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.

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