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.

No comments: