyr said.

Brayden scowled at his friend. “I have told you before; I do not want to use your vile concoctions. Had I been awake, I’d never have agreed.”

“Ah, but you were not awake. That is the crux of the issue. Without my elixir you would still be lying there, mewling like a sick cat.”

“I depend on the graces of the lady, not some swamp cure. Chanti provides…”

“And she provided me as your friend,” Sethyr interrupted Brayden’s tirade. “Now that you are back on your feet you can pray all you want. We have had this argument before and I have respected your wishes, but we have pressing business to tend to and I couldn’t wait. I made the choice to administer one of my vile concoctions. If your lady sees fit to damn me for it, than so be it.”

“No, that is not what I meant. It has nothing to do with you. It concerns my own weakness,” Brayden said.

“Well then, that is a different matter entirely. I suppose you are only human.”

They both smiled at Sethyr’s good natured jibe.

“If you will excuse me I will prepare myself to question our guest. My devotions should not take more than an hour or so.” Brayden gestured for Sethyr and Ernst to leave. They nodded, filing out in silence, leaving the protector to his prayers.

* * *

While Brayden prepared and prayed Sethyr arranged with Ernst to retrieve the rest of their belongings from the abandoned farmhouse that had formally served as their. A teenage boy from the village had been dispatched with all speed to carry back the gear. Once he had returned, Sethyr had quietly slipped into the hut and laid out Brayden’s things for him, making sure that they were all crisp and clean. The vestments had been enchanted to repel dirt and grime, but that only went so far.

Once Brayden finished his prayers, Sethyr helped him don his vestments. As he dressed they discussed how to deal with the captured canid. The protector wanted to avoid using his magic if possible. Compelling others using Chanti’s will had never set well with him. This situation called for guile and both he and Sethyr had equally healthy portions of that vice.

Brayden emerged from the hut clad in his finest vestments. The gathered folk murmured in awe as he appeared. The stark white robes with red trim were finer than any garment they had ever laid eyes on. The protector lifted his hands, gesturing toward the crowd. “The blessings of Chanti upon all gathered here.”

The crowd intoned the usual response. “Peace to all.”

Sethyr stepped forward, motioning Brayden to follow. The protector gave the mage a slow nod and followed, his long robes swaying gracefully. Sethyr led the way to one of the barns located at the edge of town.

The barn was built solidly of hewn timbers, mud chinking filling the cracks between the logs. Someone had applied a coat of whitewash to the exterior, making the barn stand out among the drab buildings of the village. Brayden had a suspicion that it probably belonged to Ernst. Not only did he appear to be the most prosperous person in the village, he was probably not going to trust a prisoner to the tender mercies of the mob again, so he would keep the canid safe on his property.

Sethyr swung the large door open, letting the bright morning light shine into the barn. Several people inside turned to see who had entered. Ernst was among them. Brayden concealed a satisfied smile when he saw the headman.

Sethyr led the way into the barn, eyeing everyone suspiciously. Brayden followed, his posture straight, wearing an official looking scowl. He spied the canid tied up in one of the stalls, resting on a pile of straw. He was still bound but was no longer gagged.

“How is the prisoner?” Brayden asked.

Ernst hurried up to the protector. “He is well, we saw to that.”

“Has he had any food or water?”

“Why, no sir.” Ernst looked confused.

Brayden shook his head. “See to it that some meat and cheese are brought…and some fresh water. I want him strong enough to question.”

“I didn’t get a meal,” Sethyr quipped, drawing a deeper scowl from Brayden. Sethyr hissed a quiet apology and took a step back.

Ernst gestured emphatically at the two other villagers in the barn.

“You heard the protector. Bring this creature something to eat. Some cheese and meat…um.” Ernst turned to Brayden, hesitating. “Should we cook it? The meat, I mean.”

“I suppose we should ask…what is your name?” Brayden turned and asked the canid.

Everyone else turned, watching for the answer.

“Vijhan, my name is Vijhan,” the canid said plainly in the common tongue. “And I like my meat cooked. I am not a savage.” The canid spoke the common tongue, clearly and with only a slight accent. Brayden was surprised at how well the canid spoke. He silently reminded himself to avoid underestimating Vijhan.

Brayden turned back to Ernst, “You heard Vijhan, bring something roasted.”

Ernst dispatched the other villagers to return with food for Vijhan.

“What do you want…Human?” The last word came out of Vijhan’s mouth as a snarl.

“That is simple, Vijhan. I want answers.”

“To what?”

“What do you think, you cur?” Sethyr snapped.

Brayden put up a hand. “Sethyr, let me handle this.”

“As you wish,” Sethyr said, eyeing Vijhan with venom.

“Let us begin simply. Why did you attack the village?”

“Loot, you dolt. Why else would we do it?”

“Loot, you say? But this is a poor village and all winter they have been losing livestock. I can only assume your band was responsible.” Brayden leaned casually against the entrance to the stall.

“The strong prey on the weak. It is the canid way. I make no apologies.”

“Of course not. I would never fault you for your nature.”

Vijhan brindled at Brayden’s comment.

“We are lords of the wilds. That is our nature.”

“Then why would you want loot? You surely can’t carry with you.”

“We take what we want from the weak.”

“Yes, you said that already, I just don’t understand what these people had to take…I mean that had any value to you.”

Vijhan growled. “I don’t need to answer to you.”

“Oh, but you do, Vijhan. You have no pack now. You have been deposed, replaced, cast aside. If you do not answer my questions than I will simply hand you over to the villagers and let them deal with you. And however they decide to deal with you I’m sure they will make it last a long time.” Brayden sighed.

Vijhan’s brow furrowed. “What can you offer me?”

“I will absolve you and let you go free. Just tell me why you have been preying on this particular village.”

Vijhan hesitated, eyeing Brayden and Sethyr.

“Why should I trust you?” He finally said.

“You have no other choice, unless you want to trust your fate to the mob.”

“Answer one question for me, first. Why are you here, in this particular village?” The words were accented, but were still a fair impression of Brayden’s formal voice.

“They took me in, after I was injured wile my companion and I were traveling. We were attacked by a pack of canids. You wouldn’t know anything about that, I suppose.”

“Not a thing,” Vijhan responded hastily.

Brayden’s posture shifted. He straightened up and all pretense of friendliness disappeared.

“I have answered you, now you must answer me.”

“Fair enough, human.” This time the word carried no contempt. “The Band of the Shattered Fang was hired to drive these humans out of the village. We were given gold and promises of more if we succeeded.”

“By whom?”

“I am not sure who, but I can tell you one interesting fact. The fellow who hired my band was human.”

“Human?” Brayden blurted, “Who was it?”

I never got a good look at his face, but I would recognize his scent anywhere. He smelled spicy.”

“What in the nine hells is that supposed to mean? Spicy?”

“I once went to the western desert. Human folk there cook with strange spice and herbs. The man who hired my band smelled like their cooking smelled. Lots of spices mixed together. It was actually quite strong…nearly covered his human stink.” As soon as the words left his mouth Vijhan cringed.

Brayden ignored the comment, intent on gathering more information. “So, you say he was from the West…all the way from the desert?”

“That could be. The only place I have smelled anything like it was in the West.”

Brayden kneeled down, looking the canid in the eye. “Is there anything else? I can compel you if necessary.”

“No, I have spoken everything I know. Now keep your promise and release me.”

Brayden rose to his feet, smiling. “Not quite yet, my friend. You haven’t eaten yet.”

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