The Gauntlet Thrown - Chapter Twenty Four





Dawn crept over the mountaintops, spreading skirts of cold, gray clouds as she approached. The ground was wet, but at least it no longer rained. Shevyn’s head lay on Brydon’s chest and one arm was thrown over his midsection. When he stirred she murmured a plaintive sound and moved closer. He smiled softly. Lifting his head, he saw that Alyn was asleep not far from them. Toryn’s blankets were empty. Shevyn whimpered and tightened her grip convulsively. Whatever she dreamed, it did not seem to be pleasant. Brydon caressed her shoulder and wished he could peer inside her closed mind. He wondered if he should wake her.

She solved his dilemma by sitting up with a silent scream, eyes wild and breath coming in harsh gasps.

“Are you all right?” he asked, gripping her shoulders tightly. She shook her head, but the wildness slowly faded from her eyes. She looked away and got to her feet.

“Bad dream?” asked Alyn, apparently not asleep after all. Shevyn nodded, but she looked puzzled, as if the dream had receded into a memory she could not quite reach. She met Brydon’s concerned gaze for a moment, but shook her head and went into the forest just as Toryn came out.

“Get up! Get moving!” he called cheerfully. Brydon got to his feet and stretched, unkinking his stiff muscles.

“How can you be so happy on a day like this?” he asked sourly. Toryn looked at the sky and then blinked at Brydon in surprise.

“What are you talking about?” he asked. “Redol is always like this. Overcast, wet, and usually windy enough to knock you over. This feels like home.”

“Sounds lovely,” Brydon said dryly. “It’s often overcast in Falara, but it usually brings snow instead of rain. The only time the wind blows is when it comes down the valley from the north, cold enough to ice your lungs.”

“Sounds wretched,” Toryn said. “Our countries should join forces and invade Akarska. It’s nicer there.”

“I heard that,” Alyn retorted as she threw aside her blankets and rose.

“That’s an excellent idea!” Brydon said with a laugh. “I’ll bring it up in Council when I become king.”

“You’ll have a hard time allying with Redol,” Toryn said, turning sober.

“I could do it with your help.” Brydon smiled.

“I’m not even a clan chieftain. If Morgyn has kids, I won’t even be in the direct line.”

“We’ll figure it out,” Brydon said confidently. Toryn shook his head and went to saddle his horse. Alyn looked at Brydon.

“Are you really going to be the next Falaran king?” she asked.

“Not if we don’t find the Gauntlet.” Brydon sighed.

~~ O ~~

Toryn looked up from the tracks he studied.

“Odd. Another rider joined them here… and then they all turned and headed for that mountain. I thought Ruby was south—which is the direction they traveled, until now. They’ve turned northwest.”

“Suspicious,” Redwing agreed. “We follow?”

Toryn nodded. After following the meandering path for a while with Toryn periodically dismounting to study the tracks, he stated, “The new fellow left them. He went south.”

“How can you tell?”

“Different tracks,” Alyn replied for Toryn, who nodded and managed not to smirk at her.

“Perhaps he brought a message from Ruby,” Toryn suggested.

“We may be nearing our mark. Let’s keep our eyes open,” Redwing warned. They moved out, staying to the faint trail left by Sellaris and the others. It was still overcast and once again dusk fell early. It was not long before Toryn had to dismount to find the trail. He cursed loudly when a gust of wind blew dirt into his eyes. The trees were thick and provided much of a barrier, but occasionally the wind found an unblocked path and rushed in.

“I’ll lose the track for good before long,” he informed Brydon.

“Want some help?” Alyn questioned playfully.

“If you don’t mind,” Toryn replied seriously, much to her obvious amazement. She quickly slid off Fireling and hurried to help him.

Between the two of them, they kept the trail for another half hour before losing it permanently in the darkness. They stopped, but Redwing urged Darkling ahead with a cryptic, “I’ll be right back.”

Toryn and the girls were used to the Falaran’s foibles and only waited patiently for him to return. They heard the unhurried clopping of Darkling’s hoof beats before they saw him. “I know where they are,” Redwing said. “Let’s go.” To Toryn he sent, I caught Lavan’s mind; we should be able to find them.

They all followed Redwing until he called a sudden halt.

“Don’t make a sound!” he whispered. A small entourage passed them by, consisting of one mounted man and six men afoot. It was too dark to see them clearly, but Toryn detected the metallic clinking of armor. The party passed close enough that a single cough from anyone would have betrayed them.

“Looks like more people are joining the party,” Redwing said after the men had gone. “I think we should travel on foot from here. It will be quieter.” They dismounted and went on, following Redwing blindly. Toryn snagged a fist in Redwing’s cloak and Shevyn did the same. Alyn stumbled behind them, obviously too proud to need guidance.

Before long, they could see the light of a campfire blinking through distant trees and moved onward more slowly and cautiously.

Toryn. There’s a guard, Redwing sent and gave him a mental map of the man’s location. Toryn nodded an affirmative and slipped off into the undergrowth. He pinpointed the guard’s location without much difficulty and took him down with a silent approach and a quick blow to the back of the head. Redwing and the others hurried forward.

“Are there any more sentries?” Toryn asked as he bound and gagged the unconscious man with a leather thong from his pouch. Redwing shook his head.

“They are careless, whoever they are.”

Toryn and the others crept through the underbrush until they had a fair vantage of the small clearing and fire. On the other side stood a wagon, atop which sat two men dressed in Ven-Kerrick black and grey. The sight caused Toryn to pound Redwing’s arm excitedly. They had been following one of those damned Ven-Kerrick wagons! The drivers must have left the highway long ago in favor of a more direct route to this site, for neither he nor Alyn had spotted wagon tracks on the way.

A large bush blocked much of Toryn’s view, so he moved around it, wary of where he set his feet before he put them down. This close, a snapping twig could give them away. Once around the offending shrub, he could clearly see Sellaris, Lavan, and Garyn. Lavan and Garyn crouched at the fire while Sellaris stood and spoke to a man with blondish hair and beard who was dressed in dark armor and a long cloak. Beside him stood a dark-haired man in the colors of Ven-Kerrick. Toryn strained to hear what they were saying.

“ you want here, Keev?” Sellaris asked. She was as beautiful and haughty as Toryn remembered. He glanced at Redwing, who watched her avidly. Toryn rolled his eyes.

“This is my principality, young woman,” said the bearded man. “Who are you to question me?” Toryn remembered the name, then. Keev, one of the Silveran princes.

“Reed sent me to deliver the artifact,” she said.

“The Voor are coming for it,” Prince Keev snapped.

“I am to escort them,” Sellaris stated with finality. “To see that there is no treachery from them, or from you.”

“Reed does not trust me?” Keev asked, obviously feigning injury.

“Reed does not trust anyone and the Dark Master trusts nothing at all,” she replied. Keev backed down visibly at that and looked around nervously.

“At least let me see the thing,” he snapped finally. “Is that permitted?” Sellaris shrugged and nodded before jerking her head in the direction of the wagon. The man in the livery of Ven-Kerrick went to the conveyance and took a small chest from the two men guarding it. He carried it toward the fire and set it down gently.

~~ O ~~

Brydon held his breath as Sellaris knelt and unlocked the chest after taking the key from the man. She flipped open the lid and gently lifted out the most incredible thing he had ever seen.

The Gauntlet of Ven-Kerrick.

Brydon was not sure what he had expected it to look like, just an ordinary glove, perhaps, but the Gauntlet sparkled silver in the firelight, glowing from its metal surface and throwing tiny rays of light into the night from clustered jewels. The thing was large, made to fit hand, wrist, and most of the forearm. It looked huge on Sellaris.

Keev, apparently overawed, reached out to touch it, but Sellaris’s voice halted him.

“Try it,” she goaded. Keev withdrew his hand.

“How is it that you can touch the thing, when no man can?” he asked.

“I am not a man.” She shrugged. “It does me no good, anyway. I can wear it, but I cannot wield it.”

So the legends were true. The Gauntlet could only be used by one of Kerrick’s kin. Sellaris put away the Gauntlet and locked the chest. Brydon let out his breath.

“How does your Dark Master propose to use it, then?” Keev persisted, rubbing his beard.

“Do you want to come with me and ask him yourself?” Sellaris asked in a honeyed voice. Keev snarled. He gestured to his men and mounted his horse.

“If you need anything else,” he snapped, “I will be in Ruby.” With that, he rode off with his entourage following. Sellaris gestured to the Ven-Kerrick man, who bent down to pick up the chest. Brydon stepped out of the trees and pointed an arrow at the man’s heart.

“I would leave that if I were you,” he said softly. The man looked up and paled. Sellaris whirled; Lavan and Garyn leaped to their feet. “No one move!” Brydon barked.

Toryn swore loud enough only for Brydon’s ears, but he echoed it with such a mental barrage that Brydon winced.

What in the bloody name of the third Redolian chief are you doing? Is there insanity in your family? Toryn bellowed in his head.

You’re making me dizzy
, Brydon sent. Are you going to help me or not? Cursing followed.

“Brydon. How nice to see you again,” Sellaris said seductively. She began to walk toward him. “I know you won’t hurt me. It’s not in your nature.”

Alyn stepped out of the trees with her whip in hand. “I have no such nature,” she stated. “I will gladly kill every one of you for what you did to me. And I have come for the horses.”

“I have no qualms about feathering traitors of the Concurrence,” Brydon said loudly in order to give the Ven-Kerrick men something to think about.

“You have no idea what you are getting involved with, Brydon,” Sellaris warned, keeping her narrowed eyes on Alyn.

“I’m afraid I do,” Brydon replied. “Only too well.”

Toryn entered the circle of firelight and strolled over to Lavan, kicking at the dagger he had been surreptitiously reaching for.

“Hello, Liven.” He grinned. “Remember me?”

Sellaris’s brother spat. “I shall kill you one day.”

“Which day is that? I must mark it down so I don’t miss it.”

“We are taking the Gauntlet now,” Brydon announced.

“I think we outnumber you,” Sellaris commented.

“Oh? You would, except for our friends in the trees,” Toryn said. “Remember Davin? He has decent aim with a bow.” The men they had spotted joining Sellaris’s party days ago were to Brydon’s right, almost out of his line of vision. They peered into the forest, as did the two Ven-Kerrick men still near the wagon.

As if to confirm their fears, Shevyn walked out of the woods. She carried her sword naked in her fist and did not pause, but walked straight to the chest that contained the Gauntlet. Her gaze was fixed on the Ven-Kerrick man who stood tall and unmoving under Brydon’s arrow. She stopped in front of him. Unaccountably, the man flushed and dropped his eyes, looking almost mortified. Shevyn’s hand flashed out and caught him a ringing blow on the cheek. Instead of taking her hostage or even retaliating, the man only hung his head like a punished child.

Shevyn turned her back on him and walked into Brydon’s line of fire, and then she knelt to pick up the chest. The man did not move to stop her, even when she stepped up to Sellaris and tore the chain holding the key from her fingers. Sellaris glared as Shevyn turned her back on them all and headed for the surrounding forest. She had nearly reached the trees when pandemonium erupted. Half-naked warriors burst from the woods, screaming in a strange, foreign tongue. The words sounded like gibberish, guttural and terrifying, shouted at high volume.

Brydon was stunned motionless for a moment, watching their dark limbs covered in bizarre black designs and adorned with multicolored feathers. They seemed like otherworldly creatures.

A spear narrowly missed Brydon, breaking his shocked paralysis. He crouched and loosed an arrow at one painted warrior. He saw Toryn deflect a spear with his sword and knock Lavan upside the head in the same motion.

Brydon heard a scream from Sellaris, but it was Shevyn who caught his attention. She cut down a warrior who appeared in front of her with one brutal stroke and dove past him into the trees, clutching the Gauntlet cask to her chest. Four other warriors followed her, still shrieking. They reminded Brydon of baying hounds chasing a hare.

“Shevyn!” he yelled. Without pausing to think, he crashed into the brush after them. From the direction, Shevyn was obviously trying to reach the horses. Brydon heard shouts to the left and knew some of the newcomers had cut off Shevyn’s access. He saw a flash of movement—a painted man! He changed his course to follow, easily picking up the excitement of the hunt from the man’s mind. The terrain began to slope upward as Brydon chased them. Shevyn had headed up the mountainside! The trees thinned briefly and Brydon saw her pursuers.

One of the men heard him and spun around, wielding a wickedly curved blade that looked razor sharp. The warrior howled and charged, but Brydon raised his bow. Before the warrior had covered half the distance, Brydon had drawn, fitted, and loosed an arrow. The man’s howl ceased abruptly as the arrow entered his throat. He collapsed, dead, at Brydon’s feet. Brydon skirted the body, feeling no emotion, and hurried on. He notched a new arrow automatically and the next man went down with a shaft in his leg. Brydon passed him and the warrior cut at him when he ran by, but Brydon leaped out of the way and went on. The other two were farther ahead, gaining on Shevyn. The thought of curved blades cutting into her soft flesh made Brydon push himself faster. It was steeper going and she had to be tiring.

Rain spattered Brydon as he entered a clearing. Ahead lay a stretch of gray rock dangerously covered in loose gravel. Shevyn was halfway across, treading lightly, and Brydon’s heart was in his throat for a moment.

“Adona, don’t let her slip,” he prayed. A misstep would send her sliding over the abyss that gaped away beyond the rock. She could not even use her arms for balance with the cask gripped in her hands. The first warrior was close behind her and gaining. Brydon quickly loosed an arrow at him, but the man slipped on the shale and the arrow missed. The warrior miraculously regained his balance. Brydon hissed and grabbed another arrow. He breathed a sigh of relief when Shevyn reached the end of the loose shale and plunged into the trees on the other side. The final warrior blocked Brydon’s view of Shevyn’s nearest pursuer. He moved more carefully, holding his hands out for stability and trotting across more slowly than his companion.

Brydon waited a moment, sighted, and released the arrow. It thudded into the warrior’s right sandal and his foot skewed sideways. Flailing arms did nothing to stop the resulting slide. The warrior gained momentum until he skated over the edge of the rock, screaming, and disappeared. Brydon heard a muffled thud far below. The other warrior glanced back before leaping into the trees after Shevyn. Brydon slung the bow over his shoulder and climbed onto the loose rock. The wind blew rain into his face, but he ignored it as he hurried on. He slipped once and his right foot shifted sideways. A muscle pulled in his groin and brought him to his knees. His left hand clawed desperately as he started to slide and his fingers caught a solid outcropping. He tore a substantial amount of skin from his fingers, but managed to regain his feet with his heart pounding in his chest. He left the rock and raced onward as the rain came down in earnest.

Brydon followed the trail of broken branches until he reached a small, flat, treeless plateau. He stopped short at the sight of the huge warrior holding Shevyn with a curved blade at her throat. The chest with the Gauntlet lay on its side near the edge of the cliff.

“Stay back,” the man said with a very thick, guttural accent, as though struggling to form words.

“Let her go!” Brydon demanded.

“She make fine sacrifice.” The man grinned and Brydon’s blood went cold. An arrow was notched in his bow, but it faced downward. To raise the bow could cause the man to cut her throat. Slowly, ever so slowly, Brydon drew back the string.

“You can have the Gauntlet,” he said loudly. “Just let her go!”

“Think maybe I take Gaunt-let, take girl,” the man countered arrogantly. “How you stop me?”

“Like this,” Brydon said. He raised the bow and released the arrow in a single motion, sending a prayer with it. The man’s eyes widened until the arrow destroyed one of them. Shevyn shoved him aside and jumped away as he fell to the ground and convulsed. He was dead.

Brydon ran to Shevyn. She trembled, gasping with exertion. He held her close and she clung to him tightly as he murmured reassuring phrases to her. Brydon stroked her hair and raised his face to the sky with relief. The rain poured down.

“Well done, Falaran,” came a voice Brydon had hoped never to hear again.

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