The Gauntlet Thrown - Chapter Seventeen


Chapter Six 


Chapter Seven


Chapter Eight 


Chapter Nine


Chapter Ten


Chapter Eleven


Chapter Twelve 

Chapter Thirteen


Chapter Fourteen 


Chapter Fifteen


Chapter Sixteen




    They made camp as the sun rose and Brydon gently set the girl atop his hastily made bed and covered her with a light blanket.  She did not awaken, but tossed restlessly.  He took the leather thong from her arm and tossed it aside, wishing Verana was still with them as he viewed the damage the bonds had done to her wrists.

    Davin looked at her intently.  “You should have killed them,” he said to Brydon.

    “What?”  Brydon stared at him, but Toryn, with a roll of his eyes, collapsed on his blankets and ignored them.

    “Slavers should be exterminated,” Davin said vehemently.

    Brydon hadn’t much of an opinion on the slavery issue.  Falara had no dealings with slaves.  Even the lowliest of men in Falara were free.  “The important thing is that we got her away from them.”

    Davin’s wild look calmed a bit.  “They should still be punished.”

     “Vengeance belongs to Adona.  If you try to kill every slaver you see, you’ll have the entire country of Tar-Tan after you and half of Penkangum.”

    “Half of Penkangum already is,” Davin muttered, so low that Brydon wondered if he’d heard the comment correctly, but the mad look left Davin’s face and he went off toward the horses to stand guard.

    Brydon studied the girl as she slept.  Hopefully, they could determine who she was and return her to her family.  He hoped she had someone to take care of her.  She looked far too soft to fend for herself.

    He tried once more to probe her mind, an action he had attempted several times since her appearance.  Once again, the effort was fruitless—his mental exploration met only a smooth wall, hard and impenetrable as glass, even in her sleep.  Brydon had a sudden, uneasy feeling that this girl was an omen of disaster.

    He stretched out next to her and fell into a troubled sleep.

    Brydon awoke when he felt the girl beside him leap away as if pinched.  He sat up to see her staring at him wildly.  Toryn was awake, leaning against a scrubby tree on the other side of the camp, watching her.  She looked from one of them to the other, crouched and ready to flee.  She opened her mouth as if wanting to speak, but no sound issued forth.

    “Wait!” Brydon said and flung out a hand.  He could tell she was about to run.  She took one quick step and paused, looking frantic.

    “We won’t hurt you,” he said.  Her gaze turned scornful and she tossed her head.  Her eyes, Brydon noticed, were very blue.  In the morning light, she was even more beautiful.  Her features were as delicate as porcelain, like one of the angelic statues they had seen in the Temple of Healing.

    “It’s true,” he said reassuringly.  “We only purchased you to get you away from the slavers.”

    “Do you think we want to drag a female along with us?” Toryn sneered, his voice too cynical to disguise a lie.  “We are in a hurry.”

    Her fear seemed to ebb away at his words, evidenced by the narrowing of her eyes.  She straightened into the stately pose she had adopted the night before.  Her eyes scanned their campsite carefully.  Brydon noted it was early afternoon; they had slept the morning away.

    “Are you hungry?” Brydon asked as he got to his feet.  The girl looked at him and nodded curtly.  He poured some of the soup Toryn had made into a bowl for her.  She took it reluctantly and knelt down to eat, watching them warily the while.

    “Where is Davin?” Brydon asked.

    Toryn tested the edge and feel of his sword.  He gestured with it.  “He went out to do some scouting.  Why?  Can’t you find him?” he asked.

    “I didn’t try,” Brydon replied with a rueful grin.  Toryn seemed to think he spent every waking moment using his mental powers.  He closed his eyes and it wasn’t long before he discovered Davin’s presence.  He seemed unworried, so Brydon withdrew.  He glanced at the girl, who ignored them both and drank the soup.  “Shall we press on this afternoon?”

    Toryn sheathed his sword with an elaborate flourish and nodded.

    “How is the soup?” he asked the girl.

    She looked at him and nodded her head grudgingly.

    “Toryn is vain about his cooking,” Brydon explained with a grin.

     Darkling approached Brydon at his summons and was quickly saddled.  The girl walked over as he finished and stroked the stallion’s neck.  Admiration gleamed in her eyes and the horse nuzzled her shoulder, happy with the attention.

    “This is Darkling,” Brydon said.  “I am Brydon Redwing, he is Toryn of Redol, and Davin is the silver-haired one you saw last night.”

    She looked over at Toryn, who tried to saddle Fang while avoiding the mare’s sharp teeth.

    “Do you have a name?” he asked.  She looked at him and Brydon could almost hear her say, “Of course I have a name, dolt.”  Though he could not reach her mind, her face was very expressive.  She nodded.

    “I don’t suppose there is any way you can tell us what it is?”

    She thought for a moment and then shook her head.

    “I guess we’ll just have to call you Butterfly,” he said with a straight face.  Her glare could have sizzled raw meat and it took all his ability to keep from laughing.  She stalked over to a bush and broke off a branch.  When she came back she kicked a smooth patch into the dirt with one foot.  As he watched her golden legs move, Brydon was thankful that her skirt was so short.  Unfortunately, he would have to remedy that.  So much female flesh on display was damned distracting.

    She crouched down and wrote in the dust with the stick.  When she finished, she straightened up and threw the branch at his feet.

    “Shevyn?” he asked after studying the word.  “No surname?  And where are you from?”

    Her face clouded suddenly and Brydon saw a flash of intense emotion in her eyes before she shook her head and turned away.  Brydon’s unease from the night before returned.

    Toryn finished his bout with Fang and won, though he rubbed a spot on his shoulder where she had bitten him.  Davin joined them a moment later.

    “I found a road,” he said.  “I think it’s the highway to Ven Kerrick, since it leads in the right direction.  We can follow it or try to find a way across the lake.”

    “The Penks would ask our firstborn sons in exchange for crossing the lake.”

    “Follow the road,” Toryn said.

    Brydon nodded and turned to Shevyn.  “Milady?” he asked and made a low stirrup with his hands by linking his fingers together.  She put her foot into his hands and allowed him to lift her high enough to swing into Darkling’s saddle.

    He pulled himself up behind her, trying in vain to stop thinking about her legs.  He forced his mind elsewhere and found himself envisioning Sellaris, which was no better.  He swore to himself and kicked Darkling into a canter.  He made a vow to stop collecting women.

    The land was dry and populated with scrub-brush and lizards.  The wind was nonexistent and the sun baked down on them.  It was still nearly a month until summer, but already Penkangum was warmer than Falara at harvest time.  Brydon wondered if the snow had even melted on the pass back home.  He had seen two full moons since leaving Eaglecrest and another was due in a handful of days.  He wondered how much longer they would have to ride to reach Ven-Kerrick.

    They followed the road for a time, but when it swung north, toward Tar-Tan, they left it.  They traveled far enough from the lake to avoid the occasional bogs that surrounded it.  After riding for a few hours, they stumbled across a large stream that gurgled its way happily toward the lake.  They had not covered much distance, but it looked an excellent place to camp for the night.

    Toryn launched himself from Fang’s back into the water, and then had to run after the mare when the reins slipped out of his hands.  Davin hurried off to help him.  Brydon swung down and allowed Darkling to drink his fill while he helped Shevyn dismount.  She walked upstream into clearer water and drank, cupping the water in her hand and lifting it to her mouth.  When she finished drinking she splashed water on her face and neck.  Brydon walked down the bank a short distance and then called to Shevyn.

    She walked over and he gestured to the pool, sheltered and shaded by a large sycamore tree whose leaves floated on the gentle eddies.  She looked at him uncertainly.

    “You can bathe if you like.  I have some clothing you can wear if you want to change.”  She looked at the pool and bit her lower lip, apparently weighing the decision.  At last she nodded.

    Brydon smiled and went to fetch the turquoise tunic he had purchased in Kaneelis with intent to wear it when he reached Ven-Kerrick.  It was elaborately embroidered with gold thread on the shoulders and sides.  It came to mid-thigh on him, so it would likely reach almost to Shevyn’s knees, but it could be belted and would be relatively modest.  More so than what she currently wore, at any rate.

    He took it to her with a small cake of soap and set them on the bank.  He saluted and went back to Darkling, who eagerly munched on the thick grass that bordered the shore of the stream.

    Brydon refilled his water skins and hung them back on his saddle.  He took off his shirt and rinsed it out before hanging it on a bush to dry.  He debated making a fire.  He was not hungry, thanks to the heat, and doubted the others would be, either.  He felt very lazy and wanted nothing more than to stretch out and take a long nap.

    With that thought, he spread his blankets and lay down under a tree near the bank.  After a moment, he took off his boots and rolled up his trouser legs to dangle his feet in the water.  It felt deliciously cool.

    He was nearly asleep when he heard a man’s yelp of surprise, and then a bellow.  Brydon sat bolt upright and ran to where he had left Shevyn.  Not surprisingly, Toryn was there, dodging the rocks Shevyn lobbed at him from the stream.  Her dress was clutched to her chest and she stood waist deep in the water.  Her hair hung in wet strands about her face, which was flushed in anger.

    “Hey!  Stop that!  How was I supposed to know you were there?!  Ow!”  This last came as a well-aimed rock bounced off his forearm.  “You crazy woman!  I’m going!”

    Brydon retreated stealthily and hastily in the direction he had come before he was noticed and become the next target.  He heard Toryn stumbling after him.  He sat down on the bank and was suddenly overcome with laughter at the sight of Toryn dodging wet stones.  By the time Toryn reached him, he was doubled over on his side.

    Toryn huffed himself up.  “What, might I ask, is so hilarious?” he demanded.

    Brydon tried to speak several times, but finally pointed a finger at Toryn.  The object of his mirth growled.

    “I should have known you’d be there, peeking,” he snapped.

    Brydon sat up and wiped the tears from his eyes.  “What were you doing there, oh Mighty Loser of Horses?” he asked.  He tried not to laugh, but could not completely contain his chuckles.

    “I was coming back here.”  Toryn sniffed.  “If you had any compassion, you would ‘magic’ Fang back here so I wouldn’t have to chase her all over the country.”

    Brydon smirked.  “I thought you wanted to catch her yourself.”

     “Well, thinking was never your best ability.”  Toryn sprawled beside him and stared thoughtfully into the water.  A wicked grin curved his lips after a moment.  “She was a very interesting sight to stumble upon,” he admitted.

    “I noticed.”  Brydon grinned.  “Where’s Davin?”

    “Fetching Fang for me.”

    Brydon looked up as Shevyn approached.  The turquoise tunic hung on her frame, not concealing much considering she had belted it tightly with her own leather belt.  She was barefoot, carrying her dress and Brydon’s soap.

    She hung the wet dress next to Brydon’s shirt and dropped the soap into Toryn’s lap.  He looked up at her in surprise.  She smiled sweetly and gestured at the water before pointing at him.  She held her nose.

    “Oh, I smell, do I?” Toryn burst out.  “What about him?”  He flung out a hand toward Brydon.

    She shrugged and looked innocently upward.  Toryn got to his feet.

    “Women,” he spat.  “Even when they can’t talk, they still manage to nag.”  He did, however, head for the pool that Shevyn had vacated.

    Brydon chuckled again and Shevyn looked at him.  Her honeyed hair was beginning to dry in the oppressive heat.  She smiled and Brydon felt as if the sun had just come out after a long winter.  She had an ethereal beauty, more delicate and sculpted than Sellaris’s sensual looks.  She turned away and he looked at the water again, once more confused.  He considered becoming a hermit and staying away from women, forever.

    She sat down a few feet from him and pulled her fingers through her hair.  Brydon got up and dug through his pack before returning and handing her his comb.  She smiled again and mouthed thanks.

    Davin trotted up on his horse with the obstinate Fang in tow.  Brydon watched as he splashed across the stream.  “This one can run,” he stated and gave Brydon the reins of Toryn’s mare.

    “As long as she’s running from Toryn.”  Brydon grinned. Davin laughed, a shocking sound coming from him, and swung down from his mount.  He looked around, obviously seeking Toryn.

    “He’s probably splashing water on his hair,” Brydon said and went to check for himself.

    Toryn, much to his surprise, was fully immersed in the pool and soaping himself merrily.  His unbound hair was wet and lay plastered against his skull.

    “This feels pretty good, Bry.”  He grinned.  “You should try it sometime.”

    “Yeah, the first time is always the best.”  Brydon laughed.  Toryn climbed out after rinsing and dried himself with his shirt.  He tugged on a clean one and threw the damp one toward the water.

    “There’s something really odd about Shevyn,” Brydon said after a moment.

     “You finally noticed she doesn’t talk?”

    “Very funny.  No, I can’t ‘read’ her.”

    “What do you mean?” Toryn asked.

    “Well, you know if I try hard enough, I can pretty much tell what you are thinking and I definitely know what you’re feeling,” Brydon explained.  “But—”

    “Really?” Toryn looked up.  “What am I thinking now?”

    Brydon concentrated for a moment.  “You are thinking of Shevyn in the pool.”

    “That was too easy,” Toryn decided.  “Try this one.”

    Brydon shut his eyes.  “You are picturing yourself on a black horse that looks like... no, it is Darkling.  You are riding through a city and women are coming out of every house to throw flowers in your path and press kisses on your boots—” His eyes snapped open and he laughed.  “Oh, please!”

    Toryn looked shocked.  “Can you do that any time?” he asked.

    “Only if I’m trying, and it helps that you concentrated on sending it to me,” Brydon explained.

    “And you were ‘trying’ with Shevyn?”

    Brydon nodded.  “Trying hard. I came up with nothing, only the barest of surface emotions.  It’s like she has a black curtain over her mind.  Sellaris was able to shield her thoughts from me, but it was nothing like this—I could still pick up some of her emotions and I felt she was consciously maintaining her mental wall.  Shevyn’s is as solid as rock even when she’s asleep.”

    “Perhaps it has something to do with her not speaking.”

    “I think so.”  Brydon nodded.  “In any case, it’s very strange.  Don’t look at me like that, Toryn, I will not pry into your mind unless you ask me to.”

    “You’d better not, or I will make myself think of dung heaps all day.”

    “I thought you already did!” Brydon guffawed. Toryn made a rude gesture.  Brydon unbuckled his sword belt and dove into the pool.  He kept his trousers on, electing to let them dry while they rode.  He figured if they were wet they might keep him cool for a time.  He scrubbed the shirt Toryn had tossed into the water, as well as his own, before wringing them out.

    Toryn was fully dressed when Brydon emerged.  They collected their wet garments and returned to the others.  Shevyn handed Brydon the comb.  Toryn grabbed for it and the two men raced around camp for long minutes, until Toryn shoved Brydon into the water and grabbed the comb when he fell.

    Brydon sat in the stream and splashed water at the Redolian until Toryn danced out of range, laughing and taunting him while he combed his black hair into shape.  Brydon called him rude names as he climbed from the stream, but he secretly enjoyed Toryn’s playful antics.  It had been a long time since Brydon had silly foolish games for sheer enjoyment.

    Brydon thought about collapsing on his blankets and resting, but when he watched Davin exit the camp he decided to try his luck with the same idea in mind—fresh meat.  Game had been sparse thus far.  With both he and Davin hunting, the odds of them locating dinner increased.

    Brydon took his bow and arrows and cheated a little by seeking mentally for some game.  His senses picked up Davin immediately and he kept a portion of his mind fixed on the silver-haired Penk while he sought for animals.  He caught the impression of a four-legged herbivore and headed that way.  He crept through the brush as silently as possible and finally caught sight of the animal as it chewed on a bush.  It was a brown desert goat.

    He drew back an arrow, scarcely breathing, and prepared to loose it.  An instant before he did so, he felt a singing exultation from Davin, far away, and knew the man had made a kill.  Rather than waste meat, Brydon decided to let the goat be.  He pulled his senses away from Davin and reflected on how easy it was to attune his mind to Davin’s presence.  He wondered why.

    Brydon released the arrow and it flew true, clipping the goat’s beard neatly in half and startling the animal half out of its wits.  It jumped a full three feet in surprise and bolted into the brush.

    Brydon laughed.  Toryn would never believe that shot.  He retrieved his arrow and replaced it in the quiver before returning to camp.

    Toryn awakened everyone the next morning by singing Redolian military songs very loudly.  Brydon sat up, agitated, and looked at Shevyn.  He said, “If Adona would grant me one thing, I would wish that you could speak and Toryn could not.  I believe my life would be much more pleasant.”

    “Do you think so?” Toryn asked. “Did you not see her yesterday?  If she could talk, we’d all be getting an earful.”

    Shevyn smiled sweetly and Toryn looked at Brydon pointedly.

    Brydon grinned and shook his head.  He looked at Davin, who poured a cup of tea and sipped it.  “How much farther to Ven-Kerrick?” Brydon asked.  Before Davin could respond, Shevyn shot to her feet with a look of horror crossing her features.  She was obviously terrified.  Brydon frowned and wished he could probe her thoughts.

    “What’s the matter?” Brydon asked, “You don’t want to go to Ven-Kerrick?”

    She shook her head wildly.

    “Why not?  Did someone in Ven-Kerrick sell you to the Penks?”

    She shook her head again and tears started to spill down her cheeks.  Brydon got up and went to her.  “Then what is it?” he asked.  He hoped she could give them some sign of what she feared.

     She tried to speak, tried so hard that Brydon felt his own jaw muscles strain with her as she attempted to force the sounds out, but she finally just bolted.  Brydon went after her and was surprised at how fast she fled.  He caught her as she stumbled to a halt before a bramble thicket, trapped.  He held her for only an instant before she collapsed in his arms, holding him tightly and sobbing painfully.  She wept until she could hardly breathe and Brydon began to fear she would choke.

    He stroked her hair and murmured quietly until her gasping sobs tapered off to more normal weeping and then to quiet sniffles.  He tipped her tear-streaked face up and looked at her critically. She was a mess.  Her eyes were red and swollen and her lower lip trembled.  Her hair was wet in places and stuck to her face, but Brydon found her quite lovely for all that.  He tipped his head down and kissed her softly, intending it to be a brotherly kiss.

    She did not respond and he found that her eyes were alarmingly vacant now that she had calmed.

    “It’s going to be fine, Shevyn,” he said.  “I will not allow anything to happen to you.”

    He felt a surge of protectiveness and held her tightly as he guided her back to camp.  When she was seated before the fire sipping listlessly at a cup of tea, an idea formed in his mind.  He quickly cut a small branch for her and then smoothed a patch of dirt for her to write on.  He wished he had parchment and ink, but ink bottles had a nasty tendency of breaking during travel.  The only thing they possessed suitable for writing on were their passage papers from Targo, but defacing them would make them useless.

    Shevyn eagerly took the stick and scratched in the dirt.  The words were hard to make out.

    “Do not go to Ven-Kerrick?” Brydon asked and she nodded.  “Why?”

    Evil is there, she wrote.

    “What sort of evil?” Brydon asked.

    Shevyn bit her and scratched more letters.  Don’t know.  Can’t remember.

    Brydon looked at her dubiously.  Her comments were not helpful.

    “Have you been there recently?” Brydon asked.  She nodded.  “How long ago?”

    Consternation crossed her features.  She shook her head and shrugged, then wrote, One month, I think.

    Brydon studied her for a moment, unsure of how to respond. If anything were amiss in Ven-Kerrick, they would certainly have heard of it by now.  News traveled quickly in the Four Kingdoms and even more so in Penkangum, where information was a commodity.  He could not afford to ignore her warning, but he had no choice but to continue.

    “I will take your advice to heart,” Brydon said, “But I must go there.”  Shevyn shook her head angrily and threw down the stick.  “Do you want to remain here?”  Shevyn shrugged her shoulders resignedly, as if it did not matter.  Brydon sighed in bafflement.  He decided they would go ahead as planned and stay on their guard.

    They departed for Ven-Kerrick a short time later and Shevyn made no protest.  Brydon worried about her for that reason.  She seemed almost to be a wooden doll, sitting in front of him and staring straight ahead.  It was as if she were resigned to her fate and it made him very uneasy.

    They finally reached the line of cultivated trees that marked the border of Ven-Kerrick.  They could see the castle in the distance amid the fields of grain and fruit.  Davin mentioned that the crops were more for show than a source of food.  Ven-Kerrick was supported by tribute paid by the Four Kingdoms of the Concurrence—Silver, Bodor, Tar-Tan and Penkangum.  The trees, they noticed as they neared, were in bad shape.  The leaves were turning brown even though it was still spring.  Brydon assumed the trees had been planted and were not, at present, being watered adequately.  A closer examination disclosed that the trees were apparently hand-watered, as evidenced by the basin-like hollows around their bases.  The basins were desiccated.  Toryn dismounted and dug down into the soil.  It was dry.

    “They should take better care of these,” he commented.  Brydon nodded uneasily.

    They rode across the grain fields and saw that the crops, at least, were well tended.  They saw a few farmers and Brydon stopped to converse with them.  The party drew curious glances, but that was all.

    “Greetings,” Brydon said cheerfully as they approached one man.

    “Your lordship,” the man said, leaning on his planting tool and studying them warily.

    “Who usually waters those trees?” Brydon asked.

    The farmer shrugged.  “That job belongs to the king’s men.  Haven’t been about lately.  Good for us.  They don’t trample our grain, like you’re doin’.”

    Brydon took the hint and they retreated to a less cultivated area, a small path that led through the fields toward the castle.  Even though the edifice seemed close, it took another day to reach the village—a walled town that sprawled in semi-circular fashion around the castle proper.  They approached the high wooden gates at mid-morning.  The village itself was not large, which surprised Brydon considering the place was the hub of the Concurrence.  The wooden walls were formed of tall, sturdy poles lashed upright with sharp points to discourage entry.  It looked marginally defensible, but no doubt the citizens would flee to the castle at the first sign of danger.  Black garbed soldiers stared at them curiously when they entered the village, but the gates were open and they were not stopped or questioned.  The town was quiet, almost subdued, and Brydon’s party rode through without stopping.

    Ven-Kerrick itself was an imposing citadel of stone that lurked behind high walls of white granite.  It stood on a prominent hilltop, surrounded by a steep palisade and a water-filled moat.  The gatekeeper at the outermost stone wall seemed particularly attentive and even provided a detachment of black clad soldiers to accompany them to the castle.  Brydon felt a moment of disquiet as the six men fell into step around them.  Toryn shot Brydon a worried glance.  They rode under the raised portcullis and up the inclining road.  They crossed the drawbridge and Brydon stared as they walked between massive towers into the outer courtyard.  It bustled with activity, but nothing seemed out of the ordinary.  Brydon knew it took a lot of effort to keep a castle running smoothly.

    The party passed through the wide outer courtyard and crossed a second drawbridge. They reined in before another iron portcullis—this one was closed with solid wooden gates shut tight behind the barrier.  Several men in black Ven-Kerrick livery peered over the parapet at them.

    “I request an audience with the king!” Brydon called.  “My name is Brydon Redwing, Knight-Priest of the Lance in Falara.  These are my companions.  My purpose here is peaceful and honorable!”

    “The king is not available!” one yelled back.

    “Then my companions and I request lodging until the time when he can grant me audience.  My business can wait, but not forever.”

    The guards had a conversation amongst themselves.  Shevyn had begun to tremble.  The men concluded their discourse and finally the portcullis rattled and creaked its way upward.  When it had risen, the heavy gates grated open and the company urged their mounts forward.  The horses’ hoof-beats clopped loudly in the still air, but they could hear sounds of life coming from beyond the walls.

    Shevyn moaned softly as they passed under the portcullis and buried her face in Brydon’s shoulder.  She tightened her grip on his tunic and he began to feel apprehensive, as though they had just walked into the jaws of death.  The feeling increased a moment later when they entered the inner courtyard and were ringed by men in black and grey armor, holding weapons.  Crossbows, for the most part.

    “We will escort you inside,” one said, not altogether pleasantly.  One man held Darkling’s bridle and Brydon, seeing that they had no choice in the matter, swung down from his steed and lifted Shevyn down.  She clung to him, eyes filled with fear as her teeth worried her lower lip.

    The behavior of the men did not seem out of place to Brydon. Ven-Kerrick was the center of defense for the entire Concurrence.  It would behoove them to be wary of strangers, especially those that requested an audience with the king.  Strangers would be treated much the same in Eaglecrest, he reasoned.

    Still, something bothered him—something other than Shevyn’s inexplicable behavior.  After a moment, he pinpointed it.  There were no Knight-Priests!  The realization stunned him for a moment.  The Brotherhood of the Gauntlet was renowned for their fighting skills.  Knight-Priests should have been manning the walls.  None of the men he saw wore Church insignia.

    Brydon had donned his white surcoat with the black lance insignia.  Over that, he had thrown the red cloak bearing his coat of arms, but the sign of his order took precedence.  He could see no evidence of the Gauntlet insignia upon any of the black outfits that surrounded them.  Perhaps they had all gathered somewhere for a ceremony, although it was no holy day as far as Brydon could recall.  He gazed about nervously.

    Toryn and Davin followed suit and they watched as their horses were taken away to the stables near the southern wall.  The inner courtyard was cobbled in flagstones of black and white, an impressive touch.  The castle itself was unremarkable, rectangular but for two rounded towers at the rear overlooking the western countryside and a round annex that was connected to the northern wall of the castle at the second-story level.  People traveled to and fro in the inner courtyard: servants carried buckets and baskets; a fellow in black readied an oxen-drawn cart for a well-dressed lady; and black-liveried men practiced at arms beneath the annex passageway.  Brydon’s group received only cursory notice amid the general activity.  They approached the keep and Brydon saw that it was no showy palace—it had been built for defense.  The front steps were wooden, easily burned or cut up and carried away in times of war, and they led to a huge doorway high up on the wall.  As they passed through the entrance, he noticed the dual foot-thick stone doors could be moved to seal the entranceway.  He wondered if the doors were shut nightly, or if they trusted the outer and inner walls and gates as a first defense in case of attack.

    Once inside the castle, the dismal military facade ended abruptly.  The floor of the entryway was white marble veined with silver.  Two graceful marble staircases curved upward on each side of the room, mirroring each other, and terminated at the edge of a balcony that overlooked the entry.  A delicate crystal chandelier was suspended from the high ceiling by thick chains and a large multicolored tapestry draped over the balcony before them, fully twenty feet square.  It was magnificent—the Kerrick coat of arms.  A silver Gauntlet, clenched in a fist and sparkling with jewels of blue, red and green, adorned a black background.  Silver bordered the edge of the tapestry, crenellated like a castle wall.  He could feel the power and the majesty of the Gauntlet merely by gazing at the tapestry.  They had a moment to study it as one of their escorts strode beneath the tapestry to knock upon two massive black doors.  Helmeted, halberd-wielding guards stood at each side of the doors.

    Toryn stared at the room as though overawed by its grandeur, though Brydon suspected his true purpose was to analyze the room for a quick escape.  Brydon extended his senses toward the Redolian and detected Toryn’s reservations about the entire place, especially their escorts’ twitchy sword-hands and shifting eyes.  The only exits besides the staircases seemed to be two archways leading to dark passageways on either side of the room, not especially promising.

    Toryn, Brydon sent, I want to stay in touch with you.  Something is not right here.  He received Toryn’s assent and kept a light contact with the Redolian’s mind.

    The man returned a short time later.  He requested that they remove their weapons and they reluctantly did so.  Toryn gave Brydon a dubious look.

    I have a bad feeling about this, Toryn confided.

    I thought you were the one looking forward to swordplay and torture, Brydon joked, though his own uncertainty drained much of the intended humor from the comment.

    I take it all back, Toryn assured him.  As Brydon handed his sword into the grip of a guard, he asked, “Are we prisoners?  Or does His Majesty treat all guests this way?”

    “We must take precautions such as this with the king.  After all, he is the Guardian of the Four Kingdoms,” the guard replied.  “Besides, it has not yet been determined that you are guests.”

    The guard looked closely at Shevyn, who stared at him with something akin to deep hatred.  He looked away quickly and actually flushed.  Brydon felt he had missed something important and wished, not for the first time, that Shevyn could speak.  The guards swung open the doors.

    The king stood in front of his throne with his back to them and hands clasped behind him, as if studying his seat.  His robe of state was deep sable and trailed down the steps to the floor of the Great Hall.  He wore no crown.  The company approached somewhat nervously, eyeing the black-clad men that lined the room.  They all held halberds and stared stiffly forward.  Archers were visible in the upper gallery.

    The party reached the space before the throne and Brydon released Shevyn and knelt respectfully.  They waited quietly.

    “Your Majesty,” Brydon said after a moment.  Shevyn, beside him, did not kneel, and her fingers dug into his shoulder almost painfully.  Toryn and Davin remained standing.  The king of Ven-Kerrick finally turned around and his cloak flashed a bright lining of silver.  He smiled widely at them.

    “I thought we would meet again, my Falaran friend, although I never dreamed that you would walk meekly into my lair.  How appropriate that you kneel before me.”  He laughed and Brydon felt a terrible horror steal over him as he stared into the man’s glittering eyes.

    It was Reed. 


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