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.

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