The Gauntlet Thrown Chapter Four
 

Chapter One 

 

Chapter Two  

 

Chapter Three

CHAPTER FOUR
THE CAVE

    Toryn slept fitfully and awoke intermittently when Brydon stacked more wood on the fire.  The small space warmed rather nicely.  The fire reflected off the close walls and the smoke wafted up and out through the open sides.  Toryn gradually began to feel almost warm again, though he was forced to rotate like a fowl on a spit in order to heat first one side and then the other.  Once he was jolted awake by the memory of immobility, of being surrounded by overwhelming blue-whiteness, of his air supply diminishing...  He sat up and gasped great lungfuls of air while Redwing watched him through half-lidded eyes and pretended to sleep.  Damn the Falaran.  Toryn got up and staggered to the entrance to relieve himself; his bare feet crunched on the sandy grit. The night was clear and cold and the stars blazed across the sky in endless profusion.  Toryn looked briefly for the silver of the waxing crescent moon, but it must have been behind his field of vision.  He shivered at the sight of the blue-gray snow, more than ready to welcome spring, having seen enough snow to last him a lifetime.  The cold whiteness was largely gone from the grassy plains of Redol, thank goodness.  He was not a cold-weather person.  He much preferred the bright, hot days of summer.

    Toryn sighed and returned to the fire, then tossed a few sparse branches onto the flickering wood.  He had a feeling it would be a while before he would again see the fields of his homeland, since the Falaran seemed intent upon dragging him into Akarska.  Not that Toryn could fault him for that, he admitted to himself.  If Toryn returned to Redol now with the tale of Brydon’s slaying of Toryn’s companions, a band of bloodthirsty Redolians would indeed hie after the Falaran like wolves on a hot scent.  Toryn glanced at his boots, tempted to bolt, but he also knew if he set one foot into the snow outside, Redwing would most likely train a sharp arrow on him before he took three steps.  He had no doubt the Falaran was watching him.  He tested his theory.

    “If you’re going to pretend to sleep, you need to draw in a breath and hold it a moment before letting it out,” he suggested.  Redwing sneered and gave up the pretense of sleep.  He huddled deeper into his cloak.

    “Thinking of running?” Redwing asked.

    “Yes, but I don’t see my sword,” Toryn replied.  “I suppose you’re sleeping on it?”


    Redwing’s features went perfectly still in the firelight.  Toryn did not know the Falaran well enough to deduce what that meant.

    “Try to get some sleep,” Redwing said after a moment.  “I want to get an early start so we can be free of this snow as soon as possible.”

    Toryn had no cause to argue that, so he shrugged and complied.
 
    Later, the smell of roasting meat awakened him.  He sat up, famished.  Redwing had tossed the last of the sausages in to the pan and covered them with a bit of water.  He offered Toryn a pouch filled with dried fruits—raisins, apple slices, cranberries, and prunes.  Toryn ate a handful and wished for the smoked fish that was back with his belongings in the camp he and his unfortunate companions had shared.  Tuna, halibut, trout and oysters were Redolian staples.

    They ate without benefit of conversation and then put on their still-damp clothing.  Toryn discovered a few new aches and pains while doing so—a purpling bruise on his forearm and a strained muscle on his left side that made him wince when he raised his arm.

    He noticed a massive bruise on Redwing’s ribs before the Falaran pulled on the shirt he had worn the previous day.  Toryn pulled on the wool sweater.  It was soggy and cold, but after a moment the insulating power of the fabric began to warm him. Now, if only it didn’t smell like a wet sheep...  Toryn grimaced when he tugged on his leather pants, despising the feel of cold, damp leather.  Redwing’s expression was much the same when he donned his own buckskins.

    Redwing carefully restowed his pack as he did every morning.  Toryn doused the fire.  When all was ready, Redwing strapped on his sword, hefted the pack and tied it on before gripping his bow stave.

    Toryn’s eyes narrowed.

    “Where is my sword?” he asked in what he felt was a very rational tone, but the Falaran winced.

    “It was lost in the slide,” he admitted.  “I looked for it, but it was more urgent that I get you to shelter.”

    Toryn pictured the Falaran happily tugging out Toryn’s sword and flinging it into the huge bank of snow.  He clamped his jaws shut against a shriek of anger.

    “I did look for it,” Redwing protested earnestly.  With effort, Toryn reined in his temper, acknowledging that the bastard could have left the sword back in the grave with Toryn’s companions.  Adona alone knew why Redwing had dragged it along in the first place, knowing it would be constant temptation for Toryn to get his hands on it.  He shook his head with a disgusted sigh.  Damn.  He had had that sword for years.  It would not be easily replaced.

    “I suggest we get moving,” Toryn gritted emphatically.  “The sooner we get to where you will feel safe, the sooner I can be rid of you and go home.”

    Redwing nodded agreement and the two of them left their evening’s sanctuary and tramped off into the snowy forest.

~~ O ~~


    The snow lessened as they descended and finally disappeared completely by early afternoon.  They followed the course of a large stream and Brydon welcomed the return of warmer temperatures the lower altitude provided.  They surprised a forest chicken in late morning and Toryn stunned it with a well-aimed stone and then killed it with a quick twist of its neck.

    They camped early that evening.  Brydon was ready to drop.  His head had begun to pound in early afternoon, an aftereffect of the strain combined with lack of decent sleep.  The weight of his pack did not help and he began to mentally filter through his supplies, wondering if he could leave anything behind to lighten the load. Even though he felt guilty about the loss of Toryn’s sword, he did not miss its weight.

    He would have given all the gold in his possession for a horse.
    Toryn plucked the bird while Brydon unloaded items from his pack.  Feathers floated through the air and clung to Toryn’s hair and clothing.  Brydon had picked up a few downy pieces, too.  They seemed attracted to his wool shirt.

    “Dagger,” Toryn said and held out his hand expectantly.  Brydon looked at him sharply, having no intention of giving a bladed weapon to the Redolian, vow or no vow.  Instead, he fished into a concealed pocket of the pack and pulled out a sharp, but very short, knife.  He tossed it to Toryn, who pulled it from the leather sheath and looked at the single-edged blade.  He snorted, but made no comment as he gutted the bird and sliced the meat into thin strips.  Brydon watched for a while, and then gathered some nearby wood for the fire.

    Toryn got up and roamed through the woods a short distance away.  Brydon’s eyes tracked him, but then he shrugged and decided they were far enough from Redol that Toryn could probably return if he chose.  He would not fuss if the Redolian disappeared.
Toryn returned with a handful of plants, which he began to shred and sprinkle atop the meat.  Brydon watched uneasily for a moment and then pushed his way through the concealing underbrush to the small stream they had followed most of the day.  A small pool lay beneath an overhanging tree, inviting a bath.  Brydon felt wretchedly dirty from days of walking and sleeping on the ground.  After he verified that he could still glimpse Toryn through the intervening foliage, he stripped off his clothing and planted his sword upon the bank before he waded in, gasping at the cold of the glacier-fed stream.

    He quickly washed himself in the icy water and wished for the soap that he had forgotten to bring on his journey (probably the only thing he had neglected to add to his stuffed pack).  He scrubbed as well as he could and washed his hair, feeling refreshed if somewhat numb from the cold.  As he splashed water on his chest, he glanced up and realized that he could no longer see Toryn.  It also occurred to him that he had left his bow in camp.  The thought of his own arrows protruding from his body did nothing for his composure, so he exited the frigid water and put his clothes back on.  He kept his sword in hand and approached the camp stealthily.  Toryn was gone!

    Brydon snatched up his bow—which oddly enough was still where he had left it—and then paused as Toryn ambled back into the clearing and knelt by the fire.  His hands were full of more leafy vegetation.  Brydon expelled his breath in relief and dropped his bow.  Toryn looked at him curiously.

    “Fall in the creek?” he asked.

    “No, I got in of my own accord.”

    Toryn snorted.  “I knew Falarans were crazy.”

    “Don’t Redolians bathe?” Brydon asked.

    “Occasionally, but we’re smart enough to heat the water first.”

    Brydon refrained from comment as Toryn handed him a stick with a piece of steaming meat on it.  Brydon looked at it hesitantly, wondering what sort of poisonous herbs the Redolian had seasoned it with.  Toryn snatched it back as if mortally offended; he took a large bite and returned it.

    Brydon watched as Toryn chewed for a few moments, to see if he would go into convulsions or foam at the mouth.  When he did not and merely tore at his own meat in greedy satisfaction, Brydon reluctantly bit into his.  He looked at Toryn in bewilderment.  “What did you do to this?” he asked.

    Toryn’s head rose suspiciously.  “What do you mean?”

    “It's delicious!”

    “Oh.  I was tired of your cooking.”

    “I can see why, if you are used to this,” Brydon admitted truthfully and Toryn looked away.  Brydon wondered if the Redolian had picked up his bow earlier.  Perhaps Toryn had followed him to the stream.  Brydon chewed thoughtfully and wondered why the Redolian had not tried to kill him.  Perhaps it was merely the fact that Brydon had saved his life.

    Toryn cooked more meat in Brydon’s pot and tossed in mushrooms to make a rich sauce.  Brydon ate in appreciative silence, after which he examined Toryn’s wrists.  He wished he had more knowledge of the healing arts.  Many plants aided mending, but he didn’t know which ones.

    “You should wash them in the stream,” he suggested.  Toryn agreed and Brydon bandaged them again after the Redolian had scrubbed the wounds.  They readied themselves for sleep and neither of them mentioned their unspoken truce.

    The next day, they awoke to clouds and rain began to spit down on them intermittently as they resumed their southward trek.  In late afternoon, the sky opened and water abruptly deluged them.  They ran for the cover of a small rock ledge and huddled beneath it.  Their breath frosted in the air that had grown steadily colder as the day progressed.

    “Are we in Akarska?” Toryn asked.

    “Yes, but I’ve been trying to skirt the mountains as closely as possible.  If we avoid the lowlands, we should reduce our chances of encountering any Akarskans.”

    “Good.  I would rather avoid them all.”

    “Why?  Did you steal a horse?”  Brydon kidded.  There was no reply.

    “You stole a horse?”

    “Of course not,” Toryn snorted.  “Do you think I want to die?”

    Brydon concealed his relief, though he looked closely at the Redolian for a moment.  “Probably.  You attacked me, did you not?”  He grinned.

    “Careful, Falaran,” Toryn warned.  “You have to sleep, sometime.”

    “I think I will tie you up tonight,” Brydon suggested, but Toryn snorted.  Brydon was sure he had had enough of being tied up to last him a lifetime.  The wind changed unexpectedly and blew cold rain into their faces.  Brydon stood.

    “We need better shelter,” he said.  They started off and were drenched within minutes.  They left the trail behind and traveled across the rocky terrain.  Within a half-hour, Brydon led them straight to the mouth of a cave.

    “How did you find this place so easily?” Toryn asked.

    “I saw it from below,” Brydon replied.  He tugged off his sodden pack as they shouldered their way past the undergrowth that covered the hillside.  Toryn looked quizzically at him.

    “How could you see it from below?”  Toryn demanded.  “I didn’t see it from below.  I can barely see it now!”  Brydon ignored him and Toryn helped him tear at the brush until they forced their way inside.  The cleft in the rock was a welcome respite from the pounding rain.  Brydon fumbled in his pack until he produced one of his fire starting rags, which he wrapped around a length of wood.  He struck flint and tinder and soon had a flame going until a gust of wind billowed in and nearly extinguished his makeshift torch.

    “Let’s follow it back some; perhaps it will be large enough for us to build a fire,” Brydon said and pushed his way into the darkness with torch held high.  The passage they followed turned once to the right and once left, and then widened into a large cavern.  They both halted abruptly, catching their breaths.

    “What is this place?” Toryn asked in a hushed voice.  Brydon had no answer.  He felt an odd sensation, as though they had just stepped into an unreal place.  He walked through the large, empty cavern to the huge column that had caught their immediate gaze.  White marble gleamed as the torchlight touched its surface.  The column was huge, fully twelve feet in diameter and adorned with a base of carved white marble.  It looked completely out of place in the rough stone cavern, as if some madman had transported it from a grand palace.  The top of the column disappeared into the ceiling.
“What do you suppose was its purpose?” Toryn asked in a hushed tone as Brydon walked forward to examine the thing.

    “I don’t know.  Perhaps there was a building here at one time?  A temple of some sort?”

    “I don’t think the cave was here, then.  Perhaps it was built into the side of the mountain, which collapsed around it?”

    Toryn joined him as he bent to look at the carvings.  He blew away the thick covering of dust.  Brydon was surprised to see small figures in exquisite detail, mostly forest scenes—tiny deer stepping out from stately pine trees, squirrels cavorting amongst stone flowers, a long- haired girl in the top of a tree opening her hands to a flock of birds.  Each feather and leaf seemed to have been painstakingly created.  Around the edge a single thread wove in and out of itself in a dizzying pattern that Brydon gave up following after a short time.  A thick layer of dust covered it and a bundle of fur and twigs was packed into one corner near the base; some forest creature had been using it as a nest.

    “Have you ever seen anything like this?” Brydon asked.  Toryn shook his head, teeth chattering.

    “Never.  Can we save the inquiries until after we are dry?”

    Brydon nodded and tugged at the nest.  The dry twigs and animal fur made excellent tinder.  He pulled dry branches from the top of his pack, which he had slung beside him.  He had been picking up dead wood for the past hour and Toryn had asked if it was some form of Falaran insanity.  Brydon’s cloak had kept the wood dry from the rain and they did not have to go out and fight the wet looking for firewood.  He looked pointedly at Toryn, who actually grinned.

    “Good idea,” he admitted.

    The fire started quickly.  Toryn shivered and huddled closer to the crackling flames.  Luckily, there seemed to be enough gaps in the ceiling for the smoke to escape, or they would have been driven out.

    Brydon said and tossed Toryn some dry clothing from his pack.  He stripped off his own wet garments and dried himself with a shirt.  Toryn followed his suit and they spread all the damp clothing on the floor to dry.

    Toryn looked around the cavern.  “So, what do you think it was?” he asked as Brydon returned to the pillar.

    “This design...  It is familiar,” Brydon said and wondered where he had seen its like.  It hovered just out of reach of his memory.  In Eaglecrest?  He pictured the castle at Eaglecrest with its myriad hallways and chambers, but could recall no match for the strange design.  “Where did the marble come from?  All the marble in Eaglecrest came overland from Kaneelis by wagon.  It’s very heavy and this column is enormous.  I don’t recall even legends speaking of a palace or temple in Akarska.”

    Toryn shrugged, apparently having already tossed it into his memory as another unsolvable mystery and lay back to watch the fire while Brydon searched the cavern more thoroughly.

~~ O ~~


    Toryn observed Redwing for a while.  There was something odd about the Falaran... something indefinable.  He looked like an average person, blond hair, greenish eyes, handsome features, but he had a quality that Toryn was unable to pinpoint.  Redwing currently wandered around the cavern like an excited child.  The rain outside pounded a rhythmic staccato that was audible even inside the cave.  Toryn yawned widely as Redwing found nothing else of interest and returned to sit beside him.

    “Tell me about your quest,” Toryn said after a moment as he tried to stay awake.

    “What is there to tell?  I am looking for something.  I have two years to find it and return to Falara.  If you know who I am, you must know that already.”  Redwing prodded at the burning sticks.

    “I know only that you are a Falaran on a quest.  What are you looking for?” Toryn prompted.

    Redwing smiled.  “Forgive me if I don’t tell you.”

    Toryn looked at him and grinned, understanding.  If it were Toryn’s quest, he would certainly never tell a Falaran.  He yawned again and his jawbones cracked slightly.

    “Why do Falarans go on these quests, anyway?  They aren’t common, are they?”

    “No, not common at all.  A prince of royal blood must go on a Quest when he comes of age.  In the absence of a male heir, the chosen suitor of the royal princess must do it in order to prove his worthiness to assume the throne,” Redwing replied mildly.  He prodded at the fire and sparks leaped upward before falling back as colorless ash.

    “Then it’s true that you will be the next king of Falara?” Toryn asked.  He rolled onto his back to look at Redwing, who nodded solemnly.

    “It’s true.  As long as I complete the Quest in the allotted time.”

    “But you are not the royal prince, correct?”

    “The king had no sons,” Brydon affirmed.  “Only a daughter.  She turned sixteen not two weeks ago and chose me as the Questor.”  Toryn’s interest sharpened, homing in on a subject he had an intense interest in—women.

    “Princess?  Tell me about her.  Why did she choose you?”

    Redwing’s gaze grew distant for a moment.  “I’m not certain.  I have known her since we were children and I never suspected her of being overly fond of me.  She used to order me around like a scullery boy.  I was quite surprised when she chose me.”

    “’No one knows the mind of a woman,’” Toryn reminded him sagely.

    “That is a solid fact,” Redwing agreed with a smile.  He leaned back against the wall of the cave and stretched his legs out.  “She chose the Quest and I don’t think she realizes how difficult it will be.”

    “She chose the Quest?  A woman?  You are surely doomed.  What does she want?  An Akarskan horse?  A diamond bracelet from a Silveran prince?”

    Redwing shook his head and replied evasively, “Something even rarer.  Women always choose our Quests.  If the king has a son, his mother, the queen, chooses.  If there are no sons, the princess selects a suitor and sends him on a Quest for her.  All of our Quests are women’s whims, whether simple tasks or impossible assignments.”

    “That sounds like a dangerous way to run a government,” Toryn avowed.

    “It can be.  One former princess sent a poor fellow to bring her the claws of a snow leopard.  Apparently, she hated him for some insult and thought it suitable revenge.”

    “What happened?”  Toryn asked, mortified.

Redwing shrugged.  “He never returned.  Luckily for her, or she would have had him as a husband for ever after.”

    “He most likely walked south and kept going,” Toryn jested.  Redwing did not smile.

    “That would be treason,” he said tightly.

    Toryn snorted.  “Better a live traitor than a pile of bones in a snow leopard’s den,” he rationalized.  Redwing seemed dumbfounded at the thought.

    “Have you no honor?  It would be better to die than live as a coward and be exiled from Falara all the days of your life!”

    Toryn suppressed a sneer.  Falaran concepts of honor bordered on ridiculous.  In Redol it was honorable to steal into an enemy’s camp and take his daughters.  It was honorable to raid Falara and steal a herd of sheep and anything else one might find.  It was honorable to kill Falarans who sought to become the next Falaran king.  He decided not to mention those things.  Redwing would not understand.

    “What happens if you complete the quest, but it takes longer than the allotted two years?”  Toryn asked.

    “The day after my deadline, another will be chosen and sent off.  If I return after that, no dishonor will come to me, though I will have technically failed.  I would go back to my old life.”

    “If you get back in time, you will marry this princess?”  At Redwing’s nod, he continued, “Is she beautiful?”

    The Falaran contemplated, as though he had never considered the question before.  “I suppose.  I never really thought about it.”

    Toryn found that thought somewhat ludicrous.  It was the first thing he noticed about women, even childhood friends who grew up into mysterious, tantalizing creatures.  “What is she like?” he prodded, “Is she interesting?”

    Redwing shrugged.  “In a scary sort of way.  Eryka loves to get her way.  In all things.  She is beautiful, but she uses her beauty like a weapon.  She is always thinking of ways to get what she wants, which makes me wonder exactly why she sent me on this Quest.”

    “It sounds to me as though you’re not really looking forward to everlasting life with this woman,” Toryn remarked wisely.  “You do not even love her, do you?”

    “Of course I love her!  She’s the princess.”

    “But do you love her as a potential wife?”

    Redwing floundered uncomfortably.  “Well, not yet.  But I am sure I will once we are married.”

    Toryn clucked his tongue sympathetically.  “Poor naive boy.  You know very little about women, I see.  Can you refuse to go on this Quest?”

    “Refuse a royal decree?!”  Redwing raised his head so fast he nearly snapped his neck.  He looked as though the thought had never occurred to him.  It probably hadn’t.  He grudgingly replied, “One does not have to accept the Quest, but it would be viewed as cowardice.”

    “Forgive me for asking,” Toryn said dryly.  “Falarans are more foolish than I had thought.  You let women pick your rulers and send them on Adona-forsaken quests... What happens if she chooses a weakling?”

    Redwing, looking offended, seemed reluctant to reply, but he finally did.  “Then she usually rules through them.”

    “I see,” Toryn said, as if that explained everything.  Redwing stared at him, obviously unsure if the comment was meant as a slur upon him or not.  “And, what happens then?”

    Redwing grinned wickedly.  “We invade Redol.”

    Toryn lobbed a wet shirt at him.  “Do you plan to invade Redol when you become king?”

    “If I become king,” Redwing corrected.  He pulled the wet cloth from his head and hurled it back at Toryn.  “Why would I want to invade Redol?  There is nothing there but grass, cows, and heathens.”

    “No, not heathens, remember?  We worship the same God,” Toryn amended before his face was filled with wet shirt.  He tugged it off and balled it up.

    “Indeed,” Redwing admitted and eyed the shirt in Toryn’s hands warily.  “Grass, cows, and fellow believers.”

    Toryn wasn’t sure how to reply to that.  “Very well, here is my advice:  Get this object, carry it around with you for a couple of years, view the world, and return home after your time is up,” Toryn suggested and lobbed the shirt.  “Or would that be too ‘dishonorable’ for you?”  Redwing did not avoid the wet material as it slapped him in the face again.  He pulled it away and threw it by the fire.

    “You mean intentionally forfeit the throne?”  He sounded aghast.

    “Who would ever know?”  Toryn asked mildly.

    “I would,” he replied in a voice like iron.

    Toryn smiled and shrugged.  Redwing fell silent after that, lost in thought.  The darkness outside deepened, so Toryn sat up and rooted through the pack for their dinner, the final bits of Brydon’s dried meat.

    After they ate, Toryn banked the fire and went soundly to sleep.  He looked forward to waking up the next morning without being covered in dew.

 CHAPTER FIVE

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