The Gauntlet Thrown - Chapter Twenty
 

 

Chapter Six 

 

Chapter Seven

 

Chapter Eight 

 

Chapter Nine

 

Chapter Ten

 

Chapter Eleven

 

Chapter Twelve 


Chapter Thirteen

 

Chapter Fourteen 

 

Chapter Fifteen

 

Chapter Sixteen


Chapter Seventeen

 

Chapter Eighteen

 

Chapter Nineteen


CHAPTER TWENTY

 

SAR-TELA


    They rode only a short distance from Kaaza before stopping for the night and camping without fire.  After they had eaten a cold meal, the girls went to forage for edible roots that Verana said grew in the area.  Davin accompanied them.

    Brydon combed burrs from Darkling’s tail and then turned to the Bodorii Knight-Priest.  “Jace, tell me about Reed.”

    Toryn, who lounged against a nearby tree, nodded.  “Why would Reed send the Gauntlet away?  If anyone could put such power to use, I’d expect it to be him.”

    Jace sighed.  “I’m not completely certain, but I have some suspicions.  You should know what the stakes are before you get involved.  As Northerners, this really isn’t your battle.  You are not part of the Concurrence.”

    “It’s already too late for that,” Toryn said.  “I feel like we’re neck deep and sinking.”

    With a sense of foreboding, Brydon agreed.

    Jace said, “When I rode into Ven-Kerrick I was taken immediately.  The information I gleaned from servants who brought my meals was sketchy, at best.  Reed had been a well-known occupant of the castle and had been for nearly a year.

    “Korryn was king in Ven-Kerrick up until two months ago when the entire royal family mysteriously died.  They told me it was a dreadful sickness, but it would have been more plausible if there had been victims outside the royal family.  A couple of council members also perished; not surprisingly, they were loyal to the Kerricks.  I’m convinced that Reed murdered King Koryn, Queen Onara, and the two princes, Kayn and Iyn.”  Jace spoke in a hushed voice and his face was drawn in sadness.  “I knew them well.  I challenged Reed in a fit of anguish, but he laughed and waved me away as though I were insignificant.  I knew it was only a matter of time before he had me killed—he was simply waiting to see if I could be of use.

    “It’s not difficult to determine how he seized power.  Apparently, King Koryn sent away all the Knight-Priests of the Gauntlet and Reed replaced them with his own handpicked mercenaries.  Once the royal family was gone, there were none to gainsay him.”

    “But the Knight-Priests will return!” Brydon said.

    “To what end?  As far as anyone knows, Reed is the rightful regent.  Even if they return, they won’t expect danger in Ven-Kerrick.  The bishop in Kaaza is sending word to Bodor, Silver, and Kaneelis, but all we have are suspicions of foul play.  It’s unlikely the Church will intervene, but at least they will be aware of the situation.”

    “Unlikely to intervene?” Toryn asked.  “I though the Church was supposed to right all wrongs and crush all evildoers.”

    Jace sighed.  “The Church cannot blatantly intervene in secular affairs.  When Koryn sent the Gauntlet Knights away, their obligation to protect him ended.  I’m sure they would fight if they returned to find Reed on the throne, but they would do so without the official sanction of the Archbishop in Kaneelis.”

    “But it’s Ven-Kerrick!” Brydon protested.

    Jace looked at him sadly.  “You are from the north, Brydon. You’ve been regaled with the glorious tales of Kerrick’s bravery, the magic of the Gauntlet and the protective power of Ven Kerrick.  It’s different here.  The Four Kingdoms resent the power of the Overking.  They fight in Council and complain that the need for Ven-Kerrick has passed.  Tar-Tan has always been rebellious; they have broken the Concurrence more than once.  There has been no real trouble since Eldryd crushed the Regency in Silver in 192, and many Silverans still resent Ven-Kerrick for that interference.  The Gauntlet has not been used in battle since 156.  After one hundred and fifty years of peace, people forget the threat of war.  There no longer seems a need for the Overking.”

    Brydon was shaken by Jace’s assertions.  “And now the Kerricks are gone.  What difference will it make if the Gauntlet is never returned?”

    “The male line seems to have ended,” Jace admitted.  “But some research will have to be done.  I vaguely remember a rumor about one of the original Kerrick sons disappearing, although it would be nearly impossible to track down his line after all these years.  In any event, it’s not our position to determine the survival of the Concurrence.  We must find the Gauntlet and let fate decide the rest.”


    They moved out shortly before dawn and decided to follow the patrol that had departed Kaaza the previous day.  The patrol was mounted, which spoke of the importance of their mission, whatever it might be.

    “Do you think they are after the Gauntlet?” Brydon asked.

    “If Prince Berikon found out about the Gauntlet, it’s a distinct possibility.  He is extremely power-hungry.  I’m surprised he’s not already in league with Reed.”

    “Maybe he is and Reed neglected to mention the Gauntlet.”

    Jace laughed.  “That would not surprise me.”

    The patrol was large and made no effort to conceal itself, so Jace and Toryn had no trouble tracking it.  They also stayed largely to the road.  Brydon, of course, knew where they were at all times, but Jace and Toryn were enjoying themselves so he didn’t bring it up.  They stopped for a quick meal at noonday.  Obelisk was thickly forested and the trees were welcome shade from the warm sun.  The weather had been spectacular since they had left Ven-Kerrick.

    When they camped, Brydon judged the patrol far enough out of range to risk a fire.  Toryn cooked, as usual, assisted by Shevyn.  Alyn curried the horses diligently.  She had been impressed by Jace’s stallion, Archangel, and had barely harassed Jace over his ownership; he had politely produced papers for her inspection.

    Verana sat close to Jace, dexterously removing the seeds from a cluster of pink berries she had picked earlier; they were apparently a remedy for fever or some such.  Davin honed a dagger.

    Jace leaned back against a mossy stump, dislodging a spider that scurried toward Verana.  She paused in her task and reached down a dark hand, allowing the thumb-sized creature to climb aboard.  Brydon stared in horror, having no liking for spiders.  She noticed his gaze and smiled.

    “It’s not poisonous,” she commented.  She transferred the arachnid to her other hand and set it on a nearby branch.  It scurried behind a leaf and effectively disappeared.

    “I would have squashed it,” Toryn said with a grimace.

    “It is not necessary to destroy everything that you fear,” Verana admonished.

    “No,” Jace said.  “That is Reed’s way.”

    Toryn snorted.  “He must be deathly afraid of us, then, because he keeps trying to kill us.”


    They traveled until nearly noon the next day before Jace announced, “I know where they’re going.  There is a river crossing ahead.  If we hurry, we can get there first.”

    They urged their tired mounts on a roundabout course around the patrol to outdistance them.  By nightfall, they had reached the river crossing manned by guards of both Prince Berikon and Prince Merator.  The guards on the Obelisk side were reluctant to part with any information on the caravan, but Toryn’s suggestion that the Sar-Telan guards would tell them for less money persuaded them—for a minimal fee—to admit that the caravan had passed through.  Twelve merchants wearing the black and grey armor of Ven-Kerrick apparently guarded the caravan, which carried a cargo of early red melons, hard to find in Silver at this time of year.

    At the next crossroads, a kind villager informed them that the wagons had passed through the town and split up; half of them went toward the City of Roses while the other half took the southern road toward Vineyard, land of Prince Amerryn.

    Jace thanked the informant and growled to himself as they continued on the road to the city.  “What if the Gauntlet is not in this caravan at all?” Brydon asked. “What if the whole thing is only a decoy?”

    Jace ran a frustrated hand through his hair.  “This is the only information we have!  For all we know, Reed could have sent the damned thing away with a single rider.  I only hope that he would not risk it being stolen and protects it with armed guards.  If it is with this caravan, it has most likely gone with the southern contingent, as Merator is not the type to be involved in a conspiracy.  He is too honest.  Amerryn has a streak of mischievousness that I do not entirely trust—he is the youngest of the Silveran princes.  West of Sar-Tela is Overlook.  The prince there is S Lor.  He has a lust for money, but he stays mostly to himself and does not seem to crave power like some of the others.  South could be either Rakyn or Reboryx and I know little about either of them, except that Reboryx tends to be careless.  He has lost a lot of land in bad dealings with his brothers.”  Jace pounded a fist on his saddle.  “For all we know, they could be taking it through Silver to Parmitta.  But why?  Why take it anywhere?”

    Verana gasped.  “Jace!” she breathed.  “I had nearly forgotten until now!  Brydon found a Parmittan sacrificial dagger in Reed’s belongings.  He could be a priest of Shaitan.”  Jace halted his horse and thought hard for a moment.  After awhile, he shook his head.

    “If he is a priest, he is keeping his sacrificial activity to a minimum.  Either that or he is very good at concealing it.  Even if he merely is a minion of Shaitan, it would not explain why he would send the Gauntlet to Parmitta.  They are all barbarous heathens—they would not know how to tap its secrets.”

    “Perhaps they want to destroy it.  Don’t they hate the Gauntlet?”

    Jace looked at Brydon.  “Very plausible,” he admitted.

    Brydon shrugged.  “I think we have to split up and follow both caravans.”

    Jace sighed and nodded.  “It’s the only way to be sure.  I will go west to speak to Merator.  I’ve had dealings with him before and it should be a swift matter for me to seek information and hurry to join you if the Gauntlet isn’t there.”

    “What about the girls?” Toryn asked.

    “I’m not letting you out of my sight, horse thief,” Alyn said.  Shevyn kneed her horse over to Brydon and looked at Jace defiantly.  The Bodorii shrugged and said, “Davin, Verana, and I will go to the City of Roses.  If you happen to find the Gauntlet, do nothing until we see you again.  We will meet in the Black City in Darkynhold.  Go to the Broken Rib Inn.  If the caravan moves on, follow it and leave word for us there.”

    Brydon repeated the name and nodded.  “We will see you soon, with luck.”

    They clasped hands and exchanged farewells.  Brydon, Toryn, Shevyn and Alyn turned off the road and headed into the forest and south, searching for the road that would take them to Vineyard.  Brydon was surprised that Shevyn had wanted to accompany him rather than stay with Jace.  It was apparent that the Shield Knight knew who she was.  Brydon had asked about her and received only a vague response:  She was the daughter of someone who had gotten in Reed’s way.

    They set out at a rapid pace, hoping to put as much distance between themselves and Berikon’s men as they could, should the prince’s patrol choose the southern path.  They left Sar-Tela the next morning and entered Vineyard. The principality was rockier than either Sar-Tela or Obelisk and seemed to possess less wealth in trees and agriculture, but perhaps more in mining.  Why it was called Vineyard was a mystery, for they saw none.

    “What will we do if we find the Gauntlet?” Toryn asked.

    “Jace told us to do nothing,” Brydon replied.

    “That’s not what I asked.”  Toryn grinned.

    “Toryn!  I’m shocked at you!”  Then he shrugged.  “We’ll take the Gauntlet, of course.  Why wait for Jace?”

    Toryn laughed aloud.  “Good, I was afraid all this easy living was making you soft.”

    Shevyn looked at them and worried at her lower lip for a moment, but said nothing, as expected.  Alyn rode far ahead of them, the better to ignore Toryn.

    The royal city of Vineyard was called Shimmer and it was built on a hill, inside of a wall that could have withstood a cataclysm.  They rode into the city as mere travelers visiting the city to please their wives.  Toryn grabbed Alyn and kissed her lingeringly before caressing her lovingly in order to make the story more believable.  Alyn’s face was red with rage when he released her, but she smiled sweetly at the guards.  Only Brydon saw her finger the whip coiled at her hip.  Shevyn looked at him inquiringly and a smile twisted her lips.  Brydon flushed unaccountably and saluted the guards before riding through the gates.  He did not dare kiss her—he had enough trouble trying to keep Sellaris out of his mind.

    They stopped at a tavern and Brydon left the others to visit the marketplace.  He hoped to find the remainder of the caravan or ask questions of the merchants there.  As he stepped past a dark alleyway, a hand suddenly reached out and clamped over his mouth.  At the same time a sharp blade poked into his ribs.

    “Make a sound or a move, Blondie, and my dagger tastes your blood,” a harsh voice said quietly.  Brydon was pulled into the alley and down some stone steps into a room dimly lit by a single candle.  Heavy curtains on the window kept out the sun’s light and warmth.  Brydon was forced to sit in a chair the man had kicked into the center of the room.  The dagger moved from his ribs and the hand left his mouth.

    “Don’t move a muscle.  I’m an expert and this knife will be in the back of your neck before your fingers reach the hilt of your blade.”

    “Fine,” Brydon said dryly, although a trickle of sweat found its way down his spine.  “What is it you want?”

    “Information.  Who are you and what are you here for?”

    “What do you mean?” Brydon asked.

    The man swore.  “Don’t play stupid.  I was in Kaaza two weeks ago and I saw you and your friends asking questions.  What are you looking for?  You have moved in haste since then—are you on a spying mission for Berikon?”

    “Certainly not.”

    “Then what is your business in Shimmer?” the man prodded.

    “I am not at liberty to say,” Brydon replied and then snapped forward as a fist slammed into the back of his head.  His ears rang and it was hard to hear the man’s next words.

    “I don’t care whether or not you are ‘at liberty’,” the man growled.  “Are you working for Berikon?”

    Brydon sat up and blinked the stars out of his vision.  “Who are you?”

    “No one you need concern yourself with.  Answer the question.”

    “If you are asking on behalf of Prince Amerryn, then I will speak to him, but no one else.”

    The man pondered for a moment.  “I’m not asking for Amerryn,” he admitted.

    “Then who?” Brydon asked.  He wondered if he could mentally hurt the man the way Reed had done.  He tentatively reached out with his mind and encountered… nothing.  It was not quite like Shevyn’s blankness, but rather it was as if the man had built an unnatural wall that Brydon could not penetrate, different from the mental shields that both Reed and Sellaris had possessed.  He drew back quickly when he recalled his meeting with Reed; he was not eager for that to happen again.

    “You have been riding in haste—on horses, no less—and now half of your party has disappeared.  Where is the silver-haired man?”

    “He is elsewhere.  What we seek is no concern of yours; it’s a personal matter,” Brydon said somewhat desperately as he wondered how to get out of this situation.  He wished he had brought Toryn along.

    “A personal matter involving a Knight-Priest, a Redolian, and an Akarskan girl?  Northerners are rare in Silver and you travel in strange company.  Have you been hired as spies or mercenaries?”

    “I have been in Shimmer less than an hour!” Brydon snapped, annoyed by the questioning. “I know nothing about the politics of Silver and I don’t care!”

    “So you say, but you are no merchant.”

    “I was on my way to the marketplace,” Brydon commented sarcastically.

    “You deny that you are a spy?”

    Brydon glared.  “I deny that I am a spy.”

    “Perhaps we should go see Prince Amerryn and discover what he says about this.”

    “Fine.  I’d like to speak to him about you, also.”  Brydon twisted suddenly to look at the man.  Thankfully, the movement did not seem to surprise him and he did not use the knife.  A hooded mask hid the upper half of his face; only his mouth and chin were visible.  Brydon thought he spied a hint of a dark mustache on the man’s upper lip.  He looked lean and muscular beneath a nondescript brown tunic and dull green cape.  A leather belt held a sheath for weapons—besides the dagger in his hand, a sword was strapped to his hip.  Brydon’s gaze flicked to his other hip where a deadly-looking crossbow rested.  He looked altogether capable of causing harm.

    “What now?” Brydon asked and tensed to reach for his sword.

    The man sighed.  “Since you will tell me nothing, I fear I must let you go.”

    “Why don’t I believe you?”

    The man held out his hands and smiled.  “Fear not.  You are of far more use to me alive.”

    “If you would tell me who you work for, I might be more willing to talk.”

    “Sorry.  I can’t say until I know where your allegiance lies.”

    Brydon drew himself up.  “My allegiance is with my own country and shall be until I die!”

    He laughed.  “I see.  A patriot.  What is your country?”

    “Falara.”

    The man looked at him in disbelief.  “What does a Falaran want in Silver?  Don’t you have enough problems with the Redolians?  And are you not traveling with one?”

    Brydon was impressed.  “You seem quite knowledgeable.  How is it that you don’t know my business?”

    “Is it common knowledge?”

    “In the north it is.  I’m on a Quest.”

    The man gave no sign that he had heard.  After a long moment, he said, “That is perhaps too convenient an excuse.  It would be a fine cover for a spy.  What are you questing for?”

    Brydon stood up, sick to death of the strange man and his suspicions.  “I do not lie!  I also have no intention of telling you what I’m after.”

    “What is your name?” the man asked as he fingered the dagger thoughtfully.

    “Brydon Redwing.  My Quest can be verified by any Falaran.”

    “It would take months for a message to be sent and returned.  Thank you, but no.  I shall make my own decisions.  You may go.”

    “You’re letting me walk out of here?”

    “Of course.  Unless there is a reason why I should not?”

    Brydon walked to the door and out without looking back, even though his back tingled.  He half-expected the whiz of a knife through the air.  It never came and he continued on to the marketplace, puzzled by the strange encounter.  Who was the man?  He claimed not to have been sent by Amerryn. He could not have been in league with Reed, either, because Reed knew what Brydon sought.  Also, anyone sent by Reed would have either captured or killed him instantly.

    Brydon sighed.  He missed Jace and his wealth of knowledge about the southern kingdoms.  The Bodorii Knight-Priest might have been able to figure out who the man worked for.

    Brydon walked on, oblivious to the crowd.  His head ached from the blow the mysterious man had laid upon it.  He approached a fruit trader and bought a citrus, and then asked the man if he had seen any melon traders wearing the livery of Ven-Kerrick.  The man had barely arrived in Shimmer and knew nothing.

    Brydon thanked the merchant and moved on, peeling the violet colored fruit and picking at the juicy pulp.  He tried in vain to keep the juice from running down onto his sleeves and stopped to toss the rind into a waste cart before washing his hands in the fountain in the center of the square.  He questioned a few more people and came up empty until a hand was clasped on his shoulder.

    “You are requested to come with us,” the man said and Brydon turned to see a soldier dressed in scarlet and white.  Two others accompanied him.  He wished again that he had brought Toryn along, for no better reason than to even the odds.

    “Where are we going?” he asked politely.

    “To the palace, to see His Royal Highness, Prince Amerryn.”


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