The Gauntlet Thrown - Chapter Fifteen

 

 

Chapter Six 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Chapter Eight 

 

Chapter Nine

 

Chapter Ten

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Chapter Twelve 


Chapter Thirteen

 

Chapter Fourteen


 

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

     TARGO



    Redwing took his sweet time preparing for the journey, so it was not until nearly mid-afternoon that they left the Temple and headed for the docks.  It seemed silly to leave so late, but Davin explained that they would spend the night in Targo, which looked to be a journey of perhaps thirty minutes, considering it sat just across the river and up the steep cliff from Kaneelis.

    They bid goodbye to a tearful Verana and stopped in to see Alyn before leaving.  The blond girl rested in a small room whose floor to ceiling windows looking out on a huge expanse of green grass.  She smiled languidly at them from the cushioned couch.

    “This place is excellent.  The baths are amazing – I spent the entire morning there.  After that I was massaged with fragrant oils and then had a meal with foods I’ve never seen before.”  Alyn laughed, a sound that made Toryn blink at her in surprise.  He could not remember her ever laughing in sheer delight.  “I may never leave.”

    “I’m glad you’re enjoying yourself.  We’re leaving Kaneelis today,” Toryn blurted.  Her eyes narrowed.

    “You are coming back, aren’t you?”

    “Well… yes, of course.”  Toryn was confused by the question, uncertain what she meant by it.

    “Excellent.  I will stay here until you return.”

    Toryn looked at the Falaran helplessly.  Redwing grinned at him and leaned over Alyn.  “Enjoy your stay and be well.”  He stepped forward and kissed her on the forehead.  She looked at Toryn and arched a brow, but he merely bowed in her direction and followed Redwing out.

    “I think she wanted you to kiss her,” Redwing commented.

    Toryn snorted.  “If I kissed her, she would want more and more and we would never get out of here.  Better I don’t tempt her while she’s healing.”  Toryn was somewhat surprised that Davin did not enter Alyn’s room, but instead lurked in the hallway waiting for them.  Perhaps he had already said his goodbyes to the Akarskan girl.

    They three of them collected their horses and made their way through the city.  As they neared the docks they watched the ships come in from the Corolis Islands, G’Neel Across the Sea, and Silver.  Sails billowed and fluttering flags proclaimed the origins of the vessels. They even saw a ship from Redol.  Toryn watched it longingly for a moment and thought about sending a message home.  He met Redwing’s fathomless eyes and grinned.  It would be difficult to explain to Morgyn that he now traveled with the same Falaran he had set out to kill.

    They continued through the city until they reached the bay, where the sea met the large river that flowed from the Abyss.  Toryn’s eyes followed the river’s path into the huge chasm that cut the continent in half.  The canyon was a formidable barrier.  At the river’s bank they hired a ferry to take them across to the Penkangum shore, which was not much more than a small spit of sand at the base of the towering cliffs with a couple of makeshift docks jutting out.  Several small stone buildings clustered near the cliff bottom.  Davin explained that those were the homes of the ferrymen and tax collectors.  A long climb up a steep cliff path led to the top of the Penkangum plateau.  Even with the horses to ease the journey it was nearly dusk when they finally reached the summit.

     Penkangum looked to be a bleak land populated with low brown hills and thick, spiny shrubs.  Targo was a squat, sprawling city perched atop the cliff.  Toryn thought it looked down upon the graceful jewel that was Kaneelis like a ravenous vulture.  The heavy iron gates that led into the city looked more symbolic than functional, as the Targans were already aware of all who traveled up the cliff.  By the look of the gates, they had rusted open long ago.  Redwing muttered under his breath about lax security.  The city entrance was not even guarded.

    “Unfortunately, there is no way to bypass the city,” Davin said.  “They built the walls to the edge of the cliffs in order to force travelers to enter Targo.  You could travel up the Abyss, of course, but no one has discovered a way to scale the steep sides.  To the south, the cliffs run all the way to the port city of Tanoo, which is just as bad as Targo.  Worse, actually; once you’re in the city, there is no way to avoid the market sector.”  The hooves of the horses clopped noisily as they rode along the street of broken cobblestones.  “They planned the city that way.”

    They rounded a corner and were suddenly converged upon by what appeared to be a howling mob.  Fang reared and Toryn fought the reins, but the crowd was undaunted.  They surged forward shouting and waving arms full of goods, though two of them went down beneath the mare’s hooves.  Redwing doubtless would have stopped to help the downed people, but Davin shouted at them to keep moving.  The cacophony swelled around them.

    “Stuffed quail!  Bodorii silk!  Leather vests!  Spiced oranges!  Gold medallions!  Silveran tea!  Velvet lined boots!”  It went on and on until it was a jumble of sound.  Toryn was afraid the crowd would pull them from their horses.  He paused when an intricately decorated tunic caught his eye.  Without glancing back, Davin yelled, “Don’t stop!  And don’t buy anything!”  His words brought an angry murmur from the crowd and the barrage lessened for a moment and then increased tenfold as they entered the marketplace. Toryn had never seen such a chaotic mass of humanity in his life.  He felt decidedly claustrophobic and Redwing had a similarly panicked expression.

    The sheer volume of goods being peddled was mind-boggling. It seemed that anything which could be bought, sold, or traded had been brought to this village at the edge of nowhere, largely to supply the trade-dependent city of Kaneelis.  Toryn and his companions fought their way through the multitude, an act that seemed to take an eternity.  Once they left the central square, the clamor receded and most of the merchants left them.  They rode down twisted side streets until they reached a nondescript tavern.  The sign above the door was weather-beaten into illegibility.

    When they dismounted, the few tenacious peddlers who had followed them waved assorted goods under their noses.

    “Go away!” Davin snarled in the most authoritative tone Toryn had ever heard from him.  The merchants grumbled, cursed, or made rude gestures, but they slouched away.

    Toryn stared at Davin.  “Is this city always like this?” he asked.

    “Penkangum is always like this,” Davin replied.  “Penks live by trade.”

    Davin shouldered his way into the tavern and chose a table near the door.  Toryn looked around warily as he and Redwing joined him.  The place was nearly deserted—a welcome change after the marketplace.  The exception was a small crowd of urchins that rushed over and thrust various trinkets at them.  It seemed every single resident of the city had something to sell.

    “Buy or trade, kind sirs?” they asked and jostled each other with grubby brown elbows.  Davin waved them away, except for one that he gripped by the wrist.

    “Our horses,” he ordered and held up a silver coin.  “Watch them and you will have this.”  The youth’s eyes lit up greedily and he pattered outside.

    “Would anyone steal them?” Toryn asked worriedly.

    “Unlikely, this far from Tar-Tan.  They would be easily spotted and Akarskan Hunters watch this city very closely, just in case someone manages to snatch a horse out of Akarska. Better to be safe, though.”

    A barmaid finally wandered over to them, seeming bored until she caught sight of thei silver-haired companion.

    “Davin!”  She gasped and stared at him as though seeing a phantom.

    “Lena,” Davin said in an even tone.

    “We thought you were dead,” she said breathlessly and clutched the wooden tray in her hands so tightly her knuckles turned white.

    “I am certain you did,” Davin replied mildly with a bitter smile.  “But what is easily sold might not be so easily disposed of.”

    Lena paled and looked as though she might bolt.  She shot a glance toward the door behind the bar and her tongue moistened her lower lip for an instant.

    “By all means, rush off and tell Whitey that I’m here.  I did not come for revenge—I came for a meal.”  She gave him a doubtful look and hurried away.

    “Do you feel as though we missed something?” Toryn asked Redwing mildly.  The Falaran looked at Davin penetratingly and the silver-haired man actually shifted under the gaze.

    “I’m sorry,” Davin said.  “I had meant to avoid this place, but I could not seem to stop myself.  I trusted that bastard Whitey and he betrayed me.  I want him to know that he’d better watch his back, because he’s going to turn around one day and I will be there.”

    Redwing sighed.  “Why do I have the feeling my life has just acquired another complication?”

    Toryn laughed.  “You thought this Quest of yours would be a placid little trip.”  He chuckled.

    Redwing groaned and rubbed his temples.  “I would settle for an hour of placid at this point.”

    The curtain across the doorway flew aside and a giant of a man stepped through.  Whitey, obviously.  His name was likely due to the thick white hair that framed his face and trailed halfway down his back.  He strode to their table with the frightened barmaid trailing behind him.  The man loomed over their table.  Toryn frowned and Redwing stared up at him with something like apprehension.

    Whitey was a mountain.  His stained leather shirt was stretched over muscles that looked hard as granite.  His arms were huge as beer casks and he flexed them as he neared.  His stomach was flat as a board and Toryn wondered if the man lifted oxen for pleasure.

    “You want him to know you are behind him?” Toryn choked quietly. “Are you mad?”

    Davin looked perfectly calm as Whitey leaned on the tabletop with his huge hands.  The wood creaked alarmingly.

    “Davin,” he said pleasantly in a deep voice.  “I had not thought to see you again.”

    “No doubt,” Davin replied dryly.

    Whitey grinned and showed perfectly white teeth.  “I always knew you were resourceful,” he said.

    “Try not to forget it.”

    “What brings you here, Davin?” Whitey asked as his smile disappeared.  Davin leaned back in his chair and spread his arms in a gesture of innocence.

    “Why, food, of course!  I assume you still make the best mussel stew in Targo?”

    Whitey straightened.  He looked at Davin closely, as if trying to determine his intent.

    “In the whole Concurrence.  You aren’t here to cause trouble?”

     Davin snorted.  “Let the past fall where it lies, I always say.”  He grinned.

    Whitey’s gaze sharpened.  “I thought you followed the ‘eye for an eye’ philosophy.”

    “I’ve mellowed,” Davin said with a disarming smile.  Whitey studied him for a moment and then shrugged and grinned.  He turned to Lena.

    “Bring chowder and wine.  Corolis wine,” he ordered.  He hooked a nearby stool with one foot and dragged it over before seating himself.  He rested his elbows on the table and then turned his attention to Redwing.

    “Questing, Falaran?” he asked.  Redwing shrugged noncommittally.  Whitey smiled a secretive grin and said no more to him.  His gaze went to Toryn.

    “You’re no Falaran.”

    “That is quite an observation,” Toryn said dryly, liking man no better than Redwing did.  Whitey smirked, either missing or ignoring the sarcasm.

    “It pays to be observant.”  Davin snorted.  The girl returned with a wooden pail full of stew and three bowls. She ladled the chunky mixture into the bowls and Toryn looked on approvingly.  The creamy chowder was stuffed with shrimp, clams, mussels in their shells, and several varieties of fish.  Lena brought loaves of hard bread and poured goblets of wine before disappearing into the back room.  Whitey said nothing and allowed them to sample the food in silence.

    Toryn tasted it carefully and then looked at him with reluctant admiration.  “It is good,” he said grudgingly.  Redwing admitted it was exquisite, which Toryn thought was somewhat excessive.  Whitey accepted the compliments with grace.  The wine was excellent.

    The white-haired man watched them eat for a time and then looked at Davin.

    “You’re wanted in Paragor,” he said absently.

    Davin glared at him.  “You should know.  You won’t find me an easy mark if you try to sell me out again.”

    Whitey sat back with an expression of surprise.  “Davin!  You wound me! Last time was only a jest!  I knew you would escape.”  Davin stared at him and his strange violet-grey eyes turned nearly red.

    “A jest?” he repeated quietly.  Whitey slid his stool back, seeming almost nervous.  Toryn watched curiously and wondered what the white-haired man feared in Davin.

    “Well, perhaps I was a bit upset at you that night after you won the tenth game of Talons.  And drunk!  Was I drunk?  I hardly remember what I did to you that night.  In fact, I went to find you and bring you back, but they had taken you from the city.  Ask Lena!”

    “That sounds like a poorly-rehearsed tale, Whitey,” Davin growled.  “I trusted you.”

    Whitey stood up and kicked the stool back to where it had been standing.  “Damn it, Davin.  I apologize!  Is that what you want?”  Whitey swore loudly.  Davin stood up and leaned close to the man event though he stood a full head and a half shorter.

    “No, Whitey, that is not what I want.  What I want is tax free exit from this city, for three horses and the three of us.  You owe me,” Davin said in a low, cold voice.  Whitey sucked in a breath and his brows drew down.

    “Tax exemption?” he hissed and glanced around furtively as if he feared to be overheard.  There were only three other patrons; a young couple with clasped hands who murmured dreamily to one another and a grizzled old man that snored drunkenly next to his empty glass of ale.  “For three?  And for horses?  Are you insane?”

    “If I do not have it by tomorrow, I am taking my revenge out of your bloody hide and selling the remains to Tar-Tan,” Davin continued.  Whitey’s face reddened and for a moment Toryn thought he would strike Davin with one of his clenched ham-sized fists.  Beside him, Redwing tensed.

    “Do it, Brydon,” Toryn goaded in a whisper.  “You can take him!”  Redwing threw him a quelling look.

    “It will take time!” Whitey protested.

    “I have faith in you,” Davin said confidently and clapped the big man on the shoulder.  Whitey swore again.

    “I should not have sold you,” he muttered.  “I should have killed you.”

    “You can’t,” Davin replied and shrugged.  “I’m worth too much.  We will take the Rose Room.  Don’t bother to try anything; we sleep in shifts.”

    “You ask for too much, Davin, but I will get what you want.  Never show your damned face in here again.”  Whitey spun on a heel and stalked out.  Davin sat down and resumed his meal.

    “Tax exemption?” Toryn asked.  Davin looked around quickly, mimicking Whitey.

    “Not so loud,” he warned.  “Those words are enough to get you arrested here.  Penkangum has no industry, no agriculture, and no resources.  Basically, it’s a scrubby scar on the land and damned lucky to be a part of the Concurrence.  Penkangum exists by trade alone.  Trade and taxes.

    “If we try to leave Targo, they’ll search us and tax everything we possess.  First, there is the import tax for bringing anything tradable into Penkangum.  That includes clothing, weapons, utensils—nearly everything we own.  The tax on horses is almost half their value with an additional amount tacked on as for ‘hazard tax’ in case the horses turn out to be stolen and are deported by Akarskan Hunters.  We would have to sell one just to pay the tax on the other two.  You both would face another tax for being foreigners.  The only way to avoid it is to remain in the city for five days, which naturally would cost more than the tax.  Finally, we would have to pay the gate tax and the road tax, which were originally used to finance the city gate and road repair.  It made so much extra income for the city that they decided to keep it even though the gate was paid for long ago and the roads are now maintained by Ven-Kerrick. Taxes are Penkangum’s life blood.”

    “I have never heard anything like it,” Toryn said with a whistle.  “We have no taxes at all in Redol.  Who rules this city?”

    “The Council of Merchants in Paragor.  Locally, the Merchant’s Guild.  They control the City Council.”

    “Merchants?”

    “Penkangum has no king.  If you have enough money, you can buy your way on to the Council of Merchants.  The Council then selects a member to sit on the Kerrick Advisory Council in Ven Kerrick.  The Paragor Council decides who sells what and which taxes are to be levied.  They send a representative to each city and town, with a well-paid band of mercenaries, to make certain the laws are enforced.  The representatives, called Constables but known more collectively as Council Dogs, then choose a City Council and decide what additional taxes they can impose.  In some places, they charge you for drinking water.”

    “It’s beginning to look like we aren’t going to make it out of Penkangum with a single coin,” Toryn said gloomily. “Can’t we slip out of the city?”

    Redwing nodded.  “From the look of the city gate, that should not be too difficult.”

    Davin shook his head with a wry grin.  “That is what they want people to think.  The Sea Gate has been left in disrepair because it’s not needed.  There is only one way to leave from there—down the cliff to the ferries.  Before you board a ferry, your taxes are due.  That is why the tax collectors live on the beach.

    “The Eastern Gate is a different story.  It has high stone walls topped with broken glass, two guard towers, iron-bound gates, portcullis, double shifts of guards, and tax collectors.  It’s almost impossible to sneak out and if they do catch you, it’s instant dungeon time and confiscation of all your possessions.  Tax evasion is a serious crime here.  Similar to treason, elsewhere.”

    “Then how do we get out?” Redwing asked.

    Davin lowered his voice even more.  “Bribery.  Normally, we would have to bribe a City Councilman, or someone else who could get us the proper documentation.  The right papers will grant us tax-exemption and get us through the gates hassle-free.  Whitey will get them for us.”  The last portion of his statement was made with iron in his voice.

    Toryn looked at Brydon with a gaze that clearly questioned their relying on a somewhat unstable Davin and the hulking Whitey.  Redwing shrugged, silently implying that they had little choice. They finished their meal and Davin led them up a dark staircase to a small but comfortable room.  It was obviously designated the “Rose Room” due to the large tapestry of a red rose that hung from one wall, somewhat faded with age.

    “Who gets the bed?” Toryn asked.  “I’m too tired to fight anyone for it.”

    “I will take the first watch,” Davin offered.  “I really don’t trust that bastard Whitey.”

    “You can have the bed, Toryn,” Redwing acceded.  Toryn grinned.

    “I knew you would say that.”  He hopped onto the bed and kicked off his boots, but left his clothing on; ready for trouble if it came.  He placed his unsheathed sword on the bed and rested his hand on the hilt.

    “I’ll take the second watch,” he mumbled around a yawn.

    “I’m taking the horses around the corner to a place where they’ll be safe,” Davin said.  Toryn was not sure he should go alone, but Davin slipped out before he could suggest otherwise.  Redwing rolled out his bedding while Toryn studied the room.  There were no windows, which ruled out the possibility of assassins entering by that route.

    “This is a strange place, eh Toryn?”  Redwing asked.

    Toryn shut his eyes, thinking it unnecessary to reply.


~~ O ~~


    Toryn snored softly and Brydon smiled.  He had never known anyone who could fall asleep so quickly and yet be wide-awake the instant his eyes opened.  He stretched out on his blankets and waited for Davin to return.

    The silence was immense and his eyelids drooped tiredly.  Brydon tried to think of his princess back in Falara, but Eryka’s face was lost to him.  He remembered curling blond hair but he was uncertain even of her eye color.  It mortified him to discover that the merest thought of Sellaris conjured clearer images.  Burnished copper curls that fell over creamy shoulders. Smoldering grey eyes and soft lips parted wantonly.  He remembered the curve of her neck as she tipped her head back and the line of her throat as she moaned...

    He cursed to himself and shook the memory away.

    “Forgive me, Eryka,” he muttered, feeling treasonous. His turmoil dissipated an instant later as he realized Davin had been absent too long.  He got to his feet and paced for a moment, wondering if he should go look for the Penk.

    “What’s wrong?” Toryn asked.

    “Davin should have been back by now.”

    Toryn sat up and tugged his boots on.  “When I agreed to come with you, I expected a nice, quiet journey,” Toryn grumbled.  “What have I gotten?  Lions.  A viperous Akarskan wench.  An insane Penk who thinks he’s a werewolf.  Captured by thieves.  A battle with thieves.  A battle with more thieves.  A man who disappears into thin air before I can slice him in two.  A Falaran who can read my mind.  Swamps, mud, rain, bugs, and fever.  A city full of howling madmen and tax collectors.  Now this.  I can’t wait to see what happens next.  Did you plan all this?”

    “If you are finished whining, I suggest we go find Davin,” Brydon said mildly.

    Toryn grinned nastily, but the door opened before he could comment.  Davin staggered through the portal and Brydon saw with horror that his face was half-covered with blood.  His white shirt was splattered with it.

    “What happened?” Toryn cried as they ushered him to the bed. Brydon quickly poured water into the basin and soaked a cloth.

    “The wound isn’t deep,” Davin protested as he washed the blood from his face.  “They got lucky.  Two cutthroats for hire—good ones.  I really didn’t think Whitey would go this far.”

    Blood flowed from a deep gash on Davin’s temple and Brydon pressed the cloth to it tightly.  Toryn dug in his pack and handed Brydon a jar of gray powder.  He set some bandages aside.

    “Thank Adona Verana gave us this powder.  I had not idea we would need it so soon.”

    Brydon plastered some grey powder over the wound and Davin’s face went white.  “Sorry.  I forgot to tell you it stings,” Brydon commented.  A major understatement.  Davin glared at him.  “Well, it stopped the bleeding.”  He bandaged the wound tightly and then looked at Davin’s bloody shirt.

    “The rest of the blood isn’t mine.”  Davin took off his stained clothing and threw it into the corner, wrinkling nose as the acrid smell permeated the room.  He lay back on the bed, visibly weakened from blood loss.

    “Whitey won’t try anything else, tonight,” Davin said tiredly.  “He will be too busy getting our papers and wondering what I’m going to do to him for this second betrayal.”

    He yawned and fell asleep, leaving Brydon and Toryn to stare questioningly at one another.  Toryn shrugged and took Brydon’s blankets, leaving him to guard the door.

    “I knew I’d lose the bed,” Toryn complained.

~~ O ~~

    The rest of the night passed uneventfully.  Toryn let Davin and Redwing sleep.  He hadn’t slept well, expecting hired assassins to burst through the door at any momet.  Davin awakened shortly after dawn and Toryn checked the dressing on his head before applying a different poultice and re-bandaging it.  When the task was finished, Toryn nudged Redwing in the ribs with a toe.

    The Falaran sat up, rubbing his side.  He threw Toryn an irritated look.  “There are gentler ways to wake someone up, you know,” he protested grumpily.

    “Forget it.  I’m not kissing you.”

    Redwing stared at him and  Toryn chuckled at his own wit.  Even Davin smiled momentarily.

    “I know you always wanted to,” Redwing responded lamely.

    Toryn threw a vest at him.  “Let’s get moving.  I’m starved.”

    They stowed their gear and tromped down to the main room, which was more crowded than it had been the night before.  They located seats and a girl brought them warm pastries and a selection of hot drinks.  Toryn and Davin eagerly gulped cups of hot Bodorii coffee.  Toryn had not had coffee since leaving Redol.  He was surprised when Redwing shuddered at the bitter taste and drank sugared tea instead.

    “Coffee is damned hard to find in Redol,” Toryn said.  “When the ship comes in, the tribes gather.”

    Davin nodded.  “It is highly sought.  One of Penkangum’s primary trade items.  I missed it.  Remind me to purchase some before we leave, although I shudder to pay Targan prices.”

    They had finished eating and were enjoying their beverages when Lena appeared and murmured something to Davin.  He gestured to the others and they followed her into the back room.

    The doorway led into a large kitchen where a cook hovered over several large pots.  A boy busily scrubbed dishes.  Lena handed Davin a sealed leather packet and gestured to the back door.  Davin took the pouch and went out followed by Toryn and Redwing followed.  They entered a small alley and walked past several closed doors.  Davin opened the packet and shook out the contents—three round pebbles.  Toryn looked at him curiously, but Davin did not explain.

    “Come on,” he said and tossed the rocks aside.  He led them through streets and alleyways until Toryn was thoroughly confused.  He was uncomfortable enough in this city without being lost in it.  At last Davin stopped at a doorway and knocked.  It opened silently.

    “The Three Stone Inn,” Davin explained as they entered. The room was small and dark, lit only by a single candle.  A man lurked in the shadows.

    “Your name?” he demanded.

    “Davin of the Lavender Hills.”  Another packet was handed to Davin before the man rose and departed.  Davin tucked it into his shirt.  He crossed the room and opened another door that led to the common room of the inn.  It was deserted, so they passed through and exited onto the main street before walking a short distance to a small tavern.  They entered and found a table near a window.

    Toryn ordered ale while Davin opened the package.  He withdrew a thick stack of parchment and examined it closely.  The others sipped their drinks and remained silent.  Davin scrutinized each word and finally stacked the papers together and placed them back in the oilskin pouch.

    “They seem to be in order,” he said.  The door opened and Whitey strode in.  After chatting amiably with some acquaintances, he walked over to their table.  His eyes widened when he viewed the bandage on Davin’s head.

    “Why, Davin—?” he began.

    “Don’t bother, Whitey.  You’ve already written yourself a secure place on my list of people never to trust.  I would rather not move you to the list of people to destroy.  For Lena’s sake.”

    Whitey puffed himself up with indignation, an action that impressively swelled the muscular chest beneath his tight leathers.

    “Surely, you don’t think that I—?” he huffed.  Davin held up a hand.

    “Never mind.  Did you bring our horses?”

    Whitey nodded somewhat sulkily.  “They’re out front.”

    “We’ll be on our way.  Thank you for your help.  I hope things go well for you.”  Davin stood.  Whitey cleared his throat for a moment.

    “Davin,” he said.  “You will not—?”

    “Seek revenge?  No.  Out of respect for the friendship we once had.  I wish that it had never gone wrong.”

    Whitey studied him closely for a moment and seemed to search for words.  His expression grew bleak, but finally he nodded and turned away.  Davin’s jaw tightened.  Toryn wondered what had happened to cause such a rift between them.  He looked at Redwing for a moment.  There was such a tenuous cord binding him to the Falaran.  He valued Redwing’s friendship, but knew the enmity between their countries would always be between them.  It was a sobering thought.

    Davin followed Whitey outside and took up the reins of his horse.  Whitey grinned at Redwing as the Falaran mounted Darkling.

    “Good luck on your Quest, Falaran,” he said and Redwing shrugged.  Without another word or even a hand raised in farewell, the three of them left Whitey and rode toward the city gates.  The day was warm for late spring, bordering on hot.  The sky was clear and blue and people were jammed into the streets, buying and selling.

    “That was too easy,” Davin commented as they pushed their way through the crowd.

    “Easy?  You were nearly killed,” Redwing responded.

    “I’m not sure Whitey will settle for ‘nearly’,” Davin said wryly.

    It took them a half-hour to reach the East Gate and Toryn marveled at the difference between it and the Sea Gate.  Davin had been right.  Twin towers of stone rose high into the air, spreading arms of brick that encircled the city.  Four guards sweltered before the gates and more were visible in the towers above.  A veritable battalion of soldiers and tax collectors worked both sides of the gate, searching incoming and outgoing parties while ignoring blustering protests and the hysterical cries of women.

    They made their way steadily toward the gates.  Davin shot one glance at Redwing, his only sign of nervousness.  As they drew closer to the gates a tax collector noticed their approach and motioned to them.

    “Davin!”  The cry rang out over the noise of the crowd and Davin drew rein.  Lena fought her way through the mob.  At last, she reached Davin and tore open one of the packs on his saddle.  She withdrew a small leather packet.  Davin looked at it suspiciously and she nodded.

    “Danaan seeds,” she murmured, softly enough that Toryn barely caught the words.  “Contraband.  Whitey—I don’t know what he is doing, Davin!  He’s changed so much.  I could not let him do this.”

    “The papers—?” Davin asked.

    “The papers are fine,” she assured him.  “Word would be out on the street if he gave you false documents.  He would be out of business in a week.”

    Davin nodded.  Lena put her hand on his knee and looked at him earnestly.

    “For what it’s worth, Davin,” she said, “I am sorry.”

    “It’s not your fault,” Davin replied.  “Never let him force you to believe otherwise.”  He touched her hand for an instant and then nudged his horse toward the tax collector, who now gesticulated angrily at them.  Lena’s hand hung in the air for a moment as though in an arrested farewell as she looked after him. Then she turned and faded into the crowd.

    Davin handed the packet of papers to the tax collector.  The man stared at him through beady eyes while scratching a beaked nose. He perused each paper so thorougly that Toryn began to think he analyzed the composition of the ink.  His brows drew down over his beady eyes and his gaze switched from the parchment to Davin suspiciously.

    “Council couriers, eh?” he asked finally, drawing the words out as though tasting each letter.  Davin nodded.  The man stared at Toryn and his brows went up and down and couple of times.  He scanned the papers again before glaring at Davin.

    “This man is a Redolian,” he hissed slowly, gritting the last word through clenched teeth.

    “Yes,” Davin replied calmly.  “He has been granted residency by the High Merchant Banaal and given courier status, as clearly stated on page four, paragraph two.”

    The tax man stared at him and then flip-flip-flipped through the papers.  He read again with agonizing slowness.  A trickle of sweat found its way down Toryn’s spine and he fought the urge to itch.  Redwing shifted in his saddle.  The horses cocked hind hooves and dozed.

    At last the man muttered something unintelligible and scrawled his signature on several of the papers.  Davin relaxed almost imperceptibly and Toryn suppressed a sigh of relief.  The papers did not release them from the mandatory search of their belongings, however, and it appeared that Lena had saved them.  The medicines Verana had given them were carefully examined even though the rest of their belongings attracted no more than casual interest.  The searchers were thorough, however.  The process took nearly an hour and Toryn was mentally exhausted when they finally rode through the gates and into the uninviting countryside of Penkangum.

    A crowd of people was camped outside the gate and a long line of merchants awaited search by the tax collectors prior to entering the city.  The line stretched an incredible distance. Frantic merchants fanned cartloads of fruit to keep it from rotting.

    Davin looked at the crowd sympathetically.  “Sometimes, it takes a week to get in,” he said.  “Paragor is even worse and it has three gates.”

    They picked up their pace and put Targo behind them. They rode toward Paragor and Ven-Kerrick beyond.  

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN



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