The Gauntlet Thrown Chapter Seven
 

 

CHAPTER SEVEN

     AKARSKA


     Toryn slept late the next morning for one of the few times in his life, and he felt much better for the respite.  He looked around as he got to his feet.  Redwing was actually conscious.  The Falaran sat alongside a tree with his good shoulder against the bark and his injured one wrapped in Verana’s clean white bandages.  Verana sat near him, talking.  Toryn found Verana rather enchanting in the daylight.  Her blue robes set off the creamy brown of her skin.  Her hair was an untamed mass of black curls that tumbled to just below her shoulders.  On either side of her face, twisted silver wire fastened the four long braids into place.  Toryn wondered if the plaits had some significance, like his own clan-braid.

    Verana noticed his perusal and her full lips parted in a smile, revealing straight teeth brilliantly white in contrast to her dark face.  Her eyes were a soft amber color.

    Toryn joined them and was pleased to see Redwing’s green eyes focus on his own.  The Falaran smiled ruefully.

    “It looks like I owe you my life this time,” he said.

    Toryn threw an accusing glare at Verana.  Damn her.  If he’d wanted the Falaran to know he had sat up with him all night, he would have told him.

    Toryn shook his head.  “Not me, Falaran.  The Healer saved you.  I was ready to bury you and ride back to Redol.”  Redwing’s smile did not fade and Toryn knew the Falaran did not believe his bluff for a moment.

    “Thank you, Toryn,” Redwing said solemnly.  Toryn had nothing to say to that, so he muttered something about the stream and stalked off.

    Alyn was nowhere in sight and he wondered vaguely where the Akarskan wench had gone.  He felt the need to insult someone.


    He found her a moment later when he reached the stream and the sight brought him up short.  Alyn was in the water up to her waist, completely naked.  Her hair was straight and wet, darkened from the water.  Her skin glistened as she splashed water over herself in unconscious abandon.

    Toryn’s breath caught in his throat as small rivulets ran down her breasts and ribs and into the pool.  The sight was one of the loveliest things he’d ever seen in his life.  His loins tightened as she splashed water over her face and then shook her head, sending droplets flying from her hair to sparkle in the air like crystals.  Toryn swallowed hard, trying to rein in his libido and keep himself from wading into the pool after her.  She would most likely kill him if he did so.

    She must have felt Toryn’s burning gaze upon her, for her head snapped up and their eyes met for a brief, timeless instant.

    The moment was broken when Alyn shrieked in rage, transforming from a bathing beauty into a vengeful water spirit.  Rocks and water flew at Toryn, along with a plethora of screamed invectives, so he beat a hasty retreat with the image of her wet, naked form burned into his memory.  He sighed shakily as he slowed to a walk and wiped the water droplets from his face.  It was proving to be an interesting day.

    “I forgot to mention that Alyn was at the stream,” Verana said apologetically when Toryn returned to the fire.

    “I discovered that,” Toryn said blandly, straining to keep the grin from his face and barely succeeding.   “Do I smell food?  I’m starved.”

    Verana gestured to the fire where a covered pot and a kettle lay.  Toryn looked at Redwing, who had fallen asleep again.

    “How is he, truly?” he asked the Healer quietly.

    “The powder has drawn out the poison, but he needs to rest so that his body can heal the wounds.”

    Toryn agreed.  “He is the one with the schedule to keep.  I have nothing better to do and Alyn ... who knows?”

    “Schedule?” she asked.  “Do you refer to his Quest?”

    “Yes.  And do not ask me what it is.  He hasn’t told me.”  But, Toryn reflected, I have a dreadful suspicion.  He looked at Redwing, wondering if the Falaran was really after the Gauntlet of Ven-Kerrick.  He looked at Verana.  “Wait, if you were in Eaglecrest, don’t you know what it is?”

    “No one knows the details of the Quest except the princess and the Questor.  And anyone they choose to tell.”

    He shook off the puzzle, knowing it was a waste of time to ponder possibilities and worry about the future.  He poured himself a cupful of whatever the kettle held.  It turned out to be a curious golden liquid, almost the color of apple wine.

    “What is this?”  he asked, fearing it was some sort of rubbing liniment.

    “An herbal tea,” Verana replied.  “Not very potent, but tasty.  It will cure minor headaches and give you some energy.”

    Alyn stalked back from the stream just as Toryn took a drink and he later had no recollection as to its taste.  She marched straight to the packs and picked up her bow, making a show of examining the bowstring as she strung it.  Toryn watched her uneasily.  Redwing moaned and Verana hurried over to check on him.  Toryn glanced over at the Falaran, but he did not awaken.

    When Toryn looked back at Alyn, he jumped so violently that he spilled some of his tea into the fire.  It hissed.  Alyn’s bow was drawn, the arrow nocked and aimed straight at Toryn.  He swallowed through a suddenly dry throat.

    A smile curved Alyn’s lips and a wet finger of hair slipped down over one blue eye.  The scenario froze for a moment with only the crackle of the fire and the sounds of Verana tending to Redwing breaking the silence.

    “Keep this close to mind,” Alyn purred as a trickle of sweat found its way down Toryn’s brow.  She had begged Redwing more than once to kill Toryn and have done.  She snapped the bow away just as Verana turned around.

    “Did you say something?” Verana asked.

    “I was just giving Toryn something to think about,” Alyn replied.  Toryn got up unsteadily and went into the forest.  Some days, horses were better company than women.  In fact, the only time women were good company was at night.  When they were silenced by sleep after they had performed their most useful function.  He chuckled to himself and went to curry the bay mare.


    Two days later, Toryn was bored out of his mind.  Redwing was pale, but getting stronger.  Verana showed him exercises to keep his sword arm strong and yet not tear open his wound.  He would have to forego use of his bow for a time.

    Toryn stayed away from Alyn, as she seemed to have an uncommon fondness for fingering her whip whenever he was close to her.  He had spent most of the previous day sharpening the two daggers that he’d recovered from Redwing’s pack.  He’d charitably put a nice edge on the Falaran's sword as well.  Alyn spent much of her time crooning to the horses, currying them, and braiding their manes and tails, sometimes with flowers and weeds, sometimes without.

    Verana noticed him watching Alyn and commented, “She is very comely.”

    Toryn snorted.  “Yes, but I would have to sprout large pointy ears, hooves, and a tail before she will pay me any attention.”  He made sure Redwing was out of hearing before he admitted such.

    “Oh, I think she notices you.”

    Toryn perked up.  “Really?”

    “Yes.  Her eyes follow you whenever you leave.  And she was looking at you quite speculatively last evening as you slept,” Verana admitted.  Toryn could only hope Alyn was not speculating to unman him as he slumbered.

    Verana had decided to accompany them to the Waryn Highway and from there she would go on to Kaneelis with Redwing.  Of course, Alyn would be taking the horses back and leaving them once they reached that point.  Toryn would return to Redol.  Alyn graciously allowed Verana to ride the colt that she’d named Thistle.  As they rode, Toryn asked Redwing, “Isn’t it odd that three horses should be here just when we need them?”

    Redwing nodded. “Not as strange as Verana being so close, just when we needed a Healer.”

    Toryn heartily agreed.


    They rode for two weeks, traveling slowly for Redwing’s sake.  He healed rapidly, thanks to Verana’s ministrations.  The mountains on their right were jagged peaks, gracefully shouldering a white mantle of snow. Crossing them into Terris would be impossible.

    Alyn’s demeanor had not improved.  Toryn had hoped to entice her into his bed by now, but each time he tried to be pleasant to her, she would glare at him and flay him with an insult, forcing him to respond in kind.  She was a maddening wench.

    The days had grown longer and the mornings warmer until it was almost bearable to climb out from beneath the blankets at daybreak without the accompaniment of shivering and stamping of feet.  They traveled at a leisurely pace and even Redwing seemed unconcerned that a month and more had passed, even though he still had a long way to travel.

    Akarska was a thickly forested land with rich soil.  The trees were largely pine and fir, interspersed with large stands of oak and birch.  Alyn admitted that Akarskans did farm the land in certain areas, especially in the more populated regions of central and eastern Akarska.  Cattle abounded and grew almost wild.  It was a self-sufficient country and the most common occupation, it seemed, was that of Messenger.  There was not an Akarskan born who did not long to see what was over the next rise and there were always ready volunteers to carry a message to the next village.  It had grown into an industry and news spread more quickly in Akarska than it did anywhere else in the world, or so Alyn informed them smugly.  Toryn wanted to know how she knew that for a certainty, since she had not actually been anywhere else in the world, but she ignored him.

    They met a few wandering Akarskans, mostly Messengers, who left them alone after silently listening to Alyn’s accounting of their business.  They were a brooding and suspicious people, it seemed.

    “So,” Toryn asked Alyn one day, “How does one go about claiming an unclaimed horse?”

    She turned icy blue eyes on him quickly.  “Why?”

    “I am just making conversation,” he protested innocently, a hard chore for him.

    “Make it with someone else,” she snapped.

    He grinned lasciviously and she blushed, sliding her eyes away.  He smiled at the minor victory.

    “It is quite simple,” she said at last, obviously realizing he was not going to go away.  “You cannot claim an unmarked horse because you are an outlander.”

    “What do you mean, unmarked?”  he questioned, ignoring the rest of her scathing comment.

    She sighed.  “All of our horses are marked with the owner’s symbol, as well as the clan-sign.”

    “How are they marked?”

    She looked at him warily for a long moment and then must have decided it would do no permanent harm for him to know.  She turned and rooted about in her saddle pack, trusting Fireling to guide himself.  After a time, she came up with a tiny piece of metal and handed it to Toryn.

    He examined it.  It was about the size of a gold coin, but it was steel, in the outline of a leaf crossed by a coiled snake, or perhaps, more likely, a whip.

    “That attaches to a small rod, which we then heat in a fire.  When it is the right temperature, we brand the horse high on their necks.”  She reached forward and flipped back a section of Fireling’s mane near his ears.  Toryn leaned forward and saw the faint outline of the symbol she held, next to another that looked like a small circle crossed by a straight line.  “They are all marked as yearlings, and again if they are traded to another clan.  The old mark, there, belonged to the man that originally owned him.”

    Toryn was amazed.  “Doesn’t it hurt them?”  he asked. “I can’t believe you Akarskan horse-lovers would torture a horse that way.”

    Alyn glared at him, a look he received at least a dozen times a day.  “Of course it does not hurt them!  We have a special salve that deadens the area.  Then, we cover their eyes and muzzles so they do not shy away from the smoke.  It only takes a moment.”

    “Where do you get the little irons?”

    “They are made by our craftsmen when we come of age.  Every personal mark is different,” she explained.  Toryn looked at it again and handed it back to her.  He pondered while she put everything back into her pack and then smiled and went to check on Redwing.

    The Falaran looked much better and flexed his arms as he rode.

    “What happens when we reach the border of Akarska and Alyn takes the horses?  Where do you plan to go from there?”

    “South.”

    “Across the Abyss?”

    Redwing nodded and said, “When I reach the Abyss, you will be free to go back to Redol.  You are free to go now, for that matter.  I’m surprised you did not leave when I was unconscious.”

    Toryn pretended not to have heard the Falaran.  That was a question he had trouble answering in his own mind.

    “How will you cross the Abyss?  The chasm is the only thing that has kept Penkangum from overrunning Terris all these years, right, Verana?”  Toryn was quite proud of the fact that he knew quite a lot about the southern kingdoms.  His brother Morgyn, as clan-chief, was practically obsessed with learning about the world.  He had commandeered scrolls and maps from every Redolian village and forced Toryn to study them so that he would have someone with whom to discuss politics.

    “Indeed,” Verana replied.

     “I will have to go through Kaneelis, unless anyone knows of a way across the Abyss.”

    Verana shook her head.  “There are rumors of a crossing from Akarska to Tar-Tan.  The Tar-Tanians use it to steal horses, but no outsider knows the route.”

    “Where will you go from Kaneelis?” Toryn prodded.  Redwing smiled at him but did not reply.  Toryn grinned slyly.  He wouldn’t bring up Ven-Kerrick just yet.  He decided to ride with Alyn again, since he had thought up a few more choice insults to use on her.


    In the next few days, the mountains grew shorter and a few trails were found that led into Terris.  Verana informed them that many of the paths led to small villages in the swampland or on the eastern border of Terris.  If they took such a route they would have to flounder through the swamps on little-used or nonexistent trails until they reached a town; and there were few of those in Terris.  Redwing had no desire to deal with the swamps at all, so it was by unspoken agreement that they continued south, intending to reach the only decent road across Terris—the Waryn Highway.  Waryn had cut a road through the swamps and long stretches of the roadway were made from logs lashed together.  It was well used by merchants.  Akarskans, though unwilling to part with horses, traded woodcarvings, jewelry, and leather goods.  Toryn wondered briefly how Falara had become so wealthy despite their isolation.  Redol cut Falara off from the western sea while Akarska and the high mountain ranges kept them isolated from the south.  To the east of Falara was nothing but the volcanic wastes of Canaar.  He would have to ask Redwing one day.  Falara was a taboo subject to Morgyn, even with his great love of politics.

    The Terrin city of Kaneelis was the center of trade for the entire world.  Due south of Akarska was Tar-Tan, separated by the mile-deep canyon known as the Abyss.  Tar-Tanians were unscrupulous people, liking nothing better than to steal horses and women.  Stealing horses was enough to put them on the Akarskan death-list for all time and Toryn figured they stole the women since they had nothing else to lose.  Tar-Tanians kept slaves.
 

   He looked over at Alyn.  It was not hard to imagine her wrapping her whip around a Tar-Tanian’s neck and watching impassively as he writhed in agony.  On the other hand, he found it even easier to imagine her without any clothing, climbing sensuously out of a stream and beckoning to him, with her eyes aqua liquid and a welcoming smile on her full red lips.  He smiled dreamily.

    His smile froze as she turned her head suddenly to glare at him as though sensing his thoughts.  The prior vision returned, except this time he was the victim of the slowly tightening whip.  His smile and his desire faded rapidly and he sighed at its departure.  She returned her gaze to the path and Toryn turned his thoughts reluctantly to something else.


    They camped near the shore of a large pond inhabited with flocks of wild ducks and geese.  Toryn, nearly salivating in anticipation, hurried off to find some eggs and possibly snare a duckling or two.  Alyn snorted as she passed him astride Fireling.  He watched as she wheeled the stallion and began to gallop the horse around the pond.  In the blink of an eye, she and the chestnut stallion were running full out, racing the wind.  Toryn watched enviously for a moment, recalling moments of such freedom at home on the plains, and then returned to his search.  Verana had informed them that they would reach the Waryn Trading Company in two days.  He hoped they could purchase some real food there, such a fresh bread, butter, cheese, and pastries …  He was utterly sick of trail food.

    In less than an hour, Toryn had found a pile of large eggs.  He packed them back to camp in his shirt while keeping a wary eye out for Alyn, in case she lay in wait to trip him.  He did not relish the thought of raw eggs covering his chest.

    He had just placed them all on the ground near the fire when he saw Redwing leap to his feet and stare into the distance with a look of intense concentration.  Toryn felt a prickle of unease.  Verana gazed at Redwing with a worried expression.

    “Adona!” Redwing cried suddenly.  “It’s Alyn!  She’s in danger!”  He snatched up the bridle and sprinted for Darkling.

    “Where?” Toryn demanded, feeling that he had missed something.

    “Come on!” Redwing yelled.  “Bring everything!”

    Verana tossed items into the packs quickly.  Toryn kicked the fire, scattering the coals, and then ran to the mare.  Redwing had already mounted and raced away by the time Toryn and Verana grabbed everything they could and hurried after him.  Toryn wondered where in Sheol Redwing was going, but the Falaran did not pause.

    “This way!”  he yelled.  Toryn swore and kicked the mare after him, half-convinced that Redwing had developed a case of insanity.  He and Verana trailed at a steady gallop for another quarter hour, batting branches and leaves out of their paths and plunging through thickets of spiny brush.

    Redwing halted suddenly in a small clearing and dismounted.  Toryn slid from Fang to pick up a piece of green cloth that lay upon the ground.  It was a torn scrap, hinting of violence.  Toryn looked at Redwing, whose expression was grim; the cloth was from Alyn’s shirt.  Redwing studied the ground and walked into the trees on the other side of the clearing.  He called, “She got one, at least.”

    Toryn hurried over to view the man who lay in the bushes with a coil of deadly leather wrapped around his neck.  Alyn’s whip.  His eyes bulged out sickeningly, Toryn’s daydream come to life.

    “Penk, by his clothing,” Verana stated.  Toryn clenched his teeth.  The Penks were not above selling women as slaves and Tar-Tan was their primary buyer.  An Akarskan female would be quite a prize, especially with the red horse she rode.

    “I thought only Tar-Tan raided Akarska for horses.”

    “Some Penks are unscrupulous where there is profit to be made,” Verana replied.

    “Where would they go from here?” Toryn asked.  He dared not ask how Redwing had known where the attack had taken place.  He wasn’t certain he wanted to know.

    The Falaran went back to Darkling and mounted.  “This way,” he said and started off.


    It grew dark and though the moon rose huge and full, Toryn wondered how Redwing could possibly know where they were going.  They climbed steadily, following a narrow, rocky trail.  The horses were tiring.

    They stopped climbing eventually and begun to descend.  Toryn figured that they had just crossed into Terris.  It was even rockier here and the undergrowth was thicker, but the trail they followed was relatively clear of overhangs and debris.

    Redwing halted when they reached a wide, grassy area.   “We need to rest the horses.”

    Toryn tried to tamp down his frustration and failed.  “How do you even know where we are going?”

    Redwing ran a hand through his golden hair, shining faintly in the starlight.  “If we catch up to them tonight, they might run for it.  On exhausted horses, we won’t have a chance of catching them.  We will halt here.”

    “Surely they will try to get revenge on her for their dead comrade?” Toryn insisted.
    Redwing shook his head as he dismounted and gave Darkling a single handful of water from his water skin.  “I don’t think so.  Right now, they are trying to get as far from Akarska as possible.  She will be fine until they are far enough away to feel safe.”  Toryn wanted to protest, but Verana laid a hand on his arm.

    “He is right, Toryn.  I am sure she is fine for now.  Rest awhile.”

    Toryn wanted to curse, but refrained for Verana’s sake, and instead stomped over to his mare and talked to her angrily.  She listened while nibbling on a bush and flicking her tail occasionally.  They let the horses rest for an agonizing half hour.  Verana prepared them a quick meal, which they as quickly ate, and then they continued on.


    They rode at a moderate pace for the rest of the night, crossing large stretches of brush-entangled forest and steep, rocky hillsides.  Toryn began to wonder if Redwing led them into some strange Falaran trap, or (more likely) had no idea where they were going.

    It was just past dawn when Redwing called a halt.  “They are very close.  From here, we will travel on foot.  The ground is too rocky to travel quietly on horseback and we don’t want them to hear us coming.”

    “How do you know they are close by?” Toryn demanded, sick of Redwing’s mysterious behavior.  “How have you been tracking them all night?”

    “Do you want an explanation, or do you want to save Alyn?” Redwing asked mildly.

    “Both!” Toryn snapped, but Redwing was already gone.

    “Verana, stay with the horses and try to keep them quiet.  Toryn and I will take a look around and try to come up with a plan after we see what we’re dealing with.”

    Verana nodded.  Redwing strung his bow and handed his sword to Toryn.  “Too bad Alyn’s bow was strapped to Fireling.”

    “I’m not very good with a bow, anyway,” Toryn admitted, giving Redwing’s sword a test swing.  They crept across the hillside.  Rocky or not, the area was lush with vegetation and they had a difficult time being quiet.  Toryn smelled smoke as they topped a rise and observed a small village set down among tall deciduous trees.  They crouched quickly to remain unseen.

    “Village” was perhaps too large a word to describe the place.  It consisted of three wood-and-bough huts and four or five lean-tos made of makeshift material.  The only solid-looking constructs were a large log corral and a wooden building built into the rocky base of the mountain.

    “Fireling!”  Toryn whispered, pointing.  Alyn’s stallion was in the corral with several other horses.  “I thought you were leading us on a goose chase.”

    “I am shocked at your lack of faith,” Redwing said dryly as he studied the encampment intently.  There was little sign of life other than the horses.  Occasionally, a man would step out of one hut or lean-to and travel to another.  Some ragged-looking women came out and began to cook at a fire in a cleared area between the huts.

    “Let’s get closer,” Redwing suggested.  “It looks like most of the residents are sleeping late.”

    Toryn followed as Redwing slipped slowly off the crest of the hill and into the thick trees.  They were perhaps a hundred yards from the corral when Redwing tripped.  About to chide him for clumsiness, Toryn yelped as a net plunged down upon them.  Thorns tore into his skin, apparently imbedded in the webbing.  He swore roundly as he struggled to free himself from the trap, earning several gouges and scratches.  Redwing also fought to throw it off, but his efforts hindered Toryn’s—the damned thing was heavy!

    “Nice going, Falaran,” Toryn sneered.  A sudden wave of dizziness overcame him.  Before he could fully register the sensation, he was unconscious. 


CHAPTER EIGHT

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