The Gauntlet Thrown - Chapter Sixteen
 

 

Chapter Six 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Chapter Eight 

 

Chapter Nine

 

Chapter Ten

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Chapter Twelve 


Chapter Thirteen

 

Chapter Fourteen 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

PENKANGUM


    “What happened to cause such enmity between you and Whitey?” Toryn asked Davin that evening.  Redwing rolled his eyes.  Toryn sneered.  The Falaran was just as curious; he was simply too polite to ask.  Davin looked remarkably unperturbed by the question.  He lay on his blankets with his silver hair spread out over his saddle, which he used as a pillow.  Redwing fed the horses a few feet from Davin.

    “It’s a long story.”

    “We have time,” Toryn prodded.  He poked at the pork ribs grilling over the fire as he dribbled ale over them.  The coals hissed.  They had purchased the ribs from a traveling merchant.  Davin had told them that finding food would not be difficult in Penkangum, provided they could pay.  He had not lied; Toryn was ecstatic to find travelers upon the highway which provided them with coffee, meat, bread, cheese, fresh Bodorii fruit, spices, and wine, all in exchange for a substantial amount of Redwing’s coin.  If not for Redwing, Toryn would have been forced to live off the land.  Davin as well, from the look of him.  Luckily, Redwing spent his coin generously.

    “I presume you’re not going to feed us unless I tell you?” Davin asked.

    Toryn looked at him as innocently as he could manage.  “Davin, you wound me.  Of course, I’ll feed you... sometime tonight.”

    Redwing grinned and began brushing Darkling with smooth, even strokes.

    “It’s not a very interesting tale.”

    “Don’t worry.  It will be better than the Falaran’s stories.”

    Redwing snorted and tossed the brush into his pack.  He lifted one of Darkling’s hooves and scraped it free of dirt and stones with the point of his dagger.

    “Feel free to clean Fang’s hooves when you’re done,” Toryn called companionably, earning an absent glare from Redwing.

    “Very well,” Davin said with a sigh, probably realizing Toryn was not about to drop the issue.  “I met Whitey when I first came to Targo... perhaps five years ago.  He worked in a tavern and barely eked out a living.  I managed to get a job running errands for the tax collectors.  Whitey wanted a roommate to help pay for the single-room dwelling he rented.  The situation was perfect for us both—he worked nights and I worked days.  We seldom saw one another.

    “Then he started getting involved in illegal activities—disposing of smuggled goods, procurement, and some forgery.  He thought I might be of use to him and asked if I wanted a part of it.  I needed the money, so I joined him and we developed quite a business over the next few years.  Falsifying papers alone is a moneymaking endeavor in Targo.  I kept myself mostly to surveillance.  I was good at being invisible and overhearing conversations: what shipments were coming in; how the Council planned on stockpiling certain goods; what items were scarce because of crop failure or shipping difficulties.”  Davin looked at Toryn.  “You can’t tell from his commonplace tavern, but Whitey is extremely wealthy.  Once he amasses a large enough fortune, he plans to buy some property in Bodor and retire.  I was supposed to go with him and help him run the place, whatever it turned out to be.”

    He paused and accepted the cup of hot coffee Toryn handed to him.  He took a long sip.  “I was taken in by the idea of having something.  It sounded too good to be true, but Whitey was sincere—in the beginning.  We were partners for nearly four years.  Business was excellent and we became good friends.”  His expression darkened.  “Until Lena came into the picture.”

    Toryn gulped at his own coffee and nodded wisely.  Trust a woman to screw up a really good thing.

    “She was young when I found her—barely sixteen.  She was working as a dishwasher in a hostel that I happened to be eavesdropping in.  I had worked my way through the kitchen to the owner’s office, trying to locate some information that I had been unable to overhear.  I was nearly discovered when the owner barged in, towing Lena behind him.  He started groping her with his greasy hands and promised her a promotion to cook or barmaid if she would... well, it happens everywhere, I suppose, but she was very young and obviously terrified.  She refused, crying and pushing him away.  He became angry and threatened to fire her and keep her from ever working again in Targo.  He could have done it, too—he had many contacts.

    “Lena was hysterical and tried to scream when he tore her shirt.  He slapped her hard enough to draw blood.  That was when I hit the bastard with a chunk of wood I’d grabbed from the fireplace.  As luck would have it, the blow killed him.  Lena was dazed and sat on the floor staring at me like I was an apparition.  I managed to position his fat body to look like he’d slipped and bashed his head on a corner of the table.  Somehow, I got her out without being seen.  Whitey had already purchased his tavern by then, so I took her there.  Lena stayed with us and worked very hard for the next few months—in gratitude at first, and later out of friendship.”

    Davin sipped at his cup and grimaced.

    “She was a wonderful girl.  Whitey became quite taken with her.  She loved us both in a brotherly fashion, and seemed to take great joy in mothering us. I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but Whitey started to be jealous of the time I spent with her.  He would not allow us a moment alone, even though both of us protested his foolishness.  She wanted neither of us as a lover, but he refused to see that.  He began to believe that I was the only obstacle between himself and Lena’s love.

    “One night several months ago we were drinking and gaming.  He lost too many throws and drank too much dark ale.  He cursed bitterly and vowed revenge upon me.  He reviled our friendship, calling me ‘freak’ and worse names.  Foolishly, I had underestimated the strength of his jealousy.  I woke up in the bandit’s camp where you found me, weak from continuous drugging.  Whitey had slipped a potion into my drink and sold me that very evening.  And that, as they say, concludes the tale.”

    Toryn smiled in satisfaction.  “Much better than Redwing’s tales.  He could take a lesson in storytelling from you.”

    “It’s unfortunate that the most painful tales make the best listening,” Redwing said.

    “Well, it’s told.  Now, where is my dinner?”


    The next day was clear and warm as they rode out onto the rocky plains of Penkangum.  When they left the region of cool sea breezes behind, they entered an area of scrub bushes and thin desert-type trees.  The strong winds from the coast seemed to carry the rain-bearing clouds right over Penkangum.  Davin said it rained often in Silver, Ven-Kerrick, and Bodor, but Penkangum was nearly a desert.

    They shed their cloaks after the first hour, though the temperature was mild.  The sun’s rays were almost brutal after traveling through Terris’s wetlands.  Toryn shuddered at the memory.  The road from the coast inland was fairly well-traveled and they met many traders who stopped and tried to sell them goods, or acquire them, but Redwing did not pause, leading them onward until they reached the village of Barren in late afternoon.

    They stopped at a tavern and tied the horses outside where they could keep an eye on them while they went inside for a brief rest and a meal.  They had just sat down when peddlers surrounded them, showing off merchandise or fingering their belongings in an effort to trade.  Toryn and Redwing were overwhelmed by the rude behavior, but Davin just got to his feet and batted them away.

    “Begone!” he yelled.  “If we want something, we will go to the marketplace and if we no longer want something, we will have an auction!”

    The traders grumbled and cursed, but left.  Even in such a small village the marketplace was a riot, selling everything from Akarskan snakes to Parmittan devil-control amulets.  As they rode through dozens of people called out offers for the horses, but they pushed on and finally broke into a gallop to escape the clinging village.  After that, Redwing vowed to stay away from the populated areas of Penkangum.  Toryn heartily agreed and they skirted towns for the next five days.  On the sixth day, they reached the banks of the Korooga River that led to the royal city of Kaangana.  They elected to bypass that place especially.

    They avoided Kaangana and followed the river and the road south toward Silver, reaching Lake Paragor the following day.  They crossed the river, giving the town of Paragor a wide berth and camped that night in a small hollow, sheltered from the ever present wind by a thick wall of sturdy brush, far enough from the lake to be mostly safe from blood-drinking insects.

    That was the night they stumbled across the traders.  Or, more accurately, the traders stumbled across them.  Five men came into the encampment, surprising even Redwing.  Toryn looked at him quizzically.

    “I expected them to continue on,” the Falaran whispered.  Davin disappeared into the undergrowth like a shadow.

    “Greetings!” one called.  “What have you to trade?”

    “A hot meal,” Toryn answered.  “What have you?”

    “Any number of things,” the man said, swinging down from his dusty bay horse.  The other four men were afoot and just as dusty as the horse.  They all carried packs and a large bulky bundle was tied to the saddle.

    The man tethered his horse to a tree at the edge of camp and the steed gave no sign that Darkling, Fang, and Davin’s horse were out in the darkness.  Toryn knew Redwing was working his magic again.  The Falaran was damned useful at times.

    The trader came to the fire and crouched down, studying them.  He had sandy-colored hair that was shoulder-length and none too clean.  His clothes were worn and travel-stained and a scar trailed from his left ear to the corner of his puffy lips.

    “Name’s Lenk,” he said.  The other four men moved in and set their packs down.  “What’ll you trade for a hot meal?”

    “I am Brydon.  This is Toryn.  What have you got?”

    That was all the Penks needed to hear.  They tore into their packs, withdrawing silks, knives, jewelry, spices, carved artifacts and scrolls of verse.  Redwing admitted that it was all very nice, but they had little use for any of it.

    Lenk studied him for a while and then whistled sharply.  “Toad!  Bring in the real merchandise!”

    Another man came out of the darkness, looking definitely toad-like.  He towed a girl with him and tossed her down beside the fire.  She sprawled where she was and her honey-colored hair fell over her face.

    “Of course, it’ll cost more than a meal for her, boys,” Lenk said and guffawed.  “But for the right price, she’s yours.”  He reached out and grabbed the girl’s hair, pulling it back until she sat unnaturally straight.  Her eyes were closed and she wore a simple leather dress that looked to have been cut short with a dull blade.  Toryn could see that she was very beautiful, though not particularly Toryn’s type.  She wasn’t blond, for one thing.

    “We picked her up in Silver,” Lenk went on.  “She don’t have a name and the best thing about her is—” he paused and gazed at them dramatically, “She don’t talk.”

    “Why not?” Toryn asked, fearing that perhaps her tongue had been cut out.  Lenk shrugged.

    “Don’t know.  Hasn’t said a word since we first seen her. She don’t complain at all, though.”  He laughed at his joke and his men joined him.

    “What are you asking for her?”

    Lenk released her hair and her head dropped again, although she remained sitting on her heels.

    “Well.  She ain’t cheap.  I had her checked out in Vorg by a Healer, and she’s a genu-wine virgin.  My men and I haven’t touched her on this whole journey.  You can see how hard that would be!  I almost broke Sten’s jaw the other day trying to get him away from her.”  He glared at one of the men.  Toryn was relieved that the girl had not had to deal with that horror.  Yet.

    “That raises her value, I agree,” Redwing said mildly.  “But what are you asking?”

    Lenk sat back.  “Two hundred gold.”

    Toryn laughed aloud.  “No female is worth that.  You can buy a horse from an Akarskan for two hundred gold!” he said with a sneer.

    “This filly will be more fun to ride than any horse,” Lenk said crudely and reached out to caress the girl’s cheek.  She jerked away from him and tossed her hair over her shoulder to fall in front of her face, as if to block her view of Lenk.  In the same movement, she looked straight at Redwing.  Toryn watched as the Falaran stared at her.  Oh no!  It was the Sellaris situation all over again.  Did he fall in love with every woman he saw?  Well, except Alyn.  Toryn grinned at the thought of the blond Akarskan.  He really missed sparring with the little hellcat.

    Redwing was getting that honorable look again, the one that said he would fight overwhelming odds to save the girl.

      “Here we go again,” Toryn muttered.  Aloud, he said, “Granted, but she looks untamed to me.  I’ll give you twenty-five for her.”

    “Twenty-five?!  She’s worth two hundred and fifty any day of the week!  Look at her face!”

    He tugged her hair again and turned her face to the fire.  She was, indeed, beautiful, but what were they going to do with her?  Hopefully, they could drop her in the next town.  She would definitely have no trouble finding some peasant to marry her.

    Toryn was silent.

    “One seventy-five,” Lenk relented with a pragmatic sigh.

    “Would you care for some food while we speak?” Redwing offered.

    The men greedily accepted and soon all present were roasting buck steaks on spits and sword tips.

    “What good will she be?” Toryn asked.  “She looks soft to me.  I’ll bet she can’t even cook.”

    Lenk sneered.  “You don’t need food on a hot summer night.”

    “She’ll be more trouble than she’s worth,” Toryn insisted.  “Fifty gold.”

    “Fifty!  That’s an insult!” Lenk yelled.  “In Tar-Tan, I could make three hundred off her easily!”

     Toryn shrugged.  “So feed her all the way to Tar-Tan.  Be sure to say hello to the four hundred other girls for sale there, also.”

    Lenk sighed dramatically.  “You are right.  There are women everywhere.  But none as fine as this.  Stand up, Butterfly, and show him your legs.”  The girl’s jaw tightened, but she stood up obediently.  She was slender, almost too thin, Toryn noted, but finely built.  Her legs were firm, as were her arms, and her breasts were held high.  She stood straight.  She was as lovely as a wild doe and seemed almost to be one, trapped among wolves.

    “One-fifty,” Lenk said.  “A bargain, and too good to be true.”

    Redwing looked at her through hooded eyes.  Luckily, he seemed content to let Toryn do the talking.  Knowing the Falaran, he would have paid the two hundred without haggling.

    “She’s too thin.  Do you not feed her?”

    Lenk shoved her down again, angered.  “She’s the best you’ll find for five hundred miles!” he roared.

    “Not if I’m heading for Tar-Tan.  I can pick up an Akarskan wench there for twenty gold and she will be able to cook.  She will also be a softer bed than this underfed child.”

    Lenk growled.  Toryn knew his words were true, for Lenk pondered mightily.  He suspected the trader weighed the cost of transporting the girl against the profit he might make elsewhere.  There was also the possibility that she might escape and the plain fact that a Penk could not stand to see a customer get away.

    “One hundred gold and no less,” he said.

    “Ninety and the meal,” Toryn said.

    “Done!” Lenk spat, slapping his palm down on the ground.

    Toryn looked pointedly at Redwing.

    Do you have ninety gold pieces, Toryn? the Falaran asked silently with a hint of amusement.

    Are you trying to say you weren’t planning to buy her and save her from a fate worse than death?  Do you want me to give her back?

    Never mind.  Brydon withdrew and immediately reached into his pouch for the coins.  Toryn knew he had plenty of gold.  His Falaran Princess had obviously not wanted the Quest to fail for lack of money and had sufficiently supplied him.  Toryn doubted that she’d had a purchase like this in mind, however.  He grinned.  Redwing’s quest was getting interesting.

    Lenk received the coins and Toryn took the tether that bound the girl’s hands together.  He led her immediately into the undergrowth and Lenk laughed heartily.

    “Couldn’t wait long, could he?”

    The girl cast a fearful backward glance at Redwing, probably sensing he would have been her last hope under other circumstances.

    “Don’t worry,” Toryn said quietly, hoping to forestall any hysterical struggles, “I have no intention of touching you.”

    Davin was with the horses, already mounted.  Toryn levered the girl onto Darkling’s saddle.  As far as he was concerned, she was Redwing’s problem now.  She looked around, likely thinking about spurring the horse forward to escape, so Toryn held the reins and glared at her warningly.  They waited a few minutes for Redwing to make some excuse to their guests and join them.  The Falaran hurried out of the trees.

    “We should get as far away from those snakes as we can,” Toryn said.  “I don’t trust them as far as the nearest bush.”

    “I agree,” Redwing replied, taking the reins.  He swung up behind the girl.  “Let’s move.”    

    “You should have mentioned that collecting women would be part of this trip,” Toryn said.  “I would have joined you in Falara.”

    They rode until dawn’s faint light touched the sky.


CHAPTER SEVENTEEN


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