Brydon awoke a short time after dawn. Toryn and Alyn were asleep, so he started a fire, feeling very stiff and sore after yesterday’s activities. He could hardly move his right arm and even a tentative flex of his hand sent spasms of pain up into his shoulder.
The others roused at the smell of breakfast cooking, and Brydon checked their wounds while he ignored their snarls to leave them alone. Alyn was a bit dizzy, but pronounced herself fit to ride and Brydon believed her. It would take a bigger injury than a bruised head and some scratches to keep an Akarskan out of the saddle. She got up and worked the stiffness out of her neck and then headed into the forest. Toryn chewed at the tough meat.
“This is hideous,” he said, “But surprisingly better than lamb.”
Alyn returned. “Where did the other three horses come from?” she asked in a not-quite-accusing tone.
“They came with yours,” Brydon replied.
“That makes no sense at all, unless they are unclaimed and this is their territory. Maybe Fireling followed them, but why would they come here? This whole area stinks of lion and blood. If they were wild, they would avoid it and us as well.”
“Even you?” Brydon joked.
“Of course,” she replied seriously. “Perhaps they are not unclaimed, even though I checked for ownership markings and they are unmarked by either clan sign or trader symbol. They must be wild and yet they allowed me to walk right up to them. They were not at all frightened.”
“Perhaps you smelled so much like a horse that they mistook you for one,” Toryn offered. Alyn threw him a glare.
“If that were the case, then your foul scent would surely have driven them far from here!”
“Eat, Alyn,” Brydon suggested as Toryn made mock wounded gestures, “You can puzzle on it later.”
After Brydon reorganized his pack, he turned to see Toryn on his feet, kicking dirt over the fire while he kept an arm held tightly to his side. Alyn had Fireling in the clearing and was stroking his coat with a soft cloth.
“What are you doing, Toryn?” Brydon asked.
“I know you need to get moving, so let’s go,” he said. “I’m ready to be away from here.” Brydon thought he referred to Akarska in general.
“No. You can’t walk, or you’ll tear your wound open.”
“It’s my wound,” Toryn replied. His black hair hung over his forehead and nearly hid his green eyes.
“Yes, and I’ll not have you blaming me all of your days for making it worse.”
“How about if I blame you for causing it in the first place?”
“Don’t you already?”
“How very Redolian of you.”
“I am Redolian!”
“Will you two stop it?” Alyn snapped. “I am trying to think.”
“Let there be complete silence in the forest for this miraculous act!” Toryn boomed to the heavens. Alyn kicked some rocks at him and he winced when one bounced off his calf. “Since these horses are unmarked, I see no reason why I can’t use them. I’ll be able to officially claim them when we reach the next settlement, but until then, they belong to anyone. Can you two ride?”
Brydon nodded and was surprised when Toryn did also. Alyn stared long at Toryn and then smirked. “We shall see.” Alyn brought one of the horses into the clearing, tugging him by the mane. He followed docilely, an action she had to accept, though her expression of bafflement did not change. She took Fireling’s halter off of her saddle and buckled it on the grey steed. It accepted the binding without protest.
Brydon concentrated on the scene while Alyn took a turn or two of the lead rope around her fist. She sprang onto the horse while her other hand gripped the long mane securely. Instead of the expected burst of furious bucking and twisting, the horse merely shivered once and turned his grey head to look at the burden on his back.
“I do not understand this,” Alyn muttered. The horse obediently walked forward a few paces and stopped. Alyn rode him for a short time, and then dismounted, grumbling to herself.
The next horse was a fine black stallion with a white blaze down his head. Alyn predicted trouble with that one, but the performance was the same as with the young grey stud. She tried the bay mare next and the docile behavior was repeated.
“These horses must have eaten some poison-plant,” Alyn decided. “No wild animal is this tame. They act like they belong in a matron’s stable. Someone must own them.”
“Who cares?” Toryn shrugged. “Which one do you want, Falaran?”
“The black, of course.”
“Naturally. It’s a fine-looking animal, but I suppose you’ll make a scene if I take it, so I suppose I’ll have the mare.”
“Thank you.” Brydon grinned though he knew Toryn had refused the stallion because of his injury. Fighting a spirited horse with torn ribs would be no picnic. Brydon felt the same about his shoulder wound, but the black horse drew him. He would have wanted the stallion if every bone in his body were broken.
Alyn rigged up a makeshift halter for Fireling from her whip. Brydon was fascinated and had her painstakingly recreate the knots and loops, but in the end he could not get the hang of it and Alyn gave up tutoring him with an exasperated sigh. She put her leather halter on the mare for Toryn. Fireling’s bridle was fitted for the black stallion, in case the horse decided to revert to a more typical “wild horse” behavior. Alyn also placed her saddle on the black and then assisted Brydon to mount. He sat for a moment and accustomed himself to the feel of the animal. He had been trained in horsemanship, but horses were scarce in Falara, as elsewhere, and it had been a long while since he had ridden. Walking the horse wasn’t difficult, except for Alyn shouting constant instructions.
“Sit up straight! Put your heels down and hang on with your knees, not your hands! I said your knees, not your toes. Now trot!”
He eased the horse into a jolting gait that almost caused him to bite his tongue in half. Alyn screamed at him like a laundress yelling at a scullery boy
“What are you doing? Grip with your legs! You are bouncing like a sack of grain!”
Brydon clung with his legs, but that seemed to make the jolting worse. He did not recall riding being quite this difficult when taught by the group of Knight-Priests in Eaglecrest. Perhaps the virtues of patience and a civil tongue made a difference.
“Now slow him down! Pull on the reins! Slowly! Not up to your chin! Keep your hand down on his withers!”
“His what?” Brydon called and hauled back on the reins. He tried to remember to hang on with his legs while attempting to remain upright.
“His withers! Just keep your hand down by your—” She broke off suddenly. Brydon figured it out and flushed.
The stallion slowed to a nice easy trot that hardly jolted at all. Brydon’s long-unused leg muscles remembered their training and the horse told him when he overbalanced or leaned the wrong way. It swiveled an ear back on occasion.
“Okay. Your turn, Toryn.”
Brydon dismounted, feeling as though he had been beaten with a tree. The claw wounds on his shoulder had reopened and he felt blood soaking into the sheepskin of his vest once more. He leaned against the stallion for a moment and wondered how much blood he had left to spare. He knew he should have Alyn or Toryn look at the wound, but the thought of ripping the sheepskin away from the dried portion of the wound made him vaguely ill. He’d soak it in the stream when he had a chance.
Toryn mounted with the aid of a large boulder, stepping from it to the mare’s back and before settling himself comfortably. He rode the horse with an expertise that Brydon envied and even Alyn had few comments. She looked disappointed.
“Good,” Brydon said. “We’ll leave in the morning. That will give us time to cut up the rest of this meat and get things packed.” And give us more time to rest, he added to himself.
Toryn spent the remainder of the day asleep and Brydon sliced up and packed the leftover lion with Alyn’s help. Neither of them felt overly talkative, so they spent the day in companionable silence.
Morning dawned clear and cool and they packed their gear for Alyn to fasten to the horses. Much of the lion meat they had strapped to the young grey stud, who snorted nervously at the scent, but did nothing except roll his eyes and prance a bit.
Alyn moaned again. “It’s unnatural, I tell you. There is not a horse alive who will willingly pack lion meat unless they have been very well trained. These did not shy once, not even Fireling, and I know he is not well trained. What is wrong with them?”
“Will you stop whimpering and get moving?” Toryn growled. Alyn sneered at him, but made no reply as the three of them mounted and resumed their southward bearing. Brydon kept an eye on Toryn and called a halt whenever the Redolian seemed to lag. Toryn’s wound opened a couple of times, but they kept it clean with water from the skins and rinsed the bandages before rewrapping them. Brydon planned to treat his own injury when they stopped for the evening. He had taken a quick bath in the stream earlier and sponged his wounds as best he could while craning his head to peer unsuccessfully at his back. The water was too cold and shallow to swim in, so he had settled for wading in and splashing until he was wet enough to peel the vest from his blood-crusted back. He had washed his vest thoroughly and put it back on, foregoing a shirt. Wool would have been too rough and painful against the cuts.
On the third day after they had left the clearing, Toryn seemed much stronger. Brydon felt nauseous and contributed it to the thought of eating lion meat again. They were all heartily sick of it and though they had cooked the majority of the meat, they would soon have to dump the rest or risk being poisoned by spoilage.
Brydon was awakened on the fourth morning by Alyn nudging him in the ribs with her toe, none too gently. “Come on, Falaran. The sun is up. Are you going to sleep the whole day away?” Brydon’s head felt foggy. He wanted to sleep the day away. The black stallion, which he had named Darkling in mockery of Alyn’s steed, nuzzled his forehead.
“I’m up!” he snapped. He waved the horse away and heaved himself up before staggering to the stream for a drink. He could not bring himself to eat anything at all—the thought of food made him queasy. By mid-afternoon, he felt lightheaded.
“What a hot day,” he said. “Is it always so warm here?”
“Perhaps to a Falaran,” Alyn said and shrugged.
“It’s finally a comfortable temperature and you start complaining?” Toryn looked at Brydon. “You must have ice water for blood.” “I wish I did. Maybe I’d feel cooler.”
Brydon watched the trees go by as they rode. They seemed to grow indistinct. He barely noticed when the others pulled ahead and Darkling turned his head to look back at him. The forest began to melt into a lovely mixture of blue and green that Brydon found that strangely fascinating. Each time he turned his head quickly, the colors blurred and raced together. He shook his head to enhance the vision and nearly fell off the horse.
Brydon wrapped his arms around Darkling’s neck and buried his face in the thick black mane. The near accident struck him as funny and he chuckled as he tried to right himself. Toryn and Alyn had both ridden back to gape at him.
“What are you doing?” Alyn demanded. “Have you been chewing on larec weed?”
Brydon broke into a round of chuckles that nearly caused him to slide off the stallion again.
“I think his brain has been baked. I wonder if he has wine stashed in that pack of his.” Toryn snorted. “If so, he’d better stop keeping it to himself.”
They rode on and Brydon straightened and followed. Occasional bursts of laughter shook his shoulders.
“It is damned hot here!”
There was not a drop of sweat on him.
~~ O ~~
It was nearly dusk when Toryn thought he heard Redwing call his name. He turned in annoyance to see the reins slip from Redwing’s fingers. They trailed in the dust until the stallion’s hoof came down on one, snapping the horse’s head down and halting him instantly.
Toryn watched as Brydon tried to dismount, but his feet crumpled under him and he sagged into the dust. Toryn was off the mare in an instant and ran back to Brydon’s still form. Alyn wheeled her horse about.
“What’s wrong with him?” she asked. “Is he drunk?”
“I don’t know. He’s unconscious!” Toryn felt Redwing’s forehead. “No wonder he was complaining about the heat. He’s burning with fever!”
Alyn swore, but dismounted and quickly built a fire. It was not the best place to stop, as they were surrounded by thick undergrowth and large boulders, but there was no help for it. Toryn dragged Redwing to the fire and then bathed his forehead with water. Toryn stripped off Redwing’s vest while there was still light enough to see by. He tossed it aside without glancing at it. Alyn gasped loudly.
Toryn followed her gaze to find her staring at the blood-soaked leather vest. The sheepskin was almost completely dark with dried blood. Toryn paled and turned the Falaran over carefully.
Four long, deep scratches curved grotesquely over Redwing’s right shoulder blade. The wound stretched from the top of his neck down to the base of his ribcage in a large curve. The cuts were dark and ugly and Toryn knew instinctively that they were infected. The gash was partially covered by shreds of Redwing’s shirt and those were caked to the wound by dried blood and worse.
“Curse me for seven kinds of a fool! I saw the cat take him off! Why did I not realize—” Toryn swore bitterly. Stupid, stubborn Falaran! Was he so afraid to show any weakness that he would rather die than ask for help? Toryn ran to get Redwing’s pack and dug out a pan with which to boil water. While it heated, he bathed Redwing’s hot skin with a cloth dipped in cool water.
“Do you know anything about healing?” he asked Alyn, who shook her head.
“Nothing beyond a strained tendon.”
“Is there a village nearby? Or an outpost of the Terrin Church with real Healers?”
Alyn shook her head again. “We are leagues from a village and the Terrin Church is not allowed in Akarska. Not even the Healing branch.”
Toryn stared at her. “What do your people do about illness?”
“The chief Horsemistress of each clan has healing skills. For serious injuries—well, my uncle once took his son to Kaneelis to visit the Temple of Healing. The boy used to fall down, thrash, and foam at the mouth.”
“What happened to him?”
“They gave him herbs to take daily to prevent the sickness and told him where they grow so he could find more,” Alyn explained.
“In other words, for serious healing the patient has to leave Akarska, or die,” Toryn summarized.
Alyn colored, but bit her lip slightly and nodded. Toryn charitably said nothing further. He bathed Redwing’s wound with hot water and cleaned it thoroughly. Large bits of flesh peeled away and Toryn felt his stomach heave. He closed his eyes for a moment until the nausea passed, and thanked Adonai that Redwing was unconscious. The infection was an ugly dull yellow and Toryn had no idea what to do about it except scrub until it bled freely again. Redwing’s fever was just as baffling, but Toryn laid cloth after cloth of cool water on Redwing’s head and neck until his shoulders were almost cracking from the strain. Alyn sat across the fire from him and watched. The meal she had prepared sat near the fire, uneaten.
“Are you not deadly enemies?” she asked finally.
“Yes,” Toryn replied. He did not pause as he wrung out the water and soaked up some more from the water skin.
“Then why not let him die?” she asked.
Toryn stared at her coldly for a moment. The question angered him, even though he knew it was logical enough. Alyn held his gaze for a long time. Toryn looked back at the face of his enemy. Redwing’s hair was matted from the water, not from sweat. Toryn knew a fever could be deadly and he wished that he knew what to do to ease it. He and his family had always been vibrantly healthy. He knew nothing of wounds, fever, or illness.
“I don’t know,” Toryn replied quietly and laid the cloth again on Redwing’s hot forehead. “Do we have any more water?”
“I’ll see if I can find some,” Alyn said softly and slipped into the darkness.
Two hours later, Alyn had fallen asleep and Toryn’s hands, now prune-like from the water, continued their endless movement. It was fully dark and the fire had burned down to a tiny flame, but Toryn did not pause in his efforts to put more wood on the embers.
“Gauntlet,” Redwing muttered and Toryn started for a moment, thinking he was awake, until he realized the Falaran was delirious.
“Princess... the Quest,” Redwing mumbled. His eyes snapped open. “Assassins!”
“Brydon?” Toryn asked uneasily, but the Falaran was not seeing him. His eyes focused on a point beyond Toryn’s head.
“Redolians...” He trailed off again. Toryn wrung out the cloth.
“Toryn! The lion! Look out!” Redwing yelled and thrashed. Alyn started awake, grabbing for her whip. “Toryn!”
“He’s out of his head,” Toryn explained. Alyn nodded and relaxed. Redwing calmed and lay still. After a time, he asked very clearly, “Where is Ven-Kerrick?” The words jolted into Toryn. Ven-Kerrick? Brydon was after the Gauntlet of Ven-Kerrick? That was his Quest? Toryn nearly laughed out loud at the sheer lunacy of the idea. He rocked back on his heels and considered Redwing’s words. What else could it be? Ven-Kerrick had no resources, no rugs or tapestries, no leather goods, no jewelry or decorative urns. They were famous for nothing but the Gauntlet. Even in Redol, they had heard of the Gauntlet of Ven-Kerrick. It was magical. An actual magical item wielded by King Kerrick in the War of the South to destroy the forces of Shaitan. It was a fool’s errand to think the Kerricks would ever part with such an object, even temporarily. The object was practically holy.
Redwing sighed and was silent. Toryn massaged his own eyes momentarily in weariness. When he opened them again, a woman, hooded and dressed in pale blue robes, stood at the edge of the wood. She looked more like a vision than reality. Toryn got to his feet unsteadily, his joints popping.
“Who are you?” he asked in wonder. He thought he might be infected with whatever had taken Redwing’s mind.
“Is he injured?” she asked in a melodious voice as she came forward. For a moment, Toryn thought she was an angel. He rubbed a hand across his tired eyes and blinked at her. She seemed solid enough.
“That depends on whether or not you mean us ill,” he said. He glanced over and knew that Alyn was also awake. One hand rested on her ever-present whip while she feigned sleep.
The woman laughed and it was like a silvery tinkle of coins in a crystal jar “I wish no man ill,” she said. “I am Verana, of the Order of the Rose. I am a Healer.”
Toryn almost fainted with relief at her words, strange though it was to meet a Healer in a place where there were no Healers, and especially when one was most desperately needed. She came forward, knelt, and examined Redwing carefully. She immediately slung off her large pack and rifled through it. She drew out several pouches of dried herbs, leaves, powders, and a wooden cup. Pale gloves covered her slender hands, but they did not hinder her movements.
Toryn threw more wood on the fire, building it up to allow her more light.
“Please hold him down,” she requested politely, “This will hurt.”
Toryn immediately held Redwing’s legs and Alyn got up at his signal to hold Redwing’s arms. The Healer pulled a handful of grayish powder out of a bag and dumped it on the wound. Redwing thrashed mightily, but did not awaken. Alyn was flung off with a yelp and then Redwing’s convulsions ceased.
“What will that do?” Toryn asked, shaken, as he released Redwing’s legs. Verana turned to him and threw back the hood of her robe. He gasped, for she was unlike any woman he had ever seen. Her skin was very dark, nearly black, and her hair was mass of tight black curls, tamed in the front by two long braids. Her eyes were large and doe-like and she had a beauty that was almost ethereal.
“The powder will kill the infection,” she said, bringing Toryn’s attention back to the question he had asked. “Now, we must deal with his fever. It is good that you bathed his head. It kept the fever from damaging his brain.”
She crushed some dried leaves in a cup and add some small pink flower petals before soaking the mixture with hot water. When it was a pungent tea, she strained out the leaves and petals and attached a strange tube like contraption to the cup. Toryn held Redwing upright while she slid the tube down his throat and poured the drink into him skillfully. Toryn gagged slightly in reflex, but Redwing did not move. Verana took clean bandages from her pack and wrapped his wound tightly.
“There.” She sighed as she tied it off tightly with the aid of Toryn’s finger. “That is all I can do for him. Now, let me look at your wound.”
“I don’t have any,” Toryn protested. He did not want any of the excruciating grey powder.
Toryn muttered ungraciously, but tugged his shirt off. Verana watched him with one eyebrow raised and he silenced himself.
She did not use the grey powder, instead she crushed a handful of dark green leaves moistened with water. After mixing it into a sort of sticky paste, she spread it over Toryn’s torn ribs and tied it in place with a bandage. The salve was soothingly cool and Toryn was surprised to feel his pain ebb slowly.
“What brings you here right when we need you, anyway? Are you an angel?” Verana smiled and she actually looked angelic. She seemed ageless to Toryn. Her face was unlined but for small crinkles at the corners of her eyes.
“I am a Healer, not an angel,” she said. “You have never seen an Ebon woman before, have you?”
Toryn shook his head, somewhat embarrassed to have been caught staring.
“We are not so rare in the south. As to your question, I was on my way back to Kaneelis from Falara. I spent the winter in Eaglecrest training the Healers there on some new techniques.”
“Did you know Redwing there? He is on some foolish quest to become king.”
Verana smiled. “No foolish quest, surely. He looks familiar to me, although I never met him. I witnessed the ceremony that sent him off. There was a grand parade in Eaglecrest and many feasts.” She patted her stomach. “Northern folk do love their feasts. I feel I’ve gained a stone in the past few months.”
Toryn wondered where she had put the stone, since she looked perfectly fit to him.
“I left two days behind him, but strayed from the road to enter Akarska. I hope to meet a friend at the Waryn Trading Inn. I expected the Questor to be far ahead of me.”
“We were delayed by an avalanche on the pass.”
“’We’? Have you traveled far with him, then?” she asked.
“Not willingly, at first. I tried to kill him.” Toryn shrugged apologetically. “I’m Redolian, you know.”
Verana raised a brow, but made no judgment, for which Toryn was grateful. She said, “My camp is not far from here. I was just about to sleep when I felt… I’m not sure. Something. I was drawn here as though someone were calling for help.”
Toryn wasn’t sure how to respond.
“You’re traveling alone? Isn’t that dangerous?”
“Not many people will harm a Healer. Even bandits and raiders tend to respect the Order. And I have been trained in defense, when necessary.” She pulled a large sheathed dagger from a hidden pocket of her robes. “Although I far prefer to heal injury than cause it.”
“You are next, Horsemistress,” Verana said, turning to Alyn, who looked at her with an expression bordering on insolence.
“There is nothing wrong with me,” Alyn snapped.
“Nonsense,” Verana said. Her melodious voice had a remarkable amount of steel in it when she wished. “A head wound is the most dangerous of all. Come here.”
Alyn reluctantly obeyed. Toryn touched his own head where Redwing’s arrow had cut a furrow, but it had been well treated and was nothing more than a healing scar, covered by his thick black hair.
The healer examined Alyn’s head, pronounced it fracture-free and gave her a cup of tea for lingering pain. It must have been a potent herb that she used in the tea, for Alyn went to sleep almost immediately.
“She is going to be all right, isn’t she?” Toryn asked. He had grown rather fond of arguing with the blond wench. Verana gave him a tired smile.
“Akarskans are a strong people. It will take more than a knock on the head to stop one like her. Is it permitted for me to know your names? I know the Falaran is a Questor, but I can’t recall his name.”
Toryn flushed. “Sorry. I am Toryn, son of Taryn, brother of Morgyn Clan-Chieftain. He is Brydon Redwing. The girl is Alyn. That is all I know of her.”
“How is it that you travel with Brydon Redwing, Toryn of Redol? After you tried to kill him?”
“He spared my life,” Toryn replied. “I suppose I’m staying with him to find out why.”
“Why you tried to kill him, or why he spared you?”
“Perhaps a bit of both,” Toryn admitted.
“Where did you come from? Originally, I mean?” he asked. He found himself wondering what color her eyes were. It was impossible to tell in the darkness and the meager light from the fire and the quarter moon.
“I was born in Kaneelis and spent much of my life there.”
“In Terris?” Toryn asked. “I’m still not sure how you knew we were in trouble.”
Verana’s perfect smile beamed out again. “Neither am I. But never underestimate the power of Adona.”
With that she got up and pulled a blanket out of her pack. She spread it on the ground over a thick patch of grass. In minutes, she was asleep. Toryn put a hand out to touch Redwing’s forehead, somewhat shaken by the thought that he was a pawn in one of Adona’s plans. He suddenly felt sure that Brydon Redwing was meant for something remarkable. Something even larger than bringing peace to Falara and Redol. Maybe it was Toryn’s task to help Brydon achieve it.
Redwing’s skin was drenched with sweat. The fever had broken. Toryn mercilessly took a blanket from Alyn and covered the Falaran to prevent him from catching a chill. If the Akarskan wench got cold, she knew where Toryn slept.