The Gauntlet Thrown Chapter Five
 

 

CHAPTER FIVE

 

THE AKARSKAN

    They left the cave the next day under clear skies, the rain having spent itself the night before.  Redwing vowed to return to the place someday, but Toryn could not understand his fascination with the cave.  It was just an old ruin of some sort.  What did it matter who built it, or why?

    Later that morning, they scared up a grouse that Redwing easily feathered and they both licked their lips in anticipation of a hot dinner while Toryn tried not to be impressed with the Falaran’s skill.  They traversed southward and argued politics.

    “I’m serious about ending the constant fighting between our nations, Toryn,” he said that night as they finished the bird and tossed the bones into the fire.

    “You are just trying to keep me from sending a group of my kinsmen after you,” Toryn replied.

    “What would prove to you that I would make a good king?”

    “You could only prove that by actually becoming king and fulfilling your idiotic notions,” Toryn said with a snort.

    “Then give me the chance to do so,” Redwing said softly.  He fixed his persuasive gaze directly on Toryn.

    “You have nothing to fear from me,” Toryn snapped, nonplused.  “You saved my life and I’m not so dishonorable that I can easily forget that debt.  Say ‘farewell’ and I’ll be on my way home and you can do as you please.  It’s likely you will never see me again.”
    “I want you to come with me.”

    Toryn stared, unable to believe his ears.  “What?  Come with you?  On your quest?  Why?”

    “Just as far as the Waryn Highway,” Redwing suggested, “It isn’t far—a few weeks by my reckoning.”

    “But why?” Toryn asked again, nearly dumbfounded at the request.

    “I have been thinking about what I will do when I am king.  In order to bring about peace with Redol, I will need someone who can speak to your people on my behalf.  Why would they listen to me?  To them, I will be just another Falaran king and someone who could not be trusted.  If I can convince you of my sincerity, then you can help me to convince them,” Redwing stated, fairly glowing with the excitement of his ideals.  “Together, we can work to bring about peace.”

    Toryn wondered if the Falaran had taken a hit to the head during their walk.

    “Aren’t you thinking a bit far ahead?  You haven’t even completed your quest.  And even if you do succeed and I join you, no one in Redol would listen to me,” Toryn denied, trying to dash Redwing’s insane dreams before they could take root in his own mind.  “I’m no one!  I’m a second son and—” He broke off quickly, realizing he may have said too much. 

 

   Redwing jumped on the statement.  “You’re a chief’s son, aren’t you?”  At Toryn’s flush of anger, Redwing smiled and tossed his head back slightly.  “I knew it!  This is better than I’d hoped!  Can’t you see, Toryn?  You can speak to your own family, first.  If they believe, your father could—”

    “My father is dead,” Toryn broke in, silencing Redwing instantly.  Before the Falaran could recover, Toryn continued, “And my brother Morgyn could not be convinced, not even by me, not even if I believed in your sincerity, which I don’t.  I think you are trying to lull me into making a fool out of myself when I do return home.”  He snorted.  “Imagine!  Me telling my brother that the next king of Falara will be a ‘good’ king and that he wants us all to lay down our arms and embrace as brothers, Falarans and Redolians, all.”  The last was said mockingly and Redwing scowled.

     “Is it not a worthy ambition?” he asked tightly.

    Toryn ran a hand through the hair tumbling over his brow as he tried to find the right words.  He sighed explosively.

    “It is worthy,” he finally admitted.  “It is just not possible.”

    Redwing just smiled again and looked at Toryn with such confidence that he was somewhat shaken.  “It is possible.  I intend to make it happen.”  He stood suddenly and drew his sword.  The jewels in the hilt sparkled in the firelight.  He planted the point of it in the ground and knelt on one knee solemnly before it with both hands grasped around the hilt.

    “When I am king of Falara,” he vowed, looking straight into Toryn’s eyes, “I will bring peace between us, no matter the cost.”  He bowed his head briefly for a moment and stood.  “Now, will you come with me that I might convince you that I mean what I say?”

    “No.”  Toryn breathed.  “You are mad.”

    Redwing tilted the sword back and forth to catch Toryn’s attention.

    “My father’s sword,” he said, reminding Toryn of their conversation the night Redwing had freed him.  With that, he sheathed the blade and walked into the darkness, leaving Toryn to mull over his words.  He glanced briefly at Redwing’s bow that lay a few feet away, but he knew the man was most likely standing at the camp’s edge, watching him.  Toryn cursed and tossed a stone angrily into the fire. Sparks flew up in protest with a hiss.  What had possessed him to try and kill the damned Falaran in the first place?  He had known it was a foolish idea when it was proposed.  Toryn did not really hold a grudge against any Falarans.  He had never lost a family member or even a tribe member to the never-ending war.  Toryn’s tribal lands lay far from the Falaran border.  And obviously the Falarans were not going to choose an untrained fool for their next king.  Redwing had said he had been the choice of the princess, but the princess had to have advisors of some sort, nudging her toward the right candidate.  Maybe Redwing would make a good king.

    Toryn lay back and looked at the stars, wondering what he should do.  He thought about going home.  It had been more than a month since he’d seen his brother and sister.  They were probably wondering what had happened to him, as he was only supposed to have been gone a couple of weeks to visit a neighboring tribe and carry messages from Morgyn to the other chief.  He grimaced.  If he returned home now with the news that not only had his three companions been killed, but that he had been captured, spared, and then rescued by the intended victim…  Morgyn would be speechless with rage.

    The thought of traveling on with Redwing was somewhat tantalizing.  He’d never been out of Redol in his life, though he had traveled to the Falaran border once in order to view the stone forts and armored patrols, resplendent in their glittering armor.  Toryn figured the fabled Waryn Highway would be something to see.  It had been built by an ambitious (and very rich) trader named Waryn who had tried to bring civilization to Akarska in the form of free trade. Waryn had made it as far as the southern border of Akarska before the residents had demanded he stop, so it was there that he had built his Trading House and constructed his highway in order to bring all manner of goods to the Akarskan heathens, with limited success.  Although the Akarskans seemed to have little actual need of outside goods, they had begun to crave the fine leather from the Corolis Islands and gold and jewels from Silver.  In return, they traded finished leather goods, clothing and strange artworks—everything but horses.  Waryn had died years back, but his sons still carried on his work.  It would be something, so see the famed Trading House and perhaps buy a trinket for his sister.  It also wouldn’t hurt to keep an eye on the Falaran and see what kind of character he really had.  If his apparent goodwill toward Redolians turned out to be a sham, surely Toryn would be able to determine it by associating with him for a month.  If Redwing proved false, Toryn could kill him with no regrets.

    The soft sound of footfalls told of Redwing’s return.  He looked down at Toryn.

    “Well?”

    “I’ll go with you as far as the Waryn Highway if you give me back my daggers,” Toryn stated.

    Redwing smiled humorlessly and shook his head.  “If I had tried to kill you, would you give me a weapon?” Toryn sat up angrily and Redwing held up a hand.  “I have determined to prove my honor to you.  You can also prove yours to me.  I’ll give you a weapon as soon as I’m sure you won’t try and put it between my ribs at the first opportunity.  You have thought about it, I know.”

    Toryn relaxed and actually grinned.  “Mostly when you are whistling,” he admitted.  Unwittingly, his respect for Redwing eased up a notch.  He would have thought him a fool if he had handed Toryn a blade so easily.  He watched as Redwing banked the fire and curled himself in his cloak.  Experimentally, Toryn got to his feet with the grace and silence of a cat.  He had taken only single step toward the pack when Redwing’s eyes flicked open, pinning him where he stood. Toryn smiled hugely.

    “Just relieving myself,” he said and strode toward a nearby bush.  It wasn’t the first time he’d tried to rise while Redwing slept.  The Falaran seemed to sleep with one eye open, awakening at the slightest sound or movement.  Toryn chuckled to himself.  No doubt he would be sleeping even more lightly now that Toryn had declared him half-mad. Toryn returned to his blanket and flung himself into a deep sleep.  It would prove an interesting journey to the Waryn Highway.
  

~~ O ~~

 

   They descended from the mountains over the next few days, not willing to contend with the capricious weather in the higher altitudes.  They spoke no further of Brydon’s ambition, or of Toryn’s semi-captive status.  Toryn no longer seemed quite so resentful, even though he still asked for a weapon each day and Brydon continued to refuse.

    “Any hope that we’re in Terris and not Akarska?”  Toryn asked near mid-morning while he contemplated a new scratch on his hand from an unforgiving tree limb.  He poked at it and winced, though the blood had dried some time ago.

    “Quit prodding it or it won’t heal,” Brydon said.  “You are getting dirt in it.”  Toryn threw him an absent glance of irritation.  Brydon continued, “No, we are definitely in Akarska, but I’ve been trying to stay close to the Terran border.”  The voice of a stranger halted Toryn’s next question.

    “Yes, you are in Akarska, trespassers, and you may halt where you are or die.”

    They stopped at the sight of a large chestnut horse that exited the trees and came toward them.  Its rider held a large bow with a wicked-looking arrow aimed in their direction.

    “Do you have horses?”  She demanded.

    “No,” Brydon stated and for the first time he was glad of the fact.  The girl fluidly dismounted from the animal.  Her appearance was that of a forest sprite, albeit a deadly one, as the bow did not waver for an instant.  Her straight, pale blond hair did not quite brush her shoulders.  She had very fair skin under the brown cap that shaded her face.

    “Who are you and what do you want here?”  She asked.

    “I am Brydon Redwing of Falara and this is Toryn of Redol.  We want nothing in Akarska; we are merely passing through.”

    “This is not a pass-through.  The road goes through Terris,” she stated.

    “We were traveling that way, but an avalanche forced us into abandoning the road,” Brydon explained.

    She considered his statement and then asked, “Have you seen any riders?”

    “We haven’t seen anyone at all for the past week.”

    “I am searching for a stolen horse.  A black stallion, one of the finest in Akarska.  He has one white stocking and a seven-pointed star on his forehead.”

    Brydon shook his head.  Toryn studied the sky as though he found the entire conversation tedious.  He sighed.  “You Akarskans are always looking for this stolen horse or that stolen horse.  Why do you not keep better track of them?”

    Her face flamed and the bowstring tautened.  Brydon looked at Toryn in incredulity.  The Redolian had been the one citing the dangers of Akarska and now he provoked a resident?

    “Hold!”  Brydon said quickly and stepped in front of Toryn as a shield.  “Are you a Hunter?”

    The girl lowered the bow for a brief instant, though she continued to glare at Toryn.  “No, I am a Border Guard, but the Hunters have been unable to locate the stallion, though it was stolen nearly two months ago.  We have reason to believe it was a filthy Redolian who took it.”  She paused for a moment and her brow wrinkled as she examined them curiously.  “I thought Falarans and Redolians were mortal enemies.”

    “We are.  We are simply traveling together to the Waryn Highway,” Brydon explained.

    “Why is he not armed?”  She asked.

    Brydon coughed and shot a glance at Toryn.  “Toryn is my prisoner, of sorts.”  Toryn glared daggers at him.  The girl smiled for the first time, looking more elfin than ever.  She stood a full head shorter than either he or Toryn, although her authoritative attitude made her seem taller, somehow.

    “Why not kill him?”  She questioned, obviously taken with the idea.

    “I have not chosen to,” he replied.  “Are you going to let us pass?”

    She actually paced for a moment, fingering her bow absently while she considered.  Brydon admired her lithe form as she strode back and forth.  She was a trim girl, lean and healthy-looking.  She wore pale buckskin breeches that clung to her slim legs and a loose shirt the color of dark leaves. A brown cape was clasped about her neck and over that rested her quiver of arrows.  Upon her hip was coiled a shiny black leather whip.  From the looks of the whip it was not there for adornment.

    “Why did you have to come to Akarska now?”  She snapped at last.  “I need to find the wretch who stole my horse.”  She sighed deeply.  “Still, it is my duty to escort you and ensure that you do no damage, nor stray into places where you have no business.  For your own protection, I must guide you if I cannot persuade you to turn about.”

    “Not more duty,” Toryn groaned.  “I am sick to death of that word after listening to it chant from the Falaran’s lips every day.  It’s bad enough that I am forced to accompany him.  Must we have a wench tagging along, as well?”

    The bow was back up immediately.

    “Release your claim on him, Falaran, and I will slay him,” she vowed.  “Know that I would much rather pursue the thieves of my stallion than lead strangers where they have no business.”

    “I do not so release it.  Put away your bow and travel with us, if you must.”  He was sorely tempted to throttle Toryn himself after his astonishing behavior.  He shot him a silencing glare.

    “A wench.”  Toryn swore, uncowed by the gaze.

    “Are you trying to get us killed?”  Brydon hissed in a voice that brooked no argument.  The girl reluctantly jammed her arrow back into its quiver and vaulted easily onto her steed.

    “Have you a name?”  Brydon asked.

    “Alyn,” she told them curtly.  “Lead and I will follow, but know that foreigners are not welcome on Akarskan soil.  I will feather you with no regrets if you make the slightest trouble.”

    By the hopeful tone in her voice, she wanted them to make trouble.  Brydon nodded and they started off once more, trailed by the Akarskan girl.


    They walked for a number of hours.  Brydon and Toryn conversed about myriad things, avoiding the subjects of Falara and Redol by mutual agreement.  Brydon watched Alyn covertly.  She rode as if she had been born on the back of a horse.  It was possible, he reflected.  No one had ever seen an Akarskan without a horse and there were myths that horses lived in their houses with them.

    “Can you not walk any faster?”  Alyn demanded.

    “We only have two legs, not four, milady,” Brydon said.

    “Perhaps milady would like to climb down here and walk with us lowly ones,” Toryn suggested.

    “I will not.”  She sniffed.

    “Probably forgotten how,” Toryn murmured to Brydon, loud enough for Alyn to overhear.  He seemed to enjoy baiting the girl, a practice Brydon thought extremely unwise.
    “If he is your prisoner, why isn’t he tied?”  She demanded.

    “Why aren’t you tied, Toryn?”  Brydon asked, using his sword to push aside small branches that leaned into the path.

    “But I am tied, milady,” Toryn said.

    “By what bonds?”  She asked.

    “By bonds no female would understand,” Toryn replied.  Brydon closed his eyes for a moment, wondering if she would spur her horse over the top of Toryn, but she apparently had more control than Brydon feared.

    “You are probably too stupid to think of a way to escape,” she snapped.

    Brydon grinned.  “You may have to watch yourself with her, Toryn.”

    “Oh?  Well, what kind of a woman wears pants, anyway?” Toryn asked scornfully.

    “I am no simpering female, bound by skirts and yowling children,” she replied, warming to the conversation as she ducked her head to go under a branch.  “I am free to come and go as I please, I am likely more of a woman than you have ever had!”

    “Is that a challenge?”  Toryn asked, green eyes lighting eagerly.

    “Take it as you will.  It is nothing to me.”  She cantered by them, almost knocking Toryn down, and took the lead for a while.  They later approached a stream of water that babbled over stones as it wandered through the forest.  They halted and Alyn’s horse eagerly cropped the thick shore grass while she washed her face and hands in the water.

    “Do we have anything to eat?”  Toryn asked as he sank down on the bank and pulled off his boots.  He wriggled his toes in the water and Brydon watched him enviously, tempted to join him.  The day had grown warm, but they needed food.  They had depleted everything but a handful of raisins.

    “No,” Brydon replied, and then turned to Alyn.  “Is it lawful to hunt?”

    She nodded and picked up her bow.  “I will go.”

    “Try not to waste too many arrows,” Toryn called as he tugged his pant legs higher and dunked his feet deeper into the water.  She threw him a glare, mounted, and galloped off.  Both men watched her go.

    “She’s not a bad-looking girl,” Brydon commented.

    “Yes, and I suppose we will have a scant dinner tonight.”  Toryn complained and sighed.  He started to unplait his hair.  “Aren’t you supposed to be married soon?”

    “I’m not married, yet,” Brydon said, looking at the tufts of white cloud in the sky.

    “Well, I am amazed!”  Toryn said.  He removed one of the leather thongs from his hair and set it aside.  His hair was wavy from the braid and hung down to the middle of his back.  He undid a second braid.  “It is not very honorable, you know, to think impure thoughts about women when you are practically engaged.  You need not concern yourself with the Akarskan, though.  She wants me.  She just doesn’t know it, yet.”

    “You do have an oversized ego, don’t you?”  Brydon said.  He rearranged his pack just in case Alyn did bring back some meat.  Not that he had any doubts about her hunting skill, but Toryn was right—she was a woman.

    “Me?  Certainly not.  I am as humble as a holy man.  But you should know, Falaran, women find me irresistible,” Toryn said.  He splashed water with his feet.

    “Good luck to you with this one,” Brydon replied with a laugh.

    “What do you mean by that?”

    “Well, she doesn’t seem exactly warm to your advances,” Brydon observed.

    “That’s just a game.  You’ll see.”

    “I’m certain I will.”


    It was not a half-hour later that a scream echoed through the forest and brought them both to their feet.  Brydon grabbed his bow and he caught Toryn’s grimace when his hand grasped the empty air where his sword-hilt should have been.

    “This way!” Brydon yelled.  Toryn followed and they crashed through the underbrush.

    “Alyn!”  Brydon called.

    “Here!”  They heard faintly.  Brydon headed straight for her.  Toryn almost went sprawling once, but Brydon grabbed his arm and kept him moving until he regained his balance.  They burst on the scene a moment later.

    A huge, red-colored wildcat had cornered Alyn in some rocks.  She seemed to have wedged herself in, but the animal clawed into the opening with one massive, claw-tipped paw.  Brydon gaped for a moment—the creature was nearly the size of a small horse.  Toryn shouted to attract the beast’s attention.  The lion turned to snarl at them and they saw one of Alyn’s arrows imbedded in the cat’s huge neck.

    “Come away from there, beast!” Toryn yelled.  He picked up a rock and lobbed it unerringly.  It bounced off the lion’s snout.  Enraged, it quit Alyn and dove for them, lightning-quick.  They scattered and Brydon put two solid arrows into the animal.  A third bounced off the thick skull, where it left a bloody furrow.  The cat roared and rushed at Toryn, who was closer.  A huge paw flashed down.  Toryn yelped and rolled away, scrabbling to escape.  Brydon loosed another arrow and then yanked the sword from his scabbard.

    “Toryn!”  He yelled and threw the blade hilt-first as Toryn ran.  Amazingly, the Redolian snatched the blade in midair, whirled, and slashed.  He ducked and a mass of claws narrowly missed his head.

    Brydon furiously put arrows into the cat’s head and neck, but the creature was too quick—most of them missed the target.  Toryn leaped back to avoid another swipe and slammed—hard—into a tree.  He staggered aside, obviously dazed.

    Arrows spent, Brydon threw down his bow and leaped for the lion, pulling his dagger from its sheath.  The wounded lion dove for Toryn, but Brydon was on it first.  He gripped the thick fur around its neck and drove the dagger deep.  The cat was a huge mass of solid muscle and flexible sinew.  Brydon felt his grip slide.

    The beast reared and gave a terrible roar.  An immense paw reached up and ripped Brydon off.  He slammed into the ground with brutal force.  He lay still, stunned, and waited for the crush of claws and teeth.  The lion roared once more with Brydon’s dagger buried in its skull, and then crashed to the ground next to him.

    Brydon let blackness lap over him in relief.


    He groaned and sat up groggily to see Toryn standing over him.  Sunlight glinted off the blade of the sword Brydon’s father had forged.  Toryn had a strange look in his eyes.  Brydon froze, the dazed mist dissipating, and looked from Toryn to the sword and back again.

    “Tempting, is it not?”  He asked softly after a long moment.

    Toryn nodded once, curtly, and swayed a bit before he sat down hard.  Toryn’s shirt was torn and blood stained his leather pants.  Brydon got up and moved to Toryn quickly, ignoring the throbbing in his head and the ache in his shoulder.

    “I am... all right,” Toryn said weakly and waved him away.  “Where is Alyn?”

    Brydon forced himself to leave Toryn and search the rocks, to find Alyn wedged in the same small cleft.  Blood covered part of her face, but she stared up at him with an annoyed expression.  “My boot is caught,” she said.  “I can’t get free.”

    Brydon gaped at her for a moment.  It was difficult to concentrate.  He was tempted to leave her there rather than think of a way to get her out.  The cleft was far too narrow for him to climb down and assist her and she could not reach her own ankle.

    “Can you slide your foot out of the boot?”  He asked finally.

    “Don’t you think I already tried that?”  She snapped.  Brydon’s urge to leave her strengthened.

    “Well?”  Toryn called.  “Is she dead?”

    “No, she’s stuck in the rocks,” Brydon replied.  Alyn groaned as Toryn’s guffaw reached them.

    “Too many meat pies and pastries?” Toryn asked.

    Alyn shouted several loud slurs about Toryn and his parentage and then she wrenched at her leg.  Rage must have lent her strength, for she was suddenly free and clambered out of the hole like an angry badger.

    Brydon grinned and followed as she limped toward Toryn.  He did not wait around to hear their argument, instead he returned to the stream to retrieve their supplies.  He wondered where Alyn’s horse had gone.

    When Brydon returned, he shredded his only linen shirt with his dagger after retrieving it from the lion’s skull.  Brydon gave Toryn a large wad of the cloth to use as a compress.  The Redolian held it against his bloody side.  He lay with his head pillowed on his cloak.

    Brydon bent to examine the injury and Toryn weakly slapped his hands away.

    “No... Falaran,” he muttered.

    “This Falaran is going to help you whether you like it or not, you stubborn Redolian idiot.  Now lay back and shut up, or I will club you unconscious.”

    Toryn sighed and closed his eyes.Brydon cut open Toryn’s shirt and grimaced.  The wound was bad—four jagged gashes in the soft flesh of his waist.  Brydon poured water into the bleeding wound and bound the remainder of his linen shirt tightly around Toryn’s ribs.  The Redolian made no sound, though he sucked in a breath when water touched the wound.  Brydon wished he knew anything at all about the Healer’s art.  Alyn blanched when she viewed the wound; obviously, she would be no help at all.

    Against Alyn’s protests, Brydon turned to her next and examined her head wound.  The wound was not as deep as he had assumed, though she had a swollen knot on her forehead and blood was caked in her hair.  Brydon bound her head with strips from his cloak.

    “I think you’ll be fine.  The wound does not look that deep.  You have quite a nasty bruise, though.”

    She nodded.  “I need to find my horse.  He threw me off and bolted when the lion attacked.”  She wandered in a circle, seeking the tracks of the horse, and then disappeared into the undergrowth.

    When she had gone, Brydon took off his own clawed and bloody shirt and tossed it aside.  He could neither reach nor see the wound on his back, but it burned with an unholy flame and he felt the blood stream down his back.  He poured the remaining water over the injury and washed it as well as he could, gritting his teeth at the pain.  He retrieved his bloody shirt and cut it into ribbons also, then wrapped his own injury as well as he could.  He looked at Toryn wryly.

    “Perhaps we shouldn’t have come to Akarska,” he said.  Toryn opened his eyes and blinked at him.

    “I told you so,” Toryn said.  “Where’s the wench?”

    “Looking for her horse.  I think she wanted to escape—the sight of blood seems to disturb her.”

    “Maybe she won’t come back.”

    “I doubt it.  She seems pretty tenacious and she views us as part of her duty.”

    Toryn groaned.  “Don’t mention that word.  I feel ill enough.”  With that, he shut his eyes and soon his breathing became deep and regular.

    Brydon would have loved to collapse and sleep, but he knew the lion meat would spoil unless he dressed it right away.  They needed food and it would be senseless to waste the cat, though he expected the meat to taste awful.  There was no guessing how long Alyn would be gone.  He sat down and began the arduous task of skinning the feline, letting his mind drift as he worked.  He was halfway finished when Alyn’s horse entered the clearing, followed by three others.  Brydon chuckled and got to his feet.  The animals shied away from the lion scent as Brydon approached them, but they calmed to his gentle words and snorted softly.  Brydon removed the bridle and saddle from Alyn’s horse and turned him loose after slapping him companionably on the neck.  He examined the other three, pleased to note that they were all fine animals. The four steeds wandered off a short distance and began to graze, though they kept a somewhat wary eye on the lion pelt.

    Brydon finished skinning the cat.  When he was done, he went back and washed himself off in the stream and then put his leather vest on.  It was lined with thick sheepskin and cushioned his wound somewhat.  His back ached horribly and his wound had bled continuously while he worked.  He felt the sticky wetness ooze slowly down his back and soak his makeshift bandage.  He wished Alyn would return so she could bandage it for him.

    He built a small fire and sank down to rest.  The sun was low on the horizon and Brydon felt he could easily sleep for a week.  Toryn moaned and opened his eyes.

    “Hungry?”  Brydon asked.

    “Starved,” Toryn said and sat up gingerly.  He winced and slid himself slowly back up against a tree for support.

    “What did you use for a bandage?”  He asked and touched the cloth on his ribs.

    “My best shirt.  You can’t have any more injuries, because I’m nearly out of clothes.  Are you cold?”

    “No.  Is Alyn still gone?”  Toryn asked as Brydon walked to the lion’s carcass and cut off some large steaks.  Toryn eased over to the fire and helped spit the meat on sticks before holding his over the flame.  His glance let Brydon know he wished he could season the meat.  Both of them were too weary and sore to get up and search for herbs.

    “Alyn isn’t here, but her horse came back.”

    Toryn laughed.  “Can we take it and run?”

    “And be caught in Akarska with a stolen horse?  You must be more wounded than you look.”

    They had scarcely begun to eat when Alyn returned.

    “I can’t find him anywhere,” she said by way of greeting.

    “He’s right there,” Brydon said and pointed a thumb toward the horses.

    Alyn stared.  “How did you find him?”

    “I didn’t.  He came back on his own.”

    “That’s impossible.  I’ve barely had him three weeks; he doesn’t know me well enough to return to me.  He would have gone home or to the nearest barn.”

    Brydon shrugged.  Alyn’s expression remained puzzled, but she took a skewer from Brydon and nibbled on the tough lion meat, wrinkling her nose at the taste.

    “Maybe he thinks you’re his mother,” Toryn commented.  She glared at him, but her gaze softened as she viewed the bandage around his waist.

    “Are you sore wounded?”  She asked softly.

    “I’ll live.”

    “I stumbled upon the lion as I followed the tracks of a pine buck.  I must have startled the cat.  It charged me and I loosed an arrow that did little damage.  The bow is not my best weapon, and my whip...”  She pulled out the length of leather Brydon had seen coiled on her hip, “Is not much use against a lion.”

    After they had eaten, Brydon fed the horses with handfuls of grain from Alyn’s pack.  When he returned, Alyn was asleep and Toryn’s head nodded.

    “Get some sleep, Toryn,” he suggested.  “I’ll keep watch after I put the carcass up in a tree so nothing comes for it.”

    “Let me help,” Toryn offered and tried to get up.

    “Sit!”  Brydon barked.  “If you make your wound worse I’ll have to leave you here alone in Akarska.”

    Toryn sat, grumbling.  Brydon took some ropes from his pack and hauled the lion up into a tree, far enough off the ground to be safe from small predators.  He collapsed then as his back flamed in agony.

    He stood up shakily and staggered over to his pack, unconscious before he lay down next to it.
 

Chapter Six 

 

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