The Gauntlet Thrown Chapter Eight
 

 

CHAPTER EIGHT
 

DAVIN

    Brydon stirred at the touch of coolness on his forehead.  He opened his eyes slowly and Verana’s dark face swam into view.  He sat up, feeling dizzy.  His weapons were gone and he noticed with dismay that his ring had been taken.

    “Verana—what?”

    “Sorry, Brydon.  They must have sent out a party after you were captured.  I was surrounded.”

    “Why am I so dizzy?”

    “You’ve been unconscious.  I assume you were drugged.”

    Brydon examined his arms and saw a number of deep scratches.  “The net—it was imbedded with darts.  They must have been tipped with something.”

    Brydon looked around.  They were in a partial wooden structure, the back wall of which was open to a stone cave.  The floor was dirt with a small firepit in the center that looked like it had not been used in a long while.  The room smelled musty, like an underground cellar.  Light spilled from meager cracks between the boards in the wall, illuminating the room enough to see.  Toryn lay next to Brydon, still unconscious.  A furtive movement in one dark corner of the cave caught Brydon’s eye.

    “Alyn?” he asked and wondered why she was back in the dark.  Verana shook her head.

    “No,” she corrected.  “I would not go back there.  He growls.”

    “He?” Brydon asked.

    “Yes.  It is a man.  Quite strange.  I fear for his sanity.”

    Brydon stood up shakily.  When he felt steady, he brushed ineffectively at the dust that covered him.  The cave-room was coated in it.  “How long have we been here?  Have you seen Alyn?”

    Verana shook her head and sneezed, catching some of the dust Brydon slapped into the air.  “A few hours.  There is no sign of Alyn.  I was going to ask the man in the corner, but he is not amenable to discourse.  Or perhaps he cannot speak.”

    Brydon walked over and yanked at the door with expected results.  It was locked and too solid to batter down.  He peered between the door and the frame and saw little but trees, but it was still daylight, probably late afternoon.  There were no sounds coming from outside except the warbling of carefree birds.  Brydon shut his eyes for a moment and leaned his head against the door.  He had a slight headache and there was an atrocious metallic aftertaste in his mouth.

    He opened his eyes and turned around.  Verana pressed the wet cloth against Toryn’s forehead and the dark-haired Redolian snapped awake.  He leaped to his feet instantly, eyes darting.

    “Where is Alyn?” he asked.

    “Not here.”  Brydon sighed.

    “Not here in this building, or not anywhere around us?” Toryn demanded and looked at Brydon penetratingly.

    Brydon held his gaze for a long moment before replying.  He supposed some explanation was in order for dragging them on what must have seemed an insane ride.  The difficulty lay in explaining something he did not fully understand himself.

    “Not anywhere around.  They must have taken her somewhere else.”  Or killed her, but he did not say those words aloud.

    Toryn seemed on the verge of asking another question, but movement from the man in the corner caught his eye.  Brydon sighed in relief at the momentary reprieve.  Toryn approached the skittish man in the shadows.  As Verana had warned, the stranger growled loudly.

    “Yes, and grrr to you as well,” Toryn snapped, apparently not fazed in the slightest.  “Was Alyn here?  Pretty blond Akarskan girl?  Vicious temper?”

    Silence from the man.  Toryn grabbed his shirtfront and hauled him forward.  “Tell me before I tear your bloody head off!” he yelled.  Verana stepped forward, but Toryn’s hands fell away.  The man’s silver hair glinted in the meager light.  “Forgive me, old man,” Toryn muttered.  He turned away and shot Brydon a look of frustration.

    “Falaran, I do not—”

    “I am not an old man.”

    They all looked at the bearded fellow as he shuffled forward.  His hair was bright silver, hanging free and unkempt to a length past his shoulders.  A rough silver beard covered his chin, but his physique spoke of a man in his prime.  He wore black pants smeared with dust and a once-white shirt that was torn, stained, and filthy.  Scuffed black boots shod his feet.  He smelled unpleasant.

    “Your friend was here for an hour, tied and gagged.  When they threw you in here they took her out.”  His voice surprised Brydon.  He had expected rough, uneducated speech from the man, but his voice was clipped with a slight accent that Brydon couldn’t place.

    “Do you know where they took her?” Toryn asked.

    “They do not confide in me for some reason,” the man said dryly.

    “Do you know who they are?” Brydon asked.  “We assumed slavers or horse runners when Alyn and her horse were taken.”

    Davin shrugged.  “Petty thieves, for the most part.  Most of them are Terrin swamp people, but the leader is a nasty Penk who thinks he’s some sort of warlord.  They watch the Akarskan border for stray horses or lone travelers to prey upon.”

    “What is your name?” Verana asked.

    “Davin.”

    Verana introduced herself and the others politely and asked the man if he was injured or ill.  He had a large purplish bruise around one eye that looked quite recent.

    “What ails me can never be healed,” Davin snapped and retreated abruptly back to his dark corner.

    Toryn looked after him and made a gesture denoting lunacy.  “Get us out of here, Falaran.”

    Brydon wished he had any clue as to how to do just that.


    They spent the next hour making plans.

    “When he opens the door, you take this pot and throw it at him,” Toryn suggested. “Then I will leap on him and beat his head against the door.”

    Davin spoke up from the shadows in his dry voice. “First of all, it is doubtful that they will open the door.  They like to slide the food underneath.  Second, they carry swords with which to beat the pot aside, and third, they never open the door singly.  If you do manage, by some miracle, to knock the first one out, the second will simply run you through.”

    “Thank you for your optimism,” Toryn said.

    “I’m just telling you how it is.”

    “If only they had not taken our weapons,” Toryn muttered.  “When do they feed us, anyway?  Are they not curious about where we came from?”

    “I doubt it.  They are not a curious lot.  My guess is once they figure out what to do about the woman, they will kill you two.”

    “Verana?  What do you mean?” Brydon asked.

    Davin shrugged.  “They were pretty upset to discover she was a Healer. If she had been an ordinary woman they would have taken her with the Akarskan and sold her.  Some of the more cowardly ones are worried about what Adona will do to them if they try to sell a Healer.  They also think she may have some special powers that could harm them.  Apparently they are also superstitious of Ebons.  Of course, it also makes them afraid to kill her, but some of the bolder ones want to sell her off to some pagan Tar-Tanian chieftain she will not be able to escape from.”

    “How long have you been here?”

    Davin shrugged.  “Nearly a month.”

    “Why are they keeping you alive?” he asked.  “Are they afraid of you, also?”

    “They think I’m a wolf.”

    “A wolf?” Verana inquired.  “Do you have lycanthropy?  There are herbs which will cure that, though they must be taken regularly.”

    “I do not have lycanthropy,” Davin spat.

    “Are you a wolf?” Toryn asked.

    “Do I look like a wolf?” Davin snapped peevishly.

    “Well, sort of.  You are rather hairy and wolves are grey sometimes, especially up north—”

    “That’s enough, Toryn,” Brydon said.  His headache had returned and he wished the Redolian would not find it necessary to bait everyone they met.

    “How are we going to get out of here?” Toryn demanded.

    The door burst open suddenly to show a very large, bearded man.  He seemed weaponless, but two smaller men behind him were armed, one with a sword and the other with a short bow.  The large man’s beard was matted and dirty and several of his teeth were missing.  He had a large paunch under filthy clothing, but Brydon did not think much of it was fat.  He looked like a slovenly old peasant, but his eyes gleamed with a nasty intelligence as he gazed at them.  Brydon looked for and saw his own signet ring adorning the man’s finger.  His lips thinned on an upsurge of rage.

    “I see the Falaran has awakened.  Odd company you keep, Redolian.”  The big man snorted and turned his eyes to Verana.  “What’s a tasty Ebon wench like you doing with these nothings?”

    Verana glared at him, but made no reply.  The man chuckled.

    “I’m giving you a chance to state your business before I kill you,” he said.

    “We are looking for our friend,” Brydon admitted.

    “And who might that be?”

    “An Akarskan girl with a chestnut stallion.”

    “What makes you think she’s here?  It’s illegal to take horses from Akarska, you know.”

    “We saw her stallion in your corral,” Brydon replied dryly.

    The man gave up his pretense of innocence with a shrug.  “No matter.  I would have killed you even if you hadn’t seen the horse.”  He looked at Verana again.  “Except you, sweet.  I have better things planned for you.”

    He walked forward and grabbed Verana by the wrist.  A menacing motion from the bowman halted Brydon’s instinctive leap forward as the man dragged her outside.

    “Kill them,” the leader called as his footsteps retreated.  “The wolf, too.  I’m tired of him eating our food.  If he was a shape shifter, he would have escaped by now.”

    The bowman stepped into the doorway first and lifted an arrow.  Before the archer could take aim, Davin leaped from the shadows and slammed into the man, knocking him against the door with a loud thud.  The arrow dropped into the dust as the man fell.  The swordsman pushed his way inside and stabbed at Davin, who ducked to avoid the slash.  The swordsman thrust again but missed as the heavy pot Brydon had picked up and thrown caught him directly on the forehead.  Davin scrambled out of the way.

    Toryn dove at the archer and dealt him a solid blow to the jaw with his left fist, which caused the archer’s head to bounce off the door again.  The man collapsed in the dirt and lay still as Toryn snatched up the bow and fallen arrow.  The swordsman shook his head angrily and turned on Toryn as the Redolian struggled to nock the arrow to the bow.  His fingers were clumsy upon the weapon.  Brydon jumped for the swordsman as the man roared and leaped for Toryn with his blade swinging in a deadly arc.  Brydon saw Toryn raise the bow defensively—like a sword—and watched in dismay as the steel sliced cleanly through the wooden bow.  The swordsman laughed, but his glee was short-lived as both Brydon and Davin bore him to the ground.

    The sword dug into the dirt and Toryn jumped on the flat of the blade with both feet, holding it to the ground and effectively pinning the man to the earth by his sword hand.  The man yowled and thrashed, trying to free himself and dislodge Davin and Brydon until Davin grabbed the man by the hair and began to pound his head against the ground.  The man’s cries grew louder.  Brydon thought the scene would go on indefinitely, until Toryn bashed the broken end of the bow against the man’s head, effectively helping him into unconsciousness.  Davin glared at Toryn, apparently not appreciating his intrusion.  Brydon released the man with a sigh of relief.

    “Thank Adona,” Brydon said and turned the unconscious man over, searching for more weapons.  Toryn snatched up the sword and knocked the dust from the blade, swishing it around experimentally a few times.  A small dagger was located inside the man’s boot and Brydon grimaced, thinking it pitifully small for a weapon.

    “Let’s go get Verana,” he said.  He turned to thank Davin for his help, but the silver-haired man was already gone.  Once outside, they headed for the nearest hut.  Toryn took the lead as he was better armed than Brydon.

    “Do you think you could manage to leave me a decent weapon next time?” Brydon complained, annoyed by the loss of the bow.

    “Would you rather I had let him skewer me?” Toryn asked.

    “You could have jumped back,” Brydon complained.

    “Would you like me to analyze your performance?”

    “I suppose not.”

    The first hut was empty of everything but a few blankets and the remains of a meal on a dirty plate.  They checked carefully for signs of life before examining the next hut.  The slovenly women were still gathered around the cook fire and they watched with dull expressions as Brydon and Toryn approached.  None of them made any move warn their men.  Brydon was appalled at the apathy they portrayed, but apparently they held no love for the men who kept them in such degrading captivity.  From the look of them, they were little better than slaves.

    Inside the second hut a man slept, and he slept harder after Toryn whacked him on the head with the flat of the sword.  Brydon divested the unconscious man of his sword and dagger then joined Toryn at the door.  They looked out, but before they could dash to the next hut, they heard a scream, quickly silenced, and then a yell of pain and a feral growl.  They ran toward the sounds.

    Jerking open the door of the last hut, they saw Verana huddled on a cot near the door, watching with wide eyes as a large, silvery wolf attacked the huge man on the floor.  The man screamed and tried to throw off the wolf, but the animal had a solid grip on the man’s throat.

    Before Brydon could react, it was too late.  The man was dead with a grimace of surprised rage locked on his features.  The wolf looked at them out of uncannily intelligent eyes for an instant and then shot between them and out the door.

    Brydon watched it flee into the forest and then turned to look at Verana.  She took Toryn’s proffered hand and nodded shakily.  For the first time, she did not look like a fresh flower.  Her blue robes were in a heap on the floor and the tan tunic she wore had a large tear on one shoulder.  Her hair was disheveled and a red spot shone on her lower lip, which was beginning to swell.  Whether the brute had kissed or hit her was uncertain.  She took a steadying breath.

    “I am unharmed.  The filthy cretin tore my dress, but the wolf came in and attacked him.  It was very strange.”

    Running footsteps approached the hut and Toryn spun toward the door.  Brydon knelt and twisted his signet ring from the dead man’s hand before returning it to its rightful place.  He looked for his sword, but it was nowhere in sight, although his dagger lay near the bed, still in its sheath.  He took it and strapped it on.

    “It looks like all his friends are on their way.  We should get out of here,” Toryn informed him.

    “Is there a back way out?” Brydon asked, looking around.

    “Huts are not usually equipped with multiple doors,” Toryn said dryly.  “This is not a Falaran palace.”

    “So we fight?”

    Toryn grinned.  “Good plan.”  He jumped out the door and his sword flashed fire as he ran the first astonished bandit through.  Brydon joined him and they stood together as the angry brigands ran for them.

    Brydon heard an arrow whiz—too close!—by his ear and whirled to confront his attacker, only to see the archer topple to the ground as Davin appeared behind him and bashed him over the head with a large rock.  Brydon let out a breath and absently saw Davin pick up the bow and sling the quiver over his shoulder.  Brydon turned to rejoin the fray.

    Toryn held his own against the bandits, three of which had already fallen at his feet.  Four remained and two of them came at Brydon.  He ducked a sword cut and slashed at the first attacker.  The second dropped to the ground when a large stone bounced off his skull with an impressive crack.  Toryn hacked another with a gleeful cry and the final man broke form and fled.

    Brydon grinned at Toryn in admiration as Davin joined them.  Verana exited the hut, dressed once more in her robes and looking as calm as ever.

    “I will get the horses,” she said and started off.  Toryn began to pillage the bodies for weaponry.  Davin started to join him, but stopped and looked beyond Brydon’s shoulder.  He turned to see a group of women approaching.  One of them walked more boldly than the others—a large, gray-haired woman who stopped in front of Brydon.  She spat on one of the bodies as she passed it.

    “You have won the day,” she said to the Falaran.  “Do you mean to claim us as spoils?”

    Brydon was taken aback, looking from her to the other sorry-looking women who were huddled together near one of the huts.

    “Heavens, no.  In fact, I am sorry for the deaths of your menfolk—”

    She cut him off with a rude sneer.  “Menfolk?  These filth were not men!  They were our captors.  We were stolen from our villages in brutal raids and forced to serve these bastards until we died of abuse or starvation.  You have done us a great service by killing them all.  Are we now free to return to our homes?”

    “More than free,” Brydon said.  “I would escort you myself were we not pressed for time and the need to find our friend.  Perhaps, Davin—” Brydon turned to the silver-haired man, who shrank back in distaste, probably guessing what Brydon was about to suggest.  The woman cut him off.

    “We need no help from any man,” she snarled.  “I will guide them all back safely.  You go see to the Akarskan girl.  She was in far more dangerous company when she left here than when she arrived.  The scum who captured her were no match for those who took her and departed.  They have your horses, also.”

    “Can you describe them?” Toryn asked.

    The woman nodded.  “Aye.  There was a red-haired pair, male and female, alike enough to be siblings.  She had a hard, cold look about her and dressed like a man.  They were attired as Penks but they did not have a Penk manner.  Another was a dark-haired man, quiet, who did the woman’s bidding without question.  At least two other men were with them, but I did not get a good look at them.  They looked like hired swords.  Do you need provisions?”

    Brydon looked around dubiously, doubtful if the women would even be able to scrounge enough foodstuffs and clothing to see them on their journey home.  Brydon shook his head.  The woman smiled grimly.

    “Well, Falaran, you have the thanks of Bentra of Dorrigal, which is a village in northern Terris.  Should you ever find yourself there my house and my table will be welcome to you.  And you two as well.”  She included Toryn and Davin with a nod.

    “May Adona bless you and keep you, Bentra.  Safe journey,” Brydon intoned solemnly.  Bentra accepted his mantra with an eloquent nod and then turned to gather her charges.  Brydon looked at Davin, who shrugged.

    They made their way to Verana, who held the reins of four of the bandits’ horses.  Davin handed Brydon the bow and quiver before mounting.

    “Can you use this?  It does me little good.”

    “Want a sword?” asked Toryn, who carried three of them, apparently trying to determine which of them had the better balance.

    Davin shook his head.  “Only a dagger, if you have one.”

    Toryn tossed him a dagger, selected a sword from his bunch and dropped the other two on the ground.  Brydon held out his hand expectantly.

    “What?” Toryn asked.

    “That one is my sword,” Brydon said.

    “I found it.  It’s mine.”

    “I was born with it.  It’s mine,” Brydon explained calmly and hoped that Toryn would not bring up the loss of his own sword in the avalanche.

    “That must have been painful for your mother.”

    “You stared at it enough times while we traveled.  You know it’s mine; now hand it over.”

     “I seem to remember someone leaving my sword in a snow bank.”

    “You prefer I had fetched the sword rather than you?”

    Toryn snorted.  “You idiot Falaran.  Why get so attached to a blade?  What happens if you lose your sword?  Do you go around weeping until you find it?  Redolians are much smarter.  We get another one.”

    “Good to know.  You can use this one,” Brydon said and gave Toryn the worn blade he’d been using.  Toryn handed over Brydon’s sword without another word.  Brydon sheathed the weapon with relief—he wasn’t sure what he would have done if Toryn had insisted upon keeping the blade.

    “You owe me one, Falaran,” Toryn warned and mounted a sorrel stallion.  Brydon grabbed the reins of a bay mare and vaulted aboard.

    “Let’s just find Alyn.”


Chapter Nine

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